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Fantasy Baseball 2012: In Search of the Next Craig Kimbrel

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In just about every fantasy baseball draft that I participate in, I am looking for that late round reliever that could eventually see some save opportunities but does not yet have the closers job. I target these pitchers, like most, in the later rounds of my drafts.

In auction leagues, its the same strategy, as most fantasy owners are spending their $260 budget on starting pitchers, hitters and established closers, there are a few of us that like to bid $1 on that sleeper closer candidate who eventually lands the job due to injury or trade.

Last year, Braves closer Craig Kimbrel won the closers' job in spring training and never lost is as he ended the season with a 4-3 record, 46 saves, a 2.15 ERA, a 1.52 FIP, and a 1.94 xFIP. Kimbrel is a strikeout artist and he didn't disappoint as he struck out 127 batters, vs. 32 walks, in 77 innings or work, good for a K/9 rate of a whopping 14.84 and a K/BB rate of 3.97. All told, he struck out 41.5% of the batters he faced in 2011.

What I want to do today is take a look at some pitching prospects who could become the next Craig Kimbrel. The guys I am looking at are after the jump:

To accomplish this task, I used FanGraphs to sort through the AAA and AA league pitching stats. A few guys that met the requirement of striking out better than 12 batters per 9 innings and owning a K/BB rate over 3.00 in 2011 were Brad Boxberger, Shawn Tolleson, and Phillippe Aumont.

Brad Boxberger, SD

Boxberger spend the 2011 season in the Reds AA Carolina and AAA Louisville teams, but was traded to the Padres this offseason in the Mat Latos deal. He started the 2011 season in AA Carolina, but proved he was ready for better competition as he struck out just under 15 batters per nine innings (14.94/9) in his 34.1 innings, saving 4 games in the process. He then moved up to AAA Louisville where he continued to mow down hitters, but at a slightly slower rate of 11.71 per nine. Boxberger's problem though lies with the free pass. He walks too many batters, as he walked a combined 4.1 batters per nine last year between AA and AAA. But Boxberger is moving to the Padres who are managed by one of the best pitching coaches in baseball in Bud Black. The combination of Black and pitching in Petco Park should benefit Boxberger in 2012.

John gave Boxberger a B- grade in The Baseball Prospect Book 2012, and here is an excerpt on his analysis:

Statistically, his K/IP and H/IP ratios are very strong and objectively confirm his quality stuff. He profiles as a middle reliever with a chance to close. Traded to San Diego in the Mat Latos deal, he will likely find his way into the Padres bullpen sometime this year. I like him, perhaps more than I should given his not-completely-refined command.

Current closer Huston Street is one of the more injury prone closers in the game and has just one year left on his current deal. With the Padres chances of competing for a wild card slim, the Padres will look to deal Street at the trade deadline giving Boxberger a chance to close as soon as 2012.

Shawn Tolleson, LAD

Being a Dodgers fan, and an owner of Dee Gordon in one of my NL-only keeper leagues, provided me the opportunity to find out about Tolleson in my nightly review of minor league box scores. Yes, not only do I review major league box scores on a nightly basis, but also minor league box scores as well. Tolleson made short work of Low A hitters in 2011, striking out 33 batters and walking just 4 in 15 innings of work, good for a 19.8 K/9 and a 8.25 K/BB. He then moved up to High A Rancho Cucamonga, where he continued his dominance, striking out 17 and walking 3 in 9.2 innings, good for a 15.8 K/9 and 5.67 K/BB. He finished the season at AA Chattanooga where he sported a 55-11 K/BB rate in 44.1 innings. As you can see, his K/9 dropped a bit to 11.2/9 , but he still managed an excellent K/BB of 5.00.

John gave Tolleson a C+ grade in The Baseball Prospect Book 2012 and here is an excerpt on his report:

His deceptive delivery also crosses right-handers up, but lefties see him better and hit .342 against him. Tolleson has a good shot at being a solid middle reliever, and could even close games at some point if he finds a way to shut down lefties.

Tolleson has several relievers ahead of him in the Dodgers pen including current closer Javy Guerra, strikeout king Kenley Jansen, and another prospect in Josh Lindblom. Tolleson may not see any save opportunities in 2012, but I can see him having a role in the Dodgers pen by the end of the season.

Phillippe Aumont, PHI

Aumont failed at starting in the minors, so the Phillies moved him back to the bullpen in 2011 and Aumont flourished. As a side note, aren't all closers pitchers who failed at starting? Anyway, Aumont started the 2011 season at AA Reading where he struck out 11.9 batters per nine with a BB/9 of 3.2. He saved 4 games in AA before earning a promotion to AAA Lehigh Valley, where his K rate and walk rate jumped. His K/9 jumped to 14.7/9 and his BB/9 increased to 5.6/9 in his 22.2 innings of work where he finished 9 games and saved 3 games in the process.

John gave Aumont a B- grade in The Baseball Prospect Book 2012 and here is a little of what John had to say about Aumont:

Aumont hits 95-97 MPH and has a hard curveball. He picks up both grounders and strikeouts at a good clip, and if he stays healthy he has a chance to close in the majors.

Aumont will be blocked for the next 4 seasons in Philly with the offseason signing of Jonathan Papelbon, so if he does get a chance to close, it will have to happen via a trade to another team. In the meantime, he will make the most of his chances to close in AAA and should see time in the Phillies pen in 2012.

Closers are a volatile bunch, and these pitchers are just 3 of many who could get the chance to close in 2012 and beyond. Finding another closer like Kimbrel, who also had trouble with his command in the minors is not an easy task, but with the help of statistics and excellent scouting reports, fantasy owners have the information at their fingertips and are just a few clicks away from finding that late round or $1 closer late in their fantasy baseball drafts.