Minnesota Twins


Closer Updates: Committees, Injury Returns, Strugglers, and the Early Trading Block

Jason Grilli might have blown his first save, but that doesn't mean he's in hot water. Arguably the season's best closer so far, he won't be making it into any of this week's categories of concern--not even as a trade target, with the Pirates nestled into the second NL Wild Card. Grilli's owners may be lucky, but below are four categories of closers worth worrying about.

Committees

The pernicious closer-by-committee might be favored in sabermetric circles, but it never gets much love from the mainstream media. Why? Because of those of us who play fantasy baseball, I bet. We might have been part of the "sabermetric revolution" at its beginning, but there's nothing we hate more as a group than the closer-by-committee. All those saves going to waste, spread out across three or four fantasy teams....

Brewers

Last week, Jim Henderson made it back to the Majors from the DL, but he didn't slide right back into his old role. Instead, Francisco Rodriguez was allowed to chase the 300-saves milestone. Well, K-Rod is still chasing it, stuck as he is on number 299. Not that Rodriguez hasn't pitched well, but it'd be nice to get this situation down to a single closer. More than likely, Henderson reclaims the job after K-Rod finally gets that big save, but there's no way to be sure. Keep running both pitchers out there for now, as neither will hurt your ratios in the eighth or ninth innings, despite Henderson's eighth inning blown save.

Tigers

Jose Valverde didn't have to fall very far to fall out of favor in the Motor City. The good news is that none of us spent a high draft pick on him. Other than that, it looks like manager Jim Leyland will play whatever matchups suit him, at least until he gets so tired of reporters' questions that he just names Bruce Rondon closer out of frustration. The committee cast has changed a bit since the beginning of the season, with Rondon and Al Alburquerque in AAA, and Octavio Dotel on the 60-Day DL. Expect Valverde to continue getting a few saves, while Joaquin Benoit, Drew Smyly, and Phil Coke share the job with him. Benoit is the group's early leader and a good choice for a pickup, the Tigers seem likely to have a closer high on their spring shopping list. In fact, it wouldn't be a shock to see them swing deals for more than one reliever before the deadline.

Mariners

This is easily the ugliest of the committee situations. Tom Wilhelmsen is no longer the team's closer, though they seem to hold out hope that he'll sort out his struggles. In the meantime, he's already blown a save as a committee member. Other possibilities for saves include Carter Capps, Charlie Furbush, and Oliver Perez. (Yes, the Oliver Perez who was once a promising lefty strikeout pitcher who completely imploded, signed a big contract with the Mets, imploded again, and threw a temper tantrum about going to the bullpen.) None is a great option, though Capps is likely to get the most save opps going forward, thanks to his right-handedness, though he coughed up a pair of runs without recording any outs in yesterday's brutal loss to the Angels. Any pitcher who does emerge from this quagmire with a closing gig is a decent investment, because the Mariners aren't in the position to seek outside help in relief. In fact, they're probably just frustrated that Wilhelmsen couldn't stay good long enough to get traded.

Injury Returns

It's never exactly clear what will happen when a closer returns from the DL. Sometimes the replacement keeps the job, sometimes the old guy takes it right back, sometimes the old closer is eased back into his role, and sometimes a committee develops. The plan for the teams below seems to be to reinstate the old closer, but you never quite know for sure.

Indians

I bet you never thought you'd be excited for Chris Perez to come take his job back from Vinnie Pestano. The Indians have scuffled hard since Perez's injury, though Pestano finally recorded his second save of the year. Perez won't be coming back immediately, following a terrible rehab appearance and flawed mechanics. If he gets his delivery sorted out quickly, he'll be back in the ninth just as quickly. If he happened to get dropped in your league, snatch him back up.

Rockies

Rafael Betancourt is inching his way back to the Majors and is scheduled to face hitters today. If everything goes well, he could be back relatively soon. It's far too early to drop Rex Brothers, but don't expect him to keep Betancourt from getting his job back when he does return. And it's advisable to hang onto Brothers after that, though, as he's pitched to a great ERA and Betancourt isn't exactly the healthiest closer in the ninth.

Diamondbacks

Heath Bell has been surprisingly good for Arizona. Not, you know, great, but better than we expected. The homers have given him trouble, and his job could be in danger if J.J. Putz comes back. And Putz might just be back soon, as he began his rehab assignment yesterday--a lot earlier than was initially expected. While he may take a little while in the minors, he could also be back in the Diamondbacks' closer role quickly. He was dropped in many leagues, but I'd advise picking him back up if you've got the room to stash him.

Strugglers

A couple of the early season's best closers have hit some serious rough patches and owners should monitor their situations.

