Fantasy Baseball Bullpen Report: Blake Parker getting saves for the Twins while Anthony Swarzak looks like the Mariners closer
Is Josh Hader the closer now for the Brewers? What about Blake Parker for the Twins? How long before the Phillies give up on David Robertson? Scott White looks at 12 questionable bullpen situations.
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We sort of saw this coming, right?
After a year in which the long-fabled closer committee finally got a foothold, we suspected probably a third of the league would be without an obvious favorite for saves at the start of the year. And so it's no surprise that, here just a week into the season, I count no fewer than 13 closer roles that are in flux — or at least in question. It's not even clear how many will provide us with a resolution in the weeks ahead.
But speculation is fair game and even advisable in a situation where you have to pick your pony before you actually know, which basically describes every Fantasy league. Allow me, then, to steer you in the right direction.
One point of clarification in the images below: "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.
Yes, Blake Parker did record the past two saves for the Twins — and on back-to-back days — but there were abnormal circumstances for each. The first one Tuesday came in the 10th inning after Taylor Rogers had worked the eighth and ninth (all but one out, anyway) of a tie game — what might be considered a higher-leverage situation, in other words. The second one Wednesday was of the one-out variety after Trevor May had recorded the previous five outs and presumably would have stayed in if left-handed hitter Alex Gordon wasn't coming up to the plate. It would have been a tailor-made (see what I did there?) spot for Rogers if the lefty hadn't thrown so many pitches the day before.
Bottom line is this ninth-inning situation remains totally unclear and is probably the truest of committees. I favor Rogers because I expect him to deliver the best ratios of the three and because, as the one left-hander, his services will be in slightly higher demand.
It seemed apparent when he recorded a save on the second day of the season that Matt Barnes was the Red Sox closer, as was suspected all along. But he hadn't pitched since, which tells you a little about how the Red Sox's first week has gone, and so when they found themselves clinging to a tie with two outs in the seventh inning, they brought in Barnes for the next four outs, leaving the ninth, once they had secured the lead, to Ryan Brasier. Barnes is the much better bat-misser of the two and still the presumptive favorite. But Brasier had a 1.60 ERA last year and may be option 1A for manager Alex Cora.
As committed as manager Craig Counsell was to keeping Josh Hader in a more flexible multi-inning role last year, no Fantasy player looked to the lefty for saves on Draft Day, and yet he's such a statistical outlier among middle relievers that he was drafted in virtually every league regardless. So seeing him handle all four of the Brewers' save opportunities so far — the last three of the conventional one-inning variety — is nothing short of a dream come true.
The problem for him is that only one of the injuries to Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress, who were clearer favorites to close entering spring training, is considered long-term. And when Jeffress does return, provided he's back up to speed, he's Hader's ticket back to the role Counsell would prefer him to fill. Hader is must-own regardless, of course, but Jeffress is the better bet for saves here in the long run.
Before we even get into David Robertson's struggles — five walks in just two innings, at least one run in every outing, etc. — there have been concerns about his usage that date back to opening day, when he was brought in to pitch the eighth inning with a three-run lead. The heart of the Braves order was due up, making it a higher-leverage situation than the ninth inning presumably would have been, but still, it revealed right out of the gate that manager Gabe Kapler is sticking to his guns regarding the committee approach despite having a more proven ninth-inning option this year.
Has Seranthony Dominguez moved up the pecking order in light of Robertson's early struggles? It's possible. But either way, it may be something like a 60-40 saves split with the way Kapler approaches the late innings.
Raisel Iglesias was riding an uninterrupted two-year stretch as Reds closer and appeared to be one of the safer relief pitcher choices coming into 2019. But he has been trying his hardest to give away games as well as his role so far, falling a couple outs short of securing a two-inning save in the season opener and taking a loss while blowing a tie game Monday. It's obviously a tiny sample, but it has those who roster him on edge, especially since his velocity is also down a couple miles per hour.
Chances are he rights the ship and these early concerns are quickly forgotten, but it's worth pointing out that he may not be in line for conventional closer usage anyway, which is why he was asked to go two innings in the opener. Jared Hughes wound up with seven saves last year for similar reasons and may continue to cut into Iglesias' chances even in a best-case scenario.
