Mound Musings: Going to the Bullpen

Mound Musings: Going to the Bullpen

This article is part of our Mound Musings series.

Bullpens are intriguing... and frustrating. The current closer isn't cutting it (or was just dealt) and you need saves. The set-up guy is pitching great. Won't he just step in? Closing is an art that some embrace and others disdain; it's as simple as that. Some pitchers can thrive in the environment, and some, even those who seem to have the perfect tool box, just can't seem to get comfortable in the role. Trades, injuries, and ineffectiveness all contribute to what has become something of the norm – musical closers. That said, one of the questions I am asked the most is, "who is going to be the new closer in now that is out?" I actually like that question, because it brings out the chance to do analysis. It's often not the most obvious answer so you have to look beyond the basics. Let's take a look.

I'll start with a list I published last season of things to consider when evaluating the potential for closing duties (they all still apply):


  • Power pitchers tend to do best in closing roles. It's not always the case, but finesse pitchers aren't as capable of reaching back for extra when they absolutely have to have a strikeout so a very high strikeout rate couple with a fastball that can be very hard to catch up to is a great starting point.
  • Don't overlook past experience. Managers like experience –sometimes to a fault. If the closer role comes open and there is a

Bullpens are intriguing... and frustrating. The current closer isn't cutting it (or was just dealt) and you need saves. The set-up guy is pitching great. Won't he just step in? Closing is an art that some embrace and others disdain; it's as simple as that. Some pitchers can thrive in the environment, and some, even those who seem to have the perfect tool box, just can't seem to get comfortable in the role. Trades, injuries, and ineffectiveness all contribute to what has become something of the norm – musical closers. That said, one of the questions I am asked the most is, "who is going to be the new closer in now that is out?" I actually like that question, because it brings out the chance to do analysis. It's often not the most obvious answer so you have to look beyond the basics. Let's take a look.

I'll start with a list I published last season of things to consider when evaluating the potential for closing duties (they all still apply):


  • Power pitchers tend to do best in closing roles. It's not always the case, but finesse pitchers aren't as capable of reaching back for extra when they absolutely have to have a strikeout so a very high strikeout rate couple with a fastball that can be very hard to catch up to is a great starting point.
  • Don't overlook past experience. Managers like experience –sometimes to a fault. If the closer role comes open and there is a pitcher on the roster who has previously succeeded in the role, he is almost guaranteed a spot in the final consideration set. More on this below.
  • Be wary of those relievers who always perform best in short, "retire one batter" scenarios. They might be highly visible, and it may seem like they are called upon when the game is on the line, but if the manager avoids using them against hitters from either side of the plate, closing is probably not their ideal calling. These pitchers often lack an effective weapon against opposite side of the plate hitters, for example, maybe they don't have a reliable change-up.
  • Composure. If things go wrong, and the reliever in question shows a tendency to unravel, closing might not be a suitable role. If an error behind him, a bad call on a pitch, or something like that causes obvious distress, a blown save could be devastating. The best closers are known for having short memories.
  • This goes along with the composure factor. If a base runner or two seems to light a fire under a reliever, while a mop-up assignment is a recipe for disaster, your guy might be a closer-in-waiting. Adrenaline is a big part of it, and when your guy seems to always get the call in "high leverage" situations, it's quite possible he will be considered when there is a need to fill the closer role.
  • Finally, closers often have to work three or sometimes four days in a row. You never know when you'll hit a stretch of games when your team carries a narrow lead into the ninth inning. If a reliever rarely pitches on back-to-back days and almost never three days in a row, they are probably not well suited to closing and need to have their workload managed closely. These guys can be very effective when not overworked, but their performance drops off significantly if asked to work too much and too often.

Now we'll check in on some bullpens that could be in flux:

Oakland A's – I promised more on the impact of past experience, and here it is. They dealt Tyler Clippard at the trading deadline, and Sean Doolittle isn't quite ready to return from a season-long injury. With limited alternatives, they decided to go with Edward Mujica in the interim. Mujica has closed before – sometimes successfully and almost as frequently unsuccessfully. But, he has been there, and that was probably the deciding factor. They will hope for a very fast return for Doolitte.

Boston Red Sox – This change is injury related, but that doesn't make the assessment any less challenging. Koji Uehara was just pronounced out for the season with a wrist injury. They aren't in a pennant race, so a fill-in is all they need to finish out the season. The winner will probably come from Junichi Tazawa, Jean Machi, and maybe Alexi Ogando, but none of them stand out. They have similar stuff, and vulnerabilities, but Tazawa, despite recent struggles, may get an edge. The Red Sox prefer him in a set-up role, but they may be forced to use him as their closer.

Seattle Mariners – They have a couple of guys with a lot of closing experience, but both Fernando Rodney and Tom Wilhelmsen have suffered their shares of disaster. Their inconsistency has provided an opportunity for Carson Smith, but he may not be the final answer to this question. Rodney has saved 48 games twice (2012 and 2014) and has electric stuff when he can get it in the vicinity of his intended target. Wilhelmsen was actually more of a fill-in himself (2012 and 2013) and really doesn't profile as a closer. Smith has done reasonably well, and did close throughout his minor league years, but Rodney is likely who they would prefer. He will probably get another chance.

