If there is anything I’ve learned from writing this piece, it’s that you never, ever need to reach for closers in the draft. Sure, you want to make sure you get at least one of the top guys if only for peace of mind, but look who we’re talking about this week. Mark Melancon? Vicente Padilla? Eduardo Sanchez? We’re only a month into the season, these guys look like they could be viable closing options, and I guarantee you no one was thinking about them at draft time. We’ll keep seeing this, too–almost certainly, later in the season at least one arm will get ninth inning duties who you’ve never even heard of right now.
Joining the Party
Mark Melancon, Astros (0.0 percent ESPN / 3 percent Yahoo)
That is right, we’re skipping Mark Melancon–owned in barely a single league and without a single career save to his name–right past the “deep value” list and into the main section. Why? Because Brandon Lyon has probably pitched his way right out of the ninth inning after blowing his fourth save in eight tries Wednesday afternoon against Cincinnati. Lyon didn’t retire a single one of the five Reds he saw, walking the leadoff man and then giving up four consecutive hits. Considering that he was a lower-tier option without a long history of closing success in the first place, it’s unlikely Lyon gets too much more rope with which to hang himself.
The main problem for Houston, however, is that there is no obvious option to replace Lyon, like there was when he stepped in for Matt Lindstrom last season. Wilton Lopez briefly made an appearance on this list last year thanks to an absurd ten-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio, but even then he was only striking out 6.7 per nine innings. Lopez got off to a slow start this year before missing several weeks with a sore elbow and only returned yesterday, so it seems unlikely he gets thrown into the role. The other Houston options, like Enerio Del Rosario, Jeff Fulchino, and Fernando Abad, leave a lot to be desired.
All of which leaves former Yankee farmhand Melancon, acquired in last year’s Lance Berkman deal, as the possible closer-by-default. He is almost certainly not as good as his 1.72 ERA suggests, though he has managed to get through 17 of his 19 games without allowing a run. By the standards of the current Houston bullpen, that counts as extraordinary work.
[UPDATE: Based on two tweets from Alyson Footer, Astros Sr. Director of Social Media, Houston manager Brad Mills has announced that Lyon is suffering from biceps tendonitis and is headed for an MRI. More relevant to you, Mills also said that Melancon will get the first crack at the 9th innng. That means there's now a closer available in over 99% of leagues, and that makes him worth a pickup, immediately.]
Eduardo Sanchez, Cardinals (10.5 percent ESPN / 15 percent Yahoo)
I’ve all but given up trying to forecast the whims of Tony La Russa, because, over the last week, three different Cardinal relievers have had saves–and none of them were original closer Ryan Franklin or presumed replacement Mitchell Boggs. I think we can at least count out Trever Miller, who picked up his in extra innings, but whether the flavor of the moment is Boggs, Sanchez, Fernando Salas, or even Franklin seems to change by the day. Despite all of the turmoil in the late innings, the Cardinals continue to lead the division.
It was Sanchez who got the call for the save on Tuesday, after Salas pitched the fifth and sixth innings in relief of Kyle McClellan, and he has been the favorite around here due to his excellent strikeout numbers (18 in 11 innings). That said, if LaRussa’s actions have proven anything lately, it’s that he is going to go with the hot hand. This is the definition of closer by committee (and heaven help me, I haven’t even talked about Miguel Batista yet), so don’t expect anyone to claim for themselves soon. Still, Sanchez has good swing-and-miss stuff and the opportunity for saves, so he is absolutely worth owning until the situation sorts itself out somewhat.
Vicente Padilla, Dodgers (3.6 percent ESPN / 13 percent Yahoo)
As I said last week, Padilla was an interesting player not just because he appeared to be part of a three-headed Dodger closer committee with Jonathan Broxton and Hong-Chih Kuo, but because he was eligible as a starting pitcher. I picked him up that same day and have since been rewarded with a save and two holds out of what is otherwise a wasted starting pitcher spot.
But much has changed in Los Angeles over the last week. Broxton continued to struggle, getting lifted in the ninth on Tuesday after throwing eight straight balls, and has now been shut down with elbow discomfort. (A disabled list stint is uncertain, but likely.) Kuo returned seemingly prematurely from his own injury concerns, inspiring no confidence by retiring just one of the five Padres he faced on Sunday, and the Dodgers recently shipped Kenley Jansen to the minors, despite a historic strikeout rate.
