After a relatively calm first week for closers, the fantasy world got rocked on Thursday night. While the pitching the ninth inning of the Brewers’ series opener against the Cubs at Miller Park — a game that was firmly in the grasp of the visiting team — Corey Knebel hopped uncomfortably after making his second pitch to Tommy La Stella, then quickly fell to the mound. Knebel sustained an injury to his left hamstring, and according to multiple reports, he will undergo an MRI on Friday to determine the exact nature and severity of the issue.
For fantasy owners, the fallout of what appears to be a horrific injury and impending DL stint for Knebel is an uncertain closer situation and a difficult choice regarding who to pursue for saves. On ESPN, CBS and Yahoo leagues, the candidate who was picked up by the most owners overnight was Jacob Barnes. However, manager Craig Counsell told reporters after the game that he had yet to think about who might close for the Brewers in the absence of Knebel. A report from MLB.com cited Jeremy Jeffress, Matt Albers, Dan Jennings and Josh Hader as possible candidates, along with Barnes.
Here is how each of the candidates profiles in terms of their usage and performance trends. (Relievers are listed in the order of their add percentage in CBS leagues.)
Usage: He got the save in the Brewers’ season opener against the Padres, though Barnes pitched the 12th inning, as Knebel blew the chance to save the game in ninth inning. In each of his last two appearances, Barnes was brought in to pitch the sixth and seventh innings with a deficit.
Performance: Barnes has pitched six scoreless innings this season and has been impressive doing so, registering a 73.3 percent ground ball rate and a 13.9 percent swinging strike rate. In 2017, Barnes was effective at getting grounders and whiffs, though a 10.9 percent walk rate put a damper on his effectiveness.
Usage: Hader has made two appearances this season for a total of three innings, but he has yet to pitch beyond the seventh inning. However, he earned holds in both appearances.
Performance: The lefty has been dominant since making his debut last season, posting a 1.95 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and a 37.7 percent strikeout rate. Hader has accumulated 50.2 innings in just 37 career appearances, and his ability to pitch multiple innings could be a deterrent to Counsell for using him in the closer’s role.
Usage: The 35-year-old set up for Knebel in the season opener and then pitched the eighth inning with a four-run lead in his second appearance. He also pitched the eighth inning in his third and most recent outing, albeit with a three-run deficit.
Performance: Albers has followed up a strong 2017 season with the Nationals by tossing three scoreless innings for the Brewers. He has a 60.0 percent ground ball rate and has yet to walk a batter, but Albers has only one strikeout and has induced just two swinging strikes in 53 pitches.
Usage: He pitched the 10th and 11th innings of the season opener but has not been summoned for a high-leverage situation since.
Performance: Jeffress has pitched four scoreless innings with a 72.7 percent ground ball rate but only two strikeouts. So far, he has located in the strike zone more often than in 2017, when he had an 11.5 percent walk rate, but he has coaxed swings on just 26.5 percent of pitches outside the zone.
Usage: Jennings has yet to be used in a late-inning high leverage situation this season, though he did get the win after pitching the ninth inning of Tuesday’s game against the Cardinals. He entered with a one-run deficit, and the Brewers rallied in the bottom of the inning for a walk-off win.
Performance: Jennings is yet another of the Brewers’ ground ball specialists, and he has a 76.9 percent ground ball rate so far this year. However, he has not posted a strikeout rate above 20.0 percent since 2014.
Barnes and Hader have the most closer-like profiles, yet it’s Albers who has been used in a role that most resembles that of a setup reliever. Until Counsell either announces who will close or shows us with his in-game decisions, this is a guessing game, and a difficult one at that. Hader’s ability to pitch multiple innings could be a strike against him, just as it has been for Archie Bradley in Arizona, so Barnes and Albers appear to be the most likely candidates. It’s not clear who has the edge, but it may make more sense to target Barnes first, simply because Albers is further off the radar for most owners at this point and should be easier to claim later, if necessary.
On any other day, Brad Hand’s meltdown against the Rockies would have probably been the biggest development. The Padres’ closer has seen his velocity hover around 2 mph lower than it was early last season, but over his first three appearances of this season, he had shown good control. That was not the case on Thursday, when he tried to keep the Padres in a scoreless tie in the ninth inning. Hand walked his first two batters and subsequently walked in the Rockies’ first run by giving Ryan McMahon a bases-loaded free pass with one out. Then he was pulled after yielding DJ LeMahieu’s two-out, two-RBI single.
Now that Hand already has a blown save and a loss on his 2018 stat line, it’s not a bad idea to stash Kirby Yates in the event that the Padres’ closer continues to struggle.
Quick hits: Brad Brach showed it’s too early to give up on him as a source of saves. He notched his first one of the season on Thursday night, pitching a scoreless ninth against the Yankees. Darren O’Day set Brach up, recording his second hold of 2018. There has been no indication, however, that O’Day is out of the closer mix…Joakim Soria and Alex Colome blew their first saves of the season and also allowed their first runs. Soria gave up three runs to the Tigers, including a two-run homer to Niko Goodrum. Colome allowed the Red Sox to come back from a 2-0 deficit, yielding a pair of runs that sent the game into extra innings.
[Green light, yellow light, red light: the colors represent the volatility of the bullpen order.]
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.