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2020 Fantasy Baseball Primer: Relief Pitchers

by Carmen Maiorano | @carmsclubhouse | Featured Writer
Jul 11, 2020

Kirby Yates is one of the few closers with ultimate job security.

Back when we thought we were getting a full season, our relief pitcher primer highlighted the trends of where relief pitching was going. Now, this shortened season creates a ton of uncertainty due to starters having to rebuild back up to their typical standards, giving middle relievers more opportunity than ever to vulture wins while compiling strong ratios. Guys like Freddy Peralta or Corbin Burnes make wins nearly impossible to project due to wins unpredictability. Further, managers are more likely to pull the trigger on struggling closers as a result of having less time to wait this year. Given this potential strategy, we have to consider “SPARPs” (Starting Pitchers as Relief Pitchers) more than ever this year and are included in the primer below. SPARPs with Yahoo-only eligibility are denoted with.

A short season also gives the top talents less time to pull away in the saves and strikeouts categories. Additionally, one bad outing could result in a very inflated ERA and WHIP. As a result, the difference between the sixth closer and the 17th closer is not as stark.

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Grade Legend*

A: A no-doubt stud capable of winning you a category
B: A solid, consistent contributor
C: Won’t lose you the category, but won’t win it, either
D: You can do better here
F: You’re getting NOTHING

(*Grades listed are relative to the position and take positional depth into consideration.)

Tier 1

Player Team SV K ERA WHIP W Notes
Josh Hader MIL A- A+ A A+ D+ Hader is the best stereotypical reliever on the planet. With Corey Knebel being eased into action, the odds of the Brewers going a different direction at closer is slim.
Kirby Yates SDP A+ A- A A D Yates is one of the few closers with ultimate job security. He probably won’t repeat last year’s 1.19 ERA, but should post a sub-0.95 WHIP for the third straight year.

These two superstars separate themselves from the pack by their outstanding WHIPs. In a short season, there will be crazy ratios from surprising relievers, but these two provide the safest floor in ratios to go with their job security. In a year of unpredictability, paying up for a stud closer is a solid strategy.

Tier 2

Player Team SV K ERA WHIP W Notes
Roberto Osuna HOU A+ C A- A D What Osuna lacks in strikeouts, he makes up for in job security and ratios.
Aroldis Chapman NYY A+ A- A+ C D Chapman’s strikeout rate dropped seven percentage points last year, and he’s always had a problem with walks. However, his ability to induce weak contact makes his ERA best-in-class.
Taylor Rogers

MIN A+ B A- B+ D Rogers took the closer role early last year and never looked back. While there are quality setup men to stand if in he falters, but his ability to whiff batters and not walk anyone shows that his performance was legit.

All of these relievers have ultimate job security, but trail tier one in one category. If you come up empty-handed in tier one and two, waiting to grab two steady-but-unspectacular closers is a viable strategy.

Tier 3

Player Team SV K ERA WHIP W Notes
Kenley Jansen LAD A+ C- B- B+ D Jansen is in a gentle decline, and the fact that he hasn’t reported to camp means that he may not get in enough reps to be ready on Opening Day. But, the Dodgers are easily the best team in the NL, and the job will be there when he’s ready.
Ken Giles

TOR A- B A- B+ D On an upstart team like the Jays, Giles should see plenty of opportunities. But, can the guys in front of him hold a lead?
Liam Hendriks OAK A+ A- B C D Hendriks has electric stuff, but skeptics remember the bad memories of how Blake Treinen fizzled out in Oakland. Can Hendriks break the mold?
Brad Hand CLE A+ A- B- C D Some are concerned about Hand’s second half, but with Emmanuel Clase out for the season and James Karinchak still needing experience, Hand should be the guy all year.
Raisel Iglesias CIN A- A- B- C D There are rumors that Iglesias has always been on the hot seat, but his job seems safe with at least 28 saves each of the last three years.
Jose Leclerc TEX A- B B- C- D+ LeClerc’s second half was significantly better than his first half last year, and the Rangers’ bullpen is relatively void of replacement options at closer.
Brandon Workman BOS A- B B C- D Workman’s walk rate needs to come down, but he proved that he can handle closer duties last year.
Edwin Diaz NYM B A B B+ D With the news that the Mets might start the season without a default closer, Diaz falls down a tier. Expect him to eventually get the job all to his own.

