Established, successful closers are considered to be a luxury. Closers in general are of far greater significance to good teams than to bad teams. Good teams need to protect those late leads. Bad teams would like to protect those late leads, but ultimately it isn't going to matter either way. This is why, on Wednesday, the Oakland Athletics traded closer Andrew Bailey to the Boston Red Sox. Bailey's a good closer, and the A's are a rebuilding team. The Red Sox would like to win now. Like, right now. The Red Sox want to win all of the time.
Following the trade, there were two main topics of discussion:
(1) What Bailey means for the Red Sox bullpen
(2) What Oakland got in return
Sensible and predictable enough. But there's a third topic that's received less attention. Andrew Bailey was Oakland's closer. Andrew Bailey doesn't play for Oakland anymore. So who's going to close in his place?
It's not a hugely critical question. Again, the A's are not very good, so their closer isn't going to carry many headlines. But it's still worthy of investigation, if only to prepare you for your fantasy league. We're happy to help you prepare for your fantasy league, provided you don't ever talk about it with people who aren't in your fantasy league. Do that and you are just the worst.
Who are the current candidates to take over? David Forst narrows it down:
That's Fautino de los Santos, Joey Devine and Grant Balfour. The A's might still make more moves that change their situation, or some other pitcher or pitchers might emerge, but those are the three candidates right now. What do they bring to the table? Onward!
Fautino de los Santos
Fautino de los Santos, as you can probably get from that .gif, throws hot fire. His average fastball last season as a major league rookie had the same velocity as Stephen Strasburg's and Matt Thornton's. Stephen Strasburg and Matt Thornton's average fastball velocity last season was 95.8 miles per hour. That's blazing, and unsurprisingly, de los Santos has demonstrated an ability to miss bats. He struck out 11.6 batters per nine innings in the bigs. Overall, he's struck out 11.7 batters per nine innings in the minors. With his fastball and his slider, he gets strikeouts.
The pitch immediately prior to the pitch in the .gif sailed way high and way wide. Given de los Santos' velocity and delivery, it won't come as a shock to you that he can struggle with control. Last year he had a below-average strike rate in the minors and the majors, and if you add up his 2011 numbers in double-A, triple-A and the bigs, he issued 4.8 walks per nine. Experienced batters could conceivably wait him out and look for mistakes to drive.
Over parts of five seasons, Devine's averaged better than a strikeout an inning in the majors. In the minors, he's averaged about three strikeouts every two innings. He's pitched well in single-A, he's pitched well in double-A, he's pitched well in triple-A, and he's pitched well in The Show. While he doesn't have de los Santos' fastball, his fastball can get into the mid-90s, and his slider is a weapon. That 2.75 major league ERA isn't a total fluke.
Devine missed all of 2009 and 2010 after elbow surgery, which is a concern. In the majors, he's had trouble throwing consistent strikes. And there's the matter of his arm slot, seen below:
Devine's nearly a side-arming righty, which makes him a terrific weapon against righties, but vulnerable against lefties. With that arm slot and a lack of a changeup or splitter, Devine could have a bigger platoon split than you like to see in a closer, since closers are supposed to succeed against everyone.
What a weird .gif shape.
Balfour's 34 this Friday. He has 323 games of major league experience, and he's been to the World Series. Basically, he's been there before - not as a closer, but as a high-leverage reliever. He's a veteran, and also, he's pretty good. His ERA the last four years is 2.85. His strikeout-to-walk ratio the last four years is 2.8. His strikeout-to-walk ratio the last two years is 3.1. He's never shown much of a platoon split, probably because he throws over the top. It's also worth noting that Balfour could build some in-season trade value were he to close effectively. He's under contract for $4 million this year, and there's a $4.5 million club option for 2013.
Balfour's fastball has lost some zip since he peaked in 2008, and his 2011 contact rate was the highest of his career. His contact rate was actually worse than the league average, which should be of a little concern. Balfour's never been big on throwing a ton of strikes, so if he's also becoming more hittable, that could be a dangerous combination.
I have to think that the favorite, right now, is Grant Balfour. He has enough going for him, and the A's would probably love to have him build his trade value with a few successful months. They could use Balfour as the closer, deal him, and then hand the job to a more long-term solution afterward. Devine and de los Santos unquestionably have the potential to close, as do a few other arms in the system, but I'd look for one of them to be closing in August, instead of April.