Red Sox

Andrew Bailey has pitched horrifically in his last few outings, to the tune of an 11.25 ERA in his last four appearances. Manager John Farrell says that Bailey has "some work to do," but "for the time being...is definitely our closer." Well, doesn't he sound excited to keep Bailey in the ninth, and admits that he would consider other options, "at least temporarily." Bailey is clearly on a short leash, so Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara might be good choices for anyone speculating on saves. Update: Bailey has used up his short leash and is out as closer for now. Pick up Tazaway or Uehara.

Phillies

Jonathan Papelbon is the sort of name you don't expect to have to write very often in a column like this, but he's blown two saves over the course of three days. They're just his first two blown saves of the year, but keep an eye on him. Fortunately for Papelbon and his owners, he should have a long leash given his contract and track record. Though the Phillies appear not to be contending this year, they say they aren't considering dealing Papelbon or their other expensive players.

Early Trading Block

Major League teams aren't likely to be making trades for almost another month, but fantasy owners need to be quicker with the trade trigger. After all, when a closer is traded into a setup job in the real world, his fantasy trade value pretty much hits zero. Any closer on a non-contending team is a good candidate to get traded away, though teams with 2014 ambitions are more likely to hang on to their relievers if they're young and inexpensive. Right now, two closers are generating the most trade buzz.

Marlins

Shockingly, the Fish aren't contending this year for anything but worst team in baseball. They might even beat the Astros for that one. Steve Cishek has been pretty good for them as their closer, but a team playing under .300 doesn't need a good closer. Expect Cishek to get dealt to a contender. Unfortunately, he's unlikely to close for any of them. If you've got him, it would be a good idea to deal him early, even for a mediocre return.

Twins

Glen Perkins is a little more complicated than Cishek, as there are contending teams for which he might close. Like the Tigers. The Red Sox could hypothetically be interested in his ninth-inning services too, but if he is dealt, he's most likely going to set up. He should command more than Cishek on the trade market, but he's also a good one to deal. 

Dont' forget to check out @CloserNews on Twitter for all up-to-the-minute updates on closers around baseball.



Shutdown Corner: AL Central Closer Roundup

Baseball players are showing up at Spring Training sites, everyone! And as spring gets within reach, I'm posting closer roundups for every division in baseball. This week, it's the mysterious, murky, up-for-grabs American League Central on the hot seat. As always, you can check back in on our previous roundups: AL WestNL East, AL East and NL Central.

If you haven't been following along at home, here's our closer tiering system for the pre-season:

  • Tier 1: World-class reliever, capable of putting up a season for the ages.
  • Tier 2: Very good closer, both stable and effective.
  • Tier 3: Average closer, may be lacking either stability or effectiveness.
  • Tier 4: Poor closer, either completely ineffective but stable, or very unstable.

Chicago White Sox: Addison Reed

Last season, Addison Reed -- a guy who was highly hyped as a sleeper closer by many fantasy mavens -- made good on most of his promise and held down the White Sox closer job for most of the season. While he turned in 29 saves, the rest of his numbers weren't quite as stellar as owners would have hoped: a 22.7% strikeout rate was lower than anything he'd posted in the minors by a fair bit, and his ERA sat at an ugly 4.75, despite peripherals that gave him an FIP of 3.64.

On the bright side, Reed is still young for a closer at 24, and will have the ninth inning all to himself this season. He's ensconced in his position now, and he still projects to improve upon last season's rate stats and K totals. This is a guy who just doesn't have the actual performance to move up to Tier 2 yet, but is on the leading edge of Tier 3 closers. He could have a big season.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (needs more strikeouts / consistency to be a upper-echelon closer)

Next in line: Jesse Crain

Cleveland Indians: Chris Perez

After 2011, I swore I'd never draft Chris Perez again. The Cleveland closer has a history of cardiac saves, and Perez had more meltdowns in 2011 than the Springfield nuclear power plant. So you can imagine my surprise when 2012 was a pretty great season for Perez. Last year, Perez was actually pretty reliable, posting solid rate stats (3.59 ERA and 1.13 WHIP), watching his strikeout rate rebound (up to 24.4%) and grabbing a career-high 39 saves.

