In previous BLOW-PEN Reports, I have talked about Steve Cishek needing to be replaced by A.J. Ramos, Neftali Feliz making way for Shawn Tolleson, Addison Reed not being the man for the D-Backs, and Fernando Rodney to eventually be replaced by Carson Smith. So far, so good with those predictions. Today I bring to you another edition of the BLOW-PEN Report to check in on four situations that require our attention.
On Saturday, Hector Rondon, who began the season as the Cubs closer was inserted into a save opportunity to begin the 9th inning, but after walking the leadoff batter he was relieved by Pedro Strop who proceeded to close out the game cleanly for the save. After the game, manager Joe Maddon told reporters that it wasn’t a case of changing who his closer was and that he just wanted to put his team in position to win the game.
So then on Sunday, Rondon appeared yet again to protect a lead, but this time it was to begin the 8th inning where he pitched a perfect inning but failed to strike anyone out. But this time it was not Strop who pitched the 9th inning for the save opportunity. Instead it was Jason Motte, former Cardinals closer. Motte pitched a perfect inning with one strikeout for his first save of the season. Maddon then went on to say that Strop was unavailable, but if he was unavailable then it was not because of a large recent workload since he only pitched twice in the last three days with a 9 pitch outing and a 14 pitch outing.
I am finding it hard to put much value into what Maddon has said, which makes it hard to know what to make of this situation, but I’ve said it so many times now — Maddon has done some interesting things with his bullpens in the past, so with this development, the closer situation can be very fluid the rest of the season. Rondon didn’t exactly do a whole lot to merit any type of demotion from the closer’s role, but he also wasn’t pitching lights out either with a 3.09 ERA and 1.29 WHIP and 10 for 13 in save opportunities entering Sunday’s game. But no one else in the Cubs bullpen was exactly performing significantly better than Rondon either. Whatever the case, Rondon may have fallen out of Maddon’s favor, which would contradict what Maddon said after Saturday’s game. If that is the case, then Strop and Motte are candidates for saves moving forward, and even lefty Travis Wood.
Strop has very little experience closing out games, but he does have powerful stuff and the ability to miss a lot of bats as his strikeout rate on the season currently is 10.04 K/9. Motte does have the closer experience having saved 42 games for the Cardinals in 2012, but he has not been the same pitcher since returning last season from Tommy John surgery. Motte’s velocity has been nowhere near his pre-Tommy John levels, which has adversely affected his ability to strike batters out. Motte’s strikeout rate this season is a measly 5.91 K/9 and he’s also having a little trouble limiting the walks with a walk rate of 3.38 BB/9. Wood is just a wildcard who couldn’t hack it in the rotation, so he was moved to the bullpen in mid-May. Since the move to the pen, Wood has had a 2.84 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, and 9 K/3 BB in 6.1 IP, and he would probably only be an option for saves in a situation where the opposition has a lot of lefties coming up in the 9th inning.
If I have learned anything about Maddon over the years from his time as a bench coach with the Angels to managing the Rays, it is that he has an incredible baseball mind and will do unconventional (but smart) things to help his team to win ball games, and he does not really care for labeling a single pitcher as his closer. For fantasy baseball team owners, Maddon is a big headache in this regard and it’s going to be difficult to predict what his next move will be the next time his team has a 3-run or less lead in the 9th inning. Then to complicate matters even further, the Cubs are one of a few teams who are considering signing current free agent Rafael Soriano.
If I had to guess at this point, I would say that Motte would be the leading candidate for saves as Rondon appears to be in the doghouse, and Maddon probably is putting some value in the fact that Motte was one of the game’s best closers for a year and has the closer mentality. But I would not trust Motte at all to do well if given an extended look since he’s just not striking many batters out. But Strop is also a good speculative add and would probably have a greater chance of success than Motte. But ultimately, unless the Cubs bring in someone via trade or signing Soriano, then I think that this will be a closer by committee situation the rest of the way.
With Sean Doolittle beginning the season on the DL and then landing back on the DL after re-aggravating his shoulder injury, Tyler Clippard, who the A’s traded for in the off-season, has been serving as the team’s closer. Clippard has been doing decently but he imploded on Sunday as he allowed 3 earned runs while only recording one out to take the blown save and the loss. Clippard is now 9 for 11 in save opportunities and holds a 3.33 ERA and 1.36 WHIP. Another A’s reliever that got lit up in this game was Evan Scribner who has been utilized this season as the team’s primary setup man. Scribner also was charged with 3 runs to bring his season ERA to 2.87. This all comes on the heels of me posting about switch pitcher Pat Venditte upon his promotion to the Majors.
