And the men who hold high places
Must be the ones who start
To mold a new reality
Closer to the heart
What? You didn’t know that Toronto-based prog rock band Rush were huge roto baseball fans? That song was released in 1977 — the same year the Toronto Blue Jays played their inaugural season. It’s actually about their love for under-appreciated closer Pete Vuckovich who saved 8 games for the blue birds that year. A lot of us have that same love for certain closers and when it comes to draft time we think with our hearts rather than our heads.
We’re only 8 or so games into spring training and there’s already drama brewing in the bullpens. From pitching coaches disavowing their perfectly fine closers, to committees on committees on committees, and of course, Kevin Cash. I’m going to break down some of the latest scuttlebutt around the league for teams with questionable bullpen situations and tell you who I think is the guy to own.
I’ve included some spring stats so far — and yea, I know they’re irrelevant and inconsequential, but I love spreadsheets so get off my back.
Back in mid-February, Braves manager Snitker said that they’d be using 2 or 3 closers and here they are! However, digging deeper — I’m liking Chris Martin of these three. All three are capable of 10+ K/9 which is a huge benefit in the closer role, but Minter gets himself into too much trouble (career 4.0 BB/9) and is the only lefty, and Smith showed a tendency to give up the long ball too often last year (3.9 HR/9.) What could work against Martin, however, is that he has struggled against righties throughout his career (.286 BAA vs .225 vs lefties.) He has a devastating slider that breaks in against lefties, but nothing to combat righties.
I think this battle is more wide-open than a lot of other people think. Everything I’m reading is saying that it’s Harvey’s job to lose, but I’m actually leaning Tanner Scott. Last year Scott was in the 92nd percentile in fastball velocity and 93rd percentile in opponent exit velocity. One of the big knocks against Scott is his control (career 5.2 BB/9,) but look who has 3 BBs compared to 0 this year? Yea, I’m aware it’s only two innings, but if Scott has been working on that control, his 1.31 ERA in 20.2 IP could be a sign of things to come. Plus, Harvey is no guarantee to stay healthy.
Attitude isn’t something quantifiable in baseball, but if it was Amir Garrett would be in the 100th percentile. If the pictures of him fighting the entire Pittsburgh Pirates dugout weren’t enough, Garrett has made it very clear he wants to be the man in that bullpen saying with confidence of the closer role, “I feel like it’s still mine.” Reds manager, David Bell, however, hasn’t made a declaration yet giving the same committee talk that we’re hearing from a lot of managers this time of year, but I think Garrett might have a point. In last year’s shortened season Garrett had his highest K/9 (12.8) and lowest BB/9 (3.4.) He still allows a bit too many HRs (1.8 HR/9 for his career,) but that number was never over 1.0 in the minors so I’m optimistic with a few adjustments and the vote of confidence from his manager he could bring it down. Garrett is the guy to own in Cincinnati. If things don’t go Garrett’s way — I’d add Antone to your watchlist. He’s one of the more interesting stories out of spring training so far with 8 Ks:0 BBs in 5 innings so far. Do yourself a favor and take a look at Antone’s Baseball Savant percentile rankings. A whole lotta red: 80th percentile in hard hit %, 88th in xwOBA, 97th in xBA, 86 in K%, 98th in fastball spin, 95th in curveball spin. Antone wants to be a starter — but maybe he’s the best reliever in the Reds bullpen?
“Is this a joke Mr. Jokey Joke-Maker?” Everyone calm down. Cleveland’s pitching coach Carl Willis is just calling this a closer competition to light a fire under the three guys above. And look, all of them are deserving. In 2019 & 2020, WIttgren had a 2.99 ERA with a 9.7 K/9. In his debut season in 2019, Clase had a 2.31 ERA with an 8.1 K/9. And in his 32+ big league innings Karinchak looks like the second coming of Josh Hader with a 2.51 ERA and a ridiculous 17.0 K/9. I’m not worried about this situation and you shouldn’t be either. The 7th will be for Wittgren, the 8th for Clase, and Karinchak will be shutting them down in the 9th.
