Closers in Waiting

Eno Sarris

There are now ten post-season teams, not eight. That means fewer sellers -- even the Phillies, six games under five hundred and more than eleven games back in the division, were supposedly buyers at one point recently -- and that means fewer deals. Perhaps it means that we should push the deadline back, as Dave Cameron has suggested, because clearly fans love trades. 

What it means for us here is that we're trying to publish in the middle of one of the more languid deadlines of memory. Hopefully the bullpens are all settled. By our count, there are really only two closer situations in flux -- the Cubs could trade their closer, and the Diamondbacks could trade for a closer -- but there are always the mystery teams.

And, since Saves & Steals has used all-time trade deadline deals as tiers before, we'll change it up this year. Let's use last year's trade deadline deals for the tiers. By focusing on one year, we'll remember what it was like under these same conditions, and maybe have an idea what the trades that have just happened actually mean for their teams. Baseball has large rosters -- 25 or 40 depending on how you count -- and that means one player pushes the needle less than in other sports.

Tier 1: Elite (5) (AKA: The "Philadelphia Phillies traded RF Hunter Pence to San Francisco Giants for RF Nate Schierholtz, C Tommy Joseph and RHP Seth Rosin." Tier.)

Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants

Well, flags fly forever, so we'll put this one first. And, as a position player that had 250 plate appearances coming with him, he had the biggest chance to make an impact for his team. But let's not forget that Pence played poorly for the Giants, batting under .220 in 300+ plate appearances including the postseason, striking out at a career rate, and showing a below-average walk rate to boot. Tommy Joseph was a legit prospect, but hasn't played well in the Phillies system. Let that bit of hindsight push this to the best trade of the 2012 deadline.

Joe Nathan was rumored to be on the block this week, but this author never believed it. Maybe there was actually a conversation once, and maybe he was actually linked to the Tigers as the rumor went, but the Tigers got their man in Jose Veras and are probably done adding to the bullpen. Especially after they spent their chips on Jose Iglesias. So Joe Nathan will remain one of the best closers in the business on one of the better teams in the league.

We'll leave Sergio Romo in this tier, but an old friend is haunting him currently. He pitched poorly in his last two games in Chicago, and in both cases, a particular type of player figured prominently. In the first, Julio Borbon singled, Dioner Navarro walked, and Anthony Rizzo hit a rocket that Brandon Belt couldn't handle. In the second game, Nate Schierholtz homered to end the game. All of these players hit from the left side. With Sergio Romo's help, I pointed out that he does have a plan against lefties, so hopefully this is just a blip. Hopefully. We do know that the slider is his best pitch, though, and that it isn't a great pitch against opposite-handed hitters. This could be an issue.

Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Chicago Cubs traded LHP Paul Maholm and LF Reed Johnson to Atlanta Braves for RHP Arodys Vizcaino and RHP Jaye Chapman." Tier.)

Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox

The Braves gave up an interesting arm in Arodys Vizcaino, and they didn't go all the way like the Giants or anything, but they did get an asset in Paul Maholm that didn't expire at the end of the season. For that reason alone, the trade rates well. Paul Maholm is no ace, but he's a useful arm in a game that chews up arms. Speaking of which, Arodys Vizcaino had Tommy John and has not thrown a pitch for the Cubs yet.

Brian Wilson signed in Los Angeles! That's more newsworthy for un-newsworthy reasons, if that makes sense: he heads down the five to pitch for his old team's archival, and he brings all the zaniness to a new market. But when it comes to baseball news, he's headed to the disabled list, and maybe not be back until the end of the month. Kenley Jansen and his ridiculous numbers are safe for now, and actually biting on Romo's heels.

Greg Holland finally walked a guy. That sounds strange, but he hadn't done so in 13 straight appearances. My research has suggested that the most important walk rate peripherals are first-strike rate, reach rate, and swinging strike rate. Those last two might not make sense right away, but think about it: if a batter reaches at a pitch outside the zone and misses, he helps turn a ball into a strike. Holland has the third-best swinging strike rate in baseball's bullpens and gets batters to reach at an above-average rate. So maybe it's not such a big deal that he has a below-average first-strike rate. At 56.7%, he's inching closer to league average (60.3%) anyway. 

