The Rangers have been hiding Jose Leclerc from high leverage appearances for the last week or two. That changed last night when he was asked to close out a three-run lead over the Pirates. He failed, and the Rangers lost in extra innings. Leclerc has recorded unusually bad results while reverting to his previous “walk everybody” style of pitching (7.59 BB/9). The good news is his velocity is in line with career norms. The bad news is his splitter isn’t catching anybody off guard.
Weekly readers of this column have read these words before: splitter specialists frequently lose feel for their moneymaker. And they also frequently regain that feel. In most formats, I recommend buying low on Leclerc. Don’t play him! He’s a pure bench stash until he gets back on track. In the short term, expect Texas saves to be handled via a committee led by Shawn Kelley and Chris Martin.
Kelley is a veteran slider specialist who has bumbled at least half a dozen opportunities to become a closer. His schtick is outdated – it may not consistently work in this era. Despite my concerns, fantasy owners should hope he gets the interim role over Martin. The 32-year-old righty approaches relief like a starting pitcher, bringing a five-pitch repertoire of below average offerings. At best, he’s a long reliever. Ariel Jurado is a dark horse candidate.
Moving on to the closer leaderboard, Brad Hand, Kirby Yates, Jordan Hicks, and Kenley Jansen shared the top spot of the week with three saves apiece. This continues a hot start for Yates. He’s pacing the league with 14 total saves. Shane Greene (12), Jansen (10), Hand (9), and Hicks (9) round out the top five.
And now, shall we go to the tiers?
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Tier 1: The King (1)
Edwin Diaz, New York Mets
A terrible outing by Treinen (more in a moment) has left Diaz alone in the top tier. If anything, he’s improved upon his fantastic 2018 performance. To date, he’s recorded 15.43 K/9, 1.54 BB/9, and a 25 percent swinging strike rate.
Tier 2: Nearly Elite (7)
Roberto Osuna, Houston Astros
Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Blake Treinen, Oakland Athletics
Felipe Vazquez, Pittsburgh Pirates
Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers
Jordan Hicks, St. Louis Cardinals
Treinen bombed an appearance against the Blue Jays, allowing four runs in 1.2 innings. Of greater concern, he’s walked 11 batters in 15 innings. Treinen has struggled with command in the past; a big reason why he was never more than a setup guy during his years with the Nationals. If the old Treinen is back, we’re looking at a good third tier pitcher rather than a true relief ace.
Vazquez ran into Joey Gallo’s bat last night, allowing a truly massive home run. It was his first earned run of the season. He still recorded the save.
Hader is still being used in a multi-inning role which renders him unavailable for many saves. Jeremy Jeffress doesn’t appear to be any higher on the list of backups than the rest of the bullpen. It’s truly an all hands on deck situation whenever Hader isn’t running the late-innings. Besides a case of homeritis (2.45 HR/9), Hader has picked up where he left off last season.
Improvements to Hicks’ swinging strike and walk rates are sufficient to convince me he belongs at the bottom of this tier. Backed by dead filthy stuff, his inexorable march up the rankings might continue next week.
Tier 3: Reliable Relief Aces (3)
Brad Hand, Cleveland Indians
Kirby Yates, San Diego Padres
Sean Doolittle, Washington Nationals
Hand and Yates have one thing in common (besides shared seasons in San Diego). They’ve yet to allow a home run in 2019, and we should expect them to cough up quite a few. Hand reliably allows 1.00 HR/9 while Yates has ranged from 0.86 HR/9 last season to 1.91 HR/9 in 2017. Modest regression will push both pitchers towards a 3.00 ERA. Given their ability to post over 12.00 K/9 with low walk rates, they should be excellent fantasy assets.
Tier 4: Core Performers (7)
Hector Neris, Philadelphia Phillies
Wade Davis, Colorado Rockies
Will Smith, San Francisco Giants
Alex Colome, Chicago White Sox
Raisel Iglesias, Cincinnati Reds
Ken Giles, Toronto Blue Jays
Pedro Strop, Chicago Cubs
Neris was handed a loss last Thursday via home run while attempting to work two innings. Pat Neshek and Seranthony Dominguez are next in line. Neris’ job is about as stable as it gets in Philadelphia. Which, to spell it out, is not at all stable. His elite strikeout rate is sufficient to make him a core asset.
