Closer Outlook: Team by Team (2019 Fantasy Baseball)
It’s no secret that it’s been a painfully slow offseason for baseball’s free-agent market. While Bryce Harper and Manny Machado have drawn most of the media attention, the best closer of the last decade is also still looking for a home.
Craig Kimbrel will likely remain an elite closer wherever he winds up, but it will be fascinating to see whether he goes to a team with an uncertain closing situation or displaces a fairly established ninth-inning man. Bud Norris, Ryan Madson, Santiago Casilla, and A.J. Ramos are some of the other remaining free agents who could work their way into 2019 save opportunities depending on where they land.
All in all, more than half of MLB’s teams (a portion that feels unusually large) have uncertain closing situations at the onset of spring training. Perhaps it is due to the gradual devaluing of established save men as analytics have increasingly overtaken more traditional thinking in the sport. Whatever the case may be, there is plenty of work ahead for save chasers — and that’s before the real games even begin!
What follows is a snapshot of where we stand in late February. Some of these situations will no doubt change between now and Opening Day, but the aim here is to get a sense of the closer landscape and determine which teams to put under a microscope during spring training.
Archie Bradley looked like the overwhelming favorite to close in the desert, but the situation became considerably cloudier when the Diamondbacks signed Greg Holland in January. Manager Torey Lovullo now expects to have “a nice little competition” for the job. Beat writer Steve Gilbert views Bradley and Holland as the two front-runners, but adds that Yoshihisa Hirano and Yoan Lopez are “dark-horse candidates.”
The fantasy community sometimes gets ahead of itself by expecting the most exciting arm to seize the ninth inning — that would be Bradley — but all too often, we’ve seen managers give the job to veteran closers rather than the best pitcher in the bullpen. In fact, that’s exactly what Luvullo did last year when he handed the job to Bradley Boxberger rather than Bradley or Hirano.
Holland was flat-out awful with St. Louis, but he was much better upon arriving in Washington in August. Still, it’s now been three years since his last dominant season, so if he does win the role you have to expect an ERA around 4.00 and accept some risk that he eventually loses the job.
Bradley’s ERA ballooned to 3.64 last season, but his xFIP and SIERA suggest he was pretty much the same pitcher as he was in 2017. He just stranded fewer baserunners and surrendered more home runs. Although unlikely to be nearly as dominant as he was in 2017, he should certainly be better than Holland.
Braves manager Brian Snitker recently suggested that the team “could do a little bit of what we did last year when we went with matchups in the eighth and ninth [innings],” which means that both right-hander Arodys Vizcaino and left-hander A.J. Minter could see plenty of save opportunities in 2019.
Most major league hitters are right-handed, so Vizcaino is the favorite to again lead Atlanta in saves when all is said and done. His walk rate is higher than you’d like, but he’s outperformed his peripherals for most of his career, so it wouldn’t be shocking if he managed another sub-3.00 ERA. It’s generally the same story with Minter. Both Atlanta relievers miss enough bats to roster in many formats even if neither serves as the exclusive closer.
The one wild card in this equation is Kimbrel. Beat writer Mark Bowman considers it a “slim possibility” that Kimbrel returns to Atlanta, but if it were to happen, he would push both Vizcaino and Minter into set-up roles.
Mychal Givens served as the Orioles’ closer down the stretch last season, and he is the favorite for saves in 2019. But new Baltimore skipper Brandon Hyde does not appear intent on naming Givens the team’s exclusive closer, preferring instead to maintain the flexibility to deploy Givens in “high-leverage situations,” whether they occur in the seventh, eighth, or ninth inning.
Givens has shown strong bat-missing ability in the past, but his strikeout rate noticeably declined to barely a batter-per-inning last season. His walk rate has fluctuated wildly from year to year but has generally been fairly high. Between his uncertain role and the rebuilding Orioles’ likely struggles, he may not see all that many save opportunities.
Givens is the only Baltimore reliever worth drafting in the vast majority of fantasy leagues, but he will probably need to put up solid ratios in order to be of much use in standard mixed leagues.
