Closer Outlook: Team by Team (2021 Fantasy Baseball)
Projecting saves is a notoriously difficult endeavor. Closer committees are more prevalent than ever. Even when there is a designated closer, teams don’t always announce that player until the close of spring training. Roughly half of all MLB closers will be replaced at some point due to injury, ineffectiveness, or both.
Nevertheless, saves remain a fantasy category, and, as such, fantasy managers must do their best to figure out bullpen situations. What follows is a snapshot of where we stand in late February. Some of these situations will undoubtedly 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.
Stefan Crichton looked like the best bet for saves out in the desert until the Diamondbacks signed Joakim Soria to a one-year, $3.5 million contract. But Torey Lovullo refused to name a designated closer, and this appears to be a battle that probably won’t be decided until closer to Opening Day.
Both relievers have points in their favor for the job. Soria has the always appealing “closer experience,” having tallied at least 16 saves in eight separate seasons in his career. He rebounded last season to his more customary HR/FB rates, which helped get his ERA back in check, and he’s been a quality reliever for over a decade at this point.
On the other hand, Crichton stepped in last year and tallied five saves with a 2.42 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP and has a solid curveball/sinker combination that’s effective in short-inning stints. He earned the team’s trust after stepping in for Archie Bradley in the latter part of the year.
None of that is even to mention that the team recently signed Tyler Clippard, and he, too, could factor into the mix. In short, don’t expect clarity for a few weeks, at least.
The most likely scenario is that Soria “wins” the job out of spring training and is traded at the deadline, after which Crichton takes over. I’m not drafting any of them, personally, but I’d target Soria for saves first of the bunch.
Mark Melancon has moved on to the perfect climate of San Diego, and the Braves have not signed any clear-cut replacement option as of the time of this writing. That leaves the Braves with at least three names, Will Smith, Chris Martin, and A.J. Minter, who could factor into the save situation. Indeed, according to David O’Brien of The Athletic, “Brian Snitker said the Braves might use 2-3 guys to close.” Snitker also said, however, that he has “every confidence in the world” that Will Smith could handle a traditional closer’s role if they go that route. O’Brien subsequently reported that Smith would “likely return to the closer’s role” this year.
Smith certainly has the tools to close. He was an outstanding reliever for several years before a bout with COVID-19 derailed his 2020 season, leading to the ineffectiveness of his devastating slider and perhaps the worst season of his career.
Martin is also an excellent reliever with a minuscule walk rate and good strikeout numbers, and Minter had just a 0.83 ERA last year. Both have served as a closer in the past, at least for small stints.
Realistically, however, reading the tea leaves, the job is Smith’s to lose. Snitker has gushed over Smith’s All-Star 2019 campaign with the Giants, during which Smith tallied 34 saves and struck out more than 13 batters per nine innings. He seems willing to ignore Smith’s 2020 season, as he should, and give the veteran the chance to lock down the role. That’s especially true given that Minter offers another lefty option out of the pen, freeing up Smith to close.
It’s certainly possible that Smith will lose out on the occasional save chance if there are tough righties due up in the ninth inning or he’s needed earlier to handle lefties in a critical situation. But as spring training begins, Smith is the one to target in drafts.
Hunter Harvey was a popular late-round sleeper last year as the potential closer for the Orioles, but a strained right forearm limited him to just 8 2/3 innings. The reasons he generated so much buzz before last year, however, are still present. His fastball reaches triple digits, and he had a 42.3% strikeout rate in 2019.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed for Harvey, and Brandon Hyde has been mum about his ninth-inning plans as of now. The two biggest competitors for saves in Baltimore are Cesar Valdez, who recorded three saves in September of last year, and Tanner Scott, who put up elite production in the shortened season.
Even if Baltimore was a perfect situation for a fantasy closer (which, of course, it is not), there’s simply no way to feel confident in which player will ultimately take the job. Remember, Cole Sulser and not more established names like Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro, or Richard Bleier got save chances out of the gate for the team last year.
If there was one reliever to speculate on, it would be Harvey, but this is a bullpen to avoid entirely for now.