Glen Perkins walked a man, that's not such a big deal, even if he has great control. Weirder was that he walked three guys in one appearance. He hasn't done that since May 29th of last year, and only twice now in his career as a reliever. Paired with a Kendrys Morales homer in his next time out, it's tempting to say something is happening to Perkins, but it's also probably just two iffy games in a row.

Every day without a home run is a notch in Koji Uehara's belt, and it's been 14 appearances, so holy belt. Addison Reed doesn't necessarily drop because of something he's done, but if there are three main components to closing -- strikeouts, walks and save opportunities -- it makes sense to say that Uehara has Addison Reed beat in all three of those facets. With the White Sox trading pieces, it's only going to get harder for Reed to add more saves going forward, and he cedes three strikeouts per nine innings to the Boston closer.

Tier 3: Okay options (6) (AKA: The "Miami Marlins traded RHP Edward Mujica to St. Louis Cardinals for 3B Zack Cox." Tier.)

Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Bobby Parnell, New York Mets
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins

We end one tier with an Edward Mujica and we name the next tier after him. Using our hindsight glasses, this probably deserves a better tier. But at the time, it's worth noticing that the Cardinals traded a legitimate (if flawed) positional prospect for a reliever. That's a bit risky, and not the usual way of doing business. Cox hasn't really shown the power he was supposed to, and he strikes out a bit much, but he could easily end up as the Marlins' starting second baseman fairly soon, and they'll make this trade over and over again if that happens. The additional asterisk is that Mujica was under team control for an additional year, and it's that additional year that was so important to the Cards and swings the trade back in their favor.

Addison Reed is fine! I like him! I promise! It's just that he doesn't have the double-digit strikeout rates of a Holland or Perkins, and he doesn't have the team situation of a Mujica or Uehara. So he falls by staying the same.

Bobby Parnell is an interesting cat. It's tempting to poo-poo his relatively low strikeout rate, but as he told me, he does that on purpose. And he does have a nice ground-ball rate, and he did just give up his first homer of the year. So maybe it's good that he's more than Captain Fastball these days. The knuckle curve looks good, the split finger is his surprise pitch, and he still has the gas to get the K if he lets someone get on base. The Mets might be better next year -- look at their young pitching -- and he could actually rank higher than this on a dynasty ranking.

Jim Johnson moves up by staying the same. Basically, he's in a group of pitchers behind Addison Reed, and since they all have sub-optimal strikeout rates, he fits right in. Except that he's been doing this his whole life, which actually becomes a notch in his favor. If Rafael Soriano and Jonathan Papelbon are suddenly seeing huge drops in their strikeout rates, it's worrisome. It could be a health thing. There were some rumors that those two closers would move today, but it doesn't look like they picked up steam. It's doubtful that Tyler Clippard or Antonio Bastardo will get saves because of a trade… but that doesn't mean drop them. The guys in front of them are not the pictures of health.

(As a side note, the general manager for the Nationals said on the radio today that the team mismanaged the Soriano signing… if getting a proven closer that managed 40+ saves in New York City was mismanaging. I'd say that those things are fairly irrelevant, since it's my feeling that pitching the eighth inning for the Marlins when they visit Los Angeles is still pretty queasy (aka pitching in the majors is stressful), and that most relievers with the right rates could close, given enough of a leash.)

Since June first, Steve Cishek has more than a strikeout per inning and an above-average walk rate. That's stabilized his rates for the season and assured him of the job going forward. There's a non-zero risk that he gets traded today -- every Marlin has that risk, pretty much at any time -- and then A.J. Ramos is probably next in line. But for now, he's safe and he looks healthier than some of the guys ahead of him on the list.

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

Tier 4: Question marks (6) (AKA: The "Chicago Cubs traded RHP Ryan Dempster to Texas Rangers for RHP Kyle Hendricks and 3B Christian Villanueva." Tier.)

Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Kevin Gregg, Chicago Cubs
Mark Melancon, Pittsburgh Pirates
Rex Brothers, Colorado Rockies

File this trade under "intentions, good." The Rangers needed to rent a starting pitcher and they didn't pay a high price. Just turns out Dempster wasn't a great fit for their home park, is all.

Completely unrelated to the trade deadline: Ernesto Frieri might be in the process of losing his job. After blowing his save last night, Frieri has allowed eight runs in his last four appearances, and four walks figured heavily into those runs. That's always been the risk with the funky fireballer, since he can't really corral his pitches. His manager says he'll play the match ups a little bit more going forward, and Dane de la Rosa is the name that has come up the most. That makes sense because the great Dane has 94 mph gas, three pitches, ground-ball stuff, good control and decent strikeout ability backed by above-average whiff rates. Really, it's the whole package, if a little light in the Ks for a closer. If Ryan Madson ever starts his rehab stint, he could factor in, too. Newcomer Cory Rasmus has the potential to close, but probably not in his first year with the organization. Especially since he has control problems of his own. Kevin Jepsen has the stuff to do it, too, but in five years with the Angels, he's been given the ball for three saves, total.

Casey Janssen blew another save. But it was a one-hit, one-walk, two-strikeout kind of blown save, not an implosion. And recently he's been striking people out again. So he's probably fine. But Steve Delabar did something of note this week, too: he struck out the side. On nine pitches. The Immaculate Inning. Delabar has been very impressive recently, as he's improved his walk rate significantly. After 13 walks in April, he's only walked 11 in the three months since. If he's not a candidate to close this year -- and he really is, actually -- then he's a reliever to keep on your radar next spring.

Jim Henderson, driving that train. Two saves on one day. Walk rate nearing league average. John Axford is comfortably in the second chair.

Fernando Rodney has a little more fire under his seat after his team actually traded for a reliever. He's lucky that reliever is on the DL with shoulder problems for now. Because when Crain is healthy, he has a double-digit strikeout rate and is showing great control this year. He throws almost 95 with four legit pitches, which is basically like having a starter pitch the end of the game for you. That drops Rodney next to Kevin Gregg, who has some trade-deadline-related angst about him too. There's a chance that Gregg still goes somewhere, but the best landing spot for him, the pen most in need of help, is Arizona. And he might actually close there. And since he has such a long history of mediocrity before this year, there's actually that possibility that nobody offers anything of value to the Cubs for Gregg.

Rex Brothers and Mark Melancon are is both great fill-in closers, so they move up. But while Jason Grilli is vowing to return this season and might not make it, Rafael Betancourt still could get healthy and take that job back within the next two weeks. Don't count all your eggs in this basket.

Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (5) (AKA: The "Seattle Mariners traded RHP Brandon League to Los Angeles Dodgers for RHP Logan Bawcom and CF Leon Landry." Tier.)

Joaquin Benoit (first chair), Jose Veras (second chair), Detroit Tigers
Huston Street (first chair), Luke Gregerson (second chair), San Diego Padres
Tom Wilhelmsen (first chair), Danny Farquhar (second chair), Yoervis Medina (third chair), Seattle Mariners
Jose Cisnero (first chair), Josh Zeid (second chair), Josh Fields (third chair), Houston Astros
Brad Ziegler (first chair), J.J. Putz (second chair), Arizona Diamondbacks

Why would you trade for Brandon League. And then why would you give him three years and all that money. Why.

At least when the Tigers traded for Jose Veras this week, they were in contention. And Veras is under team control at a good price for next year, too. He could even be their closer next year. He could even be their closer this year. For now, Joaquin Benoit is all good and Veras will sneak saves when the closer needs rest. But Benoit's balls sometimes leave the park, and if that happens in a few consecutive appearances, reach for the former Astro closer.

