Heading into the season, LaTroy Hawkins was one of the lowest-ranked closers on anyone's list. He was able to save 23 games in 2014 while not looking terrible, posting a 3.31 ERA but striking out just 32 batters in 54 1/3 innings. However, at the age of 42, Hawkins didn't seem long for the closing role, but rather one where the team could protect his arm by not pitching him on back-to-back days.
Hawkins picked up a save in his first outing of the season, and the team threw him right back out there for another save opportunity the next day. That didn't turn out so well, as Hawkins allowed two runs in a blown save that also earned him the win. After a few days rest, the team gave him another save opportunity, which he also blew, giving up three runs and recording just two outs. Manager Walt Weiss pulled him from the role the next day, saying that Rafael Betancourt would get a save opportunity that night if needed.
That news caused many to run out and grab Betancourt; however, his placement in the closing role figured to be a short stay. For one, he should come with his own worries of overuse, as the soon-to-be 40-year-old missed all of last season while working his way back from Tommy John surgery. But the other reason is that the Rockies had a far younger and better option ready to take over: Adam Ottavino.
When Betancourt was named the closer that night, Ottavino had thrown 2 1/3 innings on the previous two nights and was unavailable to pitch at all Monday. However, he was on the mound in the ninth inning one day later, striking out the side to earn his first save. He was back in the ninth the next day, striking out two in another perfect inning for his second save. In between the two saves, Weiss named Ottavino his closer.
The possibility of Ottavino closing this season was easy to foresee. He deserved a spot on benches in deeper leagues during draft season for just this eventuality, and when I looked at closer tiers in March, he actually finished higher than Hawkins and tied with Ken Giles and Sergio Romo as the best relievers who didn't have a clear path to saves to open the year. Part of that was him being completely healthy, but I may have sold him short on the other three categories considered: Talent, Opportunity and Winnability of the Rockies.
Last things first: The Rockies have looked excellent in the early part of the season, racking up wins thanks to quality offense bats, great defense and suddenly excellent bullpen work. Add an extra Winnability point to his total and he would have been atop Tier 5, tied with Andrew Miller and Santiago Casilla.
Second came Opportunity; he received two of a possible seven points since I didn't see Hawkins finishing the year as the closer, but if we could redo the points system right now, he'd certainly get all seven points for being locked into the role. That would move him up to the top of Tier 3 in a tie with names like Kenley Jansen, Glen Perkins and Huston Street.
He received a six out of 10 Talent points, and though that's one category that depends solely on him rather than his role or his team, that may have been also been too low. He's had a problem getting lefties out in his career, and those batters hit .347/.383/.560 against him in 2014. One would figure that the minute he has to start facing lefties, he'd be in trouble. That hasn't been the case, as lefties are 0 for 7 with one walk and four strikeouts so far. While the sample size is obviously small, there are reasons he could have more success against left-handed batters moving forward.
He realized himself that something needed to change, and he studied other pitchers to see who had similar pitching styles to him and how did those pitchers attack lefties. The results were him scrapping his changeup and making other minor tweaks that, when added with his mid-90s-and-higher velocity on his fastball, make for a guy that could be one of the top-tier talents in any bullpen in the league. Read more about his new approach at Fangraphs, including a great breakdown of his strikeout of lefty Anthony Rizzo earlier this week.
I'd say we need to add two or three points to his Talent evaluation, and considering he's allowed one hit and one walk in 6 1/3 scoreless innings while racking up 12 strikeouts, he's probably closer to a 9 on the talent scale than an 8. Add that to the other adjustments, and he'd be a 23-point reliever out of a maximum 25 right now, putting him in Tier 1 and giving him the same score as some of the top closers in the game.
If his gains are real, and we won't know if they are until he's logged many more innings, it's possible calling Ottavino a top-10 closer may even be selling him a little short. What's clear is that he needs to be owned in all fantasy leagues moving forward, and that there could still be buy-low potential in trade talks if you can convince the owner who picked him up to turn around and sell him at a perceived profit after just a few days.
Chasing More Saves
Diamondbacks: Addison Reed dealt with shoulder issues this spring, and he's now sitting with a save, a blown save and an ugly 3:3 K:BB ratio after Thursday's game. The Diamondbacks will likely stick with him for now, but it's possible a trip to the disabled list could come about. In his two save opportunities, Evan Marshall and Daniel Hudson pitched the eighth innings. Marshall, who has struggled himself this year, is probably the better bet to land in the closer role if Reed is out, but I could also see Brad Ziegler or even lefty Andrew Chafin getting a look. If I was set on grabbing one, I'd probably make it Ziegler, but anything could happen in this bullpen.
Mets: Jenrry Mejia removed himself from the mix in New York first by hitting the disabled list, then by getting slapped with an 80-game suspension for PEDs. That locks Jeurys Familia into the closer role for the time being, with Bobby Parnell's eventual return being the only caveat to Familia being an excellent option over the rest of the season. While Familia is likely owned in most leagues at this point, don't be afraid to grab Parnell, especially if you can stick him on the disabled list in your league. He could be an excellent lower-tier closer in the second half.
Pirates: I considered Mark Melancon one of the top closers in the league coming into the year, but his velocity has been way down in the early going. Normally sitting 93-94 mph in April, the closer is averaging just 89.5 mph on his fastball, per Brooks Baseball, in his first few games. The team has said they aren't worried about his reduced velocity, but it's certainly worrying enough to start looking at other Pittsburgh relievers. The choice likely boils down to lefty Tony Watson and righty Jared Hughes, both of whom are racking up strikeouts. Watson has picked up a few saves for the Pirates in each of the last two seasons, but Hughes has been a little better this year, and I bet he gets the first shot if Melancon's potential demotion is seen as temporary.
Blue Jays: Just a quick note on the Blue Jays bullpen, which I discussed in Thursday's Riding the Waive column and Friday's MLB Rundown podcast. Many owners are dropping Brett Cecil after he was removed from the closer role, but his demotion wasn't performance based in the least; his numbers are actually very solid in the early going. He was just behind in his preparation for the season, having had just four innings of work in spring training. I can see him back in the closer role soon, so save chasers should check the wire to see if he was released if they missed out on guys like Ottavino and Joakim Soria. I also consider Miguel Castro a sell-high candidate.