Thursday March 19th, 2015

Tommy Hunter began the 2014 season as the Orioles’ closer. Six weeks into the season, the job belonged to Zach Britton. About 400 miles to the northwest, John Axford inhabited the closer’s chair for the Indians on Opening Day. He barely made it to May before abdicating the throne, with Cody Allen eventually ascending. Travel another 350 miles west to the North Side of Chicago and you’ll find a 2014 Opening Day closer, Jose Veras, who never even got a save before losing his gig in April. As a whole, the closer profession doesn't have much in the way of continuity.

All told, 11 teams had a primary closer at the end of the year who didn't have that job when the season began. Those 11 guys combined to save 286 games (not including Huston Street’s saves for the Angels, since he was a closer all season). Three of them—Francisco Rodriguez, Britton and Mark Melancon—finished among the top 15 in the league in saves.

Every single season, there’s a lot of carnage in the ninth inning, and it’s best to plan accordingly. Below are our top five closers-in-waiting for the 2015 season.

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Aaron Sanchez, Blue Jays

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The hard-throwing–22-year-old Sanchez made 24 appearances in the majors last year, compiling a 1.09 ERA, 2.80 FIP, 0.70 WHIP and 27 strikeouts in 33 innings. Brett Cecil is likely to start the season as the closer, and Sanchez could actually move into the rotation, especially with the season-ending knee injury to Marcus Stroman. However, there’s no denying that Sanchez has exactly the repertoire a team wants in a closer, and that Cecil is a less-than-desirable option. Sanchez throws both a four-seamer and two-seamer that average 97 miles per hour and also features a wicked curveball that he uses primarily against righties. How wicked is it? This wicked.

Sanchez clearly needs a more prominent role on this team than being Cecil’s primary setup man. It may be in the rotation, but if he ends up in the ninth inning, he could be a lockdown closer.

Casey Janssen, Nationals

Janssen finds himself in this column partially because of his own previous success a as a closer and partially because of the potential shakiness of the guy who will start the season with the role. Let’s first begin with Janssen, who saved 81 games over the last three seasons with the Blue Jays. He began the 2014 season on the disabled list, and while he wasn’t nearly as effective as he had been the prior two years (3.94 ERA, 4.14 FIP), he still successfully shut the door in 25 of his 30 opportunities. The ninth-inning is well-trodden ground for Janssen.

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Meanwhile, Drew Storen, the once and future closer for the Nationals, has struggled to navigate his opportunities in the ninth since saving 43 games in 2011. He famously blew up in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS against the Cardinals and struggled through a miserable '13 season. While he got back on track with a 1.12 ERA, 2.71 FIP and 0.98 WHIP last year, his strikeout rate hit a career-worst 20.5%. Storen does have a three-pitch repertoire, though he’s primarily a sinker-slider pitcher. Given the way his track record contrasts with Janssen’s, and the hard-headed, old-school style of manager Matt Williams, don’t be surprised if the Nationals turn to a “proven closer” should Storen struggle early in the season.

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Kevin Quackenbush, Padres

After general manager A.J. Preller’s supercharged off-season of fun, the Padres are harboring realistic playoff hopes this season. Their closer is also a guy who will turn 38 in July, has a career xFIP north of 4.00 and has saved more than 11 games in a season just once. That doesn’t mean Joaquin Benoit can’t do the job. In fact, the veteran reliever, who threw his first major league pitch in 2001, has been rather effective each of the last two seasons. He was so good last year that his old team, the Tigers, had conversations about re-acquiring him when their own closer, Joe Nathan, was struggling last year (more on them in a second). It does mean, however, that he doesn’t have a ton of job security.

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​Quackenbush made his major league debut last year at age 25 and ended up making 56 appearances out of the bullpen, racking up a 2.48 ERA, 2.65 FIP, 1.10 WHIP and 56 strikeouts against 18 walks in 54 1/3 innings. The Quacker (not sure if this is his nickname, but really, how could it not be?) sits in the low-90s with his fastball, but he features a devilish changeup that has an overall whiff rate of 14%. When hitters do swing at it, miss it fully one-third of the time. Let’s check it out in action.

