Angry Philadelphia Phillies fans and Cole Hamels fantasy owners lit up Twitter with venom on Thursday night, directed at struggling closer Jonathan Papelbon, and I admit I might have helped fuel the fire a bit. Papelbon blew his sixth save of the season against the San Francisco Giants, permitting four hits and two runs in a messy inning of work, eliciting zero swinging strikes and turning a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 deficit and eventual loss. The last time Papelbon actually saved a game was July 11. This wasn’t close to the biggest eruption by a closer on Thursday -- right, Seattle Mariners fans? -- but then again, Tom Wilhelmsen didn’t anger his fan base recently by saying, “he hadn’t signed up for this,” in reference to his team’s losing ways.
Of course, Papelbon’s performance this season isn’t exactly what his fantasy owners signed up for, either. Papelbon, the No. 3 closer off the board in ESPN live drafts and an eighth-round choice overall, is currently outside the top 20 relief pitchers on the Player Rater, though it’s not entirely his fault. He enters Friday with a perfectly reasonable 2.59 ERA and 1.03 WHIP, and with nearly a strikeout per inning, and while he’s blown more saves than the average closer, he can’t control the lack of opportunities. Nobody can.
In terms of what Papelbon can control, his fastball velocity has dropped a bit in each of the past several seasons, his slider is coming in slower, hitters are making more contact against him and all of that is a big deal for one-inning relievers. Papelbon certainly wasn’t missing any of the Giants’ bats on Thursday. Nobody ever compares relievers to running backs, because turning 30 isn’t significant for the former like it is for the latter, but it’s possible Papelbon’s days of dominant performance are over. Unless you’re talking about the great Mariano Rivera, we expect our ninth-inning pals to accumulate more than a strikeout per inning, and if they don’t, we want to know why and if it’s a harbinger of doom. Frankly, if Papelbon was throwing better, he probably would have been traded earlier this week.
All that said, let’s make two overriding points: One, closers make for poor fantasy keeper choices for precisely this reason. Performance varies annually, even among the so-called safe options. And second, being realistic about the controversial right-hander’s fantasy value, it’s still not that bad. Be happy you didn’t draft the St. Louis Cardinals' Jason Motte a round later, for example. He has as many saves this year as colleague Tristan H. Cockcroft, who ranked Papelbon his No. 10 closer in his most recent column. That’s certainly fair, if not a bit harsh, based on track record. After all, save opportunities often change without warning from month to month. For all we know, Papelbon could earn double-digit saves in August. Well, the rest of August. When it comes to 2014 rankings, however, it’s likely Papelbon will be ranked as a top-10 closer option despite the obvious signs of regression that really haven’t shown in his ERA and WHIP yet. Perhaps we’ll find out in October, when he and his teammates are signed up to play golf, that elbow or shoulder pain was holding him back.
Fantasy owners should not be regarding closers as keeper options in standard leagues, even the top ones. This season, the top three options are clearly Atlanta Braves right-hander Craig Kimbrel, Cincinnati Reds lefty Aroldis Chapman and Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Kenley Jansen, in some order. The case can be made for Jansen first. Kimbrel is not on pace for 100 strikeouts. Chapman is barely on pace for 100 whiffs. But Jansen has been ridiculous this season, fanning the side to save Thursday’s win and now boasts 77 strikeouts against nine walks. However, these guys should have relatively short windows of dominance, so protecting them over a top hitter or elite starting pitcher just isn’t wise.
Next year, Papelbon will belong in the same class as right-handers Joe Nathan, Greg Holland and Rafael Soriano, and perhaps Fernando Rodney, Addison Reed, Grant Balfour and Bobby Parnell. If David Robertson takes over closing duties for Rivera’s Yankees, I’d buy in for him having a big season. Whoever is closing for the Pittsburgh Pirates -- Jason Grilli or Mark Melancon -- would be top-10 worthy, too, and I’m sure by next March we’ll have other appealing names. Just make sure these guys aren’t among your keepers.
NL relief notes: Lost in the rubble of a boring trade deadline was the fact the Chicago Cubs kept right-hander Kevin Gregg. I can only assume the reasoning was that other GMs realized he’s not this good, or like the Michael Young situation, the return wasn’t worth it. Anyway, no need to own Pedro Strop anymore, though it’s possible Gregg and everyone else in baseball still does get traded in August, so don’t stop paying attention. … Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Brad Ziegler has struck out three hitters in his past 9 1/3 innings. But he’s the ninth-inning guy, and there’s little sign that J.J. Putz is getting his job back. How odd. … Colorado Rockies right-hander Rafael Betancourt is expected to return from his appendectomy in mid-August, and while the team hasn’t tipped its hand, I think he takes over ninth-inning duties from lefty Rex Brothers right away. … Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Jim Henderson should keep closing through the rest of the season, and he’s looked really strong the past two weeks. … Hold on to Grilli if you like, but he probably doesn’t return until September, and even then, Melancon has been so dominant, he should keep the role.
AL relief notes: Los Angeles Angels right-hander Ernesto Frieri has done everything possible to lose the closer role recently, permitting eight runs over a 2 2/3 inning span in one atrocious week, but there remains nobody viable to push him aside. Right-hander Dane De La Rosa seemed close, but has allowed runs in four of his past five outings himself. Keep an eye on Kevin Jepsen. … Wilhelmsen and potential replacement Oliver Perez combined to allow six Boston Red Sox runs Thursday night, retiring one hitter. Wilhelmsen reminds me of John Axford, coming out of nowhere, having a terrific first season, then showing he’s not so terrific. I doubt Wilhelmsen is a closer in 2014, but he should get chances the rest of this season. … Say goodbye to Jose Veras, fantasy owners. Joaquin Benoit is keeping the closer role, and he’s doing well. And while many believe the Houston Astros will look to Jose Cisnero for saves, there’s little reason to believe he’ll pitch as well as Veras, receive the same number of save chances or even get that job security. Add him if desperate but be prepared to move on quickly if another opening, like Seattle, arises.
Have a great weekend!