Atlanta Braves – They had a premier closer in Craig Kimbrel, and then they had an "experienced," albeit frequently volatile closer replacement in Jim Johnson. Both are gone via trades, and it's time for the Braves to see if they have their next closer in house. Arodys Vizcaino is the favorite to inherit the role, and will get the first crack. In truth there isn't much competition right now. A former closer, David Aardsma, is on the roster but when he closed, dinosaurs still roamed the planet (and his fastball was about four miles per hour faster). Vizcaino has the tools if he can stay healthy and throw strikes. If he doesn't impress, they will probably have to look outside.

Chicago Cubs – It's been a constant parade of bodies temporarily holding the reins to the closer's gig, but so far none have staked a solid, long term claim to the job. That said, the guy who will likely be their closer long term is in the house. Hector Rondon has the skill set, and he has shown the ability to handle the rigors of the job, but he is still young, and inexperienced. The team has surrounded him with veterans who know what he's facing – Jason Motte, Rafael Soriano, and most recently Tommy Hunter – but Rondon is their guy. They are just walking the fine line between getting him the experience, and not shattering his confidence when things sometimes go awry.

San Francisco Giants – I have lost track of how many times Santiago Casilla has either been out of the role, or on the ropes, the last couple of years. The Giants have a pretty decent bullpen, but most of their closer options are better suited to other roles. Sergio Romo has closed before, but they need to monitor his workload and he is better as a set-up guy, and lefties Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez are both vulnerable to right-handed hitters. Interestingly, a much better alternative may be developing. The Giants also have Hunter Strickland – a late-bloomer due to injuries – who owns the best stuff in their bullpen. He might be the guy they have been waiting for.

Some Notable Rotation Ramblings:


  • Jose Fernandezhas to be a concern for Miami. After missing a year following Tommy John surgery, he is now experiencing shoulder (biceps) woes. As we have discussed many times, anything to do with the shoulder is more frightening than an elbow injury. He may need to adjust his mechanics?
  • The Rangers are preparing for the return of Derek Holland and he might come back ready to roll. They won't overwork him, and there is bound to be some rust, but he could be useful at the back of your rotation this year, and in keepers he could be a nice compliment to Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels next year.
  • I am back to bullish on Stephen Strasburg. I don't like the fact that he made yet another trip to the disabled list, but I do like that he came back to close to the performance we were seeing before this latest injury. If he can get past all these nicks and dings, he could be in line for top five pitcher status.
  • If you are a calm and tolerant owner, take a ride on the Daniel Norris train in Detroit. They love giving young arms on-the-job training, and while his command issues will provide plenty of "yikes" outings, he is a blue chip prospect and he's going to throw some glittering gems into the mix too.
  • We wave goodbye, again, to Brandon Morrow. He was hurt, started rehab, and then went down again with a shoulder impingement. The start of the season was very encouraging, but he just can't stay healthy and is done for the year. Maybe next year, but at this point he's really just an end of draft flyer.
  • The Blue Jays thought they had lost Marcus Stroman for the season when he tore an ACL in March, but he has started throwing off a mound, with no apparent problems. They are even stretching him out to possibly start at some point in September. No guarantees, they won't take chances, but keep an eye on it.

The Endgame Odyssey:

As mentioned above, there are a lot of things to look for when searching for the next closer to surface and the musical chairs game at the back of many bullpens is seemingly perpetual. Unless he blows up, it's likely Jonathan Papelbon will close for Washington for the foreseeable future. I'm sure the price tag would be high, but if I were a GM for a team needing a closer, I would have pursued Drew Storen. The Rockies probably fit into the bullpens in flux analysis. It looks like Tommy Kahnle is first in line, but I wouldn't get too excited about him long term. His command is going to be an issue. The trouble is, they don't have much of a Plan B unless John Axford can be resurrected. I am a modest believer in Alex Wilson closing in Detroit. However, Bruce Rondon has been the heir apparent there for a long time so they would probably like to see him emerge. The Blue Jays have some safety nets in top prospect Aaron Sanchez and the ageless LaTroy Hawkins, but the kid they hand the ball to now, Roberto Osuna, might just thrive and not look back with his poise and arsenal. Since Ken Giles took over the closing duties in Philadelphia, he has been a perfect 7-for-7. There have been some shaky moments, but there is no one to seriously threaten his job at this point.

Want to Read More?
Subscribe to RotoWire to see the full article.

We reserve some of our best content for our paid subscribers. Plus, if you choose to subscribe you can discuss this article with the author and the rest of the RotoWire community.

Get Instant Access To This Article Get Access To This Article
RotoWire Community
Join Our Subscriber-Only MLB Chat
Chat with our writers and other RotoWire MLB fans for all the pre-game info and in-game banter.
Join The Discussion
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brad Johnson
For more than 30 years, pitching guru Brad "Bogfella" Johnson has provided insightful evaluation and analysis of pitchers to a wide variety of fantasy baseball websites, webcasts and radio broadcasts. He joined RotoWire in 2011 with his popular Bogfella's Notebook.
College Baseball Betting: Expert Picks for Saturday, March 2
College Baseball Betting: Expert Picks for Saturday, March 2
Spring Training Job Battles: NL Central
Spring Training Job Battles: NL Central
College Baseball Picks Today: Best Bets for Friday, March 1
College Baseball Picks Today: Best Bets for Friday, March 1
Six Mid-Round Pitchers with League Winning Upside (Video)
Six Mid-Round Pitchers with League Winning Upside (Video)