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Bullpen Report: Closer situations are a mixed bag

Senior Fantasy Writer
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It's time, once again, for your favorite end-game conundrum column: Cascading Closers! Where we vaguely put the game's closers in groups with some sort of context and a general idea of ranking.

It's a little more entertaining than it initially sounds.

On to the waterfall!

Still the one(s)

Craig Kimbrel, Braves
Aroldis Chapman, Reds

Most Added Relievers (5/10)
Player % change
1. Junichi Tazawa, Red Sox 30
2. Heath Bell, Diamondbacks 29
3. Edward Mujica, Cardinals 16
4. Kevin Gregg, Cubs 13
5. Koji Uehara, Red Sox 6
6. Matt Reynolds, Diamondbacks 6
7. Kenley Jansen, Dodgers 3
8. Huston Street, Padres 3
9. David Hernandez, Diamondbacks 2
10. Jason Grilli, Pirates 2

Through the first week of May, Kimbrel and Chapman -- the two best closers in baseball -- combined for a 12.46 ERA and 2.54 WHIP (giving up six runs in 4 1/3 innings). This was ... unexpected. Kimbrel and Chapman were dominant last year, and had been cruising right along through April, giving up a total of three earned runs over a combined 24 innings pitched. Of the two, it's difficult to say which one raises more concern. Chapman has the shorter track record, but he really had just one bad game. Kimbrel, however, has given up runs in three of his last six appearances, and had an ugly spring with reports of lowered velocity (although it's back up to normal so far this season).

I'm not going to lower Kimbrel because of some speculation, based on a six-game stretch, that he may be injured. I'll consider it a road-bump for now. But if the erratic performances continue, I'd probably suggest Kimbrel owners look to Jordan Walden as a back-up plan, just in case.

Scraping at the top tier

Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
Huston Street, Padres
Mariano Rivera, Yankees
Greg Holland, Royals
Joe Nathan, Rangers
Sergio Romo, Giants
Chris Perez, Indians

Dump on Street (3.86 ERA, 6.4 K/9) and Holland (3.75 ERA, 1.67 WHIP) all you like, but I think they belong in this group among the near-elite. Street got off to a rough start, giving up four runs in his first five games, but since then, he has a 2.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and seven saves. And the additions of Headley and Quentin to the lineup -- after early season injuries and suspensions -- have turned the Padres from a lowly 5-14 team (on April 22, the day before the team got the two in the lineup at the same time together) to a far better-looking 16-18 club (11-4 in that span). Throw Andrew Cashner in the rotation and you have a team winning more games, giving Street more save opportunities.

Holland, meanwhile, gave up four runs in his first three games, but has dazzled in the ensuing 10, with a 0.90 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 10 innings. And the one run he gave up in that span was a borderline error from Chris Getz in a loss to the White Sox. With Kelvin Herrera's overly vocal supporters thumping their chests with far less vigor these days, thanks to Herrera's 5.02 ERA through 14 games, Holland has a renewed grip on the role and should continue to excel.

Two closers I'm trying to trade for

Jason Grilli, Pirates
Edward Mujica, Cardinals

As always, it depends on who you can send off in a trade (I'm looking at these two as buy-lows), but the point here is that these pitchers have proven they can close games and really have no obstacles (outside of themselves) to keeping the job all season.

I'm pretty sure most Mujica owners just grabbed him on a whim or out of desperation off the wire, not believing he'd be this effective, and many Grilli owners are seeing his early season success as an opportunity to sell high, not buying into his late-career transformation into a high-strikeout closer who can end games with authority.

Since joining the Pirates, Grilli has produced a 2.48 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 12.8 K/9. In his previous 10 seasons, Grilli had a 4.74 ERA, 1.48 WHIP and 6.6 K/9. Not only is there a sustained record of recent success, but it's all with the same team (the Pirates), which leads to this conclusion: they must have found something in Grilli that just needed to be tweaked.

Mujica is like a modern-day Eddie Guardado -- not throwing especially hard, not creating some kooky persona -- just getting the job done. Like Grilli, Mujica has thrived with his new team (the Cardinals), with a 1.37 ERA and 0.81 WHIP in 42 games since being traded by the Marlins. So far this year, Mujica has nine saves, tying him for eighth in the majors, despite not getting his first save chance until April 18.

