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2021 State of the Bullpen: American League Closer Preview

Pitchers and catchers reported to camp this week. Baseball is back! After all the speculating we’ve done all winter, we’ll finally get some clarity to some bullpen situations out there. Now that Trevor Rosenthal has signed with Oakland, there won’t be too much more movement on the closer front. So, starting with the American League bullpens, let’s go team-by-team and see where each closing situation stands.

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AL East State of the Bullpen

Baltimore Orioles

Closer – Hunter Harvey/Tanner Scott

Next Man Up – Tanner Scott/Cesar Valdez

Could 2021 be the first season we get a closer with at least 20 saves in Baltimore since Zack Britton in 2016? That could depend on the health and development of Hunter Harvey. Harvey was poised to take control of the ninth inning heading in 2020, but he was sidelined by a forearm strain until the end of August. He pitched only 8.2 innings and posted a 4.15 ERA and only six strikeouts. Harvey looked much more promising in his 2019 debut, striking out 11 batters in 6.1 innings and allowing only one run.

Health has been a big issue for Harvey, so his focus this offseason has been on his endurance. Harvey reportedly threw twice as much this offseason than prior years to work up his strength for the season. He’s also worked on a splitter to pair with his fastball that touches 100mph and generates enough whiffs on its own. Making it through an entire season will be a win for Harvey, let alone succeeding in the closer role.

Meanwhile, Baltimore’s best reliever in 2020, Tanner Scott, returns with a shot to compete for saves. Scott posted a 1.31 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 20.2 innings and recorded one save for the Orioles last season. A 13.9% swinging-strike rate and a 58% ground ball rate are great building blocks for a late-inning reliever. It’s the 11.6% walk rate that Scott needs to work on. It helps that he can pitch for a strikeout or ground ball if and when he does allow a free pass. I can see Baltimore being careful with Harvey and not allowing him to pitch on too many consecutive days, opening the door for Scott to vulture some saves.

Cesar Valdez finished the 2020 season as the team’s closer, though he doesn’t have nearly the same swing-and-miss stuff as Harvey and Scott. Valdez lives off his changeup and 52% ground ball rate while limiting walks to a 5.7% clip. Valdez could step in once again if the team decides to go the veteran route or Harvey is unable to stay healthy and effective.

Boston Red Sox

Closer – Matt Barnes/Adam Ottavino

Next Man Up – Adam Ottavino/Matt Barnes

This would be an appropriate time for one of those two Spider-Man pointing at each other memes. Matt Barnes and Adam Ottavino have been high-strikeout relievers accustomed to working in high-leverage roles. Barnes has been with the Red Sox since 2014 and took over as the team’s closer after Boston traded Brandon Workman in 2020, recording nine saves and posting a 4.30 ERA with 31 strikeouts in 23 innings. Ottavino comes over from New York, where he served as a middle reliever for the Yankees. Ottavino posted a 5.89 ERA, but the underlying metrics favored him over Barnes. Both have struggled with walks and volatility. Neither has been confirmed as the team’s closer for the 2021 season. Given Barnes is the incumbent, he’ll have the advantage.

New York Yankees

Closer – Aroldis Chapman

Next Man Up – Zack Britton

There’s no question as to where things stand in the Yankees bullpen. Aroldis Chapman is the man, has been the man, and will continue to be the man. Unfortunately, Chapman got a late start to the 2020 season after testing positive for COVID. He recorded only three saves on the year and posted a 3.09 ERA with 22 strikeouts in 11.2 innings. Under the hood, everything checks out for Chapman, who will be 33-years-old when the season starts. Chapman saw no dip in velocity from 2019, though it was only 11.2 innings. And his 40% K-BB rate would have been his best since 2014. Regardless, Chapman knows he can’t throw 100 forever, and he’s been working on a splitter to incorporate into his arsenal this season. Draft him as a top-three closer with confidence.

As for Zack Britton, he stepped up while Chapman was out and recorded eight saves along with a 1.89 ERA in 19 innings. While he could serve as an ERA stabilizing reliever, his value comes as Chapman’s handcuff for a team that should continue to see plenty of save opportunities.

Tampa Bay Rays

Closer – Nick Anderson/Diego Castillo/Pete Fairbanks

Next Man Up – See above

We pretty much know by now how the Rays are going to operate. Anyone on any given night can be called up to close out a game. Nick Anderson recorded six saves while Diego Castillo converted four. After that, 10 other relievers converted a save for the team. Despite a stint on the IL with a forearm strain, Anderson had a successful season, posting a 0.55 ERA, 0.49 WHIP, and 26 strikeouts in 16.1 innings. If I had to bet on anyone leading the team in saves once again, it would be Anderson.

