If you’re a closer and your name isn’t Kirby Yates, Josh Hader, Aroldis Chapman, Liam Hendriks or Kenley Jansen, your job is about as secure as a bank vault sealed with a sandwich bag twist tie.
Outside of those elite names, closers are forever interchangeable.
One week they’re piling up the saves and the next week, after one bad game, they’re pitching meaningless innings in a game that was out of hand long before they entered. Now, we get to add the coronavirus pandemic into the equation for a whole new level of uncertainty.
That’s why — as this unusual, fan-less 2020 season gets underway — it is good to brush up on some key endgame situations. We’ll start in St. Louis, where Kwang-Hyun Kim will get the first crack at the ninth inning after Carlos Martinez, who collected 24 saves in 27 chances in 2019, rejoined the rotation.
Kim was an effective starter in the Korean League, going 136-77 with 3.27 ERA and 1.328 WHIP over 12 seasons. Despite not being a huge strikeout pitcher (7.8 strikeouts per nine in Korea), the 31-year-old was impressive in spring training 1.0, pitching eight shutout innings with 11 strikeouts and only one walk. He was just as impressive in summer camp, striking out the side in an exhibition game against the Royals this week using a repertoire of pitches that includes a mid-90s fastball, a 70 mph curve and a mid-80s slider.
Kim remained available in more than 65 percent of ESPN leagues (just 35 percent available at Yahoo) after being the most added player as of Friday morning. If Kim stumbles, Giovanny Gallegos and Ryan Helsley are options — as is Martinez if he falters as a starter.
Astros: Roberto Osuna is a top-five closer, but he didn’t start throwing until this past week after arriving late to summer camp for an undisclosed reason. He was listed as active entering the weekend. Ryan Pressly was ready to cover for him. Over two seasons (81 games) with the Astros, Pressly owns a 1.85 ERA, 0.811 WHIP and 12.1 strikeouts per nine. He was 2-3 with a 2.32 ERA, 0.902 WHIP, a .188 opponent average and 72 strikeouts in 2019. He also had a career-low 5.7 percent walk rate and a career-best 17.7 swinging strike rate, which ranked eighth among pitchers with a minimum of 50 innings pitched. Pressly has value, whether he is closing or not.
Yankees: As of Opening Day, Aroldis Chapman was still testing positive for COVID-19. That means Zack Britton should get first crack at saves. He is coming off a season in which he had three saves, a 1.91 ERA, 1.141 WHIP, 86.8 percent strand rate and a 77.2 percent groundball rate. He was a two-time All-Star closer for the Orioles, when he compiled 83 saves in 87 chances (including a perfect 47-for-47 in 2016) and a 1.22 ERA over 132 ²/₃ innings.
Braves: Will Smith being on the COVID-IL only solidified Mark Melancon as the Braves’ closer. He collected 12 of his 194 career saves in 2019 (11 with the Braves, one with the Giants). Though he had a 3.86 ERA in his time with the Braves, he held opponents to a .158 average in the 11 games he saved and maintained a 0.84 ERA.
Rays: Tampa Bay will have a closer-by-committee, but Nick Anderson has value even if he isn’t collecting saves. That is largely because of the 30-year-old’s 15.2 strikeouts per nine last year (17.3 K/9 over 23 appearances after being traded to the Rays from the Marlins).
Royals: Despite picking up 30 saves while striking out a career high 10.4 per nine innings, Ian Kennedy’s gig is far from secure. Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal are also on the roster, and manager Mike Matheny appears willing to get creative with his bullpen.
Pirates: No Keone Kela means the job can go to Kyle Crick, Richard Rodriguez or Nick Burdi. Roto Rage is not-so-secretly hoping Burdi gets a shot as he struck out 42.5 percent of the batters he faced in 2019.
Rockies: Wade Davis had 58 saves over the past two seasons in Colorado, but he also had a 5.92 ERA and 1.380 WHIP in that span. Next in line could be Scott Oberg, currently on the IL with a back strain, or Jairo Diaz.
Phillies: For those concerned about Hector Neris’ appearance on the COVID-IL last month, don’t be. He is in line to start the season as Philadelphia’s closer after going 28-for-34 in save chances last year.
Giants: Tony Watson may be the best/first option, but the last time his name appeared in this space was 2017. Can you feel the excitement?
Marlins: Brandon Kintzler? Brad Boxberger? Is Derek Jeter available?
Orioles: If you’re trying to decide whether to pick up Hunter Harvey or Mychal Givens, here is a third option: Wait for fantasy football.
Griffin Canning SP, Angels
Looked sharp Monday, tossing six scoreless innings and striking out five in an exhibition win over the Padres. Elbow issue from spring training 1.0 doesn’t seem to be an issue, and he should be in the rotation.
Chris Taylor 2B/SS/OF, Dodgers
Not only did he enjoy strong spring trainings (1.0 and 2.0), he should get more playing time with Gavin Lux being optioned off the active roster.
Johnny Cueto SP, Giants
He was the third most added starting pitcher in ESPN leagues after limiting the Dodgers to one run on five hits over four innings on Thursday.
Kyle Tucker OF, Astros
With reigning AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez out indefinitely, the 23-year-old should be able to steal some at-bats in his absence.
Ketel Marte 2B/OF, D’backs
Think the 26-year-old won’t regress while having to face the Astros six times, the Dodgers 10 times, the Padres seven times in pitcher-friendly San Diego and Oakland’s stellar staff four times?
Miguel Andujar DH, Yankees
Despite a potent bat, his uncertain role in The Bronx left him as the most dropped healthy/active player in ESPN leagues this week.
Cole Hamels SP, Braves
Had a great chance to succeed on a loaded Braves squad, but even the delayed start to the season couldn’t help the veteran lefty get healthy.
Jo Adell OF, Angels
One of baseball’s top prospects failed to make the Opening Day roster because of his defense. Time will tell if he makes it to the majors. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of time.
* Reason for concern (in a shortened season): Clayton Kershaw landed on the IL (back stiffness) hours before he was scheduled to face the Giants on Thursday. This may have been a precautionary move by the Dodgers, as he is eligible to return Friday, but it is worth noting that the lefty missed time in 2016, 2017 and 2018 because of his back.
* Anthony Rizzo is a notoriously slow starter (.241 hitter in the season’s opening month, more than 30 points below his career average), but he should be able to buck that trend with 11 of his first 14 games coming against the Pirates, Royals and Reds (in hitter-friendly Great American Park).
* Remove Matt Harvey from the millions collecting unemployment benefits, after the man once known as the Dark Knight signed with the Royals. Harvey will be about as useful for your fantasy team as knowing the official sport of Maryland is jousting. Quick question: Do you think wearing a Batman mask to dinner is acceptable? Asking for a friend.
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