The offseason begins with a decent bit of uncertainty in the closer’s role for many teams. The free agent and trade markets could shuffle a lot of 9th inning plans across the league for contenders and pretenders alike. Looking at the free agent market, I’ve identified four middle relievers who I think have a real shot at landing a closer gig this winter.
Addison Reed |2017 Stats: 25% K, 20% K-BB, 14% SwStr, 2.84 ERA, 1.05 WHIP in 76 IP
Reed has the most saves (19) out of this group after closing for the Mets during the first four months of the season and has been a full-time closer in previous seasons (back in 2012-14) so he probably has the best shot to get a closing gig this winter. He doesn’t overpower (92.3 mph fastball – slowest among the group here), but it’s a good swing-and-miss offering (6th-best fastball K% among RPs) and keeps both righties and lefties at bay. His 85 mph slider is below average for strikeouts, but generates plenty of groundballs, especially against righties. He’s also entering his age-29 season, which kinda surprised me. Off the top of my head, I had him at 31-32 for some reason. He’s actually the youngest of this group.
Brandon Morrow | 29% K, 24% K-BB, 16% SwStr, 2.06 ERA, 0.92 WHIP in 43.7 IP
At age 32, the Dodgers got Morrow up to a career-high 98 mph with his fastball and backed it with a monstrous slutter that breaks into two pitches: a 92 mph cutter and 89 mph slider. All three yielded above average strikeout rates without taking anything from his newfound control. After an 11% BB rate through 2014, he has posted a 5% mark in each of the last three seasons. This year it was due in large part to a career-best and very nice 69% First-Pitch Strike rate. The key to the Morrow Renaissance was his utter domination of lefties.
His .308 OPS against them was the best among righties and 2nd-best in the entire league (min. 50 PA vL) behind on Felipe Rivero (.255). It was that blazing heater doing work. His .086/.135/.086 triple slash were all league-bests in their respective categories yielding a minuscule .221 OPS. The question with Morrow is health.
While he did manage just 43.7 IP in this year’s breakout, he tacked on another 13.7 postseason innings to that. Everyone remembers the game 5 meltdown on his last of three straight games, but that accounted for 4 of his 6 ER all postseason. He has six DL stints in his career, all arm-related and he’s coming off a big workload. Can he give a team 60+ innings as a closer? That’ll be the assessment a team has to make.
Mike Minor | 29% K, 22% K-BB, 12% SwStr, 2.55 ERA, 1.02 WHIP in 77.7 IP
Who saw this coming?! Minor’s rebirth as a dominant reliever is probably even more surprising than Morrow’s given that it came after missing two full seasons to injury. Minor joined the bullpen in KC and found 4 mph and amped up his slider usage to 36% en route to an excellent season. The lefty bias could keep him from being a ninth inning guy, but while he did have a platoon split, it was more because he decimated lefties (.423 OPS). His .664 OPS against righties was still average among those who faced at least 150 righties.
He does still have the curve and changeup so there are options to try and better himself versus righties. There’s a lot to believe in with this breakout. His stuff and skills improved across the board and he took on a health reliever workload (9th-most relief IP). He ended the season in the closer’s role for KC and went 6-for-6 with just 3 H, 1 BB, and 8 K in 5.7 IP. There were five other lefties installed at closer by season’s end so maybe the tide is turning a bit. In order for him to closer, the signing team would need a capable lefty for the middle innings or else he’d likely be placed in the Andrew Miller role (Minor had 20 >1 IP appearances).
Juan Nicasio | 25% K, 18% K-BB, 11% SwStr, 2.61 ERA, 1.09 WHIP in 72.3 IP
Nicasio finally put it all together for a season. He’s had the talent forever, but something was always missing. The Ks weren’t on a level commensurate with his dirty stuff or he walked too many guys or he gave up too many homers or a mixture of those, but it was always something. He had a career-best 95.4 mph fastball and used it across three teams for best season yet. His improved First-Pitch Strike rate jumped again and finally started paying dividends.
He jumped into the 60%s back in 2015 with the Dodgers, but still struggled with walks each of the last two seasons. This year he reached a career-high 67% FPS rate and it helped yield a 7% BB rate, the second-best mark of his career (6% in 2011). He’s not a severe groundball guy, but does have a GB tilt so a quality infield defense would undoubtedly help him. Like Minor, he finished the season in a closer’s role, going 4-for-4 in saves with the Cardinals while also notching 2 wins in his final 11 IP (11 K, 2 BB). I could definitely see the 31-year old signing into a 9th-inning role.