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Mound Musings: The Bullpen Shuffle – National League

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.

At this stage of the season, the saves category is often a primary target for adding points and moving up in the standings. Having passed the non-waiver trade deadline, some closers have moved on to contending teams – often having been relegated to a set-up role – while their former teams scramble to find the guy who can adequately protect a lead in the ninth inning. Some role changes could be fairly obvious, but more often, there are several arms with some chance of claiming the job.

My bullpen disintegrated. What’s a fantasy owner to do?

All season long, there are closer scenarios changing, or at least potentially changing. The trade deadline clearly showed us that relief pitching has become an ever-expanding part of success in major league baseball. This year, more than any other, 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 provide positive innings on a consistent basis. The best teams are stockpiling quality relievers in an attempt to shorten games to five, six or at most, seven innings, for their starters. For fantasy players, opportunities are arising. So, let’s take a look at some evolving closer assignments in the NL and see where they may be headed:

Here are some NL closer scenarios to monitor closely:

  • Atlanta Braves – Jim Johnson hung onto the closer’s job in Atlanta, probably longer than anyone expected. Actually, he’s likely to still see an occasional save chance the rest of this season, but a changing of the guard is in progress. For the past couple of years, Arodys Vizcaino has been the Braves’ closer-in-waiting, but a string of injuries (and Johnson’s ability to pitch better when the grumbling started) has delayed his anointing. I’m surprised Johnson didn’t depart at the deadline – he’s a prototypical set-up guy with a lot of experience – but he’s still in Atlanta and will serve as an insurance policy for the fragile Vizcaino. The reliever to own is the now healthy Vizcaino, but you have to hope he stays healthy and understand the team won’t overwork him so Johnson will still get a few calls when he needs a day off. Jose Ramirez could also sneak into the mix, but he’s well-suited to set-up duties, so his save chances probably will be rare.

  • Miami Marlins – Speaking of fragile, I’ve lost track of how many times the Marlins’ Kyle Barraclough has been banged up. Miami dealt AJ Ramos to the Mets at the deadline, but the heir-apparent is nursing a sore shoulder (never a good thing), so the transition to Bear Claw is on hold. Enter Brad Ziegler. He’s living proof that many managers would rather hand the ball to an experienced end gamer with a very shaky skillset, than to someone with far better stuff who has never been asked to close games. In reality, Ziegler is a placeholder, and he’s been around long enough to understand and accept that role. When the kid returns, he’ll likely get a chance to prove he can handle the job. Barraclough will need to prove he can handle the workload and throw enough strikes to be effective. Meanwhile, Ziegler figures to serve as the South Florida version of Jim Johnson – handling things if Barraclough needs a rest, or has a bout of wildness.

  • Washington Nationals – One of the longest running closer soap operas has hopefully come to an end. After almost four months of playing musical closers, none of whom experienced any long term success, the playoff-bound Nationals finally acquired a few reliable game finishers. At the top of the list is southpaw Sean Doolittle. He has great stuff and experience, but this situation is included here because he has a long history of injuries. Cross your fingers – like the Nationals are – that he can stay healthy and help propel the team into the postseason. Brandon Kintzler was pretty successful in Minnesota and makes a solid set-up complement to Ryan Madson, who was acquired in the Doolittle deal. One other wild card to keep track of is Koda Glover. He was the only internal option to show ninth-inning promise, albeit short-lived due to injury. He could be back soon and is another option should Doolittle hit any bumps.

  • St. Louis Cardinals – And, here we go sports fans, this week’s Cardinal closer is … drumroll … Trevor Rosenthal. That’s what the 2017 season has seemed like to fantasy owners looking for saves from the St. Louis bullpen. Rosenthal has always struggled to throw strikes, so the Cardinals brought in Seung Hwan Oh. After 11 years and 357 saves in Korea and Japan, he seemed like the answer. And, during 2016, he was. There was discussion of transitioning Rosenthal to the starting rotation (probably still a possibility, although not this year), but Oh has struggled on and off, so the equally inconsistent flamethrower has been in a time share with the 33-year-old Oh. I’m sure the team would prefer a more settled pen with Oh at the end of it, but unless he can start closing the door on a routine basis, it might be almost mandatory for typical fantasy owners to own both in anticipation of another change in roles. If you own Rosenthal, enjoy the current ride, and if Oh is on your roster, sit tight, next week is a whole new ballgame.

