Tier 4: Question marks (7) (AKA: The "La Tomatina" Tier.)
Heath Bell, Arizona Diamondbacks
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Andrew Bailey, Boston Red Sox
Bobby Parnell, New York Mets
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
Kevin Gregg, Chicago Cubs
I like tomatoes. I don't know much about throwing tomatoes. Or getting all gross and covered in tomato juice like they do in a town near Valencia in Spain on the last Wednesday of August every year. Sometimes dubbed The World's Biggest Food Fight, this looks like a huge mess to me.
Heath Bell isn't quite vintage Heath Bell, but he's close. He's actually showing the second best strikeout rate of his career right now. And the best walk rate. So why not? His velocity is still down, and his swinging strike rate is merely okay for a closer. Anyway, not being a huge mess is a big upgrade for the big fella, and he looks like he could have the job all year. While Ernesto Frieri still has all those walks, Andrew Bailey is made of glass, Huston Street looks broken, and Bobby Parnell is on a team that won't give him many save opportunities, Bell is starting to look like he belongs in another tier. Actually, with the Ryan Madson setback, he and Frieri might move next week too.
Joining the tier are two pitchers I don't believe in. But they look like they are unopposed in their bullpens. Maybe they've earned some leash. Kevin Gregg is not quite throwing tomatoes, but his whiff rate is below average, and so is his velocity. He's getting really lucky on balls in play, and has stranded way more than his share of runners. His control has never been good, and his first-pitch strike rate and zone percentage are way below average. But, even if he plays to a high-threes ERA going forward (as he should), he's suddenly without opposition in the bullpen. Kyuji Fujikawa needs Tommy John surgery, and he's really the only good pitcher in that pen other than Gregg.
The situation with Jose Valverde is a little different. Joaquin Benoit is a great pitcher. He just can't really do it on back-to-back days and the team has passed him by. Al Albuquerque can strike a man out, but also doesn't know where the ball is going, and is also in Triple-A. Drew Smyly is pitching better than Phil Coke, but they're both lefties. In any case, it looks like Valverde has earned the job. He is actually pitching a tiny bit better than last year. His swinging strike and first-pitch strike rates are almost league average, so maybe he can show improved strikeout and walk rates this year. And when I said his velocity was down, I might have been technically right -- it's down less than a half mile per hour -- but functionally wrong. I still think the Tigers have another closer out there, maybe a free agent like Brian Wilson, or a closer on a selling team like Steve Cishek or Huston Street.
Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (6) (AKA: The "Talkeetna Moose Droppings Festival" Tier.)
Vinnie Pestano (first chair), Joe Smith (second chair), Cody Allen (third chair), Cleveland Indians
Fernando Rodney (first chair), Jake McGee (second chair), Joel Peralta (third chair), Tampa Bay Rays
Brandon League (first chair), Kenley Jansen (second chair), Los Angeles Dodgers
Mike Dunn (first chair), A.J. Ramos (second chair), Steve Cishek (third chair), Miami Marlins
Francisco Rodriguez (first chair), John Axford (second chair), Milwaukee Brewers
Jose Veras (first chair), Hector Ambriz (second chair), Houston Astros
This looks like it's just a parade and a 5k and a chance for a few Alaskans to have some fun in the summer. But look at the schedule and see (other than the Mountain Mother Contest), the big draw is the "Moose Dropping Drop." From where? On to what? For what reason. So many questions.
Joe Smith got the first save once Chris Perez went down with shoulder issues, but I stuck to my "velocity and strikeouts plus usage" formula and picked Vinnie Pestano anyway, and it looks like that's the direction Cleveland is going. The big wild card is Pestano's health. His velocity is down for the year, and was down the last couple outings, too. He's had elbow problems and was on the DL. If he can't hack it, sidearmer Joe Smith might get the nod. Or maybe it'll be youngster Cody Allen, who has heat (95+) and has been touted as the Closer of the Future. Watch the usage when the Indians win a game. If it's Allen in the eighth most of the time, he's the next in line. And if the Perez thing turns into a bad thing, Allen could get some saves.
Fernando Rodney turned back into Fernando Rodney like we've been yelling he would for about seven months now. The problem is, the pen in Tampa hasn't produced an obvious replacement yet. Joel Peralta has good stuff, but he doesn't have the velocity of a closer, and he's failed every time the team has tried to install him as such. That could just be coincidence, but it probably also doesn't mean the team is itching to try it again. Kyle Farnsworth is still getting whiffs, but not strikeouts, and the velocity on his sinker is down. Jake McGee has the velocity, and the strikeout rate, but has had homeritis this year. He's still throwing 96, though, and has only walked two guys in his last eleven appearances. He's probably next in line despite being a lefty.
Well that didn't work. We left Kenley Jansen in the closer role because he was the better pitcher, and he went and out-pitched Brandon League as he usually does, and it was Brandon League who got all the saves. Jansen has his velocity up to about 93, but League has him beat there (94). Then again, Jansen about triples League's strikeout rate. Here's betting Jansen will close again.