Boston Red Sox
It’s a good news/bad news situation for fantasy managers regarding the Red Sox bullpen this year. The bad news is that Alex Cora has been noncommittal on naming a closer thus far. The good news is that he clearly wants a single closer and will not employ a committee approach.
Matt Barnes is the leading candidate as spring training begins. He notched nine saves last year and held the role over the final month of the season. But Barnes hardly has the profile of someone who screams “stopper.” His WHIP is 1.38 over the last two seasons, due in no small part to his walk rate sitting above 13% over that span. He also gave up a ton of hard contact last year (his 91.3 MPH average exit velocity allowed was one of the worst in the league), so he’s hardly got a bulletproof resume.
Nor do any of his competitors for the closer’s role, however. Adam Ottavino, who is 35 years old, floundered last year, so much that he was relegated to low-leverage situations for the majority of the end of the year. Ryan Brasier has already had his chance at the closer’s role and couldn’t hold it. Darwinzon Hernandez is the only real lefty in the bullpen. And Alex Cora has already ruled out Hirokazu Sawamura as an option.
In other words, Barnes is likely the clubhouse leader for the closer’s role as of late February, but his job status will be tenuous at best. To the extent there is a true competitor for the role, it’s Ottavino. Draft him first of the bunch, but don’t rely on him to hold the role all year long.
Fantasy managers won’t like it, but David Ross has already declared Craig Kimbrel as the Cubs’ closer. But it shouldn’t be a surprise for many reasons, not the least of which is Kimbrel’s contract, which pays him handsomely and which ends after this year. Even if Kimbrel was not the right choice for the ninth inning, the Cubs would undoubtedly want to showcase him there in an attempt to boost his trade value.
But, truthfully, Kimbrel IS the right person for the closer’s role. Yes, his numbers have been abysmal with the Cubs, but he’s hardly had a typical tenure. He didn’t sign with Chicago until June two years ago, and then last year had the oddities of the shortened season. Indeed, when you look beyond the full-season numbers, you can see that Kimbrel was fairly dominant for the vast majority of the season.
After his first four outings, Kimbrel pitched to a 1.42 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP last year and stuck out 53.1% of the batters he faced. Yes, he still walked more than five batters per nine innings, but the idea that Kimbrel is totally cooked as a viable reliever just isn’t true.
He’ll likely end the year on another team, but he’ll certainly be given every opportunity to hold down the closer’s role while he is with Chicago.
Chicago White Sox
Liam Hendriks is one of the few relievers worthy of taking with a fairly early selection and should be either the first or second reliever selected. He has a 1.79 ERA (with a 1.70 FIP), a 0.89 WHIP, and a 13.1 K/9 rate. Sure, he might give up a few more home runs moving from Oakland to Guaranteed Rate Field, but you’re going to need to dig pretty deep to find any negatives on Hendriks. It’s a rare situation that fantasy managers don’t need to think about.
After Raisel Iglesias was traded to the Angels this offseason, the Reds’ ninth-inning role is open for the first time in several seasons. Garrett is likely the odds-on favorite, however, for a few reasons. He’s had three straight productive seasons in the Reds’ bullpen, cut way down on his walks last year, and struck out 37.7% of the batters he faced in 2020. He was particularly dominant against the first batter he faced in an inning, retiring all 18 of them, an important job for any closer. Also, the Reds’ signing of Sean Doolittle gives the team another left-hander out of the pen, which mitigates the need to deploy Garrett earlier in the game.
Of course, Doolittle himself has plenty of closing experience, including three straight seasons from 2017-2019 in which he tallied at least 24 saves. But he lost most of last year due to injury, has seen his velocity trend down in recent seasons, and other teams appeared to have little interest in signing him, as he settled for a $1.5 million deal. At the same time, given Doolittle’s experience, especially compared to the rest of the bullpen, he could take hold of the job with a big spring.
As could Lucas Sims, who was 3-0 with a 2.45 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in 20 appearances last season. Sims has battled an elbow injury in camp but is the main righty out of the pen and certainly did enough last year to warrant consideration.
