June 27, 2013
Stuck in the Middle
Welcome to another installment of The Bullpen Report. As a reminder, closers are rated in five tiers from best to worst. The tiers are a combination of my opinion of a pitcher’s ability, the likelihood that he will pick up saves, and his security in the job. For example, a pitcher in the third tier might have better skills than a pitcher in the second tier, but if the third tier pitcher is new to the job or has blown a couple of saves in the last week this factors into the ranking as well.
Last week, one of my readers wanted to know why I didn’t have a middle reliever in the top tier. Although middle relievers are integral in some leagues, I have not been ranking them due to the fact that their value is vastly different depending upon each league’s rules. In leagues that use holds as a separate category, non-closers carry a great deal of value. In standard mixed leagues with no start limits, you might not feel the need to carry a middle reliever on your staff at all. My goal is to take a cursory look at a handful of valuable middle relief arms in a non-holds, deeper-league, standard Roto format.
Tier 1 – Money in the Bank
For different reasons, I resisted moving Parnell and Nathan to the top tier, but I am finally succumbing. I was skeptical of Parnell due to a not-quite-elite whiff rate and a lack of a track record heading into 2013, but he has been terrific. The opportunities have started coming as well. Nathan’s age and health history have made me wary about him for two years running, but once again, Nathan is pitching like a lights-out closer. He belongs here, too.
Tier 2 – Solid and Reliable
Gregg and Cishek are poor man’s versions of Parnell. I’m not thrilled about moving either one of them up, but both have performed. Gregg has not blown a save this year and his overall numbers are terrific. If I were certain he isn’t a major trade candidate, I might even consider bumping him to the top tier. Cishek had a bad stretch but has since bounced back in a big way; he has been automatic since the Marlins announced they might go with a committee.
Tier 3 – Yeah…You’re…Good
The deck is shuffled in its entirety for Tier 3 this week. Balfour moves down because—despite his impressive consecutive saves streak—the peripheral numbers remain uninspiring. He can’t move any lower than this unless he blows some saves, but I’d rather have any pitcher in the first two tiers. Papelbon should move down further based on recent performance, but given his sizable contract is probably at no risk of losing his job unless he has another bad week. I have been on the Mujica bandwagon for weeks and dismissing the Trevor Rosenthal crowd as wish-casting, but now I have to wonder. Mujica’s strikeout rate is down considerably of late and I can’t help wondering if hitters are simply going to wait out his splitter and go after a fairly hittable fastball. He’s safe for now, but this bears watching.
Rodney has been a yo-yo this year, moving up and down between tiers all season long. He is back at the point where he looks okay to own again, which surely means he’s about to blow a couple of saves and drive the Rays and his fantasy owners nuts. He won’t be the elite guy he was in 2012.
Uehara starts out in the third tier—a high compliment for a newly minted closer. I won’t go quite so far to say the concerns about him pitching on back-to-back days are ridiculous, but they are likely overblown. Many relievers don’t do as well on zero days’ rest; Uehara is merely another face in this crowd, not an outlier. The high strikeout rates make him a great add (although he’s surely gone even in standard mixed leagues).
Tier 4 Uninspiring Choices
Veras sits all by himself in the discount bin. His job seems safe, but he has enough ups and downs that, like Rodney, it’s unlikely he will move past the third tier.
Tier 5 – On the Bubble
The list of tenuous closers is staggering. This is where saves leagues are often won and lost: by paying attention to what’s happening on the margins, pouncing when the opportunity is right, and hanging tight when you think your guy still might be a factor.
There are enough pitchers here where a sub-grouping is in order, of most likely closers to least likely closers.
Padres – Street probably isn’t going anywhere. That being said, his numbers stink. With Brandon League out of the picture for the Dodgers, Street grabs the title of “poorest skills for a standing closer in baseball.”
