Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy: Relief Pitchers (2023)
Chasing saves is tricky business. So tricky, in fact, that I’d prefer to avoid that endeavor.
- Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy: Catchers
- Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy: First Basemen
- Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy: Second Basemen
- Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy: Shortstop
- Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy: Third Basemen
- Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy: Outfielders
- Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy: Starting Pitchers
Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings, Tiers & Strategy
Some formats require less save-chasing than others. If your league blends saves and holds into one category — or perhaps awards a point for a save and a half-point for a hold — you don’t have to focus as much attention on which pitchers have closer jobs and can instead focus on which pitchers are good at collecting strikeouts and limiting runs and baserunners. In other words, you can simply try to acquire good relief pitchers rather than spend a lot of time analyzing bullpen hierarchies. But in high-stakes leagues where you’re trying to win not only your individual league but a larger competition that includes many leagues, you might have to hold your nose and pay up for saves. Punting the category simply isn’t an option if you’re trying to win big money.
The big problem with chasing saves is that the pool of relievers who are good bets to get 25+ saves in a season is shrinking. Last year, 11 pitchers had 25+ saves. In 2021, there were 12 pitchers who reached that threshold.
The pool was deeper before the Covid-shortened 2020 season. There were 16 pitchers with 25+ saves in 2019, and 17 such pitchers in 2018.
Going back a decade, there were 23 relievers with 25+ saves in 2013.
Fantasy Baseball Draft Strategy: Relief Pitchers
The point is not that we should feel nostalgic about the Eddie Guardado era. The point is that the current scarcity of big-time save collectors will drive up prices on top closers in most formats. If you want the peace of mind that comes with rostering Emmanuel Clase or Edwin Diaz, you’ll have to pay up.
I prefer not to pay up. Yes, Clase and Diaz are highly valuable. But there is an opportunity cost to spending an early-round draft pick or big auction money on one of those guys. Clase and Diaz will also pitch less than half as many innings as the average starter. They will provide help in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts, but Clase and Diaz can only move the needle so much when they pitch about 60-70 innings per season.
The big risk with investing heavily in closers is that there is a great deal of closer volatility. Typically, less than half of the pitchers who begin the season as closers will finish the season in that role. It’s devastating to spend $17 or a seventh-round pick on a player you consider to be a “safe” closer, only to watch that player hit a rough patch — damaging your team ERA and WHIP in the process — and lose the closer job, cratering his value.
Rather than spend big on players who enter April with closer roles, I prefer to make small investments in pitchers who have appealing skill sets but don’t have closer roles. For example, I’m not interested in paying the asking price for projected Twins closer Jorge Lopez, a modestly skilled ex-starter who didn’t pitch particularly well for Minnesota down the stretch last season. But I’m very interested in Twins reliever Jhoan Duran, a 25-year-old flamethrower who had a high strikeout rate, a low walk rate and an ERA under 2.00 last year as a rookie. The Twins are reportedly content to keep using Duran in high-leverage non-closer situations, but I’m guessing that Duran ends up in the closer role at some point this season.
Let’s take a look at the relief pitcher tiers. In addition to the rankings and tiers themselves, I’ll offer a few words about some of the players from each tier.
Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings: Relief Pitchers
Fantasy Baseball Relief Pitchers Tiers & Draft Advice
These two are the creme de la creme, and you could make a strong case for either being ranked No. 1.
Emmanuel Clase had an MLB-leading 42 saves last season to go along with a 1.36 ERA and a 0.73 WHIP. (Guardians fans probably weren’t too upset about Clase’s 2022 ERA being worse than his 1.29 ERA in 2021.) Clase induces a ton of groundballs, rarely walks anyone, and home runs against him are as rare as UFO sightings. The only small blemish in Clase’s profile is that he doesn’t rack up as many strikeouts as some of his peers, though he’s still fanned more than a batter per inning in each of the last two seasons.
Edwin Diaz does rack up strikeouts — 118 of them last year in just 62 innings, good for a rate of 17.1 Ks per 9 innings. His swinging strike rate was an outrageous 25.5%. Diaz reduced his walk rate last season while increasing his groundball rate. He should save a ton of games for the Mets this year.
This is the “good bet” tier. These guys aren’t on the same level with Clase and Diaz, but they’re all likely to hold closer jobs throughout 2023 (barring injury, of course).
Ryan Pressly missed time with knee and neck issues last season yet still amassed 33 saves despite pitching only 48.1 innings. He’s 34 now, so we can’t assume a full season of good health, but Pressley has been terrific over the last five years, and he’ll have ample save opportunities for the Astros.
The Braves got their money’s worth from Raisel Iglesias down the stretch last season after acquiring him from the Angels. He posted an 0.34 ERA in 28 appearances for Atlanta, but he only recorded one save for his new team because he was setting up Kenley Jansen. But Jansen is in Boston now, and Iglesias will close games for one of the National League’s best teams.
Devin Williams didn’t allow a single earned run in June or July last season — a remarkable run covering 22 appearances. He inherited the closer role in August following the Brewers’ trade of Josh Hader to San Diego. Williams piles up strikeouts with a screwball/changeup known as the “Airbender,” arguably the most unhittable pitch in baseball.
