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Mound Musings: Bullpen Check in – NL

Brad Johnson

For more than 25 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.

Saves remain a key scoring category in most fantasy leagues, but many owners are shying away from spending large amounts of draft money or higher picks to acquire the saves necessary to stay competitive in the category. You can punt the category – tough to win without some production here – or you can work the waiver wire, shopping for cheap sources of saves. It’s challenging, and the best values result from successful speculation where you can land a soon-to-be closer before your fellow owners.

Will the real closer sign in, please?

Even this early in the season, there are closer scenarios changing or at least potentially changing. Relief pitching has become an ever-increasing part of success in major league baseball. Very few teams have five reliable starters. In fact, there are teams that would be hardpressed to pencil in more than a couple of regular starting pitchers who can be expected to generate positive innings on a consistent basis. True quality relievers are becoming more important, but it’s increasingly difficult to “save” that best guy for the ninth inning. What’s a fantasy owner to do? How do you identify the guy on his way to end-game significance? Now, let’s take a look at some closer assignments in the NL and see where they may be headed.

Some NL closer scenarios to keep an eye on:

  • Philadelphia PhilliesJeanmar Gomez opened the season as the Phillies’ closer, but it didn’t last long. After just a couple of weeks (and some poor performances) he was removed from the job, and his replacement was a bit of a surprise. Maybe it shouldn’t have been. Longtime successful set-up man Joaquin Benoit was named the new closer in favor of Hector Neris. Neris owners will just need to be patient. The 37-year-old Benoit has some sporadic closing experience and he has the tools to be moderately proficient, but this is probably a showcase. At some point this summer the Phillies will likely enter into trade talks involving Benoit, and a quality stint pitching in the closer’s role could significantly increase his value. If he is dealt, Neris would assuredly be given the chance to step into the role. There are a lot of teams that would have an interest in a veteran reliever, so chances are good the roles change again.

  • Cincinnati Reds – From the fantasy perspective, this Reds bullpen could be viewed as something of a hot mess. It’s really not. They have determined that the best arm in their pen is Raisel Iglesias. Given that, they’re using the versatile righty whenever the situation demands. The problem is, that can occur any time between the sixth and ninth innings. He frequently pitches more than one inning in high leverage situations. The rest of the pen – particularly Drew Storen, Michael Lorenzen and, to a lesser extent, Tony Cingrani, generally mix and match around Iglesias’ window. If he comes in late, he’ll frequently get the save chance, but if he enters earlier, one of the others – whoever is left – might get the save while Iglesias hopes for a hold or perhaps a vulture win. Since he can ring up strikeouts, Iglesias is the arm to own, especially in leagues that have both holds and saves, but counting stats from the others will be unpredictable.

  • Washington Nationals – This one might actually qualify as a hot mess, and it seems to be getting hotter all the time. The problem is, the Nats don’t have a true closer, and they’re looking for an answer. Desperately wanting to avoid using Shawn Kelley as their primary ninth inning guy (he has durability concerns that are best dealt with in a role that is less demanding than closing), they named Blake Treinen the closer. He has a live arm and some limited late inning experience, but he is better suited to a set-up role facing mostly right-handed batters. His vulnerabilities have gradually been exposed, resulting in him being removed as the closer. Tools-wise, Koda Glover really is the best in-house option, but he’s young and inexperienced, so it will take time to ease him into something resembling a full time roll. The team has its sights set on October, and they spent the winter and spring in a failed attempt to acquire a seasoned end gamer. They are no doubt intensifying that search but, if they can’t land an experienced arm, Glover is worth tracking to see if he can eventually step it up. The stuff is there, he just needs to build confidence with Dusty Baker.

  • St. Louis Cardinals – Once upon a time, the Cardinals bullpen seemed set with the blazing fastball of Trevor Rosenthal as its anchor. Then, when Rosenthal’s always iffy command completely deserted him, the team turned to Seung Hwan Oh, a long time successful closer in Korea and Japan. Things became settled again and the Cardinals began tinkering with Rosenthal as a possible starter. Fast forward to 2017 and things may be a bit less settled again. Oh has struggled a bit – not catastrophic struggles but not the calm, routine, relatively clean innings managers like to see from their end gamers. Rosenthal is back in the bullpen. He’s been a bit inconsistent, but his velocity is even higher than it was, and most importantly, he has yet to walk a batter. That is newsworthy. Rosenthal actually converted a save chance on Tuesday when Oh needed a day off. He was definitely amped – his 100 mph first pitch was four feet outside, in the dirt and easily skipped all the way to the backstop before he settled in and finished off the Pirates. I don’t think Oh’s job is in any real danger yet, but if he doesn’t get things smoothed out fairly soon, and Rosenthal keeps throwing strikes, well, you never know. I’m betting on Oh holding onto the gig, but this situation is one to keep tabs on for the next couple of weeks.

