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An Old Papa Returns


Comfort is a powerful thing.

Making the relievers comfortable is the best argument for even having a closer. If it weren't for the value of having predictable roles, teams would be best off using their best reliever against the best hitters late in closer games, and mixing and matching the rest of their guys depending on the matchups. It's just how things work -- there are more important innings than the ninth in some games, and there are easy three-run one-inning bottom-of-the-lineup saves, too.

But because the players like comfort, and the managers like predictable bullpen arrangements too, we have this constant search for The Closer that'll save the pen.

We know about this search for comfort in our own lives. And those things that give us comfort are your tiers this week.

Tier 1: Elite (3) (AKA: The "Puffy Slippers" Tier.)

Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers

I don't know about you, but I have cold feet. All the time. Nothing better than slipping my feet into my big puffy slippers. Does that make me less of a man?

These guys don't question their manhood. They also make their owners comfortable. Craig Kimbrel is so good that a one-game blip in velocity -- he was down around 94 instead of 96 in his last save -- made the news. The team wasn't worried. He had pitched 16 hours before, and he's had some lower velocity outings in his career. In 2011, he was down around 94 three or four times. Last year, he never dipped below 95, but if the pitcher isn't worried, let's not make a mountain of a molehill.

Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The "Old Furniture" Tier.)

Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies

Food items came to mind here, but not everyone loves the smell of popcorn like I do. Furniture, we all have. Sofa, lazy boy, bean bag, doesn't matter. Everyone's got something they like to settle in to at the end of the day. You can settle down alright with these closers. A few might have some creaky springs.

It would be comfortable to slide Mariano Rivera into his old customary seat in the elite crew, but the peripherals don't have him there. He's still showing his career-worst swinging strike rate, the second-worst strikeout rate of his career, and his career-worst ground-ball rate. His cutter is slower than it's ever been, too. Obviously he has elite job safety, but if he won't even strike out eight batters per nine, he doesn't belong next to three guys that are striking out double digit batters per nine.

J.J. Putz moves down in the tier because he's blown two of his last three save opportunities, and three on this young year. Two things leap out on his record -- he's walking too many and he's allowing too many home runs. For the last three years, Putz has had excellent control, and for the past seven years, he's kept the ball in the park well. The last time he had bad control for a season, it was a harbinger for injury, but we can't know that now. He needs to get strike one at his excellent career rate, and get batters reaching again -- which shouldn't be too hard, he's still got an excellent strikeout rate, despite his velocity being down about a mile and a half per hour.

He joins another good closer with strange rates at the bottom of the tier. Rafael Betancourt is not getting the whiffs he's accustomed to. And his control is gone too -- but that's a part of his game that has never once been worse than league average. He'll get it going. It's easy to say that if he had three more strikeouts, he'd be the same he always was, but his velocity is down below 90 for the first time in his career. He's 38, and relievers don't do well with velocity loss. The team is doing well, though, and Betancourt has a pristine ERA and WHIP, and Wilton Lopez, ostensibly the man behind him, does not have those things.

Seen in the light of Putz and Betancourt, Jonathan Papelbon belongs at the bottom of this tier. The fact that he's also down a mile and a half on his fastball, and is also looking for lost whiffs, that just fits right in. But Papelbon is 33, so he might be the most likely of the three to recover what he's missing. One (or more) of these three might not be in this tier again next week if they don't start to push the needle the right way.

Tier 3: OK options (8) (AKA: The "Ratty Clothing" Tier.)

Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Bobby Parnell, New York Mets

Other contenders for this tier were movies -- Caddyshack, or, if you're like my nephew, Cars -- but we can't agree on movies. One suggestion was video game music, but then we're going to run into age issues… Or can we all agree the Super Mario tune is comforting? If not, let's go t-shirt. Or, in my case, that flannel that I'd had since sixth grade that I find comforting even though it mostly just hangs out in my closet.