Boston Red Sox
Red Sox chairman Tom Werner says it is “extremely unlikely” that the team will re-sign Kimbrel, but it remains to be seen whether that is posturing for contract negotiations or if Boston is truly ready to move ahead with its current bullpen corps.
If Kimbrel does not return, beat writer Chris Cotillo believes Matt Barnes is the team’s “top reliever” and “the favorite to be named closer (or at least pitch in high-leverage situations if the team opts not to name a closer).” Ryan Brasier is the other main contender for ninth-inning duties, with Heath Hembree likely third in line.
Barnes is coming off an impressive 2018 campaign in which his 14.01 K/9 was fourth-highest among all pitchers who threw at least 60 innings. His struggles with command (3.85 career BB/9) should keep his ERA north of 3.00 and WHIP above 1.20, but he can still be a pretty significant mixed-league asset if he’s earning most of the team’s saves. The same applies to Brasier, who won’t strike out as many batters as Barnes but won’t walk as many either. Both are worth rostering in most mixed leagues, even if manager Alex Cora opts to name one of them the sole closer entering the season.
Hembree is another pitcher with a lot of strikeout potential, but he’s unlikely to put up an elite ERA or WHIP. He’s more of a deep-league name to file away unless/until he becomes a more plausible candidate for saves.
The Cubs are another team that has been linked to Kimbrel, but the far more likely scenario is Pedro Strop serving as the team’s closer, at least until Brandon Morrow returns from an elbow injury. With a 2.61 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, and 10.1 K/9 over the last five seasons, Strop has proven to be a fantasy asset in many formats even when he isn’t closing games. He could well be a top-10 closer for however long he’s allowed to handle the job.
Managers generally tend to stick with a closer when he gets the job done, so Strop would seemingly have a good chance to hold onto the role all year. Joe Maddon, however, is always a tough nut to crack when it comes to guessing how he’ll utilize his players. Morrow was very good himself last season and will earn $9 million this year, so it’s certainly possible he regains the closer job even if Strop is pitching well.
That uncertainty puts a bit of a damper on Strop’s draft stock, but he is still a solid selection in the middle rounds of drafts. Morrow is a smart DL stash.
Chicago White Sox
In a sign they are looking to compete in 2019, the White Sox acquired two established closing options, Alex Colome and Kelvin Herrera. Although Colome is reportedly the favorite to see most of the saves chances, Herrera and holdover Nate Jones could also factor into the ninth inning at times.
Colome isn’t quite the dominant pitcher he appeared to be back in 2016, but he got his strikeout rate back over a batter per inning last season and is another pitcher who has tended to slightly outperform his peripherals. Perhaps most importantly, he’s shown he can handle the ninth inning. It’s not a lock that he’ll run away with the job or hold it all season, but he could be a sneaky source of saves with serviceable ratios.
Herrera has also proven to be a capable closer, but as a subpar strikeout pitcher, he’ll need to earn a decent chunk of the save opportunities in order to insert into your active lineup.
New Reds manager David Bell has indicated that Raisel Iglesias is “going to pitch in the most important spots in the game,” whether it is the ninth inning or earlier. Bell added that “[a] lot of times it’s going to be in that closing role.”
In actuality, that may not be much of a change from past seasons for Iglesias, who has entered in the eighth inning in 43 of his 129 appearances (33 percent) over the last two seasons. He didn’t amass more than 30 saves either year, but still finished as a top-12 reliever in standard 5×5 rotisserie leagues both times thanks to strong ratios.
The projection systems expect a bit of regression in Iglesias’ ERA and WHIP this season, but he could also see more save opportunities for the improving Reds. He’s a solid bet to provide strong fantasy value again this year despite his manager’s comments.
The Indians let Andrew Miller and Cody Allen walk in free agency, clearing the path for Brad Hand to serve as the team’s clear-cut closer this season. At age 28, Hand has put together three straight seasons with an ERA under 3.00 and a WHIP of 1.11 or better, and his already impressive K/9 rate grew to 13.25 last season.