Quackenbush used that change to limit lefties to a .194/.250/.262 slash line despite their having the platoon advantage. If Benoit falters, he’ll be the first in line to pick up the closer’s reins in San Diego.

Joakim Soria, Tigers

Joe Nathan endured one of the worst seasons of his career last year, with an ERA that pushed 5.00, a 1.53 WHIP and a walk rate that registered at an unsightly 11.2%. He also turned 40 this offseason. Nathan may be the closer for the Tigers at the start of the year, but he’s barely holding onto the job. If not for being a name brand, there’s a good chance he wouldn’t even be in the discussion.

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​Soria finally stayed healthy for an most of an entire season since 2011, making 48 appearances and saving 17 games for the Rangers before coming over to the Tigers in a trade right before the deadline. He struck out 48 batters in 44 1/3 innings, issued just six non-intentional walks and surrendered only two homers. His ERA checked in at 3.25, but his FIP was more than a full run better.

Health is always going to be a question for Soria, but there’s little doubt he’s the best reliever in Detroit. Remember, he was a dominant fixture at the backend of the Royals’ bullpen for four years before injuries really started to creep in on him in 2011. In the incredibly likely event that Nathan struggles, Soria would take over the closer’s role on a team that could win a lot of games again this season

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Evan Marshall, Diamondbacks

There has probably been no shakier closer who has never lost his job than Addison Reed. The 26-year-old has closed for the last three seasons, first with the White Sox and then with the Diamondbacks. In that time, he’s ninth in the league with 103 saves despite a 4.22 ERA. No other closer in the top 15 in saves over the last three years has an ERA above 4.00, and just one other, Jim Johnson, has one that is worse than 3.00. Reed is constantly flirting with disaster, but always finding a way to pull back from the brink. That’s a dangerous way to live, with comeuppance always around the corner. On top of that, he’s already dealing with a shoulder injury this spring.

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Marshall, who will turn 25 in mid-April, made 57 appearances in his rookie season last year. He had the look of a future closer, mixing a four-seamer and a two-seamer that both sat at 94 mph, with a slider and a changeup that both had whiff rates of 19% or better. Marshall fanned 54 batters in 49 1/3 innings and posted a strikeout rate of 25.7%. He also kept the ball down, boasting a 60.7% ground-ball rate. Marshall did walk a few too many batters (more than three per nine innings), but there’s far more good here than there is bad. He misses bats, gets ground balls, and doesn’t give up many home runs. He was also victimized by a .351 BABIP, suggesting a run of bad fortune.

Brad Ziegler is there, too, but he has a knee injury, and would be better cast in a setup role. If and when the seemingly inevitable Reed implosion happens, the Diamondbacks have a ready-made closer in Marshall.

Here are five more non-closers who could very well be closers in the not-too-distant future.

Ken Giles, Phillies: Realistically, it’s going to take a Jonathan Papelbon trade to get Giles in the closer’s chair. Once he’s there, there’s plenty of reason to believe he’ll be successful. The 24-year-old throws in the high-90s and fanned 64 batters in 45 2/3 innings last year.

Darren O’Day, Orioles: Britton, with his low strikeout rate and high walk rate, is a prime bust candidate. However, after the success Britton had last year, he’ll likely have a long leash from manager Buck Showalter.

Adam Ottavino, Rockies: The wheels are going to come off for LaTroy Hawkins one of these years, and you’ll want to be there with the next reliever in line when they do. Ottavino had a 3.10 FIP, 3.06 xFIP and 70 strikeouts in 65 innings last season, and over 244 2/3 career frames, he has a 22.8% strikeout rate.

Pat Neshek, Astros: Luke Gregerson has been a very effective reliever his entire career, but he’s never been able to parlay that into a regular closing job. He’ll likely have that chance this year, but if he doesn’t prove up to the task, Neshek would be the first in line to get a chance to replace him. The 34-year-old is coming off the best season of his career after putting up a 1.87 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 67 1/3 innings last year.

Jeurys Familia/Bobby Parnell, Mets: I’m on the record as being a big Jenrry Mejia fan, but there’s no doubt he has some of the worst job security in the league. If he does falter early, manager Terry Collins will waste no time in turning to Familia. If Parnell were healthy, he’d likely be the team’s closer to start the season.

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