Fantasy Baseball Closer Report: Mid-July Update (2020)
We are living in uncertain times, and the chaos of 2020 has seeped into just about every aspect of our lives, including fantasy baseball. I won’t lie: it’s a welcome distraction to be preparing for the 2020 fantasy baseball season. But even then, COVID-19 isn’t about to let us completely forget about it.
We learned this week that one of the best closers of the last decade, Aroldis Chapman, has tested positive for the virus and displayed mild symptoms. Chapman joins Hector Neris, Kenley Jansen, Keone Kela, and Will Smith as closers (or potential closers) who have either been confirmed to have had the coronavirus or not yet reported to camp for unspecified reasons that could be related to Covid-19.
I’ll touch on all those situations in this tune-up of the Closer Report, along with more traditional closer intrigue unfolding in St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Baltimore.
|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|
|Astros (Roberto Osuna)||3 (+1)||K/9 rebounded last year, and BB/9 remained elite|
|Mets (Edwin Diaz)||4 (+1)||Coming off disastrous ’19, but projections point to a major bounce back|
|A’s (Liam Hendriks)||5 (+1)||Top breakout closer of last year should maintain success|
|Dodgers (Kenley Jansen)||6 (+1)||Missed start of camp with COVID-19, but Dave Roberts expects he’ll be ready to close by Opening Day|
|Cubs (Craig Kimbrel)||7 (+1)||Elite track record is too good to completely write off based on 20 bad innings last season|
|Blue Jays (Ken Giles)||8 (+1)||Posted 1.87 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and career-best 14.09 K/9 in 2019|
|Twins (Taylor Rogers)||9 (+1)||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)||10 (+1)||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)||11 (+1)||Nick Anderson won’t see every save chance, but elite K potential should provide plenty of standalone value|
|Reds (Raisel Iglesias)||12 (+1)||Posted career-worst ERA and WHIP in 2019 – but career-best save total and strikeout rate|
|Nationals (Sean Doolittle)||13 (+1)||Durability issues less concerning in shortened season, but Daniel Hudson lurks|
|Phillies (Hector Neris)||14 (+9)||Trending in the right direction for a return from COVID-19 by Opening Day|
|Yankees (Zach Britton)||15 (-12)||Britton can be a solid fantasy closer, but how long will he have the job?|
|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|
|Braves (Mark Melancon)||19 (+2)||Looking like the Braves’ Opening Day closer with Will Smith currently on the Covid-19 IL|
|Angels (Hansel Robles)||20 (-1)||Coming off a terrific season, but some regression is likely|
|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|
|Tigers (Joe Jimenez)||23 (+1)||Won’t likely put up great ratios or a huge save total, but can help with Ks|
|Pirates (Keone Kela)||24 (-9)||Yet to practice with team for unexplained reasons, leading to plenty of Covid-19 speculation|
|Cardinals (Committee)||25 (-)||Ryan Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos and Carlos Martinez all still have a shot at this gig|
|Marlins (Brandon Kintzler)||26 (-)||Journeyman right-hander should have little competition for saves in Miami|
|Rockies (Wade Davis)||27 (+1)||Owning Davis could be a rocky ride|
|Mariners (Committee)||28 (+1)||Neither Yoshihisa Hirano nor Matt Magill will have much fantasy value unless they have the closer job to themselves|
|Giants (Committee)||29 (+1)||Tony Watson looks set to lead an uninspiring committee in San Francisco|
|Orioles (Committee)||30 (-3)||Orioles’ closer job is up for grabs, but fantasy owners may want to take a hard pass|
New York Yankees
With the news that Chapman has tested positive for Covid-19 and won’t be with the Yankees “for the foreseeable future,” manager Aaron Boone tipped his hand that Zach Britton will serve as the closer in Chapman’s absence. Britton posted three seasons with 35+ saves during his time in Baltimore, so he should be comfortable handling the pressure of the ninth inning.
Britton posted a sub-2.00 ERA in 2019 for the fourth time in the last six years, but a closer examination points to a lot of ERA regression coming for him this season. His strikeout rate has plummeted and his walk rate has skyrocketed over the last three seasons, so a low-3.00s ERA and middling WHIP is probably a more realistic expectation for him in 2020. Those kind of numbers can still provide plenty of value while closing for a winning team like the Yankees, but the question is how long it will be before Chapman returns. It’s impossible to say at this point.
Hector Neris is another closer who tested positive for Covid-19, but he’s now back at Phillies camp throwing bullpen sessions and live batting practice. It certainly seems like he’ll have plenty of time to get ready for Opening Day, so I’ve bumped him back inside my top-15 fantasy closers for the 2020 season.
