Fantasy Baseball Closer Report: Week 3
If you’re looking for proof that the saves chase is complete and utter chaos, look no further than the Canadian baseball team playing its home games in…(checks notes)…Dunedin, Florida. The Blue Jays may end up playing in three different home ballparks this season, but that’s nothing compared to the number of closers they’re on pace to go through.
The Jays signed Kirby Yates in January to be their new closer, but he felt elbow pain in Spring Training, and by the end of March, he was undergoing Tommy John surgery. Next up was Julian Merryweather, who emerged from obscurity to collect two quick saves before landing on the injured list with an oblique strain. Jordan Romano, who was initially considered the favorite when Yates went down, seemed like the logical replacement for Merryweather, but now Romano is headed to the injured list, too. That leaves Rafael Dolis as the top candidate for saves — unless it’s David Phelps, who is currently dealing with back soreness. And that’s just until Merryweather comes back or this bullpen takes yet another unexpected turn.
Of course, the Blue Jays aren’t the only headache for us saves chasers. Nearly half the teams in the league are still rolling with closer committees, and that’s not even counting closers on shaky ground like Hector Neris, who always seems like he’s one blown save away from losing the gig. But don’t worry, we’ll get through this together. If you need an outside opinion, I’m always just a tweet away @andrew_seifter.
Now on to this week’s closer rankings:
San Francisco Giants
Last week, I bit the bullet and named Jake McGee as the Giants’ closer despite manager Gabe Kapler’s historical allegiance to a closer-by-committee approach. This week, McGee vaults into my top-10. How else can I react to what’s transpired? McGee put together some excellent seasons early in his career in Tampa, and then after a few rough seasons in Colorado, he posted career-best strikeout and walk rates with the Dodgers last year. In San Francisco, he’s picked up right where he left off, and he has already collected six saves in the process.
You may find it utterly incomprehensible that a 34-year old reliever on a Gabe Kapler-managed team would save 20-plus games for the first time in his career, but that looks to be exactly where this story is headed. This is why I love the saves chase.
Brad Hand was one of nine Nationals players who began the season on the Covid list, and while it was reported at the time that he would be out “indefinitely,” he only ended up missing three games. Since returning, Hand has pitched two scoreless frames, including the ninth inning of a 5-2 victory over the Cardinals on Monday for his first save. As I mentioned in my Spring Training closer preview, Hand’s diminished velocity over the last two seasons was somewhat concerning, but he still managed to get the job done. Thankfully, his velocity was reportedly up this spring, and it’s continued to look promising in his first couple appearances of the regular season.
Boston Red Sox
Boston manager Alex Cora waited as long as possible to show his hand and reveal whether Matt Barnes or Adam Ottavino would handle the team’s closing duties in 2021, but now we finally have an answer. Barnes has successfully converted both of the team’s save chances (other than one Matt Andriese handled in extra innings), and he’s done so in impressive fashion. Walks and home runs have always been the bugaboo for Barnes, and they could certainly emerge as an issue at some point this season as well. But right now, he’s looking as dominant as any reliever in the game, while Ottavino is still struggling to regain the dominant form he showed from 2018 to 2019.
As I mentioned in this space last week, highs and lows are just part of the deal with Philadelphia closer Hector Neris, who began the year with two saves and five scoreless innings before suffering his first blown save on Tuesday. Neris isn’t going to lose the job from one poor outing, but the difference this year is that manager Joe Girardi has other closing options if Neris continues to struggle. One of those options, Archie Bradley, is now out for three to four weeks with an oblique injury, but the other, Jose Alvarado, is off to a nice start and should be ready to take over the ninth if need be.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays’ Kevin Cash is one of the least likely managers to settle on a designated closer, but circumstances seem to be forcing his hand at the moment. Cash entered 2021 with three primary late-inning relievers: Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks, and Diego Castillo. Anderson and Fairbanks are now both on the injured list, leaving Castillo as the last man standing, which helps explain why he has all three Tampa Bay saves to date. Cash refuses to call Castillo the closer, and it won’t be surprising if someone like Cody Reed, Ryan Thompson, or Andrew Kittredge gets a save opportunity here and there. But there’s little mystery over who is the best reliever in this bullpen right now.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays led off this week’s article, so I won’t rehash all the messy details here. Suffice it to say that while it’s only mid-April, the Toronto closer situation has already been a wild ride.
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli is so philosophically opposed to the concept of a closer that he doesn’t even like to say the word, but actions speak louder than words. Free-agent acquisition Alex Colome has both of the team’s traditional saves so far, and on Thursday, the team called on him to pitch the ninth inning of a tie game after Hansel Robles and Taylor Rogers combined to blow the lead in the eighth. We should still expect Rogers and perhaps even Robles to get some save opportunities, but Colome certainly appears to be in the driver’s seat at the moment, even if Baldelli doesn’t want to talk about it.
After then-closer Anthony Bass was hit hard back on April 8, Marlins manager Don Mattingly gave him a vote of confidence. But a couple of days later, Mattingly changed his tune, indicating that he would change his approach at the end of games. Bass has thrown three clean innings since then, but none of them have been in save situations. Meanwhile, Yimi Garcia has earned two saves over that span. The 30-year old Garcia has a cool 0.81 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, and 10.5 K/9 since joining the Marlins last season. Mattingly claims that other relievers such as Richard Bleier and Dylan Floro could also get opportunities to close games, but Garcia should have a pretty decent shot to lock down the job with a few more strong outings.
With a 3.68 ERA and 0.95 WHIP, Rafael Montero has hardly been awful in the early going, but he has converted just two of his five save opportunities and may no longer be the best bet for saves in Seattle going forward. Montero set up for Kendall Graveman in the first game of a doubleheader against Baltimore on Thursday, and he then sat out the nightcap as Keynan Middleton shut the door. Montero, Graveman, and Middleton now each have two saves, which is a pretty good indication that this is a committee for now.
Sometimes you see managers bring their closers into non-save situations just to “get them some work,” but the Braves are taking it to another level. From April 6 to April 14, Braves manager Brian Snitker handed the ball over to closer Will Smith six times in an eight-game stretch. A heavy workload is generally good for fantasy (even if Smith was only O.K. in those particular outings), but it does raise the question of whether Smith is being overworked. It will likely sort itself out as the Braves play fewer close games, but it’s something to at least keep an eye on.
If you read this column last week, you got an early heads-up that Lou Trivino was flying under the radar as the favorite to close games in Oakland ahead of Jake Diekman. The reason is that A’s manager Bob Melvin wants to play matchups, utilizing the left-handed Diekman to face tough left-handed hitters who may come up in the seventh or eighth innings. Melvin has acknowledged that it’s “not ideal” to reserve Diekman for finishing games. While he may see the occasional save when a lefty-heavy portion of the lineup happens to be due up in the ninth inning, the right-handed Trivino is likely to get the majority of the opportunities.
Cleveland manager Terry Francona indicated that the team would not have a set closer to begin the season, and that’s more or less what we’ve seen play out so far. Nick Wittgren, Emmanuel Clase, and James Karinchak each have a save in the early going, although Clase now has three of them, giving him the upper hand at the moment. Clase and Karinchak both have the potential to be dominant closers if given the opportunity, while Wittgren is a boring but reliable reliever with plenty of late-inning experience. All three should continue to be rostered in save-hungry leagues until we get official confirmation from Francona that Clase (or someone else) is the guy.
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