by Eric Stashin (aka The Rotoprofessor)
While expectations remain that the Nationals will ultimately acquire a ninth inning option (with the White Sox’ David Robertson being the odds on favorite), it’s not a certainty. Recently the team added Joe Blanton to the mix at the back of their bullpen, which could indicate the end of their pursuit (though unlikely). For now Blanton joins an interesting competition for ninth inning duties, along with Shawn Kelley, Koda Glover and Blake Treinen. Who should fantasy owners be grabbing? Who has the most upside? Let’s take a look:
Kelley has thrived in recent years, especially since moving to the NL prior to 2015, having posted ERA of 2.45 and 2.64. He’s been a tremendous strikeout option even before that, but he’s reduced his walk rate over the past four seasons:
A two-pitch pitcher, last season saw Kelley throw his fourseam fastball (56.24%) more than he had before. You have to wonder if watching his slider, which is his put away pitch, yield 7 HR led to the adjustment. Of course he’s never been a groundball pitcher and home run issues could continue. Throw in significant luck (.258 BABIP, 83.8% strand rate) and there are legitimate concerns.
There also appears to be health questions, as according to Chelsea James of The Washington Post (click here to view https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/nationals-journal/wp/2017/02/15/dusty-baker-on-nationals-hunt-for-a-closer-somebody-always-emerges/?utm_term=.d7964023c514):
“But the number that gives Baker most pause when it comes to Kelley as closer is two, the number of Tommy John surgeries done on the 32-year-old’s right elbow.”
Blanton’s conversion to reliever has been impressive, as he’s posted ERA of 2.84 and 2.48 over the past two seasons. He’s also shown strikeouts and control:
The big change has been the usage of his slider (31.37% and 38.91%), which has become a swing and miss pitch (23.63% Whiff% last season). Like Kelley he’s not a groundball pitcher, so home runs can be an issue. However the profile is similar and having thrown 80.0 innings last season the workload isn’t a concern. Having long been a starter there will be questions whether or not he can consistently work 3+ days in a row, but he has proven to have closer upside.
Considered a closer of the future, he thrived across three levels of the minors last season (10.6 K/9, 2.2 BB/9) but stumbled upon reaching the Majors. He wasn’t generating strikeouts (7.32 K/9) and was tagged for 3 HR in 19.2 innings. He posted an 11.2% SwStr%, so there’s no question about his ability to generate swings and misses, and a 1.31 GO/AO in his 56.0 innings in the minors. While he’s going to need to prove that he can do it in the Majors (the small sample of ’16 isn’t enough to draw conclusions from), it wouldn’t be shocking if he got the role by year’s end.
Sure he posted a 2.28 ERA last season, and he’s the one pitcher in the mix that home runs shouldn’t be a concern (62.6% groundball rate over 185.1 innings in the Majors). However he also has struggled with his control, posting BB/9 of 4.26 and 4.16 over the past two seasons. Is that enough of a reason to rule him out? It shouldn’t be, as he too features a swing and miss slider (21.02% Whiff% in ’16) and has the potential to be a Zach Britton-esque closer.
As of today our money would be on Joe Blanton opening the season as closer, with Kelley and Treinen there if he stumbles short-term. Long-term it should be Glover taking over, but it’s hard to imagine the veteran team with championship aspirations simply throwing him into the fire on Opening Day. Once he proves he can do the job it’s very possible he rises to the role, so keep him stashed for later in the year. Instead, focus on grabbing Blanton (as well as Kelley) in the later rounds of your drafts. It really could go either way, though Blanton may be the better bet due to the health concerns with Kelley.
Sources – Fangraphs, Brooks Baseball, MILB.com, Baseball Reference, Washington Post
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