Smith Ascendant

Brad Johnson

Craig Kimbrel has appeared… at Triple-A. He carved through a trio of hitters in a manner befitting of a top major league reliever. While a formal timeline has yet to be announced, the Cubs are undoubtedly feeling impatient. They’re half a game back in the NL Central, and Pedro Strop stumbled his way to a loss last night.

Will Smith emerged from the dust of the previous week clutching four saves. Ian Kennedy and Kirby Yates were next-best with three saves apiece. In Smith and Kennedy, we have proof that even bad teams can produce occasional bursts of activity for their late-inning relievers. Yates (26) has a comfortable lead over Kenley Jansen (21) and Shane Greene (21) on the seasonal leaderboard.

And now, shall we go to the tiers?

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Tier 1: The Upper Elite (4)

Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees

Kirby Yates, San Diego Padres

Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers

Edwin Diaz, New York Mets

Yates has worked three days in a row and four of the last five. He’ll almost certainly rest on Wednesday. Craig Stammen is the guy to own in his stead.

The elite 14.13 K/9 and 2.51 BB/9 are what definitively identify Diaz as a Tier 1 reliever. His recent performance, including eight runs over his last 5.2 innings, has not been up to his usual standards. It’s funny, I raised the red flag earlier in the seasons due to a dip in velocity. He continued to perform at a high level. Then, almost as soon as he regained his typical heater, he ran afoul of a slump. I’m inclined to call this a fluky rough patch, but there’s certainly a chance he’s tipping pitches or making an otherwise predictable mistake.

Tier 2: The Lower Elite (6)

Roberto Osuna, Houston Astros

Felipe Vazquez, Pittsburgh Pirates

Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers

Brad Hand, Cleveland Indians

Sean Doolittle, Washington Nationals

Will Smith, San Francisco Giants

While Osuna, Vazquez, and Jansen were a part of the first-tier last week, I’m not counting this as a demotion. Instead, think of this as a promotion for Hand and Doolittle with an arbitrary introduction of a new tier in the middle of the old first tier.

As I write this, Osuna has just taken a blown save loss to the Reds. No need to panic even if setup man Ryan Pressly has massively outperformed him since last trade deadline.

Working three days in a row, Jansen sandwiched his own blown save loss between a pair of saves. He’s had a couple days or rest and should be ready for normal usage.

I’ve resisted properly crediting Smith for his stuff. I find myself increasingly unconvinced by my own justifications. His tenure in the lower tiers was never about talent – it was about a terrible Giants roster and the likelihood of trade. I now see more contenders in need of a closer than I originally anticipated. I’m cautiously optimistic he’ll land on two feet.

Tier 3: Core Performers (8)

Hector Neris, Philadelphia Phillies

Blake Treinen, Oakland Athletics

Raisel Iglesias, Cincinnati Reds

Jordan Hicks, St. Louis Cardinals

Shane Greene, Detroit Tigers

Hansel Robles, Los Angeles Angels

Alex Colome, Chicago White Sox

Greg Holland, Arizona Diamondbacks

Like Smith, Neris also possesses ace-like statistics. In this case, I still see hurdles in Neris’ path. He’s lost command of his splitter for a brief spell during every season of his career. He’s had some rough outings recently including a three-run clunker on Friday.

Michael Lorenzen earned the last two saves for the Reds. Iglesias received holds in those games. In both cases, this looks like a quirk of matchups. Obviously, I still believe this to be Iglesias’ job. It may be close to turning into a two-headed race.

I’m convinced Greene has devoured the soul of Fernando Rodney. This ludicrously unlikely 0.93 ERA is straight out of Rodney’s playbook. Greene has sharply lowered his hard contact rate which helps to explain why opponents are struggling to reach base (2019: .181 BABIP, career: .305 BABIP). There is no sign of a positive change – his fastball lost velocity. I’ll continue to call this a fluke until I see evidence to the contrary.

Tier 4: Mess Hall (8)

Luke Jackson, Atlanta Braves

Diego Castillo, Tampa Bay Rays

Wade Davis, Colorado Rockies

Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Boston Red Sox

Taylor Rogers, Trevor May, Minnesota Twins

Pedro Strop, Chicago Cubs

Shawn Kelley, Texas Rangers

Ian Kennedy, Kansas City Royals

The Braves have thrived in recent weeks despite tepid performance from Jackson. With a division lead, we can’t assume Atlanta will be complacent with their existing staff. Keep an eye on the trade market and A.J. Minter.

Since returning from the injured list, Davis has allowed seven runs on nine hits and three walks in 4.1 innings. That’s… not good. The Rockies are only one game back in the NL Wild Card race so they can’t afford to be complacent with their closer. Re-stashing Scott Oberg could make sense in deeper leagues.

News has emerged that Jose Alvarado will need a mini-spring training before returning to the Rays. Castillo should get the bulk of the saves in his absence with Emilio Pagan absorbing most of the spillover. Don’t be surprised by, uh, surprises. After all, we’re talking about the Rays.

Nothing is simple in this Boston bullpen. Brasier has the most recent save while Barnes hasn’t locked down a game since June 6. As I’ve warned again and again, we cannot hold traditional expectations for these Red Sox relievers.