For now, it’s a committee in Cincinnati, though I’d draft Garrett first of the group.
With Brad Hand now in Washington, the most likely replacement option for Cleveland’s ninth-inning role is James Karinchak. In his first “full” season last year, Karinchak struck out a silly 53 batters in just 27 innings. But he also walked 5.3 batters per nine innings despite his 1.11 WHIP. A high walk rate isn’t necessarily fatal for a closer (see Edwin Diaz and Josh Hader last year), but it’s a delicate line to walk.
Perhaps because of Karinchak’s spotty control at times, Terry Francona indicated that it is too early to define roles for his relievers. That’s especially true because Karinchak is far from Cleveland’s only option. Indeed, Nick Wittgren has been speculated on as a potential ninth-inning option, and Emmanuel Clase, who missed all of last season, has been vocal about his desire to close. Blake Parker, Heath Hembree, and Bryan Shaw could also figure into the mix.
Karinchak should certainly be the first Indians reliever drafted, and it appears likely that he will get the first crack at the closer’s role. But because of Cleveland’s other options, his job security is likely to be a bit tenuous.
If not for Alex Smith’s truly remarkable recovery from his gruesome leg injury, Daniel Bard’s comeback would have gotten even more publicity. Bard hadn’t pitched in the majors since 2013 and had retired from baseball after the 2017 season before he signed with the Rockies, became their closer, and tallied four wins and six saves last year. The fact that Bard returned to the majors was incredible, and the fact that he became an effective closer was downright shocking.
Bard appears to be the favorite to close in Colorado as spring training begins, but Bud Black hasn’t explicitly said so. More than likely, Black is just being cautious in case Bard struggles in spring training. After all, there are few reliable options behind Bard, as Mychal Givens hasn’t been able to keep the ball from leaving the yard, and Scott Oberg will need to be eased back following thoracic outlet surgery.
The Tigers have rarely been a haven for fantasy managers to find saves in recent years, and that’s likely to hold true in 2021. Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said he won’t name a closer before the season, but speculation is that Bryan Garcia is the favorite after taking the role late last season.
Garcia is a solid reliever, but don’t be fooled by his 1.66 ERA last year. It came with a 5.74 xFIP and a 4.98 K/9 rate. With that said, he had a fairly stellar minor league career (2.50 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 11.5 K/9), and he does have the “closer experience,” both from the minors and his college career.
Plenty of others, including Gregory Soto, Jose Cisnero, Buck Farmer, and Joe Jimenez could be in the mix for the role, too. But to the extent you are targeting a Tigers reliever, which is a dangerous game to play regardless, Garcia is the best option.
Ryan Pressly did an admirable job filling in for the injured Roberto Osuna last year, converting 11 of his 13 save opportunities. His numbers fell off from his previous two years (his 1.33 WHIP was particularly out of character), but he will almost certainly rebound from the .365 BABIP he allowed.
The offseason was full of speculation that the Astros would bring in a more experienced reliever to handle the ninth inning, but the closest they came was signing Steve Cishek to a minor league deal. Therefore, most expect Pressly to be the closer once the season begins. Whatever leash he has became longer when the Astros failed to bolster their bullpen this offseason, so fantasy managers can draft Pressly as a borderline top-10 closer unless disaster strikes in spring training.
Kansas City Royals
It was poetic to see Greg Holland back in a Royals uniform as he returned to the team with which he became a superstar reliever. And although he’ll never recapture what he was in his prime, his finish last year with the team was outstanding. Holland allowed no runs and just six hits over his final 10 appearances last season and had an ERA below 2.00 and a WHIP below 1.00 for the first time since 2014.
Back with the Royals, Holland will almost certainly begin the year as the closer after tallying six saves in 2020. But it’s unlikely he’s long for the job. Not only is he a prime mid-season trade candidate on a team that is unlikely to contend for the playoffs, but his walk rate is far more likely to revert to the untenable 5.3/9 that he had shown in his previous four seasons, rather than the 2.22 he offered last year.
Draft him late and bank on some saves, but expect the ride to end by the middle of the season, at best.
