Amid the closer fakeouts happening all across the league, from Tampa Bay to San Francisco to Kansas City to Minnesota, one situation that seemed fairly secure was Jose Leclerc in Texas. That's not to say he's without his warts, but based on everything we've seen from the Rangers so far, you could feel confident in him taking the mound the next time they had a save opportunity.
That is, until he felt a pinch in his shoulder while warming up Wednesday, leaving Nick Goody to get the save.
Goody could be a capable fill-in if Leclerc ends up missing time, or maybe the Rangers go the committee route, giving hard-throwing Jonathan Hernandez some opportunities. Shoot, maybe Leclerc shakes it off, and there's no need for a long-term change.
But what seemed like a clear ninth-inning situation has suddenly become murky, making the Rangers one of nine teams for which we can only guess who'll get the next save chance. Here are the other eight, plus two others who recently made a more permanent change at the back end.
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).
Dedicated bullpen roles go against the Rays' sensibilities, but over time, tendencies can develop, such as Emilio Pagan more or less emerging as the full-time closer down the stretch last year. So is that where Oliver Drake finds himself after picking up each of the team's first two saves? It would be premature to say so, particularly given those pesky sensibilities. He did, after all, enter in the sixth inning of a high-leverage situation Wednesday. But he quietly had a 3.21 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 11.3 K/9 last year and has been getting ogled lately because of his splitter. It's to the point where we need to take him seriously.
Lefty Jose Alvarado, who you might remember was the favorite for saves entering last year, had worked the ninth inning in every one of his appearances before following up Drake in the seventh inning Wednesday. It's difficult to discern what the Rays are thinking there, but he has the skill set of a closer.
Until we have a better sense how the distribution will work here, Nick Anderson remains the most rosterable of the Rays relievers for his potential to dominate the ratio categories. Plus, the team's policy of ever-shifting roles means he could still get his own shot in the ninth even though he has been pitching earlier in games so far.
Keone Kela is still away from the team because of a positive COVID-19 test, and because he missed all of camp, it's difficult to predict what his state of readiness will be by the time he's cleared to return. And it's possible Nick Burdi is good enough to secure the role in the meantime. Beset by injuries since his closer-of-the-future days in the Twins organization, he's finally living up to the billing with a 99 mph fastball and power slider.
The Pirates are taking it easy with Burdi given his health history and may not work him on back-to-back days for the time being, but their save chances figure to be so far apart that you may not even notice. And rest assured, they want Burdi taking them. Neftali Feliz blew a four-run ninth-inning lead when Burdi last sat on Sunday, and with Kyle Crick recently landing on the IL with a shoulder strain, there is no one else.
Neither Taylor Rogers nor Sergio Romo got a chance to pitch in the Twins' first three games of the season, so when their first save chance came up Tuesday, naturally it was ... Romo who came jogging out.
I wouldn't say it was unsurprising — I better not given how high I ranked Rogers coming in — but I had my fears manager Rocco Baldelli might harbor some committee sympathies. After all, Romo got three saves for the Twins after coming over from the Marlins last August.
Of course, Romo then came out and pitched the seventh inning Wednesday, which then led to Rogers striking out two in the ninth for his first save. It's also worth pointing out that the Twins' lead Tuesday, when Romo got the save, was four runs heading into the eighth inning. He may have gotten the call simply because he was already warming up when it became a save situation. Still, there's a shaky enough history here to cast some doubt over whether or not Taylor really has the job all to himself.
Ken Giles was one of the most underrated closers heading into 2020, so I'm reluctant to turn the page on him because of a strained forearm. Sometimes that's a precursor to elbow ligament damage. Sometimes it's not. Any absence in a two-month season has a chance to render a player worthless, though, so it makes sense to invest in Anthony Bass, especially since manager Charlie Montoyo did us the courtesy of naming him the fill-in so that we're not left to guess.
Of course, there is the question of whether Bass is good enough to deliver in the role, but he did at least have a 0.98 WHIP last year. True, it was bolstered by an unrealistically low BABIP, but in the search for closers in a 60-game season, we can't wait around for the perfect pickup.
Greg Holland has gotten the Royals' only save so far, striking out three in a scoreless 10th inning Saturday, and because incumbent closer Ian Kennedy worked the sixth and seventh innings of that contest, it looked like a changing of the guard was happening. New manager Mike Matheny didn't back Kennedy as his closer back in spring training, after all, and Holland has a storied history in the role.