Still not completely convinced Huston Street is healthy, but in a strange twist of fate, that unease is probably shared by GMs around the league, which might keep Street in San Diego and in the closer's role. He'll move if the recent uptick in velocity and swinging strikes holds. The opposite is true for Tom Wilhelmsen. As he's pitched better, he's made it more likely that his team can move him. And now he's in the rumors. Next in line is probably Yoervis Medina (despite his platoon and control issues), but it could also be Danny Farquhar, who throws 95, has three pitches and has been improving his control recently. Farquhar also has a hold more recently than Medina, so let's put him in the second chair right now.

On the other side of the Jose Veras trade is a mess. Jose Cisnero, a converted wild starter who is still wild in the pen, is probably in the first chair. His velocity is up to 93 in his new role, and he's still got that starter's arsenal. He's not great at getting strike one, or controlling any of his four pitches, on the other hand. Things are so bad that new call up Josh Zeid, who had a walk rate near six in Triple-A and has two major league outs on his resume, might be in the second chair. He throws 95 at least. Problem is, his second pitch is a slider, and we don't know if he can control it enough to avoid platoon splits. Beyond those two, there aren't many attractive candidates. Wesley Wright is a LOOGY. Rhiner Cruz has velocity but can't strike anyone out. Hector Ambriz is meh. Josh Fields is probably in the third chair, but he can't find the plate (six walks in last four appearances) and isn't getting swinging strikes right now. He's worth tracking, though.

I still don't believe in a side-armer with platoon splits and fewer than five strikeouts per nine, even if he does have an elite ground-ball rate and good control. You have to think Arizona is looking for a new closer today, and even if he survives today, J.J. Putz is getting healthier and could take his job back fairly easily.

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Jason Motte (elbow), St. Louis Cardinals
Joel Hanrahan (forearm), Boston Red Sox
Kyuji Fujikawa (elbow), Chicago Cubs
Sergio Santos (elbow), Toronto Blue Jays
Ryan Madson (elbow), Los Angeles Angels
Jason Grilli (forearm), Pittsburgh Pirates
Rafael Betancourt (appendicitis), Colorado Rockies

No news, really. Which is weird for Sergio Santos, who was supposed to be back by now. Ditto Ryan Madson. Jason Grilli says he's going to make it back. Vows it even.

The Deposed

Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Mitchell Boggs, St. Louis Cardinals
Brandon League, Los Angeles Dodgers
Andrew Bailey, Boston Red Sox

Jose Veras? Maybe?

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The Steals Department

The trade deadline has not produced any speed options so far. Avisail Garcia was traded in the Jake Peavy trade, and really he should be with the big league team shortly. But they still have Dayan Viciedo in the outfield (he should probably be at first) and Paul Konerko is still with the team (could they still trade him?), meaning that Garcia is in Triple-A for now. And even when he comes up, he's a guy that might steal four or five bags the rest of the way. Jordan Danks is up for a bit now, and he does have speed, but his batting average is so bad that only deep leaguers should brave it. Back in Detroit, Andy Dirks' job is safer now and he actually has 15-stolen-base type speed, so he might be useful. Just be sure to only use him against righties.

But, yeah, so far the trade deadline's been a bit of a dud. Even if a few twitter bros tried to convince Hunter Pence he'd been traded. Fun times.

Deeper leaguers might want to watch the Cubs outfield. Nate Schierholtz has been in some of the rumors, and if he goes, there will be an opening in the outfield. Julio Borbon might get an extended look, or they might call up Matt Szczur (pronounced 'caesar,' get your mind out of the gutter) since he's the only outfield prospect that looks ready right now. He has legit 30+ stolen-base speed, so he'd be an interesting pickup. Of course, Junior Lake is already playing in that outfield thanks to the trade deadline, and we'd be remiss not to discuss him. The problem with Lake is that he's hacktastic. And spastic on the basepaths. He's been caught three times in four tries. But he's all tools, and even with a .250 batting average, it looks like he'll keep trying to steal bases, and he'll even knock a few out. Definitely should be owned in all deep leagues.

And don't forget about Cody Asche in Philadelphia. One of the more robust rumors is Michael Young to the Red Sox, presaged by the callup of their exciting young third baseman. He has some power and speed and would be an immediate pickup in all leagues of depth if Young leaves town. As he should.

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