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Problems in the Bullpen


Seems like the closer carousel is starting at lightning-fast speed this year, no?

In my vigorous self-approval after my column last week, I thought -- this makes sense, you begin the season with three elite guys, three bullpens in trouble from day one, and it takes some time to settle into something, but it should be a bell curve from day one.

Add a few problem children to the bottom, it looks like. At least the top stayed in one place, for the most part. But the bottom of these rankings got crowded, fast.

And, speaking of problem children, my one-year old is starting to find a way to wreak havoc. This looks like it'll be a lot of fun, years and years of it even. So I'll dream up some tiers based on it.

Tier 1: Elite (3) (AKA: The "Please Don't Drop My Cellphone in the Toilet" Tier.)

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

Nothing like retrieving a toilet-water-covered cellphone next to a clapping baby. Probably about as much fun as facing Craig Kimbrel.

Joe Nathan needed a rather generous final strike call to survive a rocky save in against Tampa, but for the most part he's been fine. It'd be nice if his velocity wasn't down so much (91.2 mph from 94.0 last season), but if you give him the .5-1mph bounce that pitchers get from April to August, then maybe he'll be fine.

Aroldis Chapman's velocity is down too! All the way down to 96.4 mph. That's still elite velocity, and with nine strikeouts in five innings, it can't be hurting too bad. Plus, there was the inconsistent role in the spring. That might have affected things.

Breaking: Craig Kimbrel is still nasty. 

Tier 2: Rock Steady (8) (AKA: The "Wires Are Not for Chewing!" Tier.)

Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Joel Hanrahan, Boston Red Sox
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays

Chewing wires, facing Mariano Rivera… pick'em?

In general, it makes sense to leave players alone for at least a week. For example, batters have made contact with 100% of Fernando Rodney pitches they've swung at in the strike zone, and he's already walked one and blown a save. That's fine! We'll need a few more games to figure out if his new walk rate will survive into this season. One piece of potentially bad news is that he went back to a placement on the rubber that was more like his early career. But still he has the best framing catcher in baseball behind the plate, and all those strides he made last year. The bottom of this tier is where he still belongs. For now. If it looks like his old walk rate is coming back...

And yeah, Mariano Rivera is showing career lows in velocity, swinging strike rate, walk rate, and ground-ball rate. Dude's 43. We'll cut him some slack, especially since it looks like he can still be effective with that cutter. Rafael Soriano blew a save and is down a full tick on the gun! Eh, that's less than other slow starters, and he's still getting whiffs and saves otherwise. Tom Wilhelmsen has a tiny swinging strike rate. He's still throwing 95+ with a hammer curve. Rafael Betancourt is 38 and showing the worst velocity of his career. Still hasn't walked a guy.

Guess who hasn't lost a tick. Joel Hanrahan. He's 31 and there was talk about him fading since he lost more than a mile per hour last year on his fastball, but this year, he's back up over 97 mph. It's nice to see him walk fewer guys so far, but it'd be even nicer if he backed that up by getting first strikes more than the league average. That's the peripheral best associated with walk rate.

Sergio Romo is not up a tick. In fact, his fastball is barely cracking 88 these days. It does look like he's experimenting some with his pitching mix in the early days, but even if he doesn't add more pitches, he's still getting tons of strikes on his slider. And not walking anyone. Mostly, he moved up because the team showed confidence in him and provided him four close games in the first week-plus. He might earn a ton of saves this year. Maybe he is a Maddux-like reliever.

Tier 3: OK options (8) (AKA: The "Dude, Where Are the Keys to the Car" Tier.)

Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians

Jonathan Papelbon's velocity is still down. His splitter can still befuddle you, like reaching for your keys where you know you left them, but he's got less gas this year. And if you want to poo-poo this as a spring thing, take a look at this image from FanGraphs. He didn't have a game in the last two seasons where he showed velocity this low. He's still getting whiffs and showing great control, but this is not a fun picture.