Nevertheless, I'm still a little wary about drafting Perez again this season. While he's a good bet to grab you saves, his performance is still a bit too up-and-down for my taste, without some of the upside of other closers. And, of course, the Indians don't look to be contenders this season, and could very likely trade their expensive closer to a team closer to the playoffs. When factoring in Vinnie Pestano's readiness to close, Perez might only be a closer for half the season.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (Perez is unstable, and always close to being traded)

Next in line: Vinnie Pestano

Detroit Tigers: Bruce Rondon

In truth, Bruce Rondon's name is here as a placeholder, because the Tigers are really giving no strong indication who will close for the team in 2013. With Jose Valverde (likely) leaving via free agency, Jim Leyland has yet to commit to a new stopper for the team in 2013. With plenty of decent-but-not-great options in the bullpen, trying to guess on the Tigers' closer before Spring Training kicks off seems like a fool's errand.

If we (as fantasy owners) are lucky, though, Bruce Rondon will be the guy for Detroit. Rondon has a big 10o+ mph heater, and if it plays up in Spring Training, the team may want to give him a shot at the ninth inning. We're still not entirely sure if Rondon can consistently get his big fastball over the plate, but if he can, he could be a huge strikeout machine in the mold of an Aroldis Chapman. And Rondon could certainly be a keeper for future years, provided he stays healthy.

But yeah, I wouldn't draft a closer from Detroit this year. I think it will take them a few months to figure out who owns the ninth, if they ever do.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (too unstable to call at this point)

Next in line: Brayan Villarreal, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Al Alburquerque, Phil Coke

Kansas City Royals: Greg Holland

Without too much fanfare, Greg Holland has been one of the best relievers in baseball over the past two seasons. Last season was the first in which Holland was a "real closer" for part of a season, but the 27-year-old hurler did himself proud. A 31.5% strikeout rate puts him in the top tier of late-game hurlers, and a 2.25 FIP means that we can continue to expect big things going forward. While he's still prone to too many walks and hits (1.37 WHIP last year), he's probably one of your best bets when it comes to mid-level closers.

I'd be comfortable drafting him in the 5-10 range among closers for next season. Don't break the bank to add him (he's not going to put up a Craig Kimbrel season, most likely), but he's probably going to be better than most other late-inning options next season.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (solid strikeout rate, not much competition, recent track record is great)

Next in line: Aaron Crow

Minnesota Twins: Glen Perkins

Many Minnesota fans must be breathing a sigh of relief that the Matt Capps era is over in the Twin Cities. Though Perkins was once another unremarkable Twins starter, he has reinvented himself as a reliever, one who features a solid fastball-slider combo able to get whiffs at an above-league-average rate. I know. It is weird to see that written about a Twins pitcher.

Perkins has posted very sharp rate stats over the past two years, with ERAs sitting right around 2.50 and a 2012 WHIP of just 1.03. Not too shabby. When you factor in the fact that the Twins don't have a strenuous competition for the job, and that the team doesn't seem likely to add another bullpen piece to oust him, Perkins looks to be sitting pretty for 2013.

The only tough question with Perkins is whether or not he'll get the number of save opportunities necessary to make him an upper-tier closer. My guess is that, well, that's tough to guess. But if Chris Perez got 39 saves last season for the lowly Indians, there's a pretty good chance that Perkins could get 30 for the Twins in 2013. Don't hesitate to draft him.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (good strikeouts, good rate stats, homers can beat him up)

Next in line: Jared Burton

As always, check out @CloserNews on Twitter for up-to-the-minute closer updates, and find me at@bgrosnick for everything baseball. Shutdown Corner will return next week with the last installment of the Closer Roundup series: a look at the NL West.

All data from FanGraphs.



Position/Role Battles: The Twins' Second Baseman

Newly signed international players have a habit of being drafted at least a couple of rounds earlier than they should by fantasy owners eager to look smart by claiming the next Ichiro (keep this in mind if you want to draft Yoenis Cespedes this year).  Tsuyoshi Nishioka was an example of this phenomenon last spring, though admittedly, there are worse risks to take than drafting a then-26-year-old with 2B/SS eligibility coming off a .346/.423/.482 season for the Chiba Lotte Marines.

Nishioka signed a three-year, $9.25MM contract with the Twins in December 2010 and was Minnesota's Opening Day second baseman ... then it was all downhill from there.  Nishioka broke his leg in just his sixth Major League game, putting him out of action for over two months.  When he returned, Nishioka hit just .226/.278/.249 in 240 plate appearances, a performance so underwhelming it created rumors that the Twins could just release Nishioka and move on to other infield options.

Nishioka will still be a Twin in 2012, however, though now he's slated for a utility slot.  A shortstop by trade, Nishioka will backup newly acquired shortstop Jamey Carroll, second baseman Alexi Casilla and even third baseman Danny Valencia, as Nishioka will take a few reps at third during Spring Training.

So why am I writing about an unproven utility infielder in a fantasy column?  Because, as Nishioka may have been slightly overvalued last season, he could be an undervalued asset for this season.  Utility tag aside, there is definitely room for him to regain the starting second base job.

