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Joe Jimenez
AP
Saves and Steals

Short Season Insanity

by Brad Johnson
Updated On: July 29, 2020, 6:27 pm ET

We knew this would be a wild ride. Already, a mountain of unexpected information is upon us. Roberto Osuna spontaneously returned after all signs pointed to at least another week of ramping up. The Twins and Royals decided to destabilize seemingly reliable closer situations. The Rays, meanwhile, have done exactly as we expected, turning to Nick Anderson to handle narrow leads in the seventh with Oliver Drake nabbing a couple easy saves. The 2019 version of Edwin Diaz has seemingly returned. Even his successful Opening Day save was marred by a foul home run.

Who had Joe Jimenez as the leader after one week? He’s the only closer to lock down three saves. Brad Hand, Drake, Wade Davis, and Trevor Gott recorded a pair of saves. All according to plan, right? Of the 31 saves leaguewide, I count between eight and 12 that weren’t handled by the primary closer (depending on how you designate Drake and Gott).

Quite a few pitchers leaguewide are missing velocity. This is likely an artifact of the long work stoppage and rushed Summer Camp. We should expect most of these guys to regain their normal heat over the next few weeks. It’s common for pitchers to build velocity through April and May. It’s worth monitoring, although there’s no need to panic just yet. At least in most cases.

 

Closer Tiers

 

Tier 1: The Elite (2)

Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers
Kirby Yates, San Diego Padres

Yates botched a save on Sunday, allowing a pair of runs, hits, and walks in the process. The Padres turned to Drew Pomeranz to finish off the Giants on Tuesday. They claimed Yates needed an extra day of rest. For this week alone, I’ll take their word at face value. After all, unlike many relievers, his stuff and velocity looked fine.

 

Tier 2: Old Friends and New Studs (5)

Liam Hendriks, Oakland Athletics
Roberto Osuna, Houston Astros
Brad Hand, Cleveland Indians
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Taylor Rogers, Sergio Romo, Minnesota Twins

Hendriks blew a save on Opening Day, but Matt Olson bailed him out with a grand slam. Hendriks was unavailable on Monday when Joakim Soria earned a save. As with Yates, I’m not going to overreact to one bad outing. However, unlike Yates, Hendrik’s is missing a couple ticks on his fastball.

A hopefully minor elbow injury to Ryan Pressly might have accelerated the Astros preferred timeline for Osuna. His fastball is down three mph. Even so, he’s induced plenty of whiffs through his first two appearances. Expect the velocity to creep upwards as his conditioning improves.

The Twins opted for Romo to finish out their first save of the season. Rogers has yet to pitch. Romo is extremely tough on right-handed batters, but so too was Rogers last season. My best guess is he’s another of those pitchers who is still recovering velocity. The club might prefer to use him in a more platooned role until then.

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Tier 3: Core Performers (6)

Edwin Diaz, New York Mets
Brandon Workman, Boston Red Sox
Hector Neris, Philadelphia Phillies
Raisel Iglesias, Cincinnati Reds
Nick Anderson, Oliver Drake, Tampa Bay Rays
Hansel Robles, Los Angeles Angels

Diaz is still throwing 97.5 mph fireballs while inducing extreme whiff rates. The horrors of 2019 are fresh on all our minds, but we need to try to look at this as dispassionately as possible. Aside from 2018, Diaz has always shown symptoms of a home run problem. He also rates among the league leaders in strikeouts. Patience is liable to be rewarded, even if the result is something like a more painful Hader.

Iglesias was handed a loss after allowing a two-run home run. The good news is his velocity is up. The bad news is he remains very homer prone for a closer.

The Rays closer situation includes Jose Alvarado and others. Don’t read too much into the early pattern that has emerged with Drake. You should roster him in case he takes on an Emilio Pagan-sized portion of the saves. We should also be ready for Anderson to revert to later innings. Drake is a splitter specialist not unlike Neris.

Robles was largely responsible for the Angels loss on Opening Day. He didn’t cough up the grand slam to Olson, he merely loaded the bases and left the game. He bounced back the next day with a flawless save. Robles is missing three mph on his fastball. Teammate Keynan Middleton has rebounded to his 2018 form when he was on the cusp of becoming the team’s closer.