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Let's not panic about Chris Perez for blowing a save. It was a Joey Bautista home run, and that can happen. We'll move him down within the tier -- he wasn't a great closer before last year -- but we'll keep him here. Addison Reed moves down with him, not because he blew a save, but because he's down over a mile per hour on the gun, and not getting whiffs like he needs to. Could still be cold weather, but he hasn't yet lived up to the promise of his minor league numbers, so there's some worry. And by the way, when it comes to gun readings, they become statistically significant after three games. At least, that's what Jeff Zimmerman found for starters.

Old men Glen Perkins and Jason Grilli deserve shout outs. Perkins is 30, and it took him a while to get where he is. He's a lefty, and a former starter, but there's plenty to like about him. His velocity has stayed 93-94 since he moved to the pen, and his swinging strikes lurched forward with it. He's always had excellent control, and even bad teams give more than 30 save opportunities. Grilli is 36 but got a velocity boost with the Pirates. Now he's following that up with even more gas this year. He looks ready to be the Big Value Closer that happens every year.

Tier 4: Question marks (6) (AKA: The "Do NOT Pick That Dirty Diaper Up and Swing It" Tier.)

Bobby Parnell, New York Mets
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Brandon League, Los Angeles Dodgers
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals

These guys still sling poop, as you might say, but there are question marks around them.

Even the steadier of the options in this tier have some question marks. Bobby Parnell's team hasn't given him a save chance yet. Casey Janssen has looked good in two outings so far, but he's been overperforming his stuff for a couple years now. Sergio Santos gave up a bad home run one game, but he's got the velocity of a closer. (And that velocity is back up over last year's dip.) Ernesto Frieri has two two-strikeout outings so far, but if Ryan Madson ever gets healthy, he could end up as the setup man due to his on-again, off-again control. Brandon League has the best setup man in baseball behind him in Kenley Jansen, and has a lower ceiling because of his strikeout rate.

But it's the bottom two guys on the list that are causing real dilemmas.

Greg Holland has more walks than strikeouts. Greg Holland has two walks per inning pitched. He always had a walk problem but right now it's ridiculous. His velocity is down, too, a bit over a mile per hour. Of course, that's a tough one to believe -- the radar gun in Kansas City is notoriously hot, and Holland finally pitched at home Tuesday. If you look at his velocity chart, his current work fits in, for the most part, even if on the lower end:

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More concerning for Holland's owners is the wildness. His manager gave him a vote of confidence, but then he went out and promptly walked two in a save. He's still getting whiffs, but he needs to settle down. The Dominican Republic setup man, Kelvin Herrera, is one of the better setup men in the league, and he has much better control. He also has even more gas than Holland. Herrera is a great speculative add right now.

In Miami, there's no such clear-cut speculative add. The problem with the incumbent closer is also not so clear-cut. Steve Cishek is getting whiffs, not walking a ton of people, and still getting his customary ground balls. The problem is that more than half of the balls in play are going for hits. It's a tiny sample, and just be happy that his velocity is up and he's getting the whiffs. He's probably fine, and who would you pick up anyway? Preseason S&S sleeper A.J. Ramos is probably the guy -- he pitched the eighth in their sole win -- but he's young and the team would like to keep him cheap if he's a long-term bullpen answer like he looks to be.

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

Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (5) (AKA: The "You Know What's Going to Happen if You Try To Step on That Car" Tier.)

Kyuji Fujikawa (first chair), Carlos Marmol  (second chair), Chicago Cubs
Jim Henderson (first chair), John Axford (second chair), Milwaukee Brewers
Joaquin Benoit (first chair), Phil Coke (second chair), Al Albuquerque (third chair), Detroit Tigers
Trevor Rosenthal (first chair), Mitchell Boggs (second chair), St. Louis Cardinals
Jose Veras (first chair), Rhiner Cruz (second chair), Hector Ambriz (third chair), Houston Astros

Eh, you'll step on the car and fall down, is what will happen. And some of these closers are in the middle of falling down.

Kyuji Fujikawa got his first two saves in Chicago, and it should stay that way. The team was trying to use Carlos Marmol as the closer to get some trade value out of him, but it doesn't look like anyone wants him for high-leverage innings. Fujikawa has a 92 mph fastball and a nice splitter, and unfamiliarity with him will probably buy him a couple times through the league. Right now, some batted ball luck is making his overall line looks worse than it is. Fuji is older (32), but like Kazuhiro Sasaki before him, he should be able to come over and be productive for a few seasons.

