Thursday was a fairly benign slate for most of the closing landscape. Seven saves were recorded in the 11 scheduled games, most of them rocking-chair appearances.
Alas, things got ugly in Milwaukee, and it was, ironically, on the heels of a blowout game.
Closer Corey Knebel, getting a routine inning of work in a lopsided defeat to the Cubs, suffered a nasty left-hamstring injury. The Brewers immediately conceded that Knebel needs a DL stint, and he’ll have an MRI on Friday. This could be a lengthy absence. Fantasy owners face a conundrum, because the Brewers have a bevy of logical candidates to replace Knebel.
Hader is the name that gets your blood pumping — an electric left-hander who threw a splashy 47.2 innings as a rookie in Milwaukee last year (2.08 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 73 strikeouts). He already has three scoreless innings — and seven strikeouts — this year. But because Hader is so valuable in a roving relief role — and because the team might see him as a starter down the line, as he was, primarily, in the minors — it’s possible the team won’t slot Hader for the ninth. He’s a fun fantasy player to own no matter the role, but we can’t automatically assume he’s pushed into the closing chair. The left-handed bias might work against him, too, not that Hader’s stuff leaves any doubt that he could probably handle the ninth if asked to do so.
Albers, a righty, is an interesting story. He’s on his eighth team and in his 13th season, starting his age-36 campaign. He was money for the Nationals last year (1.62 ERA, 0.85 WHIP) but a gasoline can for the White Sox in 2016 (6.31/1.68). He has three scoreless appearances for Milwaukee, all of them coming in the eighth inning of eventual wins. While not every closer-vacant club looks to the eighth-inning leverage guy for the next solution, it’s often how these things play out.
Barnes, another righty, is becoming a name of interest, just shy of his 28th birthday. Last year’s 4.00 ERA kept him under the radar, and he did allow eight home runs and 33 walks in 72 innings. But he also struck out 80 batters, and he’s already recorded six scoreless innings (2 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 5 K) this year. When Knebel blew the save on opening day — and Hader, Albers, and Jeffress had already pitched — it was Barnes who struck out the side in the 12th inning, a smooth save conversion. His leverage has been all over the place since then; he worked the sixth and seventh innings Thursday, toiling through a 5-0 deficit.
Jeffress, 30, was actually the Milwaukee closer for much of 2016 (posting 27 saves and a 2.22 ERA), before shipping to Texas in the Jonathan Lucroy deal. The Brew Crew reacquired Jeffress at last summer’s trading deadline; his 3.65 ERA wasn’t terrible, but he struggled with control (15 walks in 24.2 innings). Jeffress has four scoreless frames this year, with usage all over the place; he’s entered in the fifth, eighth, and tenth inning over his three appearances.
There’s no reason for manager Craig Counsell to immediately anoint anyone, especially when the bullpen is this deep and versatile. But I expect Counsell ultimately wants one man to handle the gig, at least most of the time. Closing committees can get messy, because they open up managers to criticism and sometimes they also frustrate the athletes, who might long for a defined role. Often the first reliever to bank a little success in the ninth inning winds up grabbing the baton and running with it.
Hader (I wish my autocorrect would stop calling him Vader) is currently owned in 57 percent of Yahoo leagues. Barnes trades at 18 percent, Albers 4 percent, and Jeffress 1 percent. While Jeffress looks like the longest shot on the board, I could see any of the other three getting an opportunity. Albers’s ownership tag is probably the most underweight at the moment. (Heck, on the Brewers official site, even Dan Jennings was mentioned as a possible contender. Are we sure Rollie Fingers is retired for good?)
Spin the wheel, hope you get lucky. The remainder of this Cubs-Brewers series will be must-see TV.