As we head into the stretch, every point in the standings counts. Often, the saves category is a volatile area, this year with all of the injuries and implosions, even more so. Therefore, it's a great time to look at the state of the bullpens - last week I explored the American League, and this week the focus is on 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 - National League:
Atlanta Braves - The teams are listed alphabetically by division, but in the case of the Braves, it could easily be starting with a list of the most reliable closer's in the game. For the past couple of years, Craig Kimbrel has been a premier closer. He rarely blows a save, he has remained healthy, and he has such a high strikeout rate that he provides a very nice boost in another counting category. His primary set-up man, Jonny Venters, has experienced some nagging injuries, and some command issues, but he has been better lately, and probably remains Kimbrel's main backup. Beyond a stretch where Kimbrel pitches several days in a row, he will get the ball in the ninth inning.
Miami Marlins- The Marlins spent a lot of money on a "proven" closer heading into this season, and their new home ballpark. Unfortunately, they didn't pay enough attention to Heath Bell's diminishing skill set, and the investment has been a huge bust. He has been moved in and out of the role several times this season, and because of the money invested, that could continue into the future, but you are probably better off with his caddy, Steve Cishek. He's not an ideal option, and when the fish are in Bell is out mode, they technically employ a committee, but if you have to have a Miami reliever, Cishek is clearly the best bet.
New York Mets- You can add the Mets to the long list of teams that have had a bullpen in turmoil most of the season. Frank Francisco is their closer, at least by title, but he is perpetually injured, and even when he is pitching, he is erratic, quite possibly because he is rarely, if ever, completely healthy. The Mets would like live-armed Bobby Parnell to step up and make Francisco's health irrelevant, but that hasn't happened. He is too inconsistent with his command, and he is prone to overthrowing which straightens his fastball and makes him a bit too hittable. He is probably still considered their closer of the future, but he will need to refine his skills before being entrusted with the role.
Philadelphia Phillies- The Phillies also invested heavily in an end-gamer, and for the most part, Jonathan Papelbon has worked out well for them. If only the rest of the roster had stayed healthy and productive, they might be in the hunt for a divisional title. It hasn't, and they aren't. Notably, the bridge from starter to Papelbon has been one of the most disappointing aspects of the Phillies season. No one has really stepped up and taken the roll of set-up specialist in critical situations. Recently acquired Josh Lindblom or erratic lefty Antonio Bastardo could fill in if needed in an emergency, going forward, but don't be surprised if Phillippe Aumont gets a look as a set-up man in September. He has perhaps the best arm in the system, but still struggles with command.
Washington Nationals- The Nationals have been one of the most dominant teams in the game this season, and they have done it for most of the way without their 2011 closer who saved 43 games for them. Drew Storen is back now, but they have been easing him back into the fray. His top set-up man from last year, Tyler Clippard, has stepped up, and generally performed very well since taking over for the frequently wild Henry Rodriguez. It is likely the Nats would still like Storen back in the closer's role, with Clippard taking over eighth inning duties again, but when a team is winning, it can be very difficult to justify changes in the formula. If Clippard gives them a reason to change, they would probably welcome it, but for the time being, Storen will pitch in a set-up role, and provide a lot of insurance. In 2013, if they don't deal him away, Storen could very well find himself closing once more.
Chicago Cubs - Not much has gone right for the Cubs over the past few years. Alright, not much has gone right for the Cubs over the last century, and their current closer scenario is just another piece of their puzzle. Carlos Marmol is pretty much their only realistic option right now. At his best, he is a very good end gamer, but at his worst, he can be a one man disaster for his fantasy owners. Lately he has been reasonably reliable. He still allows too many base runners, and throws too many pitches, both contributing to his volatility, but the cupboard is bare when seeking alternatives. It would be best to avoid this situation all together, but if you are desperate for saves, Marmol remains the most likely provider. Just be prepared for ugly stretches.
Cincinnati Reds- There will no doubt again be calls for Reds closer Aroldis Chapman to try the starting rotation in 2013, but it certainly won't happen this year. Since assuming closer duties earlier this season, he has been about as effective as a closer can be. In truth, he is probably best suited to this role where he can let his 104 mph fastball loose with no regard for pacing himself, but there will always be the temptation to see how he could do over more innings. He gets plenty of strikeouts, and his velocity helps avoid any problems he can have with wildness. Having to respect the fastball that arrives far too quickly to wait and see where it's going, he generates a lot of swings on pitches out of the zone. Jonathan Broxton was brought in from Kansas City at the trade deadline, and would likely fill in if Chapman needs a day off.
Houston Astros- I almost included them in the American League review last week - after all, their 2012 season, and their tenure in the National League, are both just about over. However, they are almost assuredly going to have at least a handful of save chances before this year ends, so here we go. The Astros dealt away both Brett Myers and Brandon Lyon, bringing in the aging Francisco Cordero to handle closing through the end of the year. That didn't work, and Cordero is now hurt, so the job has fallen to Wilton Lopez, at least for now. They would prefer to have someone else handling the gig as Lopez has elbow issues that could flare up at any time, and could eventually lead to Tommy John surgery, but there aren't many viable options. Rhiner Cruz, a Rule 5 pick, has the arm, but not the experience to step in, and lefty Wesley Wright is better suited to a specialist role rather than exposing him to many right-handed hitters. If you can avoid getting mixed up in this mess, that would be the best plan.
