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March 3, 2016

The -Only League Landscape

National League Relief Pitchers

by Scooter Hotz

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I wrote this article thinking that deep-league NL-only roto players already know who is closing for each team. I will mention the closer for each team as a reference, but I’ll spend more time talking about the non-closers in each bullpen.

Atlanta Braves

Jason Grilli will get the first shot at the closer role in Atlanta. The good: his K rates, ERA, and WHIP are excellent when he pitches. The bad: he’s 39 years old, he’s coming off a season that ended earlier due to injury, and he’s in the final year of his contract. Since the Braves are not expected to contend in 2016, they’ll be hoping for Grilli to stay healthy, avoid meltdowns, and rack up saves long enough for them to trade him for someone younger than 39 who will be under team control beyond 2016. Make sure to account for Grilli’s trade risk when setting your bid limits. If traded, he likely won’t be the closer with his new team. If your league doesn’t count stats for players traded to the AL, Grilli’s excellent strikeout numbers, ERA, and WHIP won’t help you.

Given Grilli’s age, health history, and trade risk, the guys behind Grilli are more likely to pick up saves than the non-closer relievers in most NL bullpens. The best of the lot is Arodys Vizcaino, who excelled in the closer role at the end of 2015 after Grilli hit the DL and Jim Johnson was traded. Vizcaino picked up nine saves in 10 chances with a 1.60 ERA, a 1.19 WHIP and slightly more than a strikeout per inning. These numbers are much better than those posted by Vizcaino in the past, but the improvements are likely real since Vizcaino added 2-3 MPH to his fastball in 2015. If Grilli is dealt or hits the DL again, expect Vizcaino to get the firs shot at closing in Atlanta. If Vizcaino isn’t closing games, he is still a good value proposition due to his Ks and rate stats.

Jim Johnson was traded by the Braves to the Dodgers last year after taking over closer duties from the injured Grilli. He re-signed with the Braves this year and looks to be third in line for saves behind Grilli and Vizcaino. If he’s not getting saves, Johnson doesn’t provide much value as a groundballer since he doesn’t strike out many batters and hasn’t allowed less than a hit per inning since 2012, the first of his two 50-save seasons. Since he doesn’t provide much in the non-save categories, Johnson probably isn’t worth rostering in standard leagues unless either Grilli or Vizcaino is removed from the picture prior to your auction, moving Johnson up to second in the pecking order. Even in that scenario, he wouldn’t be worth more than a $1 bid on auction day.

Miami Marlins

A.J. Ramos is the incumbent closer in Miami, but Carter Capps is everybody’s favorite sleeper. Of course, that means he isn’t a sleeper at all. Capps throws very hard, finishing fourth in average four-seam fastball velocity among relievers in MLB last year at 98.82 MPH. His fastball looks even harder than that with his hop-step delivery that lets him release the ball closer to home plate than just about anybody, giving hitters even less time to react. Capps also lead the majors last year among pitchers with 20 or more innings in K/9 at 16.8. All those strikeouts came with a 1.16 ERA alongside a 0.81 WHIP last year, making him a valuable contributor in roto leagues whether he’s getting saves or not.

The problem with Capps is his health. He only threw 31 innings last year due to an elbow problem, and he had an MRI on his elbow earlier this week. Any elbow issues will likely end his bid to unseat Ramos as the closer, although if Capps stays off the DL and keeps putting up numbers, Ramos and his uncomfortably high walk rates will be on a short leash. Before the MRI, more experts and home league roto owners flagged Capps as a sleeper than any other NL reliever. In a week or two, the results of Capps’ MRI and possible second opinion will determine if he retains his status as Everybody’s Sleeper, Bullpen Edition in 2016 NL-only auctions. If the MRI doesn’t show anything problematic and Capps appears to be on track for Opening Day, consider nominating Capps while everyone still has enough money left to chase Everybody’s Sleeper.

Mike Dunn was a decent non-closer relief option in deep NL-only leagues in 2013 and 2014 but surrendered most if not all of that value in 2015 with a 4.50 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP. His velocity was right in line with his 2013 and 2014 seasons but he allowed more walks and more baserunners. He also allowed more HR despite increasing his groundball percentage from 37 percent to 40 percent. With a return to the control he exhibited in 2013 and 2014 and slightly better luck in the HR/FB department, Dunn could return some value in 2016, but he’s third in line for saves at best and maybe lower than that.