Hand didn’t experience any drop-off after moving from San Diego to Cleveland, and with little in the way of competition, he is fully capable of being one of the very best closers in fantasy baseball this year.
Wade Davis was shaky at times in his first season in Colorado, but he led the National League with 43 saves, and a strong 10.74 K/9 and 1.06 WHIP offset his bloated 4.13 ERA. Expect his ERA and WHIP to move closer to his career marks of 3.50 and 1.25, respectively, though each may be a bit higher because of the Coors Field effect.
The amount of money the Rockies doled out to Davis, Bryan Shaw, and Jake McGee last offseason ensured they couldn’t afford to keep their best reliever, Adam Ottavino, who signed with the Yankees. Barring a total collapse, Davis should have plenty of job security and again be a top-20 fantasy closer.
Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire has made clear that Shane Greene will again close in 2019 despite struggling to the tune of a 5.12 ERA and 1.37 WHIP last season. Even though he collected 32 saves, those numbers made Greene a net negative in standard 5×5 roto leagues.
Greene’s peripherals suggest he shouldn’t be quite so bad in 2019 — particularly if he can keep his walk rate down — but this is a pitcher who has posted an ERA over 5.00 in three of his five big league seasons. Like all firmly-entrenched closers, he should be drafted in leagues where the saves chase is fierce, with the hope that he’ll get improved results. But the Tigers are going to struggle to win games, so it is quite possible Greene once again does more harm than good for his fantasy owners.
Astros manager A.J. Hinch has affirmed that Roberto Osuna will again serve as the team’s closer, a role he inherited last year upon returning from a 75-game suspension and getting traded from the Blue Jays.
Osuna was a dominant closer from 2015-2017, but his K/9 rate alarmingly fell to 7.58 between Toronto and Houston last year. The good news is that he maintained an above-average 14.7 percent swinging-strike rate, indicating that he should return to striking out over a batter per inning while maintaining elite control.
Save opportunities should also be plentiful on the World Series-contending Astros, so it makes sense for Osuna to get drafted as one of the first 10, if not five, closers off the board. If Osuna falters, the Astros have a wealth of other options (Hector Rondon, Ryan Pressly, Will Harris, Chris Devenski, Brad Peacock), but none of them need to be owned outside of leagues where non-closing relievers have ample value.
Kansas City Royals
Wily Peralta had some modest success in Kansas City’s closer role last season despite an unseemly 6.03 BB/9 rate, but the Royals have since brought in another capable closer in Boxberger. Now Royals manager Ned Yost is indicating that he will move away from using a single closer as he’s done in the past. Instead, he will let the situation dictate how he uses his bullpen. It is unclear whether Yost views Peralta or Boxberger as his default ninth-inning option, or whether he’ll occasionally slot left-hander Tim Hill into save situations against lefty-heavy lineups.
The Royals are unlikely to win many games in 2019, and frankly, none of these pitchers are good enough to warrant using if they aren’t generating saves. It is worth taking a stab on Boxberger and/or Peralta late in drafts to see what happens, but it’s entirely possible that neither is of much use in roto/categories formats, let alone points leagues.
Los Angeles Angels
Allen’s last year in Cleveland turned out to be his worst, but that didn’t stop the Angels from signing him as their new ninth-inning man. Allen’s strikeout rate fell of a bit last season, but the bigger concerns were his ballooning walk rate, declining velocity, and the high amount of hard contact allowed.
Allen has plenty of job security and should be a serviceable closer on an above-average team, but it would be unwise to expect a return to a sub-3.00 ERA, sub-1.20 WHIP, or 12+ K/9. He’s a mid-tier closing option for 2019.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Kenley Jansen‘s numbers declined across the board last season, as he posted the lowest K/9 rate (10.3) and highest ERA (3.01) of his career. And yet he still finished as the seventh-best reliever in standard rotisserie leagues.
