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2019 Closer Situations: Team-By-Analysis
Arizona Diamondbacks
Current Closer: Greg Holland
Team: Arizona Diamondbacks
Next In Line: Yoshihisa Hirano, Yoan Lopez, Archie Bradley, Andrew Chafin
(7/6) Bradley and Hirano each saved three games for the Diamondbacks last season, but the team somewhat surprisingly named Holland the closer four days before Opening Day. Holland started strong but hit a rough patch in early July, blowing back-to-back saves, including one in which he walked four consecutive batters to force in the tying run. Manager Torey Lovullo said July 5 that he's going to stick with Holland, but the leash has grown short.

Holland's tenure with St. Louis last season was an unmitigated disaster, but he was quietly decent after joining Washington. Walks remained an issue with the Nats (12.5 BB%), but Holland rediscovered his strikeout punch down the stretch (31.3%) and of course has has the "proven closer" track record with 201 career saves.

Bradley was the favorite early in the offseason before losing out to Holland. He was expected to be the team's best reliever but has struggled thus far in 2019 with a 4.95 ERA and 1.73 WHIP, though the estimators are more favorable (3.28 FIP, 3.94 SIERA) on account of his improved strikeout rate (28.6%) and reduced home-run rate (0.68 HR/9).

Hirano proved effective in his first season stateside, relying heavily on his split-finger pitch (46.3%) to induce groundballs, and he is throwing that pitch even more this season. He's 34 and doesn't have the stuff of a traditional closer, with a fastball that averages just 91 mph. The veteran could get a chance if Holland eventually loses the job, but Lovullo may prefer to keep Hirano's role flexible, with the ability to call upon the right-hander whenever he really needs a groundball to get out of a jam.

Lopez has been the team's best reliever by traditional measures through three months, with a 1.36 ERA through 36 innings. He ranks second on the team in holds with 10, behind Chafin (13). Things don't check out so good under the hood for Lopez -- in fact, his FIP is nearly three full runs higher than his ERA at 4.33. That said, he throws hard, averaging 96 mph on his fastball, and his 11.5% swinging-strike rate portends a better strikeout rate. He's a dark horse to get the job should Holland falter.
Atlanta Braves
Current Closer: Luke Jackson
Team: Atlanta Braves
Next In Line: Sean Newcomb, Anthony Swarzak, Dan Winkler; A.J. Minter (minors), Chad Sobotka (10-day IL, abdominal)
(5/20) Arodys Vizcaino and Minter were expected to began the season splitting save opportunities, but it's now late May and neither is on the 25-man roster. Vizcaino was placed on the 10-day IL with a shoulder issue April 14 and underwent season-ending surgery a few days later before being traded to the Mariners on May 20. Minter blew a save in disastrous fashion April 27, giving up four runs in two-thirds of an inning. He was then pulled from a save situation the next day and has since been optioned to the minors.

Jackson relieved Minter in the aforementioned April 28 outing and has proceeded to collect six saves in eight chances. Jackson allowed four runs in his first outing of the season, but has been downright dominant since with a 0.81 ERA and 30:6 K:BB across 22.1 innings. The right-hander has earned a pair of two-inning saves along the way to solidify his standing as the top endgame option for manager Brian Snitker. Just keep two things in mind: relievers are fickle, and it's possible the Braves pursue Craig Kimbrel once the first-year player draft has concluded in June.

Perhaps more than any other organization, the Braves are ripe with young rotation options at the major-league and Triple-A level. Though Newcomb was stellar at times during his first full big-league campaign in 2018, his erratic control occasionally resulted in blowup outings. Those walk issues cropped up again in his first three starts of 2019, prompting the Braves to transition him to a bullpen role. After a brief stopover at Triple-A, Newcomb rejoined the Braves and has quickly emerged as one of Snitker's most-trusted late-inning arms. In seven relief appearances, Newcomb has yet to allow a run -- or issue a free pass -- and nailed down his first career save May 20. For the time being, he looks next in line to close games in the event Jackson's performance should trend downward.

Swarzak, who was acquired in the deal that sent Vizcaino to the Mariners, battled shoulder and oblique issues throughout most of 2018. He was limited to 26.1 innings out of the Mets' bullpen and his performance was a far cry from 2017, when he posted a 2.33 ERA over 77.1 innings. The right-hander finished with an ERA north of 6.00, and the estimators suggest he deserved only slightly better (5.48 FIP). Swarzak continued to miss bats at a decent clip, but his walk rate jumped from 7.3% to 12.1%. He features a 94-mph fastball and an 85-mph slider, and splits the usage evenly, throwing 53% fastballs and 47% sliders.

