Fantasy Baseball Closer Report: Opening Day
Opening Day is finally here, so it’s time to squeeze in one more Closer Report before the games begin to count. Many of the league’s late-inning situations remain as clear as mud, further evidence that many managers feel no need to name a closer in this analytics-driven age. The conventional wisdom continues to be that the vast majority of teams will eventually settle on a designated closer, but last season put the first serious cracks in that theory. This year, we can probably expect to see at least a handful of teams mix and match in the ninth inning for the entire season.
We did get some clarity in Arizona, where D-backs manager Torey Lovullo named Greg Holland as his closer over Archie Bradley and Yoshihisa Hirano. But the most noteworthy change in our closer calculus during spring training involves Milwaukee, where Corey Knebel’s‘status remains completely up in the air after getting shut down due to longstanding UCL damage in his pitching elbow. Surgery is very possible, and a lengthy absence is essentially guaranteed.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though, Knebel owners. Did I mention Opening Day is right around the corner?
|Team (Closer)||Current Rank||Previous Rank||+/-|
|Mets (Edwin Diaz)||1||1||–|
|A’s (Blake Treinen)||2||2||–|
|Yankees (Aroldis Chapman)||3||4||+1|
|Dodgers (Kenley Jansen)||4||6||+2|
|Indians (Brad Hand)||5||3||-2|
|Astros (Roberto Osuna)||6||5||-1|
|Brewers (Josh Hader)||7||12||+5|
|Padres (Kirby Yates)||8||8||–|
|Pirates (Felipe Vazquez)||9||7||-2|
|Rangers (Jose Leclerc)||10||10||–|
|Reds (Raisel Iglesias)||11||9||-2|
|Nationals (Sean Doolittle)||12||11||-1|
|Cubs (Pedro Strop)||13||13||–|
|Giants (Will Smith)||16||23||+7|
|Red Sox (Committee)||17||21||+4|
|Angels (Cody Allen)||18||16||-2|
|Mariners (Hunter Strickland)||19||22||+3|
|Rockies (Wade Davis)||20||18||-2|
|Blue Jays (Ken Giles)||21||17||-4|
|Braves (Arodys Vizcaino)||22||20||-2|
|White Sox (Alex Colome)||23||19||-4|
|Diamondbacks (Greg Holland)||25||25||–|
|Tigers (Shane Greene)||28||28||–|
|Orioles (Mychal Givens)||29||29||–|
Knebel was rising up draft boards following the news that Jeremy Jeffress would begin the season on the injured list with shoulder soreness, but that all went up in smoke when we learned that Knebel himself is dealing with a more serious elbow injury. Brewers manager Craig Counsell has been reluctant to use Josh Hader as his closer in the past, but he may have no choice as long as both Knebel and Jeffress are on the shelf.
Hader was already a very valuable reliever in innings-capped roto leagues thanks to his elite ratios and strikeout rate, and he could easily be the number one overall closer if used in that capacity for the entire season. The more likely scenario, however, may be Hader closing in April and a returning Jeffress assuming the role, allowing Counsell to deploy Hader in a more flexible multi-inning capacity. Jeffress was lights out in the ninth inning last year, so he’s well worth stashing while he’s on the mend. Knebel shouldn’t be dropped until we receive word on his recovery plan, but it’s hard to be optimistic at this point.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants have yet to officially name a closer. If they’re interested in winning baseball games, you’d have to think it will be Will Smith, who was excellent in the role last season. Mark Melancon may get a save chance or two early in the season, but he’s a poor bet to stay healthy or be effective when on the mound. Even if he has to share the closer job, Smith is well worth rostering in most leagues for his strong strikeout rate and ratios.
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox are another team that has declined to name a set closer ahead of Opening Day, but Matt Barnes was widely considered the favorite heading into spring training and nothing has really changed on that front. Barnes had the fourth-best strikeout rate of all pitchers who threw at least 60 innings last season, and he has obvious top-10 closer potential on a Boston team that should win lots of ballgames.
