This week's Bullpen Report may look a little different than last. Get used to it.
We're going to mix up formats frequently to keep things fresh and deliver as much helpful information as possible. One week it may be a straight ranking of closers. The next, an update on bullpen depth charts. But with 75 percent of bullpens free of the crazy volatility we saw in the season's first two weeks, it doesn't make much sense to drone on about ranks and shuffling of positions every single week.
So for the second Bullpen Report, we give you the most likely depth charts for closers around the league. You'll see the closer, his backup, and then a stab at the third person in line for those in very deep leagues, based on a few factors (skill, background, chance to be slotted into that role, history of closing, etc).
While the first two are pretty solid and widely-accepted guesses, the third closer option requires a little creativity [NOTE: some "wildly speculative" guesses may be far less wild than others]. And before you dismiss that notion of the darkhorse, remember that current Pirates closer Jason Grilli --currently fifth in MLB for saves (with three) -- entered last season with a 4.55 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, and 6.9 K/9, playing for six different teams in his career and never getting close to regularly getting saves.
Closers are quirky characters; pinpointing them may require a little outside-the-box thinking.
American League East
Joel Hanrahan's ugly blown save against the Orioles on Wednesday was actually preceded by a two-hit/one-run performance two games earlier; in fact, the Red Sox closer has given up three home runs in the last 1 2/3 innings. Over the two previous seasons, however, Hanrahan has been pretty solid, with a 2.24 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and 76 saves in 128 1/3 innings. And, for his career, Hanrahan has been nothing short of ugly in March and April, with a 5.59 ERA and 1.54 WHIP in 56 1/3 career innings. The silver lining for his owners? Hanrahan bounces back quite handsomely. If John Farrell gives him a long leash, you'll likely reap the benefits of having a pitcher with a 2.76 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 72 1/3 May innings.
Tommy Hunter was the other player brought over in the Chris Davis deal with Texas. While he was marginally impressive for one season as a starter, Hunter has been really impressive since being moved to the bullpen late last season. His velocity jumped from about 91 to 95 mph after the switch, and his K/9 went from 4.7 as a starter to 8.5 in the bullpen last season (so far this year Hunter has three strikeouts in 3 2/3 innings). We're talking deep leagues here, but if all other options are off the table, Hunter could be a nice, sneaky add.
American League Central
Let's go back about 13 months, when Aaron Crow was going to be in the rotation, Greg Holland was the next best thing, and a nation couldn't wait for Jonathan Broxton to be traded. Fantasy owners were stashing Holland and railing against Broxton as washed up and inferior in skill. Holland was coming off a sparkling 2011 campaign in which he went 5-1 with a 1.80 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, sporting an 11.1 K/9. When Broxton was sent packing, Holland responded with 16 saves from August 1 on.
Holland's minor league track record is solid, and he hasn't seen a significant drop in velocity from last year (it's down a little over one mph through four games). He's given up four runs this season, all coming in interleague games against the Phillies. So we're willing to wipe away a nice data set of success just because he had a few bad games to start the season? For the Holland haters, I will note that while his velocity may have been down in the spring, he still had a 3.86 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings. And his control is a little off right now.
And this isn't meant to dump on Herrera, who has been stellar this year, but his 2012 numbers (2.35 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 8.2 K/9) are sub-par compared to Holland's in 2011. It just seems a little too impatient to have this wave of owners running to pick up Herrera (owned in 40 percent of leagues) without remembering how good Holland was in 2011 and 2012.
American League West
The most enigmatic closer in all of baseball? Jose Veras. He has pitched four games so far this year, but has yet to get a save, as the Astros have managed to win their games in blowout fashion. In fact, the only save for Houston this year has gone to Erik Bedard, who got that quirky four-inning save on opening night.
Veras puts Fantasy owners in a weird spot. On one hand, he is in no real danger of losing his job, and his grip on saves was only tightened when Rule 5 pick Josh Fields went on the DL with a forearm strain. On the other hand, Veras is pitching for a team that will not produce many save opportunities for him. And he's never really been tested as a closer, with five saves in 331 career appearances. So where does that leave a Fantasy owner looking to gauge his value? Unfortunately, you end up pretty lost.
