Bullpens still in flux after deadline
Some closers safe by not being dealt, but others may be moved this month
As active as this year's trade deadline was, there sure wasn't a lot of action involving closers, was there?
The story at this year's July 31 deadline wasn't about which closers got traded into setup roles for other teams; it was about which closers weren't traded. Owners of Heath Bell, Brandon League and Leo Nunez were sweating the chances of lost saves right up until the 4 p.m. cutoff, and hopefully none made any brash moves in fear, selling them on the cheap.
It was actually the setup men, most notably Mike Adams, David Pauley, Koji Uehara and Brad Ziegler, who changed uniforms. But those moves still had an impact on the saves race, and here are a few players most positively affected by the trade-deadline action:
Ryan Madson, Philadelphia Phillies: His was a matter of a deal that didn't happen; specifically one for Bell, in whom the Phillies were rumored to be interested. Although an August waiver move is possible, that the Phillies funneled all their prospects into Hunter Pence while returning Madson to the closer's role on July 22 tells you all you need to know: They're confident in him as their go-to ninth-inning guy. In 32 appearances since his first save of 2011, Madson is 19-for-20 in save chances with a 1.99 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 9.38 K's-per-nine ratio, and if you project the saves in Madson's active days on the roster to a full, 162-game schedule, they'd amount to 42. With a guarantee of the full-time job through season's end -- something that looks a lot more likely today than a week ago -- Madson is a potential top-10 fantasy closer.
Jordan Walden, Los Angeles Angels: Bell's staying in San Diego is a plus for Walden as well, as L.A. was another rumored landing spot for the veteran, one where he should have stepped ahead of the rookie in the pecking order. Walden has endured his share of struggles -- he's tied for the major league lead with seven blown saves -- but he has also been fairly effective in recent weeks, converting 17 of 21 chances with a 2.63 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 9.38 K's-per-nine ratio in his past 25 appearances. His owners can now breathe more easily, enjoying his second-tier fantasy numbers, as the Angels will be hard-pressed to find a closer candidate more productive than that on the August waiver market.
Kevin Gregg, Baltimore Orioles: The Uehara trade cements Gregg's closer status, because the fear for Gregg owners through four months was that the Orioles might, on any day, wake up and realize that Uehara was the better pitcher. The numbers supported it: Uehara had better stats in just about every category (ERA, WHIP, K's per nine, walks per nine, FIP, xFIP, total vowels in name ), and as a result Gregg's leash was short. Now, it's lengthened, because the only other viable closers in this bullpen are Mike Gonzalez, who has much worse numbers than Gregg, and Jim Johnson, who the Orioles are considering converting into a starter.
Frank Francisco, Toronto Blue Jays: Though Francisco has pitched poorly all season, his inclusion on the list is more of a numbers game than an endorsement of his talent. The trades of Octavio Dotel and Jason Frasor thin the Blue Jays' alternatives to one Jon Rauch, and Francisco does, after all, possess "closer stuff." He's beginning to improve, with a 1.08 ERA, 0.60 WHIP and 8.64 K's-per-nine ratio in his past eight appearances, and the man ahead of him on the depth chart, Jon Rauch, isn't much less unpredictable and could be an August waiver trade candidate. We might not yet have seen Francisco's final save of 2011.
Fautino De Los Santos, Oakland Athletics: He's the sleeper of the bunch, a onetime starter-prospect whose mid-to-high 90s fastball and slider have translated brilliantly into a short-relief role so far at the big-league level. In his first 12 career appearances he has a 2.35 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 12.91 K's-per-nine ratio, numbers that should be attractive to AL-only owners, and the Ziegler trade is expected to thrust him into more of a primary setup role. Remember, this was a similar path Andrew Bailey took to the closership a few short seasons ago; the Athletics are renowned for unearthing relief-pitching gems.
TOP 75 RELIEF PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 75 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Possible waiver moves?
Just because the July 31 deadline for trades that don't require waivers has passed, that doesn't mean that all the trading in 2011 has concluded. There's a chance a few incumbent closers could be snuck through waivers and moved; the difference is that the chance of it happening has decreased greatly.
Consider the chance that each of these potential trade candidates gets moved is less than 10 percent, whereas a week ago it might have been 25 percent. But that's still not zero. They're ranked, in this columnist's opinion, in order of likelihood that they'll be moved this month. (All contract information per Cot's Baseball Contracts.)
1. Heath Bell, San Diego Padres ($7.5 million; free agent at season's end): In the end, the Padres decided that the two compensatory draft picks they get if Bell departs as a free agent are worth more than any prospects they could acquire in trade, and the Texas Rangers decided that for the higher price, they'd rather have the reliever they wanted, Adams, who is under contract for 2012. But here's the catch: Bell now says that he'd accept arbitration -- which the Padres have to offer him to collect those picks -- if offered it. Might that change the Padres' stance? Bell's salary might provide a slim hope that he could sneak through waivers unclaimed, but the prospects of that, again, are incredibly slim. Little has changed other than the diminished chances of a potential deal (and the fact that the Rangers now have their desired setup men); he'd might still close in Los Angeles, St. Louis or Philadelphia, but almost assuredly wouldn't in New York or Pittsburgh.