Diego Castillo improved a few areas in his profile, raising both his ground ball and swinging-strike rates. Though he did see an uptick in his walk rate. I’d expect Castillo to be the versatile arm he’s been for the Rays, pitching the sixth inning one night and closing a game the next. The improvements he’s made could make him one of the top middle relievers to roster for ratios and strikeouts if he can keep the walks under control.

Pete Fairbanks is the cheapest of the bunch, with an NFBC ADP of 386 in February. While a high walk rate could keep his WHIP above 1.20, he’ll be worth rostering in just about every 15-team roto league for strikeouts, ERA, and the occasional save.

Toronto Blue Jays

Closer – Kirby Yates

Next Man Up – Jordan Romano

The Blue Jays took a chance on Kirby Yates coming off a lost season due to injury. Yates struggled with a 12.46 ERA in only 4.1 innings before missing the rest of the year due to bone chips in his elbow. He’s expected to be fully recovered for the start of the season. While he does come with some risk as he enters his age-34 season after an injury-shortened year, Yates could be a steal in drafts if he comes close to his prior form.

Before the team acquired Yates, Jordan Romano was expected to step into the closer role. He did so for a brief moment in 2020 before going on the IL with a finger strain. A 58% ground ball rate and 19.4% swinging-strike rate helped Romano break out to a 1.23 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 14.2 innings. Those are elite numbers for any pitcher. Combine those with a 28.1% K-BB rate, and you’re looking at one of the best middle relievers to own that could step into the closer role should Yates struggle or get injured.

AL Central State of the Bullpen

White Sox

Closer – Liam Hendriks

Next Man Up – Aaron Bummer/Evan Marshall

After Liam Hendriks shut the door on the White Sox postseason, the team decided to make a splash and sign the top free-agent reliever. Perhaps no reliever has been as valuable as Liam Hendriks since the beginning of 2019. Over the last two seasons, Hendriks owns a 1.79 ERA, supported by a 1.70 FIP, a 0.90 WHIP, 39 saves, and 161 strikeouts in 110.1 innings. Hendriks has a solid case as the first closer off the draft board.

Behind Hendriks is Aaron Bummer, who tossed only 9.1 innings in 2020 due to a bicep strain. While he showed an improved ability to generate strikeouts in the small sample, I’m not sure I’m buying it with a 12.3% swinging-strike rate.

While no one will supplant Hendriks as the closer, Evan Marshall might be my favorite middle reliever to own on the White Sox. Marshall continued his 2019 success with a 2.38 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and 30 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. Already a high-groundball pitcher, Marshall generated more whiffs by increasing his slider usage. This bullpen is absolutely loaded with talented pitchers.

Cleveland Indians

Closer – James Karinchak

Next Man Up – Nick Wittgren/Emmanual Clase

James Karinchak was getting all the hype last season due to his elite strikeout stuff. And he didn’t disappoint in that department, striking out 53 batters in 27 innings. While many expected Brad Hand to turn into a pumpkin and Karinshak to take over, Hand made it through the season as the closer successfully despite the declining velocity. Now, Hand is out, and Karinchak is in a position to take over full-time closer duties. Though he doesn’t come without risk, himself. As filthy as he is, Karinchak struggles with control. He posted a 14.7% walk rate in 2020. With an NFBC ADP of 89.67 this month, Karinchak is going a little too high for my liking. I don’t think he’ll have a long leash, and should he struggle, Nick Wittgran and Emmanuel Clase could be there to step into the ninth-inning role.

Detroit Tigers

Closer – Bryan Garcia

Next Man Up – Gregory Soto/Joe Jimenez

A.J. Hinch has yet to name a closer, so Bryan Garcia is sort of penciled in here as he ended the 2020 season with the job. Though Garcia doesn’t have prototypical closer stuff, striking out only 12 batters in 21.2 innings. Gregory Soto should be in the mix as well. The lefty throws a 97mph sinker and has spent the offseason working on refining his slider he plans on using more often. Soto might be the most skilled reliever in the bullpen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll win the closer role. Both are going late enough in drafts that you can add them to your watch list and be ready to add whoever wins the closer role.

Kansas City Royals

Closer – Greg Holland

Next Man Up – Josh Staumont/Scott Barlow

After Greg Holland posted a 1.91 ERA with six saves for the Royals, they brought him back on a one-year deal to continue serving as the team’s closer. This is one of those situations where the veteran with a track record will get the role before more skilled pitchers such as Scott Barlow and Josh Staumont. Staumont might be worth rostering in deeper leagues for strikeouts, though I wouldn’t expect much help in WHIP as long as he’s walking 14.3% of the batters he’s facing.