Indians/Rockies –Betancourt and Perez are likely to get their jobs back as soon as they return from the disabled list. Brothers has been fine but the Rockies are likely to go with the veteran Betancourt. Pestano hasn’t been very good, which means the Tribe is likely to go back to Perez. However, Perez was not very good when he was healthy. In deeper mixed leagues, stashing a non-Pestano/Perez arm as a contingency plan isn’t the worst idea.
Tigers – Jose Valverde is finally kaput. Benoit’s skills are solid; the only concern surrounding him is the back-to-back outing concerns that surround his Boston counterpart Uehara. Like Uehara, I think Benoit will be fine, though it’s possible the Tigers seek outside help at the trade deadline.
Diamondbacks – Bell has been awful, allowing a home run in his last five outings. Bell and the team are both making brave noises about him still being the closer and being able to fix what ails him, but it’s pretty likely that he is done. J.J. Putz completed an important step of his rehab assignment on Tuesday, pitching on back-to-back days for the first time. As I write this, it isn’t clear whether Putz will be activated immediately or if he will go on another rehab outing. Either way, my suspicion is that Putz will supplant Bell in the ninth as soon as he is good to go.
Brewers – Rodriguez now has his 300th save. Amen. However, I’m still not convinced that Henderson is a mortal lock to get his job back. If I had to guess, I’d guess Henderson the rest of the way, but as I have been saying for the past three weeks, I don’t have a good feel for this bullpen at all.
Mariners – The last reliever to get a save in this bullpen was Yoervis Medina, back on June 18. Before that, Oliver Perez picked up a save on June 14. All of this uncertainty makes it likely that Tom Wilhelmsen will probably get his job back in a week or two once he gets a few more solid outings under his belt. If the Mariners were going to make a change, it’s probably a toss up between Medina and Perez. Carter Capps is a mess right now and—despite a high strikeout rate—wouldn’t get the job at the moment.
Unless you are in a shallow mixed league, you are aware of Jesse Crain’s strong work. As great as Crain has been, though, he is “only” the ninth-best middle reliever on the charts below. He also isn’t in line for saves at the moment, since Addison Reed is definitely the closer. Matt Thornton is the “name” reliever in this bullpen at this point. Once upon a time, Thornton was what Crain has become: a great reliever who wasn’t in line for saves. Now, Thornton can be left for only the deepest leagues.
The Rangers have a number of solid arms behind Nathan. Tanner Scheppers’ five wins have boosted his value quite a bit, but he’s not the strongest reliever in this pen. That would probably be Robbie Ross, who has quietly put up a 1.51 ERA with peripherals that are still pretty solid. Joakim Soria might be back soon, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Ross was the go to guy if Nathan couldn’t answer the bell. Neal Cotts has also been solid. The Rangers bullpen has quietly been one of the best in the majors this year.
Al Alburquerue is always mentioned as a potential closer candidate, but he makes Carlos Marmol look like Greg Maddux. As long as Alburquerque is walking the park he can’t be taken seriously as a potential ninth-inning guy.
When a new closer is inserted, the back-ups always have to be viewed in a new light. Junichi Tazawa is still solid and with all of the problems that Andrew Bailey has had has to be considered next in line if Uehara falters. Miller is a strikeout machine but, with a walk rate over five per nine, is probably not an option.
David Hernandez could go if Putz can’t stay healthy and if Bell isn’t fixed. It is telling that the team won’t go with Hernandez as bad as Bell’s struggles have been. Hernandez continues to be a fine middle-relief option but probably won’t close.
On the $ Values
Dollar values in the charts below represent my 2012 dollar valuations for 5x5 “only” Rotisserie-style formats using 2013 player statistics. These values use a Standings Gain Points (or SGP) model that is similar to the SGP model used in Baseball Prospectus’ Player Forecast Manager.
Closer Earnings to Date (through games of Tuesday, June 25, 2013)
Top Reliever Earnings, Non-Closers (through games of Tuesday, June 25, 2013)