There are several somewhat uncertain closer situations in baseball, but most teams have settled on one guy to come in and grit his teeth through the last three outs.
Teams like the Orioles, Indians and Rockies have seemingly volatile options tabbed for save opportunities at the moment. The Cardinals and Mariners are in transition periods, and you could probably count the Yankees and Mets among that group as well. But all seven of those teams have one pitcher that would probably get the call in a save situation.
A few of those situations will change, maybe several times, during the season. Someone out there will sign Fernando Rodney, but it'd be a surprise if he ended up with any of the teams below.
The White Sox created a trade chip when they chose Addison Reed as their closer in 2012. It seems like the move was intentional in retrospect -- the creation of an asset -- but maybe things have just haphazardly worked out well for them. However, general manager Rick Hahn has made some pretty nimble maneuvers this offseason, dodging the temptation to make silly, fantasy baseball-type moves like his predecessor -- and boss -- Kenny Williams did.
He probably felt comfortable doing so because he has a few guys that should be able to step into the role this season and produce similar results. Nate Jones had a rough 2013 in terms of ERA, but his FIP was 2.64, giving him a higher fWAR than Reed even though he didn't notch a single save. The virtues of pitcher WAR can be debated, but even if you just look at career ERA and strikeout rate, Jones is pretty close to Reed. The 28-year-old right hander has been known to pump his fastball into the triple digits, and though he's sometimes wild (career 3.49 BB/9), he's already proven he can throw 60 to 70 innings of relief and remain effective.
Another interesting candidate is 2013 "rookie" (11 innings pitched) Daniel Webb. Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks calls him a "very good relief prospect," and suggests he could have a future in the 8th or 9th inning. He's a fireballer as well, having averaged nearly 96 MPH on his fastball in short work last year.
Matt Lindstrom provides the club with a safer, veteran option, and although he isn't likely to blossom into a trade chip worthy of a Matt Davidson-claiber return, he has served as a closer in the past. Ronald Belisario could also enter into the conversation with a strong spring, but as it stands now, the Sox are likely to go with a player they can develop into a trade chip or seek asylum in the warmth of Matt Lindstrom's savvy veteranness.
The job in Houston is Crain's to lose, unless one of the placeholders -- Qualls or Fields -- catches fire and completely redefines himself between now and mid-April -- the latest projected date for Crain's return from a shoulder injury.
He could still end up starting the year with the Astros, but they might not want to rush him back. It's not like the team has a realistic shot to compete in the AL West title this year. Remember, they were lucky to cross the 50-win threshold last year. They have one of the best farm systems in the game, and some of those players could debut next year, but Crain is more than likely going to serve as a trade chip for Houston. They'll need him to be healthy to get anything substantial in return
Crain will turn 33 years old this summer, and while he was spectacular at the beginning of the 2013 season -- 0.74 ERA in 36⅔ innings -- his career FIP of 3.77 suggests he has benefitted from some factors beyond his control over the last few years.
Qualls will return to the Astros after beginning his career there in 2004. He's the epitomic journeyman (eight teams in ten years). It'd be a surprise to see him get a prolonged look as the team's closer in the first half of the season, but he could fill in if Crain is traded. He's coming off of a solid 2.61 ERA in 62 innings for the Marlins.
Fields picked up five saves last year in his first run in the majors, but he was pretty bad. He allowed nearly 2 home runs every nine innings (1.89 HR/9), and his minor league numbers suggest that he could struggle with control. Chia-Jen Lo made it to the bigs last year as well, but he's in the same rudderless boat as Fields -- with a small chance of closing a significant number of games unless Houston makes a string of bullpen moves.
The Rangers let Joe Nathan walk in free agency after he resurrected his career there -- he saved 80 games in two seasons for Texas.
They could benefit from the same kind of rising bullpen phoenix if Joakim Soria can return to form. But if that happened, the Tigers new closer wouldn't be the only guy saying, "Wow." Nathan had Tommy John surgery and missed the 2010 season entirely, but Soria has had his elbow knotted back together twice. The list of multiple TJS survivors is a short one. However, he worked his way back to the majors last season, making 26 appearances with a 3.80 ERA and 3.68 FIP. If he can continue to improve, he'd be an excellent replacement for Nathan. From 2007 to 2011, Soria posted a 2.40 ERA and saved 160 games for some pretty majestically horrible Royals teams.
Neftali Feliz has also had TJS -- just once. After a brief transition to the rotation, Feliz appears to be returning to the bullpen for good. He seems to be cool with it.
"Yes, I want to be a reliever the rest of my career ... a closer."
In the rotation, he had some trouble with the strikezone, though that could've been a precursory symptom of his elbow injury. His ERA as a starter wasn't horrible before his injury, but he was walking 4.85 batters per nine innings and his home run rate nearly doubled after the transition. As a reliever from 2009 to 2011, Feliz put up a 2.55 ERA and a 0.95 WHIP with 74 saves for Texas.
In January, Scheppers was reported to be an option to replace injured Texas starter Derek Holland in the rotation. He's made just 12 starts in his professional career, and has never started a game at the major league level. If the team is even remotely considering him for the rotation, he probably won't be a major factor when they decide who their closer will be this spring.
Soria and Feliz will probably end up in the 8th and 9th, but in the order won't be determined until the Rangers' coaching staff gets a closer look.
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