Thursday, March 19, 2009

Fantasy Spotlight: Seattle's 2009 Closer

The M’s have a ton of questions coming into this season, the most pressing of which is whether they’ll continue to spend more dollars per win than any other team in baseball. But that question is a little too big to take on here. So instead, we’ll content ourselves with Seattle’s closer situation, which is currently the least settled of any club. Given how scarce saves can be on the ground, anyone who can correctly predict Seattle's opening day closer.

New manager Don Wakamatsu said last week that the team is running a five-way competition for the closer slot, with Mark Lowe, Miguel Batista, Roy Corcoran, David Aardsma, and Tyler Walker all in the mix. Wakamtsu also told MLB Channel that he doesn’t plan to use a closer-by-committee approach, meaning somebody is going to be the notional closer when camp breaks.

With that many bodies in the mix, spring training results are likely to carry a lot more weight than they usually do (or really ever should). Let’s take a look at each guy’s performance last year, and so far this spring.

Mark Lowe

2008 57 63.2 55 34 78 6 44.6% 5.37
'09 ST 5 4.2 1 4 11 0 N/A 9.64

So, this guy sucked last year. He had an acceptable K rate, but walked too many guys and gave up too many XBH. That led to a negative VORP and WXRL, which would be a devastating performance for a team to get out of its closer. There is no compelling statistical reason to give this guy a shot at the job.

There is, however, a bit of a scouting-based groundswell in his favor. Lowe has the power fastball/moving changeup combination that was worked for many other closers, meaning he “looks” the most like a closer of anyone here. He also had elbow surgery in 2007, which gives a reasonable basis for hope that his command will improve this year, his second season after the TJ.

Unfortunately for him, he has continued to suck thus far in ST. He’s managed to pitch less than one full inning per appearance, a bad sign given that the M’s aren’t exactly making matchup-based mid-inning pitching changes at this time of year. While some folks in Seattle might want to anoint Lowe as the closer, he is going to have to get somebody out at some point before that happens.

Miguel Batista

2008 44 115 73 79 135 19 45.6% 6.26
'09 ST 5 7 3 3 5 0 N/A 3.86

So, this guy sucked last year. Batista was ineffective as a starter when he lost the strike zone, increasing his BB/9 by almost two full walks. That in turn caused him to take some stuff off of his pitches, which led to a 75% increase in his HR rate. And the numbers don’t even give much hope of a turnaround, given that Batista’s BABIP has remained steady through his years in Seattle. He now appears to be a flyball pitcher with limited command and the inability to get swings and misses.

Batista is known to be a smart, liberal-artsy kind of guy, one who has written prose books in English and poetry in Spanish. So it’s fitting that the slim argument in his favor is based on economics and history more than on mathematics. Seattle owes Batista about $9 million this year, and wants to get some value out of him without tying up a rotation spot. And Batista does have a limited history as a closer, having saved 31 games for Toronto in 2005, albeit with a mediocre ERA. If Wakamatsu wants to just go along and get along at first, Batista is where he’ll turn.

Roy Corcoran

2008 50 72.2 39 36 65 1 69.5% 3.22
'09 ST 4 3.1 3 2 3 1 N/A 10.80

So, this guy . . . should have sucked last year, but somehow didn’t. Corcoran is a sinker/slider guy who lives and dies by the ground ball. An awful lot of those grounders got snarfed up last year, which gave Corcoran a pretty-looking ERA. That said, his K rate is extremely low for any reliever, let alone a closer, and his career K/BB is almost exactly 1/1. He’s been shelled this spring, already matching his HRA total from last year.

Also, I keep wanting to type his name as “Rory”, which is just not a closer name (though there’s a terrible joke in there somewhere about Wakamatsu and Rollie Fingers that I’m not going to get into.). Anyhow, the point is that Corcoran puts an awful lot of runners and balls in play for a prospective closer, and the new management is probably smart enough to realize that.

The arguments in his favor are mostly of the gritty/gutsy variety. Again, Wakamatsu and his staff seem to know their stuff, so they’ll probably be immune to Roy’s scruffy charms. The only other argument is that he keeps the ball in the park, and Seattle could have a better IF defense this year if Jose Lopez has decided not to be fat. Regardless, Corcoran would seem at most a plan b if none of the other fireballing types work out.

David Aardsma

2008 47 48.2 45 39 49 4 44.0% 5.55
'09 ST 6 6 4 3 5 0 N/A 0.00

Do I have to say it? I don’t have to say it, right? OK.

Like Mark Lowe, Aardsma throws hard, has no particular idea where it’s going, and is susceptible to the long ball. Seattle acquired him from the Red Sox for a random lefty arm, and will now be the 5th different team to hope for him to shoot straight. The only real point going for him is that he hasn’t allowed a run yet this year. He’s still allowing baserunners, though, which leads you to think that all he’s done this year is manage to avoid allowing the knockout blow with runners on. That has value if he can keep it up. However, there’s not a lot to suggest he can do that.

Tyler Walker

'09 ST54.23260N/A5.79

Walker is a certified closer lousy enough to have been ousted from the closer position in San Francisco and Tampa Bay over the past few years. He somehow managed to be overshadowed by Brian Wilson last year in SF, and spent the season as the Giants’ primary RH setup guy.

Still he’s the best man for the job based on K/9 and K/BB, though some of his success last year was due to a career-best BABIP number. Still, he’s just about the only guy here who has shown that he can strike out guys without walking everyone in sight. The only strike against him is probably that he is new to the team and the league, and has lost two closer jobs in the past three seasons. But he’s moving from one pitchers’ park to another, and has closed within living memory, meaning the team could probably pencil him in for a year’s worth of adequacy if they don’t feel like rolling the dice.

So Who Closes?

For M’s fans, the thing to watch here isn’t so much which guy gets the job—it's how the new staff makes the choice. They could go the “proven closer” route with Walker or Batista, the “gritty veteran” route with Corcoran, or the pure stuff route with Aardsma or Lowe. Or they could go strictly by the numbers, which shade towards Walker, though not by much.

For fantasy types, it says here that they’ll start out with Walker or Batista as a placeholder while they sift through the guys with better arms. But I’d be stunned if they guy who gets save #1 for Seattle ends up leading the team in saves at the end of the season.

The guy to watch? Former Nats closer Chad Cordero, who Seattle signed last week. Although he won't be ready until May or June, he's a good bet to amass more saves than whichever random guy is the nominal closer on opening day.

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