Bullpen Report: A closers countdown redux
Our Nando Di Fino takes a look at the always volatile closer situations around the league and who might be the backups you should keep on your radar.
It's time, once again, for the State of the Bullpen report. Huzzah! I've divided things up by league and division, and then broken down each team, listing the current closer, the probable next in line and then just a wildly speculative guess as a dark horse candidate, who may have nice numbers, some history, be in a decent spot to take over the role or just looks good right now in the bullpen (NOTE: don't laugh -- the first time we ran through these, Edward Mujica was St. Louis' dark horse).
I'm not sure we need any more fluff here. Let's get to the relievers!
American League East
|1.||Jerome Williams, RP, Angels||28|
|2.||David Phelps, RP, Yankees||19|
|3.||Rex Brothers, RP, Rockies||11|
|4.||Francisco Rodriguez, RP, Brewers||7|
|5.||Bobby Parnell, RP, Mets||6|
|6.||Jose Veras, RP, Astros||5|
|7.||Joel Peralta, RP, Rays||4|
|8.||Mike Dunn, RP, Marlins||4|
|9.||Grant Balfour, RP, Athletics||3|
|10.||Andrew Bailey, RP, Red Sox||3|
The AL East was, about three weeks ago, an oasis of calm. And then a bunch of little things happened and teams started to lose their footing. In Boston, for instance, Joel Hanrahan was hurt just as Andrew Bailey came back from injury. Then Bailey got hurt again, paving the pay for Junichi Tazawa to have what could be considered the most disappointing two-week run as closer in Fantasy history. With Bailey back and Hanrahan out for the season, Tazawa is back to a set-up role. And I'm throwing Ryan Rowland-Smith in as the dark horse, as he's pitching really well in the minors and could get called up, excel and just start moving his way up the bullpen depth chart.
Fernando Rodney's performance can't be a huge surprise, considering his track record before 2012, but as much as I believe Joel Peralta is the better pitcher, and Jake McGee is probably back on track (no runs allowed in his last six appearances, ERA down to 7.94), there's something in the back of my head that keeps pushing Kyle Farnsworth into the picture. It's a constant struggle: He's two years removed from having 25 saves for the Rays! But he could be a Rodney-esque disaster! But Maddon may still trust him! But he has an 8.44 ERA! In the end, the fact that he's simply in that bullpen makes him a dark horse. But I do believe Peralta -- if turned to -- will be stellar in the role.
One last important thing to note about this group: Casey Janssen had some really interesting things to say about his shoulder, on which he had offseason surgery. Things like, "I don't think it's getting any better," and, "the progress isn't gaining." I'm not sure why this isn't worrying more people, but I have picked up Brett Cecil in my AL-only leagues (Steve Delabar was already taken, but I think it's almost a toss-up between these two anyway) just in case.
American League Central
Compared to the AL East, the AL Central is a wonderful land of order and harmony. Jose Valverde has been better than anyone could have expected for the Tigers, strengthening the back-end of that bullpen. And Perkins, Perez and Reed have been solid, if a little unspectacular. Greg Holland overcame a shaky start to tighten his grip on the role in Kansas City, with Kelvin Herrera being optioned to Triple-A on Thursday.
The most interesting name in this group may be Reed. Last year, he saved 29 games, but managed to avoid any calls for him to be removed despite a 4.75 ERA -- he expertly gave up runs in situations that didn't matter, like allowing a run when he had a three-run lead. Or giving up a handful in a non-save situation. This year, Reed has already finished a league-high 20 games, with 16 saves and a sparkling 2.14 ERA. He's lowered his WHIP (1.36 in 2012 to 1.05 in 2013) and while his walk rate has seen a slight uptick, he's pushed his strikeout rate up to 10.3, a major improvement over last year's 8.8.
Reed has successfully erased any doubts that may have arisen after last year. He was stellar in the minors, with a 1.41 ERA, 0.74 WHIP, and 12.9 K/9. After a somewhat bumpy rookie year, he's emerged in 2013 as one of the most effective closers in the game. Reed has just one blown save, has yet to allow a home run in 21 innings and hasn't walked a batter since May 5. Among all relief pitchers in H2H Points leagues, Reed ranks fourth. And if you kick out the SPs in RP clothing, the only closer with more points than reed is Jason Grilli, who has garnered far more attention for his season.
American League West
Jose Veras was pretty much left for dead early in the season, as things looked grim for a hapless Houston team. But the Astros do have some punch in their lineup, and while the rotation can be pretty bad, it features a decent amount of bright spots, with pitchers capable of good performances. All of that translates to eight saves for the still lightly regarded Veras, with five of those saves coming since May 7.
The problem with Veras this season was with opportunity, not talent. Over the last three seasons, Veras had a 3.73 ERA, with a 10.3 K/9. And this was all in mostly low-leverage situations with the Marlins, Pirates and Brewers. Put in the test-his-mettle closer role, Veras has shined, with career low walk (3.3) and hit (5.7) rates. As long as Houston's offense doesn't completely bottom out -- chances are the team improves, if anything -- Veras should continue to see a decent amount of save chances, and could finish the season with 30.
