Closer Encounters: Clarity, Chaos in First Week

Closer Encounters: Clarity, Chaos in First Week

This article is part of our Closer Encounters series.

After six months of speculation on closers, we finally have regular-season games and bullpen usage to dive into. David Robertson earned the first save of the MLB season for the Cubs, while the Reds' Tony Santillan successfully converted his first save chance a few hours later. Just like we all predicted.

While we're starting to get used to the closer chaos for certain teams, we did receive some much-needed clarity for a team that we spent months wondering who would receive the first save chance.

Padres - San Diego made headlines on Opening Day by trading Chris Paddack and possible closer committee member Emilio Pagan for coveted southpaw Taylor Rogers, promptly naming him its primary closer. Meanwhile, presumed committee leader Robert Suarez's time in the role only lasted a few hours. He did receive a save opportunity later that night in his first MLB appearance against Arizona, but blew it after walking two batters and hitting another before Craig Stammen was summoned and allowed his inherited runners to score on a walk-off home run. Since joining his new teammates in San Diego, Rogers has locked down saves in all three of his appearances, and I've updated his security in the closer role to High. Keep in mind Padres closers have been very effective in recent years with both Mark Melancon (39 saves in 2021) and Kirby Yates (41 saves in 2019) leading the league in saves.

With a quick sort of our Closer Grid by role security, there

After six months of speculation on closers, we finally have regular-season games and bullpen usage to dive into. David Robertson earned the first save of the MLB season for the Cubs, while the Reds' Tony Santillan successfully converted his first save chance a few hours later. Just like we all predicted.

While we're starting to get used to the closer chaos for certain teams, we did receive some much-needed clarity for a team that we spent months wondering who would receive the first save chance.

Padres - San Diego made headlines on Opening Day by trading Chris Paddack and possible closer committee member Emilio Pagan for coveted southpaw Taylor Rogers, promptly naming him its primary closer. Meanwhile, presumed committee leader Robert Suarez's time in the role only lasted a few hours. He did receive a save opportunity later that night in his first MLB appearance against Arizona, but blew it after walking two batters and hitting another before Craig Stammen was summoned and allowed his inherited runners to score on a walk-off home run. Since joining his new teammates in San Diego, Rogers has locked down saves in all three of his appearances, and I've updated his security in the closer role to High. Keep in mind Padres closers have been very effective in recent years with both Mark Melancon (39 saves in 2021) and Kirby Yates (41 saves in 2019) leading the league in saves.

With a quick sort of our Closer Grid by role security, there are now 11 teams with secure closers:

Now let's review some recent developments from teams where closer security isn't as high:

Royals - On Opening Day, Scott Barlow entered a tie game in the eighth inning and went on to pitch two innings of scoreless ball, striking out three. He earned the win after Kansas City rallied in the bottom half of the eighth inning. Of note, per Statcast, Barlow's fastball velocity averaged 92.7 mph, which was down 2.6 mph from his average last season:

Barlow showed improved velocity (94.2 mph) during his second appearance, though it was still down 1.1 mph overall:

The 29-year-old walked one and gave up an RBI triple in a third of an inning. Barlow is still the favorite for saves in Kansas City, but don't be surprised if Josh Staumont, Amir Garrett and Jake Brentz factor in this season. 

Another dark horse for saves in Kansas City is Dylan Coleman, who debuted toward the end of last year. He'll need to work his way up the leverage ladder, but recently worked a scoreless sixth inning of a tie game against Cleveland, striking out two. Coleman brings heat that few others in this bullpen can offer:

Marlins - After previously indicating he'd "mix and match" his closers early in the season with Dylan Floro (shoulder) unavailable, Marlins manager Don Mattingly summoned Anthony Bender for the team's first two save chances. Bender blew his first opportunity, serving up a game-tying home run to the Giants' Thairo Estrada, but rebounded the very next night for his first save of the season. That Mattingly went right back to the sophomore reliever is encouraging, but keep in mind Floro's return may soon be on the horizon after he recently completed a 25-pitch bullpen session. The veteran likely still has a few hurdles to clear with a rehab assignment and it's unclear whether he'll immediately resume high-leverage work upon his return. I'll monitor the Marlins beat in the interim, but there's always a possibility Floro immediately regains the closer role, which would relegate Bender back to a more flexible relief role with fewer save opportunities. Bender took his first loss Tuesday night in Anaheim after he was called upon in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth inning. Things certainly aren't trending in the right direction for him.

Rockies - After Colorado signed Alex Colome, I thought his experience closing games (155 career saves) and excellent ground ball rate (53.7 percent last season) made him the favorite for ninth-inning duty. I was wrong. Colome has pitched the eighth inning in both of his appearances for the Rockies, while last season's primary closer, Daniel Bard, was called upon for two save chances. Bard struggled last season and ceded the closer role to Carlos Estevez by mid-August, but the veteran had a scoreless spring (4 IP, 7:0 K:BB) and is displaying slightly elevated velocity and increased slider usage (his most effective pitch) early on. He blew a save April 11 and is 2-for-3 in the early going. If you're looking for a vote of confidence, Nick Groke of The Athletic offers one below:

Bard getting the Rockies' next save chance after blowing one is encouraging.

