Fantasy Baseball Closer Report: Spring Training 2021
When I wrote my Spring Training Closer Report in March of last year, it was right before the world shut down. I excitedly relayed that we were only 15 days from Opening Day, not realizing that the pandemic would push the season back four months — or that there would be no fans in the seats when things did resume. It’s kind of surreal to go back and read it now.
It’s also pretty surreal that I viewed the closer landscape at that time as “surprisingly stable” and identified only five — five! — closer situations that I considered to be committees. Suffice it to say that is not the case this year. In fact, things have swung so heavily in the other direction that more than half of all closer situations are undecided with less than a week to go until the season begins.
Simultaneously, one thing has remained remarkably constant: the names at the top of the list. Of the nine closers that appeared atop my closer rankings last March, seven of them — Josh Hader, Aroldis Chapman, Edwin Diaz, Liam Hendriks, Kenley Jansen, Brad Hand, and Craig Kimbrel — will be closers heading into the 2021 season. The two that won’t, Kirby Yates and Roberto Osuna, have dealt with significant arm injuries (and in Osuna’s case, off-field issues as well).
Beyond that group, the only player on last year’s preseason list who will clearly be closing again this year is Raisel Iglesias. Other names like Taylor Rogers, Hector Neris, Alex Colome, and Archie Bradley should factor into their teams’ ninth inning equations to varying degrees. Still, generally speaking, the amount of turnover outside of the top third is immense.
There aren’t many new names joining the ranks of certain closers, either. Ryan Pressly and Trevor Rosenthal are the only ones who 1) clearly have the role and 2) clearly have the skill level necessary to hold onto it all season.
So what does this tell us about how to approach 2021? Well, you probably should try to get at least one of the top tier of closers, perhaps even two. With so many teams content to go into the season with loosely-defined committees, the opportunity will be there to scrap together some saves with lesser-known relievers, but not enough to truly compete in the category if you don’t have at least one full-time closer.
With that little strategy session out of the way, let’s dive into this crazy list. Then we’ll circle back after the jump and dig into the most perplexing situations (of which there are many).
Editor’s Note: Tyler Clippard has been shut down for weeks with a shoulder injury, and Scott Oberg’s season is in jeopardy after requiring surgery to remove blood clots.
Usually, this section of the Closer Report is called “Random Musings,” but I’d say “Perplexing Situations” is more apt this time. The saves chase is looking more confusing than ever, so let’s see what sense we can make of it. But first, a couple of quick notes on two of the rare established closers.
Los Angeles Angels
While the Reds sometimes frustrated fantasy managers by not using Raisel Iglesias as their exclusive closer, it didn’t ultimately matter that much for his fantasy value. Still, the Angels reportedly plan to use Iglesias as a more traditional closer, which will surely please his fantasy managers.
I don’t feel great about having Brad Hand among my top-8 closers, considering his precipitous decline in velocity over the last two seasons, but welcome to the saves chase in 2021! The good news is that he’s mostly been able to get the job done even with diminished velocity. The Nationals signed him with the clear intention of making him their closer, and reports on his velocity have generally been favorable this spring.
Some may object to me declaring Will Smith as the Braves’ closer over Chris “Don’t Call Me Coldplay” Martin. Still, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently reported that we could “expect Smith to have the bulk of closer duties.” That’s good enough for me (for now). In 2020, Smith posted an ERA above 4.00 for the first time since his rookie season, but it should be taken as little more than 16 innings of statistical noise. He should provide an ERA around 3.00, WHIP around 1.00, and an excellent strikeout rate.
San Diego Padres
If you read through this March 15 article in The San Diego Union-Tribune, you’ll come away feeling pretty confident that Emilio Pagan will emerge as the Friars’ closer. The key takeaway is that “the name mentioned most by those in the organization as the pitcher they expect to assume the [closer] role is Pagán.” That’s not the same thing as manager Jayce Tingler announcing Pagan is the guy, so we’ll still call this a committee for now. But Tingler reportedly “acknowledged the preference that one pitcher grabs the job,” so Pagan could be a good value if/when he beats out the likes of Drew Pomeranz and Pierce Johnson.
The fantasy world seems to have widely assumed that James Karinchak would serve as Cleveland’s closer this year, thanks to his elite stuff and strikeout ability. But the Indians have not announced a closer yet, and it would be no surprise if manager Terry Francona opted to give the job to veteran Nick Wittgren while saving Karinchak for a more flexible firefighter role.
San Francisco Giants
Regular readers of this column will know I tend to rant and rave about Gabe Kapler, but I’ll try to control myself this year. I must admit I was close to labeling Jake McGee as the Giants’ closer after reading this piece in The Mercury News. Still, given Kapler’s track record of closer-by-committee, I think I should let it play out a little before making any bold proclamations. If the Giants’ committee does truly “disappear,” as the Mercury News posits, McGee could be a sneaky good value. He got back on track in a big way after escaping Colorado last year, posting an impressive 2.66 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, and 14.61 K/9 across 20 1/3 innings.
