Finding relief pitcher busts isn’t necessarily a science. It’s no secret that MLB bullpens are dynamic in nature — and one of the biggest challenges faced by Fantasy Baseball managers is being able to spot a potential closer change before it comes to fruition.
Vigilance is key, and prudent managers have to glance at the box scores every day to see whether a particular closer suffered a meltdown that led to a loss — and who might be in line to take his place.
We’ve already discussed some relief pitcher sleepers you should keep an eye on as the season approaches, so now it’s time to flip the board and talk about some current closers whose time in the spotlight might end sooner rather than later.
4 Candidates to Be 2015 Relief Pitcher Busts
Not only will we take a look at some closers who could underperform their Draft Day value, we’ll also identify a few names to know for when it comes time to make a change.
Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers
After enduring a disastrous season in 2014, the 40-year-old Nathan is an obvious “bust” candidate heading into the ’15 campaign. He has long been one of baseball’s top closers, and his 376 career saves places him seventh on the all-time list. While his track record is impressive, Nathan is showing clear signs that he’s nearing the end of his illustrious career.
Only 16 pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched posted a higher WHIP than Nathan last season, and his ERA was more than half a point higher than any reliever with at least 20 saves. Last year marked the second time in the last four seasons that he has finished with an ERA of at least 4.81 and a FIP of 3.94 or higher. We saw him post his highest walk rate last year and his lowest full-season strikeout rate since 2000. There is also the matter of his continuing drop in velocity, as shown by this table from BrooksBaseball.net:
In case you’re tempted to think that Nathan can pull off another turnaround like the one he did back in 2013, it’s important to remember that at least part of that stellar campaign was fueled by a miniscule .224 BABIP, and a HR/FB rate that was less than half his career norm. The Tigers figure to be contenders in what looks like a very competitive AL Central Division and manager Brad Ausmus cannot afford to continue to stand behind a shaky closer.
Detroit has some potential fallback closing options in Joakim Soria, Al Alburquerque and especially Bruce Rondon, a cannon-armed 24-year-old who underwent Tommy John surgery last March, so Nathan figures to have a much smaller margin for error than he enjoyed in 2014. Of the current “undisputed” closers out there, Nathan is probably the most likely ninth-inning man to be out of that job by May 1.
I expect this to be used every time Joe Nathan blows a save pic.twitter.com/aaSsCLQP96"
— Miguel Cabrera (@DrunkMiggy) February 2, 2015
LaTroy Hawkins, Colorado Rockies
The well-traveled Hawkins, 42, is one of only 16 pitchers in major league history to appear in at least 1,000 games, and only Dennis Eckersley has made more starts among that select group of hurlers. Many observers thought that Hawkins was only keeping the closer’s chair warm for lefty Rex Brothers, who saved 19 games in 2013, but the veteran crafted a tidy 2.45 ERA and 1.09 WHIP while saving 17 games in the first half of the season. He wobbled significantly in September, posting a 7.36 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in nine appearances, thus inflating his final season’s line.
Hawkins is not a power pitcher, instead relying heavily on a 93-mph sinker that induced surprisingly few ground balls (just 46.7 percent) in 2014, which marked the third straight season his ground-ball rate has declined. He also doesn’t strike many batters out, as his 5.3 K/9 last season ranked last among relievers who recorded at least seven saves.
Hawkins’ advancing years and lack of dominant stuff makes him a prime candidate to lose the closer’s job early in the 2015 campaign, as the margin for error for finesse pitchers is very small — especially when pitching in one of the game’s most hitter-friendly parks. Even if he maintains his job, Hawkins will provide only “empty” saves, as he figures to lend little support with ratios, and could actually prove detrimental to your team’s strikeout numbers.
If Hawkins struggles, setup man Adam Ottavino would likely receive the first shot at closing; the aforementioned Brothers struggled through a subpar season in 2014. It is noteworthy that the Rockies signed former Brewers and Indians closer John Axford this offseason, along with Rafael Betancourt, who saved 47 games for the Rockies in 2012-13.