  • New York Mets – Today’s bullpens can be a little like finicky, high-tech machines. When all the components are intact and working, things go smoothly, but if a piece breaks or goes missing, it can cause ripples. Such has been the case while Jeurys Familia serves his 15-game suspension. The Mets can be thankful it wasn’t longer. But, things are about to change – no great surprise, but noteworthy. Familia’s suspension is about over, and the team will welcome him back as the closer, albeit not necessarily from day one. Addison Reed has previous closing experience and has been an adequate fill-in. They may give Familia a couple of outings to get his game legs under him, but barring any surprises, he will be closing full time before long, allowing Reed and the other seventh inning guys like Fernando Salas and Hansel Robles to return to their normal set-up roles (holds league owners take notice).

Some Notable Rotation Ramblings:

  • I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable endorsing a Colorado starting pitcher – old habits are hard to break – but, at least for road starts, Tyler Chatwood is proving hard to ignore. He was tough on the road last year and that continues this season. He’s good enough he might become a play at home before long.

  • Dylan Bundy has never been a favorite down in the bog, but that could be changing as he matures. In the past he was extremely inconsistent (and volatile) on the mound but maybe he’s coming around. I still want to see how he reacts in the inevitable pressure situation. Yes, I’m still skeptical but I’m watching.

  • After a monster first start of the season, Red’s southpaw Brandon Finnegan completely lost the strike zone in two abbreviated outings. It looked mechanical as he consistently missed up and away, but the team put him on the DL with a strained muscle in his shoulder. Hopefully he’ll re-find it in the next month or so.

  • I’ll offer mixed, but generally positive, reviews on the Astros’ Charlie Morton. His velocity is definitely a plus right now, and he’s also showing nice depth on his breaking pitches. However, he needs to spot everything better to keep his pitch counts down. If he can tweak some things, he can help a fantasy rotation.

  • I’m always leery of groundball pitchers because they can be vulnerable to seeing-eye singles and, worse, when sinkers don’t sink, they fly – a long way. That said, I have always liked the Cardinals’ Mike Leake. He throws quality strikes most of the time and usually gets tougher in dangerous spots.

  • Speaking of seeing-eye grounders and sinkers that didn’t sink, that last start by Toronto’s Marcus Stroman wasn’t pretty. A lot of dribblers early and he appeared to be over-throwing a bit, taking the edge off of his pitches later. Thinking of his other recent outings, give him a mulligan. He’ll be fine.

Endgame Odyssey:

Two NL closers have impressed me by showing the stuff that made them successful a few years ago, so their teams weren’t included above. The Rockies’ Greg Holland and the Brewers’ Neftali Feliz have both shown a lot (despite recent stumbles). If they stay healthy they should be solid assets for their fantasy owners. It was pretty obvious the Orioles’ Zach Britton wasn’t himself early on even though he successfully closed out five games. He landed on the DL, and the team hopes it will be a brief stay. If it doesn’t last long, they could employ a matchup committee, but I’d lean toward Brad Brach being the first choice. In Texas, Matt Bush returned after a week off to tend to an apparently minor injury. He struck out the side in the eighth inning on Sunday before Sam Dyson blew yet another save in the ninth. Dyson went on the DL the next day. Bush’s audition has begun. Huston Street was moved to the 60-day DL when he developed a shoulder impingement while rehabbing a back injury, and Andrew Bailey is also on the DL, which should clear away any obstacles to Cam Bedrosian closing full time for the Angels. I usually stick to closer scenarios here in the Odyssey, but sometimes another bullpen arm makes a big enough impact to merit comment. While Ken Giles is the clear-cut closer in Houston, Chris Devenski is very fantasy relevant. Through Monday, he has appeared in four games, totaling 11 innings (including two appearances of four innings each). He has allowed a run on a solo homer, but he has also struck out a whopping 21 batters (with just one walk). At the end of the night, just five AL pitchers – all starters, of course – had more strikeouts.