Los Angeles Angels
After being perpetually on the hot seat with the Reds for the last several seasons, Raisel Iglesias finds himself in an excellent situation after being traded to the Angels. Iglesias was outstanding in 2020, putting up a 2.74 ERA, a 0.91 WHIP, and a 34% strikeout rate.
The Angels spent capital to acquire Iglesias and have struggled to find a reliable closer for several seasons, so his leash should be long. He’s one of the few reliable relievers in a safe situation, so draft him accordingly.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Kenley Jansen has seemingly been teetering on the verge of losing his job for the past two seasons, but he’s still locked down nearly every save the team has tallied during that span. The elite ERA and walk rate are gone, and the trend on the velocity of his cut fastball is downright scary:
- 2016: 94 MPH
- 2017: 93.2 MPH
- 2018: 92.1 MPH
- 2019: 91.7 MPH
- 2020: 90.9 MPH
The Dodgers have plenty of depth in their bullpen, including Blake Treinen, Brusdar Graterol, Joe Kelly, and Corey Knebel, so they can easily replace Jansen, even for a short period of time, if they want to. But, for now, he remains the designated closer on the best team in baseball. Just don’t expect the 37 saves per year he averaged from 2017-2019.
The Marlins have several relievers who should be in the mix for saves and will likely largely rely on a single closer. Early in the spring, Don Mattingly mentioned Yimi Garcia, Anthony Bass, and Dylan Floro as being in the mix for “high-leverage situations.” Of the three, Floro seems the least likely to be named the closer, as he hasn’t recorded a save in his career and lacks the strikeout upside of a typical closer.
So, too, does Anthony Bass, but he did tally seven saves last year for the Blue Jays while putting up a 3.51 ERA. Bass is an extreme ground-ball pitcher (62.3% ground ball rate last year) and has a 3.54 ERA and 0.99 WHIP over the past two seasons. There are rumors that he’s the front-runner.
But García also has a claim to the role. Not only does he have more strikeout upside than Bass (31.7% strikeout rate last season), but he’s coming off an outstanding year, during which he had an 0.80 ERA and 0.93 WHIP (and his career WHIP is just 0.98). He also has a lengthy relationship with Mattingly from their days together with the Dodgers.
Mattingly will name a closer before the season opens, but until then, keep Bass and García close together on your draft board and take either (or both) late while hoping the one on your roster wins the job.
Josh Hader’s 2020 season wasn’t quite as dominant as his previous two. His walk rate spiked to 12.8%, his ERA (3.79), FIP (4.03), and xFIP (4.01) all jumped by more than a run, and his strikeout rate dropped to 39.7%.
But the fact that the word “dropped” precedes “39.7%” is all you need to know about how dominant Hader is. And the fact is that Hader’s fastball velocity was trending up last year as the season progressed, and his strikeout rate likely would have increased further as the season went along.
Of course, Rookie of the Year Devin Williams is ready to step in should Hader falter. Williams saw Hader’s run as the most dominant reliever in baseball and simply pushed it aside. A 0.33 ERA. One run and eight hits allowed in 27 innings. 53 strikeouts. A 44% K-BB%.
Hader has given the Brewers no reason to even think about taking him out of the closer’s role. But Williams makes a fine late-round pick for his numbers alone, and the added benefit that he’d immediately become one of the, if not the single, best closer in fantasy should Hader falter or get injured.
To the extent there has been one reliever to roster in Minnesota over the past two seasons, it’s been Taylor Rogers, who has totaled 39 saves in that span. But 39 saves over two seasons (even with last year’s shortened year) hardly makes for an impact closer, especially when other Twins relievers have totaled 53 saves over that same span.
Rogers’s lack of taking over as the undisputed closer for the Twins is hardly his fault. His sinker and breaking pitches are effective against both righties and lefties, and he’s totaled a 2.80 ERA and 1.04 WHIP with a 10.8 K/9 rate over the last three seasons.
