As you all have heard by now, the biggest news of the week centers around Giants closer Brian Wilson being shut down for the season. He’s been diagnosed with a moderate sprain of the UCL in his right elbow, and is likely headed for Tommy John surgery.
It’s a tough blow to the Giants bullpen and to fantasy owners everywhere who were invested in Wilson. Giants manager Bruce Bochy had indicated that he would use the dreaded “closer by committee” in the interim to fill the void at the back of their bullpen, though yesterday he publicly said that Santiago Casilla would get the first crack at it.
Those of you tuning in this week expecting to hear the smooth, dulcet tones of Eno Sarris may be slightly disappointed to find out that he was unavailable this week. Hence Rotoworld summoned me, Dave Shovein, from the bench to step in his place.
In honor of my own pinch hitting appearance today, our tiers will be named after a few of the most memorable pinch hitters the game has ever seen.
Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA the Matt Stairs tier)
For me, when I hear the name Matt Stairs, I think professional hitter. In a pinch hitting role however, Stairs literally knocked it out of the park. He holds the all-time record for most career pinch hit home runs with a remarkable 23. That’s just what these elite closers do as well; they knock it out of the park every time.
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
At this point last week, Kimbrel was sitting on just one save in one total appearance on the season. He has since improved to a perfect 4-for-4 on the season with six strikeouts and four walks in his four innings of work, and has yet to allow an earned run. He remains the best of the bunch.
While there were some rumblings that the greatest closer in history may finally be on the decline after his Opening Day meltdown, Mariano Rivera has rebounded very nicely. In his next three outings he picked up two saves and allowed just two hits, while striking out four. He possesses unquestioned job security and is still a great bet to finish the season with nearly 40 saves.
Jonathan Papelbon has been perfect in his first three save chances for the Phillies, though he has been a little shaky in his two non-save opportunities. John Axford has been perfect in his two save chances, but absolutely dreadful in two non-save opportunities. He’s already walked five batters in 2 2/3 innings this season, though all eight outs he’s recorded have been via the strikeout. Perhaps he’s just not getting amped up coming into the game with his team already trailing, but it’s something that’s worth monitoring.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (5) (AKA the Lenny Harris tier)
Lenny Harris holds the distinctions of having the most career pinch hits of all time (212) and also the most pinch hit appearances (804). Coming into a game cold and having to face a top notch bullpen arm is no easy task, and Harris excelled in the role with a .264 career average. As dependable and consistent as he was in that role, so are these closers when handed the ball in the ninth inning.
Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Jordan Walden, Anaheim Angels
Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
Jason Motte is the new addition to the tier, and has started the season very strong. He’s perfect in his first two save chances and hasn’t walked a batter in his five innings of work. He seems to be locked in as the closer there and has the potential to strike out more than a batter per inning. Don’t be surprised if he ends up in the elite tier by season’s end.
Joel Hanrahan gave up a couple of runs in a non-save situation, but is perfect in his only save chance and also has picked up a win. He’s still a very nice option. J.J. Putz was perfect in his first four save chances, before allowing a Todd Helton two-run walk off homer his last time out. He’s still a very good option when healthy and should bounce back just fine. With the Angels struggling out of the gate, they have yet to provide a save chance for Jordan Walden. He’s been perfect in his two innings of relief thus far, most notably not walking a batter.
Mr. Perfect from a season ago, Jose Valverde has seen a bumpy start to the 2012 season. He’s still a steady option as he possesses tremendous job security, but the early results are concerning. Some argue (myself included), that he made it through last season based on smoke and mirrors and that a major regression was imminent. He sure looks very hittable right now, and Valverde owners would be wise to pick up Joaquin Benoit as insurance where he’s available.
Tier 3: OK Options (5) (AKA the Gates Brown tier)
Gates Brown’s entire career could be classified as mediocre, or OK. He was truly a role player and pinch hitter extraordinaire, only twice logging more than 300 at bats in a season, with a .257 career average. He is however, the American League’s leader in all time pinch hits with 107, hitting .258 in 414 appearances. Like Brown, the closers in this tier won’t lead you to a championship single-handedly, but they are necessary and quality pieces to have around.
Heath Bell, Miami Marlins
Brandon League, Seattle Mariners
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Sergio Santos, Toronto Blue Jays
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Heath Bell takes the tumble down to the OK tier after a very miserable beginning to his second Marlins tenure. Bell blew each of his first two save chances, allowing four runs on eight hits in just one combined inning of work. In his lone appearance between the blown saves, Bell walked three but managed to escape without any damage being done. The velocity on his fastball continues to be down which is a very troubling sign. On the plus side, he did convert his first save last night, so perhaps he’s back on the rise.
Brandon League continues to be solid, if not spectacular. He’s a perfect 4-for-4 in his save chances and hasn’t allowed a run over six appearances. The low strikeout totals keep him from being elite, but you could do much worse than League.
Sergio Santos finally locked up his first save of the year on his third attempt Wednesday, and then promptly took a paternity leave from the team. Francisco Cordero hasn’t pitched well either, so there is no immediate threat to steal the job away from Santos. Still, he’d be wise to string together a couple of good outings.
Rafael Betancourt has always possessed the stuff required to be a top notch closer, but some have questioned whether he had the makeup or guile to succeed in that role. Thus far through three chances, he has looked the part. Huston Street has been perfect in three innings this season and locked down the only two save chances he’s received. As long as he can manage to stay healthy, he’ll put up good numbers for San Diego.