Closers Going Splat

Eno Sarris

It's summer now -- unofficially -- so we turn to one of the main staples of the season for our dietary needs: festivals. No matter what food you like, there's sure to be a festival for it in the coming months.

But, even if there is a similar smorgasbord available to us on our waiver wires, closers have taught us that not all options are of equal quality. So we rank the food festivals this week, as we rank our closers.

Because it's the festivals for the rest of us.

Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "BaconFest" Tier.)

Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers

There's probably a BaconFest in your city. Now there's one coming to San Francisco. Which is good, because I happen to think everyone tastes better with bacon. Is that a tired meme? I don't care. Cause, bacon.

I mean you could say Mariano Rivera is an old meme. But, like bacon, he's still delicious. (?) He's even reversed a steady decline in his swinging strike rates the past two years, so he's getting delicious-er even. If only he added strikeout punch, he'd be number one. But he's got more leash than anyone in the business, even if he won't go through the season without a blown save. Yes, that was the first time he ever blew a save without recording an out, he's old, what can he do other than be 85% Mo, and still better than most? Joe Nathan falls behind him because he's not showing an elite strikeout rate, and he doesn't quite have the leash of the great one. Bacon was born of the attempt to preserve: the salt keeps the meat viable longer. So, obviously Joe Nathan and Mariano Rivera are made of bacon.

Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Maine Lobster Fest" Tier.)

Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals

Lobster doesn't quite rise to the versatility of bacon -- I wouldn't put it in a dessert, I don't think -- but it is delicious in many different dishes (risotto! buns! by itself!). In Maine, they'll serve their eaters more than 20,000 pounds of lobster, which is great, and then try to sell them lobster-themed art, which is not great. The highlight is always that thing where they try to run across lobster traps submerged in water. Good times.

Give him one more week -- to see if Joe Nathan really isn't going to strike out more than a batter per inning -- and Sergio Romo will join the elite squad. His control is better than anyone in the elite tier not named Mariano, and his slider is equal to most of the non-Mo-cutter pitches, too. He's found a way to consistently get lefties out (sinkers and change ups), and though he doesn't crack 90 on the gun some games, he's dominant.

Addison Reed got a lot of love last week, and rightfully so. His swinging strike rate is elite, his strikeout rate is double-digit, and he's cruising. Maybe I wanted too much for him. I've always liked Reed, but was wondering why his walk rate wasn't as awesome as it was in the minors. Then Reed went out and didn't walk a guy in nine outings, and his walk rate is plummeting. There's no reason to be suspicious of him.

Grant Balfour moves up because he's earned himself some leash, and his velocity and swinging strike rate are up. He's showing a five-year high in strikeout rate, and it looks supported by the peripherals. It's fair to worry a bit about his walk rate, especially for a man with his name and background, but the old man can survive with an average walk rate, especially with a little home-park boost.

Tom Wilhelmsen, Rafael Soriano and Jonathan Papelbon are all suffering from one phenomenon right now: lost velocity and strikeout rate. Of course, each is to a different extent. Wilhelmsen may not have lost velocity at all, really, and his strikeout rate seems to be on the rise. Since his swinging strike rate was fine, too, it's not surprising to see that he has six strikeouts in his last five innings. Papelbon is still down a mile and a half, and his reduced strikeout rate is worrisome. He has a couple three-strikeout games in his past month, though, and his velocity is trending upwards. Mostly, it looks like his slider has slowly morphed into a curve ball. Rafael Soriano has the worst swinging strike rate, strikeout rate, and velocity of his career (save his rookie season). He's also had a couple blowups recently. It's probably not worth rostering Carter Capps, Mike Adams or Drew Storen yet, though.

Tier 3: OK options (6) (AKA: The "International Cherry Pit Spitting Contest" Tier.)

Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins

I like cherries. And, to the consternation of the women in my life, I like spitting. I think I'd like this cherry-spitting contest, then. The winners usually huck those seeds over sixty feet, which is just crying for video. Oh, yeah, there it is.

Jim Johnson fell down a tier… like a pit into the trash can (badumching). Bad segues aside, this was always a peril with a low strikeout rate: too many balls in play. Johnson, after two years of good batted ball luck, hit a stretch that pushed his batting average on balls in play per .300, allowed a homer or two more than he was 'supposed to,' and now his ERA is bloated. If his ground-ball rate wasn't down a bit, his peripherals would look the same, though. And the rest of that pen behind him is not exciting. Pedro Strop has the gas, but doesn't know where the ball is going and is injured. Darren O'Day has the ratios, but not the gas of a closer. Tommy Hunter has been throwing 96 since he moved to the pen, and could actually be an interesting pickup if you're looking for saves in a deep league, but my bet is that Jim Johnson holds on to the role through rocky times.

Rafael Betancourt, on the other hand, seems like he's in 'rockier' times. His groin is hurt, yes, but he says that's not a big deal. Something else could be going on, though: His velocity and swinging strikes are at a career low, and his control has left him. A plummeting zone percentage can be the precursor to injury, so there could be a problem here. Other than his groin. Rex Brothers is an interesting pickup in most leagues.

Greg Holland. Better than he was last year, and no longer with Kelvim Herrera breathing down his neck.

Read about the more volatile closer situations on the next page.

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.

The Deposed

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.