Five Relievers Who Could Close in 2017

Relievers are having a moment. It’s been slowly building for a while, but this year might be the crescendo. Zach Britton foolishly being left out of the wildcard game paired with Cleveland’s excellent deployment of Andrew Miller seems to have ignited something of a reliever revolution. Their importance – especially in the playoffs – has never been questioned, but the prevalence of lockdown relievers throughout many bullpens has changed their value in fantasy leagues, too.

Saves still run the show, but many leagues have incorporated holds as a way of adding value to studly middle relievers and some are just so good that it doesn’t matter if they’re getting saves. Eight relievers logged 100+ strikeouts and only Kenley Jansen was a full-time closer. Seung Hwan Oh had 19, Ken Giles had 15, both Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller had 12, while Kyle Barraclough and Brad Hand combined for one (it was Hand’s).

Today, I have five high upside relievers who could be closing in 2017 or be so good that they’re useful enough without saves. They are listed in order of likeliness to close:

Adam Ottavino

OK, we’re cheating right out of the gate a little bit. Ottavino was just starting to close for Colorado when he was felled by Tommy John surgery in 2015 and he reassumed the role in September of this season after a couple months in a setup role. He finished with the role and will likely start with it again in 2017 while the others on this list will likely need to leapfrog a guy or three to get there.

His swinging strike rate has lived in the 11-13% range since 2012 and he’s fanned 34% of the batters faced over the last two seasons, albeit just 37.3 innings. He has mid-90s heat and a multi-slider that functions as three different pitches and has its own Twitter account.  He’s signed through 2018 so they don’t have to worry about saves jacking up his price in arbitration and who else is going to close for them, Charlie Sheen??


Bruce Rondon

A homegrown Tigers reliever with a chance at being good??? Holy cow. Known primarily as a fireballer with no clue of where it’s going, Rondon actually made big strides with his control in 2016. He trimmed his horrific walk rate to a palatable 8%, made even better by a career-best 31% strikeout rate. His first-pitch strike rate has jumped from 54% to 59% which is still below the 60% league average for relievers, but big for Rondon.

Perhaps most surprising about the control gains is that they didn’t show up until he reached the majors this year. He walked 16% of the batters he faced in 21.7 innings at Triple-A. The tradeoff for the lower walk total was an elevated home run rate (1.2), but even that got better as the season went along. He allowed four in his first 10 appearances spanning 11.3 innings (3.2), but then just one in his final 25 innings (0.4). Of course, when can get generate swings-and-misses like him, hits will be tough to come by.

Rondon’s 16% swinging strike rate was 12th-best among relievers (min. 30 IP) and he rode a minuscule .228 BABIP to just 5.7 hits per nine. That’s in line with the 5.8 H9 he carried through the low minors before his TJ surgery in 2014. He has averaged north of 100 at times, but settled in at 98 this year. Perhaps sacrificing a few ticks allowed him to command it more. Rondon started getting more setup opportunities in the eighth inning down the stretch and responded well. All told his eighth inning work yielded an 0.84 ERA with 13 strikeouts and just two walks in 10.7 IP.

Francisco Rodriguez has 2017 option that will likely be picked and if so, he will no doubt open the season with the closer’s role. He was pretty good throughout the year. In fact, he carried a 2.54 ERA through his first 59 appearances before a 5 ER meltdown against KC in a key late-September game ballooned his rate up to 3.24 for the year. Eight of his 21 earned runs came in two outings. I don’t say that to wash them away, but to show that his struggles were often isolated.

Rondon will start in a setup role, but he has the stuff to push 100 strikeouts especially if they’re open to more multi-inning outings (5 in 2013 and 2016) and it’s not like a 35-year old closer is the most stable of assets. Once-great closer love to fizzle out in Detroit, usually in some spectacularly heartbreaking fashion.


Mauricio Cabrera

Rondon passed 100 MPH fastball average baton to Cabrera, who turned heads with his 100.1 average heater that Brooks Baseball had maxing out at 104. When you throw that hard, your changeup ends up being 91 MPH on average! His changeup velocity was faster than the fastball of 31 qualified starters (min. 162 IP). I know he’s an easy punching bag for velocity jokes, but Cabrera’s curveball was faster – 84.1 MPH – than Jered Weaver’s fastball (44.2… OK, fine it was 83.0).