The small red dots on cashmere sweaters (or, good closers who have just one tiny, barely noticeable flaw)

Tom Wilhelmsen, Mariners
Grant Balfour, Athletics
Rafael Soriano, Nationals
Glen Perkins, Twins
Rafael Betancourt, Rockies
Jim Johnson, Orioles
Addison Reed, White Sox
Jose Valverde, Tigers

Each one of these closers has a certain flaw (not related to injury) that conjures up enough worry to leave them out of the upper tiers of closers, even though it's a talented group and all of them could end up with 35 saves:

-Wilhelmsen is downright nasty, but he has a spotty and short track record, so it's somewhat difficult to divine any long-term meaning from what he's done so far in his career. I think I'd feel comfortable moving him up to the next tier if he keeps this up through the All-Star break.
-The concern with Balfour isn't his skill -- it's the fear he'll be removed again as closer after a rough stretch. Balfour hasn't had an ERA above 2.55 since 2009, but last year, on May 8, he was sporting a 4.70 ERA and was replaced in Oakland by Ryan Cook. He spent the next three months dominating in middle relief and was re-installed as closer in mid-August. In the time between his seventh and eight saves, Balfour had a 2.09 ERA and 0.98 WHIP.
-While it hasn't happened yet, Soriano will likely lose some save opportunities to Drew Storen and/or Tyler Clippard, as Davey Johnson has a long history of giving away some saves to pitchers other than his main closer. This isn't a closer not being able to go on the third day in a row and a setup man getting saves -- Johnson has a track record, Through his years managing the Mets, Reds, Orioles and Dodgers, he had always brought at least one other pitcher into the closer mix.
-Perkins has two good seasons in the majors and they have both come with him being used primarily as a reliever. If we apply the Grilli Principle -- that something just clicked when he was put in a new situation -- he probably deserves a little more respect. But Perkins has a 4.22 ERA this season (although most of that damage came in blowouts) and he is the rare lefty closer, which shouldn't really matter, but it has a stigma of not being so great.
-Betancourt has been brilliant this year (1.35 ERA, 0.90 WHIP), but he's 38 years old, is in the last year of his contract and if Colorado slips out of the wild card race he is a prime candidate to be traded -- likely to a team that will use him to strengthen its middle relief corps.
-Johnson broke the 50-save barrier last season, but he doesn't throw especially hard and the more batters see of him, the more they may be able to figure him out. Like the lefty Perkins, the crafty closer Johnson is an anomaly and that just gives me a bit of pause.
-Reed has 40 saves since the start of 2012, but he did have a 4.75 ERA and 1.36 WHIP last year, while striking out just under a batter per inning. His 2.81 ERA this season looks much better, but the way he put together his 2012 -- allowing runs, but doing so in situations where he wouldn't be blowing too many games -- can't be sustained in 2013. Although, to his credit, he allowed a run in a non-save situation Wednesday night against the Mets, continuing his 2012 theme. Either he lowers his ERA or the runs come at more inopportune times.
-Valverde ended a weird offseason by holding out for a favorable contract, signing a minor league deal with the Tigers and promptly getting three saves in four scoreless innings. Valverde stabilized the back of Detroit's bullpen and he isn't going anywhere. While he'll probably hold onto the role all year, Valverde's 3.78 ERA in 2012 wasn't very pretty and his K/9 of 6.3 was the lowest of his career.

Brief interlude: We kind of saw this coming

Fernando Rodney, Rays
J.J. Putz, Diamondbacks

Rodney's 2012 may not have been a fluke, but it's definitely looking more like an outlier in light of his ugly start to 2013 (5.06 ERA, 1.78 WHIP, four saves). However, this regression wasn't much of a surprise, considering Rodney had a 4.42 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in the five seasons prior to 2012. In 11 games this season, Rodney has already equaled the number of home runs (two) he gave up in 2012.

Putz has done a dangerous dance with his elbow for many years now. Instead of going over the history again, just check out this stellar breakdown from 2009 (it's been going on that long) over at Mets Today.

When bad teams happen to good closers

Kevin Gregg, Cubs
Bobby Parnell, Mets
Casey Janssen, Blue Jays
Jose Veras, Astros

From 2007 to 2011, Gregg pitched for four teams, averaging 29 saves per season. Among active pitchers, he is ninth in career saves. And so far this year, Gregg has yet to allow a run while collecting five saves. While the fallacy of "bad team = no saves for closer" has been all but shattered, it still helps to be pitching for a winning team. Gregg's situation is no longer complicated by the impending return of Kyuji Fujikawa, as manager Dale Sveum said on Wednesday that Gregg is his closer and will remain in the role even after Fujikawa comes back. Owned in 37 percent of leagues, Gregg is grossly underowned, even with the relatively sparse save chances he will see.

I also kind of like Veras. I realize it's not a ringing endorsement, but the Astros aren't going to be historically bad this year, and the team should produce far more save situations than it did after gutting its roster last year. There are massive issues with the starting pitching, but the team has some talent in there (and in the upper levels of the minor leagues), and the lineup includes some underrated bats capable of scoring runs. The Astros have scored more runs this season than 10 other teams, including the Nationals, Phillies and Dodgers. They aren't flailing their way through the season -- they just have been victims of terrible starting pitching (the team's 5.62 ERA is almost a full run higher than the second-to-last-place team). If the team can right itself, pitching-wise, Veras has the talent (and high-strikeout rate) to be a 25-save pitcher from today forward.

