Wild Cards in the Bullpen

Eno Sarris

We were supposed to get a more exciting September, right? That was the whole point of the two wild card system. We make the wild card round a terrible one-game luck fest, and in return we get more days like the final day of the season in 2012, when it seemed like every race hung in the balance with every pitch.

Not so much this year.

We've got two division races in question -- the American League West and the National League Central -- but in both cases the loser still gets a postseason game. In the National League, even the race for the wild card spots is pretty much over. Washington is seven games out of the final spot and has a 3.7% chance of making the postseason according to FanGraphs' playoff odds. Nobody else in the NL even has a one percent chance of making the postseason.

The fact that AL Wild Card race is still exciting does help. The loser of the battle between the Athletics and the Rangers will take their consolation prize, and then it's a scrum. The Rays have two-plus games on the field, but the Yankees (17.6%), Orioles (6.1%) and Indians (17.8%) all have decent chances to make the postseason. So we can have fun watching some AL games.

And really, the bargain was a little different. The bargain was made between the owners and the league office, and it was about postseason revenue. And maybe the second wild card will make most Septembers more exciting in general. But they can't make all Septembers more exciting with a wave of the rule-change wand. In honor of the new wild card system, we'll name the tiers after the remaining candidates for the second wild card spot in the American League.

Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Rays" Tier.)

Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals

Considering that they are five and a half games back of the Red Sox for the division, it's thanks to the wild cards that the Rays have more than a 70% chance of making the postseason. The good news for them is that they have a two-and-a-half game lead on the Yankees for the second wild card. The bad news might be that they still have a series with the Yankees, and their out-of-division foes include the Rangers for three. They'll have to beat up on the Twins, Mariners, Angels and Blue Jays -- which makes it seem like they are fine.

Nobody is trading at this point, so let's just appreciate the top four closers in the game. Two have been here all year -- the rare expensive closers that were totally worth it. But combine the four and you have an insane 235 and 2/3 innings with 362 strikeouts (!) and 67 walks. That's Felix Hernandez (194 1/3, 200, 41 respectively) with enough left over to turn Joe Saunders (162 2/3, 87, 56) into Clayton Kershaw (209, 201, 47) … with enough strikeouts left over to cancel out at least one other fantasy team's best reliever! It would have been a risky strategy, but it actually would have been possible to roster all four of these closers in most leagues, too.

Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The "Orioles" Tier.)

Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals

In the second half, the Orioles have been a top-five or six team in the American League at the dish, so even a little regression from Chris Davis hasn't taken the steam out. It's the rotation that's a bit worrisome. They have Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman for the future, but right now they're depending on Chris Tillman and his poor peripherals, Wei-Yin Chen's underwhelming stuff, Bud Norris' lack of a third pitch, and then a collection of iffy choices in the rotation. That's how the Orioles' rotation has given up the fourth-most runs in the American League in the second half, right behind the Blue Jays, Twins and Astros. You might notice that none of that group is in line to make the playoffs.

But the Orioles are still a decent team, with help on the way, and a bright (short-term) future. And these closers filled a similar niche, playing well and helping their fantasy teams all year. Many came with low prices. Even Joe Nathan didn't cost elite prices -- he was my number one closer on three teams, and I don't spend on closers -- and then the rest of the list (other than the venerable Mariano Rivera) is made up of great bargains. Glen Perkins, Sergio Romo, and Grant Balfour were closers from day one, and were always good bets to make this tier. It's Edward Mujica and Koji Uehara -- two pitchers with plus-plus command, iffy fastball velocity, and past issues with homers -- that qualify as the biggest surprises. And they throw the split finger more than any other pitchers in baseball. Maybe we should all learn the split finger. Hideo Nomo would approve.

Tier 3: Okay Options (7) (AKA: The "Indians" Tier.)

Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Joaquin Benoit, Detroit Tigers
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals

The Indians have a 16.7% chance of making the playoffs, and that's not nothing. It's actually more than the Yankees' number despite being a game behind the Yanks. That's probably because of their remaining schedules. The Indians get the Mets, Royals, White Sox, Royals, Astros, White Sox and Twins over the rest of the season, in order. Any single one of these contenders would kill for that sort of schedule. Their staff, lead recently by the ridiculous fastball/changeup combo of Danny Salazar, has given up fewer runs in the second half than every team in the AL save two. It's the offense that's fallen apart, tied for 14th in the AL in the second half with the Twins. At least they've scored 13 more second half runs than the Rays?

The tale of two Jims. One Jim cost you second-tier closer prices at the draft this spring. Then he gave you his customary 40-50 strikeouts and 40+ saves, but this time it came with all the Maalox you could get down and a mediocre ERA and WHIP. After a couple years of getting lucky on balls in play, Johnson's fortune turned. The other Jim didn't cost you squat in your draft, if you paid for him at all. He gave you 150% of Johnson's strikeouts and an ERA a full run lower. And probably left you enough draft resources to make up for the twenty saves you missed out on. Can you tell which Jim I prefer? This, despite two bad games in a row from Henderson. It's the first time he's given up runs in back-to-back appearances. He's fine.