New York Mets

Familia and his filthy stuff are firmly entrenched in the closer role in Queens despite the three blown saves on his ledger from last year’s World Series. Of course, the infielders behind Familia deserve more credit for those blown saves than Familia himself. He struck out more than a batter per inning in his stellar 2015 season while registering a 1.85 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP, so he provides more than job security for his roto owners, too.

Due to his experience in the closer role, Addison Reed is probably next in line if Familia implodes or lands on the DL. However, there are some warnings signs for the Mets’ right-handed setup man. In 2015, he posted a career-high BB/9, a career low K/9, and a career low in average four-seam fastball velocity while allowing more than a hit per inning and watching his groundball rate fall from 50 percent to 43 percent.

The lefty setup man for the Mets will be Antonio Bastardo, signed by the Mets for two years after a year in Pittsburgh. Thanks to pitching coach Ray Searage’s devil magic, Bastardo adding nearly a full mile per hour to his average fastball velocity with the Pirates last year while posting his lowest BB/9 rate since 2011, although at 4.08, his BB/9 rate still isn’t actually good. He manages to be a valuable bullpen piece despite the high walk rate by striking out a lot more than a batter per inning (11.0 career K/9) and allowing a lot less than a hit per inning (6.5 career H/9).

Philadelphia Phillies

David Hernandez is the frontrunner to be the closer for the Phillies on Opening Day. He returned from Tommy John surgery last June with the same 94 MPH velocity he had prior to surgery, although his results were not as good as his career numbers. With Tommy John survivors, control is often the last part of a pitchers’ skill set to return, but that wasn’t the case with Hernandez, as his BB/9 in 2015 was the lowest of his career. Hernandez struggled last year compared to earlier seasons because he allowed more hits, allowed more home runs, and struck out fewer batters. Signed to a one-year major league contract, the rebuilding Phillies are probably hoping for three or four productive months from Hernandez as their closer that will allow them to flip him at the deadline for someone younger with more cost-controlled years.

Three former closers will be with the Phillies in spring training this year on minor-league contracts: Ernesto Frieri, Edward Mujica, and Andrew Bailey. Frieri and Mujica haven’t held down full-time closer gigs since 2013, and Bailey hasn’t done so since 2011. Home runs have been the biggest problem for Frieri with a HR/9 rate well over two for the last two seasons. Mujica hardly ever walks anyone, but he doesn’t strike anyone out and allows a lot of hits, making his outcomes vary depending on his luck with balls in play. Bailey is a personal favorite of mine. He has filthy stuff but hasn’t made it through a full season healthy since 2009. I’ll be rooting for him, but he’s not a good bet for roto owners in 2016. Neither are Frieri and Mujica.

Luis Garcia is interesting. Maybe not worth rostering on opening day, even in deep NL-only leagues, but worth monitoring. He throws very hard but walks a lot of guys. So many, in fact, that his 5.0 BB/9 in 2015 was his career low by a wide margin. Given his velocity, the fact that he strikes out less than a batter per inning also stands out. Rostering him on opening day will likely torpedo your WHIP, but if he can reign in the walks, he could move up the pecking order quickly in the Phillies’ bullpen. That’s a big if, though.

Washington Nationals

Fan favorite Jonathan Papelbon doesn’t have the same velocity he had during his heyday in Boston, but he has made the adjustments he had to make to avoid the decline in performance that usually accompanies a decrease in velocity. With Drew Storen traded to the Blue Jays, Papelbon is one of the safest bets for saves in the NL and will probably be cheaper at auction than comparably safe NL closers due to his age and the fact that he’s transformed from a power pitcher into more of a finesse pitcher.

Shawn Kelley will be Papelbon’s setup man in Washington this year. He strikes out a lot of guys and puts up good rate stats but won’t have a shot at saves unless something happens to Papelbon. Kelley is still worth a look in the endgame of deep NL-only auctions since he can provide value in ERA, WHIP, and strikeouts without any saves. According to Mike Gianella’s valuations for 2015 NL-only leagues, Kelley earned $7 last year. He could do the same this year for $1 or $2 on auction day.