Jose Alvarado converted the Rays' first two save chances in conventional fashion, offering hope that maybe the most obvious of committees last year was no more. Even when Diego Castillo picked up the next save chance, it wasn't cause for concern. Alvarado had worked the previous two days and needed a breather. But then when Alvarado worked the eighth inning of Monday's game against the Rockies, tasked with retiring left-handed hitters Charlie Blackmon and David Dahl, it became clear that manager Kevin Cash was up to his old tricks. Alvarado again worked the eighth inning Wednesday, striking out the side.
Castillo followed with a scoreless ninth inning both times, but neither earned him a save. Still, it's looking like a true matchups-based committee right now, with Alvardo getting the edge by way of pure talent.
The Mariners recently lost closer Hunter Strickland for 8-12 weeks because of a strained lat, and he was hardly a sure thing anyway. So whoever takes over for him has a chance to keep the job outright. But there's a reason Strickland was awarded the job in the first place: no obvious alternatives.
Anthony Swarzak recorded a two-out save in returning from his own lat strain Tuesday, but manager Scott Servais was unwilling to commit to anything with him, pointing out that he had hardly seen him pitch this spring. Swarzak showed closer potential two years ago, compiling a 2.33 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings, but after delivering a 6.15 ERA during an injury-plagued 2018, he has much to prove.
It's worth pointing out that Jordan Hicks is still more potential than results and has so far this year delivered two brilliant outings and one terrible one. Which version showed up during his one save chance? That's right: the terrible one. The Cardinals actually turned to one of their starting pitchers, Dakota Hudson, for an extra-inning save Wednesday, but Hicks was presumably unavailable after having thrown 32 pitches just two days earlier.
Fact is there are two other one-time starting pitchers who may be a threat to his closer candidacy. The Cardinals have hinted for weeks now that Carlos Martinez's best role, in light of his persistent shoulder issues, is as a late-inning reliever, so Hicks will have needed to establish himself in the ninth by the time Martinez is ready to return. Former top prospect Alex Reyes, himself banished to the bullpen because of health concerns, is available in the meantime.
Despite lingering concerns about the state of his shoulder this spring, Arodys Vizcaino has looked healthy out of the gate, firing 96 mph fastballs in converting his first save chance Wednesday. Then again, it was only his second appearance of the young season, so he hasn't been under much strain yet. With lefty A.J. Minter (shoulder) set to be activated from the IL Thursday, there's a chance Vizcaino still ends up sharing closer duties, especially if he's ever needed for a third consecutive day. And of course, the Braves remain one of the leading candidates to secure Craig Kimbrel's services at some point.
Conventional wisdom suggested that with Brandon Morrow's extensive injury history and relatively short stay in the closer role, Pedro Strop might just take the job and run with it while Morrow spent the first month of 2019 recovering from elbow surgery. But in the little bit Strop has pitched so far, the right-hander has looked shaky. Maybe it's nothing, but seeing as manager Joe Maddon is more of a new-school thinker, he may still entertain the possibility of a committee approach until Morrow returns, in which case all bets are off.
Seeing as he has closer stuff, Drew Steckenrider was the presumptive favorite coming in, but manager Don Mattingly never really tipped his hand this spring. And so far, Sergio Romo is the only one to record a save, albeit on a day when Steckenrider was unavailable. Steckenrider and Romo each has a four-run outing to his name already, so it's not like either is pulling away. Adam Conley, being the left-hander of the group, is the least likely to claim the role all for himself.
Mychal Givens is the only Orioles reliever with closing chops, but rookie manager Brandon Hyde, being more of a new-school thinker, seems committed to the idea of using him in the highest-leverage spot, which is why Miguel Castro, Richard Bleier and Mike Wright have each recorded a save for the Orioles while Givens still has none. Givens remains the favorite for them since the ninth inning is often a high-leverage situation, but as miserable as the Orioles are, they're not going to have many 4-2 stretches like this one to begin the season. The team leader in saves many not have more than a dozen.
Just when you thought the Orioles' closer situation was bleak, my goodness what a mess we have here. Even if manager Ned Yost wanted to try presumptive favorite Brad Boxberger in the role, which he has seemed reluctant to do, the former Rays and Diamondbacks closer hasn't given him any incentive, allowing a combined four runs on four hits and two walks in his past two appearances. Converted starter Ian Kennedy got the team's two most recent save chances but of course blew the second one. Last year's saves leader, Wily Peralta, has also been a disaster. Former prospect Kyle Zimmer may have the upside for the role, but he's pretty far down the pecking order. It's a bad team anyway, so best to stay away.
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