It certainly looks like the Marlins are trying to get Mike Dunn the job in Miami, but he's not responding well. He did get the last save for the Marlins, but that was more than a week ago. The last time he was put into a game with a lead -- Tuesday night -- he was asked to go two innings, and that was one inning too much. Well, he actually gave up runs in both the eighth and the ninth. Three singles -- Luke Scott, Desmond Jennings and Yunel Escobar -- plated a run in the eighth, and then he gave up singles to Kelly Johnson and Evan Longoria in the ninth before being lifted for Chad Qualls with two on and two out in a tie game. Qualls' velocity is actually up and his rates look better than ever, but he's been a disaster of a closer in the past. Dunn is a lefty with gas, but his control is terrible, and his strikeout rate is now below average for a late-inning reliever. Steve Cishek has fallen out of favor, not even pitching in an extra-inning loss to the White Sox. I still like A.J. Ramos, who has gas (93), strikeouts (more than one per inning), and slightly better control than Dunn and Cishek, most likely. Problem is, his last outing was bad, and he hasn't gotten a hold in over a week. This is a bit of a mess.
I thought John Axford would get the gig once Jim Henderson went down with a bad hammy strain. Ax has the velocity and strikeouts and has been better recently. His walk rate is fine again, and he only gave up one homer during the entire month of May. He's even earned some holds, so the usage was in his favor. But though Francisco Rodriguez cedes four miles per hour and almost four strikeouts per nine to the ax man, it looks like he's the choice right now. Deep leaguers can still hold on to Axford, considering Rodriguez can barely crack 90 and couldn't get a job in the offseason, and is throwing junk at a higher percentage than ever -- his fastball percentage is the lowest of his career.
Sometimes I wonder if Jose Veras should be ranked higher. I mean, not on talent, of course. He's just a guy that can strike a guy out. Doesn't have good control, doesn't get ground balls. Just strikes guys out. The thing is, the rest of that pen is fairly atrocious. There are a few decent lefties (Wesley Wright and Travis Blackley), a young guy with gas that's now in the minors (Rhiner Cruz), a swing man (Paul Clemens), and then Veras' handcuff. But Hector Ambriz has a below average strikeout rate -- for a starter -- and though he gets a decent ground-ball rate, he's been serving up homers too often to claim to be a good reliever. So Veras, despite blowing another save Tuesday night, has decent leash. Because he's alone on that pile of moose droppings.
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Ryan Madson (elbow), Los Angeles Angels
Jason Motte (elbow), St. Louis Cardinals
Sergio Santos (elbow), Toronto Blue Jays
Joel Hanrahan (forearm), Boston Red Sox
J.J. Putz (elbow), Arizona Diamondbacks
Chris Perez (shoulder), Cleveland Indians
Jim Henderson (hamstring), Milwaukee Brewers
Kyuji Fujikawa (elbow), Chicago Cubs
Jason Motte and Joel Hanrahan are still out for the season. Now you can add Kyuji Fujikawa to that list, since he's going under the knife. Sergio Santos had surgery, but supposedly it won't keep him out all year and he might come back after the All-Star break. Ryan Madson had another setback in his elbow. Wow. No timetable for his return, even. J.J. Putz is playing catch, but I still think he'll need surgery. Chris Perez just has 'mild tendonitis' in his rotator cuff, which counts as good news for him. All shoulder issues are a big deal though. Jim Henderson looked like he hurt his hamstring badly, but at least it's not an arm or shoulder thing.
Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Mitchell Boggs, St. Louis Cardinals
Should we put Steve Cishek on here? Let's wait another week.
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The Steals Department
Though he once managed 23 steals across three levels one year, and Bill James projections tagged him for a 30/30 season in his rookie year, Domonic Brown isn't the base-stealing threat he used to be. In 2010, he stole 19 bases across three levels. In 2011, that dropped to 15. Last year, he only stole five bases across three levels, and was caught six times. But things have changed a bit since then in a positive way too. Brown worked hard on a new swing, and the changes are evident. His power swing is back, at least. The patience could still be on the way, since he's shown league average or better walk rates at most levels. And at least this year he hasn't been caught stealing. Two steals doesn't make someone looking for steals run to the waiver wire, but with steals down across baseball, Brown's full year total -- likely to be in the low double-digits -- will help by not hurting.
Once upon a time, a player with very few baseball skills became a fantasy monster. He couldn't take a walk or play defense well. He struck out too much for a guy with no power. But he could steal a base, and he used that skill to take advantage of some good batted ball luck, hit .296 and steal 40 and be fantasy relevant for another year-plus. His name was Emilio Bonifacio. Jimmy Paredes has all of those flaws, in hyperdrive. Right now he's striking out a third of the time, and walking at about half the league rate. He might have a little more power than Bonifacio, but he also has that lack of defense thing going on. Well, the Astros need a right fielder, and Paredes was actually showing the best strikeout rate of his career in Triple-A. Maybe the next 60 plate appearances will bring more contact, which could mean more times on base and more chances to steal bases. Parades stole 39 bases across two levels last year, so there is that. Others have parlayed that same skill into fantasy usefulness before.