Greetings and welcome to the Closer Report. Opening day is almost here, and while there will be changes to bullpens throughout the season, I find that the opening month or so is the most eventful. While there has been news on some of the murkiest situations, others have yet to shake out. Let’s take a look around the league.
A Surprise in Toronto
The Toronto Blue Jays acquired Drew Storen this offseason, and many of us assumed that he would take over the ninth inning. Storen has been effective in the closer role in the past, and there was talk of making incumbent Roberto Osuna a starter.
Well, this past Wednesday we found out that Osuna will be closing games to start the season. From Toronto manager John Gibbons, via the Toronto Globe and Mail:
“We like both of them, but I have a familiarity with Osuna – we all do here,” the manager said. “We’ve got some flexibility, if we decide to change some things when we get further along in the season, we can do that, too.”
During his tenure, Gibbons has presented a mix of loyalty and fidgetiness; a frustrating combination for fantasy owners. Last season, Brett Cecil was the closer, but lost the job quickly. He didn’t pitch great and was thrown into some serious jams where he had to be perfect to keep a run from crossing the plate. Young Miguel Castro held the job briefly after that until Gibbons eventually settled on the 20-year-old Osuna, who pitched great for the most part. So while Gibbons seems loyal to Osuna based on his quote, keep in mind that he didn’t show much patience last yearm and probably can’t show much patience this year. Expectations are high in Toronto and Gibbons has a replacement at the ready.
The good news for Osuna owners is that he was basically brilliant all year and everything about his performance seems legit. Osuna was relied on heavily down the stretch and into the postseason, and perhaps that’s part of the reason why Gibbons is sticking with him to start 2016. His skills are elite, and he did nothing to lose his job after all.
Speaking of losing a closing gig through no fault of one’s own: where does this leave Storen? Storen was pitching great last year (29 saves in 31 chances, 1.73 ERA) when the Nationals brought in Jonathan Papelbon to take over the ninth inning. Things went downhill from there, as Storen posted a 6.75 ERA setting up for Papelbon and broke his thumb during a temper tantrum in September.
Storen will obviously be a key piece of the Toronto bullpen, but he may feel like he is being jerked around again and thus his performance could suffer as it did last year. While he would be valuable as a closer, his peripherals are not so elite that you need to hang on to him in standard leagues. This would especially be the case after Osuna has a clean first week or two. Better opportunities for saves might be on the waiver wire already. Someone like Luke Gregerson . . .
Houston, Do We Have a Problem?
Houston gave up a hefty package for Ken Giles, including former top draft pick Mark Appel and power arm and current Phillies No. 5 starter Vincent Velasquez. Just about everyone assumed that Giles would close games in Houston just as he did in Philadelphia during the second half of last season. That is, everyone except incumbent closer Luke Gregerson. From the Houston Chronicle:
“How do you think I did last year?” Gregerson said Thursday. “I don’t see any reasons things should change. Obviously, bringing the guy we brought in, he’s got a strong power arm, he’s shown that he can get guys out in the major league level and I think he’s going to be a great addition to our bullpen no matter where we all fit in.”
Gregerson was just doing some posturing, right? We thought he would fade quietly into the eighth inning, until opposing batters started feasting on Ken Giles when spring training began. While Gregerson was battling his own intercostal strain, Giles has been facing his baseball demons and trying to settle down. He has been better, but not overly impressive. Meanwhile, Gregerson struck out the side on nine pitches in his first appearance this spring.
While I love Giles’ arm, I don’t think this is settled yet, meaning if you drafted Giles you need to handcuff him with Gregerson if possible. Giles is still a potential top-5 closer if he gets the role, but that is turning into a bigger “if” the longer we await word. Here’s another if: If spring training numbers mean anything, Gregerson should be closing on opening day. Even if he’s not, I’d hang on to him as the season starts until Giles has had a few clean appearances.
This is speculation, but like Toronto, Houston tasted postseason success for the first time in a long while. Perhaps the manager doesn’t want to appear disloyal by bumping Gregerson, who was certainly good enough in 2015 to keep his role. Giles was pricey for the Astros and fantasy owners alike, but at this point I wouldn’t be shocked to see him setting up to start the season. No matter what happens, Giles is worth holding on to for his elite strikeout rate.
News and Notes from Around the League
Remember that strong Yankee bullpen you were hearing about? It was already going to be short-handed in April with Aroldis Chapman serving his suspension, but it took another blow this week when Andrew Miller suffered a chip fracture in his right wrist thanks to a batted ball. Miller claims he wants to keep pitching, perhaps with some protective piece to help him avoid further injury. I will believe it when I see it. I think those of you fortunate enough to have Dellin Betances on your fantasy rosters might be getting some bonus saves. Sit tight if you own Miller though.
We assumed the battle for closing duties in Milwaukee would come down to Will Smith and Jeremy Jeffress. Manager Craig Counsell did not commit to either pitcher, but unfortunately Smith might have made Counsell’s job a little easier. He suffered a torn lateral collateral ligament while taking off his shoe. Smith is hoping to avoid surgery, but will certainly miss a chunk of time regardless. Jeffress seems capable, but I wouldn’t call him secure at all at this point. Speculators might want to add Corey Knebel in case Jeffress falters.
The Closer Grid
If you’ve read the Closer Report before, you know how it works: 1 = solid, 2 = secure for now, 3 = shaky, and 4 = worrisome.
Keep a close eye on this space as there is still plenty of uncertainty as the season begins. In addition to the situations described above, Tampa Bay is basically a toss-up, Philadelphia and Atlanta are unclear, and injuries can impact Oakland and even Texas in the coming days. Who is next in line will be come clearer in the weeks ahead.
Some pitchers who I can see moving into the eighth inning sooner rather than later include Seung-Hwan Oh, Daniel Hudson, and Brandon Maurer. Onto the grid:
Please let me know of your thoughts about the grid and any other ideas or questions about the late innings in the comments.
Need more spring training news, prospect advise, rankings and general fantasy baseball goodness, head on over to Fantasy Rundown.