 

Tier 4: Red Flag Vets (8)

Archie Bradley, Arizona Diamondbacks
Zack Britton, New York Yankees
Alex Colome, Chicago White Sox
Kwang-Hyun Kim, St. Louis Cardinals
Mark Melancon, Atlanta Braves
Daniel Hudson, Sean Doolittle, Washington Nationals
Joe Jimenez, Detroit Tigers
Jose Leclerc, Texas Rangers
 

Bradley is among the many pitchers missing two mph on his fastball. Nevertheless, he’s pitched well in the early going. Britton isn’t missing any zip, although his pitch-to-contact skill set leaves him stranded in this tier.

Kim hasn’t appeared since Opening Day when he finished off a rocky save. The recent return of Giovanny Gallegos may eventually put pressure on Kim. Gallegos reportedly has to earn his way back to high leverage work. Ryan Helsley is also in the picture.

As feared, Hudson will handle the late-innings. Doolittle is missing nearly three mph. He might be destined for specialist work until he can regain some zip. Hudson looked sharp in his lone inning.

Jimenez gets a bump in the rankings purely because he’s an uncontested closer. He may lead the league in saves, but he’s also missing two mph on his fastball and has struggled to induce whiffs. I’m very much concerned about meltdowns.

Contrary to early indications, Leclerc is being reserved for ninth inning appearances. As I mentioned last week, Jonathan Hernandez is very much a big part of the team’s high leverage plans. Leclerc isn’t exactly a stable closer so it makes sense to stash Hernandez if you have room. If nothing changes, the job will be his long term – which could mean mid-2021.

 

Tier 5: Mess Hall (9)

Nick Burdi, Pittsburgh Pirates
Anthony Bass, Rafael Dolis, Toronto Blue Jays
Greg Holland, Trevor Rosenthal, Kansas City Royals
Craig Kimbrel, Chicago Cubs
Cole Sulser, Richard Bleier, Mychal Givens, Baltimore Orioles
Trevor Gott, Tony Watson, Tyler Rogers, San Francisco Giants
Wade Davis, Colorado Rockies
Matt Magill, Taylor Williams, Seattle Mariners
Brandon Kintzler, Miami Marlins (Entire Team Sidelined)

Burdi could be the most exciting new closer, but first we have to make sure he’s not in some kind of awkward committee. He clearly has the best stuff among Pirates relievers including a 98-mph heater and a correspondingly absurd whiff rate. In the past, he’s struggled with injuries and too much hard contact.

With Ken Giles sidelined, it seems Bass will get the first look at saves for the Blue Jays. Dolis is also in the mix although we were led to believe he’d throw harder than 94 mph. His ground ball profile alone should help him to keep runs off the board.

Ian Kennedy appears to have been moved to a multi-inning fireman role. Since the Royals will struggle to get five frames from most of their starters, Kennedy will probably be needed early in games more often than not. That leaves it up to our old friends Holland and Rosenthal to protect late leads. Holland has always relied on his slider, but he’s taking it to new extremes this year. He continues to struggle with walks. Rosenthal actually missed quite a few bats through his first two appearances. He’s probably a better option for the Royals than Holland, although Kennedy remains the most attractive alternative.

Kimbrel was throwing plenty hard in his lone appearance, but he walked four batters while recording only one out. Jeremy Jeffress was needed to save the day. Jeffress is my pick for Kimbrel’s backstop. Rowan Wick is also in the conversation.

Davis is another pitcher missing velocity. He’s also yet to pitch at Coors Field where he tends to implode more often than not.

An injury forced Hunter Harvey from the Orioles ugly committee situation. Sluser has the lone save for the club. The right-handed journeyman has a whopping 9.1 innings in the majors. He’s performed well in the upper minors and has decent offspeed stuff. Givens’ fastball is down three mph which is why I expect Sluser and Bleier to get more of the early opportunities.

The Giants always said they’d run a committee. By talent, Gott shouldn’t be anywhere near late innings. Watson and Rogers at least have some plausible utility. The Dodgers roughed up Rogers on Opening Night, but that lineup isn’t the best measuring stick of a pitcher.

