The first day of the 2018 season did not lack for closer drama, and the bumpy ride for some fantasy owners began even before the first pitch. After weeks of speculation over how Cardinals manager Mike Matheny would split up save chances among Dominic Leone , Tyler Lyons and Luke Gregerson (hamstring), once he returns
The first day of the 2018 season did not lack for closer drama, and the bumpy ride for some fantasy owners began even before the first pitch. After weeks of speculation over how Cardinals manager Mike Matheny would split up save chances among Dominic Leone , Tyler Lyons and Luke Gregerson (hamstring), once he returns from the 10-day disabled list, Greg Holland stepped into the picture and shredded all of those narratives. The Cardinals signed Holland to a one-year, $14 million deal, and he instantly became the uncontested closer in St. Louis.
A cursory glance at Holland's 2017 stat line with Colorado -- particularly his 3.61 ERA -- might give the impression that he had a, you know, rocky first season back from Tommy John surgery, but bulk of his difficulties came during a three-week period in August. During that slump, Holland coughed up 14 runs in 6 1/3 innings. He had a sub-2.00 ERA prior to that stretch, and went back to a sub-2.00 ERA for the period following the downturn. Even Holland's 29.8 percent strikeout rate from last season, which was well below his marks from his peak years of 2013 and 2014, could have been an illusion. His 15.2 percent swinging strike rate and 44.3 percent swing rate look right in place with his rates from his best seasons.
The off-the-field bullpen developments continued right into Thursday afternoon, as Giants skipper Bruce Bochy told reporters he was installing Hunter Strickland as the team's closer in the absence of Mark Melancon , who was placed on the 10-day disabled list earlier in the day. Bochy backed up his announcement by using the 29-year-old to secure a 1-0 win over Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers. Tony Watson , who was mentioned in previous reports about Giants closer candidates, set up for Strickland in the eighth inning, issuing a walk but otherwise striking out the side.
Strickland is coming off a less-than-impressive 2017 campaign, in which he posted a 1.43 WHIP fueled by a 10.8 percent walk rate. Previously a strike-thrower, Strickland's Zone% was a pedestrian 44.9 percent, and he posted a subpar 28.2 percent O-Swing rate. His opening day save comes on the heels of a strong spring in which he tossed 7.1 shutout innings, allowing just one hit and two walks.
It's not clear when Melancon will return, as he has been diagnosed with a flexor strain in his right elbow. Given that he is unable to throw without pain from 30 feet, his return doesn't seem to be imminent.
The Rangers' amorphous closer situation also gained some clarity on Thursday, as manager Jeff Banister named Keone Kela as his primary ninth-inning option. Banister also said that Kevin Jepsen could get some save chances when he is resting Kela. The Rangers did not need a closer in their 4-1 loss to the Astros, but Jepsen did toss a perfect top of the ninth.
Thursday's slate featured a few closers either blowing saves or taking losses. The one that likely caused pain for the largest number of fantasy owners was Corey Knebel 's ceding of a one-run run lead against the Padres. He wasn't exactly clobbered, though. The Padres knotted up the contest on a Carlos Asauje single, a stolen base by pinch-runner Matthew Szczur and an RBI single from Freddy Galvis . Ultimately, Jacob Barnes put the game away for the Brewers in the 12th inning, striking out all three batters he faced and securing a 2-1 victory.
Brad Brach did not finish the 2017 season on a strong note, and once again filling in for an injured Zach Britton , he did not fare well in his first save opportunity of 2018. He failed to preserve a 2-0 lead against the Twins, loading up the bases and then allowing a two-run single to Robbie Grossman . The Orioles prevailed in the bottom of the 11th inning when Adam Jones sent the first pitch he saw from Fernando Rodney into the left field seats.
If Brach continues to struggle, Darren O'Day would appear to be the reliever in the Orioles' bullpen to target for saves. Not only did he set up for Brach in the eighth inning of Thursday's game, but manager Buck Showalter has also cited O'Day as a potential closer.
Thursday was also not a good day for Hector Neris , who absorbed the loss to the Braves after giving up Nick Markakis ' walk-off three-run homer. For what it's worth, Neris struggled when initially taking over the Phillies' closer job in the middle of last April, but from May forward, he posted a 2.61 ERA while converting 23 of his 25 save chances.
For those accustomed to seeing our closer grid at the conclusion of this column, it's coming. We will list each team's closer along with the two most likely potential successors by early next week.
A version of this article also appeared at FanGraphs.com
Al Melchior is a contributor to MLB.com.