Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Position Battles: Rays Closer

The Rays had some work to do this offseason after losing six key relievers to free agency, including All-Star closer Rafael Soriano and setup men Joaquin Benoit and Grant Balfour. Here we are just a few days before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training and their bullpen outlook remains questionable, to say the least. While they've brought in plenty of candidates to fill the vacancies, the team is without a clear-cut closer and Manager Joe Maddon recently floated the idea of going into the season with a closer-by-committee if no one claims the job in Spring Training. Probably not a good sign for a team that will be trying to defend their AL East crown. Let's take a look at the top candidates.

Kyle Farnsworth vs Joel Peralta vs J.P. Howell vs Jake McGee vs Adam Russell

Tale of the Tape

Farnsworth:  34 years old, $2.6MM salary 2010 stats: 3-2, 3.34 ERA, 64.2 IP, 55 H, 19 BB, 61 K, 9 holds 2011 Outlook: Favorite to be closer

An intimidating figure on the mound and armed with a mid-90's fastball, the reality is that Farnsworth has never been a regular closer in twelve big league seasons. Throw out a career-high 16 saves in 2005 and the 6'4" right-hander has averaged just one save per season. Prior to 2010, he had an ERA of 4.36 or higher in five of his last six seasons. But last year may have been his best since 2005. Opposing batters had a .634 OPS against him with right-handers not having much of a chance at all (.538 OPS). Here lies what may be a problem, however, if the Rays are counting on him to close out games for them. According to Baseball-Reference, opposing batters were 18-for-55 (.327 BA) against him during high leverage situations in 2010 as opposed to 37-for-184 (.201 BA) in low-to-mid leverage situations. It was the same story in 2009. He should have another chance in 2011 to prove that he can get outs with the game on the line. 

Peralta: 34 years old, $900K salary 2010 stats: 1-0, 2.02 ERA, 49 IP, 30 H, 9 BB, 49 K, 9 holds 2011 Outlook: Underdog to be closer, could get some save opportunities

It's hard to say why Peralta had his best big league season at age 34 or if his success will continue in 2011. A quick look at his FanGraphs player page shows that the right-hander used a 91 MPH fastball, curveball, and splitter to hold opponents to a .170 BA in 2010. Throughout his first few big league seasons, he threw as many as six different pitches. Maybe it's a case of Peralta focusing on his best pitches and scrapping the others. If that's all it was, it sure seems to have worked. Unlike Farnsworth, Peralta's numbers in high leverage situations were stellar. While he has just 2 big league saves on his resume, he saved 20 games in Triple-A last season, the fourth time he has done so in his minor league career. 

Howell: 27 years old, $1.1MM salary 2010 stats: Did Not Play 2009 stats: 7-5, 2.84 ERA, 66.2 IP, 47 H, 33 BB, 79 K, 17 Sv 2011 Outlook: Questionable for start of season (recovery from shoulder surgery); unlikely to be closer upon return but could earn job soon after

There might not be a competition at all if Howell hadn't missed the entire 2010 season recovering from shoulder surgery. After posting a 6.34 ERA in 33 starts over his first three big league seasons, Howell was moved to the 'pen in 2008 where he was 6-1 with a 2.22 ERA and 14 holds in 64 relief appearances. A year later, he saved 17 games with a 2.84 ERA in 69 games. Despite a mid-80's fastball, the left-hander has 9.9 K/9 as a reliever. His knuckle-curve and change up can be devastating on hitters. If he can show the same command of his arsenal once he returns to action (he's expected to return shortly after the start of the season), it might not be long before he's closing out games for the Rays again.  

McGee: 24 years old, est. $424K salary 2010 stats: 4-8, 3.07 ERA, 105.2 IP, 90 H, 36 BB, 127 K, Sv in 30 games (AAA/AA) 2011 Outlook: Underdog to be closer

The 24 year-old lefty was a starting pitcher for Double-A Montgomery in early August when he got the call to Triple-A Durham. With plenty of rotation depth in Tampa Bay, McGee was moved to the bullpen in anticipation of a late-season call-up. In his first relief appearance for Durham, he struck out five of six hitters in two perfect innings. Just over a month later, he was pitching out of the Rays' bullpen. While his big league stint was brief (5 IP, ER, 2 H, 3 BB, 6 K in 8 relief appearances), he was impressive enough that he goes into 2011 with a good shot to win a spot on the big league roster. His fastball-slider combo gives him closer potential but his lack of experience makes him a long shot to win the job out of Spring Training. 