Casilla's fantasy value is largely tied to his basestealing prowess (50 steals in 58 attempts), as his inconsistency at the plate has led to frustration for both his fantasy owners and the Twins.  Ironically, Casilla has entered each of the last two seasons in Nishioka's current situation --- penciled in as a backup but with room to possibly win a starting role.  Casilla indeed won the shortstop job last spring and hit .260./322/.368 (plus 15 steals) in just 365 PAs, thanks to hamstring injuries.

As we saw last season when Casilla lost playing time to Trevor Plouffe and Luke Hughes, Ron Gardenhire is perfectly willing to sit Casilla should he struggle again.  The door is open for Nishioka to force a platoon or even win the job outright.  Nishioka and Casilla are both switch-hitters and it's unclear if a traditional platoon could work between the two --- Nishioka's 240 Major League PAs are too small a sample size to properly judge, and while Casilla hits better against right-handers, that still amounts to just a career .666 OPS against righties.

I'm not saying that Nishioka is going to hit .346 this season as he did in Japan, but he's now had a year to acclimate himself to Major League Baseball and presumably he won't suffer another hard-luck injury trying to complete a double play.  Nishioka could have plenty of upside and is worth a look as your traditional flier pick in the last round of your fantasy draft.  Carroll is an underrated on-base threat, and I see Valencia having a post-sophomore slump bounce-back year, so Casilla is the best bet in the Minnesota infield to lose his job.  Casilla's history of inconsistency will probably open the door for Nishioka at some point in 2012, so you could find yourself with a starting second baseman at a very cheap price.



Closer Report: Minnesota Twins

MARCH 9: The news that Nathan may need Tommy John surgery knocks him off draft boards for now.  Guerrier, Rauch, and Mijares remain my favorites to replace him (in that order), with Pat Neshek and Jesse Crain two other names we can't rule out.  If manager Ron Gardenhire tips his hand or the Twins add a proven closer, we'll be sure to update the situation on our Twitter account CloserNews.

MARCH 3: Twins closer Joe Nathan is still among the very best in the business.  He's going in the seventh round, and the 40 saves, 2.50 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, and 75 Ks are worth it.

Nathan is 35, and he had offseason surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow.  He doesn't seem to be off-track because of it, but it's important to know your backup options.

Matt Guerrier is one possibility, though he struck out only 5.5 per nine in '09.  Jose Mijares hasn't been around as long, but he does throw a bit harder and whiffed a more appropriate 8.0 per nine.  However, he's left-handed.  The Twins also have Jon Rauch, who came on strong in his 15.6 innings for them and has closing experience.  Guerrier wins out in terms of Baseball Prospectus' leverage stat, though the other two were close.  If I had to pick one, it'd be Guerrier.



Post-Hype Sleepers: Francisco Liriano

There was a time when Francisco Liriano was on a gravy train with biscuit wheels.  He posted a 2.16 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 144 strikeouts, and a strong groundball rate in 121 innings in 2006, his rookie season.  His stuff was ridiculous - a fastball averaging 94.7 mph and a nasty slider, coming from the left side.

But Liriano's elbow started barking in August of '06, and by November he was on the table for Tommy John surgery. 

The Twins had Liriano up for three ugly starts in April of '08, but then had him start his next 20 in the minors.  He pitched well but the Twins waited until August 3rd to recall him, causing some to suggest the team was trying to avoid Super Two status.  Liriano was sharp over those final two months - 2.74 ERA, 8.2 K/9, 2.6 BB/9.  Warnings signs we might've missed: his fastball velocity hadn't returned, and he faced terrible offenses in 7 of the 11 starts.

Fantasy touts, myself included, figured Liriano was ready to return contribute in 2009, even if he didn't return to greatness.  I liked him for a sub-4.00 ERA, a sub-1.30 WHIP, and plenty of Ks.  He was being drafted in the 6th round - typically too rich for my blood, but not indefensible.  Liriano was a huge bust though - 5.80 ERA, tons of walks, hits, and home runs, and a 91.7 mph average fastball.  David Golebiewski of FanGraphs says Liriano wasn't as bad as his numbers, but his stuff was still way off.

Here in 2010, Liriano is being drafted at 280.80 - the 24th round in a 12-team mixed league.  At present, he's a risk-free choice.  You're not risking much even if he moves up in draft position over the next couple months.  And he will move up - Liriano dazzled in the Dominican Winter League and figures to do the same in Spring Training. He says his velocity, location, and slider are back and he feels like he did in '06.  Take him in the 15th round or later and see if the statement holds up.