Felipe Rivero also earned $7 last year according to the same valuations largely through his 2.79 ERA and 0.95 WHIP. He’s a hard-throwing lefty who won’t get a shot at saves but could provide value in 2016 the same way. Trevor Gott is a hard-throwing righty acquired from the Angels for Yunel Escobar. He won’t get saves, either, but he’s not a bad $1 gamble for rate stats at the end of an auction.

Chicago Cubs

With a 1.67 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP in 2015, Hector Rondon returned a lot of value for his owners beyond saves. His 2.70 FIP in 2015 suggests that his rate stats might not be quite that good in 2016, but his 2015 BABIP was in line with his BABIPs over the last couple of seasons and his groundball percentage increased by three percentage points in 2015, so he might be a better bet to maintain his stellar rate stats than most pitchers who outperform their FIP. He’s secure in his role as closer, although manager Joe Maddon is known for his unconventional deployment of talent, so Rondon might end up utilized in more high-leverage non-save situations than most closers.

Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm were both valuable last year in the same way. They both throw hard, strike out a lot of batters, and walk a lot of batters. Despite the walks, Strop posted a 2.91 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP while Grimm posted a 1.99 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP. If anything happens to Rondon, one of these two will be the first candidate for saves.

Travis Wood will almost certainly not get any saves in 2016 unless they’re the three-inning kind. He can return a lot of value, though, providing more than a strikeout per inning in considerably more innings than any short relievers since the Cubs use Wood as a long reliever and spot starter. Those extra innings mean that Wood will provide more strikeouts than just about any reliever available, even the elite ones.

Cincinnati Reds

Barring a spring training meltdown, J.J. Hoover will be the Reds’ closer on opening day. His numbers tell a pretty interesting story:

Year

IP

H/9

BB/9

HR/9

K/9

GB%

ERA

WHIP

2014

62 2/3

8.0

4.5

1.9

10.8

29%

4.88

1.39

2015

64 1/3

6.2

4.3

1.0

7.3

44%

2.94

1.17

Hoover gave up way too many HR in 2014. He seems to have traded strikeouts for groundballs in an effort to change that, increasing his groundball percentage from 29 percent to 44 percent while his K rate dropped from 10.8 to 7.3. The reinvention worked, as Hoover’s ERA and WHIP in 2015 were significantly better than they were in 2014. Groundball pitchers who strike out significantly less than a batter per inning don’t match the usual closer profile, although Brad Ziegler and Zach Britton made this formula work last year and Jim Johnson used this formula to save 50-plus games twice earlier this decade. More important for Hoover’s job security, though, is the fact that Hoover will have little competition for the closer role in Cincinnati as they rebuild.

Jumbo Diaz is probably next in line for saves behind Hoover. He strikes out more than a batter per inning but walks enough batters to make him a WHIP risk for roto owners. The same applies to Blake Wood, a hard-throwing lefty who strikes out tons of batters but has an on-again, off-again relationship with the strike zone. Wood spent last year in Triple-A as the closer for the Indianapolis Indians, registering 29 saves. Due to the potential damage Diaz and Wood could do a team’s WHIP, they’re not worth rostering unless Hoover starts looking shaky.

Milwaukee Brewers

Spring training is an open competition between Will Smith and Jeremy Jeffress for the Brewers’ closer job. Smith’s situational value as a lefty might hurt his chances of securing the closer job. Jeffess’ recent hamstring strain, which isn’t serious but has cost him a few days so far in training camp, could put him behind Smith in their competition. Smith strikes out a lot more batters than Jeffress, although Jeffress is no slouch when it comes to striking out batters. Smith struck out 12.93 batters per nine innings in 2015 compared to Jeffress’ 8.87 K/9. Smith also walks more batters than Jeffress, posting a 3.41 BB/9 compared to Jeffress’ 2.91. Right now, I’d lean towards putting a dollar or two more on Smith than Jeffress, but that’s mostly due to Smith’s outstanding strikeout numbers. As for saves, I’d give a slight edge to Smith. The situation is fluid, though, and if you ask me a week from now, I might say Jeffress.

