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Since returning from the All-Star Break, six relievers have posted two saves. Craig Kimbrel performed as expected in three scoreless appearances. Matching him for quality were three somewhat unexpected relievers – Pete Fairbanks, Gregory Soto, and Trevor May. Joakim Soria and Alex Reyes also finished off two saves, but they did so in ugly fashion.
May managed his pair of saves because Edwin Diaz is slumping. Since June 26, he’s posted a 10.13 ERA in eight innings. His worst outing came on Saturday against the lowly Pirates. Diaz allowed four-runs en route to a blown-save loss. He was unavailable on Sunday when May picked up his first save. On Monday, Diaz again blew the save via a Jesse Winker double. The Mets managed to come back with May notching his second save. While it doesn’t appear as if Diaz is in imminent risk of losing his job – he received the dreaded “vote of confidence” from his manager on Tuesday - that could quickly change with another flub or two.
Statistically, I can’t pinpoint anything specific to explain his struggles. Perhaps not coincidentally, Diaz’s slump began roughly when the new grip aid rules were put into force. His challenging 2019 campaign was correlated with a change in how his slider spun. His signature offering has performed worse than normal, but it’s been his fastball that’s really suffered lately.
In case you missed it, last week was a special edition of Saves and Steals. Whereas the closer tiers usually reflect a forward-looking combination of projection and prediction, we dedicated last week to honoring the top performers of the first half. Today, we return to our normally scheduled programming. The “steals” are back too!
Now, shall we go to the tiers?
Tier 1: The Elite (4)
Trade talks for Kimbrel are reportedly heating up. I’ve even seen him connected to the cross-town White Sox which would nullify one of the top closers. As far as I can tell, that’s pure speculation rather than an actual rumor with legs. The market for Kimbrel should include 10 or more clubs.
As for performances, Hader, Hendriks, and Kimbrel steamrolled the competition. Jansen flopped at Coors Field, a venue where he frequently struggles to perform. He’s even skipped trips to Colorado in the past. Let’s not hold this one against him.
Tier 2: Nearly Elite (6)
Chapman has pitched three times since last Friday with mixed results. In his most recent outing, he struck out the side while recording his first save since June 20. He also allowed a solo home run. His velocity is back in his typical range, and he’s now gone two appearances without issuing a walk. We’ve seen him bounce in and out of a slump like this in the past. He’ll return to Tier 1 if he has another effective week.
Besides Diaz, who we thoroughly covered in the intro, there’s nothing new to report about the others from this tier. They all appeared once this week and pitched well.
Tier 3: Core Performers (8)
Brad Hand, Washington Nationals
Jordan Romano, Toronto Blue Jays
Alex Reyes, St. Louis Cardinals
James Karinchak, Emmanuel Clase, Cleveland Indians
Mark Melancon, San Diego Padres
Ian Kennedy, Texas Rangers
Kendall Graveman, Seattle Mariners
Richard Rodriguez, Pittsburgh Pirates
Hand had an uncharacteristic outing on Sunday when he faced seven batters. He allowed one run on one hit while striking out the side. Although he blew the save, the Nationals were kind enough to deliver him a walkoff win (more on that in a moment). Hand rebounded on Tuesday with a typical clean outing.
Reyes was briefly avoiding walks from mid-June through early-July – at least by his wild standards. Since returning from the break, he’s thrown 2.1 innings with five walks. All three runs he allowed came on Tuesday night in a brutal blown save. Giovanny Gallegos, the Cardinals best reliever, was needed to finish the inning. If he’s still available, now is a good time to stash Gallegos.
Karinchak and Clase were both used on Friday and Saturday. In the first outing, Karinchak set up with a clean inning only for Clase to be dinged with a blown-save loss. The next day, the order was reversed. While Karinchak picked up the save this time, he did allow a run in the process. As always, either reliever would rank much higher if it wasn’t a job share.
Melancon was saddled with a walkoff loss on Sunday. Since mid-May, he’s pitched to a 3.47 ERA, 6.94 K/9, and 1.54 WHIP. These are closer to his expected stats (with a 1.30 WHIP) than the miraculous numbers he managed over the first month and a half.
Graveman gave up three runs last Friday. His fantasy managers are fortunate they were all unearned. He survived an outing at Coors Field last night. Seattle is a surprise Wild Card contender. They’ll probably hang onto Graveman through the trade deadline barring a sudden collapse. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh and Texas will definitely seek to sell Rodriguez and Kennedy.
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Tier 4: Upside (6)
Scott Barlow, Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Yimi Garcia, Anthony Bender, Miami Marlins
Diego Castillo, Pete Fairbanks, Tampa Bay Rays
Tyler Rogers, Jake McGee, San Francisco Giants
Hansel Robles, Taylor Rogers, Minnesota Twins
Daniel Bard, Colorado Rockies
Barlow set up for Holland on Tuesday, an annoying outcome which hopefully reflects the heart of the Brewers lineup coming to the plate in the eighth inning. The indication is that Barlow is the top fireman with Holland serving as the backup closer. Both will earn saves.
Garcia tripped up on Saturday, taking a loss against the Phillies. His primary competition, Anthony Bender, was squashed the next day. Bender is still on track to walk away with the role after the Marlins trade Garcia.
It was Fairbank’s turn for saves in Tampa. However, he set up for Castillo on Tuesday. Between the eighth and ninth innings, the Rays tacked on four runs, eliminating Castillo’s save opportunity in the process.
