It's back to school time, which means that you're also probably in the playoffs in your head-to-head leagues… or in crunch time in your roto leagues.
A quick refresher (a cram session if you will) on what September means: September means that you cannot hold that injured star any longer if he's more than two weeks out. Holding him would mean getting nothing for half of the remaining season… at best. September means that you cannot hold the struggling Adam Dunn types any more. By this time they might be losing playing time to the next big thing, that prospect that might take his place. Even a good last month would only help you so much.
In the bullpen, September means that you also have to act quicker, and be more heartless. Is Leo Nunez about to lose his job… and a spot start with his pitching spot might mean the difference between making it to next week or not? Then don't hold on any longer. Been hoping Mike Adams would close all year? It's time to move on. And since so many of us are involved in the back-to-school goodness, we'll name the tiers using scholastically-themed one-liners. Comedy comes from pain, you see.
Tier 1: Elite (5) (AKA: The "College would be great if it weren't for all the classes" Tier.)
Jonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
- Pretty much covers how I felt about college for the first couple of years. More than a few baseball players probably feel like baseball would be great if it wasn't for all the dominant closers.
- Jonathan Papelbon walked two betters on Monday! He hadn't done that all year and he hadn't walked a batter at all since July 10th. Dominance. But you know what? John Axford now has a sub-2.50 ERA for over 120 innings in the last two years. And it's been built on an excellent strikeout rate and an ever-improving walk rate. In fact, he's in shouting distance of the league average walk rate, which is amazing considering he regularly put up walk rates that were twice the league average in the minor leagues. Congratulations to the newest member of the elite tier.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Teachers deserve a lot of credit; If we paid them more, they wouldn't need it" Tier.)
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Drew Storen, Washington Nationals
Heath Bell, San Diego Padres
Ryan Madson, Philadelphia Phillies
Andrew Bailey, Oakland Athletics
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
- Imagine a standup comedian going to bat with these lines… might not go so well. The good news is that these closers all have at least one dominant pitch that they can use to slay the crowd.
- J.J. Putz still has a good case for the top tier -- he has half as many walks as Axford, for example. But he also seems to have twice as many DL stints as anyone in the elite tier, so that's the invisible hand holding him back. And even in his reduced state, Heath Bell has a long track record of elite-level success, so he deserves to grace the top of this tier. The Padres aren't handing him many late leads, but with all of their close games, that might change soon.
- This ranking is an apology to Ryan Madson. I believe his coach and general manager too much when they ridiculed his ability to close. I thought Brad Lidge might come back. I thought Antonio Bastardo looked lights-out dominant when he was given the shot. I knew Madson was a good closer, but I didn't give him enough credit. Now, with this ranking, I've fully apologized. He has elite control, a strong strikeout rate, and has good results all year.
- Sure Andrew Bailey gave up three runs to the Royals this week. He still has a three-to-one walk-to-strikeout ratio, and all the ground balls that Jose Valverde induces only slightly mitigates the fact that he doesn't have a two-to-one ratio on the back of his baseball card.
Tier 3: OK options (7) (AKA: The "My kids have everything they need for school… except the right attitude" Tier.)
Joakim Soria, Kansas City Royals
Joe Nathan, Minnesota Twins
Jordan Walden, Anaheim Angels
Brandon League, Seattle Mariners
Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
Kyle Farnsworth, Tampa Bay Rays
Sergio Santos, Chicago White Sox
- Having the right attitude and nothing else… that wouldn't work either. These closers have the tools, but there's something awry nonetheless.
- Joakim Soria had his second Kimbrel of the year on Monday, striking out three Athletics with no hits, walks or runs. Ever since he recovered his velocity in the second month of the season, he's been a lot better. In light of his reduced swinging strike and ground-ball rates, though, it's worth asking if the 27-year-old is post-peak already. Joe Nathan has also recovered most of his pre-surgery velocity, but not quite the swinging strikes. He finally had a three-strikeout outing for the first time this year on Monday. Both guys could go either way next year, just because that's what relievers do, and the Mariano Rivera and Billy Wagner types -- closers that are elite into their old age -- are few and far between.
- Sergio Santos did not have a good week. He blew a save against the Tigers by allowing two home runs while getting two outs… and then he was removed from his next opportunity two days later. At least he managed a regular save Tuesday night. Some of this is Ozzie being Ozzie -- Guillen has long been using Chris Sale against lefty-heavy lineups, and Sale has been stealing saves for some time now -- but some of this is worrisome because Sale is so good in his own right. The fact that the team is thinking about making Chris Sale a starter next year means that they'll continue to give Santos some leash, though.
- Looks like Kyle Farnsworth's elbow is fine, and with his elite control (he has walked nine batters all year), he's good for this tier. The team even has an option on him for next year, so he could close again next year. He's been striking out more batters recently, so he's not quite Brandon League, but it is sort of remarkable that League and Farnsworth surround Carlos Marmol. You couldn't have a more different pitcher in the midst. He's volatile but his strikeout rate makes up for a lot of pain. Sean Marshall got a save this Sunday and made Marmol owners nervous, but there was Marmol, getting his 32nd save on Monday night.
Tier 4: Question marks (7) (AKA: The "School is where you always try your best… except when your friends are watching" Tier.)
Neftali Feliz, Texas Rangers
Francisco Cordero, Cincinnati Reds
Javy Guerra, Los Angeles Dodgers
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Mark Melancon, Houston Astros
Kevin Gregg, Baltimore Orioles
- Wait, is school were we try our best? At least these closers are trying their best… I think. Sometimes it's hard to tell.
