As the decade comes to a close, more and more managers have begun to mix and match their best relievers according to game situation, rather than simply to bring them in only when a save is on the line. This is probably a sound real-life strategy but doesn’t do much for us. For fantasy purposes, we want to know who is going to get saves. The season is officially here, yet there are still several clubs whose closing situations are still very much fluid. With so much uncertainty surrounding the position, choosing the right relievers could really benefit those who do so this season. Multiple trips around the closer carousel often leave owners losing their entry fees as well as their lunches.
There’s an axiom we have heard thousands of times by now – “draft skills, not role”. In a vacuum, that is sound advice. After all, the baseball season is quite long. Plenty of situations will look vastly different six months from now than they appear today. Still, roles matter, particularly when it comes to relief pitchers. As I touched on in my fantasy baseball draft strategy piece, you can get production in any given category from virtually any given position group. However, you are only getting saves from relievers. We may all agree that Joe Jimenez is more talented than Shane Greene. But as long as Greene has the job, he is going to be more valuable from a fantasy standpoint than Jimenez is.
Hunter Strickland is being drafted after pick 400 on average in Fantrax drafts. In last weekend’s NFBC Main Event drafts, Strickland’s ADP was 134. The furthest he fell was pick 171. Did he suddenly become more skilled? I’m going to go out on a limb and say he did not. What he did do was pitch two clean innings and get two saves. More importantly for our purposes, he was given what we consider to be traditional closer usage. Strickland did not come in when Seattle was blowing a 4-2 lead in the seventh inning. He did not pitch in the eighth, ninth, tenth, or eleventh innings of a tied game when giving up a run meant Seattle would lose. He pitched the bottom of the 12th once Seattle’s offense presented a save opportunity. That type of usage matters in fantasy, perhaps this year more so than ever before.
While I still maintain that Ryan Pressly has elite skills and is a breakthrough candidate, it’s difficult to advise drafting him over the likes of Greene, Strickland, or any other pitcher who has “the job”. The good news is that unless you are in a Best Ball or a Draft and Hold league, you will have plenty of opportunities to find saves throughout the course of the season. You may even choose to “handcuff” an elite setup man to your established but flawed closer at the end of your draft. I will update this list each week with some quick thoughts and context on each player listed. As always, feel free to comment below or on Twitter. Here are my updated 2019 relief pitcher rankings.
The regular season is almost upon us! Don’t worry, there’s still time to add that “one more league!” Leagues are still forming at Fantrax.com, so head on over and jump in one today.
2019 Relief Pitcher Rankings
RANK PITCHER TEAM
1 Edwin Diaz New York Mets
2 Blake Treinen Oakland Athletics
3 Josh Hader Milwaukee Brewers
4 Kenley Jansen Los Angeles Dodgers
5 Aroldis Chapman New York Yankees
6 Roberto Osuna Houston Astros
7 Brad Hand Cleveland Indians
8 Sean Doolittle Washington Nationals
9 Felipe Vazquez Pittsburgh Pirates
10 Jose Alvarado Tampa Bay Rays
11 Kirby Yates San Diego Padres
12 Raisel Iglesias Cincinnati Reds
13 Jose Leclerc Texas Rangers
14 Ken Giles Toronto Blue Jays
15 Wade Davis Colorado Rockies
16 Alex Colome Chicago White Sox
17 Pedro Strop Chicago Cubs
18 Cody Allen Cleveland Indians
19 Mychal Givens Baltimore Orioles
20 Hunter Strickland Seattle Mariners
21 Arodys Vizcaino Atlanta Braves
22 Shane Greene Detroit Tigers
23 Greg Holland Arizona Diamondbacks
24 David Robertson Philadelphia Phillies
25 Matt Barnes Boston Red Sox
26 Jordan Hicks St. Louis Cardinals
27 Will Smith San Francisco Giants
28 Trevor May Minnesota Twins
29 Seranthony Dominguez Philadelphia Phillies
30 Brad Boxberger Kansas City Royals
31 Sergio Romo Miami Marlins
32 Blake Parker Minnesota Twins
33 Andrew Miller St. Louis Cardinals
34 Ryan Brasier Boston Red Sox
35 Drew Steckenrider Miami Marlins
36 Wily Peralta Kansas City Royals
37 Jacob Barnes Milwaukee Brewers
38 A.J. Minter Atlanta Braves
39 Mark Melancon San Francisco Giants
40 Craig Kimbrel Free Agent
Tier 1: Diaz, Treinen, Hader
Do you ever see something that seems super obvious, yet nobody else seems to be on the same track? You end up overthinking it and questioning yourself unnecessarily. That is how I feel about Josh Hader this year, particularly after the news of the last two weeks. Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel are sidelined with injuries, with Knebel’s seeming serious. Hader’s ADP has risen slightly since then but not as high as one would expect given the recent circumstances. His ADP still sits at 108.95. More importantly, he is currently being drafted ninth among relievers. This weekend, I grabbed him in both my drafts as the tenth and eighth reliever off the board. I could not be happier about this.