Jansen has pronounced himself “ready to roll” following his second heart procedure in November, and while players are known for being overly optimistic about their health, there isn’t much reason to view Jansen as a major risk to miss time. The projection systems generally expect last year’s numbers to be Jansen’s new normal, so he could be overvalued if fantasy owners anticipate the Jansen of old. But last year’s numbers were still plenty good, and he should still be regarded as a reliable top-10 closer for 2019.
After trading Brad Ziegler and Kyle Barraclough last year, the rebuilding Marlins head into 2019 with Drew Steckenrider, Sergio Romo, and Adam Conley as the leading candidates to earn saves. Manager Don Mattingly says he doesn’t believe the team has one reliever who “would profile as the guy” to close, so we can expect him to mix and match when Miami has a lead in the ninth inning.
Given the uncertain situation on what’s likely to be a bad team, none of the Marlins’ relievers are must-draft players. Steckenrider is probably the best of the bunch.
All three relievers have dominant stuff and a proven ability to succeed in the ninth inning, but it remains to be seen whether manager Craig Counsell will deploy any of them as the regular closer following last season’s success with a committee approach. If I had to guess, I’d bet that all three see plenty of save chances, with Knebel serving as the head of the committee.
The good news for fantasy owners is that all three can help enough in other areas (Ks, ERA, WHIP) to roster in many formats even if they aren’t closing games. If you’re skeptical, consider this: Hader and Jeffress finished as the third and fourth most-valuable relievers in standard 5×5 roto leagues last season — trailing only Blake Treinen and Edwin Diaz — despite each posting 15 or fewer saves.
This is a messy situation for saves chasers. Trevor May and Taylor Rogers acquitted themselves well as part of the Twins’ closer committee following the Fernando Rodney trade, but Trevor Hildenberger ended up with the most saves. Then the Twins went out and signed Blake Parker, who saved 11 games for the Angels last season.
Twins beat writer Phil Miller considers all four of those guys — plus former closer Addison Reed and hard-thrower Fernando Romero — as legitimate candidates for saves, adding that the analytics-driven Twins may not have a traditional closer in the first place. May and Parker would seemingly be the two favorites for the bulk of the opportunities. But it’s also possible that Rogers, as the only left-hander, could come out on top if the team plays matchups in the ninth inning.
In the end, it doesn’t hurt to take a stab at your favorite Twins reliever in fantasy drafts, but none are worth a heavy investment unless we get some more clarity on the situation in spring training.
New York Mets
The Mets acquired Diaz to serve as their new closer, and he should be one of the first two closers off the board in all fantasy leagues following his dominant 2018 in Seattle.
It is exceedingly difficult to envision Diaz losing the job for performance reasons, but should he succumb to an injury, the Mets brought former closer Jeurys Familia back as insurance.
New York Yankees
Aroldis Chapman was his typical dominant self last season and enters 2019 as the clear closer in the Bronx. This shapes up as arguably the best bullpen in baseball, however, so the Yankees will have no shortage of potential replacements should Chapman struggle or get hurt.
Among the possible fill-ins are Dellin Betances and Ottavino, who are both worth owning in all leagues where non-closing relievers are rostered after putting up elite enough strikeouts and ratios.
Treinen was simply phenomenal for Oakland last season, and he enters 2019 neck-and-neck with Diaz for the title of fantasy’s number one closer. Should anything happen to Treinen, newly signed set-up man Joakim Soria would likely step into the role.
Phillies manager Gabe Kapler refused to commit to a single closer in 2018, and Phillies beat writer Todd Zolecki expects that to be the case again in 2019, even after Philadelphia spent $23 million this offseason to bring in David Robertson on a two-year contract.
Seranthony Dominguez led the Phillies in saves last year and also happened to be the team’s best reliever, posting a strong 2.95 ERA and 0.93 WHIP. Robertson and Dominguez are the two logical candidates to share the closer’s role, but further late-inning shenanigans simply can’t be ruled out from Kapler. Zolecki even floated the name of Hector Neris, who started 2018 as the closer but pitched so badly that he didn’t earn a single save after June.