  • New York Mets – Most expected the Mets to be sellers at the trade deadline, but they surprised some people by acquiring Marlins’ closer, AJ Ramos. Rumors were flying that the Red Sox were pursuing Addison Reed, and he dis head for Boston so maybe those transactions were somewhat tied together. With Reed gone and Ramos on board, the closer situation seemed set. And, it is, at least in the short term, but another piece of the puzzle will soon come into play. Within the next week or so, Jeurys Familia is expected back. He missed the first 15 games of the year due to suspension and appeared in only 11 games before hitting the disabled list with shoulder woes in May. Both Familia and Ramos have expiring contracts so the Mets will want to see what they have as they plan for 2018. If Familia is healthy (not a guarantee), he is the better option to close, so look for him to reclaim the job with Ramos dropping into a setup role.

Some Notable Rotation Ramblings:

  • He’s not a suggested roster add, at least not yet, but Arizona’s Anthony Banda has caught my eye. I was pretty impressed with his stuff in his start against the Giants, albeit his command was spotty, but he’s just filling in while Robbie Ray is out. He’s not top-of-the-rotation, but there is upside worth monitoring.

  • Still technically in the playoff hunt, the Mariners took yet another hit to their starting rotation when Felix Hernandez returned to the disabled list with bursitis. He won’t be back before September so his fantasy season is in jeopardy, and the team will finish with a mere shadow of their anticipated staff.

  • There was a time, not so very long ago, when San Francisco’s Matt Moore was consistently high on my wish list. A southpaw with a lot of zip and nasty breaking stuff is hard to ignore. Right now, with an ugly 5.88 ERA, he’s a mess. He’s lost on the mound, and the Giants are desperately trying to figure it out.

  • If you’re looking for possible back-of-the-rotation help down the stretch, if he was dropped, Daniel Norris of the Tigers might be worth a look. It appeared he was getting it together before the wheels came off and he hit the disabled list in early July with a groin injury. Just give him a couple starts before deploying him.

  • Things seem to be progressing for Washington’s Stephen Strasburg following an intense bullpen session and a full speed simulated game. With a playoff spot already waiting, I don’t think the team will want to overwork him, but I also think they’ll be unlikely to activate him until they’re sure he is healthy.

  • Some anticipated arrivals are now starting to show up on the radar screen. The White Sox’ Reynaldo Lopez is expected to be called up from Triple-A Charlotte this week. Lopez isn’t an elite prospect – he’s well down on Chicago’s deep list of kids – but he has enough skills to warrant consideration in deeper leagues.

For those wondering why the Rangers didn’t move Keone Kela into the closer’s role when he returned from the disabled list (I was one of them), the answer has been revealed. A second trip to the DL with shoulder woes is seriously bad news. He’s not in jeopardy of losing his job certainly, but Toronto’s young Roberto Osuna has pretty amazing stuff for the number of blown saves he has accumulated. Like the whole Blue Jays’ season, very untimely hits and countless other calamities have played a big role. The Rockies’ Greg Holland has only blown three saves this year but two of those have happened this week. He had a Cinderella first half but hasn’t been as sharp since the break. One has to wonder if he is wearing down a bit. They haven’t said as much, but the days of Bud Norris closing for the Angels may be mercifully coming to an end. Earlier this week Keynan Middleton got a chance (he converted it), but I think we may see some auditioning among several options. The Giants’ Mark Melancon could be activated as soon as Friday and would presumably slide back into the closer’s gig with Sam Dyson dropping back into a setup role. With Kintzler gone, the Twins have handed the reins to veteran journeyman Matt Belisle. He’s enjoyed a good year (he hasn’t allowed a run since late June), but he’s not the safest play.