Padilla has been effective, though not dominating, in his return from arm surgery, and with the Dodger bullpen facing the troubles they are, that is good enough. Padilla is still freely available in nearly every league, however, and that is a fact which ought to change soon.
Darren Oliver, Rangers (19.6 percent ESPN / 13 percent Yahoo)
Filling in for Neftali Feliz, Oliver has run into a few issues, first collecting two saves but then being charged with two losses. It hasn’t helped that save situations have been few and far between for a Texas team which had dropped seven of nine entering play on Wednesday. Feliz was to begin a rehab assignment this week and could be activated as soon as this weekend, if all goes well. It’s worth holding on to Oliver for a few more days until Feliz returns and proves himself, but it’s clear that Oliver’s time is growing short.
Antonio Bastardo, Phillies (4.5 percent ESPN / 8 percent Yahoo)
Bastardo has been excellent so far, allowing just one earned run in eleven games through Wednesday, striking out eighteen against just five walks. There just haven’t been a lot of save chances for either Bastardo or Ryan Madson, as both Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels have gone the distance in the last week, in addition to two regularly scheduled off-days. Madson has been fine too, yet hasn’t had a save chance since April 23. Should the Phillies ever take a tight lead into the ninth without their starter in again, Madson will get the chance to close, though Bastardo may gain consideration as well.
Chris Sale, White Sox (10.8 percent ESPN / 30 percent Yahoo)
Sale’s bid to reclaim a place of prominence in the turbulent Chicago bullpen has been derailed by a few tough outings, as he allowed seven baserunners over his last two innings. Just like every other pitcher who has ever run into issues, Sale claims that it’s a mechanical flaw which he has identified and corrected. I haven’t given up on him just yet, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if we’re still discussing him in this space a month from now. For the moment, though, Sale isn’t performing and Sergio Santos seems to have taken command of the ninth inning. Until at least one of those things changes, Sale’s fantasy relevance is minimal.
Koji Uehara, Orioles (3.8 percent ESPN / 23 percent Yahoo)
Uehara isn’t on the disabled list yet, so his season has been a success already. But if you were hoping that Kevin Gregg’s early struggles would lead to a competition in the ninth, it hasn’t happened–Gregg has had five straight scoreless outings entering Wednesday, notching saves in four of them. That won’t keep up all year–this is Kevin Gregg, after all–but as long as he is effective, Uehara probably doesn’t deserve the spot on your roster. This isn’t the last we’ve heard of this situation, of course.
AL Deep Value Pick
Grant Balfour, Athletics (0.1 percent ESPN / 4 percent Yahoo)
Brian Fuentes has saved seven games so far this year, but he has mixed in a few disaster outings as well, most recently taking the loss after allowing three runs in a third of an inning to Cleveland on Tuesday. It was the third night in a row he was used, and A’s manager Bob Geren noted that Balfour would be his closer on Wednesday if a save situation came up. While that is obviously due to Fuentes being unavailable after his streak of games, Balfour has been effective so far, being unscored upon for six games in a row and ten out of eleven, entering Wednesday. This is all very temporary, as Andrew Bailey’s rehab is progressing and he may be back within the next two weeks, but Balfour may get some chances before that happens.
NL Deep Value Pick
Mike MacDougal, Dodgers (0.1 percent ESPN / 0 percent Yahoo)
As a Dodger fan, I hate myself for even entertaining the thought. This is Mike MacDougal, the guy who wasn’t even that good when he was good. This is the guy who, over the last five years for four teams, has a walk per nine rate of 6.4 and a strikeout per nine rate of 6.7. This is the guy who probably wouldn’t even have made the Dodgers out of camp had Ronald Belisario not taken yet another vacation, and even now has just one more strikeout (seven) than he has walks (six).
But this is also a Dodger bullpen in trouble, as I outlined above in the Padilla section. With Broxton hurt, Kuo unreliable, and Jansen shipped out, the pickings are slim for nights where Padilla is either unavailable or ineffective. Lance Cormier is failing at even the modest mop-up task which is his charge, and Matt Guerrier & Blake Hawksworth are (rightly) not viewed as closer types. MacDougal comes with both a shiny–if completely unsustainable–ERA of 0.87 and the label of “closer experience”, thanks to three previous seasons of twenty or more saves. I’m not arguing that MacDougal has stumbled into some newfound effectiveness–he hasn’t–but if it’s not all that hard to see a scenario where he is getting ninth inning looks in Los Angeles soon. If you’re dumpster diving in the sub-one percent barrel, that kind of prospective opportunity is all you can ask for.