2020 Fantasy Baseball Closer Report: Early July
When I wrote my first preseason Closer Report of the year way back on March 11, I giddily relayed that we were just “T-minus 15 days until the games begin to count.” Then Covid-19 hit. A few days later, the whole world was turned upside down, and we still have a long way to go before we get anywhere close to “back to normal.”
It’s pretty bizarre to go back and read my own words because it’s such a stark reminder of how quickly everything changed. Thankfully, after months of reading about infection rates, hospitalizations, and ICUs — not to mention some ugly financial negotiations between MLB and the player’s union — we are finally going to get some baseball.
Of course, the absence of baseball pales in comparison to the hardships endured by many people, who have lost loved ones, lost their jobs, or had to put themselves at risk to do their jobs. Those folks deserve some relief even more than the rest of us, and hopefully, the return of our national pastime can provide a little bit of it, at least for some of them.
As for those of us who have been fortunate enough to avoid the worst of this pandemic, we’ve each had to handle the long layoff in our own way. I’ve taught myself a little piano, grew a “pandemic beard,” read some books, went on a bunch of nature walks with my family, and got far too obsessed with SimCity Buildit. I also took an extended break from Twitter, but don’t worry, I’m back to answer all your fantasy questions now!
Speaking of fantasy questions, we should all have plenty of them right about now, because we are truly in uncharted waters with this upcoming 60-game season. As the headline indicates, this column will focus on closers, typically the most fickle of creatures. But strangely enough, closers feel like more reliable investments this season than starting pitchers, many of whom will not see anything close to their usual workloads and face greater-than-usual injury risk as they attempt to ramp up their arm strength during an abbreviated “Spring Training.”
Perhaps the right answer is simply to invest more heavily in hitters than pitchers in drafts this year, but a case can also be made that the value of closers goes up a bit if teams are going to limit their starters’ innings and make many games into bullpen games. It helps that more closer situations appear to be stable now than heading into the 2019 season.
That being said, the delayed start to the season has given injured former closers like Corey Knebel and Jordan Hicks more time to rehab and get ready to contribute this season, making those teams’ closer situations a little more complicated. And the coronavirus is sure to continue affecting matters in a host of unforeseen ways, most recently with the news that closer Hector Neris and three other Phillies have been placed on the Covid-19 injured list. I’ll get to those situations and more here, revisit the closer landscape again in a couple of weeks, and then be with you every week during the regular season as our fantasy teams make a mad rush towards the title.
|Team (Closer)||Rank (Change)||Notes|
|Padres (Kirby Yates)||1 (-)||Top-3 closer in ’19 is poised for a repeat|
|Brewers (Josh Hader)||2 (-)||Best reliever in baseball, but job security in the ninth is threatened by Corey Knebel’s return|
|Yankees (Aroldis Chapman)||3 (-)||Mr. Consistency has 30+ saves in 7 of last 8 seasons|
|Astros (Roberto Osuna)||4 (-)||K/9 rebounded last year, and BB/9 remained elite|
|Mets (Edwin Diaz)||5 (-)||Coming off disastrous ’19 but projections point to a major bounce back|
|A’s (Liam Hendriks)||6 (-)||Top breakout closer of last year should maintain success|
|Dodgers (Kenley Jansen)||7 (-)||32-year old’s numbers are trending downward but still solid, and he could lead the league in saves|
|Cubs (Craig Kimbrel)||8 (-)||Elite track record is too good to completely write off based on 20 bad innings last season|
|Blue Jays (Ken Giles)||9 (-)||Posted 1.87 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and career-best 14.09 K/9 in 2019|
|Twins (Taylor Rogers)||10 (-)||Excelled in the closer role last year, but could have fairly short leash as a late-blooming left-hander in a deep bullpen|
|Indians (Brad Hand)||11 (-)||Overall 2019 numbers look good (3.30 ERA, 13.19 K/9, 34 saves), but struggled mightily with “tired arm” in the second half|
|Rays (Committee)||12 (-)||Nick Anderson won’t see every save chance, but elite K potential should provide plenty of standalone value|
|Reds (Raisel Iglesias)||13 (-)||Posted career-worst ERA and WHIP in 2019 — but career-best save total and strikeout rate|
|Nationals (Sean Doolittle)||14 (-)||Durability issues less concerning in shortened season, but Daniel Hudson lurks|
|Pirates (Keone Kela)||15 (-)||Can help in ratios and Ks, but may lack save chances and could get traded|
|White Sox (Alex Colome)||16 (-)||Strikeout rate won’t wow you but could rack up saves on improved White Sox squad|
|Rangers (Jose Leclerc)||17 (-)||Has the stuff to dominate if he can keep the walks under control|
|Red Sox (Brandon Workman)||18 (-)||Major regression candidate, but misses enough bats to provide value if he can hold onto the job|
|Angels (Hansel Robles)||19 (-)||Coming off a terrific season, but some regression is likely|
|Braves (Committee)||20 (-)||ATL will jump up the rankings if/when Will Smith steals closer job from Mark Melancon|
|Diamondbacks (Archie Bradley)||21 (-)||Hasn’t quite lived up to the hype and wild at times, but can still get the job done|
|Royals (Ian Kennedy)||22 (-)||Was quietly effective as closer last season, but obvious trade candidate|
|Phillies (Hector Neris)||23 (-)||Finished as a top-16 closer in two of the last three seasons, but currently on Covid-19 IL|
