By David Kerr

Deep Relief Pitcher Sleepers

Every year you see multiple closer’s lose their job with someone else then stepping into the role. It happens every season; it is inevitable. I want to take a look at several pitcher’s that could fill the ninth inning role should the current closer falter or go down with an injury. Towards the bottom of the list, I’ll provide a few names that you may not be familiar with, but are worth remembering.

Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers: There is no doubt that Kenley Jansen is a superior pitcher to the Dodgers’ current closer, Brandon League. Just looking at their respective K/9 numbers, you’ll see a huge difference. In three seasons, Jansen’s K/9 number is 14.6; League’s is 6.7 over his nine year career. Brandon League has only been a full time closer for one season and that was in 2011. Last year, he racked up 15 total saves, but blew six in Seattle before he was shipped to the Dodgers. With respect to League, he did pitch well for Los Angeles, seemingly well enough to be anointed closer in 2013. The biggest question with Jansen is his health. He’s had an irregular heartbeat issue twice and obviously the Dodgers are concerned about it. Nevertheless, if his health is good, he will be the Los Angeles closer at some point this year. That elite K/9 rate needs to pitching in the ninth inning and I’m confident that will happen sooner rather than later.

Kyuji Fujikawa, Chicago Cubs: Fujikawa has been an elite closer in Japan for the past six season and will likely fill that role for the Chicago Cubs at some point this year. In Japan, he posted an ERA above 2.00 just once. His WHIP never exceeded 1.07 in any given year; in fact, it was under 1.00 in four of his six seasons while in Japan. Carlos Marmol has excellent strikeout numbers, but that’s about it. He walks too many batters and is prone to blow ups. If he falters or is traded, expect Fujikawa to take over the ninth inning duties.

Sergio Santos, Toronto Blue Jays: If Casey Janssen pitches like he did in 2012, there won’t be a discussion about Sergio Santos in the closer’s role for Toronto. Janssen has always been a solid middle reliever who closed for the first time last year. He had excellent numbers and certainly deserves the role to begin the 2013 campaign. Sergio Santos is a converted Shortstop that has never really put up spectacular numbers as a pitcher except for his 2011 season when he closed for the Chicago White Sox. Learning the art of pitching is a journey and I’m a believer in Santos. His 13.1 K/9 number in 2011 was no accident. He’s pitched well this spring and at the very least he will be used in a set-up role to begin the year. If Janssen has trouble, Santos will be the first reliever in line for save chances.

David Hernandez, Arizona Diamondbacks: With the numbers he has put up over the past two seasons, David Hernandez would be closing for a number of teams. He’s really grown as a pitcher over the past four seasons as he’s lowered his WHIP and raised his K/9 each year. J.J. Putz, the current Diamondbacks closer is 36 and somewhat injury prone. It’s worth noting that he did sign a two-year, $13.5 million dollar contract extension with Arizona, so there is no doubt that the D’Backs look at Putz as their closer. Hernandez would step into that role without question if Putz went down, so keep him on your radar. Not only would he save games, but he’d rack up plenty of strikeouts too. If your league counts holds, he’s a great reliever to own because he helps in the other categories as well. Keep an eye on Hernandez, he’s first in line if something happens to Putz.

Sean Marshall, Cincinnati Reds: Sean Marshall began 2012 as the closer for Cincinnati, but once Aroldis Chapman emerged as an almost unhittable force, he stepped back into the setup role. That will be his role to start the season in 2013. He’ll be setting up for Jonathan Broxton because Chapman is moving to the starting rotation. Broxton returned to form last year, but wasn’t the dominant player that we saw in 2009. His strikeout rates have been way down the past two seasons, so he certainly isn’t overpowering hitters. Marshall has posted a 2.47 ERA, a 1.12 WHIP, and a K/9 of 10.3 over the past three seasons. He’s a very reliable reliever that has really come into his own and should Broxton pitch like he did in 2010 and 2011, Marshall will be the first option to close games for Cincinnati.

Mark Melancon, Pittsburgh Pirates: Mark Melancon will be with his fourth major league organization in five years when he heads north with the Pittsburgh Pirates in just a few weeks. On paper, Melancon’s 2012 with Boston was awful, but if you dig deeper, there were a few silver linings. He posted a career low BB/9 of 2.40. His K/BB was a career high 3.42. Melancon’s main problem was his occasional blow up. On four separate occasions, he gave up four or more runs in one inning or less. That inflated his ERA to 6.20 on the season. April was an awful month for Melancon as he gave up 11 earned runs in just two innings pitched. From June 11 until the end of the season, Melancon posted an ERA of 4.19 and a WHIP of 1.05. He’s moving from Boston to Pittsburgh this season, so it is safe to say there will be less pressure. Pittsburgh is heading into the season with Jason Grilli as their closer. He’s been a decent reliever throughout his career, but he only has five saves on his rĂ©sumĂ©. Melancon is next in line if Grilli can’t handle the ninth inning role.

Vinnie Pestano, Cleveland Indians: There a decent chance Vinnie Pestano will begin the season as Cleveland’s closer. He will likely slide back into a setup role though once Chris Perez returns from his shoulder injury. If Perez’s injury lingers into the season and he misses an extended period of time, Pestano could claim the closer’s role for good. Over the past two seasons, Pestano has struck out 160 batters in 132 innings pitched. His stuff is good enough to close games and if the situation arises, he should have no problem manning the ninth inning for the Tribe.

Al Alburquerque, Detroit Tigers: It was assumed that rookie Bruce Rondon would start the season as the Detroit closer. That likely is not the case at this point due mostly to his control issues. He has given up seven hits and walked five batters in just 4 2/3 innings pitched this spring. It’s hard to say whether Rondon will start the season with the Tigers or begin in Toledo to work on his control. If, in fact, Rondon does not close for Detroit, they have a handful of options including Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke, and Al Alburquerque. Alburquerque is an intriguing option and is the one reliever that I think could emerge as closer for the Tigers. He’s a big strikeout guy, which bodes well for his chances to save games, but he also missed most of 2012 with an elbow injury. He needs to prove that he is durable and that could be a big factor into whether he takes the reigns to save games for Detroit. Another aspect of Alburquerque’s game that is worth noting is his walk rate. His sample at the Major League level isn’t huge (53.2 IP), but his BB/9 number of 5.9 is alarming. He’ll either need to get his walks down or continue overpowering hitters with strikeouts. If not, those walks will start turning into runs. Nevertheless, he is the best option for the Tigers, so keep an eye on the situation in the Motor City.

J.J. Hoover, Cincinnati Reds: If you’ve never heard of J.J. Hoover before, it is probably because he’s a relatively young middle reliever. There isn’t much fanfare that goes along with that role. He is a name that you will be familiar with and in my opinion, it will be sooner rather than later. Hoover was traded from Atlanta to Cincinnati at the start of last season and was very impressive in both Louisville (Reds AAA affiliate) and in Cincinnati. Hoover worked as a starter throughout his minor league career until 2011. Once pitching strictly in relief, he put up impressive K/9 and BB/9 numbers. After posting a 1.22 ERA, a 0.73 WHIP, and striking out 55 batters in just 37 innings, Hoover was promoted to the Reds. He continued to impress as he struck out more than a batter an inning and kept the ball in the park by giving up only two home runs in over 30 innings pitched. He will probably be third or fourth in line for the Reds this year, but if Cincinnati has bullpen issues, Hoover could be in line for save opportunities. His minor league numbers as a reliever were excellent and he was certainly impressive for the Reds last year, so keep an eye on Hoover if things get murky in Cincinnati.

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