Unsurprisingly, Cabrera’s stuff lacks consistent command. He walked 12% of the batters he faced and only threw first pitch strikes 57% of the time. I feel that his having to work out of trouble in the count and with runners on base so often (1.30 WHIP) curbed his strikeouts despite his blazing heat and an above average 12% swinging strike rate. He had a 23% strikeout rate in the minors from 2014 through his Double-A work this past season (yes, he skipped Triple-A en route to the majors).

Cabrera might open the season third in line for saves behind Jim Johnson and Arodys Vizcaino. But Vizcaino has battled injuries throughout his career, including two DL stints last year so I could see Cabrera next-in-line behind Johnson in short order. Johnson really got himself back on track with Atlanta after a mid-2015 trade to the point where they signed him to a two-year extension.

Once he firmly grabbed the closer’s role in late-July, he reeled off a 1.48 ERA with 39 strikeouts and a 6.5 K:BB ratio in 30.3 IP plus 18-of-18 on saves. At that level, Cabrera doesn’t stand a chance to take the job from Johnson, but if they don’t progress as a team as they hope, then Johnson is a trade candidate which opens the door in the second half for Cabrera. I love him as a $1-2 guy in NL Only for now.


Carl Edwards Jr.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a flamethrowing reliever with command issues walks into a bar… Edwards proves that being tall and skinny is a way to get ahead in life as the lean righty belies his stature with a 95.2 MPH average fastball. It’s backed by a filthy 81 MPH curveball and our own Eno Sarris says the change has promise. Injuries were stalling Edwards’ progress as a starter despite quality results so the Cubs shifted him to the pen full time in 2015 and it’s been mostly good, save a persistent walk issue that finally improved a bit this year.

Of course, if a 10% BB rate is your improvement, you’ve still got work to do. Although the walks are a lot less problematic when you offset them with a 38% strikeout rate and a microscopic 3.8 hits per nine. His strikeout rate tied him with Craig Kimbrel for 6th among relievers (min. 30 IP) and his 18% swinging strike rate was also 6th. His .162 BABIP will no doubt go up, but his 60% LOB rate almost certainly will, too. Two disastrous outings in which he allowed 8 ER in just 1.7 innings accounted for 53% of his season earned runs in just 5% of his total innings.

He’s a longshot to close as I feel the Cubs will either re-sign Aroldis Chapman or be heavy after Kenley Jansen, but even if they didn’t then I think Hector Rondon would reassume the role or Pedro Strop would get a look. But who saw Edwin Diaz closing this year? Or Britton back in ’14?

Those are just two off the top of my head. Few positions are more available to longshots than closer so just keep Edwards in mind. Even in setup, he’s definitely a 100-K candidate over a full season. In fact, his 2016 rate paced to 99 in 69 nice innings.


Matt Strahm

The Royals are turning into a reliever factory at this point. They discover, rejuvenate, and rehab relief arms to maintain a consistent bridge to their lockdown closers. Strahm was a too-old-for-his-level starter whose numbers were mitigated that age factor when the Royals decided to move him to the bullpen in late-July at Double-A. After four appearances out of the pen, he made the jump to the majors and became an instant lefty asset for them.

He may be back starting again in 2017 so I just wanted to give him a quick mention in case he stays in or moves back to the pen at some point. As a reliever, he clocks mid-90s heat from the left side along with a multi-faceted curve (can be a mid-70s hammer or upper-70s slurve piece) and a mid-80s change. He used his off-speed 22% of the time and seems to have enough feel for the change to give him three reliable pitches should he find his way into the rotation.

Righties didn’t give him any trouble in his 22-inning MLB stint (.411 OPS in 62 PA) and even when he’s had platoon splits in the minors it’s been because he’s so good against lefties that it makes the vs. righty numbers look worse by comparison. Honestly, I’m intrigued by Strahm regardless of role, but since this is about relievers, I’ll point out that I don’t really see him closing barring some crazy stuff.

They have Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Joakim Soria and I have a feeling that they’ll re-sign Greg Holland, but since he’s started so recently, he could be the piece the Royals use to emulate some of what we’ve seen in the playoffs with multi-inning outings more often. Obviously you can’t ride a multi-inning RP every day like the playoffs, but he could be a 90+ inning reliever. Brad Hand led the league with 89.3 this year.

Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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I’d add to this list Kyle Barraclough, as well as anybody in the SF bullpen other than Casilla.

Ken Giles Right Hook
Ken Giles Right Hook

With Ramos and Capps in the picture?


Capps is a Padre now

Ken Giles Right Hook
Ken Giles Right Hook

Oh wow. Was he a part of the Cashner deal?