Fantasy Baseball Closer Report: Week 2
While millions of children spent last Sunday hunting for Easter eggs, here at the Closer Report, we’re in the business of hunting for saves. In fact, now that I think of it, picking up potential closers is a lot like biting into a Cadbury Cream Egg; it could end up being delicious — or it could just give you a massive stomach ache.
Since last week’s Closer Report, we’ve seen Alex Reyes and Craig Kimbrel thrive, Mark Melancon and Jake McGee take hold of their respective bullpens, and Julian Merryweather, Ian Kennedy, and Cesar Valdez emerge as unlikely early-season saviors. But we’ve also seen Brad Hand land on the COVID list, Trevor Rosenthal go under the knife, and Greg Holland and Anthony Bass implode. Just another week on the saves hunt, right?
This early in the season, there is an insane amount to cover, which is why I have breakdowns of 19 different closer situations this week. If I somehow didn’t address the situation you care about most, hit me up on Twitter @andrew_seifter, and I’ll gladly field your questions. But first, here are this week’s closer rankings:
St. Louis Cardinals
Some fantasy analysts have been quicker than others to describe Alex Reyes as the Cardinals’ closer. We can blame that on some ambiguity in manager Mike Shildt’s comments on the matter last week. It was a judgment call to be sure, but I, for one, came down firmly on the “he’s the closer now” side of things, and for now, that seems to have been the right call. Reyes has all three of the Cardinals’ saves to begin the year, and he’s fired 4 1/3 scoreless innings so far. Jordan Hicks may be melting radar guns with his blazing fastball, but don’t expect St. Louis to make a change in the ninth as long as Reyes keeps getting the job done.
Yes, it’s only been four appearances, but they’ve gone about as well as humanly possible for Craig Kimbrel. The Cubs’ closer has yet to allow a single baserunner while striking out nine of the 14 batters he’s faced. Plus, his fastball velocity has been noticeably higher than it was to begin the last three seasons. We can’t fully disregard Kimbrel’s first two seasons in Chicago, but it’s really starting to look like he’s turned the corner.
San Diego Padres
The Padres have generated three “traditional” save chances so far, and all three of them have been successfully converted by Mark Melancon (not counting a three-inning save that Ryan Weathers picked up in a 7-0 victory). Pre-season reports suggested that Emilio Pagan was the favorite to close for San Diego, but he was never named the closer, and manager Jayce Tingler has been using Pagan and Drew Pomeranz to set up for Melancon in the early going. After Melancon earned his first save, Tingler maintained that he would continue to use a variety of different “combinations” to handle the late innings. But actions speak louder than words, and I’ll be considering Melancon the Padres’ closer until we see another reliever pick up a save in a game where Melancon is available to pitch.
San Francisco Giants
I’ll bite the bullet and name Jake McGee the Giants’ closer this week, even though I do so with great trepidation. While I will never fully trust Gabe Kapler to stick with a single closer, consider: 1) In Spring Training, The Mercury News called McGee “the clear front-runner to close games,” 2) Giants President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi said last week that McGee is “in a very good position to be the closer,” 3) McGee has both of San Francisco’s non-extra inning saves to date, and 4) that he “looks like a shut-down closer early on,” as NBC Sports Bay Area affiliate has observed.
Daniel Bard already defied the odds once by making it back to the Big Leagues after a seven-year hiatus, and he seems intent on defying the odds again by holding onto the closer job in Colorado. Bard bailed the Rockies out of trouble on Thursday, and he picked up his second save in the process. He’s yet to allow a run and has struck out six batters through his first 3 2/3 innings. Not bad.
The Nationals signed Brad Hand this winter to be the team’s new closer, but a COVID-19 outbreak within the organization has put that plan on hold. We don’t know whether Hand has tested positive for coronavirus or was just deemed a close contact, but his absence from the team hopefully won’t extend beyond 7-10 days (and could even end sooner). The team has not named an interim closer, but Daniel Hudson and Tanner Rainey would figure to be the primary options at manager Dave Martinez’s disposal. Rainey is the one with the flashy peripherals, but Hudson is the better bet. He has saved 20 combined regular and postseason games for Washington over the last two seasons, and he pitched the ninth inning of a tie game during the Nats’ belated Opening Day victory.
The news coming out of Oakland on Trevor Rosenthal’s sore shoulder got progressively worse during the week, and it culminated in Rosenthal undergoing thoracic outlet surgery on Thursday. He will miss multiple months at a minimum and may not throw another pitch in 2021. Last week, A’s manager Bob Melvin called Jake Diekman the “obvious” choice to replace Rosenthal, but Diekman had a rough first outing (2 ERs in 2/3 of an inning) and then pitched the eighth inning with the A’s down one run on Wednesday. Lou Trivino pitched the ninth inning of that game and could share closing duties with Diekman going forward, according to Melvin. Sergio Romo and Yusmeiro Petit are other players who could potentially factor into the ninth if Diekman and/or Trivino falter.
The Indians had yet to create a save opportunity before Wednesday when Nick Wittgren closed out a victory over the Royals. James Karinchak pitched in the seventh, and Emmanuel Clase pitched the eighth in that contest. Manager Terry Francona made clear that the team would not have a set closer at the beginning of the season, so all three relievers could see save opportunities in the early going. It’s possible that Francona eventually comes to the realization that the team will stand a better chance of winning if it uses its best relievers — Karinchak and Clase — in more flexible roles and reserves the closer role for Wittgren. But we’re not there yet.
