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Saves and Steals

Six Closers Down

by Brad Johnson
Updated On: August 9, 2020, 5:36 am ET

The sky is falling! Over 10 teams have some form of closer committee in place with others at risk of joining the list. In most cases, these committees reflect an absence of closer-quality relievers rather than a strong bullpen. Clubs like the Twins and Rays are the exception, not the norm.

A mountain of changes occurred over the last week. Roberto Osuna, Jose Leclerc, and Wade Davis landed on the injured list. Edwin Diaz, Craig Kimbrel, and Hansel Robles were deposed. Kirby Yates and Brad Hand are on the hot seat. Kwang-Hyun Kim and the Cardinals will sit out most of the week. In a rare twinkle of good news, Keone Kela and Aroldis Chapman are set to return soon. Even that is bittersweet. Presently, Zack Britton and Joe Jimenez share the league lead with four saves. Britton will soon turn into a fantasy pumpkin.

 

Closer Tiers

 

Tier 1: The Elite (1)

Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers

After missing a series against the Cardinals, the Brewers haven’t had many opportunities to use the top closer in baseball. Bullpen mate and former closer Corey Knebel isn’t quite all the way back from Tommy John surgery. He’s missing two-mph. The biggest threat to Hader’s 2020 value is dormant… for now.

 

Tier 2: Reliable Rarities (4)

Liam Hendriks, Oakland Athletics
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Taylor Rogers, Sergio Romo, Minnesota Twins
Seth Lugo, New York Mets

Since struggling on Opening Day, Hendriks has allowed only one baserunner in 4.1 innings. Jansen’s command and velocity are mild concerns. Rogers would certainly rank ahead of Jansen if he wasn’t sharing save opportunities with Romo, Trevor May, and possibly Tyler Duffey. This is an embarrassment of riches situation.

The 2019 version of Edwin Diaz has returned. This time, the Mets were able to quickly switch to a proven plan B. Unlike many of his late-innings colleagues, Lugo didn’t lose any of his potent stuff over the long layoff. He immediately slots in as the fifth-best closer.

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Tier 3: Possible Core Performers (8)

Brandon Workman, Boston Red Sox
Raisel Iglesias, Cincinnati Reds
Kirby Yates, Drew Pomeranz, San Diego Padres
Ryan Pressly, Houston Astros
Hector Neris, Philadelphia Phillies
Brad Hand, James Karinchak, Cleveland Indians
Nick Anderson, Oliver Drake, Tampa Bay Rays
Daniel Hudson, Washington Nationals

Workman’s slider-inspired walk rate (5.70 BB/9 since the start of 2019) will be a constant source of agitation. He mitigates this weakness with high strikeout and ground ball rates. Those free passes will always hang over his head.

Yates finally earned his first save while striking out the side on Monday. There’s just one problem – he faced four batters. The non-strikeout was a solo home run on an absolute meatball to Cody Bellinger. That was a positive outing for Yates in that he didn’t walk anybody and had plenty of whiffs on his splitter. Meanwhile, Drew Pomeranz is every bit as lethal as when he took off late in 2019. Yates’ job is at risk if he doesn’t immediately peel off a hot streak.

Ominously, I still rate Yates as the eighth best closer.

With Osuna out, Pressly has a chance to make a name for himself as a Top 5 closer. He’s battled a variety of injuries over the last calendar year. I’d rate him in the second tier but for a concerning 2020 debut in which he lacked his usual sharpness and failed to induce a swinging strike. It’s unclear if he’s fully healthy. The Astros don’t have a clear backup at this point. A platoon of righty Bryan Abreu and southpaw Blake Taylor may be the next layer down from Pressly.

I have no reason to doubt Neris, a reliever who might well rank in the second tier after we see him pitch again. I do, however, doubt the Phillies ability to hand him a lead. Their relief corps has hemorrhaged runs.

Hand is looking over his shoulder at Karinchak – arguably a Hader-quality reliever. Fantasy managers should roster Karinchak wherever he’s available. However, I’m not totally out on Hand just yet. Although he’s missing fastball velocity, his primary pitch is a still-effective slider. Presently, he has an outrageous 10.80 ERA and 2.70 FIP. In other words, he’s been unlucky with stranding baserunners.

It’s frustrating that Anderson, an elite reliever, has to share saves with Oliver Drake, Jose Alvarado, and others. This was always part of the reality we live in – the Rays use bullpen committees and rarely select their most talented reliever as a full-time closer.

 

Tier 4: Red Flag Vets (5)

Archie Bradley, Arizona Diamondbacks
Zack Britton, New York Yankees
Alex Colome, Chicago White Sox
Mark Melancon, Atlanta Braves
Joe Jimenez, Detroit Tigers

Ironically, this is the highest performing tier. These vets rank here because they project to deliver underwhelming categorical production alongside a healthy bundle of saves. It could be argued that’s a better combination of traits than high risk, high reward options like Yates and Hand.

Bradley is still missing two ticks of velocity. It’s yet to negatively affect his outcomes. In fact, he’s striking out nearly two batters per inning (17.18 K/9). Don’t expect the good times to last indefinitely.

Britton would rank much higher – between Lugo and Workman - if not for the impending return of Chapman. And Chapman, if he’s himself, will be in the first or second tier.

Melancon might be the fifth-best reliever in the Braves bullpen. Still, until he fumbles some leads, they have bigger fish to fry with their pitching staff – namely a rotation with only one reliable starting pitcher.

Colome and Jimenez have mostly gotten the job done without inducing many whiffs. That’s a risky proposition. Jimenez was saddled with the loss on Sunday.