Joaquin Benoit had a bad game -- he gave up a grand slam to lose to the Indians and only managed to get one out -- and maybe there's a little more worry there. He hasn't necessarily been as sharp as usual since he faced seven batters to get five outs two weeks ago. Since that day -- and Benoit is not the sturdiest closer, so it's worth noting this -- he's walked five against two strikeouts in six and a third innings. Honestly, his velocity charts are kind of scary looking and there's a competent closer behind him in Jose Veras, so… we won't drop him a tier, it's just worth pointing out.

I never quite believed in Casey Janssen's strikeout rate, just from appraising his stuff, so it's not super surprising to me that his strikeout rate is lower this year. But it does surprise me that he kept the job all year and looks like he'll even enter next year as the favorite to close. I just wouldn't put my money on him in next year's draft, with Sergio Santos healthy again and Steve Delabar showing flashes of brilliance. He's not an elite ground-ball guy and he doesn't get the strikeouts of a closer, so he's a bit of a tweener -- even if his excellent control makes him a good reliever no matter where the Jays employ him.

Let's just hope that crazy velocity bar on Soriano's last start is a PITCHf/x error. Because otherwise, Soriano's shown his old velocity and strikeout rate in recent outings. That, and an easy end-of-season schedule for the Nationals, is enough for a tier jump.

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

Tier 4: Question Marks (7) (AKA: The "Yankees" Tier.)

Rex Brothers, Colorado Rockies
Danny Farquhar, Seattle Mariners
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Ernesto Frieri, Anaheim Angels

The Yankees actually have a better postseason chance than the Orioles, given their half-game lead and virtually identical schedule. The weird thing with the Yankees is that for once they are more than the sum of their parts. They are tenth in the American League in runs scored in the second half, and fifth in runs allowed. But in the last month, they are tenth in runs allowed. That sort of mediocrity on both sides of the ball doesn't seem like a contender. A rotation lead by a flagging Hiroki Kuroda, ageless Andy Pettitte, and "something's wrong with him" CC Sabathia doesn't inspire a bunch of confidence. Maybe now that Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez are healthy, the team can mash their way into the playoffs.

There's always some risk with a guy that walks almost a batter every two innings, but Rex Brothers is moving up the charts with his work now that Rafael Betancourt is at the doctor's office. He throws with enough gas, gets enough grounders and can use the changeup enough to avoid platoon splits. His overall swinging strike rate is elite, and he gets more than a strikeout per inning. If he focused on getting strike one, he might be able to improve that walk rate in the same way Greg Holland once did. Once you get strike one, it doesn't take great command to avoid the walk -- great stuff can get you to a strikeout first.

Danny Farquhar is also now a better bet for saves next year than many of the names above him on this list. When we do the keeper closer list in a couple weeks, these two will zoom up the charts. They both have gas and whiffs and are under team control, which is the best mix a young closer can have. Farquhar is a little older, at 26, but it took him a while to get here because he was fiddling with his mechanics. Now over the top with 95 mph gas, he's focusing more on getting whiffs, and it's working. It's fun to look at Farquhar's game log and see all those strikeouts. He'd be higher up but his ERA is pumped up by bad batted ball luck, the team has Carter Capps, and Farquhar hasn't earned a ton of leash yet.

Ernesto Frieri now has three saves in a row, so it looks like he survived the great Dane De La Rosa invasion. Keeping it down to two walks in August probably went a long way towards rehabbing his image. He's not quite so extreme, but there's a whiff of Carlos Marmol about him. It's hard to read the tea leaves on him for next year, because if it's the GM that gets fired in Anaheim, there might be many changes on the way for the Angels.

Tier 5: Rollercoaster Rides (5) (AKA: The "Royals" Tier.)

Mark Melancon (first chair), Jason Grilli (second chair), Pittsburgh Pirates
Brad Ziegler (first chair), J.J. Putz (second chair), Arizona Diamondbacks
LaTroy Hawkins (first chair), Gonzalez Germen (second chair), New York Mets
Kevin Gregg (first chair), Pedro Strop (second chair), Blake Parker (third chair), Chicago Cubs
Josh Fields (first chair), Chia-Jen Lo (second chair), Kevin Chapman (third chair), Houston Astros

The Royals have long been a laughing stock… and you can continue to giggle at their 1.9% chance at the postseason. But at least they've got their offense on track -- fourth-most runs in the AL since the break -- and they found a couple pitchers at the top of the rotation. If Danny Duffy can continue to find the zone, he has the velocity and movement on his pitches to play the part of the young man on fire fueling a stretch run. But there are too many flaws on this team to count on em, just like there are too many flaws in these closers for them to be cornerstones for your fantasy team.