The only reason Barnes isn’t higher up in the rankings is that Ryan Brasier is also a good pitcher who is more than capable of handling the ninth inning. While Brasier was slowed by an infected toe this spring, he looks like he is ready to go for Opening Day. His 7.75 K/9 rate last season wasn’t great, but his other numbers were excellent and his 15.8 percent swinging-strike rate suggests more strikeouts could be on the way this year.
Toronto Blue Jays
Ken Giles was a little shaky this spring, but his move down the rankings is more a function of wanting to make room for high-end relievers in San Francisco and Boston and upgrading the saves outlook for Arodys Vizcaino and Hunter Strickland. Giles is still firmly in the class of relievers like Cody Allen and Wade Davis who have a fair amount of job security, but less certainty in terms of the ratios they will provide.
Chicago White Sox
It may seem odd that Alex Colome dropped down the rankings after being named closer, but I was already operating under the assumption that he would begin the season in that role. Like Giles, he is making way for some other relievers who are better bets to put up strong ratios along with their saves. Colome is also a likely mid-season trade candidate, which puts a bit of a damper on his season-long value.
I was already assuming that Hunter Strickland would serve as the Mariners’ closer, but it’s nice to have some confirmation. After picking up saves in both of Seattle’s victories over the A’s in Japan, it’s safe to say this isn’t a committee situation despite Mariners skipper Scott Servais declining to name Strickland his closer ahead of the season. Strickland could be traded at some point in 2019 but he should put up solid numbers for however long he handles the ninth inning in the Emerald City.
As the right-handed pitcher in Atlanta’s two-man closer committee, Vizcaino was already the favorite to lead the Braves in saves. But his outlook gets a slight boost with A.J. Minter still working his way back from shoulder soreness. While Minter isn’t expected to miss much time, a setback is always possible. So is Vizcaino taking the job and running with it while Minter is out. To be clear, a committee is still the most likely outcome in the long run, but Vizcaino at least has the job to himself for now.
It’s not ideal for fantasy purposes, but Holland is now clearly the guy to own for saves in Arizona. He can be slotted into the group of relievers who have questionable skills but sole possession of the ninth inning. Holland was excellent for the Nationals down the stretch last year, but he was previously awful for St. Louis earlier in the season. There’s a lot of different ways this could go. Bradley and Hirano aren’t terrible players to hold in case Holland quickly implodes, but neither is likely to put up strong enough strikeout rates and/or ratios to be of much use if they aren’t collecting saves.
New Twins manager Rocco Baldelli has indicated that he will play matchups in the ninth inning, predicting that both Trevor May and Blake Parker “will accumulate some saves this year.” Taylor Rogers and Trevor Hildenberger will occasionally close out games as well. May and Parker were both worth rostering in saves-hungry leagues while we wait to see how things play out, but this is a team that may not have a set closer all year.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals appear set to join the growing list of teams that will mix and match in the ninth inning, deploying right-hander Jordan Hicks and left-hander Andrew Miller to close out games depending on the matchup. Hicks, who impressed in spring training with his blazing fastball, is a legitimate breakout candidate even if he’s only getting some of the team’s save chances. Miller, meanwhile, has proven year after year that he can produce plenty of fantasy value without being his team’s primary closer. Both are worth rostering in just about all fantasy leagues.
Tampa Bay Rays
The innovative franchise that invented the “opener” strategy last season was always one of the least likely teams to name a designated closer, so hopefully those who drafted Jose Alvarado or anyone else in this bullpen knew what they were getting into. Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reported that Alvarado “will work many of the highest leverage situations” and share closing duties with Diego Castillo, Ryne Stanek, Chaz Roe, and perhaps others. FanGraphs’ Mike Podhorzer made a pretty good case that the right-handed Castillo could sneakily nab more saves than the left-handed Alvarado, but time will tell.