Giants - Didn't Gabe Kapler just tell us Jake McGee would be the Giants closer on Opening Day? Instead, the left-hander has pitched the seventh and eighth innings in his two appearances, thus ceding the team's first opportunity to Camilo Doval, who promptly blew the save. McGee wasn't available for the Giants' next save chance, which went to Dominic Leone. With Tyler Rogers also in the mix, and McGee serving in the team's highest leverage events, it will be interesting to see who finishes this season with the most saves in San Francisco. I still think McGee will see plenty of work in the ninth inning, but those who invested in him for saves, myself included, would sure like to see him lock up a save or two in the near future. 

Nationals - Manager Dave Martinez has supported the idea of using Tanner Rainey in the closer role since early spring:

It was encouraging to see Rainey get the team's first save chance against the Mets on April 10:

Rainey allowed a leadoff single to Mark Canha, but registered two fly outs and a line out for his first save of the season. Steve Cishek, Sean Doolittle and Kyle Finnegan worked the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, respectively, all while the Nationals were trailing in the game 2-1. At least we now have an idea of what Washington's closer hierarchy looks like.

Closer Committees

Finally, let's wrap up an exciting first week of games with some notable closer committees:

Cubs - The Cubs have yet to name the aforementioned Robertson as their closer, even after he recorded his second save of the season Tuesday against Pittsburgh. While Robertson is the current favorite to receive the next save chance based on how Cubs relievers have been used, I would not be surprised to see manager David Ross afford the opportunity to Mychal Givens. We've seen closer fluidity from Ross after Craig Kimbrel was traded last year. I'm not ready to put much stock into any Cubs pitcher for an abundance of saves.

Red Sox - After displaying diminished velocity during spring training, Matt Barnes wasn't available for Boston's opening series against the Yankees due to a tight back. However, he avoided the injured list and made his 2022 debut April 11 against Detroit. Barnes averaged 94 mph in the game and topped out at 95.3 mph, which was right in line with last season's average (95.8 mph). Barnes is a candidate for ninth-inning work now that he's available, but manager Alex Cora may elect to continue giving him lower leverage opportunities until his average fastball is up another tick.

In Barnes' absence, southpaw Jake Diekman recorded Boston's first save of 2022, while Hansel Robles, Ryan Brasier and Matt Strahm each saw high-leverage work. Garrett Whitlock served as a multi-inning "closer" Tuesday against Detroit, pitching the final four innings of the game to preserve a 5-3 victory. However, he was credited with the win since he entered the game in the fifth inning when the Red Sox were down 3-0. This could be a closer committee for longer than we think. For now, I'll keep Diekman and Robles ahead of Barnes on the closer grid.

Reds - Tony Santillan was first to board David Bell's closer carousel, working a scoreless ninth inning for Cincinnati on Opening Day, while Art Warren hopped on for his first save in the team's fourth game of the season. Both pitched high-leverage innings Tuesday against Cleveland, with Warren working a scoreless seventh inning of a tie game and Santillan pitching a scoreless eighth inning, before Hunter Strickland allowed four earned runs in the ninth inning. In addition to Warren, Santillan and Strickland, Luis Cessa and Justin Wilson could easily mix in over the coming weeks. To clutter things further, Lucas Sims could return April 20-22:

Sims logged seven saves last year and was electric in September:

If you're one to speculate for saves, now is the time to pick him up if you have space on your roster to do so. Just be advised that David Bell often likes to switch up his bullpen roles at the drop of a dime. For now, Santillan is my favorite of the bunch since he's occupying the Tejay Antone role from last season, aka the team's highest-leverage reliever.

Twins - On the flip side of the Taylor Rogers trade, Minnesota has some interesting closer candidates. Veteran Tyler Duffey, who I've backed as the favorite for saves since the Rogers trade, blew the team's first save chance against Seattle on April 9. The Twins have yet to come by another opportunity since, but one reliever recently stood out above all others based on his usage in a 4-0 game against Seattle on April 11:

You'll notice rookie Jhoan Duran was deployed in the ninth inning, albeit in a non-save situation. What's exciting about Duran is his velocity. Just check out these heaters below courtesy of Baseball Savant:

If you're keeping score, that's SIX pitches thrown 101 miles per hour or harder. Duran's 102 mph heater was actually the fastest tracked pitch in Twins history. Do-Hyoung Park of MLB.com goes on to suggest Duran's "next level stuff" could earn him an opportunity in the closer role this season. He also mentions Emilio Pagan and Jorge Alcala — a pre-season favorite of mine — as potential options for Rocco Baldelli.

Who do you think finishes the season with more pitches tracked at more than 100 miles per hour — Emmanuel Clase or Jhoan Duran?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ryan Rufe
Ryan manages the MLB Closer Grid and authors 'Closer Encounters'. He also contributes to the MLB draft kit and has been helping RotoWire subscribers through our 'Ask An Expert' feature since 2014. He's an NFBC enthusiast.
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