- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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Nineteen, 23 and 0.2 percent.
The first two numbers above are the magic numbers for elimination from the division and the wild card, respectively, and the third number is the percentage probability of a playoff berth, per our standings page, for the Boston Red Sox. Putting it in terms of mere games back in the loss column, the Red Sox must outperform the Baltimore Orioles or Oakland Athletics, the two teams currently tied for the two wild-card spots, by at least 10 games from today forward.
Now those are long-shot odds.
Couple those facts with the Red Sox's recent moves, jettisoning more than $250 million in salary in the Adrian Gonzalez/Carl Crawford trade, and it's clear what the new mantra is in Boston: The future is here. Even if not mathematically eliminated from postseason contention, the Red Sox's objective is clear. It's all about 2013.
And what better way to turn the page to next season than auditioning a new closer the one guy who was actually expected to close for them this year? Of all the closer situations in baseball, the one that's currently most in flux is the one for the team that is arguably most in flux: The Red Sox, who face a decision between Alfredo Aceves, who has 25 saves this season, and Andrew Bailey, who has 76 saves in his career, but almost all of those with the Athletics from 2009-11.
Based upon recent developments, Bailey looks like the pick going forward, despite the lack of any formal announcement to that effect. And that's how saves speculation works; we often don't get any formal call about who's actually closing.
The team's projected Opening Day closer, Bailey succumbed to thumb surgery on April 4, missing the Red Sox's first 114 games of the season. Since recovering from the operation, however, he has pitched every bit as effectively between his minor league rehabilitation stint and in the past two-plus weeks for the Red Sox, as he did back during his days with the Athletics:
Minors: 6 G, 6 1/3 IP, 1.42 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 14.21 K/9, 10.00 K/BB
Majors: 7 G, 5 1/3 IP, 1.69 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 6.75 K/9, 2.00 K/BB
Skills, though, have never been the question when it comes to Bailey. Any doubt cast upon him needs be centered upon his health. He has made trips to the disabled list in each of the past three seasons now, and in his major league career he has been on the active roster for only 421 of his teams' 617 games (68 percent). Bailey suffered an intercostal strain in 2010 and a forearm strain in 2011. Statistically speaking, when he has been healthy, Bailey's 2.06 ERA since 2009 ranks ninth among qualified relievers, his 0.96 WHIP ranks 11th, and he has an 88.9 percent conversion rate of saves plus holds (76 saves, four holds in 90 total opportunities).
Speculating upon a switch, too, hinges as much upon Aceves' performance this season. Though Aceves has enjoyed his share of success as a closer -- at one point, he converted nine consecutive save opportunities with a 0.96 ERA over a 15-game stretch -- his numbers depending upon the situation have been telling:
Save chances: 25 SV, 8 BS (MLB high), 6.03 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 7.34 K/9
Non-save: 3.09 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 9.00 K/9
That's not to say Aceves lacks "closer composure" -- such a statement is ridiculous to make based upon a 33-game sample of his time in the role. But managers usually do consider a closer's performance in such small samples -- their memories are short -- and that the right-hander blew back-to-back saves on Aug. 23 and 28, his two most recent opportunities, works against him.
So, too, does this: Aceves is fresh off a three-game suspension, served between those two blown saves, for "conduct detrimental to the team." According to ESPNBoston.com's Gordon Edes, Aceves was apparently upset about being passed over for a save opportunity in favor of Bailey on Aug. 24. Though Aceves was restored to the closer role immediately upon activation, be aware that Bailey was unavailable for that Aug. 28 contest, having pitched the day before. The fairer interpretation of that game was that Aceves was the one regarded the fill-in; he promptly blew his chance and shouldn't even receive the next one.
Bailey's ownership percentage in ESPN leagues (67.3 percent) has soared past Aceves' (58.5 percent), and those numbers should skew further in the coming days. In the event Bailey remains available in your league, scoop him up now, as he might receive every remaining Red Sox save opportunity.