As a side note, the Rangers will likely see Joakim Soria work his way into the backup spot on this team, once he returns from his Tommy John rehab. So he might be the reliever I pick up behind Nathan here. But, for now, Joe Ortiz has been a nice surprise in the Texas bullpen and has as good a chance as anyone (Tanner Scheppers, Robbie Ross) at working his way into the saves mix if something happens to Nathan.
National League East
The Atlanta bullpen quietly took two massive gut punches recently, with injuries to Jordan Walden and Eric O'Flaherty. Work in Jonny Venters' Tommy John surgery, and you have three of the top four arms in the Braves' bullpen out for a significant amount of time. On top of all that, Craig Kimbrel is currently sporting the highest ERA (2.45) and lowest K/9 (14.2) of his career. Granted, this drops him to just "awesome" level (from his previous "superhuman" status), but if anything is wrong with him, the Braves could be looking at an untested group of relievers to take his place.
There is, however, an interesting twist. Kris Medlen, as good as he has been as a starter, could step into the Brvaes' pen when Brandon Beachy returns, and he instantly becomes the best arm in there, as well as the one with the most experience. While Anthony Varvaro, Cory Gearrin, Luis Avilan and David Carpenter all have impressive numbers, none of them have extensive experience, and only Carpenter has anything approaching a K/9 of 9.0. Keep an eye on the Braves' bullpen moving forward -- there's a chance (assuming something happens to Kimbrel), as crazy as it sounds now, that Kris Medlen could find his way into more saves than wins once the season is through.
Miami's bullpen situation is somewhat curious, as Steve Cishek hasn't had his ERA below 4.50 since the first game of the season. Cishek had a 2.66 ERA and 1.24 WHIP heading into this season, and while there wasn't a lot of hope for him to get past 25 saves with the dismantled Miami offense, there was at least hope that he'd keep his ERA and WHIP low while striking out about a batter per inning. But his strikeouts are down and his walks, hits and home run rates are all up. While there are some encouraging signs (Cishek's xFIP is 3.99, so he's due for some improvement), there are others that are still a little worrisome (his BABIP is a relatively low .273).
The problem here is that if Cishek re-establishes himself as the best saves option in the Marlins bullpen, he still faces the uphill battle of not getting many save opportunities. So even if you guess right on Cishek remaining the closer, it's still almost like winning a carnival game and being handed the big plastic comb as your prize.
National League Central
Francisco Rodriguez has seen his velocity sink every year since 2007. That's not news to anyone, and it's often used as an argument as to why Rodriguez is washed up and useless as a reliever. But I have a more optimistic view on Rodriguez, and if something happens to Jim Henderson, I think he is the replacement (not John Axford). Here is why:
1. Rodriguez is still just 31 years old. He's been around so long and
had such early success, it's easy to forget that he's still relatively
young. Rodriguez is actually just a few months older than John Axford and Henderson (both are 30).
2. While he was unimpressive last year with the Brewers (4.38 ERA and 1.33 WHIP), it was pretty much the first time in a decade that Rodriguez was used in middle relief. So I'd be willing to chalk it up to, at least partially, a lack of motivation.
3. From 2004 to 2011, Rodriguez had an ERA above 2.81 just once.
4. In 2010, Rodriguez had 25 saves in 57 1/3 innings. And before his trade to the Brewers in 2011, he had 23 saves in 42 2/3 innings. While 2010's numbers would have evened out to about 30 saves, 2011's would have been about 36, if he remained as closer.
Sure, there's a chance Rodriguez just lost the magic he once had. He could be washed up. His unsustainably high strand rate/LOB% finally caught up to him in 2012. But I think there's something left. He's a four-time All-Star, has finished in the top four of Cy Young voting three times and is 25th all-time in saves. And he's not 38 and creaky -- Rodriguez is 31 and the only thing standing between him and save opportunities may be Jim Henderson, who has been brilliant so far this year, but has a somewhat spotty professional track record.
National League West
I realize the hot topic here is the Brandon League/Kenley Jansen battle in Los Angeles. But it's difficult to divine much from the situation because of its many complicated layers. First and foremost, Don Mattingly is kind of tough to figure out. The only real track record he has with closer changes is last year, when Javy Guerra pitched his way out of the job as Kenley Jansen's performance demanded he be installed as closer. But this year is a little different, as League's struggles were met with Jansen struggling, as well. In his last six games, Jansen is 0-3, with an 8.44 ERA and three home runs allowed. League, meanwhile, is only 0-2, with a 7.11 ERA and just two home runs allowed. It's like one is daring the other to flame out more spectacularly.
If I had to pick one of the two pitchers to be a closer on my team this year, I think I would go with League. Yes, Jansen is the better pitcher, with better strikeout numbers and probably a brighter future. But League has a history of getting rocked in May and then going on to have a very good season. Also -- and this may be wrong on a few levels, but it's just a fact of life -- League has the big contract. There may be some pressure in there to keep him in and stay the course.
If Jansen gets the job, he's probably a top 12 closer. But the circumstances, as they are now, lead me to believe League will hold the job. He was re-signed to close, he has fought through early season problems before and there had to be a reason the Dodgers didn't just hand the job to Jansen after his 2012 performance.
It's one of the more interesting closer situations we've seen in recent years, the lack of a clear-cut front-runner for the job -- as frustrating as it is for Fantasy owners -- makes it all the more intriguing.
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