Mound Musings: Save Me!

Mound Musings: Save Me!

This article is part of our Mound Musings series.

As promised, I took more frequent looks at bullpens that certainly seem to be spending more time in flux. Inconsistency is certainly one factor, but I think an even bigger consideration is a tendency to use the reliever with the expected best matchup against a specific spot in the batting order even if it happens before the ninth inning. In other words, if the middle of the opponent's batting order comes around in the eighth inning, that's when the team's best reliever gets the call. We'll worry about closing out the game when the ninth inning gets here. Unfortunately, there is almost nothing a fantasy team owner can do to predict that happening, but we try.

Bullpens are constantly evolving

Okay, on with the subject at hand. The trading deadline has come and gone. We're in late August, so only about five weeks to go in the 2023 regular season. And, pitching is getting thin. Winning and losing could hinge on which teams can cobble together an effective bullpen and make it to the finish line more-or-less intact.

For fantasy teams, there could be points to pursue in the saves category. Closer roles used to be generally set for the best MLB teams, but there are more and more teams that either don't have a reliable closer, or might have traded their closers away as we approached the trade deadline (August 1), leaving a void in their bullpens. Ideally, teams still prefer (I think) to have fairly specific roles with

As promised, I took more frequent looks at bullpens that certainly seem to be spending more time in flux. Inconsistency is certainly one factor, but I think an even bigger consideration is a tendency to use the reliever with the expected best matchup against a specific spot in the batting order even if it happens before the ninth inning. In other words, if the middle of the opponent's batting order comes around in the eighth inning, that's when the team's best reliever gets the call. We'll worry about closing out the game when the ninth inning gets here. Unfortunately, there is almost nothing a fantasy team owner can do to predict that happening, but we try.

Bullpens are constantly evolving

Okay, on with the subject at hand. The trading deadline has come and gone. We're in late August, so only about five weeks to go in the 2023 regular season. And, pitching is getting thin. Winning and losing could hinge on which teams can cobble together an effective bullpen and make it to the finish line more-or-less intact.

For fantasy teams, there could be points to pursue in the saves category. Closer roles used to be generally set for the best MLB teams, but there are more and more teams that either don't have a reliable closer, or might have traded their closers away as we approached the trade deadline (August 1), leaving a void in their bullpens. Ideally, teams still prefer (I think) to have fairly specific roles with regard to their daily bullpen assignments. In a perfect world, the starting pitcher would provide six, or better yet, seven strong innings, whereupon the set-up guys would pitch the seventh and/or eighth inning before turning the game over to the closer to finish things. It just doesn't happen like that these days. That's why a typical bullpen has six or seven available pitchers, and from a fantasy perspective, the roles of the bullpen pitchers can be almost endlessly adapting and evolving. Today's closer can be tomorrow's fourth-inning mop up guy, while last week's unheralded arm could be working in a key set-up role next week. With relief pitching, it's almost always a, "what have you done for me lately" game.

That's our goal. Let's see if we can sort out some possibly unsettled bullpens. 

Here are some bullpen scenarios to keep an eye on:

