Pressing the rewind button and looking at the Tampa Bay Rays signing of reliever Fernando Rodney in 2012 makes for a very interesting comparison, even if only two years later. Rodney’s signing was virtually ignored for fantasy purposes due to his horrid 2011 season in which his ERA was a robust four and half in only thirty-two innings pitched. While I will never say that history has the chance to repeat itself, it is hard to ignore the irony in Ernesto Frieri signing an 800 thousand dollar contract with the Rays for 2015 with a chance to earn 2.35 million more in incentives if he closes games. As much as I think that Jake McGee can handle closing full time, there are no guarantees how a new manager will structure the bullpen. Even with the late-season emergence of Brad Boxberger, this is a small chance to take when closers like David Robertson are turning down big contracts. Take a look at Fernando Rodney and Ernesto Frieri’s years prior to signing with Tampa Bay:
Fernando Rodney 2011: 3 W, 3 Saves, 39 G, 32 IP, 7.3 K/9, 4.50 ERA, 4.71 FIP, 5.09 xFIP, 1.69 WHIP
Ernesto Frieri 2014: 1 W, 11 Saves, 48 G, 41.2 IP, 10.4 K/9, 7.34 ERA, 5.41 FIP, 3.67 xFIP, 1.46 WHIP
Although Frieri was terrible in 2014, he had a higher K/9 and lower xFIP (expected fielders independent pitching) and WHIP than Rodney during his fall from closer to being released by the Pirates. Looking at his velocities there are no major changes in any of his pitches, though in 2013 Frieri used his cutter 10% of the time whereas in 2014 he only threw it at an 8% clip. Frieri did experiment with a slider last season, throwing it 16% of the time after not throwing any in 2013 as he searched to find a consistent second pitch to compliment his fastball. On a brighter note, Frieri threw his fastball just under 95 MPH (94.98 2013, 94.8 2014) over the last two years. What he lacks that Rodney does possess is a second pitch. Rodney has an 83 MPH changeup to compliment his fastball and sinker that average around 96 MPH.
When Rodney first arrived in Tampa I remember reading about how they moved where he stood on the pitching rubber to make his fastball more effective. Using the home ballpark to his advantage, Rodney went from throwing his fastball 32% of the time in 2011 to only 7% in 2012 going primarily with his sinker (55%) and changeup (37%). Over the last three seasons Frieri has tried to use a slider, cutter and changeup but none of the three have become strong second options for him. What is encouraging however is that even though Frieri only threw 8 cutters in 2014, opponents did not record a hit. I know, small sample size especially when hitters averaged .375 versus his cutter in 2013, but it is a start. It is difficult to give up on a pitcher that can use his fastball as a weapon. Because Frieri’s fastball can create run and backspin, he can be successful with just one secondary pitch. The key is discovering what that pitch will be. Here is a blind resume for the last three years:
Pitcher A: 8 W, 71 Saves, 182 G, 176.1 IP, 12.5 K/9, 4.08 ERA, 4.07 FIP, 3.48 xFIP, 1.20 WHIP
Pitcher B: 4 W, 48 Saves, 165 G, 168.1 IP, 11.8 K/9, 2.89 ERA, 2.52 FIP, 3.02 xFIP, 1.21 WHIP
In 2014, pitcher B threw his 98 MPH fastball 79% of the time, his 88 MPH changeup 13% of the time and his curveball only 5%. Because he could locate his fastball to generate outs he was successful, though there were bumps in the road. Pitcher A has a higher K/9 and lower WHIP even with the disparity between his ERA and FIP. The xFIP paints a closer picture with pitcher A’s being at 3.48 and pitcher B’s at 3.02. However, in drafts last year pitcher B would have cost your team an average pick at spot 80 as the fifth closer taken. Pitcher B resides in St. Louis and is Trevor Rosenthal, while pitcher A is Ernesto Frieri. In no way am I saying that Frieri is in the same realm as Trevor Rosenthal as a closer but the numbers blindly paint an intriguing image. Rosenthal is only 24 years old and entering his prime but he had his bumps in the road as the Cardinal closer in 2014. I am not fully endorsing Frieri, I just think he should be an endgame consideration for AL-only managers.
What may make Frieri’s path to closing more difficult than Rodney’s are the emerging arms at the back end of Tampa’s bullpen. Jake McGee and Brad Boxberger are two talented relief pitchers coming off very strong campaigns. Even though McGee features mainly his fastball (96% of the time at 97 MPH) he was able to hold hitters to a .180 batting average against. Boxberger is a more two-pitch reliever, using his 94 MPH fastball 62% of the time and mixing in his 81 MPH changeup at 31% with an occasional slider. Hitters batted .088 against Boxberger’s fastball and .267 versus his changeup. The Frieri signing is curious because McGee has been dominant over the last three seasons:
Jake McGee last 3 years: 15 W, 20 Saves, 213 G, 189.1 IP, 11.3 K/9, 2.61 ERA, 2.31 FIP, 2.68 xFIP, 0.96 WHIP
If McGee is going to get a chance to close, the emergence of Jeff Beliveau will be key as he can fill the role of the left-handed matchup artist to bridge to McGee in the 9th. However, this could be closer by committee type pen that strictly plays matchups, similar to how Joe Maddon used it last season. Because of the core of talent that the Rays possess, it will be very difficult to predict the roles of Frieri, McGee and Boxberger moving forward. While many teams like Detroit would kill for this level of depth in their bullpen, the Rays will not only have flexibility but as many as three pitchers capable of closing effectively.
Jake McGee 2014: 5 W, 19 Saves, 73 G, 71.1 IP, 11.4 K/9, 1.89 ERA, 1.73 FIP, 2.58 xFIP, 0.90 WHIP
Brad Boxberger 2014: 5 W, 2 Saves, 63 G, 64.2 IP, 14.5 K/9, 2.37 ERA, 2.84 FIP, 1.95 xFIP, 0.84 WHIP
With a burgeoning young staff and a very deep bullpen, it will be interesting to see how Tampa Bay rounds out it’s roster. Be attentive to the Spring Training ramblings and take note if Ernesto Frieri is learning a new pitch or adjusting his position on the pitching rubber. Burn us once Tampa Bay you might, but if Frieri becomes the closer again, you will not burn us twice.
Statistical credits: Baseball-Reference.com, Fangraphs.com, BrooksBaseball.net
Photo cred: http://goo.gl/alb5z8 (Frieri), http://goo.gl/hMxuFH (Boxberger and McGee)
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Greg Jewett is The Sports Script’s senior fantasy baseball writer. Follow him on Twitter @gjewett9!