One of these guys will end up stashed away out of sight this year, more than one even. Can we figure out which one? Fernando Rodney sticks out to me. He has six walks in seven appearances this year, and he didn't walk his sixth batter until July 24. We've been skeptical of Rodney's walk rate resurgence at his old age (36) here, and it looks like his old habits are creeping back in. The Rays are better than anyone at finding new closers, too.

It might seem premature to move Jason Grilli up a tier, so we won't, but there are a few key things that argue in his favor. Number one is that he's kept his velocity gains from last year, which was always dicey given his age (36). Even in the cold early season, his fastball is averaging almost 94 mph, a velocity he's shown mostly with the Pirates. Focusing on the fastball and slider has led to elite whiff and strikeout rates, and those things have arrived this year. The Pirates are giving him opportunities, too. He's on the precipice of moving up.

Jim Johnson's strikeout rate is still encouraging, but it's coming with the same amount of whiffs and grounders as usual -- the better bet is on regression. Grant Balfour's velocity is back up at a four-year high. Maybe the surgery was good to him. Glen Perkins is on fire, but will the Twins keep giving him opportunities? They don't have a great lineup, and run scoring was the metric best correlated with save opportunities. Say all of that for Bobby Parnell, too.

It's Addison Reed that deserves a paragraph all to himself, though. He's got his whiff rate up into elite territory, and his walk rate is dwindling down to his customary elite levels, too. He's focusing more on the slider, and though his velocity is down a bit, he's still throwing 93+ mph. With elite control, he might be a dark horse to jump a level.

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

Tier 4: Question marks (6) (AKA: The "Water At Night" Tier.)

Brandon League, Los Angeles Dodgers
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins

No, we're not talking Chinese water torture. We're talking rain, sprinklers, fountains -- the regular sound of water colliding with another surface is comforting to most human beings. It's just a question of volume. Like, Brandon League doesn't strike out enough people to join the top tiers, but maybe his ground balls will be just the kind of thing to comfort his manager and keep him in the role all year. If only Kenley Jansen wasn't so good.

We didn't like Huston Street's declining velocity and missing strikeout rate last week, and all he's done since then is walk two guys in two innings -- against one strikeout -- with an earned run. Not really changing much. He's got to turn it up.

Ernesto Frieri would move up if it weren't for two things. Ryan Madson is getting healthy and targeting next week for his return. And Frieri's walk rate -- never good -- is now approaching one per inning. Frieri will own the velocity and the strikeout rate, the two things best correlated with closer changes, but if Frieri keeps walking guys, it might get ugly for him.

The next three closers on the list seem to have kept their toes from the fire. Greg Holland is rewarding his patient owners with a strikeout rate near 20 per nine, which is insane. Of course, his walk rate is one per nine and his WHIP is nasty, but that should change. In his last three appearances, he has eight strikeouts and no walks, no hits in three innings. That's two Kimbrels! He's ready to move up if he keeps the walks clean for a bit. Casey Janssen is making me look foolish for wondering about his sub-90 mph velocity, but I'm just not ready to move him up a tier. Steve Cishek lost a game in the last week, but his rates have all returned to normal, and he's also saved two games in the past week. None of his blown saves have been real blow ups, and he hasn't given up a home run on the year.

Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (5) (AKA: The "Box Scores" Tier.)

Jim Henderson (first chair), John Axford (second chair), Milwaukee Brewers
Edward Mujica (first chair), Trevor Rosenthal (second chair), St. Louis Cardinals
Jose Veras (first chair), Rhiner Cruz (second chair), Hector Ambriz (third chair), Houston Astros
Andrew Bailey (first chair), Junichi Tazawa (second chair), Koji Uehara (third chair), Boston Red Sox
Jose Valverde (first chair), Joaquin Benoit (second chair), Bruce Rondon (third chair), Detroit Tigers
Kevin Gregg (first chair), Carlos Marmol (second chair), Chicago Cubs

Well, here's where you put in the weirdest thing that works for you. I like box scores late at night. My bro in law said cows, and now I'm worried about him. Whatever is your pleasure.