Speaking of Josh Hader, the lanky lefty struggled mightily upon arrival in San Diego, posting a 7.31 ERA in 19 games with his new team. But after giving up 12 earned runs in his first seven appearances with the Padres, Hader settled in and yielded just one earned run oner his last 12 appearances. Hader runs into control issues at times but has averaged 15.2 strikeouts per 9 innings over his six-year career.
Jordan Romano had some spring hiccups last year but was nearly untouchable down the stretch, save for one bad outing vs. the Orioles in September. He finished with a career-high 36 saves and should have myriad save opportunities with the Jays in 2023.
Hard-throwing Ryan Helsley was a revelation for the Cardinals last year, with an ERA of 1.25, a WHIP of 0.74, and 94 strikeouts in 64.2 innings.
Dominican Republic native Felix Bautista made his MLB debut last year at age 26 and recorded 15 saves. This dude throws some serious gas and will pile up strikeouts. If the Orioles become serious AL East contenders this year, Bautista could find himself among the saves leaders.
David Bednar would be a tier higher if he pitched for a team other than the Pirates, who might provide him with a paucity of save chances. Over the last two seasons, Bednar has posted a 2.40 ERA and 1.04 WHIP over 112.1 innings, with 146 strikeouts.
With ERAs above 3.00 in four of the last five years, Kenley Jansen isn’t quite at the level he was at 6-7 years ago, but he’s still been dependable. We just have to bake in a little more risk now that he’s entering his age-35 season and pitching for a Red Sox squad that looks far more downtrodden than usual.
Camilo Doval issued a few too many walks last season (4.0 per 9 innings). His control issues became alarming in August, when he walked at least one batter in six consecutive appearances. But Doval piles up strikeouts and induces groundballs at a high rate. He could be a gem if he improves his control.
- Alexis Diaz
- Andres Munoz
- Daniel Bard
- Daniel Hudson
- Jhoan Duran
- Pete Fairbanks
- Jason Adam
- Dylan Floro
Alexis Diaz is a strikeout artist just like his older brother Edwin. The younger Diaz just needs to cut down on walks and perhaps reduce a flyball rate that was north of 50% last season. But he had seven wins and 10 saves for the Reds last year while posting a 1.84 ERA.
Andres Munoz and Jhoan Duran are the kind of bullpen studs I like to target. Both have filthy stuff but will likely enter the season as setup men, not closers. I suspect that both will not only be closers but premier closers before long.
Pete Fairbanks saved eight games and posted a 1.13 ERA and 0.67 WHIP last year over 24 appearances. He’s ticketed for the closer role in Tampa. The only concern is that he’s already had two Tommy John surgeries.
- Jose Leclerc
- Alex Lange
- Giovanny Gallegos
- Jorge Lopez
- Evan Phillips
- Brandon Hughes
- James Karinchak
- A.J. Puk
- Carlos Estevez
Jose Leclerc made two appearances in 2020 and missed all of 2021 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He was solid upon his return last season, with a 2.83 ERA over 39 appearances. If Leclerc can stay healthy and keep the walks under control, he could be one of the better bullpen values.
Alex Lange is a wild-card closer for the Tigers. He struck out 82 batters in 63.1 innings last season and had a 56% groundball rate, but he also issued 31 walks and threw 15 wild pitches. Place your bets.
As a setup man for the shaky Daniel Hudson. Evan Phillips could be a nice speculative investment. If he lands the Dodgers’ closer role, Phillips is going to return big dividends.
Brandon Hughes is probably going to begin the season as the Cubs’ closer, but I have my doubts about his ability to keep the job. As a rookie, Hughes issued 21 walks and gave up 11 home runs in 57.2 innings.
- Seranthony Dominguez
- Jose Alvarado
- Craig Kimbrel
- Taylor Rogers
- Liam Hendriks
- Kyle Finnegan
- Kendall Graveman
- Kevin Ginkel
- Alex Vesia
- Robert Suarez
- Adam Ottavino
- Dany Jimenez
- Chris Martin
- Hector Neris
- Scott McGough
- Rafael Montero
- Tanner Scott
- Jimmy Herget
- Gregory Soto
The Phillies have an interesting bullpen battle shaping up, with Seranthony Dominguez, Jose Alvarado, Craig Kimbrel and Gregory Soto all candidates to close. Dominguez and Alvarado are quality relievers with concerning injury histories. Kimbrel was amazing earlier in his career but has dealt with major control problems over the second half of his career. Soto has 48 saves over the past two years but has worse control problems than Kimbrel.
Liam Hendriks has been one of the more reliable closers in the game for the last four years, but he is undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and it’s not clear when he’ll be able to return to the White Sox. While Hendriks is out, Kendall Graveman is expected to get the first crack at closing games for the Sox. I have grave concerns about Graveman and his 4.04 career ERA. In fairness, though, Graveman has been much better as a reliever than he was as a starter earlier in his career.
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