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Welcome to a New Era

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Stability is a great thing. Nothing is easier for fantasy owners than when a bullpen is predictable. The same goes for a fantasy column. In an industry where turnover is common, Eno Sarris provided great advice in this Saves and Steals column for many years. Now it's my turn to fill his shoes; let's hope I'm up to the task!

Let's talk credentials. Too many fantasy "experts" are really just people who have time to write about fantasy but no unique expertise. This is not to disparage their work - the best teachers often aren't the best doers. However, I believe the top advice comes from those who are continuously pioneering and testing new strategies. In the era of "don't pay for closers" advice, I've been the doing the exact opposite. I also routinely use a streaming strategy that relies upon middle relievers. The upshot for you is I know the best non-closing relievers in baseball. From experience alone, those are the guys who eventually get ninth inning duties. 

If talk doesn't capture your trust - and why should it, talk is talk - I was Eno's handpicked successor. So if you trusted in Eno's picks week after week, know that I'm one of them. 

Now, shall we get down to business? Eno liked to add a wrinkle to each week, a practice I intend to continue in my own way. For this first week, I plan to take a straightforward approach and set new baselines. My opinions do differ slightly from Mr. Sarris.  

Last week, Eno set tiers between Kenley Jansen - Aroldis Chapman and Sergio Romo - Trevor Rosenthal. He wrote about how he struggled with those decisions, and it's with good reason - very little separates those two pairs of players. Tiers can be misleading and distracting so maybe there is a better way to present this same information. If you have new ideas for the column or want defend the status quo, let's talk about it on Twitter. I'm @BaseballATeam.

Tier 1: Elite (4)

Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves

Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals

Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox

Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers

What is a top tier? It's the place where you put all of the players who are ridiculously good and ridiculously safe. Only an injury can bump any of these four from their ninth inning nests. 

Kimbrel probably deserves his own tier. He's struck out just under half of all batters faced. By comparison Holland, Uehara, and Jansen look soft with their strikeout rates between 36 and 40 percent. Excluding this season, there have been just 32 reliever seasons since 1990 with a strikeout rate over 36 percent. Seven pitchers are currently on pace to do it this season including these four.

Some may have concerns about Jansen. On a stuff level, his cutter is nastier than Mariano Rivera's ever was, and I'll happily stand by that assertion. I'm not sure he's truly mastered the use of it yet, as witnessed by his 9.5 percent walk rate this season. After last season's stingy 6.2 percent rate, I thought he would continue to improve. After all, this is a pitcher who is using just one pitch. It stands to reason he should master the ability to locate it relatively easily. 

Tier 2: Rock Steady (9) 

Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds

Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins

David Robertson, New York Yankees

Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins

Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee Brewers

Joakim Soria, Texas Rangers

Huston Street, San Diego Padres

Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals

Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants

What is a second tier? It's the place where pitchers with stable jobs and four category value belong. As such, I've expanded the section quite liberally.

Chapman is maybe a couple appearances from moving to the top tier. I really have no reason to keep him down here besides caution. Perkins is also a borderline top tier closer. His 3.09 ERA isn't terribly impressive, but a 10.33 K/BB ratio is a perfect match for Uehara. That leaves Robertson as the first pitcher who definitely belongs in this tier. He'll help you in four categories without quite the superfluous value of the pitchers ahead of him.

Last week, Cishek was heading the third tier of pitchers. There is some funk in his peripherals, which is probably why Eno was handling him with care. He's allowed no home runs this season and his strikeout rate has increased despite no change in his swinging strike rate. As such, we should expect slightly lesser performance going forward. His only competition is the trade deadline and he helps in four categories, so he's here.

Joakim blew his first save of the season recently, thanks in part to his own throwing error, but boy has he looked good this season. Most closers these days are fireballers, but Soria is a pure pitcher. 

Like Cishek, Street earns the promotion to tier two based on his locked down job and four category production. He's always an injury risk (all closers are), and I suspect it was his injury history holding him in the third tier. At a position where injuries are a fact of life, I'd like to avoid getting into the shaky business of prognosticating who is more likely than others to miss time.

Tier 3: Okay Options (6) 

Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates

Sean Doolittle, Oakland Athletics

Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals

Addison Reed, Arizona Diamondbacks

Fernando Rodney, Seattle Mariners

Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies

Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers

Keeping with our theme, what is a third tier? It's the place where good but slightly flawed pitchers are bucketed. Grilli's flaw is competition in the form of Mark Melancon. Grilli returned from the disabled list and quickly recorded a save only to find himself back in the eighth soon thereafter. The eighth inning appearance was in a game where the Pirates trailed. Supposedly it was a final test to see if Grilli was ready to resume regular work. Melancon got the save that day, but it may be his last for a while. We'll probably find Grilli near the top of tier two next week.

I grew up playing against Sean Doolittle (and more frequently, his brother Ryan Doolittle) in South Jersey, so I've always rooted for him. Back in the day, he was always one of the most approachable "studs" among the local talent. The problem with Doolittle the closer is not an actual problem - teams just don't like left-handed closers. The Athletics being who they are, I think they'll adjust. He's struck out 33 batters against just one walk. Sure, he has competition, but he's clearly the best pitcher in the 'pen. 