Instead, Rogers’s failure to take hold of the role is simply the product of Rocco Baldelli preferring to have the flexibility to mix and match his relievers. And that’s surely likely to be the case again with Alex Colome (who has totaled 138 saves over the past five seasons) and Hansel Robles (who saved 23 games in 2019) in tow.
Rogers is likely the one you want in the Minnesota bullpen, but with Baldelli unlikely to rely on a single reliever as his closer, Rogers shouldn’t be relied on as an RP1.
New York Mets
Edwin Diaz will never pitch well enough to justify the Jarred Kelenic trade. Still, he certainly pitched well enough last year to solidify his role as the Mets’ closer, even if he doesn’t yet carry that official title. Diaz struck out a career-best 45.5% of the batters he faced and cut his ERA down to 1.75. Perhaps the biggest gain Diaz made was cutting his HR/9 rate from 2.33 in 2019 to just 0.70.
But we’ve seen Diaz come off dominant seasons and follow them up with mediocre ones. And the Mets have plenty of ready-made replacements, including Trevor May, Seth Lugo (when he recovers from his surgery), Miguel Castro, Dellin Betances, and Jeurys Familia.
But in a perfect world. Diaz will be the Mets’ closer for the entirety of the season. And given how he performed last season and the closer landscape, he should be one of the first relievers drafted this year.
New York Yankees
Aroldis Chapman is your Yankees closer so long as he is healthy, and there’s little to nitpick about him. He missed time last year after being diagnosed with COVID-19, but he was largely the same pitcher he has always been: plenty of strikeouts and peripherals that will help you.
He doesn’t throw a ton of innings and has never had a 40-save season, but those are really just footnotes in what is otherwise a fairly flawless career performance-wise. He should be one of the first relievers drafted.
As entertaining as it would have been to analyze whether Jake Diekman would have been able to hold the closer’s role all season long, the A’s signing of Trevor Rosenthal ends any drama surrounding the ninth inning in Oakland. After missing the majority of the previous two seasons, Rosenthal was utterly dominant in 2020.
After notching seven saves with the Royals, he was traded to the Padres and was unhittable. In 10 innings with San Diego, he allowed no runs and four baserunners and struck out 17. As a whole, he allowed just a .154 batting average and .214 wOBA against his fastball, which he threw more than 2/3rds of the time
Rosenthal was once one of the best relievers in the game. And even if he regresses some in 2021, he should still be an impact closer and be in little danger of losing his job.
At some point, Joe Girardi is likely going to name a closer who will get the vast majority of the save opportunities. But as of early spring training, it’s anyone’s guess who that pitcher will be.
Hector Neris has served as the team’s primary closer for the past several seasons and has been . . . uneven in his performance. His ERA has gone from a 3.01 one year to 5.10 the next, followed by a 2.93, and finally to a 4.57 last year. When his splitter is on, he’s nearly unhittable. When it is off, things can get ugly.
The Phillies spent capital to address their bullpen this offseason, adding two flamethrowers with closing experience in Archie Bradley and Jose Alvarado. Bradley had a solid 2020 season, totaling six saves with a 2.95 ERA, a 1.09 WHIP, and a 24.7% strikeout rate. And Jose Alvarado has struggled with his control in recent seasons but has a 27.9% strikeout rate in his career.
Oh, and let’s not forget Brandon Kintzler, who signed a minor-league deal with the Phillies and could similarly factor into the ninth-inning mix, too.
Because of his track record with the Phillies, which includes 70 saves over the last four seasons, Neris should probably be considered the favorite to start the year as the closer. After all, Bradley has hardly been in the ninth inning role his entire career and doesn’t quite have Neris’s strikeout numbers. But if Neris can’t improve on his walk rate, which ballooned to 5.40/9 innings last year and which led to a 1.71 WHIP, he won’t hold the role for long.
The Pirates likely won’t among the league leaders in save opportunities, but when they do get them, Richard Rodriguez will likely be given a chance to convert them. That is, so long as he’s with the team.
Rob Biertempfel of The Athletic recently wrote of Rodriguez that the “prize for becoming one of former GM Neal Huntington’s most astute free-agent signings is the status of Pirates reliever most likely to be traded this spring.” And, in Huntington’s defense, there’s every reason for him to pursue a trade of Rodriguez, who totaled four saves last year with a 2.70 ERA and 0.86 WHIP.