With the exception of Diaz, these relievers generally have the closer job on lock. However, it’s almost a lock that at least one of these guys loses their job by the end of the season. Double-tapping the two closers in this tier that fall relative to their ADP maximizes value and reduces risk.

Tier 4

Player Team SV K ERA WHIP W Notes
Nick Anderson

TBR B A- B B+ D+ Anderson had an insane 41.7% strikeout rate last year, which is likely to regress slightly this year. While he is the most talented reliever in the Rays’ bullpen, the team loves to mix-and-match saves.
Craig Kimbrel CHC B+ B C C D Kimbrel had a rough 2019, and another extended layoff probably doesn’t help. However, his job is secure, and this ranking is his floor.
Sean Doolittle WAS B C A- A- D Doolittle’s likelihood of injury in a shortened season is lower, and with that comes a higher probability of keeping the closer role.
Giovanny Gallegos STL C+ B A- A D+ Gallegos clearly could jump a couple of tiers if he was named the closer, but for now, we have to settle on elite ratios and a solid strikeout rate.
Hector Neris PHI A- B C- C D Neris tested positive for COVID-19, but there is a chance that he is able to get enough reps in before Opening Day. With David Robertson and Seranthony Dominguez already lost for the season, Neris has the closer job to himself.
Archie Bradley ARI B+ B B C D Bradley has sneaky competition from Kevin Ginkel but should be the closer for the full season. His K-BB rate isn’t great, but it’s enough.
Keone Kela PIT B B C C D Kela is basically Kimbrel without the saves, assuming he gets traded before the August 31st deadline. If he racked up just a few more saves, he could move up several spots.

With the exception of Gallegos and Anderson, this tier represents the last of the closers with some level of job security and above-average value in at least one other category. If you got just one closer from the first three tiers, it makes sense to pluck one more closer with job security, and then potentially double-tapping another reliever like Gallegos or Anderson for the ratios.

Tier 5

Player Team SV K ERA WHIP W Notes
Hansel Robles LAA B+ C C- C- D Robles has job security, but no above-average skills to support it.
Will Smith ATL C- B B B+ C- Smith tested positive for COVID-19, but there’s a chance that he gets enough reps in for Opening Day. While Mark Melancon will like to start with the closer job, Smith certainly has the better skills.
Mark Melancon ATL B C C C- D Melancon turned his season around once he got to Atlanta, but the veteran’s skills are in descent. His groundball tendencies lead to a high BABIP and WHIP.
Alex Colome CWS B C C C- D The low strikeout rate and below-average walk rate equate to targeting Colome for saves. Just hope that he holds onto the job.
Seth Lugo NYM D B A A- C Lugo has transformed himself as a reliever but is probably third in line even if Diaz struggles. However, he is one of those relievers that could finish in the top ten due to getting unforeseen wins.
Ian Kennedy KC B C C- C- D Kennedy is a slightly better version of Colome but on a much worse team.
Joe Jimenez DET B B D+ C- D Jimenez closes for a bottom-three team in the majors. If he pitches well in the first month, look for him to be traded at the deadline. He needs to induce weaker contact to improve.
Scott Oberg COL C+ C C C- D+ Oberg showed that he has the skills to be successful, but Coors is forever the mitigating factor. Expect him to overtake Wade Davis as the closer.
Brandon Kintzler MIA B D- C C- D Kintzler can get groundballs, but can’t get strikeouts. Getting saves for a terrible team doesn’t help his value.
Dellin Betances NYM D B A C D+ Betances barely got on the mound last year due to injury but is fully recovered. He’s likely next in line if Diaz falters.
Emilio Pagan SDP D- B C A- D+ Pagan broke out last year, posting a great K-BB rate. With Yates locked in at closer, Pagan’s ceiling is limited.
Mychal Givens BAL B- B D C- D Givens is in competition with Hunter Harvey due to struggling last year. He is able to compile strikeouts, but walks a few too many and can’t keep the ball in the yard.