Milwaukee Brewers- Is there a trend here? The Brewers end game, especially lately, has been as disastrous as any in baseball. Regular closer, John Axford, has been consistently inconsistent, and his set-up man, Frankie Rodriguez, has been as bad or worse when asked to step up. Enter 2012's possible feel good story, Jim Henderson. A 10-year minor league journeyman, he was called up to provide some innings for the often overworked bullpen, then was asked to close on consecutive nights when Axford and Rodriguez weren't available. He converted both. Two days later, Rodriguez allowed a run in the eighth, and Axford then imploded in the ninth to blow yet another save. Henderson is in line for a chance here. If he steps up, and doesn't give the Brewers cause to step back and re-evaluate, he could end up being the guy the rest of the way. If he stumbles, Axford will probably get another chance, so the leash is short, but it's not like Axford has a glistening closer's pedigree. Henderson could be worth a flier.
Pittsburgh Pirates - Pirates fans have to like what their team has managed to do in 2012, and they are probably happy they have Joel Hanrahan at the back of the bullpen to close out the wins they have managed to accumulate. He hasn't been quite as dominant as he was in 2011, being a bit more prone to giving up long balls, but he has saved 33 games in 36 chances, and has a very respectable 2.62 ERA to go with over a strikeout per inning. As long as he stays healthy, there is no drama here, he will get the ball in the ninth as often as possible. If he needs a day off, the Pirates would likely use a match-up approach with lefty Tony Watson, or maybe newly acquired Chad Qualls the most likely to be asked to finish the game. That would be a rare occurrence, as the proven Hanrahan will remain their first choice.
St. Louis Cardinals - The Cardinals played musical closers for much of 2011 before Jason Motte stepped up and eliminated the need to juggle near the end of the year. He entered this season as the St. Louis closer, and he has held the job ever since. Motte has the prototypical closer's arm and approach, so he was probably destined to grab the role at some point, and it would be hard to get it away from him now. In a pinch, the Cardinals could turn to Mitchell Boggs, or they might, reluctantly I should add, use Fernando Salas or lefty Brian Fuentes, both of whom have some closing experience, depending on the match-ups, but Motte should have plenty of job security now that he has fully established himself.
Arizona Diamondbacks - It's been a tale of two seasons for the Diamondbacks primary closer, J.J. Putz. He was awful through April and into early May, but since then he has been almost untouchable. His ERA has steadily declined, and his peripherals have all improved after he settled in. Putz has a long history of injuries, and those nagging injuries can often lead to mechanical glitches. Early in the season, he wasn't finishing his pitches, he left a lot of balls up in the zone, and his velocity was down. Hopefully, and his performance suggests this is the case, that is all behind him now. The Arizona braintrust was confident he could work through the rough stretch and he did. If healthy he is one of the better closing options around, but if he needs a breather along the way, his top set-up guy, David Hernandez, or maybe wily veteran Takashi Saito would be the most likely to get the call.
Colorado Rockies - The Rockies passively shopped their closer, Rafael Betancourt, at the trading deadline, but the deadline passed, and he is still in Colorado. He has experienced his share of adversity while serving as both a set-up man, and closer prior to this season, most of it coming when he was asked to close, so there were quite a few who were skeptical of how long his tenure might last. Overall, he has been solid this year as he continues to throw strikes, and has generally avoided serious meltdowns - a past calling card he is no doubt happy to have stopped using. Still, he remains a better option as a set-up man, and the Rockies think they have their future closer in Rex Brothers. They may play out this year with Betancourt, but he should have produced some significant trade value for the off-season, and that could see him donning a different uniform for 2013 and beyond. Brothers has endured his share of tough times this year, but he has the stuff to be a good one once he gets settled.
Los Angeles Dodgers - You could hear the clock ticking, almost from the first pitch of the 2012 season. Javy Guerra had done a solid job filling in as the Dodgers closer in 2011, and he hadn't really done anything to give the job away. However, it was clear the Dodgers closer would and should be Kenley Jansen. By May, Jansen had stepped in, Guerra spent some time on the disabled list, and returned as a set-up man, and all was finally right in Dodgertown. Jansen is the prototypical closer - overwhelming stuff, and an "it's all over now" attitude that serves him well when shutting down opponents. He can lose the plate now and then, but he generates so many swinging strikes it doesn't hurt him too often. He is the present and future, but the Dodgers do have recently acquired veteran Brandon League, and Guerra to spell him if he needs a day off.
San Diego Padres - The Padres regular closer, Huston Street, has allowed just 11 hits and eight walks in 36 innings this year - that's a ridiculous 0.53 WHIP by the way. Just for good measure, he has also contributed 45 strikeouts. The obvious question, what's the catch? The catch, as it always has been with Street, is fragility to an extreme. He is back on the disabled list, the second time this season, and will likely be out until early September in the best case scenario. If they could get Street to spend more time on the mound and less time in the trainer's room, he would be a huge asset. Until then, someone will need to fill in. Luke Gregerson is probably best suited to the task, but the Padres turned to Dale Thayer the last time Street went down. The Padres appear to prefer keeping their options more open with Gregerson so they may use Thayer again, but the better pitcher could win out over flexibility. Monitor usage the next few days.
San Francisco Giants - Think about it, have you ever noticed that while you hear the word "committee" tossed around all the time with regard to closing situations, but when it all comes to pass, the committee usually turns into a primary, and a couple of fillers. The Giants bullpen might be the exception. When Brian Wilson was lost for the season, set-up man Santiago Casilla stepped in and did an excellent job - that is until a chronic blister problem hindered both his availability, and his effectiveness. There have been calls for Sergio Romo to take over, but the Giants avoid using him on back-to-back days whenever possible, so they have turned to a true committee. Romo will no doubt get a few chances when available, and Jeremy Affeldt or Javier Lopez could see some opportunities when a lefty is the order of the day, but it looks like it will be very difficult to predict from game-to-game. If forced to pick one, I would probably have a go with Affeldt, but it is very likely to be mix-and-match for the rest of the year.
Next week: A potpourri of observations from the pitcher's mounds around the league - including surprises, disappointments, and even a few oracle-like predictions.
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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