We probably shouldn’t be surprised if Ian Kennedy runs away with a closer job after he pulled the same trick just two years ago in Kansas City. Kennedy earned back-to-back saves for the Rangers on Tuesday and Wednesday and also handled the ninth inning in his previous appearance. He’s now rightfully being described as the team’s closer in media reports. Perhaps Matt Bush works his way back into the conversation at some point, but it’s equally possible that Kennedy provides another season of sneaky closer value.
The Orioles weren’t supposed to settle on a closer, let alone this quickly, but here we are. The Baltimore Sun is now calling Cesar Valdez the team’s closer, and it’s hard to disagree after Valdez picked up the team’s first two saves and then pitched scoreless ninth and tenth innings in the O’s victory over the Yankees on Wednesday. It’s hard to buy into a 36-year old journeyman who barely touches the mid-80s with his fastball, but who knows — maybe we have another Brandon Kintzler on our hands?
The Tigers’ first save of the year went to Gregory Soto on Opening Day, but he looked rocky doing it, and two days later, Bryan Garcia converted a save chance. Detroit hasn’t created another chance since, but Soto rebounded to throw scoreless ninth and tenth innings in a win over the Twins on Tuesday. The performance prompted manager A.J. Hinch to praise Soto’s “guts” while emphasizing the importance of him “lock[ing] in the strike zone.” It also prompted MLB.com to report that “Soto looks more and more like a closer, even if he doesn’t have the title.” That’s enough to make Soto the preferred fantasy option over Garcia, but not enough to declare Soto the closer just yet.
Kansas City Royals
It’s been a tough week for fantasy managers rostering Greg Holland. Widely assumed to be the Royals’ closer after his dominant 2020 season, a well-rested Holland was passed over for a save opportunity in favor of Jesse Hahn on Monday. Two days later, Holland entered a tie game in the eighth inning and proceeded to give up a two-run homer to Jose Ramirez. In total, Holland has surrendered four hits and three walks while retiring just three batters. Not great, Bob! Whether Holland, Hahn, or Scott Barlow gets the next save chance is impossible to say at this point.
Anthony Bass was brought in to close games for Miami this season, but he’s been utterly horrific in the early going, giving up six runs on seven hits and a walk over 2 1/3 innings. While Yimi Garcia reportedly didn’t look good this spring, he’s been serviceable enough since the regular season began and would seem due for an opportunity to handle the Marlins’ next save opportunity. Marlins’ manager Don Mattingly doesn’t seem to agree, however, giving Bass the dreaded vote of confidence after Thursday’s meltdown. Bass may force Mattingly’s hand if he doesn’t successfully convert his next save chance, but that may not come right away for the 1-6 Marlins.
The Diamondbacks have lost one late-inning reliever after another, and we still have very little clarity on this situation. First, Tyler Clippard hit the injured list, then Joakim Soria. Chris Devenski picked up the team’s first save last Sunday, but then he landed on the restricted list. Stefan Crichton and Kevin Ginkel would seem to be the main contenders left standing in Arizona, but the Diamondbacks need to create a save chance or two before we can start to figure out who, if anyone, might be in the lead.
Chicago White Sox
Tony LaRussa is the dictionary definition of an “old school manager,” and he showed it on Sunday when he held Liam Hendriks back in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth inning. LaRussa explained that Hendricks would have pitched “if we had taken the lead,” adding that he preferred to hold Hendriks back in case a save situation arose, rather than ask him to preserve a tie score against the heart of the Angels’ lineup. A manager with an old-school mentality is always good news for the fantasy value of closers, and this is a good example of why.
After striking out the side in his first appearance, Will Smith has run into trouble over his last two outings, giving up five baserunners and two earned runs while retiring only three batters. However, Smith’s main competition for saves, Chris Martin, has been unavailable for the last few games after experiencing numbness in his fingers. The Braves have said they don’t expect Martin to land on the injured list, but his absence could give Smith a little time to build up some job security.
I was tempted to move Hector Neris further up the rankings since he’s already been named the closer and has looked excellent thus far (0.00 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, and 5 Ks in 4 innings). But we’ve seen plenty of highs and lows from Neris over his four previous seasons as the Phillies’ closer, and the question remains whether he will be able to hold onto the job when the next low point arrives. It’s just hard to consider Neris a top-10 closer when Archie Bradley and Jose Alvarado are both legitimate threats to eventually take the job from him.
Toronto Blue Jays
A tall, lanky right-hander with a 98 mph fastball and 80 mph changeup, Julian Merryweather is one of those pitchers who seems to be throwing from closer than 60 feet six inches. He may not always know exactly where the ball is going, but he is tough to hit. He also appears to be inching closer to becoming the Blue Jays’ full-time closer.
After earning Toronto’s first two saves of the season, Merryweather once again entered the game in the ninth inning on Thursday night, while presumed closer Jordan Romano pitched in the seventh. That said, as of Wednesday, the Toronto Star‘s Gregor Chisholm believed that Romano would get the most save opportunities in the future. He added that the bullpen usage to date had largely been a function of Romano’s ability to pitch multiple innings. Whether or not another night of Romano entering the game early changes Chisholm’s calculus, it’s still a little too early to definitively say that Merryweather has locked down the job.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays had already lost Nick Anderson, and now Pete Fairbanks will be sidelined indefinitely with a rotator cuff strain. That is not an injury that typically allows for a quick recovery. Diego Castillo has both of the Rays’ saves so far this season, and would now seem to be the heavy favorite for saves going forward. But given how Kevin Cash likes to handle his bullpen, let’s wait and see if any other late-inning relievers emerge in Tampa before we call Castillo “the guy.”
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