 

Tier 5: Mess Hall (9)

Nick Burdi, Pittsburgh Pirates
Cole Sulser, Baltimore Orioles
Taylor Williams, Matt Magill, Seattle Mariners
Greg Holland, Trevor Rosenthal, Kansas City Royals
Anthony Bass, Jordan Romano, Rafael Dolis, Toronto Blue Jays
Jeremy Jeffress, Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan, Chicago Cubs
Brandon Kintzler, Richard Bleier, Miami Marlins
Ty Buttrey, Keynan Middleton, Los Angeles Angels
Trevor Gott, Tony Watson, Shaun Anderson, San Francisco Giants
Edinson Volquez, Nick Goody, Jonathan Hernandez, Jesse Chavez, Texas Rangers
Jairo Diaz, Carlos Estevez, Colorado Rockies
Kwang-Hyun Kim, St. Louis Cardinals (Team Sidelined)

This is… messy. Let’s wade in.

Command continues to plague Burdi. He remains the Pirates best reliever. Richard Rodriguez could snipe a save simply because he’s a more consistent pitcher. Keone Kela has already been confirmed as the team’s closer if and when he returns. He could be activated as soon as this week.

We might finally have a decent Mariners closer. After struggling for several years with the Brewers, Williams has shifted his pitch usage. His primary offering is an effective slider. So long as he can avoid walks, he profiles similarly to some third and fourth tier closers.

Rosenthal and Holland might pass the baton back and forth until someone stumbles. I’m slightly encouraged by Rosenthal’s adoption of a slider. He relied far too much on his hard fastball in the past.

The back end of the Blue Jays bullpen really piles up ground balls. Of the trio of closer candidates, fantasy managers should root for Romano to emerge from the pack. He’s the only one likely to supply over a strikeout per inning.

With Kimbrel down-and-out, Jeffress has the best combination of experience and stuff. Wick is a glorified middle reliever. Ryan might snipe a save or three by virtue of his left-handedness.

Hansel Robles was also ousted. Buttrey never worked out last season when he was an oft-cited sleeper, and I’d argue it’s not working out right now either. He isn’t inducing whiffs. Middleton has much better peripherals. Both have failed to prevent runs. Honestly, Robles could re-emerge with this job in two weeks – assuming he can sort out his missing command and velocity.

The Rangers are seemingly bent on suffering the ravages of Volquez and Goody before they settle for a more reasonable alternative. Hernandez was their most talented reliever before Jose Leclerc went on the injured list. The talent comes at a price – poor command. Texas may think they’re going with boring and safe by looking at Volquez, but Chavez is a better pick if plain vanilla relief is the desired flavor.

 

Injured or Ill

Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees
Keone Kela, Pittsburgh Pirates
Ken Giles, Toronto Blue Jays
Kyle Crick Pittsburgh Pirates
Roberto Osuna, Houston Astros (out for season)
Wade Davis, Colorado Rockies
Jose Leclerc, Texas Rangers

Osuna will probably require Tommy John surgery. Davis was placed on the injured list with a sore shoulder. Leclerc is likely to miss the season with a partially torn teres major (an upper back/shoulder injury).

 

Deposed

Craig Kimbrel, Chicago Cubs
Hansel Robles, Los Angeles Angels
Edwin Diaz, New York Mets

 

The Steals Department

 

Tommy Pham managed to stay atop the stolen base leaderboard despite swiping only one bag this week. Rushing to join him is new White Sox leadoff man Luis Robert. His four steals all came in the last week including three over his last two games. Six others have three steals apiece. Of those, Mike Tauchman and Myles Straw aren’t playing regularly. They’re threats to take off in a daily job ever emerges. Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte, Fernando Tatis, and Shed Long round out the list.

This section of the column is at its best when we focus on waiver wire targets. The Padres have three of the top names – and that’s without counting Pham and Tatis! We discussed Wil Myers and Trent Grisham last week. Both remain under 50 percent rostered on Yahoo! despite strong production to date.

The most recent name to pop up is utility man Jake Cronenworth. He’s making the most of an opportunity to fill in for an ill Eric Hosmer. Cronenworth is just shy of 90th percentile sprint speed. He’s demonstrated aptitude for thievery in the minors too. With Jurickson Profar struggling at second base, Cronenworth is expected to continue playing once Hosmer returns. He combines a patient approach at the plate with a high contact rate. Since he uses all fields, he’ll reach base often.

San Diego is hosting the Diamondbacks this weekend. Shockingly, they’ve allowed 14 steals in 15 attempts – the most steals and worst caught stealing rate in the league. It’s a surprise because primary catcher Carson Kelly was a tough matchup last year. The eager Padres will only make this total more lopsided.

The Marlins are finally back in action, and they’ve brought some extra speed with them to supplement Jonathan Villar. As an enormous bonus, they’re about to face the stolen base prone Mets. Top prospect Monte Harrison offers a familiar profile to Marlins fans – talented and prone to strikeouts. Lewis Brinson hasn’t worked out for Miami just yet, but Harrison might just take the league by storm. He has enough power and speed to do a rough impression of Luis Robert. Where Harrison falls short of Robert is with aggression and contact skills. Harrison has developed decent plate discipline specifically because he’s weak against pitches out of the zone. Robert has a bit of Javy Baez in him – every pitch is fair game.

Center fielder Magneuris Sierra and utility man Jon Berti are also set for regular action. Sierra isn’t much of a hitter – he relies on his legs to help him reach base. Once aboard, he’s likely to run. Berti, a 30-year-old journeyman, nabbed 17 bags in 287 plate appearances last year. He’s a roughly league average hitter who presently looks a little lost at the plate. He has a short window to turn things around and hopefully steal us some bags.

Brad Johnson

You can read more from Brad Johnson on Rotoworld, FanGraphs, and RotoFanatic. Find him on Patreon and Twitter @BaseballATeam.