Milwaukee registered 49 saves as a club in 2018, and Hader’s path to a much bigger chunk of that pie just got way clearer. People might be worried about the Brewers signing Kimbrel. But Hader finished fourth among all relievers on ESPN’s Player Rater last season. He did this while racking up a grand total of 12 saves. He doesn’t need 40 saves to be a top-5 reliever. And yet he just might get 40 saves. That would truly put him on another level. Even if Kimbrel signs with Milwaukee, there are no guarantees he remains elite or that he and Hader don’t split ninth-inning work. If Milwaukee does not bring in the veteran, I think Hader is fantasy’s number one reliever with a bullet. For now, I’ll rank him at number three.
Tier 2: Jansen, Chapman, Osuna, Hand, Doolittle, Vazquez, Alvarado
Lefty power! Jansen and Chapman are the elder statesmen of this group in terms of closing experience. With Kimbrel at least temporarily out of the fold, Jansen and Chapman are consensus top-5 selections despite having down seasons in 2018. Osuna does not offer the strikeout upside of his counterparts, but he has excellent control and is on an elite team. However, his off-field issues are well documented. Hopefully, he has rehabilitated himself and can stay on the field. If he does, he can lead all relievers in saves this season. Hand and Doolittle are attached to projected playoff teams and offer plenty of strikeout potential with solid ratios. Doolittle has struggled to stay on the field, however. Hence him slotting in behind Hand. Vazquez hit a bit of a rough patch early last season but settled down and should have another solid season in Pittsburgh.
I am higher on Alvarado than most. He is being drafted as the 20th reliever off the board, 19th if you consider that Ross Stripling is listed as a reliever. Either way, I think that is way too low. I really believe Alvarado is a top-10 closer this year. He harnessed his impressive pitch mix towards the end of last season and dominated hitters over the course of the last two months. Alvarado struck out 35 of 75 batters faced from August 1 on. He should get the lion’s share of saves for a team that produced the AL’s leader in saves in 2017. They also played the most one-run games in all of baseball last season.
Tier 3: Yates, Iglesias, Leclerc, Giles, Davis
Yates has finally found himself a home after bouncing around the league for a few years. He is a solid fallback option for those who miss out on the top closers. Iglesias has solid numbers and is on what should be a vastly improved Reds team. But the team is among those experimenting with using their top reliever in those high-leverage scenarios. That is preventing me from bumping him up a tier. LeClerc was sensational upon his insertion in the role following the trade of Keona Kela to Pittsburgh. He induced an insane amount of weak contact and struck out 38.1 percent of batters faced in 2018. However, his lack of control is something I cannot overlook. He is also saddled with playing for what should be one of baseball’s worst teams. I do not know if he can generate enough saves to bump him up a tier.
Giles is interesting to me. He had a 4.65 ERA last year but converted all 26 of his save opportunities. When called upon in a non-save situation, Giles was atrocious. But he was locked in when a save was at stake. It’s the opposite problem that a lot of would-be closers seem to struggle with. He admitted to seeking counsel to upgrade his mental makeup. If he can harness his emotions, he should be in for a solid season. Davis should rack up a good amount of saves but prepare for some ratio damage. If you can deploy him judiciously and get a little lucky, he can jump up a tier. However, closers are usually a “set it and forget it” type position just because you never know how a game or series will play out.