- Lately, the results have been better for Neftali Feliz (twelve straight scoreless outings) and that's why he zooms to the top of this craptacular tier. But all is still not right with him. He has still walked seven batters since the beginning of August. Even if he struck out 13 over the same time period, the control has just not been with Feliz all year. Still, would the Rangers make a switch as huge as making Mike Adams the closer right now? On their way to the playoffs? Doubtful.
- Last week we talked about Francisco Cordero's $12 million option and the likelihood that the Reds won't exercise it. As if on cue, Co-Co and his agent made a statement that he would like to stay with the team and is open to negotiating an extension. Ah-hah. Well, if he comes back cheaply, maybe, but Aroldis Chapman is looking like their future closer. As the team falls out of it, start listening for talk of 'getting the young guys in there.' That might mean an audition for the Cuban lefty.
- In his last ten outings, Chris Perez has seven strikeouts against three walks. That's way, way better than his seasonal ratios. He still needs to get better to keep the job all next year with those ratios, though.
- Kevin Gregg continues to be the worst safe closer in the league. he now has six more strikeouts than walks. Six. In his last two appearances, he walked five against no strikeouts… and somehow managed to only blow one of the two chances. Gregg has really lost his swinging strike rates, which were the only things going for him in the past, considering he's a fly-ball pitcher with poor control. If they're gone for good, he won't make it through next year as the closer. If they return, he might be a mediocre closer available on the cheap next year.
Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (5) (AKA: The "I'm failing geometry because I refuse to believe that pie are squared" Tier.)
1st Chair: Jason Motte, 2nd Chair: Fernando Salas, St. Louis Cardinals
1st Chair: Rafael Betancourt, 2nd Chair: Huston Street, Colorado Rockies
1st Chair: Leo Nunez, 2nd Chair: Edward Mujica, Florida Marlins
1st Chair: Bobby Parnell, 2nd Chair: Jason Isringhausen, New York Mets
1st Chair: Frank Francisco, 2nd Chair: Jon Rauch, Toronto Blue Jays
1st Chair: Sergio Romo, 2nd Chair: Santiago Casilla, San Francisco Giants
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- Math puns have to be the bottom of the comedy barrel. These guys represent the bottom of the closer barrel, so it's fitting.
- Tony LaRussa might have made the switch official Tuesday night. He used (former closer?) Fernando Salas in the seventh inning, for two outs. He went with Jason Motte for the save, and Motte promptly allowed three hits and a run. Still, that's two saves in his last two appearances. Who knows why LaRussa prefers Motte to Salas -- they both have excellent peripherals, even if Motte's ground-ball rate is better -- but it looks like he does. Go get Motte if he's still out there and you need saves.
- It looks like the Colorado switch is official as well. Now Rafael Betancourt's manager says he would be insane to take the Venezuelan out of the closer role. Huston Street will earn more saves in the future, but perhaps not this year.
- Leo Nunez doesn't have a save since August 16th, but he also has four straight scoreless appearances and there's only been one team save since that day. He's probably still the closer there, at least until the offseason and a possible trade. The Marlins are more concerned with next year and trade value then anything.
- Bobby Parnell is a gas can with a pack of matches burning next to it. He's got all the firepower in the world, but hasn't yet figured out how to harness his triple-digit fastball completely. His five walks against three strikeouts since becoming the closer are evidence enough of that. That said, he's only blown two saves, (including Tuesday night's two-run explosion) and the Mets are looking to the future. He'll be safe but unattractive the rest of the way.
- Jon Rauch came back from appendicitis and got blown up by the Yankees on Sunday. Frank Francisco has been better most of the year, and lights out recently -- he's allowed only one earned run since July 7th. He's got the job for now.
- Sergio Romo still doesn't have a save, but that's mostly because the Giants haven't produced a save opportunity since August 26th, when Santiago Casilla got the call. Well, then Ramon Ramirez did get the save Tuesday night, but he's probably still behind the other two.. and Brian Wilson is throwing again, so it might not matter for long.
Jonathan Broxton, Los Angeles Dodgers (elbow)
Brian Wilson, San Francisco Giants (elbow)
- Brian Wilson threw 15 pitches in a bullpen Monday, but if the Giants fall further out of it, it won't matter how many bats Wilson can break with his beard.
Fernando Rodney, Los Angeles
Ryan Franklin, St. Louis
Brandon Lyon, Houston
Matt Thornton, Chicago A.L.
Vicente Padilla, Los Angeles Dodgers
Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee
David Aardsma, Seattle
Jason Isringhausen, New York
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- No news is good news, for most. Fernando Salas might join his former teammate soon though.
The Steals Department
- We've talked about Tony Plush/DJ N-N-Nice before, but Nyjer Morgan deserves to be owned in more leagues than he is. Sure, he's a platoon bat and a crazy dude, but you can deal with both headaches pretty easily. Ignore his antics if you don't think they are funny, and put him on your bench when he faces lefties. See how easy that was? Morgan has four steals in the past two weeks, and only about 10 fewer at-bats than your typical player. Only four players in baseball have more than four steals over the past two weeks. He's useful.
- Leonys Martin was called up on September first and has since come to the plate twice. And he got a hit. Maybe it's a stretch to put the Cuban defector here, but with Nelson Cruz hurt, and Craig Gentry so mediocre, there might be a sliver of an opportunity for him. At 23 and coming from Triple-A, he's fully-formed enough to make the most of his chances. The problem is that Endy Chavez has been playing well enough and Martin is also a lefty, so platooning may not be an option. David Murphy is also a lefty, so you're really hoping for nicks and scratches to him and Chavez if you decide to pick up Martin. And from Martin you can most likely expect a lot of speed and contact and not much power, patience, or strikeouts. Sort of like what we wanted out of Julio Borbon.