Strength of remaining schedule
Ah, and here's another compelling reason to add Bailey: As noted in Tuesday's Sixty Feet Six Inches, the Red Sox have one of the most favorable remaining schedules for pitchers. Considering the state of their rotation, the Red Sox might play a greater volume of close games, meaning save chances might be abundant for Bailey. In addition to Bailey and the Red Sox, let's take a closer look at a few other closers who might benefit the remainder of the year because of softer schedules:
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.
Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates: Though the Pirates have faltered a bit in August, winning 11 of 27 games, Hanrahan couldn't be of greater importance to their playoff hopes moving forward. Their run differential in the month is minus-8, and they've played eight one-run games, perhaps a hint that they might be in tighter, more closely contested games looking forward. Besides, the 2011 season has a telling tale about Hanrahan: He had eight saves in nine opportunities with a 2.70 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in 11 games after Sept. 1, during a stretch of their schedule in which they won only 10 of 26 contests. Don't read too much into his mere three saves in August; he has nine consecutive scoreless opportunities, and the save chances could return at any moment.
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks: Putz has been one of the most productive relievers in all of baseball since the beginning of July, compiling 19 appearances and 18 2/3 innings without having allowed a run since that date. He's a perfect 12-for-12 in save chances with 21 strikeouts compared to two walks during that span, and the Diamondbacks' remaining schedule maximizes his chances of remaining comparably productive, albeit probably not to this level of perfection. Remember, the Diamondbacks play in a division that has pitchers' parks in Petco Park, AT&T Park and Dodger Stadium, as well as lighter-hitting offenses (San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies) in road games.
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins: He took over as the Marlins' closer following the All-Star break, and since then he's 10-for-10 in save chances with a 1.80 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 9.00 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio, quietly performing as a top-shelf fantasy closer despite somehow still being available as a free agent in 13.8 percent of ESPN leagues. The Marlins play the majority of their remaining games within the National League East, and here's a fact that might intrigue Cishek's owners: He's 6-for-6 with a 3.19 ERA and 10.31 K's-per-nine innings ratio in 39 career appearances within the division.
How long will Kenley Jansen sit?
Here's the unfortunate answer: Nobody knows.
Jansen, who missed 26 days last season with cardiac arrhythmia, is out indefinitely due to an irregular heartbeat related to that same issue. He was hospitalized Tuesday, and it's unclear how long he'll be away from the team.
Fantasy owners need to make alternate plans to fill Jansen's saves -- Bailey, discussed above, is a natural choice, if he's available -- but what of the Dodgers' potential fill-ins? Ronald Belisario got the call to close Wednesday and successfully converted his chance, and Brandon League, acquired from the Seattle Mariners at the trade deadline, has the most recent full-time experience as closer in their bullpen. Let's take a closer look at each candidate
After Jansen, Belisario is the team's leader in WHIP (1.01), and his ERA (2.75) trails only that of Javy Guerra (2.66), who was demoted to the minors a week ago. With the exception of a three-week span in late July, in fact, Belisario has been practically untouchable. He has six holds to go with that one save, plus a 1.38 ERA, in 11 appearances in the month of August, and thanks to that is most likely to get the bulk of the saves for the foreseeable future.
League, however, could quickly and quietly overtake Belisario, thanks to correcting a mechanical flaw spotted in video review with both pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and bullpen coach Ken Howell, per the Dodgers' official website. A small-sample caveat applies, but League has four consecutive scoreless, hitless appearances, striking out six compared to two walks in the process. Most importantly, he has thrown 64 percent of his pitches "down," meaning the lower third of the strike zone and below, and generated ground balls on 83 percent of his balls in play during that span, showing once again how effective his heavy sinker can be when he's spotting it in the proper places.
Until it's clear which of the two stands the better chance of long-term saves -- if Jansen misses considerable time -- neither is much more than an NL-only or deep-mixed pickup. Belisario is the smarter short-term pickup, but NL-only owners with the bench space would be wise to stash League in the hopes that his "closer experience" might soon change manager Don Mattingly's mind.
Tristan H. Cockcroft discusses the Red Sox's and Dodgers' closer situations, examines strength of schedule for relievers and updates his relief pitcher rankings.