Analysis: The heat’s on these firemen as trade deadline nears

  • Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Brad Hand winds up to deliver a pitch during the ninth inning of an interleague baseball game against the Miami Marlins, Tuesday, April 30, 2019, in Miami. The Indians won 7-4. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

  • San Francisco Giants pitcher Will Smith works against the San Diego Padres during the ninth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, June 12, 2019, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

  • Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Brad Hand delivers in the tenth inning in a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds, Tuesday, June 11, 2019, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

  • Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Shane Greene reacts after the Tigers defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 9-6 in a baseball game Tuesday, June 4, 2019, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

New York Daily News
Published: 6/15/2019 10:16:43 PM

NEW YORK — It is a testimony to the evolution of baseball that, as the trading deadline approaches, the general managers s of just about all the postseason-bound teams are saying the same thing: “I need relief!”

Unlike so many previous seasons when starting pitchers like David Price, Justin Verlander, Cole Hamels or Cliff Lee were the most coveted deadline targets in terms of potential difference-makers, this year’s most-wanted list is topped by three players who, last year, casual baseball fans hardly ever heard of: Brad Hand, Will Smith and Shane Greene. All three are closers with going-nowhere teams who have been around and are having career seasons.

Indians closer Hand (0.91 ERA, 19-for-19 saves, 44 Ks in 29⅔ IP heading into the weekend) is probably the most desirable of the three because he’s under team control with a reasonable contract through 2021. Smith, 29 years old and a lefty like Hand, was a decent middle reliever with the Royals and Brewers before coming to the Giants in August 2016. He’s already passed last year’s career-high for saves with 17 in 17 opportunities, plus 40 Ks in 27⅔ IP and a 1.99 ERA.

Greene, originally a Yankee who moved over to the Tigers in the three-team trade in 2014 that put Didi Gregorius in pinstripes, has rebounded from a horrible ’18 (5.12 ERA) with an AL-leading 20 saves and 1.00 ERA. No one’s deluding themselves into thinking Greene is suddenly a top-scale, lock-down closer, but in this present environment in baseball, where effective back-end relievers are at a premium, his value has skyrocketed for the Tigers.

So the bidding for Hand, Smith and Greene figures to be feverish, with the Twins, Dodgers, Braves, Phillies, Red Sox and Rays all desperately looking to fill that one missing link at closer. And that group could get additional competition from the Rangers (should they decide to make a go for the wild card and not move their No. 1 chip, Mike Minor), the Mets (now that Edwin Diaz has become more of a liability than sure thing), and even the Yankees (if they are unable to land either of their prime starting pitcher targets, Marcus Stroman or Madison Bumgarner).

With starting pitchers increasingly diminished, we’re going to see more and more opener-type games with multiple relievers, especially in the postseason, as teams load up with back-end relievers. Last season a record 799 different pitchers were used in MLB and as of Friday we’ve already had 646 this season.

With a major league-leading 115-run differential as of Friday, the Twins have not had much need for a closer this season, but they know retread Blake Parker and Taylor Rogers are not going to be sufficient in the postseason. The Braves, with a 12th-ranked 4.24 bullpen ERA and five blown saves, recently recalled A.J. Minter, who’d earlier failed miserably (9.82 ERA in 15 games) as their closer after Arodys Vizcaino went down.

The Dodgers (11th-ranked 4.48 bullpen ERA) need help for Kenley Jansen. The Phillies have been happy with Hector Neris but would feel much more comfortable if they could complement him with a lefty like Hand or Smith.

By contrast, the Red Sox have been underwhelmed with their closer combo of Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier. And the Rays, despite the second-lowest bullpen ERA in the majors (3.45), have been unable to find any reliable closer, which is why they were surprisingly the second-highest bidder for Craig Kimbrel.

For what it’s worth, the Rays are reputed to have one of the top three deepest prospect talent pools in baseball, so they are probably better equipped to fill their need than any of the other closer-seeking contenders.

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