Russell: 27 years old, est. $424K salary 2010 stats: 4-9, 4.88 ERA, 51.2 IP, 58 H, 32 BB, 51 K, 14 Sv (AAA) 2011 Outlook: Long shot to be closer

Like Farnsworth, Russell looks the part of closer. The 6'8" right-hander throws in the mid-90's and saved 14 games for Triple-A Portland in 2010. But his 10.1 H/9 and 5.6 BB/9 in the minors last year show that he's far from being a big league closer, let alone a middle reliever, at this point in his career. So why include him on this list? Sometimes, a slight mechanical adjustment can make a big difference. Working with a new pitching coach can sometimes do the trick. Out of options and one of the key pieces acquired in the Jason Bartlett deal this offseason, his spot on the roster appears to be secure. So the fact that he can focus more on making adjustments and less on results gives him a chance to take a big step forward this spring.

Final Word

If you ask me, the Rays are taking a huge risk by not bringing in a proven closer. The AL East might be the best division in baseball and it will be tough to rebound from a slow start. If Farnsworth and Peralta can hold down the fort until Howell returns, they should be fine. If not, you could see a new post daily on MLBTR addressing the Rays' search for a closer.

A Look At Jeremy Hellickson

Early mock drafts have Rays righty Jeremy Hellickson going in the 16th round on average.  Is this a chance for big profit in mixed leagues?

Hellickson, just 24 in April, cruised at Triple-A this year with a 2.45 ERA, 9.4 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, and 0.4 HR/9 in 117 2/3 innings.  The effort earned him Minor League Player of the Year honors from Baseball America.  When the Rays gave him an overdue look, he was excellent in 36 1/3 innings.  The only concern in that small sample was a 49.5% flyball rate, which would have ranked third-highest in baseball in 2010 if maintained over 150+ innings.

Projection-wise, ZiPS calls for a 3.58 ERA, 7.9 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, and 0.73 HR/9 from Hellickson in 2011.  Baseball HQ sees a 3.78 ERA, 8.6 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, and 1.03 HR/9.  As you'd expect, Hellickson's WHIP is below 1.30 in both projections.  Given Hellickson's flyball rate in his big league trial, I lean toward HQ's HR/9 and ERA projections.

From a scouting standpoint, Hellickson draws tons of praise.  BA says he has a "dynamic repertoire, throws four pitches for strikes, and has outstanding fastball command."  They see him as the team's No. 2 or 3 starter before long.

Hellickson's innings will go a long way toward determining his value.  With the Rays trading Matt Garza, he's now penciled into the starting five.  Last year's 155 2/3 pro innings was a career-high for Hellickson, so perhaps the Rays will be inclined to keep him under 190.

I can see Hellickson ranking around 25th among fantasy starters, so even if you grab him around the 12th round you should be happy with the results.  Pitchers don't have a ton of control over their hits allowed or win total, so if he does well there he'll jump up the rankings.

Closer Report: Rays

The Rays acquired Rafael Soriano from the Braves and will pay him $7.25MM in 2010.  He is unquestionably their closer.  If healthy, he'll put up strong numbers.  He provides good value at his current 14th round average draft position.

Soriano is in another contract year, so he might hold it together.  But he does have a notable injury history, including ulnar nerve surgery transposition in August of '08.  You'll want to be aware of his backups.

Basically, J.P. Howell is the one you want.  He saved 17 last year with a 10.7 K/9, though he walked 4.5 per nine.  Technically, he blew 8 saves in 25 tries, but the majority of those were not typical save situations.

After Howell it's Grant Balfour or Dan Wheeler.  Balfour is more in the classic closer mold, and I'd take him assuming he's going well.

