The real-life trading deadline (at least the first one) is next week, so let's try to anticipate a little.
(You can, of course get into trouble anticipating too much. For example, we've had Jim Henderson in the first spot in Milwaukee for weeks. I was anticipating the Francisco Rodriguez trade that finally happened. But for the ability to say that we knew this was coming, we may have lost out on three weeks of saves. So, I guess, anticipate but don't drop a useful player too early just because you're sure one of these trades is coming.)
We'll name the tiers after the biggest needs among the contenders. That should allow us to think about who might get traded to those teams, and if those trades will open up new closer roles or an opportunity for a base-stealer to shine.
Tier 1: Elite (5) (AKA: The "Tigers Reliever" Tier.)
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Even if relievers are the cherry on top of a contending team -- and not necessarily a cornerstone -- the Tigers are a championship sundae, and they're missing that last piece to bring it all together. Sure, Joaquin Benoit is a good pitcher who has kept his homer rate down this year, but you get the sense that his manager really backed into this decision and still isn't comfortable. The rest of the team is flawed (the walk rates! Bruce Rondon balked a run home the other day!), and even if Drew Smyly looks good, he's a lefty. A right-handed reliever that could either close or at least co-close with Benoit is a real-life need for the Tigers -- but the problem is that now that K-Rod is gone, the seller's market of closer types is not as enticing. Kevin Gregg? Jonathan Papelbon? Bobby Parnell?
The top tier loses a great one in Jason Grilli. The dreaded forearm strain can often just be a precursor to Tommy John surgery, so Grilli owners are right to be nervous. Pittsburgh beat writer Dejan Kovacevic reported that the pitcher didn't feel a pop, so maybe it'll only be a few weeks, but it didn't look good as he left the game.
Otherwise, the tier was mostly quiet. Joe Nathan must have heard that he was the number one closer of the first half, because he came out and promptly blew just his second save of the year on Tuesday. A walk to Vernon Wells, a triple to Eduardo Nunez, and a single to Brent Lillibridge -- he could have pitched that same inning 100 times and had similar results another two or three times.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Diamondbacks Reliever" Tier.)
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals
Kevin Towers is usually known for building your bullpens. Guess this year's bullpen just shows you how high variance any bullpen group can be. Then again, we might have known the Heath Bell Experience would turn out this way in our heart of hearts, and J.J. Putz has always struggled with injury. Brad Ziegler is doing well enough, and a healthy Putz would be a fine closer… so here's a bet that if this team does acquire a closer, it's a cheaper, lower-profile one to help on all fronts. Kevin Gregg might actually make sense. He's a bit gritty, right?
Kenley Jansen is slowing down! After a ridiculous 22 strikeouts against zero walks in 14 appearances in June, he's down to ten strikeouts against three walks in seven outings this month. Terrible! 69 strikeouts against nine walks overall… yeah. Terrible. To the other team's manager. I'd say it's just coincidence that a few more walks have come since he started pitching the ninth, but I'm fairly agnostic about mindset. If you have the stuff -- and clearly he does -- I doubt you can't find the mental fortitude to close. Pitching the eighth inning in front of those crowds is also very difficult, the ninth only seems like an incremental change.
Greg Holland could be ranked higher, yes. He and Glen Perkins have ridiculous rates just like Jansen. And where Jansen is proving himself, Holland and Perkins have done it for longer. But neither the Twins nor the Royals are great, and while bad teams give save opportunities too, I wouldn't bet on either cracking 40 saves. Also, Holland has not walked a guy in a month, but has had walk rate problems his whole career. Perkins' strikeout rate leapt into elite territory this year, but he's receded back to about a strikeout per inning since May. These aren't big deals! This isn't about Perkins' blown save! These are the razor-thin reasons that keep these two out of the elite tier.
Did you know that, among the top 30 in saves this year, only five pitchers have a worse strikeout rate than Edward Mujica? He doesn't keep the ball on the ground, has a history of home run problems, and is throwing his splitter as much as most people throw their fastballs. He makes me more nervous than anyone else in this tier.
Tier 3: Okay options (6) (AKA: The "Oakland Second Baseman" Tier.)
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Bobby Parnell, New York Mets
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
It might not be a problem that the team has to be fixed, but I'd disagree with those that say it's not a problem. The various people that have played second base for the Athletics are 21st with the bat and 23rd overall in the big leagues. The flip side is that Eric Sogard has been okay. Above replacement because of a roughly league average bat and glove, he doesn't walk much or have any power, but he doesn't strike out much and has enough speed to be relevant in deep leagues. So they could just keep right on chugging. But the Chase Utley rumors are too much fun, especially if it "only" costs someone like Jemile Weeks, who has fallen behind on the org's depth chart. And that would instantly make for a sleeper speedster in Philly.
