Puk's Opportunity

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·11 min read
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Back in 2019, A.J. Puk was one of the flashiest starting pitching prospects in the league. He was drafted in many leagues as a late-round sleeper – one of those guys who everyone compliments you for selecting even though they had ample opportunity to pick him themselves. Injuries cut short his 2019 and 2020 seasons. When he returned in 2021, it was as a reliever. He struggled. This season, he’s turned a corner in his relief work. He presents an uncomfortable look to opponents. They rarely make square contact. These days, he throws his slider 40 percent of the time while splitting the rest of his offerings between two types of 96-mph fastball. The 27-year-old is unlikely to ever resume starting.

The Athletics have only one reason to avoid using him as the regular closer – future arbitration earnings. Given his injury history, it’s perhaps disingenuous to fret about tomorrow’s costs. Now that Dany Jiménez is on the injured list, this is Puk’s opportunity to run with the closer job. He needs a couple things to break his way. First, the Athletics have to supply him narrow leads to protect in the next couple weeks. He’ll need to convert those opportunities while fending off internal rivals like Zach Jackson, Domingo Acevedo, and Sam Moll (once back from illness). I’m confident Puk is the obvious right choice in all situations if the A’s are trying to win games. Are they trying to win games?

Elsewhere, Emmanuel Clase was the weekly leader with four saves. Tanner Houck locked down three saves. The seasonal lead is back in the hands of Taylor Rogers (21). Josh Hader (20), Kenley Jansen (18), Jordan Romano (17), and Clase (16) round out the Top Five. Liam Hendriks also has 16 saves, but he’s still sidelined with a forearm strain. He’s aiming to return on July 1.

Closer Tiers

Tier 1: Crème de la Crème (2)

Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers
Edwin Diaz, New York Mets

Hader tossed one clean outing for a save. Diaz picked up two saves. He struck out five of nine batters faced, but the other four batters delivered hits. He only allowed one run – a net positive week even if it wasn’t perfect.

Tier 2: The Elite (6)

Emmanuel Clase, Cleveland Guardians
Jordan Romano, Toronto Blue Jays
Taylor Rogers, San Diego Padres
Kenley Jansen, Atlanta Braves
David Bednar, Pittsburgh Pirates
Ryan Pressly, Houston Astros

Clase is an incredible reliever, but his lack of juicy strikeout totals prevents him from offering true four-category production like Hader, Hendriks, and Diaz.

Romano blew a save on Tuesday. The Blue Jays eventually lost. He’s had some issues with free passes lately – just something to monitor.

Rogers allowed a run last Thursday while protecting a three-run lead. No worries there. He’s pitched the last two days so look for… Nabil Crismatt? If Rogers ever hits the injured list, the Padres are going to be left scrambling.

Bednar has faced nine batters in each of his last two appearances. He allowed two walks and two hits including a solo home run with eight strikeouts. Overall, he recorded 14 outs in those two outings. Hopefully, Pittsburgh resumes using him as a single-inning closer.

Tier 3: Reliable (7)

Raisel Iglesias, Los Angeles Angels
Clay Holmes, New York Yankees
Ryan Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos, St. Louis Cardinals
Tanner Houck, Boston Red Sox
David Robertson, Chicago Cubs
Camilo Doval, San Francisco Giants
Gregory Soto, Detroit Tigers

Iglesias worked four perfect frames, recording eight strikeouts, a win, and a save. We’re still wary of home runs.

Holmes’ scoreless streak ended on Monday with a blown save against the Rays. The Yankees later won the game. Wandy Peralta notched the save. Holmes was called upon in the eighth inning, an ominous sign of how he’ll be used once Aroldis Chapman returns early next week. Holmes looks like he’ll be the fireman. Only time will tell what share of the saves fall to Holmes, Chapman, and others.

Both Gallegos and Helsley pitched two innings on Tuesday – a curious choice once the Cardinals opened up a four-run lead in the top of the eighth. Gallegos worked the sixth and seventh frames, but Helsley could have been held back for the ninth or otherwise reserved for future days. Neither pitcher had worked in a week.

“Reliable” isn’t the word I’d use to describe Houck, but he is quite talented. He’s picked up three saves in the last week, two of them of the one-out variety. None of those outings were stress-free. He allowed at least one hit in all three appearances. He also surrendered a run on Friday.

Robertson coughed up a solo home run while working with a deficit. He’s also issued four walks over his last three innings. Keep an eye on those free passes.

Doval tallied saves on Friday and Saturday, rested Sunday, took the loss on Monday, and allowed two more runs on Tuesday. Fortunately, he was pitching with a four-run lead. He’s likely to be unavailable on Wednesday. Look for Jake McGee to step in.

Soto flopped last Thursday, allowing three runs on a hit and two walks. He took the loss. He’s since rebounded with a clean outing.

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Tier 4: Uncertainty with Upside (7)

Kendall Graveman, Chicago White Sox
Emilio Pagan, Jhoan Duran, Minnesota Twins
Craig Kimbrel, Los Angeles Dodgers
Joe Barlow, Texas Rangers
Scott Barlow, Kansas City Royals
Jorge Lopez, Baltimore Orioles
Diego Castillo, Paul Sewald, Seattle Mariners

Graveman would rank higher on his own, but it looks like he’ll be nudged back into a setup role in a little over a week. He’s worked two days in a row so Joe Kelly might get the save opportunity on Wednesday.

Pagan blew a save in the eighth inning on Tuesday. Duran pitched the ninth and 10th innings, facing seven batters. The Guardians managed to sneak the Manfred Man past Griffin Jax in the 11th. Despite the setback, Jax is seemingly closing in on Pagan’s role. Prior to the season, I noted Jax had some vaguely Hendriks-like traits. He’s taken that first step by increasing his velocity from 92.7-mph to 95.3-mph.