I’ll be brief with this one since there won’t be a lot of saves to go around. The Tigers are done with Joe Jimenez. He’s been the closer in waiting for three seasons now and it’s he’s done nothing with the role. He might need a trip back to the minors at this point to rediscover whatever he lost upon his promotion. Farmer is a 7 year veteran with 0 career saves. He’s a find 7th inning reliever, but nothing more. My heart wants me to say Soto is the guy with his electric stuff — but back-to-back seasons of BB/9 over 5.0 makes me nervous. That leaves us with Bryan Garcia. He’s not much better at limiting walks (4.8 BB/9 for his career,) but he has solid closer experience notching 17 saves in the minors in 2017 and was a closer in college putting up 43 saves with the Miami Hurricanes from 2014 to 2016.
In February, manager Don Mattingly mentioned Anthony Bass’s name often when discussing the team’s closer. However, by June I think we’ll be looking at Yimi Garcia as the Marlins closer. Garcia has more swing and miss in his arm (career 9.5 K/9 vs Bass’s 6.4) and showed last year that he is not afraid of the big spotlight spending most of his games pitching in the 8th inning. While both pitchers have mid-90’s fastballs, Garcia’s fastball spin rate is in the 98th percentile compared to Bass’s 8th. Garcia has also limited walks in his career better than Bass (1.8 BB/9 vs. 3.3.)
San Diego Padres
After signing Melancon, Padres manager Jayce Tingler said, “he’s certainly a candidate for that (the closer role) as are some other guys that we have here in camp.” I think Melancon will be the queen bee by mid-April. Last year Pomeranz thrived in the 8th inning spot and Melancon found success with the Braves despite only a 5.6 K/9. There is a razor-thin margin for error with Melancon, but I think Tingler will go with the veteran “guy who’s done it before” over Pomeranz, Kela, and Pagan. If that razor cuts wrong — who is the next guy up? Kela. Again — closer experience.
San Francisco Giants
A team is like a soup, everyone adds an extra scoop. Mix an ounce of smiles so sweet. A dash of cool to add the heat. And you’ve got…too many cooks! Too many cooks! In February, Giants manager, Gabe Kapler said that Jake McGee is a “nice candidate to be Giants closer” and also said that he wants to use a more set closer this season. I’m going to trust the coach on this one. Last year McGee really stepped in something, posting career bests in k/rate and walk rate on his way to a World Series with the Dodgers. I’m a little worried about McGee having one of the worst average exit velocities in the league, but if he misses bats at a high rate again — whats a few solo HRs here and there?
St. Louis Cardinals
I’ve saved the most interesting and alphabetical teams for last! There are a lot of saves to be had between the Cardinals and Rays since I think they are both playoff bound, but from a fantasy perspective their managers are just jerks. Starting with the Cardinals I think Andrew Miller is out on saves. “Then why include him?” Because if I don’t people will roast me. I’m getting this is the tail end of Miller’s career. Hats off to you Andrew! You made chicken salad out of chicken poop. Just today (March 9th) management has come out and said they want Alex Reyes to reach 100 innings in order to be stretched out as a starter for 2022. Sorry Alex — I’m glad you’re figuring things out a bit — but you are NOT the closer. That leaves Gallegos and Hicks. Here’s how that will go: Gallegos will get all of the saves for the month of April. Hicks hasn’t pitched since 2019 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Cardinals will give him April to pitch in the 6th and 7th innings of low stress games. Once he proves that he is whipping the ball at 102 miles-per-hour (spoiler alert: HE ALREADY IS!) they’ll ascend him to the closer role for the rest of the season. Since Gallegos has the ability to go more than 1 inning, the Cardinals will use him in the 7th, 8th, and even into the 9th as necessary, but Hicks and his 100+ mph fecalator to scare their opponents in the high pressure end of game situations.
Tampa Bay Rays
Oh boy. I’ve got to dive into the mind of Kevin Cash? Last year in a 60 game season — 12 relievers had saves for the Rays. By comparison, 5 relievers on the Yankees had saves, 4 relievers on the Dodgers had saves, and only 3 relievers on the Braves had saves. He’s a lunatic! He might also be a genius… I don’t have to tell you this, but unfortunately this isn’t the place to mine for saves. However, the obvious name to grab here is Nick Anderson. What is more valuable to you — a semi-closer who will only get you 20 saves, but an elite K rate, elite WHIP, and elite ERA — or Brad Hand who is going 40 picks earlier? Take Nick Anderson. Don’t sleep on Pete Fairbanks either! But I think Big Sexy Kevin Cash will use him in any inning he wants.