This is fun, right? Being taken aback every single day by something some team is doing with its relief corps? It's almost like the game has moved beyond bullpen roles.
Eh ... I doubt it. I followed the progression of every closer situation pretty closely last year -- comes with the territory and all -- and while the turnover was extraordinary over a two-month period, it was less because managers were mixing it up for mixing's sake and more because so many pitchers failed to get the job done. On a given day, we had a pretty good idea who'd get the next save chance for most teams.
Do we now?
I think the biggest difference between now and, say, five years ago is that managers are more content to play it by ear. They'd rather let the closer reveal himself than anoint him ahead of time, creating an expectation that does more harm than good. They may never declare a closer, but their actions will give them away once they find something that works. Again, that's how things played out last year, with Trevor Rsoenthal, Ryan Pressly and Rafael Montero being among the prime beneficiaries.
Because ultimately, bullpen roles makes a manager's job easier. He may not mind tinkering now, when everything is still fresh and new, but night after night for sixth months? It's a path to insanity. The decision needs to be push-button just to prevent second-guessing.
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And as open-ended as things still seem now, we do have more clarity than we did a week ago. We know Hector Neris is the Phillies closer. We know -- or at least have little reason to doubt -- Mark Melancon is the Padres closer. Little by little, we're getting there.
Because we still have so far to go, though, let's look at 14 of the closer situations attracting the most interest.
Note: "Pecking order" refers to rosterability in Fantasy and not necessarily who's first in line for saves (though it's usually one and the same).
While you could make the case that Julian Merryweather's two saves have little bearing on whether he's the closer given that one came in extra innings and the other in a lower-leverage situation than what Jordan Romano faced in the eighth, truth is we didn't know what the Blue Jays' plan was coming into the season. We all presumed it would be Romano because he seemed like the next in line, but manager Charlie Montoyo was intentionally non-committal. Merryweather has some usage concerns because of his injury history, but he also has a triple-digit fastball and wipeout changeup. And as capably as he handled those two save chances, I think there's a 60/40 chance Montoyo chooses not to mess with a good thing and continues running him out there for saves.
Monday's game couldn't have made the Cardinals' thinking any more transparent. It was set up to be a save situation as early as the sixth inning, when Jordan Hicks came in for one frame, followed by Giovanny Gallegos for two, followed by Alex Reyes for the one everyone cares about. Regardless of what innings they were, the fact Gallegos went two rather than Reyes suggests the Cardinals are serious about using their former top pitching prospect as a conventional closer and not a multi-inning reliever who happens to pitch late in games. He then came back in for another save the very next day, which is again how a conventional closer would be used. Still, given Reyes' past control issues, I think there's a decent chance Hicks overtakes him at some point.
Because the Indians have yet to encounter a save chance through four games, we don't have much insight into their thinking. We do know Nick Wittgren is the only one to falter so far, allowing three earned runs in his lone appearance, and because it happened in the seventh inning, it's obvious the Indians weren't holding him back for the ninth. James Karinchak is the only one of the three to appear twice, both when the score was within three runs, and he's as good of a bat-misser as you'll find in the majors. Emmanuel Clase's stuff is electric, too, but his lone appearance came when the Indians were up by six.
To the untrained eye, it might seem like Chris Devenski handling the Diamondbacks' first save chance Sunday was just a matter of happenstance, a consequence of Joakim Soria leaving with a strained calf. But Soria entered for the start of the eighth inning. And since Stefan Crichton, the closer at the end of last season, worked part of the seventh inning, you get the feeling manager Torey Lovullo was teeing it up for Devenski from the start. Bringing him in for another save Tuesday would seem to confirm it, but Devenski blew it by allowing a solo home run. He hasn't been a shutdown reliever since 2017, so you shouldn't get too attached.
Cesar Valdez came in and got two saves right away, eliminating the more popular notion of left-hander Tanner Scott claiming the closer role, and when you look at the rest of the Orioles bullpen, Valdez would seem to have pretty good job security. Of course, he's 36 with no track record of success in the majors and a gimmicky arsenal that's really just his changeup 80 percent of the time. He did have a 1.26 ERA in 14 1/3 innings last year and followed it up with seven impressive inning this spring, but it still seems more likely than not he'll falter at some point, opening the door to either Scott or the yuckiest of committees.
Presumptive closer Amir Garrett indeed came in for the first save chance Monday against the Pirates and got the job done, but he didn't do it in the most convincing fashion, allowing two hits, including a homer, and walking one. Worse yet, it came after Lucas Sims worked a perfect eighth inning. The fact Sean Doolittle's velocity is back in the mid-90s after hovering around 90 mph last year is a point in Garrett's favor since it means the Reds have another high-leverage lefty they can turn to in a more flexible role. Of course, it also makes Doolittle himself a candidate to overtake Garrett, especially since he has ample experience as a closer.