Koji Uehara and Ernesto Frieri are two high-strikeout closers ready to join the next tier if anyone slips. Bobby Parnell doesn't strike guys out like they do (he admitted to me that he thinks of himself as a ground-ball guy), but he also slips a spot because there's a non-zero chance that he gets traded, even at his low price and even with the Mets retaining control over him for two more years. That's the only type of closer that gets a real return, and that's a team that could use a real return. On the other hand, the Mets say they have money to spend next year and obviously they have some nice young pitching. Maybe they hold on to their closer.
Rafael Soriano and Jonathan Papelbon: still skating by on guts, guile, and name value. Still both could be hurt (still showing declining velocities and down swinging strike stuff). Still haven't heard a whisper that they are hurt in the media, so they're still okay options for the time being.
We'll let Jim Johnson stay in the tier because Francisco Rodriguez hasn't thrown a pitch for the Orioles yet, but it's no lock that Johnson holds the role through his next speed bump. Johnson cedes strikeout rate to the newcomer, and that can be a big deal for managers in the ninth inning. Rodriguez has closed, too. But the incumbent still owns the better walk rate, velocity, and ground-ball rate. Saves prospectors should think about rostering Rodriguez if someone dropped him after the trade.
Read about the more volatile closer situations on the next page.
Tier 4: Question marks (7) (AKA: The "Boston Starting Pitcher" Tier.)
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Jose Veras, Houston Astros
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Joaquin Benoit, Detroit Tigers
Kevin Gregg, Chicago Cubs
With Clay Buchholz sidelined until maybe even as late as September, the Red Sox are down a starter. They've been filling in, but they were rumored in on Matt Garza, and it just seems obvious that they should plug any holes they can… at a reasonable price. Since Garza's asking price was too high, it's more likely that the Red Sox buy a lower-profile starting pitcher than someone like Cliff Lee. Jake Peavy makes more sense, or maybe even Yovani Gallardo if the price is really low.
And these closers, even if they have question marks, probably did you fine -- because their prices were low. In fact, my teams are littered with these guys. They're waiver-wire pros and late-inning throws that have already turned in enough production to make them wins. It's just that they're no lock to continue doing so.
In fact, other than the top three, they could each lose their job at the trade deadline. The Astros have proven before that they'll trade any reliever at the drop of a dime, even a signing like Jose Veras that has worked out as well as it has. I'd look for them to get a younger, cheaper reliever back in the deal and install them at closer, or see if Hector Ambriz can do it ugly for a while. If Jose Cisnero could find the plate, he'd be in the mix. It's A.J. Ramos if the Marlins find a Steve Cishek buyer, and Joaquin Benoit faces a risk from most newcomers based on his fragility. Behind Kevin Gregg, it's most likely Pedro Strop -- because that's what the team said -- but Blake Parker has been the better pitcher. The team is right to point out that Strop has closer velocity and stuff, but he also has a career walk rate over five per nine. Parker, even at 92 mph, deserves to be on this list of potential winners at the deadline.
The top three have a bit of risk, too. Casey Janssen had some trouble over the All-Star break and was even removed for Steve Delabar once, but he may have righted the ship since, with two straight scoreless innings with four strikeouts and one walk. His upside is diminished by his strikeout rate, but not completely whipped. A few more saves and Janssen will begin rising in the ranks again. We know the Rodney risk. With Chris Perez, the velocity is still down and though I don't quite put him in the injury risk class with Jonathan Papelbon and Rafael Soriano, I sort of do.
Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (6) (AKA: The "Baltimore Starting Pitcher" Tier.)
Jim Henderson (first chair), John Axford (second chair), Milwaukee Brewers
Tom Wilhelmsen (first chair), Yoervis Medina (second chair), Oliver Perez (third chair), Seattle Mariners
Mark Melancon (first chair), Tony Watson (second chair), Pittsburgh Pirates
Rex Brothers (first chair), Colorado Rockies
Brad Ziegler (first chair), J.J. Putz (second chair), Arizona Diamondbacks
Huston Street (first chair), Luke Gregerson (second chair), San Diego Padres
For a team as good as the Orioles have been this year (third-best record in the AL, fifth-best run differential), Baltimore boasts a bit of a troublesome starting rotation. Jason Hammel reverted back to Colorado's version, and the peripherals on Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez suggest that worse days are ahead. Not one of the three has an above-average strikeout rate or ground-ball rate, for example. The problem is that with Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman still in development, it seems like maybe the Orioles will be content with Scott Feldman. Their most recent acquisition does at least come with an above-average grounder rate.
