The rate of attrition of closers has always been rather high, but 2012, as has been well noted already, has been like nothing we’ve ever seen before. No closer is safe from injury or removal from his role. It has gotten to the point where teams and fantasy owners alike are digging through the depths of their farm system looking for bullpen help and have already placed some prominent rookies into significant roles.
At the MLB level, AL leaguers in particular are starting to really take notice of rookies Ryan Cook and Tom Wilhelmsen. Cook, currently a setup man for the A’s, has produced an 8.6 K/9 and 4.3 BB/9. The righty is a groundball pitcher with a mid-nineties fastball and hard slider, though, I'm not sure his changeup or control his good enough to make him more than a right-hand specialist reliever. Wilhelmsen is a journeyman rookie. The 28-year old has struck out more than a batter per inning, has a fairly good history for throwing strikes despite a 4+ BB/9 over a small sample this year, and works with a mid-nineties fastball and curve. The righty is a fly-ball pitcher, but he pitches in a good environment for it.
AL only leaguers should also be paying close attention to Indians’ rookie Nick Hagadone. As early as a year ago, Hagadone looked like a lost cause, but a shift to relief appears to have saved his career. Since moving to that role, his command and control have been much improved. He relies a great deal on his low to mid-nineties fastball, throwing it around 85% of the time and that may account for the not quite translated minor league strikeout rate of 6.5. In the minors, he was regularly around or above a strikeout an inning. Still, he picked up his first MLB save earlier this week.
Kelvin Herrera made the Royals bullpen, but has not been getting the attention he necessarily deserves. The 22-year old has excellent command (1.8 BB/9), a fastball that hits the upper nineties with consistency (he can hit triple digits) and is armed with a very nice change and curveball. His 8.0 K/9 is respectable, but Aaron Crow, Greg Holland, Jonathan Broxton and even Tim Collins have been getting all of the attention. 2012 may be a year for Herrera to get his feet wet in the Majors, but his upside exceeds his fellow Royals.
Giving the senior circuit some love, the Cubs recently moved Rafael Dolis into the closer’s role. The odds of backfire, given this rookie’s skill set, is extremely high. Yes the righty is extremely hard-thrower, but he has rarely been known for his ability to miss bats even in the minors, his career high being 7.3 at Double-A. Dolis is a fairly extreme ground-ball pitcher at 50% of the time, but given shaky control and throwing his fastball nearly 90% of the time, one has to figure MLB batters will catch up and soon. He supposedly has a good slider in his repertoire and will need to start utilizing and commanding if he is going to succeed.
Over in Arizona, J.J. Putz has an 11+ K/9 and walked none, so his closer role is not in too much jeopardy, yet second-year rookie Bryan Shaw has acquired two saves. The 24-year old is no strikeout machine, but strikes out over 7 per nine innings, throws strikes, and has several plus offerings that allow him to combat lefties and righties alike.
Josh Lindblom may be just biding his time in the Dodgers bullpen. The former second round pick had a nice late-season debut in 2011 and has maintained his rookie status thus far. In 17.1 innings this season he has a respectable 6.8 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9. The righty is a former college closer, but has also been utilized as a starter and has a pitch selection to mirror it. Lindblom is not the hardest thrower, but he can touch 95, has multiple breaking pitches, and can change speeds. There’s enough here for him to get back to the 8.5 K/9 level he was at with the Dodgers in 2011 and is worth watching.
Down in the minors, there are of course other promising names as well. The Padres, for example, acquired Brad Boxberger as part of the Mat Latos with the idea that he might make the opening day roster and be a prominent part of their bullpen in 2012. So far he has yet to make the squad and while he is currently serving as a the Triple-A closer and has a K/9 of 10.5, Boxberger has been unable to throw strikes and has a walk rate of near 1 batter per inning. Again, we are seeing a rather small sample size and he could turn things around. There are not many options on the Padres roster to close beyond Huston Street, so there is opportunity in that organization.
Colorado recently promoted Zach Putnam for a day as an extra arm in a pen for a doubleheader. The former Indian was acquired over the winter in exchange for Kevin Slowey. The righty does not profile as a closer in the long run, but far worse pitchers have been chosen in for that role in the past. He throws a solid fastball/split-fastball combination and is serving as the closer for Colorado Springs, producing an 11.9 K/9 and 4.0 BB/9.
The Marlins’ Chris Hatcher is following in the footsteps of fellow former catcher turned reliever Troy Percival. A strong-armed good defensive/no hit catcher, Hatcher was made a fulltime reliever in 2010 and hasn’t looked back. In 15 innings this year he has K’d 16 and walked 3. If Hatcher can improve the consistency of his slider/changeup, there is some late inning potential, though middle relief may be a more likely result.
This article just scratched the surface of some young potential closer candidates. I’ll be back with more as the season continues.