Magill’s only appearance was in the fifth inning of a close game. Slider specialist Taylor Williams has the lone save for the club. This is liable to devolve into a last man standing situation. The Mariners, after all, have no cause to reserve their best relievers for the late innings.

We don’t know if Kintzler was among the many Marlins who have tested positive for COVID. The nature of this virus makes more positive tests likely in the coming days.

 

Injured or Ill

Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees
Keone Kela, Pittsburgh Pirates
Ken Giles, Toronto Blue Jays
Kyle Crick Pittsburgh Pirates

Chapman received his first negative COVID test on Saturday. Kela has still not revealed if he has COVID or an injury. Giles is dealing with a forearm injury which could end his season. He’ll miss a couple weeks at the very least. He had a similar issue last season and managed to avoid Tommy John surgery. Crick was terrible throughout Summer Camp and during his first two appearances. He was sidelined with a shoulder strain.

 

The Steals Department

 

The Padres might well be the most aggressive team in the league. They’re setting the pace with seven swipes. Tommy Pham leads the team and the league with four steals. Only one other person, Robbie Grossman, has attempted three steals. He was caught once. Grossman is tied with Teoscar Hernandez and Shed Long as the only players with two thefts. A full 36 others have one steal.

Certain teams appear poised to take advantage of the rushed Summer Camp and short schedule by running often. The Padres, Blue Jays, Mariners, and Marlins are clubs that have caught my eye as being especially aggressive. These clubs also happen to have some speed on the waiver wire.

Fernando Tatis and Pham are the Padres’ fastest talents. They’re obviously difficult to acquire via trade. Fantasy managers have seemingly forgotten that Wil Myers is a good hitter. He breaks down more than most on the field. The availability of the designated hitter slot is a godsend for him. Although he’s yet to steal a base, he’s good for at least 20 attempts over a regular season. Meanwhile, he’s mashing the ball. This is a four-to-five category bargain who is rostered in only 33-percent of Yahoo! leagues. Teammate Trent Grisham has a better lineup role with a similar multi-category profile. He’s rostered in just 24-percent of leagues. Keep an eye out for Edward Olivares. Thus far, he’s been stashed on the bench. If an injury opens up playing time, he could run wild.

Like the Padres, highly rostered Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio are the top base thieves on the Blue Jays. Later in the order, Hernandez is showing a newfound friskiness. The slugger was once a 30-steal threat when he was an Astros farmhand. Although he’s lost a step since then, he’s still speedy enough to nab a few bags. He’ll also punish baseballs in the process. Just watch out for your batting average and on base percentage.

With the exception of ninth hitter Mallex Smith, the entire Mariners lineup is widely available. Ironically, Smith is arguably their worst hitter and the only one we can’t roster for free. There are some real plodders mixed in among the more athletic types like Long and J.P. Crawford. Long is clearly eager to prove he belongs. He’s made too much ground ball contact in the early going, especially for somebody with his strikeout rate. Crawford, a 25-year-old post-hype prospect, is off to a hot start at the plate. His best trait is plate discipline. His speed has always greatly exceeded his willingness to run. If he continues to reach base at such a stunning pace, he’s liable to pick up a couple swipes – even if he’s just following behind Long on a double-steal.

I watched the Marlins send Francisco Cervelli on a run-and-hit in the season opener. They had no compunction with testing J.T. Realmuto – widely regarded as one of the best catchers at nabbing base thieves. If they’ll challenge Realmuto, they’ll test anyone. Unfortunately, COVID decimated the club. If and when they return, possibly next Monday, they’ll have a different look. Miguel Rojas is among those who tested positive. They might be forced to call upon Jazz Chisholm to serve as a temporary stopgap. He’s a 20/20 threat over a full season. Granted, he had a lot of swing-and-miss in his game at Double-A last season. It’s an open question if he’s ready. A more near-to-hand solution is utility man Jon Berti – the guy who stole four bases in one game against the Mets.

Brad Johnson

You can read more from Brad Johnson on Rotoworld, FanGraphs, and RotoFanatic. Find him on Patreon and Twitter @BaseballATeam.