Who Closes for the A’s in 2012?
I predicted the A’s will win 66 games this upcoming season when we talked about it last week on TarpTalk. I stand by that guess still though it frankly may be on the high side only representing a mere eight game departure from a more-talented 2011 squad. While pleased with the idea to deal Andrew Bailey, I am not necessarily thrilled with what we got back in return – to me it felt like an overpay – but teams not in contention do not need highly paid and highly qualified closers. Closers are far more valuable to teams in contention – even then one can make an argument they are overrated – but despite that teams tend to have someone fill that role and the question now is who will fill that role for the 2012 Oakland A’s.
Barring any other moves it seems there are four candidates for the job. The most experienced is Brian Fuentes who has finished 367 games in his 618 game career earning 199 saves. There are many reasons that despite Fuentes having the most closing experience he would be a poor choice to fill this role going forward: he has struggled mightily with right-handed batters (in 2011 his FIP versus RHBs was 4.51, yet a run lower at 3.51 to LHBs). He also is an antacid-use inducing type reliever last year having 19 shutdowns but a very high 12 meltdowns. Fuentes is not someone with whom you can be confident holding a lead.
Joey Devine represents another option for Bob Melvin. Devine had a mixed 2011, starting off strong but then having a few miserable outings before his season came to an end. In the end Devine was worth 0.4 WAR, pitching to a 3.52 ERA but much stronger 2.98 FIP (his xFIP, terrible at 4.78 was the result of his allowing no home runs, however given that he hasn’t given up a home run since 2006, I don’t put much stock into his high xFIP but nor do I think he is as impressive has his low FIP either). In 2011, Devine put up modest K/9 numbers (7.8) and unimpressive BB/9 numbers (4.3). Devine who has one save to his career (9/21/08 vs. the Mariners), has finished only 20 games so closing would be new. Given his inconsistency late in his year, he doesn’t seem like a great candidate for closer, though certainly a better one than Fuentes. His high career K/9 rate (9.1) is good for a closer though his walks pose a problem (4.9 BB/9). With no options left Devine will certainly be a part of the bullpen, the backend doesn’t seem the most appropriate place.
Fautino De Los Santos seems like the A’s closer of the future. One can easily argue why not let the future start now? He has electrifying stuff with a fastball that averaged 95.8 mph which helped him achieve an incredible 11.6 K/9 good for seventh in the American League among those who pitched as many or more innings as De Los Santos. In his 33 1/3 innings along with those strikeouts he did struggle with control pitching to 4.6 BB/9 while allowing 1.1 HR/9 for a 4.32 ERA, but a strikeout offset 3.54 FIP for 0.3 WAR. For 2012, I think the best role for De Los Santos is the set-up role, with him moving into a closer role later in the season. That is because…
Grant Balfour should be the A’s closer in 2012. Balfour is a solid arm who with a career 3.57 ERA to a 3.52 FIP has had results that have matched his performance. A very high HR/9 rate for the Australian in 2011 (1.2) hurt his FIP (3.77) and in turn his WAR too (0.4). Balfour however also benefited from a very favorable .232 BABIP, meaning that a normalizing of his BABIP and his HR/9 rates I presume would put him more or less in the same place results wise but with an FIP about a run lower. Balfour put up a 8.6 K/9 to 2.9 BB/9 in 2011 which were similar numbers to his 2010 figures with Tampa Bay (9.1 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9) which demonstrates how the HR/9 rate effected him (in 2010 it was only 0.5). It is clear that Balfour has the talent (and flare for the dramatic) required of a closer, but that isn’t why I say we put Balfour in there. All things being equal I’d say leave him in the set up role and throw in Fautino. The reason is is because Balfour at $4M is the A’s third most highly paid player (Kurt Suzuki and the aforementioned Fuentes beat him out) and could be a very valuable trade piece – the way Bailey himself may have been – if he racks up saves and is made available at the trade deadline. Furthermore, not only does increasing Balfour’s trade value at the deadline bode well for the club, it also could enhance Fuentes’ trade value by enabling the team to maximize his usage as that of a left-handed specialist. The A’s could potentially bring back a decent haul for these two pitchers at the deadline, after all just two years ago the Twins traded Wilson Ramos and an MiLB pitcher to the Nationals to acquire Matt Capps, a closer who at that point had 26 saves with the Nats and comparable numbers to what a Balfour can put up (Capps has better control but fewer strikeouts than does Balfour). While I don’t think the A’s can get away with a steal of that variety, a closer at the deadline is indeed a valuable thing and presently Balfour is a very good but pricey middle reliever. Once traded, let the Fautino De Los Santos era at the backend of the pen begin.