Toronto Blue Jays
With Kirby Yates lost for the season, the Blue Jays’ closer job is wide open. Jordan Romano sounds eager to fill Yates’ shoes. Now it’s just a question of whether Jays’ manager Charlie Montoyo will give him a chance. After a rough first go around in the Majors in 2019, Romano settled in nicely last year, producing a 1.23 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, and 12.89 K/9 in 14 2/3 innings. If Montoyo decides to look elsewhere, Rafael Dolis and David Phelps are other candidates.
You need to consume many local news reports to do this job, but they just send you around in circles. Case in point: In late February, the Seattle Times reported that the Mariners would employ a closer-by-committee this season and quoted manager Scott Servais confirming it: “There will be no closer.” But since then, the Times has teased us poor saves addicts by repeatedly referring to Rafael Montero as the Mariners’ “projected closer.” So which is it? Given the lack of ambiguity in Servais’ quote, I’m sticking with calling it a committee for now, with Montero, Kendall Graveman, Anthony Misiewicz, and Keynan Middleton the primary contenders.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Red Birds could have one of the best bullpens in baseball this year, but picking out a closer from the bunch is no easy matter. Former closer Jordan Hicks is back after missing all of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he’ll be eased back into a high-leverage role. In the meantime, Giovanny Gallegos, Andrew Miller, and Alex Reyes would appear to be the leading contenders for saves, with Gallegos probably the best bet.
The Twins’ closer committee worked out quite well for them last season, and given that it seems to be manager Rocco Baldelli’s preferred approach in the first place, we should expect more of the same in 2021. While Taylor Rogers led Minnesota with nine saves in 2020, he could cede more chances to free-agent acquisition Alex Colome than he did to Sergio Romo. Colome doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but he’s been an above-average closer for five straight seasons. It wouldn’t be shocking if former Angels closer Hansel Robles picked up the occasional save, too, much as Trevor May did last season.
Boston Red Sox
Red Sox manager Alex Cora is reportedly “in no rush” to decide whether Matt Barnes or newcomer Adam Ottavino will be his closer to begin the year. That said, Cora wants to have a set closer this season, which is more than we can say for many managers. As the incumbent, Barnes has to be considered the favorite.
Tampa Bay Rays
Following the unfortunate news that Nick Anderson will likely be out past the All-Star Break due to a torn elbow ligament, Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo are now the leading options to gather saves in Tampa Bay. Rays skipper Kevin Cash was always going to utilize a committee approach, but the question is how many ways the closer pie will be divided. If it’s split relatively evenly between Fairbanks and Castillo, with no third or fourth options interfering, both will be plenty useful in fantasy leagues.
Reds manager David Bell is reportedly “reluctant to name a single closer to open the regular season,” meaning that Amir Garrett, Lucas Sims, and Sean Doolittle could factor into the ninth inning in the season’s opening month. Doolittle has the vaunted closer experience, and Sims is the right-hander, but Garrett still seems to be the slight favorite at this stage of the game.
Marlins manager Don Mattingly has not named a closer, but the Miami Herald notes that Mattingly “has not been a fan of closer by committee” and pegs Anthony Bass as the team’s likely closer. The Herald added that Bass’s main competition, Yimi Garcia, “hasn’t looked good this spring.”
Phillies manager Joe Girardi has not named a closer yet, and he’ll have three relievers with closing experience to choose from: incumbent Hector Neris, Archie Bradly, and Jose Alvarado. According to MLB.com, “it would not be surprising if Neris opened the season in the role,” but given the alternatives, he won’t have nearly as long a leash as he did last season.
Every manager describes the need for a closer-by-committee in his own way. Here’s how Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo explains it: “The baseball traditions are changing, and I love the baseball traditions. But I’ve got to adapt. … We’ve just got to collect outs on the back end of the game, and I want the best matchups for the best guys to go out and have success and not force a round peg in a square hole.” Well put, sir. Look for Joakim Soria and Stefan “Don’t Call Me Michael” Crichtonto get the first chances to fit into that square hole.
Pirates manager Derek Shelton recently said that “four or five guys” could close for Pittsburgh, but MLB.com notes that “three are clear-cut options”: Ricard Rodriguez, Kyle Crick, and Chris Stratton. Considering the Pirates’ low projected win total, one of them will need to run away with the job to create much fantasy interest.
Just in case you were trying to talk yourself into Gregory Soto as a viable fantasy closer, Tigers manager A.J. Hinch threw cold water on that notion by declaring that he won’t name a closer and will instead take the competition into the regular season. Joy. Besides Soto, Bryan Garcia, Buck Farmer, and Joe Jimenez could also see the occasional save.
Brandon Hyde has never named a closer during his two seasons as Orioles manager, and he’s not about to name one now dag nab it! As MLB.com notes, “with Hunter Harvey sidelined with an oblique injury, the most likely closing candidates appear to be hard-throwing lefty Tanner Scott, righties Cole Sulser, and Shawn Armstrong, and perhaps lefty Paul Fry.” That’s way too many candidates for way too few projected save chances. Pass.
If you thought the Orioles’ situation was messy, wait until to take a gander at the Rangers! This situation shaped up to be a headache even before leading candidate Jose Leclerc went down with elbow issues, and now it’s even more unsightly. Maybe 36-year old Ian Kennedy can emerge out of nowhere for a second time to lock down 30 saves? Maybe 35-year old Matt Bush can be a competent reliever for the first time since 2017? Maybe not.
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