But then Holland was asked the work the seventh inning in his next appearance. It was another scoreless outing, so he hasn't done anything to hurt his closer candidacy. But a candidacy is all it is right now, and maybe that's all it will remain for the time being. Maybe Matheny has joined with the nerds and is playing the leverage game instead of subscribing to dedicated bullpen roles. Kennedy, for what it's worth, pitched the seventh inning in his most recent appearance Wednesday, so there's no evidence he's ahead of Holland in the pecking order.
Sean Doolittle ain't right, his fastball hovering in the high 80s right now instead of the mid-90s, and considering he has only worked the seventh and eighth innings so far, you have to wonder if the Nationals were intending for him to be their closer in the first place. After all, the left-hander was splitting save chances with Daniel Hudson down the stretch and into the playoffs last year.
The Nationals bullpen has yet to deliver a save this year, but Hudson has been used more like a traditional closer so far, working the ninth inning in a one-run loss and the eighth and ninth innings in a tie game Wednesday. It's enough for me to move Hudson ahead in my pecking order, especially since Doolittle is the one at risk of total implosion.
Cardinals manager Mike Shildt named Kwang Hyun Kim the team's closer at the end of camp even though the left-hander had been in contention for the fifth starter job and brought little relief experience with him from Korea. In fact, to that point, few of us had reason to believe Kim was even a candidate to close, which suggests it may be more of an experiment than anything else. He struggled en route to his first save on opening day, giving up two runs, and hasn't gotten a chance to pitch since.
By the time the Cardinals have their answer whether Kim is fit for the role, Giovanny Gallegos, who missed most of camp because of a travel complication, should be fully back to form. He actually made his first appearance Tuesday, recording two outs in the sixth inning, and remains the bet statistically to close. But if the Cardinals prefer to keep him in a versatile leverage role, the fallback to Kim would likely be Ryan Helsley.
While Rays manager Kevin Cash is known for using closer committees to great effect, Giants manager Gabe Kapler is known for using them to great detriment. So far this year, he hasn't much to say on the matter, but it's notable that Trevor Gott has both of the Giants' saves — and on back-to-back days, no less.
Left-hander Tony Watson entered the year as the front-runner for saves — and it's possible he'll still get those chances when the matchups favor him — but so far this year, he has made just one appearance. He gave up two unearned runs while working the eighth inning. Tyler Rogers, meanwhile, has made four appearances in a variety of contexts, but since he played setup man for both of Gott's saves and also throws right-handed, it's pretty clear he's behind in the pecking order. I should probably know better given Kapler's track record, but Gott is looking like a pretty heavy favorite here just by process of elimination.
Manager Brandon Hyde never got on board with using Mychal Givens as his closer last year, so I'm presuming this year is no different. Givens did close out a 7-2 win in his only appearance this year, entering in the eighth inning and recording the final four outs, but the team's only save chance in four games has gone to Cole Sulser. It wasn't exactly conventional — he worked two innings with a three-run lead — but he had a 3.27 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 12.1 K/9 in 49 appearances at Triple-A last year and might suffice in the role.
Most likely, though, the Orioles are just biding their time until Hunter Harvey, former starting pitcher prospect and son of All-Star closer Bryan Harvey, is back from a bout with elbow soreness. They had been talking him up as a closer candidate back in spring training, and his stuff is well suited for the role. Continue to stash him if you have a free IL spot.
Momentum seemed to building for the Mariners to use Austin Adams, who had a 14.1 K/9 rate last year, in the role, but then they decided they had pushed him too quickly in his return from ACL surgery and instead placed him on the IL. It made Matt Magill the reluctant favorite — after all, he recorded five saves down the stretch last year — but his first appearance this year came in the fifth inning. Taylor Williams ended up getting the save later in that same game but allowed a run and doesn't have the sort of track record in either the majors or minors to support his move into the closer role.
Dan Altavilla, who got the save Wednesday with a scoreless inning at the Angels, makes a little more sense as a pitcher with good strikeout potential, but he also has major control issues that figure to hold him back. The Mariners bullpen situation is probably the messiest in the majors right now, and I'd advise staying away to the degree you can.