Keone Kela has not yet practiced with his Pirates teammates, and manager Derek Shelton is being tight-lipped about Kela’s status, which has been common when the player in question has a COVID-19-related absence. It was already uncertain whether Kela would get the opportunity to close all season — he’s a potential trade candidate — and now it’s looking increasingly unlikely that he’ll be ready by Opening Day. When healthy, Kela has proven capable of posting an excellent strikeout rate with solid ratios, but saves were going to be hard to come by even in a best-case scenario on a Pirates squad that should finish at or near the bottom of the NL Central. That projected save total needs to be even further downgraded now, so Kela should be one of the last closers off the board in fantasy drafts at this point.
Kyle Crick would likely close in Kela’s absence, but he’s coming off a hideous season in which he walked 6.43 batters per nine innings. Still, saves are saves, so Crick is worth a flier in saves-hungry leagues while we await more info about Kela’s status.
Corey Knebel and Brewers manager Craig Counsell both sound increasingly optimistic that Knebel will be ready to go on Opening Day. But Counsell also cautioned that he’ll be careful with Knebel, who continues to work his way back after missing all of last season due to Tommy John surgery. Josh Hader remains the favorite to handle the ninth inning to begin the year, but it will be interesting to see how quickly Counsell decides to work Knebel into high-leverage situations. Paradoxically, it could be easier on Knebel’s arm if he is restricted to pitching in save situations, with Hader being called upon to pitch in the flexible, multi-inning role that he has excelled at in the past.
Los Angeles Dodgers
With questions swirling about Kenley Jansen’s status, Jansen finally reported to Dodgers camp on Sunday and confirmed to reporters that he had, indeed, had COVID-19. Thankfully, he appears to be fully recovered from the illness. Jansen added that he never considered opting out of the season even though his doctor deemed him “moderate risk” due to past heart issues.
Even before Jansen showed up, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts expressed plenty of confidence that he would be ready to go by Opening Day, and fantasy managers can be a bit more comfortable with that prognosis now that Jansen is back with the team. Jansen is one of the most proven closers in baseball, and I see no reason to downgrade him now that the worst of COVID-19 looks to be behind him.
Mark Melancon always had the edge over Will Smith to serve as the Braves’ Opening Day closer, but the gap between the two has widened with word that Smith tested positive for COVID-19 and landed on the Injured List. Smith’s status is completely up in the air at the moment, so it’s hard to see how he has time to get to camp and steal the closer job from Melancon before Opening Day. The good news is that Smith is asymptomatic, so he should be able to make a quick recovery once he gets two negative test results.
Smith is a better pitcher than Melancon at this stage of their respective careers, but you probably know how these situations tend to play out. With one of the best strikeout rates in baseball, Smith is the rare middle reliever who can have standalone value in many fantasy formats — just don’t expect him to win the closer job based on anything he does on the mound. Melancon is a “proven closer” (TM), and especially with just 60 games on tap, he should be able to hold onto the job as long as he doesn’t completely implode.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals present one of the most confusing and complicated closers situation in the league at the moment. Presumed spring favorite Giovanny Gallegos is still in Mexico awaiting clearance to travel, and now looks like a long-shot to be the team’s Opening Day closer. Carlos Martinez, who’s been successful as both a starter and closer for St. Louis in recent years, wants to return to the starting rotation this year, but he’s in a race against time to build up his arm strength. If he isn’t ready to start, Martinez is a logical choice to close like he did last year.
But when Cardinals GM John Mozeliak was asked about the team’s closer situation recently, the first name out of his mouth wasn’t Gallegos or Martinez; it was Ryan Helsley. With just 36 2/3 Major League innings under his belt and less-than-inspiring numbers for the Cardinals’ Triple- and Double-A affiliates, Helsley is a major wildcard. But with a heater that touches 100 mph, it just may be that Helsley becomes the latest pitcher to emerge from obscurity to become a valuable fantasy closer.
I was never particularly jazzed about drafting Mychal Givens, a pitcher who is just as likely to hurt your ratios as he is to help your strikeout or save totals. But he’s just about off my draft board completely now that it looks like the Orioles could form a closer committee between Givens, Hunter Harvey, and Richard Bleier. This is a team that doesn’t project to create many save chances in the first place, so splitting the saves up two or three ways really kills the appeal, especially when none of the pitchers are particularly good. I’d rather use a roster spot on an elite middle reliever than go fishing for saves in Baltimore.
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