So long as Rodriguez remains with the team, he should be considered the closer and the only reliever worth drafting. Should he be moved, then all bets are off. Chris Stratton, Michael Feliz, or Kyle Crick could factor into the saves mix. Crick would likely be the top choice, but only if he can regain the four miles per hour he lost on his fastball last year.
For now, Rodriguez is the reliever to roster in Pittsburgh, but the chances that he’s still with the team at the trade deadline are slim to none. Draft him as one of the last relievers off the board.
San Diego Padres
The Padres have an embarrassment of riches at the back end of their bullpen, and although that’s great news for the team, it’s bad news for fantasy managers. And there are three pitchers, four if you squint, who may lay a claim to the closer’s role.
Before February 12th, Emilio Pagan and Drew Pomeranz were the two main candidates to close, with speculation that Pagan may receive slightly more of the opportunities. Had things remained status quo, both relievers would have been worth drafting in fantasy circles. Pomeranz had a 1.45 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP, and a 39.7% strikeout rate last year. Pagán wasn’t nearly as effective last year but saved 20 games in 2019 and has a much better career line than Pomeranz.
But then the Padres signed Mark Melancon, who has been extremely effective as the closer for the Braves for the majority of the last two seasons. And then Keone Kela, who missed most of last year with forearm discomfort, but who had been one of the most reliable relievers n the game for the past several seasons (other than in 2016).
Of the four, Kela seems the least likely to receive save opportunities, both because of his injury record and his history of difficulties with his teammates or other organization members.
That leaves Melancon, Pagán, and Pomeranz as candidates, and Jayce Tingler hasn’t come close to tipping his hand yet. Whoever he names as closer will have immense value, but all three can be considered only late-round dart throws without knowing which one will take the job.
San Francisco Giants
There are a few teams that essentially beg you to stay away from their bullpen, and the Giants are near the top of the list. With Gabe Kapler as a manager, a reliever would need to be Hall-of-Fame caliber to be the official “closer,” and San Francisco surely lacks that.
Reyes Moronta, Jake McGee, Tyler Rogers, and Matt Wisler may all lay a claim to save opportunities over the course of the season, but trying to predict which one will garner the most, especially at this early stage, is futile. Some closer situations require little analysis because the closer is clear-cut and dominant. The Giants’ situation requires little analysis for the opposite reason. Unless one of the relievers (likely Moronta) dominates in the spring and Kapler declares him the closer, just avoid the situation entirely.
Oddly enough, the Mariners are one of the few teams with a stable closer situation after trading for Rafael Montero from the Rangers. Montero went 8-for-8 in save chances last year, and although he lacks elite stuff, he’s got a 3.09 ERA, a 0.99 WHIP, and 10.2 K/9 rate over the last two seasons.
Kendall Graveman, whose velocity increased significantly with his move to the bullpen, should be next in line should Montero falter. But unless Montero absolutely refuses to take the job with a historically bad spring training performance, he’ll be the Mariners’ closer for the foreseeable future.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals have several relievers capable of handling the ninth inning, making for a fantasy manager’s nightmare. But Jordan Hicks could make the situation a whole lot cleaner if he shows he has recovered fully from Tommy John surgery. Hicks has performed well before as the closer and can hit triple digits on the radar gun. He’ll likely be given every opportunity to win the job, and the early reports are positive.
If things don’t go well in the spring, however, then all bets are off. Alex Reyes wants to be a starter but did well in the bullpen last year. He’d need to cut down on his walk rate (16.3%), but he would be a candidate for saves. Andrew Miller always factors into the late-inning mix, and Ryan Helsley could also see opportunities if he pitches well in the spring.
But the best candidate is likely Giovanny Gallegos, who pitched well last year (despite limited action due to difficulty getting to the states in the middle of a pandemic) and who owns a career 3.06 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in his career, to go along with a 31.6% strikeout rate. Hicks is the reliever to target for now so long as he shows he is healthy, but Gallegos is likely the best fallback option for fantasy managers.