Jason Grilli is back. I mean, he hasn't physically pitched in a game yet, but he's back with the team. And he's not officially back in the role yet, but he's back. And that means -- even if the manager says that Grilli won't close right away -- that Mark Melancon's time as the closer is on red alert. That makes Melancon droppable if your playoff team is facing a roster crunch.

Maybe Brad Ziegler should move up. J.J. Putz is still waiting for a gaping hole in his finger to heal enough for him to pitch, and with the team basically out of the playoff picture (0.6% chance), there's little reason to rush him back. Ziegler escaped a poor stretch in mid-to-late August and is still the team's closer, it seems. He's still pretty terrible against lefties. He's survived by not giving up a single home run to a lefty, but they hit a ton of line drives off of him, and he walks twice as many lefties as righties. It's just a function of his sidearm delivery. But over the course of a month, he can probably hide it enough to survive the flaw.

Gonzalez Germen was supposed to get some save chances in New York. He does get great whiffs from his changeup, has good velocity and three pitches. He had great control numbers in the minor leagues. As soon as they gave him higher-leverage innings, though, he imploded. In his last three outings, he's got one strikeout, no walks, and has given up eight hits to the 14 batters he's faced. They may give him another chance or two -- why not -- but he doesn't look as promising as he did even a week ago.

Since 2012, and before his recent call up, Chia-Jen Lo had walked 12 batters in 61 and 2/3 innings. Since his call up this year, he's walked ten batters in 12 innings. That first step's a doozy. He still throws 94 with a curve and splitter, but doesn't get a ton of whiffs and isn't getting strike one at a league-average rate. Oh, and he's allowed four hits (one a home run) and five walks against his last 15 batters. But who do you have in that bullpen otherwise? Josh Fields is the only other interesting name, and he does have a hold recently. He throws 93+ with a three-pitch mix, okay swinging strike numbers, and a good strikeout rate. If he stops giving up home runs (his last one was on 8/17) maybe he can get the job done. Let's move him ahead of Lo then.  

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Jason Motte (elbow), St. Louis Cardinals
Joel Hanrahan (forearm), Boston Red Sox
Kyuji Fujikawa (elbow), Chicago Cubs
Rafael Betancourt (elbow), Colorado Rockies
Bobby Parnell (neck), New York Mets

Most likely, Bobby Parnell -- with or without neck surgery -- remains on this list for the rest of the year. If he decides against surgery, he'd still need a week or two too get ready… and then it'll be October.

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, Detroit Tigers
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Heath Bell, Arizona Diamondbacks

Despite all the different pitchers that have racked up saves this year, this isn't the longest list. And health had a big part in at least one of these, meaning that health and role change were almost equal predictors of closer change this year.

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The Steals Department

Let's just look at the speedsters that are facing bad catchers over the weekend, since we're all in freakout mode right now, ready to stream for any stat at a moment's notice. Some of the worst catchers in the game at throwing base runners out reside on the Angels, Athletics, Red Sox, Rays, and Mariners. The Rays, in particular, are bad no matter which of their two catchers are behind the plate. So apologies to Billy Hamilton -- he could actually steal five bases in the last month, just as a pinch runner (that much we know from his first appearance), but he'll be a negative in every other counting stat -- but let's look at some guys that might play a whole game at a time. (If Billy Hamilton starts a game -- maybe even just one -- he's a pickup, on the other hand.)

That means the Rays/Mariners series this weekend could see some base running. Mixed leaguers should probably take a shot on Brad Miller, who does have some wheels, or maybe Nick Franklin if the other middle infielder is not available. Neither is a volume base stealer, but they might get you one of the weekend just because of the scouting reports on the Ray's catchers. Deep leaguers are always scraping the bottom of the barrel at this point in the year, so they'll be used to picking up guys like Abraham Almonte, who is getting a look in the Seattle outfield with Mike Mores gone. Almonte even stole 26 bases in the minor leagues this year, and he shouldn't strike out this much. Given the fact that the A's are also on this list of poorly throwing catchers, Almonte is a decent short-term play for steals in general.

The Red Sox are bad by rate, and they've also allowed the most stolen bases in the big leagues this year. The Yankees come to town this weekend, though, and the pickings are a bit slim. Maybe Eduardo Nunez works on an infield position for your deeper league team -- he could even make for a desperate weekend play in a mixed league. A deep league team might consider taking a shot on Vernon Wells against a lefty -- perhaps he'll start against lefty rookie James Paxton this weekend.

Instead, you may want to look against the Angels, who are also bad in rate, and have allowed the third-most stolen bases in the big leagues this year. The Angels get the Rangers this weekend, and Leonys Martin is available in more than half the leagues on a few platforms. He's an excellent weekend pickup, at the very least. Deep leaguers may just have to pick up Craig Gentry and hope he gets some defensive work in a blowout or a start against a lefty. Deep leaguers have my sympathy this time of the year.

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