McGee played setup man on Tuesday only for Rogers (Tyler) to have his worst outing of the season. He allowed a walkoff three-run home run without recording an out. This still figures to be a job share, one that could be short-circuited by an acquisition.
While Robles has the Twins most recent save, he’s a likely trade candidate. As such, Rogers (Taylor) looks like a savvy target for fantasy managers. If he were the solo closer in Minnesota, Rogers would rank between Smith and Hand as either the last second-tier or first third-tier closer.
Tier 5: Mess Hall (6)
Lou Trivino, Oakland Athletics
Hector Neris, Ranger Suarez, Philadelphia Phillies
Gregory Soto, Jose Cisnero, Detroit Tigers
Joakim Soria, Arizona Diamondbacks
Heath Hembree, Amir Garrett, Brad Brach, Cincinnati Reds
Paul Fry, Cole Sulser, Baltimore Orioles
Trivino allowed an inconsequential run during a two-inning save on Monday. While he’s performed well this season, he projects as a typical middle reliever. I fully anticipate the Athletics to add multiple relievers at the deadline including at least one superior closer candidate. If I’m wrong about this, then Trivino would rank somewhere adjacent to Richard Rodriguez.
Neris is working his way back into the Phillies closer role. He’s allowed two hits and no walks over his last six innings. Walks and home runs tend to indicate when he has lost feel for his splitter. It seems he’s back in command of his signature pitch. Suarez saved the day on Friday, the first of the second half. He then proceeded to blow a save on Saturday. Since Suarez was unavailable on Sunday, it was Neris who stepped up. The next save opportunity should prove instructive. I believe it will go to Neris.
Soto’s save on Saturday was a matter of matchup. He came in to polish off two southpaw sluggers. The same wasn’t the case on Tuesday when Cisnero played setup to Soto’s save. Soto performed similarly for a chunk of 2020 before running into a deep slump. As for Cisnero, he has a worryingly low swinging strike rate.
Soria is finally getting some action. Natural improvements to the Diamondbacks rotation are helping to spare the bullpen. They’re also getting decent work from Noe Ramirez and Joe Mantiply. Soria pitched three times this week. He allowed a total of six hits and three runs. All of the runs came in his first appearance. The hits were spread throughout.
Hembree and Garrett are overworked at present. Brach might be in line for Wednesday’s save although he too has pitched four times in five days – albeit with a lower pitch count than the others. None of these options are ideal closers at Great American Ballpark. Hembree, a fly ball pitcher with a serious case of homeritis, should be avoided by all but those most desperate for saves.
The Orioles rarely produce save situations so they aren’t inclined to establish reliable roles. While Fry and Sulser aren’t really “Mess Hall” caliber pitchers, the lack of save opportunities hamstrings their value.
Trevor Rosenthal, Oakland Athletics (out for season)
Julian Merryweather, Toronto Blue Jays (oblique)
Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers (neck strain)
Tejay Antone, Cincinnati Reds (elbow)
Lucas Sims, Cincinnati Reds (elbow)
Anthony Bass, Miami Marlins
Alex Colome, Minnesota Twins
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Rafael Montero, Seattle Mariners
Cesar Valdez, Baltimore Orioles
Stefan Crichton, Arizona Diamondbacks
Hector Neris, Philadelphia Phillies
This is a two-week leaderboard since we didn’t check in on stolen bases last week. Tucker is the only runner of this group who isn’t a top stolen base threat. Even he is billed as a five-category performer with 20-steal upside. While he has a reputation as a thief based on his minor league performances, he only has 60th-percentile sprint speed.
Marte and Baez are both on the trade block. The Marlins and Cubs respectively could have an uphill battle to finding a trade match. They’re Qualifying Offer candidates which means prospective buyers have to overcome the value of a compensatory pick. Several contenders are juggling shoestring budgets which could lead to underwhelming offers. We’ll see where they find themselves playing on August 1.
The Diamondbacks recently traded Steven Vogt to Atlanta, opening the door for Daulton Varsho to start most days. Once a highly touted fantasy prospect who hit 18 home runs and stole 21 bases at Double-A in 2019, Varsho has failed in two Major League trials. Through 224 career plate appearances, he’s hitting .175/.286/.299 with four home runs and six steals. Hidden beneath his struggles are some positive signs.
First, he finally got some action at Triple-A, putting together a potent .313/.368/.750 batting line with nine home runs and two steals in 87 plate appearances. Since late-June, his Major League numbers reflect a focus on plate discipline - .178/.351/.244 with a homer and a couple steals in 57 plate appearances.
Even more encouraging, Varsho skews towards fly ball contact. His bat exit velocities are already league average and trending upwards. His 3.4 percent HR/FB ratio is ludicrously low. He profiles as somebody who should see at least 15 percent of his fly balls leave the yard, setting him up for an over-20 homer pace.
His lineup role may be affecting his stolen base opportunities. Until he’s promoted out of the eight-hole, he’ll seldom steal. By sprint speed, he’s the fastest catcher in the league. Only J.T. Realmuto and Garrett Stubbs have comparable sprint speeds. Varsho also has a reputation for picking his spots. Over his career, he’s been caught just 11 times in 55 attempts (80% success rate).
For those in need of adding cheap marginal steals, Varsho might be a league-winning play. While there’s risk he continues to stumble, no other catcher has Varsho’s five-category upside. He might even find a mid-lineup role if the Diamondbacks trade the right players.