Trading season is about to get intense for major-league teams as we sit on the precipice of July. Today, we’ll zero in on how bullpens around the league could be affected by wheeling and dealing. In most cases, I’m interested in setup men on non-contenders, as they are primed to jump into fantasy relevance when potential suitors come calling for the ninth-inning arms ahead of them on their teams. However, in Milwaukee, not one but two setup men who could be targeted by teams as ninth-inning answers are likely on the trade market.
The following list is a rough order of how likely I think each reliever is to close by the time the trading deadline passes.
Francisco Rodriguez, MIL
K-Rod earned his 300th save recently with the Brewers, and that’s likely to doom him to the middle innings in Milwaukee. However, he’s pitched very well this year, giving up just one earned run on eight hits and three walks in 15.1 innings while striking out 16. Teams that value closing experience should be all over this guy; as I just said, he now has 300 career saves. The Tigers or Red Sox seem like perfect fits, and the Brewers aren’t likely to ask for a whole lot.
John Axford, MIL
While Rodriguez seems like an ideal one-year fix, Axford has the potential to close for a contender for years to come. A shaky start to the season cost Axford his closing duties, but he quickly turned things around. In fact, he hasn’t allowed an earned run since May 14, with a scoreless streak spanning 17.1 innings. His salary isn’t for the cost conscious; he’s making $5 million in his first year of arbitration eligibility, and his status as a Super Two player means he has three more expensive arbitration-eligible seasons to come. However, the reason the price tag is so high is that he earned 106 saves in the first three seasons of his career. Will the Brewers be willing to dish out $20 million or more for a guy they don’t even have confidence in closing right now? I would think not. He could be an option for virtually any team that’s not in a small market looking for a long-term answer at closer.
James Russell, CHC
Now we get into the setup men who could potentially ascend into closing duties via a trade of the closer blocking them. Teams have been reportedly been asking about Russell and closer Kevin Gregg, and the Cubs seem reluctant to deal Russell but perfectly positioned to trade Gregg for anything of value. Russell’s status as a lefty may make him a curious choice to close, but he’s been the only effective reliever aside from Gregg in this bullpen.
Jared Burton, MIN
The Twins have an affordable and effective closer in Glen Perkins, who has a 2.20 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and 40:6 K:BB ratio along with a three-year, $10-million contract that includes a $4.5 million club option for 2016 with a $300,000 buyout. Any team in need of a quality lefty setup man would likely part with a quality prospect to pry him away from the Twins. And if you’re the Twins, a team that isn’t competing anytime soon, why wouldn’t you flip a great closer for one or two players who could serve as regulars for your next playoff team? To me, the Braves make perfect sense as a potential trade partner, with Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty out for the year. Should Perkins be traded, Burton is the favorite to close, as he’s shared the role with Perkins in the past.
Antonio Bastardo, PHI
The Phillies seem like they would be best served going into full rebuilding mode and trading their expensive stars for MLB ready prospects, even ones that aren’t necessarily elite. Jonathan Papelbon represents by far the best option from a talent standpoint that could potentially be available in a trade. He’s making $13 million this year, the same amount in each of the next two years, and potentially another $13 million in 2016 if a vesting option kicks in, so any inquiring team will have to reach into some deep pockets. A Tigers team that just cut its closer has been known to make big moves in the past — could Papelbon to the Tigers have legs? If so, Bastardo represents the clear option to close, despite his southpaw status and especially with Mike Adams out for the year.
Hector Ambriz, HOU
The Astros took a low-risk shot at Jose Veras as a closer this offseason, signing him to an affordable, one-year contract with a club option for 2014. He’s paid off for the most part, posting a 3.82 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 37:13 K:BB ratio in 33 innings. While I don’t see any closer-needy teams targeting him as a potential ninth-inning upgrade, I can definitely see him changing hands and working in a setup role for a playoff hopeful. If that happens, Ambriz is the smart option for saves in the bullpen, as he’s collected them here and there in the first few months. However, we should also keep an eye out for Jose Cisnero, who has the potential to overtake Ambriz in the pecking order.
Jesse Crain, CHW
Crain doesn’t get placed this low on talent, as he’s surrendered just two earned runs in 34.2 innings this season while posting a 46:11 K:BB ratio. In fact, if it was my team, I may take him out of anyone else on this list and stick him in the ninth inning. However, he’s not going to close for the White Sox anytime soon, with Addison Reed not eligible for arbitration until after the 2014 season. And it’s hard to imagine another team trading for him and sticking him immediately in a position to close, as the nine-year veteran has just four career saves. It seems more likely contenders would target proven commodities, as they could feel that sticking an unproven ninth-inning man at closer could put them right back looking for answers. His best bet is to get traded to a team with a muddled closer situation and to quickly earn the trust of his manager (with a little help from that team’s current struggling closer). It would be interesting to see a team like the Diamondbacks make that move if they aren’t 100 percent confident in the health of J.J. Putz — no one wants to ride the Heath Bell carousel again.
R.J. White is the head editor at the Cafe and contributes to CBSSports.com's MLB Rumors blog. He has previously written for FanHouse, Razzball and FanDuel. Catch up with him in the forums under the name daullaz. Follow him on Twitter; don't follow him in real life.
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