The real-life trading deadline (at least the first one) is next week, so let's try to anticipate a little.
(You can, of course get into trouble anticipating too much. For example, we've had Jim Henderson in the first spot in Milwaukee for weeks. I was anticipating the Francisco Rodriguez trade that finally happened. But for the ability to say that we knew this was coming, we may have lost out on three weeks of saves. So, I guess, anticipate but don't drop a useful player too early just because you're sure one of these trades is coming.)
We'll name the tiers after the biggest needs among the contenders. That should allow us to think about who might get traded to those teams, and if those trades will open up new closer roles or an opportunity for a base-stealer to shine.
Tier 1: Elite (5) (AKA: The "Tigers Reliever" Tier.)
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Even if relievers are the cherry on top of a contending team -- and not necessarily a cornerstone -- the Tigers are a championship sundae, and they're missing that last piece to bring it all together. Sure, Joaquin Benoit is a good pitcher who has kept his homer rate down this year, but you get the sense that his manager really backed into this decision and still isn't comfortable. The rest of the team is flawed (the walk rates! Bruce Rondon balked a run home the other day!), and even if Drew Smyly looks good, he's a lefty. A right-handed reliever that could either close or at least co-close with Benoit is a real-life need for the Tigers -- but the problem is that now that K-Rod is gone, the seller's market of closer types is not as enticing. Kevin Gregg? Jonathan Papelbon? Bobby Parnell?
The top tier loses a great one in Jason Grilli. The dreaded forearm strain can often just be a precursor to Tommy John surgery, so Grilli owners are right to be nervous. Pittsburgh beat writer Dejan Kovacevic reported that the pitcher didn't feel a pop, so maybe it'll only be a few weeks, but it didn't look good as he left the game.
Otherwise, the tier was mostly quiet. Joe Nathan must have heard that he was the number one closer of the first half, because he came out and promptly blew just his second save of the year on Tuesday. A walk to Vernon Wells, a triple to Eduardo Nunez, and a single to Brent Lillibridge -- he could have pitched that same inning 100 times and had similar results another two or three times.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Diamondbacks Reliever" Tier.)
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals
Kevin Towers is usually known for building your bullpens. Guess this year's bullpen just shows you how high variance any bullpen group can be. Then again, we might have known the Heath Bell Experience would turn out this way in our heart of hearts, and J.J. Putz has always struggled with injury. Brad Ziegler is doing well enough, and a healthy Putz would be a fine closer… so here's a bet that if this team does acquire a closer, it's a cheaper, lower-profile one to help on all fronts. Kevin Gregg might actually make sense. He's a bit gritty, right?
Kenley Jansen is slowing down! After a ridiculous 22 strikeouts against zero walks in 14 appearances in June, he's down to ten strikeouts against three walks in seven outings this month. Terrible! 69 strikeouts against nine walks overall… yeah. Terrible. To the other team's manager. I'd say it's just coincidence that a few more walks have come since he started pitching the ninth, but I'm fairly agnostic about mindset. If you have the stuff -- and clearly he does -- I doubt you can't find the mental fortitude to close. Pitching the eighth inning in front of those crowds is also very difficult, the ninth only seems like an incremental change.
Greg Holland could be ranked higher, yes. He and Glen Perkins have ridiculous rates just like Jansen. And where Jansen is proving himself, Holland and Perkins have done it for longer. But neither the Twins nor the Royals are great, and while bad teams give save opportunities too, I wouldn't bet on either cracking 40 saves. Also, Holland has not walked a guy in a month, but has had walk rate problems his whole career. Perkins' strikeout rate leapt into elite territory this year, but he's receded back to about a strikeout per inning since May. These aren't big deals! This isn't about Perkins' blown save! These are the razor-thin reasons that keep these two out of the elite tier.
Did you know that, among the top 30 in saves this year, only five pitchers have a worse strikeout rate than Edward Mujica? He doesn't keep the ball on the ground, has a history of home run problems, and is throwing his splitter as much as most people throw their fastballs. He makes me more nervous than anyone else in this tier.
Tier 3: Okay options (6) (AKA: The "Oakland Second Baseman" Tier.)
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Bobby Parnell, New York Mets
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
It might not be a problem that the team has to be fixed, but I'd disagree with those that say it's not a problem. The various people that have played second base for the Athletics are 21st with the bat and 23rd overall in the big leagues. The flip side is that Eric Sogard has been okay. Above replacement because of a roughly league average bat and glove, he doesn't walk much or have any power, but he doesn't strike out much and has enough speed to be relevant in deep leagues. So they could just keep right on chugging. But the Chase Utley rumors are too much fun, especially if it "only" costs someone like Jemile Weeks, who has fallen behind on the org's depth chart. And that would instantly make for a sleeper speedster in Philly.
Koji Uehara and Ernesto Frieri are two high-strikeout closers ready to join the next tier if anyone slips. Bobby Parnell doesn't strike guys out like they do (he admitted to me that he thinks of himself as a ground-ball guy), but he also slips a spot because there's a non-zero chance that he gets traded, even at his low price and even with the Mets retaining control over him for two more years. That's the only type of closer that gets a real return, and that's a team that could use a real return. On the other hand, the Mets say they have money to spend next year and obviously they have some nice young pitching. Maybe they hold on to their closer.
Rafael Soriano and Jonathan Papelbon: still skating by on guts, guile, and name value. Still both could be hurt (still showing declining velocities and down swinging strike stuff). Still haven't heard a whisper that they are hurt in the media, so they're still okay options for the time being.
We'll let Jim Johnson stay in the tier because Francisco Rodriguez hasn't thrown a pitch for the Orioles yet, but it's no lock that Johnson holds the role through his next speed bump. Johnson cedes strikeout rate to the newcomer, and that can be a big deal for managers in the ninth inning. Rodriguez has closed, too. But the incumbent still owns the better walk rate, velocity, and ground-ball rate. Saves prospectors should think about rostering Rodriguez if someone dropped him after the trade.
Read about the more volatile closer situations on the next page.