With less than a month to go in the 2023 season, much of the bullpen turmoil is probably behind us.
But a few contenders are still tweaking things. Several non-contenders are still keeping us guessing. Injuries are still shaking things up.
And our dogged pursuit of saves continues until the bitter end.
Note: "Pecking order" refers to rosterability in Fantasy and not necessarily who's first in line for saves (though it's usually one and the same).
The transition from Will Smith to Aroldis Chapman was a long time coming and finally became a reality, if unofficially, on Aug. 21, when Chapman came in to preserve a one-run lead and ... blew the save instead. In fact, he's allowed at least one earned run in four of his six appearances since the change in role, going just 1 for 3 in save chances. Meanwhile, Smith has put together five straight scoreless appearances, and Jose Leclerc has been mostly untouched the past couple months, actually stepping in for a save when Chapman got a day off last week. Chapman had been so dominant before then that you can assume manager Bruce Bochy will give him a long leash, but the former Reds and Yankees closer certainly hasn't put his best foot forward.
Rookie manager Skip Schumaker has been among the most predictable with regard to his bullpen this year, so when reports surfaced last week that the Marlins had soured on David Robertson in the ninth-inning role, it was no surprise to see Tanner Scott take his place. The left-hander got a chance in the role last year, too, and ultimately proved too erratic for it, but with his walk rate cut in half this year, he has been a late-inning force for the Marlins. They have more lefties than righties for the late innings anyway, so confining Scott to the closer role shouldn't be too painful for them. He's 2 for 3 in saves since taking over for Robertson, with his latest coming Sunday.
After a three-month absence for a forearm injury, Ryan Helsley was back on the mound Friday. He threw a scoreless inning, striking out one, but his fastball was down 1.4 mph. It's obviously a tiny sample, but given the nature of his injury, it's something to note. Might it keep him from reclaiming the Cardinals closer role in short order? Well, they haven't had much of a plan for the ninth inning since dealing Jordan Hicks at the trade deadline. Left-hander JoJo Romero looked like might be in the driver's seat, but then after he got roughed up in a non-save chance Friday, it was Giovanny Gallegos who came in for the save Sunday. Each of them now has two saves since the Hicks trade, so the job is ripe for the taking as long as Helsley proves healthy.
We still don't know yet if Felix Bautista will require Tommy John surgery -- and the Orioles say we won't know until the swelling subsides. But even if it's more of sprain in the UCL than a tear (I realize that's a fine line), it's safe to assume the hard-throwing righty's season is over. Fortunately, the Orioles also had arguably the game's best setup man in Yennier Cano, and he was tasked with a save chance the day after Bautista went down. Of course, since then, he's also blown a tie to take a loss. The Orioles really have no one else who's up to the task, though, unless former prospect DL Hall, a hard-throwing left-hander, suddenly morphs into a relief ace. Cano may have a 1.68 ERA, but his strikeout rate is less than optimal for a closer.
It's true that Matt Brash got a save on back-to-back days at one point in mid-August, but manager Scott Servais has left little reason to doubt that Andres Muñoz is his guy with Paul Sewald gone. The one who has left reason for doubt is Muñoz himself, who has allowed at least one run in six of his 15 appearances since the trade. Several of the runs were unearned, but he's nonetheless blown two saves and taken two losses during that time. It's possible the oft-injured right-hander is being overworked in this role -- that's what led to those save chances for Brash -- but if it comes with the territory, he'll still get blamed for it if it continues. Don't panic yet, though.
Just when it seemed like Carlos Estevez might be losing his grip on the closer role, having allowed 19 runs (13 earned) in his first 14 appearances of the second half, the Angels went and waived their viable alternatives in an obvious cost-cutting move. Reynaldo Lopez and Matt Moore are in Cleveland now, which means Estevez is likely here to stay. And to be fair, his last four appearances have all been scoreless, including three for saves, but he would still be on thin ice if there was anywhere else to turn. Judging by their numbers, it's hard to believe Jose Soriano, Aaron Loup or anyone else in the Angels bullpen would be much of an improvement.
Things got messy there for Alex Lange at the start of August with three walks in three consecutive appearances, and it led to him being removed from the closer role for about a two-week stint. But he came back for his 18th save Aug. 20 and has had only one hiccup since then, converting four saves in five chances. In a way, it shows how firm his grip on the role is. The Tigers are obviously wiling to tolerate some growing pains as they groom him for it long-term. He clearly has the stuff for the role, but his control leaves him vulnerable to implosions. Still, you could do worse than Lange as your second reliever in Fantasy.
The Rockies never officially anointed Justin Lawrence as their closer, but he's been the de facto ninth-inning guy since about the start of June, recording 10 saves in all. That's obviously not a great total for three months' time, and it hasn't helped that he's allowed 12 earned runs in his past seven appearances, his ERA jumping from 2.76 to 4.18. His saving grace is that the Rockies' best alternatives, left-hander Brent Suter and right-hander Matt Koch, have been roughed up just as badly during that stretch, but it shouldn't surprise anyone if the team takes an anything-goes approach to the late innings going forward. It's possible Lawrence ends up doing you more harm than good, if he hasn't already.
Just when it seemed like this was a two-horse race between the right-hander Adam Ottavino and the left-hander Brooks Raley, Drew Smith, another right-hander, was the one to get the save Friday. The Mets went back to Ottavino to close out a three-run lead Sunday, but it doesn't seem like there's much rhyme or reason for who they decide to use when. Raley has been a bit shaky of late, which maybe takes him out of the running for now, but there may not be a bullpen with a truer closer committee than this one. I'd have more faith in Ottavino if he wasn't also appearing in non-save chances.
Converted starter Carlos Hernandez was rolling when the Royals dealt Scott Barlow to the Padres at the trade deadline, and his triple-digit fastball seemed like a perfect fit for the closer role. But it hasn't gone well, to say the least. Maybe that's not entirely fair. Most of Hernandez's appearances since the trade haven't come in save chances because -- um, hello? -- he pitches for the Royals. But he has an 8.71 ERA since the trade, having allowed 10 earned runs in 12 appearances. It's not like the Royals have anyone better, so they may continue to turn to Hernandez for their sparse save chances. But what he does for you in between may not be worth it.