Walks. Walks are a pitcher's worst enemy (actually, it's home runs) and Rosenthal is allowing way too many free passes. It's a shame, he has the stuff to be one of the top relievers in baseball. He's lost his feel for the strike zone and it's only his stuff that's kept him relevant. He's a tier one pitcher if his command and control from last season return.

Reed's particular flaw is home runs, the actual worst enemy of pitchers. With just 23.2 innings under his belt, there's no reason for us to overreact to an elevated home run rate. He's striking out more batters while walking fewer batters than ever before, so he may actually be entering a new phase of his career. Still, caution is advised.

Rodney has the same flaw as Rosenthal, except there's little reason to expect the light bulb to click. Nathan gets a modest downgrade, but I very nearly banished him to the lower end of tier four. I'll be patient with his declining stuff.

Tier 4: Question Marks (4)

Jenrry Mejia,  New York Mets

Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays

Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels

LaTroy Hawkins, Colorado Rockies

A fourth tier is for decent players with multiple issues. Mejia seems locked in as the Mets closer unless they feel the need to use him in the rotation again. He's walked too many batters this year, so he'll need to get that under control. His competition is Jeurys Familia. He's pitched similarly but with fewer strikeouts. 

Despite a 0.00 ERA in nine innings, there's cause for concern with Janssen. His velocity and strikeout rates are way down, which makes him look like a middle reliever. He doesn't have much competition. It's a results oriented job, so he's safe for now. I would NOT want to own him. 

Frieri's been bit all over by the home run bug. He has a history of walk problems, but those aren't present this season. It's possible he's throwing too many cookies, but a quick scan of the data doesn't provide an obvious answer.

Prior to the season, I thought Hawkins would do fine as the Rockies closer because he can strike a few batters out without walking anybody. Well, he's not walking anybody, but neither is he recording K's. He's surviving for now, in part because Rex Brothers is struggling. Adam Ottovino is quickly climbing the depth chart. 

Tier 5: Rollercoaster Rides (8) (AKA: The “Jenga!” Tier)

Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles

Bryan Shaw (first chair), Cody Allen (second chair), Cleveland Indians

Grant Balfour, Tampa Bay Rays

Hector Rondon, Chicago Cubs

Ronald Belisario (first chair), Daniel Webb (second chair), Chicago White Sox 

Chad Qualls (first chair), Kyle Farnsworth(second chair), Houston Astros

With the injury to Tommy Hunter, Britton takes over as the primary closer - for now. Britton's success in the pen is built around an unprecedented 80 percent ground ball rate. Expect regression. When it comes, his low strikeout rate might burn him. 

If you go by the peripherals at FanGraphs.com, Allen is the better pitcher. However, Shaw seems to have a narrow lead in the Cleveland closer race. It's possible the club likes to have flexibility with when they use Allen, which is smart. Both pitchers are viable closers. If the committee ever ends, the winner will be quite useful for fantasy owners. For now, get whatever shares you can.

There's no word of an impending closer change in Tampa, yet Balfour has issued ball four more often than strike three. He's walked almost one batter per inning, which isn't viable for any major league reliever, let alone a closer.

Rondon has increased job security with Pedro Strop landing on the disabled list. The situations in Chicago and Houston are ugly. My first and only advice is to stay away.

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Injured

Tommy Hunter, Baltimore Orioles

Pedro Strop, Chicago Cubs

Matt Lindstrom (ankle), Chicago White Sox

Sergio Santos (forearm), Toronto Blue Jays

Jesse Crain (calf, biceps), Houston Astros

Bobby Parnell (elbow), New York Mets

Hunter has a groin strain so he won't be out for very long, nor is it a scary arm injury. This will give the club to evaluate alternatives or perhaps provide the impetus for a trade. Strop is also out with a groin strain. Lindstrom is out three months after having ankle surgery. Santos is working his way back and Crain preparing for a rehab assignment.

The Deposed

Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers

Jose Veras, Chicago Cubs

Josh Fields, Houston Astros

John Axford, Cleveland Indians

If he wants his job back, it looks like Axford will have to gather his ax-men and lead a rebellion from outside the city walls. 

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The Steals Department

Where do you find steals two months into the season? Steals can be easy to find on the waiver wire if you're a hawk. It's the wheels guys who usually step in to everyday roles when a primary player gets injured. Currently, the report I put together has a couple wrong-handed platoon outfielders and one B.J. Upton. I've advised everyone who will listen to stay away from Upton, but he still bats second relatively frequently, can swipe a base, and won't really hurt you in runs, home runs, or RBI. The scary part is his batting average. How badly do you need the steals?

Those platoon outfielders are Craig Gentry and Chris Denorfia. They're both really good players against left-handed pitchers. Gentry tends to bat ninth but occasionally starts as the leadoff. He lacks any kind of power, but he can swipe bases with reliability. Denorfia has a little bit of pop and is gathering more and more playing time as Will Venable and Cameron Maybin continue to struggle. He too swipes bases at a predictable rate.

For deep leaguers, I'll repeat Eno's recommendation of James Jones from last week. He bats leadoff for the Mariners and has a track record of 30 steal seasons in the minors.

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