  • Cardinals – Without question the Cardinals have been one of the biggest disappointments of the season, and their pitching including the bullpen has been a big part of that. Ryan Helsley was the closer before he got hurt, and the once heir apparent to the ninth inning, Jordan Hicks, was dealt away. They have been unable to really predict Helsley's return, initially turning to Giovanny Gallegos to fill in, but he has struggled mightily. Quietly, as I expected, JoJo Romero has found his way into critical innings. He doesn't really profile as a closer, but he's probably the best they have available until Helsley gets back.
  • Royals Scott Barlow was one of the more effective closers over the first half of the season, with the productive help of veteran Aroldis Chapman. They are both gone. As expected, Carlos Hernandez initially stepped in, but he has generally been a train wreck. Right now, he's still the closer, but if he continues to struggle, expect the team to start auditioning for a replacement. Taylor Clarke would perhaps be first up, and Austin Cox is also a possibility, but I like a bit of a dark horse. Keep an eye on John McMillon. He has only four MLB innings, and has a notable command problem, but he has a huge arm if he shows he can throw strikes. Late update: McMillon was just placed on the IL with a forearm strain.
  • Rockies – For a moment in time Justin Lawrence looked like a genuine closer, but it was short-lived. He did a reasonably good job closing initially, but lack of command (I know, I sound like a broken record) reared its ugly head, potentially opening the door for someone else. The problem is, the cupboard is pretty bare. Other than the Rockies ongoing feel-good story, Daniel Bard, there aren't a lot of options. To be honest, there is really no one on this roster I feel comfortable labeling a closer, so Lawrence, who has reasonably good raw stuff, fits, I guess, with Brent Suter and Tyler Kinley, when healthy, serving as primary setup guys. Matt Koch might also be a sleeper if things get too bad, at least he throws strikes, but he's probably behind Suter on the food chain.
  • White Sox – I was patiently waiting for Liam Hendriks, but he blew out his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery, so it's going to be a very long wait. I guess right now, Gregory Santos remains the best option to close, but that's like saying I'm the best choice to headline a television sports talk show (it has often been said I have the perfect face for radio). He'll need to start showing something positive very soon, or the team will be forced to look at other alternatives. In the meantime, southpaw Aaron Bummer is probably the alternate closer. He is better in a set-up role, but he's not totally over his head, so he could be a consideration if they get desperate. My guy for the gig is perpetually hurt. Another lefty, Garrett Crochet, has closer stuff … and a bum shoulder. If he could avoid the trainer's room, he is easily the best closing candidate.
  • Mets – I'm not sure there is much I can say about the Mets deployment of their bullpen that hasn't already been said. They are different. Way different. There is no go-to "closer" in their bullpen, they are all closers at one time or another. Today I would probably name Adam Ottavino as their "primary" closer, but tomorrow it would likely be someone else. Maybe lefty Brooks Raley? It all really depends on the matchups until they get Edwin Diaz back from the IL (he had knee surgery in March). He's one of the best in the game, and there is still talk that he might be again pitching for the Mets in late September. 
  • Marlins – This just in, set-up guy David Robertson has been identified as a noncloser by the Marlins. Miami has participated in a late-inning game of musical chairs this year, and they acquired Robertson at the trade deadline in an attempt to put out the fire. Their best closer, probably A.J. Puk, is oft-injured and can be very erratic, which led to Robertson replacing him. Please note, "best" does not necessarily mean good, it just ranks him among the other mediocre options. Tanner Scott has occupied the ninth-inning spot on the bullpen bench, occasionally sharing it with others, and he might get first crack here, but he isn't really the answer. They also have Andrew Nardi potentially in the hunt, but that is something of a long shot. Put simply, they really don't have a true closer candidate unless you consider Jorge Lopez who has a pretty good arm, and some limited closing experience. But, they haven't really tried him yet.
  • Orioles – Also a late addition to this list, the Orioles had a standout bullpen anchored by one of the best in the game: Felix Bautista, who has a flashy 1.48 ERA (with 110 strikeouts in 61 innings), but he's on the shelf with a UCL injury (yikes). The most likely interim closer is Yennier Cano. He's an excellent option, but personally, I also like Shintaro Fujinami. His arm is closer quality, but he's less adept at throwing strikes than Cano, and when he does find the plate, it is often center cut. He has been more effective in the pen, but he may need some Cano struggles to get a shot. Cionel Perez has been more effective lately, and DL Hall is coming into his own, but I don't see anyone other than Cano and/or maybe Fujinami getting into the saves mix, and Cano gets first call.

Some Notable Rotation Ramblings:

  • Another painful punch for Noah Syndergaard. Cleveland designated him for assignment just a few weeks after they acquired him. He hasn't been close to his pre-injury form of about five years ago, and his transition to more of a finesse pitcher isn't working out. I'm afraid he needs to hit the reset button.
  • Yes, Chicago's Jameson Taillon has to again be high on the list of frustrations for fantasy owners. He had a stretch where he went 5-0 with a 2.17 ERA, making us think maybe he's turned around. Sorry folks, his ERA over his last four starts has been an ugly 7.84. Welcome to 2023, the year of living dangerously.
  • I continue to be impressed by Seattle's Bryan Woo. In his most recent start he blanked Oakland over six innings – okay, it was Oakland. He has to be careful with his pitch count, as the M's are closely monitoring his workload. I'm just afraid they might shut him down, although the playoff hunt makes that harder to do.
  • His 2023 numbers have been ugly, but I continue to track the Dodgers top pitching prospect, Gavin Stone. He's a lot better than the numbers suggest, and the injuries piling up (it was just announced Tony Gonsolin will undergo Tommy John surgery) could be opening the door for an extended look.

Endgame Odyssey 

I nearly included the Tigers in the above breakdown of the closing assignments, but following a blip of inconsistency, it appears Alex Lange is back in the role. He should be. An occasional command problem is likely to be a part of his resume going forward. I was afraid I might need to add Boston to the bullpen breakdowns when Kenley Jansen left a recent outing with a hamstring issue, but he avoided the IL and is good to go. The Dodgers are saying Daniel Hudson could still make it back before the end of the regular season, but he's been out a long time (since early July) so even if he does return, I doubt there will be any saves in 2023. The Angels hit flush including a couple fairly respectable bullpen arms in Matt Moore and Reynaldo Lopez. Both those guys are likely to surface somewhere, albeit not in closing roles. The Rangers are doing some adjusting following a couple blown saves by Will Smith. Jose Leclerc converted one save, but Aroldis Chapman is the most likely benefactor, at least for the time being.

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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.
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