Dellin Betances, New York Yankees
Okay, it’s time to pump the brakes a bit here, folks. Yes, Betances had a 2014 season that was nothing short of spectacular, and yes, his ERA and FIP were fourth best among pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched. Yes, his 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings was good for seventh and yes, his .149 BAA was better than anyone not named Craig Kimbrel in that group, but…potential should only go so far on draft day.
With the departure of David Robertson, Betances is projected to step in as the Yankees’ closer, and his current Expert Consensus Ranking shows him as the No. 8 reliever, and number 120 player overall. That’s heady stuff for a pitcher who owns precisely one major-league save, and who has notched only six saves in his nine-year professional career. Does he have the potential to live up to this ranking? Absolutely, but baseball history is filled with tales of dominant setup men who never made the transition to ninth-inning duty.
There’s also the little matter of holding up under the glaring spotlight and intense media scrutiny that comes with plying your trade at that ballpark in the Bronx. Until I’ve seen Betances weather that storm and show that he belongs in the ninth inning, I’m not willing to draft him alongside a safer option – even if said option carries less upside.
— Baseball DP (@baseball_dp) February 4, 2015
The Yankees forked over a lot of money (imagine that) this offseason to sign lefty reliever Andrew Miller, whose 2014 numbers were almost as good as Betances. Like Betances, Miller has but a single major league save on his resume’, but his dominant 2.02 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and 14.87 K/9 last season showed that he has the raw stuff to close games if called upon. Miller, like Betances, battled command problems earlier in his career, and both relievers enjoyed their best big-league seasons in 2014.
While Betances should be considered the early favorite to open the season as the Yankees’ closer, his current ADP does not reflect his inexperience in the closer’s role, nor does it properly account for Miller’s formidable presence. Even if Betances indeed wins the job, Miller could see some situational save opportunities early on, and do not doubt that the Big Apple media will be quick to call for a change if Betances scuffles a bit out of the gate.
Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles
The 27-year-old is a former mediocre starting pitcher who discovered new life when he moved to the bullpen prior to last season. He took over the closer’s job from Tommy Hunter in mid-May, and he was pretty much unhittable from that point forward, holding opponents to a miniscule .178/.248/.252/.500 slash line over the course of the season.
Despite his breakout 2014 season, though, Britton carries some red flags heading into the ’15 campaign, and they should cause you to exercise caution before calling Britton’s name on draft day.
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Britton relies almost exclusively on his nasty 96-mph sinkerball, and while it’s not unheard of for a top closer to be a one-pitch pitcher (see: “Rivera, Mariano” for more) it is troubling that Britton tends to generate a ton of ground balls (his 75.3 percent was tops among pitchers with at least 50 IP last season) and a rather low number of strikeouts (his 7.3 K/9 was second-lowest among hurlers with at least 20 saves.) His BABIP of .215 was seventh lowest among 50-IP pitchers, so an awfully high percentage of those worm-burners found their way into fielders’ gloves last season. His HR/FB percentage of 17.4 was tied for fifth worst, so it is imperative that Britton keep the ball on the ground if he’s going to be successful.
Britton’s dominant 2014 season should give him plenty of cushion in case he opens the season on a sour note, but it would be very surprising if his 2015 numbers bear a striking similarity to his ’14 effort. His pedestrian strikeout rate, and the likelihood that the good fortune he enjoyed in 2014 will normalize, could mean that Britton will become a saves-only reliever in 2015. While that may not make him a “bust” in the truest sense of the word, he will no doubt disappoint those fantasy owners who drafted him with visions of a repeat performance in 2015. Britton is currently ranked 20th among relief pitchers (182 overall) in the FantasyPros Expert Consensus Rankings, alongside such closers as Joaquin Benoit and Drew Storen.
— Orioles on MASN (@masnOrioles) December 31, 2014
Well, that’s my look at a few possible relief pitcher busts for 2015, and some possible options to hedge your bets in case they find their way onto your Fantasy roster.
Zach Britton Photo Credit: Keith Allison
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