Veras has never finished a season with an ERA below 3.50. But his 9.4 career K/9 (which has jumped to 10.3 the last three years) is an asset. He doesn't offer the most impressive resume, but Veras does have job security, and will likely see a relatively long leash in a rebuilding season for Houston.
National League East
As a whole, this collection of NL East backup closers is pretty seasoned. Drew Storen saved 43 games and Jordan Walden saved 32 in 2011. Jon Rauch saved 21 and Brandon Lyon saved 20 in 2010. And Tyler Clippard saved 32 in 2012. I won't count Francisco because if his elbow was fine, he'd probably be closing for the Mets. But this is a division full of safety nets, and the most interesting pitcher here is one who has finished four games in his career.
John Maine was, almost a decade ago, one of the top prospects in baseball. He has an eight-year major league career, split between the Mets and Orioles. It's always a little intriguing when a pitcher with decent strikeout rates as a starter tries to reinvent himself as a reliever.
Maine used to hit 94 with his fastball, but his career was pretty much decimated by arm injuries. While he's probably not going to hit the mid-90s on the radar gun, Maine could let loose a little more as a reliever pitching 65 innings than he'd be able to as a starter trying to throw 170.
Ryan Webb and Mike Dunn are probably behind Rauch for saves if you wanted an exact depth chart right now, but I'm keeping an eye on Maine for a few weeks to see if he maybe found a niche as a reliever. It's a wonderful longshot, but worth checking out just in case.
National League Central
This division has quickly become just an awesome mess. The Cubs, Brewers and Cardinals all have issues at closer, with Mitchell Boggs being the only closer for the three teams left with a job -- and he took it over from an injured Jason Motte.
The interesting thing with this group is that both John Axford and Carlos Marmol could be great closers (Boggs scores an incomplete so far). But Axford has extended his slow implosion from 2012 into 2013, while Marmol just insists on doing this weird dance with consistency.
Still, they have their bright spots.
Marmol had a 1.52 ERA with 12 saves and 39 strikeouts in 29 2/3 innings after the All-Star Game last year. Axford had a 1.95 ERA and 46 saves in 2011. There is skill there, but the two of them seem to have that whole "figuring it out" thing dangling just out of reach.
Both teams' staffs have said publicly that they want the pitchers to straighten themselves out in middle relief, then return to the closer role. Granted, a lot of managers and coaches say a lot of things to the press and don't follow up. But based on the success each of these pitchers has found in the past, I'm willing to hold onto them for as long as I can in deeper (12-team mixed Roto) leagues. Axford stays on the bench longer than Marmol, but I'd rather both get straightened out in the next couple weeks and re-claim their jobs.
National League West
Just to clarify, I fully believe Andrew Cashner is in the San Diego rotation by Memorial Day. I think his demotion to the bullpen is partially a way to hold back his innings a little bit early on (his career high in innings pitched is 111 1/3) and a result of him being sidelined over the winter with a hunting-related hand injury. He'll start before he closes, but if some strange set of circumstances warrants it, I think he maybe leapfrogs Dale Thayer in the pecking order, assuming he's still working out of the bullpen at the time.
Heath Hembree makes for an interesting third-string saves candidate later in the year. At 24 years old, he's already saved 58 minor league games, with a 2.61 ERA and 1.12 WHIP, sporting an 11.7 K/9 in 110 1/3 innings. Additionally, his high ERA in the PCL last year was partially due to a mid-summer elbow strain, which took him out for about a month. The fun twist with Hembree is that, while the Giants may be stacked at reliever, Hembree represents a trade chip for the Giants, who have not been afraid to trade away solid prospects at the deadline (Zack Wheeler, Tommy Joseph, Seth Rosin) for a late-season veteran push. If Hembree is traded to a team with an opening at closer, he could walk right into the saves mix.
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