Corey Knebel was acquired from the Rangers in the Yovani Gallardo trade. He posted impressive numbers in 2015 with a 3.22 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 58 strikeouts in 50.3 innings. He’s firmly behind Smith and Jeffress in the pecking order for saves, but he could provide $3-4 in profit for roto owners who pick him up for $1 at the end of their auctions via his contributions in ERA, WHIP, and K.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Coming off a 2015 season with 51 saves, a 2.23 ERA, and a 0.93 WHIP, Mark Melancon has a strong hold on the closer role in Pittsburgh. He’s not a flamethrowing strikeout machine like a lot of closers, but he strikes out a decent number of batters, doesn’t give up many walks or hits, and gets a lot of groundballs. He’s not exciting, but he’s effective and he has excellent job security.

Tony Watson is one of the best non-closing relievers in the NL if not the best. He’s a lefty but he’s not a LOOGY, as right-handed batters have almost as hard a time against him as left-handed ones. With only one save in 2015, Watson earned $12 in NL-only leagues according to Mike Gianella’s valuations, mostly due to his 1.91 ERA and 0.96 WHIP. He threw his four-seam fastball at an average of 93.9 MPH last year and threw his sinker even harder at 94.7 MPH. With his velocity, his ability to get both right-handed and left-handed batters out, and his excellent rate stats, Watson would be the clear choice for saves here if anything happens to Melancon. Even if he has another one-save season, he’s still a decent bet to deliver $7-12 in earnings for roto owners at a salary that’s likely to be $5 or less.

Neftali Feliz is hoping to add his name to the list of successful reclamation projects on Ray Searage’s resume. He had a 1.99 ERA and a 0.98 WHIP in his 31.7 IP return from Tommy John surgery in 2014, but those numbers were misleading. His 4.93 FIP was a much better predictor of the struggles to come since then – his ERA hs been over six in each of the past two seasons. His average fastball velocity is two MPH slower than it was in his peak seasons, although it was 1.5 MPH harder in 2015 than it was in 2014. He’s not a good bet for 2016 as he’s likely to do serious damage to a roto team’s rate stats. If anyone can figure out how to get Feliz back on track, though, it’s Searage and the Pirates.

St. Louis Cardinals

In 2015, Trevor Rosenthal addressed his biggest problem from 2014, reducing his BB/9 from 5.4 in 2014 to 3.3 in 2015. Rosenthal also registered a career in average four-seam fastball velocity last year at 98.5 MPH. If job security were a category, he’d be among the league leaders.

Kevin Siegrist has been one of my favorite non-closing relievers for the last few years. He strikes out batters prolifically with an 11.0 career K/9 although he walks too many batters, posting a 4.2 BB/9. He features a 95-MPH four-seam fastball and an 86-MPH changeup, and dabbles with a slider at 81-82 MPH. In Mike Gianella’s valuations, Siegrist earned $13 last year with 90 strikeouts in 74 2/3 innings along with a 2.17 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP. He won’t get more than a save or two, even if Trevor Rosenthal ends up on the DL a week into the season, but he can still return $7 - $12 in earnings with his excellent rate stats and strikeouts. Siegrist still presents a mild WHIP risk due to his walk rate and reliever performance can be volatile year-to-year, so don’t pay more than $3 at auction. However, you probably won’t have to.

Jonathan Broxton seemed to turn things around last year after being traded from Milwaukee to St. Louis. His ERA with the Brewers was 5.89 compared to 2.66 with the Cardinals. That drop in ERA is misleading, though, as his FIP (3.73 with MIL, 3.58 with STL) and WHIP (1.39 with MIL, 1.35 with STL) barely decreased following the move. Broxton is the more familiar of the two pitchers in line for saves should Rosenthal falter or land on the DL.