Tampa Bay Rays
Anyone who has played fantasy baseball over the last several years understands what they’re getting from the Tampa Bay bullpen: many quality arms and no set closer. And that is again where they find themselves entering the 2021 season.
Pete Fairbanks had a decent but fairly unremarkable regular season, during which he totaled zero saves before securing three of them in the playoffs. Nick Anderson had a 0.55 ERA, a 0.49 WHIP, a 44.8% strikeout rate, and six saves during the regular season. But he had a 5.52 ERA and 14.2% strikeout rate in the playoffs and gave up at least one run in each of his last seven appearances. And Diego Castillo is extremely reliable and almost always garners a handful of saves.
The safest bet is to draft Anderson for his ratios and strikeout numbers and take any saves he gives you as gravy. He spoke openly about his fatigue in the playoffs (most of it mental due to remaining in the playoff bubble), and there’s every reason to expect him to return as the dominant reliever he was in the regular season. But to the extent you’re purely after saves, the Rays’ bullpen is likely to disappoint.
The Rangers are another bullpen to avoid if you’re searching for a reliable source of saves. A few seasons ago, it looked likely that Jose Leclerc , who emerged from relative obscurity in 2018 to become a dominant closer, was going to close games for Texas for the next several years after signing a lengthy deal. But he got off to a disastrous start in 2019, which led to him losing the job, was injured for most of last season, and is now coming off shoulder surgery.
Ranger manager Chris Woodward said he isn’t sure the Rangers will deploy any reliever in a traditional closer role but did mention Leclerc as a possibility if they do. At the same time, he talked about Leclerc being able to pitch the sixth or seventh inning if necessary.
The problem is that if Leclerc isn’t going to handle the ninth-inning role, then there really aren’t many other options. The Rangers bullpen is hardily filled with relievers knocking down the door to take over the ninth inning and mostly has younger options who are just figuring out their roles. To the extent there is a “next best candidate,” it’s Jonathan Hernandez, who is coming off a decent year but lacks top-end raw stuff. For what it’s worth, Chris Woodward did mention him as a possibility for save opportunities.
The Rangers are unlikely to be competitive, and the best baseball decision they could make is probably to let Leclerc try to rebuild his value as the closer and then trade him for prospects at the deadline, given his friendly contract. Until or unless Woodward names another option, Leclerc should be the target, but not until one of your last rounds.
Toronto Blue Jays
Jordan Romano looked like the favorite for saves in Toronto until the team signed Kirby Yates to be their stopper. To the extent there is drama around the Blue Jays’ closer situation, it’s only around whether Yates can recapture the form that made him one of the most dominant relievers in the game from 2018-2019.
Yates had a lost year in 2020 because of an elbow injury, and he had surgery in August to remove bone chips. Any pitcher coming off elbow surgery is a risk. But given that he had a 42% strikeout rate and excellent control before his lost 2020 season, he offers plenty of upside.
He’s on a one-year deal with the Blue Jays and is entering his age-34 season, so Toronto won’t hesitate to cut and run if Yates struggles. But, so long as he’s healthy and productive, he should be a reliable closer who fantasy managers can target confidently in drafts.
The Nationals signed Brad Hand in the offseason. Although there was some question as to whether he’d handle the ninth inning, exclusively, manager Dave Martinez recently said about him that “in a perfect world, he’ll be our closer.” If Hand does earn the traditional closer’s role, he should be one of the top fantasy options. After all, despite a decline in velocity last year, Hand is coming off one of the best seasons of his career and led the league in saves.
The only wrinkle is that the Nationals barely have another lefty reliever in their bullpen, let alone a reliable one, so the chances are that Hand will be deployed earlier in the game if the opposing team has multiple left-handed hitters due up. If so, the Nationals have other options to take the ninth inning, including Tanner Rainey, Daniel Hudson, and Will Harris. All that to say that Hand is a reliable reliever who you should draft for his overall numbers, but he may provide fewer saves than most traditional closers.
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