We are past the trade deadline, moving well into August, and the serious contenders are separating themselves from some of the early season pretenders. Every game counts, and it seems like the pressure to perform, especially with the most visible players, is mounting. From a fantasy perspective, just like the major league teams, you want your closers to lock down every possible save. No stumbles, no bumbles. Therefore, this week and next, I'll look at the state of the bullpens - this week, the American League, and next week, the National League. The Notebook forum is now open for business. Always remember, knowing what a guy has done is not nearly as useful as knowing what he is likely to do going forward:
The State of the Bullpens - American League:
Baltimore Orioles - Things were not going so well for Jim Johnson recently. He was virtually automatic for the first half of the season, but ran into a real downturn a couple of weeks ago. It was so bad, albeit fairly briefly, that there were some rumors that his understudy, Pedro Strop, might get a chance. He seems to have gotten it back together over his last couple of outings, so things have quieted down, and he is back under relatively sound footing,. Barring a more extended lapse, he should maintain the role of primary closer the rest of the way, but he is not an elite arm, so there is at least some chance he could lose his grip on the position.
Boston Red Sox - The Red Sox bullpen has been a mess most of the season. With off-season acquisition Andrew Bailey out due to a thumb injury, they opted to go with Alfredo Aceves in the end game, and it was anything but a smooth ride. He has actually compiled quite a few saves, but his owners pay for them with occasional implosions - and when he blows one, he leaves no doubt. Bailey is on a rehab assignment, and was just recently moved up to Triple-A, but he likely still at least a couple of weeks away. When healthy, he is a far superior option to Aceves, so Boston will hope to ease him back into the role. Aceves owners may want to at least prepare for a shift in roles.
New York Yankees - When you lose arguably the best closer in the history of the game for the entire season, you might expect some trials and tribulations for the team. However, this is the Yankees, and they had deep enough pockets to carry a very experienced closer in reserve. Mariano Rivera will not be back this year, and the team is comfortable with Rafael Soriano carrying the load. He's been reliable, and he has stayed healthy, so there is no reason to expect any changes through the end of this season. Rivera has indicated he would like to come back in 2013, and that would surely mean a return to the closer's role, but that is only a concern in keeper formats.
Tampa Bay Rays - If you were going to name the most surprising players of 2012, Rays closer Fernando Rodney would have to be very close to the top of the list. With Kyle Farnsworth on the disabled list, Rodney beat out a pretty long list of suitors for the role, and he has been nothing short of amazing all season long. With a sub - 1.00 ERA and a WHIP to match, he has been lights out virtually every time he is called upon, and with the Rays sometimes sputtering offense, he gets into a lot of close games. He has always had the arm, but this season he has gone from thrower to pitcher, putting Farnsworth back in the role he is best suited for - set-up man. The Rays like the idea of Jake McGee in the closer's role, but have had no reason to revisit that possibility.
Toronto Blue Jays - I can't remember any team having the string of injuries to a pitching staff like the Jays have suffered through this season. And, the closer role was not exempt from the malady. Sergio Santos was acquired in the off-season, but went down with shoulder problems in April, and has since undergone surgery which leaves his status for 2013 in doubt. In a perfect world, he would be ready for spring training, but shoulders are anything but predictable. Francisco Cordero stepped in, and brought experience, but severely diminishing skills, so his tenure was short. Next up, enter Casey Janssen. He's not a prototypical closer, but he throws strikes and uses a rather deep arsenal to keep hitters off balance. He has been one of the most reliable closers in the game the past couple of months, and may make it difficult for Santos to reclaim the job next season, even if he comes back 100% healthy.
Chicago White Sox - The aforementioned Santos departed Chicago, and moved his tack to Toronto, leaving the White Sox end game in a state of flux. There really wasn't much question who would be the closer, it was just a question of when. After tinkering with a handful of alternatives, presumably to give the presumptive closer Addison Reed time to acclimate himself to the major leagues, the inevitable happened, and the Reed era is now in high gear. He has the mound presence, and the stuff, to not look back, so expect him to be there for quite a long while. Note, however, the White Sox are in a heated divisional race, and rookies can be unpredictable when the burners are turned up, so the White Sox acquired veteran Brett Myers as an insurance policy.
Cleveland Indians - Chris Perez has been the Indians closer for a while now, but he's never really locked the job down, despite some relatively gaudy save totals. It seems fashionable for closers in this day and age to pitch well for a time, then explode like a super-nova over just enough games to get the wheels turning regarding a replacement before settling down, and letting the talk dissipate. There was plenty of discussion about Perez at the trade deadline, but he remains with Cleveland. In truth, barring an extended artillery barrage, he will only maintain his grasp on the job for the rest of this year. He is likely just keeping a seat warm for Vinnie Pestano. That said, monitor this situation, or better yet pick up Pestano as a handcuff. The end could come at any time.
Detroit Tigers - Do you love drama? Is sitting on the edge of your seat a comfortable position? Is any movie or show better than a cliff-hanger or thriller? If you answered yes to any of the above, Jose Valverde should be your closer. Last season, he converted every save opportunity, albeit most of them with a large dose of anxiety, and while he hasn't been as reliable this year, he still provides an incentive for purchasing Tums, and he still typically closes the door. Some guys are like that. They don't get into top gear until the adrenaline is flowing freely, and a few base runners provide that boost. As long as he's healthy, he's the Tigers guy. If the need should arise for someone to step in, it would probably be Joaquin Benoit, assuming it was for the short term. He is probably not considered an option should the need be for an extended period.