The other pitcher who could set up for Rosenthal and step into the closer role if needed is Seung-Hwan Oh. He has been a top relief pitcher for the last decade in Korea and Japan but has yet to make his professional debut in North America. If he performs well, he should be able to surpass Broxton as Rosenthal’s setup man and next in line for saves. PECOTA projects 58 innings with a 3.46 ERA, a 1.21 WHIP and 56 strikeouts for Oh based on his statistics from Korea and Japan. The error bars on translated stats from leagues in other countries are much bigger than the error bars on minor league translations though, so keep that in mind. Oh might be worth a $1 flier in case he ends up outperforming his translated statistics.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Brad Ziegler doesn’t check any of the boxes on the checklist for a typical closer profile except for the two most important ones: he gets guys out and he gets saves. He throws sidearm and maybe underhand depending on your interpretation. He doesn’t throw hard with an average fastball velocity of 85 MPH in 2015, more than ten MPH slower than several other pitchers mentioned in this article. He doesn’t strike anyone out, posting a 4.8 K/9 rate last year. And he’s old, entering his age-36 season, although he has been durable throughout his career, throwing at least 58.3 innings every year since 2008. What he does is get ground balls, and he does it really well. His 75 percent ground ball rate from last year is both astounding and not even the best mark of his career. After Addison Reed imploded last year, Ziegler was so reliable in the closer role that the Diamondbacks plan on keeping him in that role this year despite the acquisition of sometimes-closer Tyler Clippard.

Tyler Clippard has been one of the most reliable relief pitchers in baseball over the last few years with an ERA under 3.00 in each of the last three seasons. He has also been remarkably durable, throwing at least 70 innings every season since 2010. If Ziegler has any performance or health issues, Clippard is the obvious first choice as his replacement. However, as a flyball pitcher, Clippard might not enjoy pitching in homer-friendly Chase Field as much as he liked pitching in the O.co Coliseum or Citi Field last season. Clippard is worth a $1-2 bid at auction in NL-only leagues, but owners who roster him will need to be ready to release him if his home-run rate spikes.

Dan Hudson made it through 2015 healthy after several injury-marred seasons including two Tommy John surgeries. The average velocity on his four-seam fastball in 2015 was 97.1 MPH, a career high. If his stuff continues to play up in the bullpen and he builds on his solid 2015 performance, he could move past Clippard into the setup role and could even end up as the Diamondbacks first option for saves if Ziegler falters.

Colorado Rockies

Aquired from Tampa for Corey Dickerson during the offseason, Jake McGee is expected to be the opening day closer in Colorado. Moving to Coors Field is never good for a pitcher, especially one coming from a pitcher-friendly park. However, McGee’s stuff should play anywhere. In 2015, McGee posted outstanding rate stats: 11.6 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 6.5 H/9, 0.7 HR/9, 2.41 ERA, and 0.94 WHIP. 2015 was McGee’s second consecutive season with a WHIP under 1.00, and his 2015 FIP of 2.30 suggests that there was nothing flukish about his ERA and WHIP last season. If there’s one thing to worry about with McGee besides his new home park, it’s the fact that his average four-seam fastball velocity dropped last year from 97.3 MPH in 2013 and 97.5 MPH in 2014 to 95.6 MPH in 2015. However, there are no indications that McGee’s health is compromised in any way, and the rest of the options in the Colorado bullpen shouldn’t present much of a challenge to a healthy McGee.

Jason Motte and Chad Qualls were expected to be in an open competition for the closer role prior to the Rockies’ acquisition of McGee. Both are solid veteran relievers with limited upside. As such, relief prospect Jairo Diaz was expected to challenge Motte and/or Qualls for the closer role by the end of 2016. Due to his prospect pedigree and 97-98 MPH fastball, Diaz is the most interesting of these three as options behind McGee. His strikeout rate dropped in 2015, though, from significantly more than a strikeout per inning across all levels in 2014 to less than a strikeout per inning across all levels in 2015.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Kenley Jansen is the clear choice as the top closer in the NL after the defections of Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel to the junior circuit. His 2015 season started late due to a foot injury, but once he returned, he was his usual dominant self. His rate stats and strikeouts provide surplus value for roto owners beyond his saves. He faces little competition from the rest of the Dodgers’ bullpen. With a clean bill of health heading into 2016, feel free to bid heavily on Jansen.

Chris Hatcher was the setup man behind Jansen at the end of 2015 and the most likely pitcher to fill that role going into 2016. He throws hard and strikes out more than a batter per inning while allowing less than a hit per inning with a middling walk rate. Hatcher earned $5 in NL-only leagues last year and is a decent $1 flier in NL-only leagues this year.

