Fantasy Baseball: Closer Primer
Over the last few weeks, we've been surveying the landscape at each position and focusing on the top guys you should be targeting in your fantasy baseball drafts this season. With Opening Day less than a couple weeks away, we're right in the peak draft season, so be sure to check out our primers for first base, second base, third base, shortstop, catcher, outfielder, and starting pitcher.
Last, but certainly not least, we close this series on, well, closers. To reflect the most recent draft market values, all ADP numbers are from National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) drafts since March 1.
It's Messier Than Ever
Closers may be the most frustrating position to deal with in fantasy baseball, as it's incredibly volatile from year to year, and even the "safe" options aren't as reliable as we'd like. And yet, they're a necessary evil to accumulate saves, which are just as important as any other roto category.
But if that wasn't enough, much like the disappearance of quality catchers or 200-inning pitchers, traditional closers are also becoming more and more difficult to find. Gone are the days of 30 traditional closers, with many teams keeping their closer plans under wraps or electing to play the matchups with multiple relievers. This primer was intentionally left last with the hopes of more clarification, but the truth is we remain in the dark on many of these situations -- only a little more than half the teams have confirmed their closers to this point. Heck, as of this writing, Craig Kimbrel and his 333 career saves still don't have a home, either.
So, while you may have been reluctant in the past to spend an early draft pick on a closer, it's something you have to at least consider in 2019. As we know, in doing so you'll be forced to pass on intriguing players at other positions, and even the best closers are susceptible to failure on occasion. But you don't necessarily need to be the first person who drafts a closer -- you can still wait until the top guys come off the board, or find a point in the draft where you're not quite as enamored with the other choices. In any case, snag your guy while you can.
If you forgo nabbing at least one of the closers who has a job locked up -- or is at least a near certainty to -- you can open yourself up a whole can of worms, throwing darts at several would-be closers, many of whom will almost certainly flop or never win the job. While the waiting strategy is one that has absolutely worked in the past and still can, the difference is in prior seasons you were able to at least draft late relievers who already had defined roles. Now that we have so many closer situations up in the air, you run the risk more than ever of whiffing and chasing saves all year on the waiver wire, and this can be especially problematic in deep and competitive formats where others may be thinking the same. Still, given the turnover at the position and the draft capital you must spend for top closers, it may be a risk you're willing to take.
However you choose to play this game of closer roulette, it's a good idea to have a game plan in mind, even if you remain flexible depending on how your specific draft unfolds. But the underlying thought is while it may pain you to do so, dipping your feet in the closer pool to grab one or even two "sure things," even if it's a little earlier than you may like, could, err, save you a lot of headaches in the long run.
Who Can You Trust?
If you're hoping to grab one or two reliable closers, how long can you wait?
Here are the relievers going in the top 150 of drafts, along with their 2018 marks in strikeout rate, walk rate, swinging-strike rate, first-pitch strike rate, and ground-ball rate.
|Craig Kimbrel||Free Agent||96||38.9%||12.6%||17.2%||56.3%||28.2%|
|Ken Giles||Blue Jays||147||25.0%||3.3%||16.0%||66.0%||44.3%|
This group includes the unsigned Kimbrel, along with both Josh Hader and Corey Knebel from the Brewers, but generally speaking, this is pretty much it as far as "trustworthy" traditional closers. Not only are these guys in stable situations, but just as importantly, they have the skills to hold onto their respective jobs. Most of them have strikeout rates at or above 30% and/or rarely issue any walks, which is exactly what we want in a closer.
Edwin Diaz and Blake Treinen are the new 1 and 1A of the closer ranks this season. While it's foolish to assume Diaz can match his league-leading 57 saves again, his massive strikeout rate allowed him to rack up 124 punchouts in just 73 1/3 innings with a pristine 1.49 SIERA. Similarly, Treinen figures to regress from his near flawless 0.78 ERA, and his modest first-pitch strike rate could lead to more walks, but he boasted career-highs in strikeout rate and swinging-strike rate while maintaining a ground-ball rate above 50%. They're about as safe as they get, but enlisting their services will require a high draft pick.
Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel have been the class of the position for many years, and Kimbrel's lower ADP is solely the result of him still lacking a team to call his own. But they're all in their 30s now and showed chinks in the armor last season, with Jansen posting a career-low strikeout rate, while Chapman and Kimbrel struggled with free passes. Maybe this trio isn't as risk-free as years past, but given the nature of the position, they all remain top choices, and Kimbrel could potentially be a value if you're willing to take a chance on his uncertain status.
Brad Hand, Roberto Osuna and Felipe Vazquez might not have quite the same name value as the prior three, but they're going right around the same price range, and they have the skills to back it up. Osuna's strikeout rate may come off as a red flag, but his 14.7% swinging-strike rate wasn't far off his career average, and his walk rate and first-pitch strike rate were elite. Don't be afraid to snag him if he drops.
But if you're intent on waiting as long as possible on a top closer, your best bang for your buck may be Sean Doolittle, Kirby Yates, Jose Leclerc, Raisel Iglesias, Wade Davis, Corey Knebel and Ken Giles, who are all going outside the top 100. From a skills perspective, you can easily argue Doolittle, Yates, and Leclerc should be going earlier, with Yates perhaps being your best bet -- Doolittle has consistently struggled to stay healthy, while Leclerc has posted a double-digit walk rate over his young career.