John Axford always had a control problem. Now he can't keep the ball in the park. He's thrown fewer than four innings, and he's given up four home runs. Even the one outing in which he didn't give up a home run, he gave up three earned runs on two walks and no strikeouts. He's a mess right now, and it looks like Jim Henderson is the closer there now. Henderson actually has the same story as Ax -- long-term minor league Canadian hurler with gas and no control making good in his late twenties and early thirties -- but he's throwing well now. Like Fujikawa, he should be owned in all leagues. And since Hendo is a new closer, he gets a green arrow, even if the Milwaukee bullpen might have dived down a tier. 

Hey look at that. Saves and Steals has been pimping Joaquin Benoit as the closer, and now it looks like Jim Leyland has made it clear that Benoit is "as close to a closer as [the] team has" as beat writer Lynn Henning put it. Of course, Benoit needs rest, and that's why he pitched in a non-save situation yesterday: he was already warmed up when the game was 5-2 in the eighth, so the bullet had been fired. But since he was warming for the ninth in a save situation, it was already obvious that he's the 'sort of' closer there. Al Albuquerque is wild, Phil Coke has terrible splits, Jose Valverde is not in good graces, and all his peripherals are going in the wrong direction, and Octavio Dotel can only get righties out. I'd expect Coke and Albuquerque will split the save chances when Benoit needs rest.

Now it looks like Jason Motte has a tear. Even if the team is saying they'll wait a month, a tear is a tear. I'd bet he's going to have Tommy John surgery in a month. That means we now have an open discussion for the closer role all season. Mitchell Boggs is probably the closer now, but we're going to try and get out in front of this one and anoint Trevor Rosenthal now. Here's why. One of the few things correlated with a closer change at all is strikeout rate and velocity ($ link). Boggs has had 94+ mph gas since switching to relieving full time, but he's never had even an average strikeout rate for a late-inning reliever, perhaps choosing to have a good ground ball rate instead. Rosenthal can hit triple digits on the gun and has always had plus-plus strikeout rates. He hasn't walked a ton of guys, but he has missed some of his spots in games. Still, 97+ covers a lot of wildness. Right now, Boggs is the closer. Tomorrow? Here's Bernie Miklasz with an in-depth look at the situation, though I might not put too much stock in Boggs' ninth inning ERA.

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Ryan Madson (elbow), Los Angeles Angels
Jason Motte (elbow), St. Louis Cardinals

Madson's coming back from Tommy John, so he should eventually return. At least he's throwing bullpens. Motte has been shut down until May, when the team will probably announce that he's having Tommy John surgery.

The Deposed

Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs

Yup. We already had him in here. Let's wait a week before putting John Axford in here.

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The Steals Department

Michael Saunders is a hot pickup right now, especially for a player that might not play every single day. The Mariner outfielder has always had power and speed: he averages about 15 home runs and 20 stolen bases per 600 plate appearances. Coincidentally, that's what most projection systems have in store for him this year. The only thing with him is that he's struggled to make enough contact to hit for a good average in the big leagues. He's struck out in over a quarter of his at-bats to date. But there's some good news in this department. He made adjustments last year that allowed him to dip below the 25% mark for the first time, and now this year he's only struck out three times in 34 plate appearances. He's seen 122 pitches, and only whiffed on 11 of them -- in the past he'd have two or three more whiffs by now. Contact rate stabilizes fairly quickly, but not this quickly. If he's still got a nice whiff rate in two weeks, Saunders might have a career year with the batting average. And we already knew he had power and speed.

Let's go all Mariners all the time with this week's Steals Department! Brendan Ryan is almost universally un-owned, and that's mostly because he's a defense-first shortstop with a .244 career average and no power. His season high in stolen bases is 14, too. But dude is 31 and playing for a contract -- perpetually, it seems -- and walking more than usual in the early going. Maybe he steals a few extra this year and ends up closer to 20 stolen bases. He hit .292 in a full (429-PA) season with the Cardinals once, and deep leaguers need that sort of middle infielder. As dirty as it feels to pick them up.

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