The top two closers in this list just need time. Jim Henderson is doing a great job avoiding the walk, and there's no real reason to take him out of the role. But the Brewers are still using John Axford in late innings, and he's also avoided walking a batter since April 9th. There's still danger there. Edward Mujica looks good in the role in St. Louis for now, but Trevor Rosenthal owns both the gas and the strikeout rate to take that job from him. So there's risk there, too.

Time is not as much on the side of Jose Veras and Andrew Bailey. Bailey could lose his job to Joel Hanrahan, or to injury -- give him enough time and he usually finds a way to grab a body part. Veras is the closer in Houston, but time might uncover a real sleeper behind him. Right now there isn't a healthy pitcher on the roster that is striking out a batter per inning other than Veras, though.

The big news, we save for last. Kevin Gregg might be the interim closer for the Cubs! No, just kidding, nobody cares. Once Kyuji Fujikawa is healthy, he's the closer.

It's Detroit we're all thinking about. Jose Valverde is back and his manager says he's the closer! There's plenty of reason for the exclamation mark. Valverde's strikeout rate -- and swinging strike rate -- fell to career lows last year, part of a five-year decline. As did his velocity. His walk rate has never really been an asset, and his ground-ball rate was above-average once in his career. He did okay in the minors, striking out four against two walks in three innings, but it wasn't even Double-A. It was High-A. There's little reason to believe he's fixed things. Instead, the interesting thing is that the Tigers also called up Bruce Rondon, who only walked two in his first eight appearances in Triple-A. He's got the gas and strikeout rate to take the role from anyone else in that pen. It feels like comfort to turn to your old friend to close out games -- until your old friend reminds you why you dropped him out of the role in the first place.

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Ryan Madson (elbow), Los Angeles Angels
Jason Motte (elbow), St. Louis Cardinals
Joel Hanrahan (hamstring), Boston Red Sox
Kyuji Fujikawa (forearm), Chicago Cubs
Sergio Santos (elbow), Blue Jays

Ryan Madson wanted to be back May first, but now he's a little sore after facing hitters for the first time. Wait a week for more details. Jason Motte is still sitting. Joel Hanrahan actually had a setback but then threw again Monday and felt fine. He'll be on rehab by Friday. Kyuji Fujikawa has not yet thrown a bullpen session! That's a bit worrisome. Sergio Santos actually has a strain in his elbow, which is not good. If he's down for another surgery, Janssen will move up in the rankings.

The Deposed

Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Mitchell Boggs, St. Louis Cardinals

Carlos Marmol actually got a shot at redemption, but then blew it. John Axford may yet get another chance. Mitchell Boggs' days as closer look done.

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The Steals Department

Steals are down around baseball, so don't get too much if your lineup is looking slow-footed these days. It should pick up some with the weather, and most likely, other people are having the same problem.

If you're willing to platoon, there are a bevy of outfielders that can help you in a daily league. You just have to put the effort in. And, of course, it's a bit of a problem that many of them face lefties for the most part. Rajai Davis is a great plug-and-play against southpaws. So is Craig Gentry. Drew Stubbs is playing every day right now, and he's walking and stealing bases, but once Michael Bourn is back, he'll be in mostly against lefties. Nate McLouth doesn't have the speed of the rest of these guys, but at least he's a lefty and will play mostly against righties. You could say the same of lefty Gregor Blanco. Combining two of these players might give you 20-30 steals on the cheap.

If you're looking for a lefty to pick up in the hopes that he'll play every day in the future, check out Jordany Valdespin in New York. 'Spin has a flashy style that rubs some people the wrong way, and he hasn't yet turned a focus on patience into a good walk rate, but he has the potential for power and speed, strikes out at an average rate, and might be able to keep his batting average above .270. With the league hitting .249 these days, that's looking better than ever. Also, the left-hander is getting almost all of the center-field at-bats against righties in New York, and at some point he may take the role for himself. Especially if he can walk at a league-average rate.

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