For a couple of years in Baltimore, Jim Johnson was one of those Houdini closers, doing it with smoke and mirrors. He'd routinely pitch to contact and outperform his component stats, collecting a silly 101 saves along the way. Sure, we'd see an occasional rough patch now and then, but the Orioles stuck with him and the handshakes flowed.
Ah, the salad days. Johnson's moved on to Oakland, but there isn't much handshaking going on. Get out the clipboard and the red pen, we have another closer on the brink.
Although Johnson technically didn't earn a blown save in Wednesday's ninth-inning giveaway at Minnesota, his messy work was all over the page. He allowed two walks and two hits over five batters (only a botched bunt provided an out), and the Twins tied the score one batter after Johnson exited. The 2014 Johnson ledger shows nine hits and seven runs over 3.1 awful innings, along with five unintentional walks. He's been unable to command his fastball and it's getting him into all sorts of trouble. And when he is in the strike zone, opponents are lacing the ball all over the park.
To be fair, one of Minnesota's hits against Johnson was a well-placed blooper down the left-field line, and the Athletics might have been robbed of an out in the ensuing sequence (a contested, bang-bang play at third base). But Johnson's ineffective work through the opening 11 days still presents a problem, especially when you consider the depth of the Oakland bullpen. The Athletics have quality alternatives if they want to make a change.
Luke Gregerson and Sean Doolittle are two primary options to consider if you're hedging against Johnson (or betting against him completely). Both players are over 85-percent available in Yahoo leagues as we go to press, and both have been sharp in the early going (10 collective appearances, two earned runs allowed), to go along with credible resumes.
Gregerson turns 31 next month, and he's a name you should know by now. He was a steady bridge reliever during his San Diego days (2.87 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 3.3 K/BB), where he was also a solid fill-in closer from time to time. Doolittle, 27, is a left-hander, but don't let that trip you up – he's been more effective against right-handed batters during his career and can handle any high-leverage role the club wants to pass his way. He's racked up 124 strikeouts against just 24 walks over his 121.1 major-league innings.
Ryan Cook is another name to think about; he had some nifty moments as Oakland's closer for part of 2012 (14 saves) and saw plenty of eighth-inning work last season. He's coming off a shoulder injury and didn't join the active roster until Monday. Given that Cook is coming off this physical issue, I wouldn't expect him to be rushed into the ninth inning – but that's obviously Oakland's call, not mine. And with all these reasonable options, a mix-and-match committee is another card manager Bob Melvin might play.
I concede all of this bullpen searching is premature in the shallow leagues, where you usually can wait for a situation to develop before you make a move. Perhaps Melvin will give Johnson a temporary break from closing, or none at all. And we certainly have to consider Johnson's contract (one year, $10 million) – that's ninth-inning money (by comparison, Gregerson will make 3.2 million this year).
Post-game quotes are often part of the bullpen-reading process, not that anyone said anything particularly illuminating after Wednesday's game (which Oakland eventually won in extra innings). Melvin talked about getting Johnson back in form, and didn't commit to any change. Johnson said he's fine with whatever role the team wants to use him for. These are standard comments, par for the course.
That all said, the Athletics have designs on the playoffs and the depth of their bullpen puts Johnson on tenuous ground. I think there's a strong chance he doesn't wind up leading this team in saves, and in more competitive fantasy leagues, you need to be proactive, not reactive, to the ebb and flow of the ninth.
Place your bets, gamers.
11:30 AM Update: And this is why we speculate on all this stuff. According to Oakland A's beat writer Susan Slusser, the club is going to move Johnson out of the closing gig, at least for now. They'll use a committee in the meantime, which could mean any of the three pitchers we mentioned, or right-hander Dan Otero. It was Otero who inherited Johnson's mess in the ninth Wednesday, though Gregerson and Doolittle had already worked in the game.
• The bad news in Detroit: Joe Nathan is pitching like dirt and dealing with a dead arm. The good news? There's no major threat to his job, and "dead arm" isn't as problematic as the ominous name suggests.
Nathan showed just about nothing in Wednesday's blown save at Chavez Ravine, allowing three runs (including an Adrian Gonzalez rocket to Marina Del Rey) over a 24-pitch nightmare. The Dodgers put together three hits and two walks in their rally; Nathan's velocity is down and he couldn't hit his spots, either. But here's a case where I'd try to buy low if it's available to you; Nathan knows a dead arm is generally a temporary thing, and the Tigers aren't in a hurry for an alternate solution. Stay the course here.
• Is this the year Garrett Richards finally does something with that golden heater in the 94-95 range? He's at the point in his career (he turns 26 in May) where a lot of pitchers figure it out, and he's been brilliant thus far in two turns. He allowed just one hit in a win at Seattle on Wednesday, covering seven innings (3 BB, 6 K). His first start at Houston was also a victory, albeit a little choppier (3 H, 1 R, 5 BB, 7 K). He draws Oakland and Washington in his next two assignments. The move is yours to make in 86 percent of Yahoo leagues.
Speed Round: Let's welcome Billy Hamilton to the 2014 season: he posted a zesty 4-2-3-0 line with two steals in Wednesday's victory over St. Louis. And if you can run on Yadier Molina, you can run on anyone . . . Do we have to invite Trevor Bauer back in our lives? He struck out eight over six innings Wednesday, albeit the Padres are a cushy opponent . . . The annually-underrated (in fantasy circles, anyway) Ervin Santana posted eight bagels in his 2014 debut . . . Although Josh Collmenter picked up a rogue save at San Francisco, he's expected to rejoin Arizona's starting rotation . . . Tim Lincecum apologists will blame things on the matchup (the Snakes own him), but I say we stop making excuses for someone who can't keep the ball in the park. Lincecum allowed seven runs, and two homers, in Wednesday's beatdown. Here's the bottom line since the beginning of 2012: 4.89 ERA, 1.39 WHIP. Dream on, dreamers . . . Journeyman Jesse Chavez has been terrific through two starts (2 ER, 2 BB, 13 K), though the Oakland bullpen coughed up both leads. He's RP-eligible in most formats, a sneaky deep-league play.