Manager A.J. Hinch doesn't appear to have anything resembling a plan as of now, going from using Bryan Garcia to secure a three-run lead one day to bringing him in for the seventh inning the next. The left-hander, Gregory Soto, got the call in the ninth on opening day but quickly surrendered two runs and nearly needed to be bailed out by -- you guess it -- Garcia. It seems like Soto has been used in the higher-leverage situations overall and is the better bat-misser of the two, but it's also clear Hinch isn't purposely saving him for the ninth inning. This one remains anybody's guess.
Manager Mike Matheny put us through our paces last year before finally settling on Trevor Rosenthal and mixed it up again after Rosenthal was traded, teetering between Greg Holland and Jesse Hahn. So it's no surprise he's up to the same tricks this year. Holland, the presumed closer on opening day, entered the game early and needed Wade Davis to rescue him for the final two outs, which he did ably. The next save chance didn't come until Monday, when Hahn got the call. In fact, we haven't seen Holland pitch since he tried to get through four outs on opening day.
One complicating factor is that Wade Davis' velocity is way up this year, the highest it's been since 2017, making him a more viable candidate. Another is that Josh Staumont may actually be the most talented pitcher in the Royals bullpen. We'll see where Matheny ultimately lands.
Anthony Bass was an odd choice to close in the first place given that he's not much of a bat-misser and struggled in the role for the Blue Jays last year, so my judgment is clouded by my skepticism he'll be able to keep the job at all. But he did blow his first save chance on the second day of the season, serving up four earned runs in one inning of work. It doesn't seem like manager Don Mattingly's confidence is shaken, though. Bass closed out a five-run lead the very next day. Yimi Garcia, the more talented of the two, has worked the eighth inning twice, allowing one earned run.
Manager Rocco Baldelli promised after the Twins signed right-hander Alex Colome this offseason that left-hander Taylor Rogers would still finish his share of games, and it's possible that matchups have dictated what's happened so far. But when you see Rogers set up for Colome twice in not just the eighth inning but the seventh, you can't help but think it's less of a timeshare than we were led to believe. Rogers has led the Twins in saves the past two years, but Baldelli has always been reluctant to commit to him in the role. Perhaps having a proven alternative like Colome will put an end to it entirely.
Here's the problem with pursuing the Pirates closer: They figure to win so infrequently that whenever they stray from what we think they're doing, we'll be on pins and needles for like a week waiting for a follow-up. All throughout spring training, manager Derek Shelton intimated that he didn't want to confine Richard Rodriguez to the ninth inning, so of course out he came for the save on opening day.
Granted, Kyle Crick was on the COVID-19 IL at the time, but he's not a lockdown reliever and worked the seventh inning in his first game back Sunday. I'd like to see rookie David Bednar get the job given the bat-missing ability he showed in spring training, but there has been no tipping of the hand so far. That Rodriguez came in for one out in the seventh inning of a lopsided loss Tuesday only adds to the confusion.
Could it be that Jake McGee is just straight-up the closer? The Giants made a two-year investment in him after he delivered a 2.66 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 14.6 K/9 for the Dodgers last year. They have a bullpen overrun with lefties. His only appearances so far have come in the ninth inning, including twice for a save. Maybe it really is that simple. I'm hesitant to believe Gabe Kapler, the most overthinking manager in baseball, would sully his reputation with such convention, but maybe he's tired of losing sleep.
Speaking of managers that tend to be the most committed to the committee, the Rays' Kevin Cash belongs ahead of even Kapler on that list, but the loss of Nick Anderson has so depleted him of high-leverage arms that he may be resigned to convention as well. Diego Castillo recorded each of the team's first two saves and came in for another Tuesday before allowing a game-tying homer to Christian Vazquez. Peter Fairbanks, his prime competition for the role, allowed a run himself Tuesday and has been shakier overall.
The loss of Jose Leclerc and Jonathan Hernandez before the start of the season left manager Chris Woodward to gesture helplessly at Ian Kennedy and Matt Bush as potential ninth-inning options, and after Tuesday's game, it appears he has a favorite. Kennedy pitched a scoreless ninth inning for the team's first save, with Bush working the eighth. So far, Kennedy has worked only the ninth and Bush only the eighth. Though Kennedy did get nearly a full year as the Royals closer in 2019, you have to figure his leash is short. Bush may still be a factor at some point.