Minnesota Twins

Closer – Alex Colome

Next Man Up – Taylor Rogers/Tyler Duffey

All offseason, I’ve been touting Tyler Duffey as a sleeper for saves. Well, Alex Colome put a squash to that. Colome has deservingly earned the reputation as a reliable closer. As such, he should get the majority of save chances for the Twins. Meanwhile, Rogers wasn’t nearly as bad as his surface stats would indicate and should get his fair share of save chances on a matchup basis as the best lefty in that bullpen. As for Duffey, I still like him as a middle reliever for ratios and strikeouts in rotisserie leagues.

AL West State of the Bullpen

Houston Astros

Closer – Ryan Pressly

Next Man Up – Pedro Baez/Enoli Paredes

Ryan Pressly took over as the team’s closer after Roberto Osuna was shut down with an elbow injury. Pressly has been one of the better relievers in the league over the last three seasons. While he finished 2020 with a 3.43 ERA, the small sample of 2020 shows how much one or two bad outings can affect a reliever’s final numbers. Pressly struggled out of the gate, allowing three runs over his first two outings. After that, he had a 2.21 ERA the rest of the way and a 28% K-BB rate. Pressly should be drafted among the top-10 closers with confidence.

Los Angeles Angels

Closer – Raisel Iglesias

Next Man Up – Mike Mayers

The Angels made one of the first big splashes this offseason by acquiring closer Raisel Iglesias. Iglesias is coming off one of his best seasons after posting a 2.74 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, eight saves, and 31 strikeouts in 23 innings. He finished with career-bests in WHIP, K%, swinging-strike%, BB%, FIP, SIERA, you name it. By all accounts, Iglesias had the best stuff of his career in 2020 and enters 2021 as one of my top-six closers.

Mike Mayers took a tremendous step forward in the short season with a 2.10 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 28.1% K-BB rate, and 43 strikeouts in 30 innings. Mayers added a cutter to go with his slider and dropped his fastball usage. The changes resulted in a significant jump in his swinging-strike rate, from 11.5% to 15.4%. Mayers could be among the best middle relievers to roster and next in line to close should Iglesias be unavailable.

Oakland Athletics

Closer – Trevor Rosenthal

Next Man Up – Jake Diekman

Trevor Rosenthal seemed to find his groove in his second season back from Tommy John surgery. Looking like vintage Rosenthal, he posted a 1.90 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 11 saves, and 38 strikeouts in 23.2 innings between time with the Royals and Padres. The most significant change came from his walk rate, which had been at 30% in 2019, down to 8.8% in 2020. It makes sense that he’d take some time returning to form after TJ. Now, he takes over for Liam Hendriks in Oakland, which is probably the ideal landing spot considering how they’ve used closers in the past. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Rosenthal finished as a top-three closer in 2021.

Seattle Mariners

Closer – Rafael Montero

Next Man Up – Kendall Graveman

Rafael Montero was acquired by Seattle from the Texas Rangers after Montero saved eight games for Texas while posting an unspectacular 4.08 ERA with 19 strikeouts in 17.2 innings. He won’t be an asset in strikeouts, but Montero goes into the season with the closer role and is a relatively cheap source of saves. Meanwhile, Kendall Graveman became a much more effective pitcher out of the bullpen. He raised his velocity, generating more ground balls and softer contact. And at some point this season, Andres Munoz will return from Tommy John surgery. Though I wouldn’t expect a significant impact in his first year back.

Texas Rangers

Closer – Jose Leclerc

Next Man Up – Jonathan Hernandez/Joely Rodriguez

While no one has been officially named the closer in Texas, Jose Leclerc enters the season healthy. He should get the first opportunity to prove himself. But unless he’s made gains in his walk rate, I’m not too sure we can expect much different, a volatile profile that could be back and forth from the closer role all season. Perhaps someone like Jonathan Hernandez or Joely Rodriguez can provide some stability. Hernandez performed well last season with a 2.90 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 31 innings. Meanwhile, Rodriguez made his MLB comeback after two seasons in Japan and brought back an effective changeup that led to a 2.13 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 12.2 innings.

For more great rankings, strategy, and analysis check out the 2021 FantraxHQ Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit. We’ll be adding more content from now right up until Opening Day!

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1 Comment
  1. Steven Ponedal says

    Hi Jorge, thanks for this article. Of the three divisions in the American League, which division is likely to have the worst batting average. For several years it’s been the AL central, is that still the case?

    Thanks Steve

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