You can check out more on Venditte in my post “Pat Venditte Gives the A’s Bullpen a Hand (or Two),” but the gist of it is that Venditte has been a pretty amazing relief pitcher throughout his career in the Minors. He is a soft tosser who has the ability to pitch effectively with either hand, giving him a bit of an advantage when it comes to lefty/righty matchups. He has not had any experience closing games since his 2009 season in the Minors, but with the A’s not being a contending team, Clippard set to become a free agent at the end of the season to make him a likely in-season trade candidate, Doolittle’s shoulder injury looking pretty serious, and Billy Beane’s revolutionary and innovative approach, Venditte could be a candidate to close out games for the A’s at some point this season if he proves himself effective in getting Major League hitters out.
I don’t foresee anything immediate on the horizon as far as Clippard being removed from the role or traded, but a trade is an eventual likely event so Venditte and/or Scribner (who is enjoying his best season to date despite the blow up on Sunday) could be some good guys to stash if looking for fantasy saves.
Gregerson took the blown save and loss after a Sunday afternoon implosion. It’s only his 2nd blown save in 17 opportunities, but he hasn’t exactly been dominant with his ERA at 4.50. This probably shouldn’t signal a closer change in Houston just yet, but unless he recovers in his next couple of outings then manager A.J. Hinch might be forced to look at his other options since he is managing a surprise team that is contending for a playoff spot for the first time in years.
So far this season, it has been Chad Qualls who has seen the majority of save opportunities when Gregerson has been unavailable, but Qualls’ 4.43 ERA, proneness to the long ball this season, and his career track record of being an average relief pitcher are indicators that he probably would not be effective if thrust into the closer’s role for an extended period. Another veteran reliever that would be worthy of consideration is Pat Neshek. Neshek is not a hard thrower, but he’s a crafty sidearmer with a fastball and slider combo that has been very effective for him for his career. He’s been doing extremely well this season with a 2.18 ERA and 0.58 WHIP, and he has incredibly not walked a batter in 20.2 innings so far. Two more Astros relievers who could be mixed in for saves should Gregerson be removed from the role at some point are Will Harris and Tony Sipp. The southpaw Sipp would likely only be used in a situation where there’s some tough lefties coming to the plate, but Harris is an intriguing option. The 30-year old Harris has been a decent reliever the past two seasons for the Diamondbacks, and this year with the Astros he has taken his game to a new level as he has really seemed to become extremely comfortable with his cutter that he uses both to strike batters out and induce a lot of ground balls.
For now, I believe Gregerson is safe in his closer’s role, but one or two more bad outings would probably change that. I am not saying that he will indeed have more bad outings, but in the event that he does, I would think that Neshek would be the best speculative add even though Harris might have the best stuff of anyone in that pen. As a 10-year veteran with a great resume and a great season so far, Neshek would probably have the edge over the 3rd year pitcher Harris.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
Kevin Jepsen has now recorded the Rays last three saves for the Rays as Jake McGee, who recently came back from the DL, worked the 8th inning in Sunday’s game and Brad Boxberger stayed in the bullpen and hasn’t pitched in the last 4 days. Boxberger had been lights out up until a couple weeks ago and he has given up 5 runs in his last 5 games. But on Sunday it was finally reported that Boxberger is dealing with tricep tightness that might be the cause of his recent dip velocity and subsequent poor performance. When Boxberger is right, he is the best option to close out games for the Rays in my opinion, so once he is ready and if he is healthy then he should resume his closer duties and continue to do pretty well at it.
With all things being equal, I do not believe that Jepsen is any real threat to take over as the team’s closer. He is a fine relief pitcher in his own regard with a current 1.80 ERA and 1.20 WHIP, and he really came on strong in middle relief for the Angels last year, but both Boxberger and McGee are more talented with much better stuff. For now though, Jepsen should be added if you are in need of saves as who knows if Boxberger can get fully healthy, and manager Kevin Cash might be more traditional than former Rays manager Joe Maddon, preferring to keep the left-handed McGee in a setup role.