Tier 3: Okay Options (7) (AKA: The “Will Middlebrooks Tier.)
Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers
Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee Brewers
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Joakim Soria, Texas Rangers
Fernando Rodney, Seattle Mariners
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
When Will Middlebrooks debuted, he hit .288 with 15 homers in half a season and everyone started drooling. But he struck out too much and that came to bite him in his second and third attempts at the league. The good news right now is that he’s improved his contact rate and that’s in a decent sample. It’s believable that he might actually improve his strikeout rate this year as he gets more at-bats. The power is for real, so if it comes with a better strikeout rate, there’s still a chance for a .260 batting average with 25-homer pace. Not superstar stuff, but we’re in the okay tier right now.
Francisco Rodriguez and Steve Cishek both are showing good numbers despite career-worst velocities. Their surprising teams are also surging and giving their closers more work than expected. To me, this creates the perfect sell-high situation. Even if they keep their jobs, they’re not likely to keep these ratios and this saves pace.
Joe Nathan’s velocity is down, but he still sits over 91 and doesn’t have much competition in that pen. Fernando Rodney is still striking everyone out and walking the rest. At some point, 42% of his balls in play won’t be hits (30% is league average). So maybe Danny Farquhar isn’t that close to saves. But watch for blowups. All the peripherals say Jonathan Papelbon should be in trouble — his velocity is down on all pitches, his strikeout rate is terrible for a closer, he’s got no ground-ball rate — but he’s making it work. If he struck out more guys, I might even move him up.
Huston Street moves up because it’s hard to ignore the resurgence in swinging strikes, strikeouts and walks. But it’s also hard to ignore that he hasn’t topped 60 innings in five years, and that he’s still sitting below 90. He’ll probably be really good until he’s hurt again.
Tier 4: Question Marks (5) (AKA: The “Derek Norris” Tier.)
Tommy Hunter, Baltimore Orioles
LaTroy Hawkins, Colorado Rockies
Grant Balfour, Tampa Bay Rays
Mark Melancon, Pittsburgh Pirates
Matt Lindstrom, Chicago White Sox
Did you know that Derek Norris was the Nationals second-best prospect for a couple years, and ranked as high as #38 on Baseball America’s top 100? He’s had a lot of swing and miss in his game, but over the last two years, he’s actually cut his swinging strike below the league average, and his strikeout rate has gone with it. He’s getting lucky on balls in play right now, and he’s a right-handed member of a platoon, so he’s a deep leaguer… for now. He’s also getting chances against more righties and hitting the ball with authority. For what it’s worth, I’m also happy about Travis D’Arnaud’s plate appearance, don’t believe he’ll hit .200 all year, and think power is coming. And he’s actually a starter.
Tommy Hunter drops a tier. He doesn’t have a history of good strikeout rates for a closer, his swinging strike rate is below average, and he’s always had homer issues. A few poorly-timed homers might cost him his job. But who’s pushing him for that job? Zach Britton is next by how he’s being used, and though the team has used a grounder-heavy guy in the past, the fact that he’s a lefty on top of the grounders has to be of some concern. Sinkers and sliders have the worst platoon splits and more than 2/3 of baseball bats right-handed. Hunter is safe-ish for now.
Grant Balfour is walking more guys than he’s striking out and his velocity is down two mile per hour over last year. It’s still hard to put him down below a part-time guy. He is below a guy that is sporting a strikeout rate of about a guy every three innings. LaTroy Hawkins’ strikeout rate is so bad that of the 748 times a guy that saved more than ten games since 1990, only two closers (Dan Kolb in Milwaukee in 2004 and Joe Grahe in 1992 in Anaheim) showed a worse rate. Woof. If he can’t push it up closer to five over the next 50 or so batters faced, I see no way he stays in the role all year. The park he’s in inflates the hit rate on balls in play more than home runs, and he allows so many balls into play. (Matt Lindstrom is also a problem here.)
Tier 5: Rollercoaster Rides (8) (AKA: The “Danny Duffy” Tier.)
John Axford (first chair), Bryan Shaw (second chair), Cody Allen (third chair), Cleveland Indians
Kyle Farnsworth (first chair), Gonzalez Germen (second chair), New York Mets
Jim Johnson (first chair), Sean Doolittle (second chair), Oakland Athletics
Brett Cecil (first chair), Aaron Loup (second chair), Toronto Blue Jays
Ernesto Frieri (first chair), Joe Smith (second chair), Los Angeles Angels
Hector Rondon(first chair), Pedro Strop (second chair), Chicago Cubs
Chad Qualls (first chair), Anthony Bass (second chair), Houston Astros
Duffy was once the 68-th best prospect by Baseball America. He never really found the plate, and then this year looked great in the pen. But it’s still only about gas with him, and even now he’s got a bad walk rate. Pick him up in a deeper league, but don’t depend on Duffy. He could walk the lineup again. Anybody that can average 94 and start gets a writeup, but not full approval.
Maybe John Axford has lost this job already. Maybe not, though. He blew a save for Corey Kluber’s excellent game. And then, pitching for the third time in three days, he gave up a homer in the tenth inning to lose another game. He’s having his customary troubles with the strike zone and the home run. But his team would rather keep Cody Allen cheap, so they’re going to give Axford another chance or two, I’d guess. That motivation probably puts Bryan Shaw ahead of Allen despite the high probability that Allen is a better pitcher.