Pick Up Denard Span?

I have to admit, I hadn't given Twins right fielder Denard Span much consideration.  But I read this post by Dave Cameron today - it appears Span's on-base ability is for real (and there was never any doubting his speed).  As Cameron says, Span is flying under the radar because he plays for the Twins.

In Triple A this year, Span attempted a steal more than 30% of the time he was on first base.  He's at 16% in the bigs so far, which will hopefully rise as he becomes a better baserunner.

Michael Cuddyer's return next week might affect Span's playing time, though.  Logic says Span moves to center field with Carlos Gomez going to Triple A or the bench.  But we know the Twins aren't always logical.



Eyeing Francisco Liriano

Francisco Liriano is unavailable in many leagues.  But you may still find him in shallow leagues or leagues with small benches.

The 24 year-old former phenom currently has a 3.80 ERA in 15 Triple A starts.  He has a 7.8 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9.  Not bad, but not the absurd rates he put up in Triple A pre-TJ: 11.1 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9.

Good news: he's rattled off 13 scoreless innings, whiffing 16 and walking two in that period.  For more information, we turn to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.  Kevin Oklobzija says Liriano is overpowering hitters with his three-pitch repertoire of fastball, slider, and changeup.

I was concerned about Liriano's velocity - his fastball averaged 94.7 mph in '06, but just 90.4 in the Majors this year.  I asked Oklobzija about that.  His response:

From what I've seen, and heard from folks with the club, he's maybe in the 92-93 range on a consistent basis.  More importantly, he's willingly throwing his slider again.

Sounds pretty good, even if he's not vintage Liriano.  We may have to wait until '09 for that, though he should be somewhat effective this year.  The only problem is that Livan Hernandez has pitched decently in his last four starts.  The other four starters have all been strong, so there's no imminent path for Liriano to return to the bigs.



Twins 5th Starter Battle

Sometimes I wonder:  are the Twins even trying to win?  I mean, do they just want to put a kind of respectable team on the field and have a record over .500, or are they going for the gold?  (Ewww, Olympics reference). 

I wonder this for various reasons.  First off, Tony Batista.  Do I really need to say more about that?

Second, Ruben Sierra.  Why does he deserve a roster spot?  I know it's too early to get on Jason Kubel bandwagon before he sees game action.  But even 75% of Kubel gives you a better chance to win than Sierra.  Now, Sierra is a non-roster invitee so it's still possible Kubel makes the team over him.  But seriously, I'd rather have Kubel shaking off the rust against Major League pitchers than have Sierra on my bench or DHing.

Let me interject this rant with a related rant.  When an average joe like me proposes a bunch of roster changes like this, sometimes using numbers as an argument, it's often dismissed because the team "isn't a fantasy baseball team."  What exactly does that mean?  Teams make tons and tons of roster moves; why are these any different? 

Back to my main point, that the Twins aren't trying to win it all.  My third data point in that argument is the fifth starter job.  Per Aaron Gleeman yesterday:

"Francisco Liriano has been asked to pitch for the Dominican Republic in next month's World Baseball Classic, and Ron Gardenhire suggests that not being in camp could hurt Liriano's chances of beating Scott Baker out for the fifth spot in the rotation. I happen to think that the Twins have all but decided on Baker already, in which case Liriano might as well pitch for his country if it means a lot to him."

Alright, I can definitely see why Baker should be in the rotation from the get-go.  You know I've been singing his praises for a while now.  But while Baker should be good, Liriano has the potential for greatness.  On any other team except maybe the White Sox, Liriano would also be a lock for the starting rotation.  He's got nothing left to prove in Triple A after posting a 1.78 ERA there in 91 innings.  His peripheral stats - strikeouts, walks, HR allowed -  are off the charts.

Compare this to the proven mediocrity that is Kyle Lohse.  Lohse won his arbitration case after posting an extremely flukey 4.18 ERA in 2005 (it was coupled with a 1.43 WHIP).  The only thing Lohse has going for him is good control and veteran experience.  I project him at a 5.13 ERA and 1.47 WHIP in 2006.  It would be impossible to argue that Lohse gives you a better chance to win than Liriano.  It's irrefutable that Liriano is superior.  Liriano is the best pitching prospect in baseball.  Even if he struggles, he's easily better than Lohse.

Sure, Lohse will be traded, released, or demoted by summertime and Liriano will join the rotation.  But every win counts, especially in the AL Central.  The Twins need to make the "fantasy baseball choice" and put both Liriano and Baker in the rotation for the entire season.  But they probably won't, and the fantasy upshot is that Liriano may be overlooked in shallower mixed leagues.




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