As a fantasy community, we liked Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel a lot more than all of the other projected closers on draft day this year. Jansen and Kimbrel lapped the field of relievers in Roto value (per ESPN’s Player Rater) in 2017, and owners typically rewarded them with one of the first 50 overall picks. Aroldis Chapman, Corey Knebel and the most popular of the remaining relievers had to wait a bit longer to get their names called (or clicked on).
In a reliever cohort largely characterized by uncertainty, Jansen and Kimbrel were the sure things, but they look a lot less reliable seven months later. Jansen lacked his usual pinpoint control and saw his strikeout rate plunge by nearly one-third. He also missed time due to an irregular heartbeat. Kimbrel’s control was downright abysmal (36.6 percent Zone%) and ground balls were scarce (28.2 percent rate), but he still escaped with 42 saves, a 2.74 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP. Though his overall results were perfectly good, rough patches at the start of the second half (six runs allowed on eight hits and five walks in 7.1 innings) and in the postseason show his potential vulnerability.
Kimbrel and Jansen were still good enough to rank third and fourth among relievers, respectively, in Roto value, but they were left in the dust by a new elite duo. Edwin Diaz and Blake Treinen supplanted them as the best-by-a-mile relievers, and it leaves us fantasy owners in an uncomfortable place. We could place our faith in Kimbrel and Jansen because they had been superb for a number of years. Now that they are in their thirties, it is not as clear they will continue to be. Meanwhile, Diaz and Treinen are new to this top-of-the-heap thing.
Even though Diaz’s impressive rookie season and dominant 2018 campaign sandwich a 2017 season that was more mixed, he will be worth the draft-day investment that owners made in Jansen earlier this year. In each of his three seasons, Diaz has a swinging strike rate of at least 16.0 percent, a Zone% of at least 45.0 percent and an O-Swing% exceeding 32.0 percent. Given that he has never had a problem with control or inducing chases, last year’s 11.5 percent walk rate looks like a fluke.
Treinen will be a little more difficult to trust with a top-60 pick. His .230 BABIP and 4.4 HR/FB are bound to regress, but that wouldn’t be a serious concern if we could be sure that he will sustain the dramatic improvements in his sinker’s SwStr% (from 6.5 percent in 2017 to 14.6 percent in 2018) and O-Swing% (from 31.3 to 41.7 percent). Treinen was legitimately dominant this year, but how can we know he wasn’t a one-hit wonder?
Just because we can’t reasonably expect relievers other than Diaz to be consistent, lock-down closers doesn’t mean there will be no reason to invest in them if you miss on out on the Mariners’ righty. There are 14 pitchers who finished 2018 as their team’s closer who look primed to be steady sources of saves in 2019. Beyond that, there are many relievers who could be helpful for saves or ratios who may not require much of an investment.
I have grouped them according to their likelihood of being reliable sources of saves next season.
These are the relievers who look all but certain to resume their role as closer on opening day: Diaz, Treinen, Jansen, Kimbrel, Chapman, Roberto Osuna, Ken Giles, Jose Leclerc, Raisel Iglesias, Wade Davis, Felipe Vazquez, Kirby Yates, Sean Doolittle, Brad Hand.
Beyond Diaz and possibly Treinen, I don’t see any reason to pursue any of these relievers in the early stages of the initial closer run. Based on reputation and prior track record, Jansen, Kimbrel and Chapman will still likely require a relatively early pick (all were in the top 100 in ADP in the recent 2 Early Mocks), but I would just as soon wait in order to target Doolittle, Leclerc, Davis or Giles (all had ADPs above 140 in the 2 Early Mocks). Kimbrel, for what it’s worth, is the only free agent in this group, and the only free agent who is a lock to be some team’s closer on opening day.
Probable Save Targets
These relievers spent at least some portion of 2018 as their team’s closer, and all are likely — but not certain — to be either their team’s primary closer or part of a closer committee in 2019: Brandon Morrow, Will Smith, Mychal Givens, Wily Peralta, Drew Steckenrider, Jeremy Jeffress, Knebel, A.J. Minter, Arodys Vizcaino, Shane Greene, Joe Jimenez, Seranthony Dominguez, Ty Buttrey, Blake Parker.
Either Jeffress or Knebel could be a top-tier closer if only we could be assured that they would have the role to themselves. Being fluid with bullpen roles worked for the Brewers this season, so there is no reason to think Craig Counsell will commit to a single closer next year. Buttrey emerged as an intriguing fantasy option in September, and it will be interesting to see if the Angels’ new manager will be as non-committal about his closers as Mike Scioscia had been.
Givens and Peralta would seem to be safe as their team’s closers, but the rebuilding Orioles and Royals could trade them midseason, if not during this offseason, so their appeal is more limited. The same may be said about Smith, depending on the direction that the Giants’ new general manager wants to take.
Free Agents with Saves Potential
These relievers, all of whom are either incumbent closers or have recent closing experience, will hit the market this offseason: Cody Allen, Kelvin Herrera, Jeurys Familia, Zach Britton, David Robertson, Greg Holland, Mark Melancon, Bud Norris, Andrew Miller, Sergio Romo, Brad Brach, Adam Ottavino.
None of these relievers is certain to close next season (thus, Kimbrel was not included in this group). Britton’s solid stint with the Yankees should bolster his appeal as a closer, and a change of scenery seemed to help Familia and Holland as well. Should Familia sign with a team that needs a closer and has a pitcher-friendly park, he could be a great late-round bargain. He struggled to induce grounders with his slider and four-seam fastball in 2018, but with an assist from Citi Field and Oakland Coliseum, Familia did not allow a home run at home all season long.
It was a bit of a stretch to include Ottavino on this list, given his very limited closing experience, but he was arguably the best reliever out of this group in 2018. He may be a better bet to close in 2019 than anyone here, including Britton, Familia and Holland.
Possible Saves Targets
This group consists of relievers who could get some saves in 2019, though none is currently poised to step into a closer’s role for opening day: Josh Hader, Jordan Hicks, Yoshihisa Hirano, Jose Alvarado, Pedro Strop, Nate Jones, Ryan Brasier, Taylor Rogers, Trevor Hildenberger, Joakim Soria, Anthony Swarzak, Robert Gsellman, Seth Lugo.
Hicks is probably the closest to being a closer-in-waiting out of this group, and we know that the Cardinals have a closer void, since they won’t be going with Carlos Martinez next year. Hader will almost certainly get some saves, but he has more value to the Brewers as a multiple-inning setup reliever. Even if he is out of the closer picture entirely, he will be worth targeting as one of the top 10 relievers on draft day. With just 12 saves, Hader ranked fifth in Roto value among relievers this season.
The Twins’ and Mets’ bullpen situations look particularly hard to read and could be impacted by offseason moves. Of their relievers listed here, Rogers has the most intriguing skill set. Soria’s situation for next year is uncertain, but if the Brewers don’t exercise his team option, he may stand a better chance of getting saves with another club.
These are the relievers who appear unlikely to be a part of any team’s closer situation, but all should have value — particularly for mixed leagues with 14 or more teams — even without saves: Ryan Pressly, Collin McHugh, Brad Peacock, Dellin Betances, Chad Green, Keone Kela, Reyes Moronta, Corbin Burnes, Jose Castillo, Matt Strahm.
I will write a piece dedicated to this class of relievers during the offseason. As roles for both starters and relievers become more fluid, highly-skilled pitchers such as these will be more valuable, even if we can’t necessarily count on them for wins or saves.
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.