He leads a long list of situations in which we might not even know who the closer is right now. On May 4th, Terry Collins said that Kyle Farnsworth was still his closer. On May 5th, Farnsworth pitched the eighth inning because the other possible closer, Daisuke Matsuzaka, imploded with two walks and two hits without getting an out. Later in the ninth inning, the other possible closer, Gonzalez Germen, gave up a walk and a fluky hit off his heel and lost the game. Germen might be the best pitcher there, but this team might want to keep him cheap and Farnsworth looks cromulent enough to make it through one more year as a closer.
Jim Johnson might be the closer in Oakland, maybe. He was making a good case for it, at least, with eight straight scoreless outings before Tuesday night. And even Tuesday night, an error made the four runs he gave up unearned. But Johnson earned those runs by allowing two hits and two walks. The walks were most concerning, because he’s traditionally had great control. Maybe it was just a blip. We do know the guys behind him failed to take the reins.
No idea who’s the closer in Toronto. First up after Sergio Santos walked his way out of the role was Brett Cecil. Cecil has a great strikeout rate and was a college closer if that sort of thing matters to you. But he doesn’t sit higher than 91.5, and is currently sporting a bad walk rate of his own. Aaron Loup got the last save chance, but he’s a lefty with a bad strikeout rate, and has no more gas. The money is on Cecil as a short-term replacement until Janssen returns (soon?). Long-term, Santos’ stuff could still find him getting saves chances, provided he can find the plate soon.
I guess Ernesto Frieri is the closer in Anaheim, maybe. He got a save chance because Joe Smith was throwing up in the bullpen, but his manager had been dropping hints it would happen for a while. Then Frieri pitched in a tie game in the ninth inning, and then he gave up a first-pitch homer on a grooved pitch to Brian Roberts. Joe Smith’s strikeout rate over the last three years would put him 27th among the top 32 in saves this year, and his velocity would be the worst. Danny Farquhar pointed out to me that Smith has multiple arm slots, too, which is probably why his control is average — he blows up from time to time and has excellent control the rest of the time. Those are the days he loses his arm slot. I’m still betting on Frieri. Check what his manager said after this last outing: “Manager Mike Scioscia said he doesn’t view this as a setback to the rehabilitation of Frieri’s role. “He’s been throwing the ball so well,” Scioscia said. “Ernie made some great pitches. The one mistake he made, unfortunately we didn’t get back.””
We liked Hector Rondon last week, so we’ll continue to like him now. But nobody can say for sure who’s the closer in Houston. Chad Qualls and Anthony Bass are to share the meager save opportunities that come out of Houston, is what the manager says. Qualls is showing the better strikeout rate, but he’s never been about a strikeout rate like this, and he’s only faced a quarter of the guys that he needs to before we really believe this strikeout rate. Bass has the gas, badumching, but they haven’t turned into strikeouts yet. I’m guessing they will, slowly, because in the pen, his fastball is playing up and his slider is within a whiff of being average. Take your pick, really.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Casey Janssen (shoulder, back, abdomen), Toronto Blue Jays
Jason Grilli (oblique), Pittsburgh Pirates
Jesse Crain (calf, biceps), Houston Astros
Bobby Parnell (elbow), New York Mets
Casey Janssen is already on his rehab appearance with Double-A. He’ll be back within a week, it looks like, and might close right away, considering the mess that’s happened while he was gone. Jason Grilli hasn’t thrown off a mound and we might be talking late May for his return. Jesse Crain might actually come back around the same time, and given what’s going on in Houston, he could close when he returns, too.
Glad I didn’t put Ernesto Frieri on here. Fields earns it with no idea of where the ball is going.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The Steals Department
Somewhere between deep leagues and shallow leagues lives Marcus Semien. I wrote up the technical reasons here, but basically because of his decent swinging strike rate, I think Marcus Semien will strikeout less in the future. He has power, speed, and is useful at many positions. There is some worry about his ability to stick in the big leagues, but he survived Gordon Beckham’s return, and his team has said they want him to get a full year of work in the big leagues. The long-term plan seems to be to see if Beckham can revive some trade value, move him, and then install Semien at second. But with Matt Davidson striking out almost 40% of the time in the minor leagues, there’s no real reason to worry about Semien’s playing time. With the upside to hit .240 with power and speed, he’s not really a great bet for twelve-team leagues, but in anything deeper, he should be owned.
Deep leagues have probably noticed that Sam Fuld took the job in Minny. He could steal ten to fifteen bags if given the rest of the season. Byron Buxton just started swinging the bat and there’s no chance he’s up before July 1 anyway. J.B. Shuck is still playing regularly in Anaheim, and he has a similar skill set. Chris Getz — I know, Chris Getz — is playing in Toronto regularly, and Ryan Goins isn’t goins to keep him from playing time very long. Oh man that was terrible. Craig Gentry usually plays against lefties, but Coco Crisp gets hurt regularly and Josh Reddick has a heel thing, so he’s actually own able in deep leagues.