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Five days left. Five days. You have played your butt off for 178 days and now five are left.
Next week is for the recap. Next week is when we look inwards and decide if we ranked our players correctly, if our assumptions were correct, and what mistakes we made along the way. We can do that as we watch the playoffs, while our wins and losses are still fresh in our minds.
But this week, there are still too many fighting for the ring to look backwards. So, with the tiers named after my picks for the postseason -- just for fun -- let's take a look at the pitching situations. Because people who are desperate for saves are willing to do anything at this point, even pick up setup men and middle men if it means a save, we'll talk about the depth in each bullpen a little bit more than what the actual closers have done. Because, heck, in the last couple of weeks, Javier Lopez, Luke Gregerson and Bryan Shaw have each recorded a save. Of course, predicting those is nigh impossible, but we'll try anyway.
Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Cardinals and Tigers" Tier.)
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox
At its essence, this game is about scoring runs and saving runs. The Cardinals, in the second half, have scored more runs than any other National League team, and they have allowed the fifth-least runs to score. There isn't really another National League team that combines excellence on both sides of the ball like that. The Tigers have allowed the third-least and scored the third-most. Of course, the Athletics have scored more and allowed fewer, but the playoffs are a different game. They rely on depth during the season but in the playoffs, you're limited to 25 men. And fringe tools can be exposed by tougher competition. Let's just say the Tigers look like they were built for the postseason: traditional excellence atop the rotation and in the heart of the lineup.
With the Reds fighting for wild card positioning, it's doubtful they mess around with much or sit their closer for a game. The Braves just aren't winning games right now, and Craig Kimbrel has pitched only one back-to-back in September (and only eight appearances, total) -- he's not going to need much rest. The Royals are fighting for their lives. Kenley Jansen, however, is on a team that's set, and he's at a career-high in innings. Usage suggests that Brian Wilson is probably the guy that would get the ball if the team wants to give Jansen a blow. In Boston, Franklin Morales might get a save against a lefty-heavy lineup, actually. Koji Uehara is at a career-high in innings and it's possible, looking at his velocity charts, that he's getting a little tired. It's Junichi Tazawa if so.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The "Dodgers and Rays" Tier.)
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
If I'm going to be a fan of top-heavy teams, then I'm going to have to go with the Dodgers when it comes to the rest of the National League. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke are the best one-two punch atop a National League rotation, at least when it comes to stuff, and a heart of the order built on Yasiel Puig, Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez (maybe even Matt Kemp) looks like it can hang. The Dodgers don't have depth, but they do have star power. On the other side of the coin, the Rays appear to be a depth-style team, but if you compare them to the Athletics and Red Sox, they come out on top in one key area: top-end starting pitching. David Price, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb? They are the fearsome threesome that could end a serious drought in Tampa.
Joe Nathan's team is fighting to get in. Grant Balfour's team is fighting for the best record in baseball (although a lefty-heavy lineup might have Bob Melvin turn to Sean Doolittle for the save). Glen Perkins is nowhere near his career-high in innings (that's cheating, but even among his years as a reliever, he's still safe), and his velocity is actually trending up. Mariano Rivera is going to get the ball all the damn times he wants in his final run. The Giants have actually turned to Santiago Casilla and Javier Lopez before -- but that was earlier in the month, once after Romo had pitch in three straight games. Think the Giants can give him three straight save chances right now?
Jim Johnson looks safe, but with his history this year -- two iffy periods that had him almost out of the role -- and his generosity with allowing balls in play, it looks like the Orioles could see a save from Darren O'Day or Brian Matusz. All it would take would be a bad game. If he puts a couple guys on in a game the Orioles have to win, they won't allow him to blow it.
Tier 3: Okay Options (9) (AKA: The "Reds and Red Sox" Tier.)
Joaquin Benoit, Detroit Tigers
Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Danny Farquhar, Seattle Mariners
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Rex Brothers, Colorado Rockies
Ernesto Frieri, Anaheim Angels
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
It takes Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke to make Mat Latos and Homer Bailey take a seat. But Mat Latos hasn't been vintage Mat Latos since the end of June and Homer Bailey does not a staff make. Mike Leake has been good, and Johnny Cueto is healthy just in time, so this could work out for them. Certainly the lineup goes four-plus deep, and with the recent emergence of Billy Hamilton and Devin Mesoraco, the Reds could take off. Provided, of course, they make it out of the one-game playoff. The Red Sox don't have that problem, but let's just say I'm unsure about anointing a team with Jon Lester, John Lackey and Clay Buchholz a favorite in the postseason, great lineup and all.
With the Tigers clinched, and Joaquin Benoit prone to tired stints, there's absolutely a chance that someone else closes a game down the stretch. Most likely, it's Drew Smyly, maybe with a five-out save, or a three-outer against lefties. But there's an outside chance Bruce Rondon gets a shot, as the game won't mean too much and they'd probably like to see what he does with the game on the line. Jim Henderson is back next year with the Brewers, so they don't have too much reason to try other guys. Same with Rafael Soriano, though the peripherals have suggested at times that he could be hurt. Tyler Clippard may yet sneak one.
Addison Reed deserves some attention on his own. He's blown three saves since the calendar switched to September, and allowed runs five of eight appearances in the month. Tuesday night, it was a big Jason Giambi home run. Other nights, it's been poor control. One time out, he walked four and didn't strike a single batter out. His velocity is actually down and it's fair to wonder if his MLB career-high in innings is wearing on him. Of course, he threw more innings in 2011 combined, but we don't know the pitch counts. Pitches are more important than innings, and the fact is he looks a little tired. There's no obvious person to take over he takes a breather. Nate Jones is the guy with the stuff. Donnie Veal is the left-hander who's been going better over the last couple weeks. My guess is that it's Jones unless a lefty ends the inning.
Steve Cishek ironed everything out this year, and he's a rare combo of strikeouts and ground balls. That, plus his home park, makes him a relatively safe reliever, even when it comes to keeping him. A.J. Ramos still looks like the guy behind him if they want to give Cishek a rest as he moves past his previous MLB innings high. Rex Brothers looks good, and he's the guy next year, so all systems go in Colorado. Ernesto Frieri is under team control for three more years and has improved his walk rate this final month. If they didn't make the change last month, they probably won't in the last month. Unless they just want to see Dane De La Rosa take the ball in the ninth once.
Contracts might be relevant to the Blue Jays. They own a $4 million option on Casey Janssen. That's not a lot of money, and they'll probably pick it up, but Sergio Santos' contract makes things interesting. He's cheaper than Janssen in 2014, and then the team has a $6 million option on him in 2015. So there's no urgency right now, but by the end of 2014, they'll want to know if Santos is their closer going forward. Which means there's some give in the closer's role, maybe as soon as this year. Casey Janssen has been fine this year, but -- as predicted -- his strikeout rate took a step back. And with him at 90 mph and Santos at 95, it's Santos that has the traditional closer's velocity. Santos has been lights out since he finally returned, and he may yet get a save chance this year. And this situation will factor heavily into keeper discussions.
Read about the more volatile closer situations on the next page.