Just like that, two American League East teams have lost their closers to injury.
I blogged about the unfortunate (but hardly unexpected) injury situation with Boston Red Sox right-hander Andrew Bailey on Tuesday; now comes the news that Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Kyle Farnsworth is likely to start the season on the shelf.
Last season, Farnsworth, then a well-traveled veteran of 12 years and 27 career saves, was terrific. He saved 25 games with a 2.18 ERA and sub-1.00 WHIP, and finished 13th among closers on the Player Rater. I don't think it was a fluke, either. That said, I don't think manager Joe Maddon is crying about losing him. For years Maddon has managed to coax inspiring performances from surprising pitchers, realizing that relief pitchers are eminently replaceable and rarely consistent. Things change all the time. In fact, in 2006, Maddon's top save option had just 10 saves (Tyler Walker). In 2007, veteran Al Reyes saved 26 games, and was barely heard from again. Even when the team became good in 2008, and for years since, look at its primary closers: an old, bad Troy Percival, with help from Dan Wheeler (2008), lefty J.P. Howell and a committee (2009), one brilliant season from Rafael Soriano (2010), who the Rays had no intention of keeping, and then Farnsworth last year.
Farnsworth is likely to miss April and perhaps much more because of a sore elbow, and right-hander Joel Peralta is the obvious fill-in choice. Farnsworth was a bit more valuable than Peralta using Baseball Reference's WAR (wins above replacement) statistic last season, but Peralta, well-traveled and a seemingly ordinary veteran himself, tossed more innings and posted a 0.91 WHIP. He's prone to fly balls and thus will allow home runs, but his strikeout rate is legit, and he saved six games in 2011, four in a dominant September, while leading the team with 19 holds.
Also at Maddon's disposal is former Tigers/Angels closer and odd free-agent signing Fernando Rodney, recovered lefty Howell, youngster Jake McGee, who most people thought would close coming out of spring training a year ago, and deposed starter Wade Davis. Former Mariner Josh Lueke, acquired in the John Jaso trade, probably throws consistently harder than any of these Rays, and he should get the call to the big leagues soon.
Simply put, I think Peralta is this year's Farnsworth; look for 30 saves and terrific overall numbers. I don't think Maddon wants a committee, and I don't think he feels any loyalty to give the job back to Farnsworth. For now, we don't know if Farnsworth misses two weeks, two months or eventually needs Tommy John surgery, but judging by Maddon's history of choosing ninth-inning options, and how the Rays are able to get their relievers to overachieve, which bodes well for the erratic Rodney, I'd still take Peralta over Farnsworth in fantasy, and not bother with the experienced Rodney. I say Peralta keeps the job, with occasional help from Howell against lefties.
As for the Red Sox, things have certainly changed in the 24 hours since I wrote about Bailey's thumb injury. First of all, it was announced that Bailey needs surgery, and instead of missing a few weeks, we're not likely to see the oft-injured closer until at least the All-Star break.
Of course, after I've been writing and saying all along that Mark Melancon will lead the Red Sox in saves, new Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine has thrown us all the proverbial curveball in naming Alfredo Aceves as his new closer. Why would Valentine do this, you might wonder? Melancon was a perfectly suitable closer last season in Houston, and Aceves is an older right-hander with four career saves in four seasons and literally no minor league experience in the role. Well, I think Valentine made the right choice. Experience at closer is overrated, and Aceves is a better pitcher. Yes, the Red Sox need rotation help, but Aceves struggled in that role last year, posting a 5.14 ERA in four starts in 2011. As a reliever, often used for multiple innings, his ERA was an excellent 2.03, and his hit and strikeout rates were superior.
Getting back to Melancon, I'm often asked how I make judgments on closer roles, and the truth is each situation is different. Each manager is different, as are many of the players in terms of skills, health, makeup, you name it. Boston's situation is not the same. Valentine made his choice, and while he could change his mind, he's likely bowled over by the relief work Aceves produced this spring. Don't look at Aceves' overall spring statistics; he got pounded in one of his starts for nine runs. Otherwise, he was dominant, just like last season in relief.
Go add Aceves. He very well could save 30 games, with Melancon pitching an effective 70 innings as his setup man. What happens to Bailey? Well, I honestly wouldn't wait to find out in ESPN's 10- or 12-team leagues. Let him go. He's going to be out a long time, at least half the season. I always fill my DL slot with somebody, but long-term it's rarely a closer, especially one as brittle as Bailey. There's no guarantee he'll get any saves this season. Aceves could be awesome, and by July Daniel Bard could be in the picture. Heck, Bard could be in the picture next week. Plus, the Red Sox could trade for one of the many available experienced closers, such as Joel Hanrahan.