Smith stumbled against the Yankees a couple days ago. There’s no reason for concern. His job should remain safe until he’s eventually traded to a contender. The rest of this tier pitched well.
After throwing two innings on Monday, the Reds asked Iglesias to get them through the 10th inning on Tuesday. He failed. It’s hard to fault a guy for coming up short on a should-be off day. David Hernandez has worked three days in a row. Jared Hughes is in line for a spot-save tonight. Prior to last night’s loss, Iglesias was on a fiery hot streak.
Strop was a member of the Red Flag Club for two reasons, a rehabbing Brandon Morrow and the fickle whims of Joe Maddon. Morrow’s return keeps getting pushed farther into the future. Maddon doesn’t seem perturbed about using Strop as needed.
Tier 5: Red Flag Club (5)
Greg Holland, Arizona Diamondbacks
Hansel Robles, Ty Buttrey, Los Angeles Angels
Shane Greene, Detroit Tigers
Ryan Brasier, Matt Barnes, Boston Red Sox
Jose Alvarado, Diego Castillo, Emilio Pagan, Tampa Bay Rays
At some point, I’ll be forced to bow to Holland’s performance: no runs, 15 strikeouts, two hits, and four walks in 10 innings. With only a month in the books, I can still point to unusual and unsustainable issues such as his .118 BABIP and zero home runs allowed. Holland’s stuff simply isn’t what it was during his prime. If you managed to cash in early, now is the time to sell high.
Shortly after last week’s column went to press, Cody Allen was officially removed as the Angels closer. In his place is a committee led by Robles and Buttrey. The club has preferred to keep Buttrey in a fireman role. He’ll pick up the odd save, but he’ll mostly be used to preserve leads in the seventh and eighth innings. For now, Robles will record the bulk of the ninth inning opportunities. He’s just a middle reliever who can occasionally punch above his weight class. Buttrey is the better play over the remainder of the season.
Pagan has worked enough saves recently to sneak onto the list. He’s quite clearly third in the Rays pecking order, they just happen to use birds number one and two at the earliest valuable matchup. Unlike Alvarado and Castillo, Pagan would not rank higher if he held this job alone. I’ve moved the lot of them to the bottom of this tier since they’ll individually post a bunch of zero save weeks.
Tier 6: Mess Hall (7)
Blake Parker, Taylor Rogers, Minnesota Twins
A.J. Minter, Atlanta Braves
Sergio Romo, Miami Marlins
Anthony Swarzak, Roenis Elias, Seattle Mariners
Wily Peralta, Kansas City Royals
Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro, Baltimore Orioles
Jose Leclerc, Texas Rangers
Of the seven teams with relievers hanging in the Mess Hall, only the Twins have a functional bullpen. Parker is starting to look like the official closer. I just want to hold out another week to be sure. Twins starters consistently threw six or seven innings over the last week so the entire bullpen was used exclusively in the late-innings.
Minter has allowed a 9.35 ERA, but there are a few positive signs hiding in the muck. His velocity has climbed back above 96 mph, and he’s recording a healthy strikeout rate. He’s badly missing spots which I attribute to rust rather than a true issue. Once he’s a little sharper, the 6.23 BB/9, .400 BABIP, and 2.08 HR/9 will all greatly improve.
Swarzak has allowed runs, via home run, in four straight appearances. His 2.89 ERA is extremely fortunate (7.93 FIP). Elias, a long reliever, is back in the picture as a saves candidate.
Technically speaking, Leclerc hasn’t been removed from the ninth inning role. As his issues are largely platoon-based, he may simply be used as a late-innings ROOGY.
Brandon Morrow, Chicago Cubs (elbow)
Corey Knebel, Milwaukee Brewers (partial UCL tear)
Hunter Strickland, Seattle Mariners (lat)
Arodys Vizcaino, Atlanta Braves (shoulder inflammation)
David Robertson, Philadelphia Phillies (flexor strain)
Cody Allen, Los Angeles Angels (back injury)
Morrow has been shutdown from throwing after receiving a lubricant injection. The outlook is not promising. He’s out at least six more weeks. He could miss the entire season.
Cody Allen, Los Angeles Angels
Allen was placed on the injured list shortly after his demotion. I suspect this is a phantom stint to give him the opportunity to get back on track.