|Tigers (Joe Jimenez)||24 (-)||Won’t likely put up great ratios or a huge save total, but can help with Ks|
|Cardinals (Committee)||25 (-)||Giovanny Gallegos has plenty of fantasy potential if he can lock down this job|
|Marlins (Brandon Kintzler)||26 (-)||Journeyman right-hander should have little competition for saves in Miami|
|Orioles (Mychal Givens)||27 (-)||Orioles’ closer by default won’t be much help to your ratios but can provide plenty of Ks|
|Rockies (Wade Davis)||28 (-)||Owning Davis could be a rocky ride|
|Mariners (Committee)||29 (-)||Neither Yoshihisa Hirano nor Matt Magill will have much fantasy value unless they have the closer job to themselves|
|Giants (Committee)||30 (-)||Tony Watson looks set to lead an uninspiring committee in San Francisco|
In my March version of this column, I wrote that Josh Hader “could have a firmer hold on ninth-inning duties” this year than he did heading into 2019, but that was before Opening Day got pushed back four months. Corey Knebel, who served as the Brewers’ closer before missing all of last season due to Tommy John surgery, was initially expected to miss at least the first six weeks of the 2020 campaign, but could now be ready to return by Opening Day. It would seem to be unwise to thrust Knebel back into the closer role after such a long layoff, but Brewers manager Craig Counsell has displayed a preference in the past for using Hader in a more flexible relief role, so it is something to watch.
I was tempted to rank Brad Hand higher based on his track record of elite late-inning performances, but it’s impossible to justify putting him in the top-10 when you consider how he finished the 2019 campaign. Hand dominated in the first half of the year but posted an ugly 6.65 ERA from June 25 on, was shut down for two weeks in September with a “tired arm,” and made just one more appearance after he returned. He also lost a mile or two of velocity. The fact that we never got to see him return to form last year makes him a bit of a question mark heading into 2020.
Sean Doolittle has been a top-20 closer for three years running, including a 2018 season in which he was the fourth-most valuable full-time closer in standard 5×5 leagues. Durability concerns have kept him out of the discussion of elite closers, but he actually led all National League pitchers in games finished in 2019. Besides, durability would seem to be less of a concern for the two-month sprint to the finish line that is the 2020 season. The bigger concern for Doolittle’s fantasy value is Daniel Hudson, who closed out a handful of games down the stretch last year and got the final outs of Game 7 of the World Series. Hudson has injury concerns of his own, but he could factor into the ninth inning in Washington.
It admittedly took me a while to regain my trust in Hector Neris after his disastrous 2018 campaign, but he rebounded well last year. It is now quite clear that 2018 was a major outlier for him, primarily due to some uncharacteristic problems with home runs and other batted ball misfortune. He finished as a top-16 fantasy closer in both 2017 and 2019, posted an ERA of 3.01 or lower in three of the last four seasons, and has continued to rack up high strikeout totals with a manageable walk rate.
Neris wasn’t too far outside of the top-10 in my initial preseason closer rankings, but then word dropped on July 2 that the Phillies have placed him in the Covid-19 Injured List. Perhaps he just interacted with someone who has COVID, or maybe he’s asymptomatic and will be fine after a couple of weeks of quarantine. But the reality is that we have no idea whatsoever how this will play out — all we know right now is that his status for Opening Day is “uncertain.” Until we have a better idea of his timetable for returning to action, I would have a very hard time drafting him over any closer with a decent amount of job security.
For now, there’s no obvious fallback candidate for saves in Philadelphia, with Tommy Hunter joining Neris on the Covid-19 IL and Seranthony Dominguez slated for Tommy John surgery.
St. Louis Cardinals
With Carlos Martinez eyeing a return to the starting rotation this season, the closer job is wide open in St. Louis. The favorite for the job among the fantasy community appears to be 28-year old right-hander Giovanny Gallegos, who posted an impressive 2.31 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, and 11.31 K/9 in his first full season in the Big Leagues. Based on those numbers, Gallegos could have a ton of fantasy value if he can add saves to the mix, but predicting the decisions of Major League managers is a dangerous game. It probably doesn’t help Gallegos’ chances that he’ll miss the team’s early summer workouts. Until we hear directly from Mike Shildt that Gallegos has been anointed the closer, it’s entirely possible Martinez, Andrew Miller, or even someone like Ryan Helsley finds his way into save opportunities. Then there’s former closer Jordan Hicks, who will begin the season on the Injured List as he continues to recover from elbow surgery but is expected to return sometime this season.
San Francisco Giants
With Gabe Kapler as their manager, the Giants are unlikely to settle on a single closer this season, and given the lack of impressive arms or projected wins, this isn’t a closer committee to get too excited about. Still, I would be remiss not to mention that Kapler recently identified two front-runners for the ninth: reliable veteran left-hander Tony Watson and career minor leaguer Tyler Rogers. Watson is the one who most people expected to lead this committee, but Kapler sounds genuinely intrigued by the 29-year old Rogers, who has thrown just 17 2/3 innings in the Majors. Get ready to chase those saves, everybody!
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