Tier 4: Colome, Strop, Allen, Givens, Strickland
Colome has been named the closer in Chicago and recorded a league-high 47 saves for Tampa in 2017. He does not figure to approach that number in 2019, but he has solid skills and can keep the job all year with a solid start. Strop survived a recent injury scare and should be in line to start the season. He has a real chance to run with the opportunity as Brandon Morrow recovers from his injury. Allen looks to revitalize his career after a poor showing in Cleveland last year. I am not optimistic, but his status seems secure to start the year. Givens is the closer in Baltimore, which accounts for something. Except Baltimore is probably the worst team in the league. You should not expect more than a single save in any given week. The aforementioned Strickland started off well, which should loosen his leash a little.
Tier 5: Vizcaino, Greene, Holland
Vizcaino will reportedly share the gig with A.J. Minter. But Minter is on the shelf to start the year, so Vizcaino could hold him off with a hot start. I have Vizcaino behind Strop only because Minter should return sooner than Morrow, and I also believe Minter is a better pitcher than Vizcaino. Shane Greene is another pitcher whose value is boosted by his role and not necessarily his skill set. The smart money says that Joe Jimenez takes over at some point, but Greene should have value in the interim. Holland was named the closer in Arizona, which made for some good Twitter fodder. Archie Bradley truthers shouldn’t have to wait long to cash in on their “I told you so’s”, but Holland will close to begin the year.
The Phillies have two viable closing options in Robertson and Dominguez. But Gabe Kapler has not named a full-time closer as of yet. As a result, both players are going a tier or two below their true talent level. If either player is tabbed as the go-to guy, he could be a top-10 closer. Barnes and Brasier may split time for Boston. I like Barnes better, but it remains to be seen how Alex Cora will approach the ninth inning sans Kimbrel. Jordan Hicks has impressed this spring with his blazing heater and GIF-tastic slider. But he was very hittable last year and has not proven he can close consistently. Andrew Miller is likely to steal a few opps, and Alex Reyes and even Carlos Martinez threaten to pick up some chances if Hicks were to falter. There are too many unknowns for me to fully buy in.
Smith has elite skills. But he also has a manager who can’t decide on a closer. I can’t tell if this is Bruce Bochy’s attempt to be progressive and utilize the superior Smith in more high-leverage situations, or if it is his stubborn refusal to give up on Melancon. I suspect it’s the latter. May finds himself in a similar situation in Minnesota. Unlike Melancon, Parker has at least made a solid case for himself this spring. Both Smith and Parker are being drafted well ahead of their counterparts, but there is no guarantee they get more saves. Kansas City and Miami are bottom-feeding teams who have not fully committed to a ninth-inning specialist. I’d pass on all available options for now. Barnes may close at times if Milwaukee wants to keep Hader’s usage fluid. He can fall out of the top-40 or jump up three tiers next week.
Thoughts on Craig Kimbrel
The longer his free agency goes on, the less I want anything to do with Kimbrel this season. This whole situation reminds me too much of Greg Holland last year. Please don’t misunderstand me. Kimbrel is WAY better than Holland. But Holland signed right before the season last year and was a complete and utter train wreck. Sure, a large part of that equation is talent, or perhaps lack thereof. But do we think the whole winter of uncertainty and the sudden rush to try to get back to speed had nothing to do with Holland’s awful first half?
As much as we want to pretend otherwise, these are people dealing with very stressful situations. Being out of work sucks. And I would imagine it sucks even more when there is a finite time in which you can perform your job and you’re still sitting on the sidelines waiting for the right team with the right offer at the right time. I’m sure Kimbrel has a lot on his plate right now. He has a family to take care of, including a young daughter with medical issues. Maybe that factors into where he wants to go. I just think there are a ton of question marks right now to draft Kimbrel with any semblance of confidence. Even if he does sign in the next couple of weeks, he will not be more to me than a borderline top-10 play at this juncture.
Are you digging Mick’s Relief Pitcher Rankings? For more great rankings, strategy, and analysis check out the 2019 FantraxHQ Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit. We’ll be adding more content from now right up until Opening Day!
Mick Ciallela has been writing for FantraxHQ since July 2017. He has also written for Bleacher Report. He is a lifelong sports fan and has been an avid fantasy sports player for many years. Mick was the Overall Champion of both the 2016 Football Challenge – Roto and 2017 Play 3 Football contests hosted by CDM Sports. Mick was born and raised in Mount Vernon, New York and currently resides in New London, Connecticut.
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