Padres fallback: I'm still going with Chad Qualls, though his $2.55 million deal (plus $6 million club option including $1.05 million buyout) might make him a candidate for a waiver deal as well. But how about a new sleeper, Ernesto Frieri? His 7.20 ERA in six appearances since the All-Star break isn't exciting, but the Padres certainly regard him as a more important part of their future than Qualls. Frieri has averaged 10.80 K's per nine this season, and if the Padres want to truly evaluate for 2012, it's possible he'd get a look in the role if Bell somehow moves.
2. Jon Rauch, Toronto Blue Jays ($3.75 million; $3.75 million 2012 club option, $250,000 buyout): My gut instinct is that if any incumbent closer is traded, it's going to be Rauch, not Bell, because even though the former's contract is cheaper, he's also the less talented closer by far. Claiming teams might not want to be on the hook for $3.75 million (plus buyout) for a closer who has been erratic at times this season and has never posted a sub-3 ERA in a full big-league year. Also unlike Bell, Rauch has practically zero chance at closing on any other team in the majors, so keep your fingers crossed it doesn't happen. If it does, well, that's the reason Francisco was profiled as a "reliever who benefited," above.
Blue Jays fallback: Francisco.
3. Kyle Farnsworth, Tampa Bay Rays ($3.25 million; $3.3 million 2012 club option, $650,000 buyout): His has a completely affordable contract, and if he's snuck through waivers, he'd inevitably be claimed. But that doesn't mean he won't be dealt; it means he can't be dealt to anyone but the claiming team. Look at the American League standings: In ascending order, the Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians and Blue Jays could be four interested parties. The problem is that the White Sox -- or Blue Jays if Rauch is also dealt -- present the only possible place where Farnsworth could continue to close.
Tampa Bay Rays fallback: Joel Peralta is the obvious choice, but keep an eye on Jake McGee, the rookie who was part of Farnsworth's competition for the role during the spring. Even if Farnsworth isn't dealt, the Rays could give McGee a look in September with an eye on using him in the ninth in 2012. Since his recall, McGee has a 1.50 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 12.00 K's-per-nine ratio in eight appearances.
4. Joe Nathan, Minnesota Twins ($11.25 million; $12.5 million club option, $2 million buyout): It's the contract, period. The Twins still fancy themselves contenders, but aren't far from slipping into noncontender status, and if they do then it'd make sense for them to float Nathan's bloated salary through waivers. He's probably the most likely of these five to clear but also the one most important to his team. If you're a Nathan owner, don your Twins cap, Michael Cuddyer jersey and bright red foam finger, and root, root, root for the home team. He has been awfully good since returning from the DL -- 5-for-6 in save chances with a 1.35 ERA and 0.53 WHIP in 14 appearances -- but not so good that his track record would guarantee him the save job with another interested team.
Twins fallback: Matt Capps, but even his own $7.15 million deal could put him at risk for a waiver deal. It'd be tough for the Twins to trade both, so expect one of these two to be closing games up north until season's end, with Nathan the clear-cut close so long as he continues to wear the uniform.
5. Leo Nunez, Florida Marlins ($3.65 million; arbitration eligible in 2012): He's the lowest on the list for a simple reason, that being that the National League is a bit more closely packed in the standings than the AL, meaning a lot more candidates to claim him off waivers and block any potential deal. Nunez would almost assuredly be claimed; the Florida Marlins probably aren't going to give him away for free if, say, the Cincinnati Reds claim him. Still, Nunez could be of use to another team in a setup role. Not that that helps his fantasy owners.
Marlins fallback: Edward Mujica, who has a 1.74 ERA, 0.39 WHIP and 9.58 K's-per-nine ratio in nine appearances since the All-Star break, and interestingly enough has been used as more of a traditional setup man during that time, as opposed to the multiple-inning dynamo he was earlier in the year.
No chance they're traded: Andrew Bailey, whose contract ($465,000, under control for several more years) is far too affordable for him to sneak through. Jason Isringhausen, whom the New York Mets insist they intend to keep as a mentor for 2012 closer candidate Bobby Parnell. Brandon League, who, like Bailey, has a far too cost-effective deal ($2.25 million, arbitration eligible in 2012) for the Seattle Mariners to sneak him through waivers.
Aroldis Chapman's 'no-hitter'
Although it's not technically a "no-hitter," Aroldis Chapman's performance in his past eight outings warrants discussion. During that time he has pitched 9 2/3 hitless innings, affording one walk while striking out 15 hitters. To give you a sense of the rarity of this feat: Since 2000, he's only the sixth reliever to have managed a streak of at least eight appearances, nine innings pitched and 15 K's; Mike Adams (2009), Alan Embree (2002), Eric Gagne (2003), Edwar Ramirez (2008) and C.J. Wilson (2007) are the others. It's the walks that are most impressive for Chapman, however, being that before that streak, he had afforded hitters 89 free passes in 143 2/3 professional innings. We've known for a while that Chapman has unhittable stuff; it was his command that was questionable in the past.
The relevance, of course, is that the Reds will need to make a decision at some point about Chapman's future. Is he their future closer or do they fancy him a starter? How about this possibility: If the Reds fall out of the playoff race, might they consider auditioning Chapman as a closer late in the year to help make that decision? Francisco Cordero might have turned his season around since the All-Star break, thanks to six shutout innings and two saves in five outings, but even then Cordero is being outpitched by one of the game's most productive setup men. Chapman could be a sneaky breakout candidate down the stretch.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can email him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.