Felipe Vazquez‘s surface numbers weren’t quite as dominant last year as they were in 2017, but his FIP and xFIP were nearly identical, and his overall numbers as the Pirates’ closer were still quite good. He should have plenty of job security after signing a four-year contract extension last year and is easily a top-10 fantasy closer this season. Keone Kela is likely next in line, but he isn’t a must-own player.
San Diego Padres
Kirby Yates took over as the Padres’ closer following the Hand trade last July, and the team didn’t skip a beat. Yates finished with an impressive 2.14 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and 12.86 K/9, so he should return as the unquestioned 2019 closer barring a surprise acquisition.
Yates’ fantasy value also gets a bit of a boost from the Padres signing Machado, as it decreases the likelihood of Yates getting dealt to a contender at the trade deadline. Should he be traded, Craig Stammen appears to be next up on the depth chart.
San Francisco Giants
Mark Melancon and Will Smith will reportedly enter spring training as the top two candidates to serve as the Giants’ closer in 2019. While Smith has clearly done far more to deserve the job, the Giants’ desire to save face on Melancon’s bloated $62 million contract may make him the slight favorite.
After posting a strong 2.55 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in the role last season, Smith could be a good fantasy closer despite their low expected win total. If the job goes to Melancon, on the other hand, he would certainly be worth owning in the hopes of rediscovering his past form. Yet the chances of him blowing up your ERA and/or WHIP would be significant.
The Mariners are in the midst of a complete rebuild, but one under-the-radar move they made this offseason was signing Hunter Strickland away from the Giants on a one-year deal.
Strickland took a step backward last year while also suffering a broken hand, but he posted some solid numbers the previous three years. Mariners manager Scott Servais has indicated that the team may not have a “set closer,” but Seattle may have an incentive to settle on Strickland as the closer to inflate his trade value, a la the White Sox and Soria last year. As such, Strickland could be a decent late-round option for saves, even though the chance he’s eventually traded to a contender is fairly high.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals acquired Miller this offseason, but they appear unlikely to use him exclusively in the ninth inning. That makes Jordan Hicks an intriguing candidate to amass some saves, with Alex Reyes and (currently injured) Carlos Martinez also potentially getting into the mix.
All four of the above names have all kinds of upside if they’re able to take the closer job and run with it, so it will be worth watching this situation closely in spring training. Miller is the kind of dominant reliever who belongs on fantasy rosters in many leagues even if he isn’t closing, while Reyes and/or Martinez could wind up being valuable starters.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays appear to be in no hurry to name a closer, and they may not assign the job to a single pitcher. But the early frontrunner should be Jose Alvarado, who earned eight handshakes last year while posting helpful ratios. Diego Castillo and Chaz Roe are also coming off solid seasons and could factor into the closer committee. It will be worth closely watching spring training reports to get a feel for which if any of these pitchers are worth a draft-day investment.
Jose Leclerc emerged from relative obscurity in 2018 to become a dominant closer, producing a 1.56 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, and 13.27 K/9. That performance clearly impressed manager Chris Woodward, who has left no doubt that Leclerc will be the Rangers’ closer again in 2019. He could be one of the better fantasy closers in the league even if Texas doesn’t win a ton of games.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays took on Ken Giles in the Osuna trade last year. Although Giles’ 2018 stats don’t look pretty at first glance, his underlying numbers — including a terrific 53-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio — weren’t too bad. Giles actually makes for a decent bounce-back candidate and potential draft-day value if your leaguemates are scared off by last year’s 4.65 ERA.
Ryan Tepera will likely enter the season next in line for saves in Toronto’s bullpen. He could again be a serviceable closer if Giles gets traded, hurt, or simply isn’t any good.
Sean Doolittle is firmly established as the Nationals’ closer heading into 2019, and he’s proven an elite one when healthy. Unfortunately, injuries have been a frequent concern for Doolittle, which helps explain why the Nationals acquired two other relievers with closing experience in Trever Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough.
Nationals manager Dave Martinez recently stated that Rosenthal would get some save opportunities this season, which suggests he is next in line for the closer role should something happen to Doolittle.