Every two weeks, we’ll do a piece that’s all about fantasy relievers and bullpens. This is that piece. If you don’t like what you see here, come back in two weeks, I guess.
The NL Central race figures to be engaging until the final weekend of the year. Nobody is that great in this division, but no one is that bad, either. Milwaukee’s middling 29-26 record is good enough for first place as we start the June schedule. St. Louis and Chicago are both seven games under .500 and tied for last but just five games out from first.
This is my roundabout way of justifying interest in the Cubs closing chair. Maybe it’s a fool’s errand, but we’ll take it anyway.
Chicago’s 24 wins have come with just seven saves attached, a low ratio. Two of those saves belong to Brad Boxberger, currently on the injured list. The others break down this way: Adbert Alzolay has two, Mark Leiter Jr. has two, and Michael Fulmer has one.
Fulmer has been a mess for most of the year — ERA over 7, four homers allowed, 10 walks in 22 innings. I can’t trust him on any of my rosters. But I can’t shake the idea that Alzolay could eventually percolate to the top of this pecking order.
Alzolay has the best ERA here (2.33) and the best K/BB rate, and he has been the best at avoiding hard contact. He earned a working-class save two days back, setting down six straight Rays and striking out four. Wednesday’s assignment was in a loss, a scoreless eighth, dodging two hits.
Leiter took the loss Wednesday, losing his way in a jagged seventh innings (one out, three runs, two homers allowed). Those types of appearances leave a mark and certainly shake manager confidence. Everyone in this bullpen gets a much-needed rest Thursday, then the Cubs open a West Coast swing Friday (four games at San Diego, three at Los Angeles, three at San Francisco). If there are late leads to protect, I suspect Alzolay gets the first call.
Even if Alzolay never becomes a fully minted closer this year, his current ratios (including that tidy 0.89 WHIP) merit a roster spot in medium and deep mixers. He’s rostered in 7% of Yahoo leagues at the moment.
Is an AL Central closer becoming a sell-high candidate?
The AL Central has a similar shape to the NL Central — nobody’s that great here, but most of the teams are in contention. OK, you can probably scratch the Royals, who are 22 games under .500 and 12 games out of first. But only seven games separates the Twins (two games over .500) from the disappointing but not yet buried White Sox (23-35). Meanwhile, the Tigers are two games back — despite being under .500 — and the punchless Guardians are 3.5 games off the pace.
Detroit’s going to have an interesting choice when the midseason trade market heats up. Are the Tigers buyers or sellers? The staff has only two reliable options, and one of them, Eduardo Rodriguez, just went on the IL due to a finger injury. Nobody would blame the Tigers if they tried to add a piece or two — the club hasn’t been over .500 since 2016, and the last playoff spot came in 2014 — but maybe Detroit’s front office will think big-picture and try to gear up for a more serious shot at contending later in the decade.
And if the Tigers decide to click the seller button, the first thing they’d probably look to move is closer Alex Lange. A closer is essentially a luxury item on a sub-.500 team.
Lange’s game is power. His average fastball has been in the 95-96 range since he joined the majors two years back. That leads to a bunch of strikeouts — 12.3/9 this year — and a bunch of walks (4.2/9 last year). At least last year’s rash of wild pitches (a league-leading 15) has been cleaned up (zero this season).
Lange has been Detroit’s push-button closer all year, en route to 10 saves, and his 1.16 ERA and 0.90 WHIP play in any format. Alas, we know outlier stats often come with outlier luck factors. The Statcast data doesn’t consider Lange a fraud, but it suggests a 2.57 ERA. And given that Lange hasn’t allowed a home run, it’s to be expected that his xFIP (and I realize not everyone cares for that stat) climbs to 3.32.
Lange is on a few of my teams, and I’d be willing to trade him if an opponent viewed him as a full-season closer. Given his history of wildness, the expected regression coming with the homers and at least the chance that Detroit makes Lange available in a few weeks, I'm concerned that the floor could drop out.
Then again, it’s not like I expect leaguemates to treat Lange like he’s the second coming of Dennis Eckersley. Perhaps this will turn into a forced hold as I consider my summer options.
One size never fits all with this advice. You know your trade options and league structure better than I do. See what’s possible.
Two deep-league pickup options
Following the strikeouts is always the recommended first step when considering bullpen pickups, and with that, we must acknowledge Texas reliever, Grant Anderson. The 26-year-old righty made a dazzling debut against the Tigers, allowing just one baserunner over 2 1/3 innings and striking out seven. The whiffs were no surprise, as Anderson had the best strikeout rate in the Pacific Coast League (38 strikeouts over 21.1 innings). Of course, he also had 10 walks, which is why his ERA percolated up to 3.80.
Bottom line, there could be signature significance to an outing like this, and Texas is one of the best clubs in the American League (the Rangers currently have the best run differential in baseball). Go where the wins are.
Anderson might not have an inside track to saves, but I wonder if Joel Payamps is moving up the pecking order in Milwaukee. Payamps isn’t going to unseat closing god Devin Williams (0.51 ERA, nine saves), but the Brewers might look to Payamps if Williams gets hurt or needs an occasional rest. Payamps has a 2.39 ERA and 1.06 WHIP and was dominant in May (1.93 ERA, one walk, 20 strikeouts over 14 innings).
Payamps doesn’t have the gaudy strikeout rate of some of the others in this piece, but when you mix in his strong control, you get 7.25 strikeouts for every walk. That’s a recipe for long-term success.
These are deeper-league pickups ideas, so season to taste. Anderson is merely 1% rostered in Yahoo, while Payamps currently trends at 6%.