Pedro Baez and Yimi Garcia are similar pitchers. 2015 was the first full season in the majors for both of them. Both have good control, posting BB/9 rates below 2.00 in 2015. Both strike out more than a batter per inning. Baez throws harder, but otherwise, their profiles are hard to tell apart, which is to say that both are solid relievers right now with strikeout stuff and good control who could get better with more experience under their belts. Neither Baez nor Garcia will be deposing a healthy Jansen as the Dodgers’ closer any time soon, but both could provide some value towards the end of NL-only auctions as $1 staff fillers who could easily return $4 - $6 in value with their strikeouts, ERA and WHIP.

San Diego Padres

Fernando Rodney is one of the most frustrating players to own in roto unless you’re Mike Gianella in my AL-only home league in 2012. He had a great season in Seattle in 2014 but was so bad in 2015 that the Mariners released him because they couldn’t find a trade partner willing to give up anything of value for him. He has always walked too many batters and 2015 was no exception. His K/9 dropped from 11.1 in 2013 and 10.3 in 2014 to 8.3 in 2015, his lowest mark in that category since 2011. While Rodney is the frontrunner for saves in San Diego to start the 2015 season, he’s also the frontrunner to be the first NL closer to lose their job in 2016.

Kevin Quackenbush is the best bet for saves in San Diego after Rodney despite the fact that his 2015 ERA was more than a run and a half higher than his 2014 ERA. He doesn’t throw as hard as Rodney but he walks less batters. Of course, that’s damning with faint praise, since most MLB pitchers walk less batters than Rodney. Nick Vincent outperformed both Rodney and Quackenbush in 2015 in terms of ERA with a 2.35 mark but that was largely illusory given his 3.9 BB/9 and 1.52 WHIP. Quackenbush is worth $1 or $2 as a bet against Rodney. Vincent isn’t worth the WHIP risk.

The Padres have brought Casey Janssen to spring training on a minor league contract. He was awful for the Nationals in 2015. His struggles were largely attributable to a shoulder injury suffered in spring training in 2015, which kept him on the DL until May and probably hampered his performance all year. Of course, a shoulder injury doesn’t excuse Janssen’s poor performance in 2015, since pitchers are less likely to recover from shoulder injuries than other types of arm injuries. Janssen is a longshot to even make the Padres’ roster out of spring training and he’s not worth even a $1 bid in NL-only auctions. But if Janssen makes the team and Rodney blows a few saves in a row, think about spending a little FAAB on Janssen. He is a proven closer, after all, just like Rodney.

San Francisco Giants

Santiago Casilla has been announced as the Giants’ Opening Day closer. He’s not an elite reliever and he’s not young any more, but there’s no reason to believe that he won’t be able to hold on to the job.

Should Casilla have any issues in the ninth inning, Sergio Romo or Hunter Strickland would be next in line for saves. Romo has closed for the Giants in the past until his own struggles led to Casilla inheriting the role. Romo is reliable with great control and good strikeout rates, but manager Bruce Bochy doesn’t use Romo on consecutive days due to Romo’s past nagging injuries. That means that even if Romo is named closer at some point, some extra saves will be available for others the day after Romo closes out a game. He’s a decent late-auction pickup since he’s a decent bet to provide value with his strikeouts and rate stats even if he doesn’t get any saves.

Hunter Strickland fits the closer profile more closely than Casilla or Romo. He’s young, he’s big, and he lights up the radar gun. He also put up a 2.45 ERA and a 0.86 WHIP in 2015, better marks than Casilla or Romo. If something happens to Casilla, nobody would be surprised if Bochy turned to Strickland instead of Romo. While Strickland will provide value in strikeouts and rate stats, he might not be available at auction at a price that gives roto owners room for profit. He hasn’t quite reached Everybody’s Sleeper status like Carter Capps, but he’s close. In fact, that makes him a good player to nominate in the early or middle rounds of an NL-only auction. If owners might chase a sleeper past a reasonable bid, it’s better to get the bidding started on those players while everyone still has money to chase with.

Scooter Hotz is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Scooter's other articles. You can contact Scooter by clicking here

Related Content:  Saves,  Closers,  Fantasy,  Relief Pitchers

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