Kansas City Royals - The Royals lost premier closer Joakim Soria for the year, and somewhat surprisingly signed oft-injured veteran Jonathan Broxton, who managed to stay healthy, and was relatively effective for the first four months of this season. Not so surprisingly, they dealt Broxton at the deadline, and will use the rest of 2012 to take a look at set-up man Greg Holland. However, the Royals actually have a pretty full stable of closer-types including Aaron Crow and flamethrower Kelvin Herrera, so Holland isn't an automatic lock for the next two months. Kansas City would probably like to see Crow in their rotation at some point, but he needs to improve his secondary stuff for that to be a given which means he is currently an ideal candidate to close if needed, and Herrera still lacks command with his potent fastball, but deservedly has the title of closer-of-the-future. The Royals hold a club-favorable option on Soria for next year, so if he comes back healthy, the closer's gig would be his again.
Minnesota Twins - The Twins started the 2012 season with more or less a stop-gap closer in veteran Matt Capps. He's adequate, but is really better suited to a set-up role - something the Twins would have liked to point out to various potential trade partners at the deadline. Unfortunately, Capps was hurt, and he is still with Minnesota, although he is on the disabled list, leaving the role open to a couple of other options. Glen Perkins, a lefty, and right-hander Jared Burton have done a respectable job filling in, but the Twins would prefer to see Perkins back in a set-up role. Perkins has the better resume, so they probably felt it would be best to avoid anointing Burton with the mantle, but if he can prove to be reliable, it's possible he would garner more and more of the chances.
Los Angeles Angels - The Angels had a closer with an electric arm in Jordan Walden, but decided his command wasn't where it needed to be early in the year. They used Scott Downs for awhile, but like many other excellent set-up men, he is not especially well suited to closing, so they acquired another young reliever with a dynamic arm from the Padres. Initially, Ernesto Frieri shared the role with Downs (who, like Walden, is now on the DL), but it was fairly obvious he would be the best option, and he has proven to be just that. That said, over the past two to three weeks, the Angels bullpen has been a disaster, and even Frieri has been somewhat erratic. Frieri remains solidly the closer, but if/when Walden returns from his neck and biceps injuries, it wouldn't be too surprising to see him get some chances if Frieri stumbles.
Oakland A's - Oakland had an opening for the closer role heading into the season, and after the auditions, Grant Balfour emerged as their guy. He pitched well initially, ran into a tough stretch, gave way to Brian Fuentes, who struggled even more, before handing the job to Ryan Cook. He had been exceptional in a set-up role, and has had some good moments since moving into the end game equation. Cook has a tendency to struggle when asked to pitch on consecutive days - he has been almost invincible when fully rested, but extremely vulnerable when he has pitched the day before. That is decidedly not an ideal trait for a closer. However, the A's have very limited options. They already know Balfour is not a great option, Fuentes is gone, and so it's likely they will stick primarily with Cook. One possibility would be a shared role with Balfour getting the occasional opportunity when Cook has been used the day before. It would hurt Cook's fantasy value, but it might be the team's best move.
Seattle Mariners - After nearly two years, the Mariners finally found a taker for set-up man and part time closer Brandon League. He pitched extremely well as their closer in 2012, but they wanted to go another direction, and removed him from the role earlier this year. He is gone now, and Tom Wilhelmsen is the new closer in the Pacific Northwest. After being out of baseball for four years, working as a bartender, and eventually returning via the independent leagues, Wilhelmsen is quite a story, and he has pretty good stuff, but he may not be the ultimate answer either. The Mariners have a blue chip candidate in Chance Ruffin who has struggled at Triple-A Tacoma this season, but has the pedigree to be an excellent end gamer. Stephen Pryor is also a possibility if Ruffin doesn't get it all together right away. Wilhelmsen has missed some time lately as he and his wife prepared for a new addition to their family, and he has had those distractions, but look for him to finish the season as the M's stopper.
Texas Rangers - The Rangers signed premier closer Joe Nathan to a two-year contract prior to this year, and he has paid off handsomely. After being one of the best closers in baseball for several years, he had Tommy John surgery in 2010, came back too soon in 2011, experienced inflammation in his surgically repaired elbow, went back on the disabled list, but then displayed signs it was still there when he returned later in the season. He still gets into the low-mid 90s routinely, and he hasn't lost his touch. What he does seem to have lost is some of his stamina. The Rangers will likely need to be a bit careful with him during the stretch run, so expect Mike Adams, Alexi Ogando, or Koji Uehara, when healthy, to see the odd save chance when Nathan needs a breather, but Texas will rely on Nathan's experience and savvy when he is well rested.
Next week: The State of the Bullpens - National League
I would like to remind readers to check back often as each week's Notebook will feature updates in the comments section on evolving mound situations. And, as always, keep in mind this is an interactive forum, so your comments are always appreciated. I will respond to any comments or questions as soon as possible. Thanks.
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