Blake Parker is on personal leave. In any case, the Twins seem more comfortable with Rodgers handling the tough outs. May is creeping into second place on the depth chart. I still believe him to be the most talented reliever on the roster.

Jose Leclerc can’t string together enough scoreless outings to rebuild his manager’s faith. Those who invested in Kelley should continue to ride the wave.

Tier 5: The Forgotten (4)

Roenis Elias, Anthony Bass, Seattle Mariners

Mychal Givens, Baltimore Orioles

Daniel Hudson, Joe Biagini, Toronto Blue Jays

Sergio Romo, Miami Marlins

In my mind, Bass is unquestioningly better than Elias. However, it’s Elias who recorded the Mariners two most-recent saves. Bass even blew a game on Monday in the eighth inning which won’t help his case.

Just when he regained his role, Givens fumbled his way to a loss via a four-run drubbing. He also coughed up two homers.

I initially though Biagini would fill in as the Blue Jays closer while Ken Giles is on the injured list. Instead, it seems Hudson is first chair in the proposed committee.



Brandon Morrow, Chicago Cubs (elbow)

Corey Knebel, Milwaukee Brewers (partial UCL tear – out for season)

Hunter Strickland, Seattle Mariners (lat)

Arodys Vizcaino, Seattle Mariners (shoulder inflammation – out for season)

David Robertson, Philadelphia Phillies (flexor strain)

Jose Alvarado, Tampa Bay Rays (family emergency)

Ken Giles, Toronto Blue Jays (elbow inflammation)

Giles is expected to return when first eligible. The others continue to make interminable if not entirely unobservable progress.

The Deposed

Cody Allen, Los Angeles Angels

Jose Leclerc, Texas Rangers

A.J. Minter, Atlanta Braves

Anthony Swarzak, Atlanta Braves (deposed with Mariners)

Ryan Brasier, Boston Red Sox

Chris Martin, Texas Rangers

Steve Cishek, Chicago Cubs

Scott Oberg, Colorado Rockies

It’s probably premature to remove Brasier from this list of ignominy. Let’s wait a week.

The Steals Department

More than a month ago, I added Oscar Mercado to the tiers below. For last week’s column, I decided to remove Mercado. He had only a pair of steals to date. Much like that hapless Nazi-backed archaeologist, I choose… poorly. Mercado led the week with four swipes. Nobody else reached even the modest three-steal plateau. That makes six steals in 118 plate appearances for Mercado – a fairly decent pace. Adalberto Mondesi (27) has a commanding lead on second-best Mallex Smith (18). Christian Yelich (16) and Jose Ramirez (16) are tied for third.

Tier 1: The World Beaters (5)

Adalberto Mondesi, Kansas City Royals

Mallex Smith, Seattle Mariners

Tim Anderson, Chicago White Sox

Dee Gordon, Seattle Mariners

Trea Turner, Washington Nationals

Mondesi is day-to-day with a tight groin. A stint on the injured list is possible, especially for a young player whose entire game is predicated on speed. As of this writing, there is no sign this is anything worse than a Grade 1 strain – if not merely a cramp. For now, there’s no need to anoint Smith the new king..

Tier 2: Consistent Thieves (7)

Jose Ramirez, Cleveland Indians

Jarrod Dyson, Arizona Diamondbacks

Christian Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers

Starling Marte, Pittsburgh Pirates

Billy Hamilton, Kansas City Royals

Jonathan Villar, Baltimore Orioles

Elvis Andrus, Texas Rangers

No doubt Hamilton has the speed of the elite, but his continued inability to reach base with any frequency may soon eat into his playing time. It’s not that the Royals have anybody knocking on the door to take Hamilton’s job, they simply may feel inspired to create some competition. Clearly, this idea hasn’t worked for the Royals. If the club hopes to be less bad next season, now is the time to start scraping for a solution.

Tier 3: Assorted Rabbits (6)

Whit Merrifield, Kansas City Royals

Trevor Story, Colorado Rockies

Kevin Kiermaier, Tampa Bay Rays

Ronald Acuna, Atlanta Braves

Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres

Victor Robles, Washington Nationals

Kiermaier has teased us with a tempting blend of power and speed for half a decade. And for just as long, he withers on the vine just when it seems safe to rely upon him. I’m beginning to feel comfortable turning to Kiermaier for stolen base needs. Let’s see if he can escape the defeatism promised by his history.

Tier 4: Names to Watch (9)

Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins

Delino DeShields, Texas Rangers

Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox

Wil Myers, San Diego Padres

Lorenzo Cain, Milwaukee Brewers

Myles Straw, Houston Astros

Kolten Wong, St. Louis Cardinals

It’s possible I overreacted when I downgraded DeShields last week. I thought the impending return of Joey Gallo would cut his starting opportunities. The Rangers are talking about using Gallo in a corner outfield slot to keep DeShields in the lineup. I suppose that’ll change once Willie Calhoun is healthy.

The Twins took a preventative tact with Buxton, tossing him on the injured list after he was hit on the wrist by a pitch. I’ve seen no reports suggesting anything more than a contusion at work here. The Twins have proven extremely aggressive with using the injured list this season.

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