We've been waiting on you Jim Henderson. So long, that it would be upsetting to see John Axford get it, honestly. But Axford is also under team control and has really settled down after a tough start to the year. His walk rate is now the second-best of his career now, finally. But his homer rate only matches last year's -- even if he hasn't given one up since the first of May -- and that's why his ERA and WHIP are bloated. Hendo had the eighth, though.
We'll put Tom Wilhelmsen over the closers that are 'temporary,' and we never really liked Oliver Perez in the role here anyway, but The Kaiser (or the Bartender) still been hittable recently. In his last five saves, he's given up five hits and two walks against only three strikeouts. Hard to believe for a guy that still throws 96 with a hammer curve and is still getting the swinging strikes that he used to. But the command of his pitches comes and goes, and that gives him a considerable amount of risk. He and Henderson are ready to move out of the tier with a week full of saves, though.
Mark Melancon is an immediate pick up in all leagues. The forearm strain is absolutely more upsetting than Betancourt's insides, and could easily mean Tommy John. If it does, Melancon could close into next year. There are some decent lefties behind him, and yes Bryan Morris has some promise, but Melancon is doing what he's always done, and just the slightest bit of luck has shown people that he was good all along. His strengths lie in having great control, getting ground balls, and adding strikeouts at just about an average rate for a closer on a cut fastball / curveball mix. Even if a few more home runs come back in, his underlying rates are strong.
We're putting Rex Brothers down here, but not even listing a second chair, because it's Brothers for now. But should he be higher? Obviously, he's got nice K, but Betancourt might only be gone a week or two since his disabled list stint was retroactive to July 25th. But hamstring, then appendicitis… Betancourt's an old man on an expiring contract, and if this were a dynasty league ranking, Brothers would leap a tier (or two).
Here are the reasons I don't believe in Brad Ziegler as a long-term option in Arizona: 1) His strikeout rate. It's not bad, it would be the worst in baseball at the back end of a pen. 2) His delivery. The submarine works, I'm not saying it doesn't. But it does lead to radically different sight lines for players of different handedness, and in his case, that means lefties love him. Over his career, Ziegler has walked more lefties than he has struck out, and he has given up four times as many home runs to lefties. This year, he's cut his walks against lefties, and a career-low batting average on balls in play against lefties is also helping, but the preponderance of the evidence is that he's a ROOGY. J.J. Putz isn't quite J.J. Putz yet -- four walks in his last three appearances is not Putzian -- but his velocity is up a tick and he's keeping the slates clean and getting holds. Putz is a decent saves prospect still.
Huston Street: still think he's hurt, although five strikeouts in his last four outings and better velocity has arched an eyebrow of mine.
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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
Early reports suggest a couple weeks for both Jason Grilli and Rafael Betancourt. But they're early reports.
Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Mitchell Boggs, St. Louis Cardinals
Brandon League, Los Angeles Dodgers
Andrew Bailey, Boston Red Sox
Andrew Bailey is now undergoing surgery for his shoulder and will remain deposed. The trade deadline will probably change this list some.
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The Steals Department
The Marlins are crazy. There was not a thing wrong with what Marcell Ozuna and Derek Dietrich were doing in the big leagues this year. Well, Dietrich was striking out a bit much, but he was showing his power, and with a little more batted ball luck, he would have looked like a competent second baseman in the majors. Ozuna was pretty much doing what the team should have hoped he could do -- he could have struck out way more than he was, for example, and was above-average in most facets of the game.
But that doesn't matter. Down they go, and up come two more youngsters. Who aren't really ready. But here they are! Starting their arbitration clocks early! Both Jake Marisnick (22 years old) and Christian Yelich (21) have reasons to be excited about their futures. Marisnick has power and speed and can play center. Yelich has a smooth left-handed swing, can play center now, and should add some speed to his power and patience while he's young. But both of them might strike out too much right now, both of them are young, and both of them could have marinated a while longer. Since the Marlins are playing this out like a yo-yo, it's hard to trust that they are great acquisitions. On the other hand, if they catch fire, they may just play the season out and provide great value to those of you looking for power and speed in the outfield. Might as well chase the upside if you're looking in deeper mixed leagues.
Deeper dudes should probably take a look at Jonathan Villar on the Astros, who has taken the job at short. He's even more of a strikeout risk than the Marlins' pair, and he doesn't have the same power upside, but he does have a little pop, and he stole 31 bases in Triple-A before getting the call-up. If you can stomach a bad batting average for your speed -- and you probably can, since you're in a deep league -- take a look at him.