Fantasy Baseball Closer Report: Week 14 (2021)
It’s officially July, which means summer is in full swing, the fantasy baseball season is halfway over, and it’s time to start thinking about who might get moved ahead of the July 30 trade deadline.
The trade deadline has particular importance for closers, whose fantasy value is largely a byproduct of the opportunity to pick up saves. That has led to a fairly seismic shakeup in this week’s closer rankings.
At this point in the season, I would prefer to roster a good late-inning reliever who is sharing closer duties for a contending team over an exclusive closer on a bad team who is likely to get traded into a set-up role. In other words, give me James Karinchak, Emmanuel Clase, Diego Castillo, J.P. Feyereisen, Tyler Rogers, and Jake McGee over Ian Kennedy, Richard Rodriguez, and Daniel Bard.
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Now onto this week’s closer ranks:
New York Yankees
Look, I don't want to overreact to Aroldis Chapman's struggles. He was the best closer in baseball over the season's first two months. But given just how bad he's been lately -- and how good so many other closers have been -- I've got no choice but to drop him down the elevator shaft this week.
On Wednesday, Chapman walked the bases loaded and then served up a game-tying grand slam (the first of his career) to the Angels' Jared Walsh. That wasn't his first meltdown of the month, either. All told, Chapman has allowed 11 earned runs over his last 5 2/3 innings, a stunning turn of fortunes for a future Hall of Famer. He has also walked eight batters over his last four outings, so he isn't doing himself any favors.
Chapman's fastball velocity was slightly down in his most recent appearance, but that's not enough to go on yet. He's likely just going through a tough stretch and will turn things around soon, but it wouldn't be shocking if the Yankees decide to give him a little break from the closer role. If that happens, it's unclear whether Chad Green or Jonathan Loaisiga would step in, but both have been pitching well enough to be interesting speculative adds.
I've been reluctant to call the A's closer situation anything other than a committee all season, but we've reached the point where it's time to call it like it is. While I always considered Lou Trivino the favorite for saves as the right-handed member of a committee with lefty Jake Diekman, Trivino now has seven saves since Diekman last earned one way back on May 26. Trivino's 13th save came on Wednesday against the Rangers, where he was permitted to face off with left-handed hitters Joey Gallo and Nate Lowe, as well as switch-hitter Jonah Heim.
Maybe manager Bob Melvin will eventually decide to switch things up, and Diekman will get three or four saves in a row. But for now, this certainly doesn't have the look of a committee.
Tampa Bay Rays
Part of the reason the Rays move up this week is simply that at this point of the season, I'd prefer a committee member on a contender over a current closer on a losing team who is likely to get dealt. But there's another reason, too.
Pete Fairbanks has been horrendous over the second half of June, allowing 10 earned runs in his last 4 2/3 innings, and at this point, it is hard to imagine Kevin Cash entrusting him with a save chance. That leaves closer duties to Diego Castillo and J.P. Feyereisen, who have both continued to pitch well for the most part. As the saying goes, "Two's company, three's a crowd." That is certainly true for the fantasy value of closer committees.
It's now July, which means it's officially time to start worrying about fantasy closers on losing teams getting dealt into situations where they'll serve as set-up men. Exhibit 1A is the Pirates' Richard Rodriguez, who allowed three runs in mop-up duty on Thursday night, but has put together a very nice season overall (2.59 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 10 saves).
The Blue Jays are reportedly among multiple teams looking into acquiring Rodriguez, and while Jordan Romano is relatively new to the closer role, Rodriguez may not have the stature necessary to overtake him automatically. Rodriguez would likely be even less likely to take over the ninth for most other contending teams. The fact that trade talks are already heating up suggests that Rodriguez could get dealt well ahead of the July 30 trade deadline, so fantasy managers should enjoy the saves while they can still get them.
San Diego Padres
Mark Melancon was touched up for two runs on Thursday night in Cincinnati, but that's not really why he falls a couple of spots this week. The real issue is that while he leads all of baseball with 25 saves, he simply isn't as dominant a closer as the names above him on this list.