Brief interlude, Pt. 2: What to do with Heath Bell?

I'm putting him just below the middle tier in my rankings. Bell was terrible in 2012, but in the five seasons before the implosion, he had a 2.53 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 134 saves. His 4.40 ERA this season may reek of him having learned nothing from last year, but that big number can be mostly attributed to a three-run performance in his first appearance. Since then, Bell has produced a 2.57 ERA and 1.07 WHIP, with 19 strikeouts in 14 innings, collecting three saves. Putz is going to be out at least a couple months, likely longer, and Bell has been dominant as closer before. If he can put his 2012 behind him -- and there's reason to believe he can -- this could be a rest-of-season addition right now for the savvy owner.

Two California closers who may be hearing footsteps

Brandon League, Dodgers
Ernesto Frieri, Angels

League was granted a brief stay of execution Wednesday night, when Kenley Jansen -- his would-be replacement -- gave up an eighth-inning home run to Paul Goldschmidt. But here's something interesting about League and his mid-May failings:

From May 13 to May 18, 2010: 2 2/3 IP, 6 ER, 20.25 ERA
From May 21 to end of season: 57 IP, 20 ER, 3.16 ERA

From May 8 to May 13, 2011: 3 IP, 10 ER, 30.00 ERA
From May 17 to end of season: 45 1/3 IP, 6 ER, 1.19 ERA

From May 17 to May 25, 2012: 3 1/3 IP, 6 ER, 16.20 ERA
From May 28 to end of season: 51 2/3 IP, 15 ER, 2.61 ERA

League usually hits some kind of massive road bump in May. So far this month, he has an 11.57 ERA in 2 1/3 innings. This is just what he does. Whether he'll have enough of a leash to get past that bump while remaining the closer (it happened in 2011, it did not happen in 2012) remains to be seen.

Brief interlude, Pt. 3: Junichi Tazawa

Here's what I think we know so far: Joel Hanrahan is probably going to be out for a long time. In fact, he was placed on the 60-day disabled list Thursday. Andrew Bailey is likely going to be out for at least a few weeks. Tazawa is a very good pitcher. Add it all up, and I'm putting Tazawa in a weird limbo. He's good and will get the job done, but when Bailey comes back, that job goes back to Bailey. I'm all for dropping Hanrahan for Tazawa. And I would probably drop a bench player like Garrett Jones, Jhonny Peralta or Bronson Arroyo to add him, even with the threat of Bailey returning at some unnamed date in the future.

Two closers in search of a category

Jim Henderson, Brewers
Steve Cishek, Marlins

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Henderson has been brilliant as closer, taking over an uncomfortable situation (everyone, including Henderson, said they expected Axford to take the role back when Axford got himself righted) and running with it -- he has seven saves in 14 games, with a 1.29 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 14 innings. There's no telling how long this will last. Henderson was bounced between starting and relieving early in the minors and dealt with various injuries, he remained an erratic producer when moved full-time to the bullpen later. There isn't a clear picture of what kind of pitcher, exactly, he is.

Additionally, I'm kind of intrigued by Francisco Rodriguez. His lackluster performance last year with the Brewers (4.38 ERA) totally obfuscates a few factors: he's only 31 years old, he still managed 25 saves in just 57 1/3 innings with the Mets in 2010 and had 23 saves in 42 2/3 innings with the Mets in 2011. That's 48 saves in 100 innings over two seasons, which would work out to about 34 saves in a full season. If the Brewers give him a roster spot, he gets a guaranteed $2 million, so this won't be an oh-by-the-way addition. A little crazy talk here, but Milwaukee is three games out from the wild card right now, and the team has just gotten Aramis Ramirez back, with Corey Hart en route in about a month -- so the Brewers are well within striking distance. If Henderson shows any signs of cracking, and Rodriguez is, essentially, himself, it may not be crazy for a switch to be made.

Your injured closers

Jason Motte, Cardinals
Ryan Madson, Angels
Joel Hanrahan, Red Sox
Andrew Bailey, Red Sox
Kyuji Fujikawa, Cubs

Motte is done for the season with Tommy John surgery, while Madson is on the road back (and, according to reports, is nearing a return). Hanrahan and Bailey are shelved for the time being (although Bailey can come back in the middle of next week thanks to DL backdating) and Fujikawa is currently on a rehab assignment in the minors. If I had to choose one for my team right now, it would probably be Madson, as Gregg is the closer in Chicago and Bailey and Hanrahan seem like they'll beat each other up for saves all season long (assuming they ever get healthy). But Madson is all but assured to be anointed closer shortly after his return from the DL (maybe after a week or two of easing into games, so let's say by the end of May). I'll take 2/3 of a season's worth of saves over a vague game of leapfrog, if given the choice.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Nando Di Fino at @NandoCBS . You can also send our staff an e-mail at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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