Thoughts On Andy Sonnanstine

Doug asks:

What are your thoughts on Andy Sonnanstine from a fantasy perspective this year?  He was just OK last year but with all the studs in the Tampa organization he appears to be a guy that would be vulnerable.

This year my spreadsheet kept saying Sonnanstine was the best available pitcher ($8.21 value), and I never pulled the trigger.  I have him at a 4.16 ERA and 1.28 WHIP with 121 Ks and 11 wins in 180 innings.  So he doesn't excel in any one category.  I just can't see the upside here - Sonny has great control but he throws 87 miles per hour and pitches in the AL East.  Who knows, maybe his new changeup will be effective.  But for me Sonnanstine is a guy you spot start.  You don't want to be using him against the Yankees.  He's the #4 so I don't think he gets bumped when David Price is ready. 

Sonnanstine is being drafted in the reserve rounds, but even then there are plenty of interesting upside picks like Clay Buchholz, Jordan Zimmermann, and David Purcey.

Scott Kazmir In The Sixth Round?

Scott Kazmir is being drafted 12th among starters, in the sixth round on average.  I have Kazmir posting a 3.70 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and 185 Ks in 170 or so innings.  There are definitely more than eleven starters I would take before Kazmir.

Kazmir missed April with an elbow strain, and he was mediocre-to-bad in the season's final three months.  His walks continue to damage his WHIP, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him miss more time due to injury or post an ERA over 4.00 in 2009.  There is no way I would take a player this risky in the sixth round.  The latest you'll see him drafted is the ninth round, but even then he wouldn't be my top choice among starters.

Percival Injured, Get Balfour

FRIDAY: Percival is headed to the DL.

THURSDAY: It's time to move on Rays' reliever Grant Balfour if he's still available in your league.  Troy Percival left the game tonight with a knee sprain.  It's said to be day-to-day, but you never know.  Balfour blew the lead, though he came in with a runner on second base.  Balfour has been ridiculously good all year.

Dan Wheeler Worth Hanging On To

Troy Percival, 38, is anything but a lock as the Rays' closer.  He continues to be day-to-day with a balky hamstring, meaning you should hold on to or pick up Dan Wheeler.  Wheeler has been lights out this month and could definitely pick up more save opportunities this season.  At the least, he helps your ratios a bit.

Evan Longoria Arrives

Top third base prospect Evan Longoria is up in the bigs, and probably to stay.  So much for the Rays' cost-saving plan.   Other third base prospects like Andy LaRoche, Chase Headley, and Neil Walker may spend time in the Majors this year, but Longoria is easily the best of the four.

Longoria is as close to a sure thing as a prospect gets (although we said that about Alex Gordon a year ago probably).  The 22 year-old Longoria started slow in Durham, for what it's worth. He hit .262/.407/.595 with three homers and two steals in 42 spring ABs.

Assuming all third basemen will receive 500 additional ABs this year (for the sake of comparison), I have Longoria ranked 11th (after Ryan Zimmerman and before Mark Reynolds).  For the 500 ABs I have Longoria at .270-23-81-83-4. 

Though I have Longoria technically outranking Reynolds, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Alex Gordon, and Adrian Beltre, I wouldn't drop/trade any of them to accomodate him. These four are all off to decent-to-great starts and have a big league track record.  And some of them can steal bases.  I am on the fence with Edwin Encarnacion - I like him more than Longoria this year, but I'm not sure if Dusty will let him play through his slump.  Hank Blalock is another borderline call; I'd probably stick with him.

Here are some third basemen I would drop/trade to accomodate Longoria: Josh Fields, Troy GlausTy Wigginton, Mike Lowell, Scott Rolen, Casey Blake, and Melvin Mora.  You probably didn't need me to tell you most of those.  Aubrey Huff and Joe Crede give me pause, but...yes, I'd cut them for Longoria.  An arguable suggestion given their strong starts, but hey, that's my opinion. 

I'd also move the following first baseman to use Longoria in my CI slot: Joey Votto, Jason Giambi, Adam LaRoche, Kevin Youkilis, Casey Kotchman, and Richie Sexson.

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