Melancon's 7.59 K/9 rate is extremely mediocre, especially for a late-inning reliever, and his pedestrian 3.79 BB/9 rate has kept his WHIP over 1.20 despite very favorable batted ball results. Statcast data indicates that he has been quite fortunate in terms of batting average and slugging percentage allowed, and his ERA is likely to rise substantially once his .250 BABIP and 85.6 percent strand rate normalize. Melancon has tons of job security, and the save chances should continue to flow on a loaded Padres squad, but he doesn't project to be an elite source of ERA, WHIP, or Ks over the rest of the season.
St. Louis Cardinals
You might say that I've been slow to come around on Alex Reyes. I love the talent, and I've consistently ranked him in my top-12 closers, so it's not like I hate the guy. I've just been skeptical that he could maintain this level of success while walking over seven batters per nine innings.
Well, Reyes hasn't walked a batter in any of his last three outings, covering four innings in total. Before that stretch, Reyes had walked at least one batter in nine of his previous 10 outings and 14 of his last 17. It's a small sample of improved control, to be sure, but it's something I'll be keeping a close eye on over the next couple of weeks. The walk rate is the only thing keeping Reyes from vaulting into my top tier of fantasy closers.
Brad Hand has been everything fantasy managers could have hoped for and more this season, piling up 18 saves with a 2.60 ERA and 1.07 WHIP through the season's first three months. But I'm beginning to wonder whether he can keep it up if Dave Martinez keeps trotting him out there as often as he has been lately. Hand has made 12 appearances since June 9, and four of those have been multi-inning appearances (five if you count him pitching in both ends of a double-header on June 12). This week, Martinez used him on three consecutive days, with the middle outing being over an inning.
I get that Washington is short of reliable late-inning options with Daniel Hudson on the IL, but the Nats seem to be pushing their luck with the 31-year old Hand. The All-Star Break -- and Hudson's impending return -- are probably coming at a good time for both the Nationals and fantasy managers who roster the team's closer.
The Mariners' last two saves have gone to Drew Steckenrider and Paul Sewald, but Steckenrider's came in extra innings, and Sewald's was a multi-inning appearance in a game Seattle ended up winning by five. Kendall Graveman picked up the two saves before that and remains the clear favorite for saves in Seattle at the moment, if not the exclusive closer.
Graveman's reduced velocity is a concern, and he has only four strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings since returning from the injured list, but he's still sporting a smooth 1.11 ERA. He's due for some pretty sizable regression, but he can still have decent fantasy value as the M's primary stopper -- as long as they don't turn into sellers at the trade deadline.
When last we checked on Joe Girardi's Phillies, Girardi was "thinking about" removing Hector Neris from the closer role. Girardi ultimately declared that Jose Alvarado would get the first chance to replace Neris, as many expected. But then Alvarado blew a save chance on the front end of a June 25 doubleheader, and Neris picked up his 11th save in the nightcap. Two days later, Archie Bradley earned a save. On Tuesday, Alvarado finally picked up his first save since being quasi-named the closer, but not before issuing a walk, a wild pitch, and giving up a two-run homer.
What can we conclude from all of this? This situation is a steaming bag of dog doo, that's what. Alvarado doesn't seem to have the job to himself despite Girardi's comments. He has given up three earned runs over his last two outings, and his heinous 7.42 BB/9 rate hardly inspires confidence. Bradley, meanwhile, is barely striking out more batters than he's walking and has a 6.56 expected ERA. That brings us back to the enigmatic Neris, who is hardly pitching great himself lately, but still seems like a decent bet to eventually earn his job back due to the uninspiring alternatives. You're welcome to roster any of these guys if you really need saves, but don't expect it to be a smooth ride.
Adam Plutko and Dillon Tate both earned saves for the O's over the last week, but there's nothing to see here. Plutko was called on to rescue Paul Fry after Fry was asked to pitch two innings in a game Baltimore was leading by five heading into the bottom of the ninth. The next day, Tate threw the final 2 2/3 innings in a game the Orioles ended up winning by 10.
Fry and Cole Sulser remain the two primary candidates for saves in Baltimore, but as with late-inning relievers on other bad teams, the issue is how many chances they'll get -- and whether they'll be dealt at the trade deadline.
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