If saves are still necessary, Robles and Colome are the best bets. Otherwise, look for Lugo, Pagan, Betances, and Smith (provided full health) for ratios. Other potential candidates for saves on teams not mentioned above include Tony Watson, Jarlin Garcia, Matt Magill, Austin Adams, and Yoshihisa Hirano. Top setup men to target for ratios include Tyler Duffey, Trevor May, Ryan Pressly, Chad Green, Diego Castillo, Kevin Ginkel, Matt Barnes, and James Karinchak. For a full depth chart, refer to our Closer Depth Charts.


Player Team SV K ERA WHIP W Notes
Tyler Glasnow^ TBR F A A B+ B+ Glasnow posted a 1.78 ERA over 60 innings last year but was very lucky in both the BABIP and LOB departments. Nonetheless, if he can stay healthy, he is the top SPARP.
Brandon Woodruff^ MIL F A- B+ B+ B+ Woodruff is just a tick below Glasnow in most categories but has a slightly higher likelihood of staying healthy.
Kenta Maeda MIN F A B- B+ B+ Maeda historically hasn’t posted the strongest ratios, but he has an easier schedule and has the underlying metrics to have a career-best year.
Ross Stripling LAD F C C+ B+ B+ Stripling has a starting spot now, and he has done well in that role: 257 IP, 23.5% K rate, 5.2% walk rate, and a 3.72 FIP.   He could be a league winner.
Julio Urias LAD F C- A B- B+ Provided full health on this list (a long shot), Urias will pitch the fewest amount of innings besides Dustin May. That means lower strikeouts. He needs to lower his walk rate to take the next step.
Jesus Luzardo OAK F C C+ B+ B- Luzardo has tested positive or COVID-19, so he may not make more than ten starts. He has a ton of promise, and he just needs to prove he’s healthy.
Carlos Carrasco CLE F C C+ B+ B- Carrasco is ready for a six-inning workload, but Cleveland will likely take it easy with him in the early going. He will likely be rusty after pitching just 80 innings last year.
Jose Urquidy HOU F C C B B+ Urquidy should get plenty of wins and will become a Kyle Hendricks sequel if he learns to induce weak contact. He hasn’t reported to camp yet, so monitor his situation closely.
Carlos Martinez STL F+ C C+ C- B- Martinez hasn’t made a start since 2018, and his above-average walk rate is concerning. If he returns to his 2015-2018 self, he could be a league winner.
Max Fried ATL F A B C- B+ Fried is lower on my board than most, but he needs to limit the homers and lower his walk rate to completely buy-in.
Dustin May LAD F D C B- C May likely won’t pitch more 45 innings, reducing his value across the board. If the Dodgers let him loose, he could finish in the top seven on this list.
Yonny Chirinos TBR F D C- B- C Chirinos will likely pitch around 50 innings, and the only skill holding him back is his ability to keep the ball in the yard.
Adrian Houser MIL F C C- C- C Houser is an average pitcher who will rack up innings in a poor Milwaukee rotation. He’s not a target in most drafts.
Josh James HOU F C C C C- James’s role is undefined and could move significantly up this board if he makes the rotation. Regardless, it would be a surprise if he pitches more than 45 innings, lowering his value across the board.
Kevin Gausman SFG F C C- C- C Gausman should be in the rotation all year in a good ballpark, but his inconsistencies every year limit his ceiling.

Usually, the SPARP strategy works best when you slot typical relievers into the Starter position on your team, but can also work when you pick elite starters who qualify as relievers.

For rankings of more than 130 relievers, check out my rankings versus the consensus here or by tiers here.

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Carmen Maiorano is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Carmen, check out his archive and personal fantasy blogand follow him @carmsclubhouse.

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