Earlier this offseason, it appeared as if Jose Leclerc might get traded rather than be a part of a rebuilding Rangers squad. Then new manager Chris Woodward was reportedly thinking of using his incumbent closer in a variety of relief roles. Now we know that Leclerc isn’t going anywhere — not to another team and not to another role — as Woodward named him as the team’s closer.
If the Rangers fall out of contention as expected, teams will certainly be calling about Leclerc. Also, while Leclerc was one of the best relievers in the majors last season, he is only two years removed from an astronomical 20.0 percent walk rate. As great as Leclerc was in 2018, it is still worth our while to venture out further into the bullpen to see who might have value in 2019.
The good: Leclerc possesses the enviable skill combination of missing bats and limiting hard contact at elite rates. Over the last two seasons, he has held opponents to a 25.1 percent hard contact rate. According to xStats, Leclerc’s popup rates in both 2017 and 2018 were just shy of double the major league average. While he has overachieved with a .208 BABIP over that span, his xBABIPs for the last two years were a tidy .223 and .246.
The bad: Even with last season’s improvements, Leclerc is still wild, and he is flyball-prone to boot. Craig Kimbrel has a similar skill profile, and it has clearly worked for him. It’s unlikely that walks and home runs will be a large enough problem to hurt Leclerc (especially given how many of his flyballs have been popups), but there is some potential for them to be hazards. It’s more likely that Leclerc will lose value as a result of getting traded midseason to a team that moves him back into a setup role.
The outlook: If we were drafting Leclerc based on skills alone, he would need to be one of the top six relievers off the board. Because he is on a rebuilding team, the threat of him getting traded is real, and accordingly, he is being drafted in NFBC leagues just outside the top 10. Through no fault of his own, Leclerc needs to be discounted by at least this much.
The good: The newest member of the Rangers’ bullpen has a long history of superb control and above-average O-Swing% rates, and his recent popup rates rival those of Leclerc. Even if he doesn’t improve much on his pedestrian strikeout rates of the last two seasons, Kelley is poised to help with WHIP. He also has plenty of experience in high-leverage situations, so at worst, he should pick up plenty of holds.
The bad: Kelley has been injury-prone for much of his career, and he has been limited to 75 innings over the last two seasons. Perhaps with better health he can rebound this season, but in 2018, his SwStr% fell to 10.8 percent, which was his lowest mark since 2011. Kelley was once a decent source of strikeouts, but those days could be behind him.
The outlook: Kelley has the most closing experience of any of the Rangers’ setup relievers, so it’s tempting to think of him as the obvious choice to succeed Leclerc, should that become necessary. However, if Kelley is good enough to be worthy of closing, he probably won’t be sticking around Arlington much past the July 31 trade deadline. He should only be a target in holds leagues.
The good: Chavez is coming off his best season, at least as measured by ERA (2.55), xFIP (3.41) and SIERA (3.15). It was also his best year in terms of getting chases on out-of-zone pitches, which in turn enabled Chavez to establish a career-low 4.5 percent walk rate and 1.06 WHIP. The sheer bulk of his 95.1 innings helped Chavez to finish 16th in reliever strikeouts and 21st in reliever Roto value.
The bad: If not for an 88.2 percent strand rate, Chavez would have had a merely decent ERA (as indicated by his xFIP and SIERA) and far less fantasy value. As someone who has long been average as a strikeout pitcher, he relies heavily on a high inning count to maintain value.
The outlook: Chavez did get some closing experience with the Cubs late last season, and he fared well, so he could be considered a dark horse for saves. More likely, Chavez will have some value in deeper leagues as a result of racking up enough innings to make his strikeouts and ratios matter.
The good: Martin does not stand out as a strikeout pitcher or ground ball specialist, but he issued only three unintentional walks in 41.2 innings. His skill profile is not typical of that of a closer, but former manager Jeff Banister put him on a path commonly tread by closers-in-waiting, giving him plenty of high-leverage assignments. Martin tied for second on the team with 14 holds.
The bad: His low walk rate was all for naught, at least as far as his WHIP was concerned. A 27.5 percent line drive rate inflated his BABIP (.323), which left him with a 1.22 WHIP. Normally, a high line drive rate is not a major concern, but he also posted a 27.0 percent rate in his previous major league season with the Yankees. That was four years ago and over just 20.2 innings, but it suggests that regression towards a lower WHIP is far from inevitable.
The outlook: While Martin may have been on the “future closer” path last year, he is outmatched by Kelley and Chavez in terms of skill set. Unless he can induce more whiffs or keep batters from squaring up, he may curse last season’s missed opportunity to move up in the pecking order. I don’t see him having much fantasy value this year, even in holds leagues.
The good: The 23-year-old lefty hit triple digits with his fastball last season in the minors and has averaged at least a strikeout per inning at each level he has played in the Rangers’ organization. He has notched 13 saves in each of his last two minor league seasons, perhaps indicating that the Rangers view him as a future closer.
The bad: Between Advanced Class A and Double-A last season, Pelham issued 26 walks in 46.2 innings. Also, should he make the Rangers’ roster this season, Woodward may want to use him as a lefty specialist, as there could be a dearth of other options.
The outlook: Pelham skipped over Triple-A when he got the call to join the Rangers last September, but he could probably use some time at that level to work on reducing walks. He is a long shot for saves, but if Leclerc, Kelley and Chavez get shipped elsewhere, he would be a potential option.
Do you expect Leclerc to close out games all season long? Or is there a successor waiting in the wings who I missed here? Let us know in the comments!
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.