Winkler was a key piece of the bullpen for most of the campaign, earning 23 holds and even a pair of saves before imploding in September (15.43 ERA). He has enjoyed strong results so far this season with a 1.46 ERA and 1.05 WHIP, but a 4.63 FIP indicates he could be due for some regression.

Minter was primed to take over as the everyday closer, but ended up being demoted after posting a 9.82 ERA and 2.36 WHIP in 15 appearances. He has an abysmal 15.3 BB% and 50.0% hard-hit rate, a far cry from his 2018 performance. Minter will have to straighten things out at Triple-A before rejoining the Braves, and he may be deployed in a low-leverage role initially upon his return.

Sobotka is a 6-foot-7 right-hander who works fastball-slider. He averages over 96 mph with his four-seamer and his slider proved to be an excellent out pitch, generating a ton of empty swings (37.1 O-Swing%, 19.3 SwStr%) last year. Sobotka has been on the IL since April 29 with a left abdomen strain after a rough start to the season (8.25 ERA).
Baltimore Orioles
Current Closer: Mychal Givens
Team: Baltimore Orioles
Next In Line: Paul Fry, Miguel Castro, Shawn Armstrong, Richard Bleier, Branden Kline
(6/12) New manager Brandon Hyde has taken a more modern approach to his bullpen usage so far in 2019. Four pitchers earned saves for Baltimore through five games, none of them being the presumptive favorite Givens: Castro, Bleier, Fry and Mike Wright. Givens eventually took hold of the primary ninth-inning job but was given a break from the role after allowing eight earned runs in four appearances (May 20, 23, 24 and 26), blowing two saves and taking three losses in that span. Armstrong stepped in May 27 and earned his second career save, but Givens has seemingly reclaimed the job, earning saves June 4 and 11.

Givens saw only one save opportunity through his first eight outings of the year. His walk rate is currently a career-worst 12.0%, but his 33.3 K% is a career high and he's brought his BAA down to .216. The Orioles had incentive to return Given to the closer role eventually -- namely, to salvage some trade value -- and it did not take long for Hyde to turn back to Givens as his primary option.

Armstrong was considered a sleeper in the Mariners' bullpen coming into the year, but he battled an oblique issue in spring training, struggled upon his return and was ultimately designated for assignment by Seattle on April 28. Walks have remained an issue since Armstrong joined Baltimore on a waiver claim, and his average fastball velocity is down a tick from last year, but the strikeouts are back up and the results have been strong with the Orioles (1.69 ERA in 15 appearances).

Castro has some intrigue given the raw tools. The key word there is "raw." Castro regularly touches mid-to-high 90s with his four-seamer, but that hasn't translated to many Ks whatsoever in the majors (16.6 K%). Unfortunately, the 24-year-old continues to be plagued by control issues with a 10.1 BB%.

Bleier missed time due to injury in the spring, and his is very much a middle-reliever profile. A 31-year-old journeyman lefty, Bleier owns an 11.0 K% in parts of three big-league seasons. He doesn't even crack 90 mph on the radar gun, but Bleier gets groundballs in bunches (63.3%) and is stingy with the free passes (4.3 BB%). He has thrown only 4.1 innings this season due to injury.

Fry has proven to be a solid middle reliever for Baltimore over the past two seasons with a 3.33 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 48:20 K:BB, but nothing really jumps off the page for him as a ninth-inning option besides the team's lack of pitching depth.

The wild card here is Hunter Harvey, who once again dealt with injuries last year, tossing 32.1 innings at Double-A after totaling 18.2 innings in 2017 and 12.2 innings in 2016. Baltimore really should end the starting experiment and see what Harvey can do in relief. If that move is made and Harvey finds his way up to the big leagues in 2019, he would immediately become one of the more intriguing arms in the Orioles' bullpen, as he can throw in the mid-90s with movement and spin a quality curveball.
Boston Red Sox
Current Closer: Brandon Workman
Team: Boston Red Sox
Next In Line: Nathan Eovaldi (60-day, elbow), Matt Barnes, Marcus Walden, Heath Hembree, Darwinzon Hernandez
(7/2) The Red Sox's closer situation was up in the air throughout the winter. The picture isn't much clearer halfway through the season, though we did recently get some hints as to Boston's second-half plans.

Chris Cotillo of MassLive.com suggested July 1 that the Red Sox could use Eovaldi as the closer upon his return from the 60-day injured list. Tom Caron of NESN took it a step farther and said that Boston will in fact name Eovaldi the closer upon his return, and that Eovaldi will be a "traditional" closer, not part of a committee. The hard-throwing right-hander has been out since mid-April after undergoing surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow. He also had a setback in early June.