Knebel had a rocky 2018, but he still put up dominant overall numbers, so you're betting on the skills leading to a season more like 2017. He'll likely still lose saves to Josh Hader here and there, but Jeremy Jeffress being taken out of the mix to begin the year will be one less mouth to feed.
And speaking of Hader, he was a joy to have on your side last year. Over just 81 1/3 innings, he racked up 143 strikeouts, 6 wins, and 12 saves, all while providing a fantastic 2.43 ERA and 0.81 WHIP. The trouble is while he was merely a late-round flier in 2018, he costs a pretty penny for his services this time around, so you're hoping for a near repeat of those numbers for him to hit value. He's obviously skilled enough to do it, but as neither a traditional starter or closer, he won't have the wins or saves to fall back on should he suffer any regression. You might consider trying to find the next Hader later in your draft -- or revisit another familiar top middle reliever we'll get into later -- rather than pay the premium.
Davis has a secure job in Colorado and boasted a strong strikeout rate last year, giving him some stability. But the walks could go up if he posts a first-pitch strike rate below 50% again, and we all know Coors Field is never a pitcher's friend, so he may not post the most appealing ratios.
Lastly, although human roller coaster Ken Giles might not come across as a so-called safe option, he should get a fair amount of leeway as the Blue Jays' closer after being traded for last year. Much like Osuna -- the guy he was coincidentally swapped for -- he didn't put up his usual strikeout rate, but maintained a strong swinging-strike rate and owned a stellar walk rate.
The Best of the Rest
After the aforementioned group is where things begin to get shaky. Whether it's closers with tenuous holds on their jobs, committee situations, or skilled relievers in uncertain roles, if you play the waiting game, you'll have to take your shots on some of these fellas to fill the void at saves.
|Alex Colome||White Sox||223||25.5%||7.5%||13.6%||63.1%||46.2%|
|Matt Barnes||Red Sox||235||36.2%||11.7%||14.5%||55.9%||53.0%|
With the Angels' job his, Cody Allen would normally jump into the prior tier, but his numbers dropped across the board in 2018, making him less of a lock to hold onto the 9th inning the entire season. Still, he isn't short on closer experience and will hopefully sees some of his skills bounce back. Ty Buttrey would presumably be the next man up if you want a late-round flier in deep leagues.
Things become much murkier for the guys who follow, but many have the right skills or situation to find their way to saves.
Jose Alvarado has the numbers to be a top-notch closer and is the presumed favorite for save on the Rays. But this being the team that created the "opener," they aren't planning to name a closer entering the year and figure to use Alvarado in a variety of roles, likely lowering his save count.
Although David Robertson has the talent and experience, Seranthony Dominguez is no slouch himself, and the expectation is they'll share save opportunities with the Phillies. Dominguez could be a value at his lower ADP.
Arodys Vizcaino and A.J. Minter are expected to form a similar tandem for the Braves, although Minter is expected to begin the year on the injured list, so Vizcaino should have the job to himself in the early going.
Don't be fooled by Jordan Hicks' low strikeout rate -- he averaged over 101 mph on his sinker last year. He has tantalizing upside, but the talented Andrew Miller should get his share of saves, too, and guys like Alex Reyes and Carlos Martinez could even enter the mix down the line. Although it's worth taking a shot on Hicks' skills, this isn't an ideal scenario for anyone here.
Perhaps this is the year Archie Bradley closes for the Diamondbacks. Will Smith has always been a big strikeout guy and appears to have the upper hand over Mark Melancon in San Francisco. Alex Colome is expected to have the edge over Kelvin Herrera, although the rebuilding White Sox probably won't provide an abundance of save chances.
Pedro Strop is supposed to begin the year as the Cubs' closer but is dealing with a hamstring injury, which could complicate things to start. Brandon Morrow is still recovering from offseason elbow surgery and is expected to be back with Chicago in May. Assuming everything goes to plan, he'll regain the job when he's ready.
Matt Barnes and Trevor May put up some eye-popping numbers last season and could be amazing values if they win their respective jobs for the Red Sox and Twins. Ryan Brasier and Blake Parker are possible alternatives for each team if they go in different directions.
Shane Greene and Mychal Givens are your typical untrustworthy closers on bad teams, and while the upside is limited, saves are saves, and the price is right. Givens is having a rough spring and hasn't been officially named closer, but he remains the top choice in an inexperienced bullpen. Joe Jimenez could eventually get the job in Detroit if Greene falters or is traded later in the season.
Despite coming off a back injury, Hunter Strickland is the favorite in Seattle. His 2018 numbers don't pop like the others, which can be at least partially blames on a fractured hand, but he still only owns a career 22.6% strikeout rate. Even so, a lack of competition theoretically gives him some job security.
Drafters have apparently forgotten that before Josh Hader, Dellin Betances was the original super middle reliever of choice. He put up a stellar 2.03 SIERA and 42.3% strikeout rate last year, and he's now racked up at least 100 strikeouts for five straight seasons. Betances would need to luck into some wins and saves, but it isn't outrageous to think he can produce much like Hader did in 2018, and he's going nearly 200 picks later.
The only teams excluded from either chart are the Royals and Miami Marlins. Neither team projects to grant many save opportunities, so you may want to avoid these situations altogether. But if you're desperate, Brad Boxberger and Wily Peralta are duking it out in Kansas City, while Drew Steckenrider and Sergio Romo are in the mix for saves in Miami.