The messy middle has been quite a challenge for National League East managers this year. Fortunately for the five skippers, the final three outs have been mostly clean.
The NL East has been beset with worrisome relief performances this year, but for the most part, the guys at the back end have been just fine. The Marlins are a bit of an exception in both cases -- shaky in the ninth, solid in setup -- but there are some trends here.
Let's take a look at the ninth-inning situations around the division.
Who's the closer?Arodys Vizcaino
How is it working out? Well, it's actually kind of hard to say.
Vizcaino has pitched well. He just hasn't pitched the ninth very often. It was April 11 before Vizcaino got a save chance, and April 16 before he converted on one. He's 1-for-2, total, on the year. That might not be a bad thing, though, since Vizcaino had some trouble finding the strike zone. When he's struggled in the past, that's been his issue, and it popped up early this season.
However, over Vizcaino's past seven outings, he's only walked one -- a pretty good indication he's rounding into form. The Braves have had some bullpen issues this year, but it's mostly been about getting to the ninth, not getting through it.
How secure is he? Pretty darn secure -- if only because, who would supplant him? A.J. Minter may well be the closer of the future, but he, too, has had some trouble throwing strikes, and it's hard to envision Atlanta plugging him in the ninth any time soon.
Who's next in line? If the Braves were to make a change later in the year, it seems likely Minter would be the next man up. He closed out Wednesday night's game and did well. But if something were to happen soon, that might be less of a given. While Minter has had trouble throwing strikes, the less-heralded Shane Carle and Dan Winkler have been quite effective. Atlanta would rather not have to make that decision any time soon, because there's not a clear alternative.
Who's the closer?Brad Ziegler
How is it working out? Not great. Ziegler is 2-for-2 in save chances, but he's been scored upon in five of 10 appearances and taken three losses. He's 38 and has never been overpowering. It's fair to say this year's performance is concerning.
How secure is he? Fairly safe for now, if only because the Marlins won't have great urgency to make a change in a rebuilding year. But at the same time, when wins are precious, you don't want to let them slip away. There's also the possibility that even if he rights the ship, Ziegler could be dealt to a contender between now and the end of July.
Who's next in line? Here's one team that has options. Miami is loaded with late-inning power relievers, including four regular members of its bullpen who are averaging more than 11 K's per nine innings. Kyle Barraclough would probably rank ahead of Drew Steckenrider and Tayron Guerrero, but all three have the stuff to close. Junichi Tazawa has experience and plenty of strikeouts, but he's also had huge problems with walks and homers. He's got a long way to go before he would be the guy.
Who's the closer?Jeurys Familia
How is it working out? Better than anyone could have anticipated. Remember when the Mets hedged their bets and indicated they might go with a closer-by-committee approach? It's always wise to be skeptical of such pronouncements, but Familia has made it moot anyway. He's dominated, with nine saves and 17 K's in 13 innings.
How secure is he? Probably pretty safe, but a couple of recent wobbles have been a bit concerning. If it's just a bad week, and that happens, Familia is just fine. If it's the start of a longer slump, maybe a different answer. Still, if Familia is truly back to being the pitcher he was three years ago, that's an elite closer. Right now, he looks a little more like the 2016 version than '15, given a bit of a high walk rate, but even that is a guy you ride for as long as you can. Familia has 115 big league saves; they're not looking to dislodge him if he keeps getting the job done.
Who's next in line? Funny you should ask, and you may sense a bit of a trend here as we go along. As in Washington (see below), the presumed alternative hasn't really stated his case very forcefully. AJ Ramos has allowed a mere two hits, but he's walked more batters than he's struck out, and that's not great. Robert Gsellman has been brilliant, but it's extremely tough to envision him being removed from his Swiss Army Knife role.
Who's the closer?Sean Doolittle
How is it working out? Mercy. Doolittle has been absolutely dominant. He's had at least one strikeout in each of his 10 appearances, and at least two strikeouts in eight of them. He has yet to blow a save. The Nats have had some issues in the middle innings, but when they can get a lead to Doolittle, they're golden.
How secure is he? Quite. It's not like it's impossible that the Nationals could make a change, but they acquired Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler all at around the same time, and then made the clear choice that Doolittle was the guy. That was under previous manager Dusty Baker, but there's no indication they've reconsidered.
Who's next in line? Well, that's part of the issue. One option, Kintzler, has had trouble finding the strike zone. Another, Madson, has been awfully hittable. So even if Doolittle were to have a rough go of it, it's hard to imagine the Nats having a lot of confidence in whomever they'd choose to replace him. It's definitely safe to figure that Davey Martinez is thinking much more about the sixth, seventh and eighth innings these days than the ninth.
Who's the closer?Hector Neris
How is it working out? The overall numbers only look so-so. Don't believe them. Neris had a rough first outing, but since then, he's been nails. Over his next eight appearances, he looked just like the guy who was so good in 2016-17. Neris is not otherworldly dominant, but he's very good, and he doesn't hurt himself with a lot of walks or homers.
How secure is he? Not bet-the-house secure, but pretty safe. But this answer is definitely connected to the next one, so read on. If Neris pitches well, he's fine -- and he's converted 25 of his past 26 chances, going back to last year. But if he struggles, it may depend on what the alternatives are.
Who's next in line? That may be changing. If you'd asked a week or so ago, the answer likely would've been Luis Garcia, who's picked up the occasional save here and there over the past three seasons. But you'd have to think that Tommy Hunter, fresh off the DL, will have the chance to pitch his way into the opportunity. Once he's fully up and rolling, the leash might be a little shorter.