Barnes was handed the ball in the ninth during the team's second game of the season, tasked with protecting a one-run lead. He converted that opportunity, but Barnes worked as part of the bridge to the ninth in subsequent appearances, with Brasier earning six straight saves from April 3-21. However, Brasier then hit a rough patch and his high-leverage opportunities were limited for an extended period of time. The few saves the Red Sox had in May went to Barnes (May 7), Hembree (May 8, in extras), Workman (May 19) and Walden (May 26). In June: Workman (June 2), Barnes (June 6), Josh Smith (June 13), Brasier (June 17) and then Workman again (June 25).

Barnes brings the ever-enticing combination of strikeouts (36.2 K% last season, 40.9% this season) and groundballs (59.5%). The right-hander averages 96 mph with his fastball and spins a good curveball. The underlying numbers say he's been pretty much the same guy he was last year (2.81 FIP, 2.71 in 2018), but the results on the field have been mixed, with Barnes already having six blown saves on his ledger through 36 appearances.

Workman has been surprisingly good -- shockingly good even for a 30-year-old reliever with 0.7 fWAR for his entire career entering the season. Walks are a big issue (17.6 BB%), but he's been able to overcome them to this point. He's holding opponents to a microscopic .099 BAA through 40 appearances, and he ranks third among relievers behind only Emilio Pagan and Alex Colome in opponents' wOBA (min. 100 batters faced).

Walden had an excellent run with the Red Sox last year, but it was such a small sample and his larger body of work at Triple-A left a lot to be desired. Needless to say his success so far in 2019 has been a surprise, but the underlying numbers support what he's doing to a large extent. Walden has been throwing his fastball less often and has really upping his slider usage, resulting in a jump in chase rate.

Brasier didn't miss as many bats as Barnes in 2018 and also lacks the groundballs (40.2%), but the right-hander throws hard and he's historically been stingier with the walks than Barnes.
Chicago Cubs
Current Closer: Craig Kimbrel
Team: Chicago Cubs
Next In Line: Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brad Brach, Carl Edwards Jr.; Brandon Morrow (10-day IL, elbow)
(6/11) At the All-Star break last year, Morrow had 22 saves, tied for sixth-most in the National League. He did not end up making a single appearance after the break, as biceps inflammation lingered and sabotaged Morrow's attempts to ramp back up. The Cubs signed Kimbrel after the 2019 first-year player draft got underway in June, and while it's a bit uncertain how long it will take him to get up to speed, there's no doubt he will inherit the closer role once active.

Morrow underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow Nov. 6. The expectation was that Morrow would miss the first month or so of the 2019 campaign, but he experienced a setback in April and was forced to shut down his throwing program. There is no timetable for Morrow's return. Strop was left to handle the ninth, but he too went down with an injury -- a Grade 2 strain of his left hamstring, the same hamstring he injured last September. Cishek got saves May 12, 14, 19 and 29 in Strop's absence.
Strop was activated from the injured list June 4 and reclaimed the job immediately, though his window of mixed-league relevance is closing with Kimbrel now under contract.

Strop was the primary ninth-inning option in Morrow's absence last year, but his hamstring injury opened the door for Jesse Chavez -- now with Texas -- and Cishek to see save chances late in the season. While Strop continued to pump his fastball in at 95 mph on average, he lost a little something from his strikeout rate last season (from 26.0% to 23.8%). That loss was offset to a large extent with a reduction in walks (8.8%). Strop's groundball rate fell dramatically -- 13 percentage points, to 46.1% -- but even so he posted an identical HR/9 to 2017 (0.60). His home-run rate has never exceeded 0.78 HR/9 in any season with at least 20 innings.

Cishek's fastball now sits right around 90 mph, but he posted the third-highest strikeout rate of his career last season (27.1%) and he's maintained a similar mark through 19 appearances in 2019 (27.3%). His sidewinding delivery is headache for same-handed hitters, as evidenced by their .165/.239/.288 line against Cishek in 2018. He gave a little back against lefty batters last season, but his slider is good enough to limit the damage without the platoon edge.

Kintzler currently leads the team with five holds, and his 20.9 K-BB% through 18 appearances is more than double his mark from 2018. Meanwhile, Brach's K-BB rate is all of 2.8%, making his 2.20 ERA seem completely unsustainable. Also working in Kintzler's favor: his career 56.3% groundball rate and the fact that he saved 29 games between Minnesota and Washington just two years ago. Brach has earned a total of 33 saves in his nine-year career.

Edwards has long been thought of as a future closer. He could still fulfill that destiny, but the control hasn't come along (14.4 BB%) and it will need to if he's ever to be trusted in the ninth. Edwards lost a little velo and a little off his K-rate last season, and battled a forearm injury in the playoffs. He was sent to the minors early in 2019 after walking the world in his first few appearances.
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