For our money, the most interesting Fantasy Baseball development of 2018 was the Great Closer Selloff. As you no doubt recall, around the trading deadline eight also-ran teams—San Diego, Minnesota, KC, Texas, Baltimore, Toronto, the Mets, and the White Sox–traded away their closers, and only two of the guys thus traded away (Brad Hand for the Indians and Roberto Osuna for the Astros) wound up getting a significant number of saves thereafter.
We suspect that this phenomenon is both the beginning of a trend and the signifier of a transition. Two transitions, actually, though one has already occurred. The one that’s arrived is the tendency of contending teams to assemble what they hope are completely impermeable bullpens. The one that hasn’t is the long-overdue recognition that there’s nothing magical about a “closer,” and that a guy who can pitch you out of a jam in the seventh or eighth inning can probably do it in the ninth inning as well. But people have been predicting the demise of the closer for about 20 years, and it hasn’t quite happened yet, so there are a lot of guys sitting around the bullpens of bad teams waiting for a ninth-inning lead that never comes. And if we’re right about the trend, there will be more closer trades next month, leaving other guys to sit around those same bullpens, occasionally picking up a stray save or two.
So, if we’re right, what can be done about it? We’ll assume that you play in a redraft league, so that trading away, for example, Will Smith, isn’t an option, even though as we see it he’s likely to be traded and become a setup guy for a contender. Obviously, you can acquire the apparent closer-in-waiting if he happens to be available. That worked superbly last year with Kirby Yates of the Padres, but not so superbly with, for example, Addison Reed of the Twins. What we want to do is identify the guys who pitch for no-hope teams and aren’t the obvious CIWs, but might, in the fullness of time, inherit the closer’s job.
(First, one caveat: we aren’t making extensive claims about the guys we’re sort-of recommending. They’re not low risk, and they’ll have value only if they wind up getting saves. Things have to break exactly right for that to happen. If you get one of these guys, put him on reserve. If you need to plug a hole in your active pitching staff, you’re better off with a do-no-harm middle reliever on a good team.)
So let’s first identify the no-hopers. At the moment, we see seven teams that fit the description: Toronto, Baltimore, Detroit, Kansas City, Seattle, Miami, and San Francisco. (By this time next month, there may be one or two more; our best guess is the Reds, the Angels, and/or the Indians). Among the Sorry Seven, we’ll have to look elsewhere than Toronto. They regard Ken Giles as their closer of the future, and he has indeed been virtually unhittable. He can’t be a free agent until 2021, so they’ll try to hang on to him.
On the other hand, there’s Baltimore. True, they win only rarely, but when they do win, someone gets a save—only the Tigers and the Braves have higher saves-to-wins ratios. The problems with the Orioles are (1) it’s not clear who that someone is going to be, and (2) whoever it is, it’s probably not a guy another team is going to want. Mychal Givens was the Orioles’ full-time closer but pitched erratically, and now he seems to be sharing the job with Shawn Armstrong, Richard Bleier, and possibly Paul Fry. We expect Givens to be traded and to be lights-out for a contender as a setup guy during the last two months, but Armstrong, Bleier, Fry—and Josh Lucas, whom we expect to find his way into the mix—aren’t going anywhere. We have no clue whether any of those four can perform well enough to seize the job. We wish we could tell you that perennial next-closer Tanner Scott is distinguishing himself in Triple-A, but he isn’t.
But maybe we can do something with the remaining five teams. Will Smith is having a fantastic year as the Giants’ closer, and—even though the Giants’ front office is anything but proactive—we expect him to be traded to a contender. Tony Watson is the guy being used in non-closer high-leverage situations, and at first glance seems to be next in line. But that in fact isn’t how manager Bruce Bochy likes to use him. We think this because he didn’t use him that way last year. When Hunter Strickland punched a door and broke his finger—do these guys go out of their way to find hard surfaces to hit?—Smith immediately got the closer’s job. Conversely, when Mark Melancon went down in 2017, Sam Dyson got the job and didn’t let go of it. Dyson’s still around and having a fine season; we regard him as the guy to get. It wouldn’t surprise us to see Reyes Montoya installed as the closer next season by whoever inherits Bochy’s job, but not now.
And speaking of Hunter Strickland: he began the season as Seattle’s closer, soon got hurt, but apparently will be back next week. Nobody’s firmly claimed the job in his absence, so he’ll probably get another shot at it. But it seems to us that he’s a virtual certainty to get traded. Anthony Bass has pitched pretty well of late, and will likely be right behind Strickland on the depth chart, but the guy we kind of like is Austin Adams. He’s getting used in some high-leverage situations, was the Nationals’ closer in Triple-A last season, gets strikeouts by the ton, and seems to be finding the plate a bit more than is his wont.
As for Miami: Except for his blowup the other night, Sergio Romo has been pitching effectively as the Marlins’ closer. We have to think, though, that he will get traded. He will make a splendid veteran setup guy for a contender. The consensus seems to be that Tayron Guerrero will inherit the job, and having suggested last month that this very thing might occur, we can’t take strong exception. But we’re sticking with our guy Nick Anderson. He hit a rough patch, but he seems to have bounced back, and he gets more strikeouts than Guerrero, gives up fewer walks, and (at least since April) hasn’t been getting hit as hard.
We don’t know what to do about the Royals. We kind of liked them going in to the season—not to have a winning record or anything near it, but to win, say, 70 to75 games. But they have in fact been the worst team in baseball, and they have gotten only 7 saves so far this season. (We’d say, anecdotally, that this is because Ned Yost persistently stays with his starting pitchers too long, leaving nothing for his bullpen to save, but we haven’t looked at the numbers.) Ian Kennedy seems to be the closer at the moment, and with another year of a $14 milliion salary coming his way, we doubt anyone else will be interested. We think the best reliever on the team is Jake Diekman, and suspect he’ll wind up with the job, though not because Kennedy gets traded. In other words, we have nothing to tell you that you haven’t already figured out.
Finally, there are the Tigers. Shane Greene is of course their closer, and as you no doubt know is having a superb season. But he’s 30, he’s arbitration-eligible next year, and the Tigers, whose hitting is an unspeakable mess, can’t possibly think they’ll contend over the next couple of seasons, even though their pitching in both the majors and the minors isn’t too bad. It seems to us that they just have to trade Greene. Joe Jimenez is the next guy on the depth chart, but in 2 ½ seasons he’s done almost nothing to make us think he’s good enough. So how about Nick Ramirez? He spent six seasons in the minors as a first baseman and transitioned to pitching only two seasons ago. He strikes out a batter an inning, has iffy but adequate control, doesn’t get hit especially hard, keeps the ball on the ground, and is a lefty who can get right-handed hitters out. Why not?
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