It seemed like just an innocuous trade at the time when the Pittsburgh Pirates sent seemingly ordinary relief pitcher Clay Holmes to the New York Yankees for minor league infielders Diego Castillo and Hoy Park, a typical depth move for both sides. It happened last July, a few days before the trade deadline, and few could have imagined the impact the deal would have on New York’s excellent, deep bullpen. Holmes had a 4.93 ERA and 1.42 WHIP for the lowly Pirates. He was 28, already had a Tommy John surgery and was hardly lighting up the radar gun. What were the Yankees thinking?
The Yankees were thinking they had just acquired their future closer, apparently. Well, at least he’s closing today. Holmes is arguably the fantasy MVP among relief pitchers one-third into the season, as he went undrafted in most every league and now he is the No. 5 relief pitcher on the Player Rater. He is New York’s closer while Aroldis Chapman is on the injured list and when the lefty comes back, well, who knows? Holmes will surely retain some value, though.
It’s an unconventional approach, certainly, as Holmes relies on a hard, sinking fastball (96.7 MPH) and mixes in an effective slider (85 MPH) to force opposing hitters into one ground ball after another, a ridiculous 82.8% of the time. For perspective, the No. 2 reliever in ground ball rate is Oakland lefty Adam Kolarek at 69.5%. Holmes has allowed six fly balls the entire season. He ditched his ordinary curveball upon joining the Yankees and enjoyed immediate success, posting a 1.61 ERA and 0.78 WHIP over 28 innings with the team in 2021. This season, he has permitted one run in 26 2/3 innings, a 0.34 ERA to go with an 0.67 WHIP. He has four wins and eight saves.
Chapman is out with Achilles tendinitis and is eligible to return to active duty today, though that seems unlikely. The team is cruising and can be patient. Still, he will return soon and Holmes investors will want to know who earns the saves. Manager Aaron Boone isn’t saying. Chapman permitted runs in each of his final five appearances before the IL stint, though he hadn’t allowed a run in his other 12 outings. He was pitching capably, albeit with far fewer strikeouts than usual, and reduced velocity, tipping us off that something was amiss. Chapman walked 10 in 14 innings. Holmes has walked seven as over 54 2/3 innings as a Yankee.
Still, Chapman has 315 career saves. Holmes has his eight from this season. Let’s be realistic here. A healthy Chapman will close, but Holmes will pitch in, especially with Chad Green, Jonathan Loaisiga and Zack Britton injured, and Michael King serving more of a multi-inning role. Chapman seems unlikely to pitch on consecutive days much, if at all. The Yankees boast the top record in the sport, so there is much to save. Holmes may get fewer save chances than Chapman over the final four months, but retain more value. Keep him around if you roster him, or trade for him.
Seranthony Dominguez, Philadelphia Phillies: Philadelphia’s beleaguered bullpen — we’ve been referring to it with this wording for a long time — has several pitchers with closing success in their history. Corey Knebel was awesome in 2017. Jeurys Familia once saved 94 games over a two-year period. Brad Hand saved 21 games as recently as last season. And yet, Dominguez is the one to watch. The power right-hander is missing the most bats among these fellows and has yet to permit a home run. His rising fastball averages better than 97 MPH. Knebel has allowed a run in three of four appearances, and many of his four losses this season have been, well, rather brutal. A new manager may be more willing to make a move should Knebel keep struggling or get hurt, and Dominguez, healthy after missing most of the past two seasons following Tommy John surgery, seems like he deserves a chance.
Tanner Rainey, Washington Nationals: Washington has a bad baseball team, second worst in the sport in run differential, and seemingly on its way to its first 100-loss season since 2009. The team lost 97 times last season, but current Phillie Brad Hand and right-hander Kyle Finnegan combined for 32 saves. In other words, even while losing so much, there were ample save chances. Rainey saved three wins a year ago, but his 7.39 ERA and 1.70 WHIP overshadowed everything. Walking 7.1 hitters per nine innings will do that. Rainey isn’t struggling with control this season. He’s throwing his fastball more, getting it over the plate, inducing more ground balls and enjoying similar success to the brief 2020 campaign. Rainey has seven of Washington’s nine saves, so perhaps he falls short of 25 for the season, but he should be rostered in at least 50% of ESPN standard leagues. That number is currently at 13%. Expect an ERA around 3.50, but 20-plus saves.
Raisel Iglesias, Los Angeles Angels: It actually is a good thing that manager Joe Maddon called on Iglesias with one out and the bases loaded in the eighth inning in Philadelphia Sunday. We want closers utilized as stoppers, permitted to get more than three outs. Iglesias would eventually get four of them, but he neither won nor saved the game. Bryce Harper clocked one off him to the upper deck for a grand slam to tie the game in the eighth. Given another lead in the ninth, Iglesias allowed a few runners and Jimmy Herget permitted the game-winning Bryson Stott homer. Iglesias gives up homers, four of them already this season. He has permitted double-digit homers in each of the past three full seasons and he probably will again. This is nothing new. Will Maddon replace him as closer, presumably with top setup man Ryan Tepera? Probably not, probably not ever, but it doesn’t mean relying on Iglesias is particularly fun.
Giovanny Gallegos, St. Louis Cardinals: Three Cardinals other than Gallegos, who we ranked as a borderline top-10 closer and obviously felt pretty good about it, have saves since May 20. OK, so that’s a bit misleading, since Gallegos was unavailable to perform in two of those and the other was one of those silly, three-inning-in-a-blowout saves (what a dumb rule), but still, we cannot confirm for sure that Gallegos gets all the save chances from here on out over Ryan Helsley. It may be a time-share. Perhaps lefty Genesis Cabrera, dominant for four innings as Sunday’s winner, gets involved, too. The point here is that Gallegos has allowed a run in his past two outings and is on the most-dropped list for relief pitchers and while I think that’s a mistake, I sure think adding Helsley and his 0.42 ERA and 0.52 WHIP makes sense, too.