Dating back to mid-May, Kimbrel has a 7.30 ERA in 12.1 innings (13 appearances). Notably, he also has a 2.48 FIP and 2.73 xFIP. Is this a buy-low opportunity, a last chance to sell, or something else entirely? He’s recorded 17.51 K/9 during his slump, but the strikeouts are offset by too many walks (5.84 BB/9) and way too many hits (.519 BABIP). On another reliever, I’d call this a fluke. This is roughly the fifth time Kimbrel has done this in the last five seasons.

Barlow (Scott) finally seems to have a firm grasp on the closer role. Josh Staumont hasn’t stepped in for a save since mid-May, and he pitches ahead of Barlow most days. However, Barlow did allow a three-run dinger to Shohei Ohtani on Tuesday which could open the door for more uncertainty. Both pitchers have worked the past two days. It’s unclear who might step in for a save on Wednesday.

Castillo, working after Sewald, failed to hold a 2-2 tie thanks to a Mike Trout homer. That ended a 10-inning scoreless streak dating back to May 23. It’s only the second hit he’s allowed since then.

Tier 5: Usable Scamps (7)

Seranthony Domínguez, Brad Hand, Connor Brogdon, Philadelphia Phillies
A.J. Puk, Zach Jackson, Oakland Athletics
Daniel Bard, Colorado Rockies
Tanner Rainey, Washington Nationals
Tanner Scott, Anthony Bass, Miami Marlins
Mark Melancon, Arizona Diamondbacks
Colin Poche, Jason Adam, Tampa Bay Rays

We’re still in the early days of the Phillies bullpen-by-committee. Dominguez has the most recent save and doesn’t have the glaringly obvious issues of Hand. Namely, Hand is in a phase of his career where he can’t predictably throw strikes without getting hammered. In response, he willfully walks batters by feeding a steady diet of sliders outside of the zone. His effectiveness is inversely related to the leverage of the situation. Even Brogdon should eventually surpass Hand.

We discussed Puk in the intro so let’s quickly touch upon Jackson and move along. He does not profile as a high-leverage reliever at this time. His slider-forward approach has yielded 12.67 K/9, but that’s more than offset by 7.00 BB/9.

Since the start of June, Rainey has allowed six runs (four earned) and three home runs in 6.2 innings. Now might be the time to sell.

The Marlins seem committed to Scott as the closer for the moment. He had an ugly outing last Wednesday. He’s pitched well in two outings since then.

I’ve removed Ryan Thompson from the Rays committee since he’s blown two saves (not in the ninth) in the last week and shows no signs of getting his ERA under control. Poche has the two most recent saves and seems a fair bet to receive half of opportunities in the near-future. Adam was saddled with the loss on Monday but remains in the picture. Brooks Raley and Matt Wisler hover on the periphery. Jalen Beeks is serving as the opener du jour. Historically, the Rays openers have often become their closers.

Tier 6: Assorted Leftovers (1)

Hunter Strickland, Joel Kuhnel, Tony Santillan, Cincinnati Reds

There’s nothing to evaluate here since the Reds didn’t produce a save opportunity in the last week.

Injured

Dany Jiménez, Oakland Athletics (strained shoulder)
Andrew Kittredge, Tampa Bay Rays (TJS – out for season)
Liam Hendriks, Chicago White Sox (flexor strain)
Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees (Achilles tendinitis)
Lucas Sims, Cincinnati Reds (bulging disc)
Anthony Bender, Miami Marlins (back)

Jimenez’s MRI revealed no structural damage. His shoulder injury is being called a strain. Chapman, Bender, and Hendriks are all making progress in their returns. Sims was transferred to the 60-day injured list. He’ll be eligible to return around mid-July, though I’ve not heard of any progress towards mound work.

Steals Department

For a third straight week, Jon Berti topped the steals leaderboard. This time, he swiped seven bases. He mopped the floor with the competition – only Cedric Mullins bothered to steal three bases. After running wild for three weeks, Berti now leads the league with 19 steals. He’s closely trailed by Julio Rodriguez (18), Jorge Mateo (17), Tommy Edman (15), Harrison Bader (15), and Mullins (15).

Speed Spotlight

Red Sox regular center fielder Enrique Hernandez is sidelined with a hip flexor strain. A setback will keep him out for the near-future. With no margin for error in a tightly contested AL Wild Card field, Boston has turned to Jarren Duran as their regular center fielder. This is Duran’s third stint with the big league club. Due to new rules, he can only be optioned two more times before being exposed to waivers. The Red Sox now have incentive to keep Duran in the Majors until circumstance forces their hands – they can only recall him one more time.

They have another incentive to keep him around – he’s hitting! In 37 plate appearances, mostly as the leadoff batter, he’s slashing .303/.378/.485. A .417 BABIP has helped his cause. The analytical standard over the last 15 years is to point at an elevated BABIP and scream “regression!” However, Duran has certain high-BABIP traits including frequent barreled contact and a line drive-oriented swing. He also uses all fields. He re-developed this approach after selling out for power to reach the Majors last season. He believes this is a more effective profile for him, and I’m inclined to agree. While he may pop fewer home runs than originally hoped, he should hit for a decent average and OBP.

Speed is also part of his game, hence his inclusion here. Including Triple-A, he’s 13-for-15 on the basepaths in 235 plate appearances. Statcast rates his sprint speed in the 93rd percentile. He has a long track record of running including a 46-steal season in 2019 split between High- and Double-A. As long as he continues to bat leadoff, he profiles as a 25-30 steal threat over a full season. Consider him a three-category player (runs, steals, average).