2021 State of the Bullpen: National League Closer Preview
Earlier this week, we went through the American League, going over the closer situation team-by-team. Now, it’s time for the National League. Who’s closing? Who’s next in line? Let’s go over all you need to know in the NL bullpens to get ready for the 2021 season and chase those saves!
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NL East State of the Bullpen
Closer – Will Smith/Chris Martin
Brave’s manager Brian Snitker has alluded to the possibility of going closer-by-committee with 2-3 guys. Will Smith and Chris Martin are the two obvious candidates, with Smith being a lefty and Martin a righty. AJ Minter or Tyler Matzek could also be in that mix. Snitker has also expressed confidence in Smith as the full-time closer should the team opt to go that route.
Smith got off to a late start last season after testing positive for COVID, posting a 4.50 ERA with 18 strikeouts in 16 innings. He was a significant acquisition in free agency before the 2020 season after a career year in 2019, converting 34 saves with a 2.76 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 65.1 innings for the San Francisco Giants. Smith is the most likely candidate to lead the team in saves this season.
Meanwhile, Martin has made a case for himself with a 2.52 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, and 42 strikeouts in 35.2 innings for Atlanta since joining the team at the 2019 trade deadline. While Minter and Matzek could end up with a few saves between them, they’d make solid additions in holds leagues.
Closer – Anthony Bass/Yimi Garcia
The closer job in Miami looked like Yimi Garcia’s for the taking until the team added Anthony Bass in free agency. Bass saved seven games for the Blue Jays in 2020 and will compete with Garcia for the ninth inning duties this Spring. Manager Don Mattingly also named Dylan Floro as someone who could handle save opportunities for the team. Floro and Bass have similar profiles as low-strikeout high-groundball pitchers that thrive on generating weak contact. Meanwhile, Garcia has more prototypical closer stuff. He posted a career-best 31.7% strikeout rate in 15 innings last season while allowing only one earned run, producing a 0.60 ERA and 1.66 FIP.
New York Mets
Closer – Edwin Diaz
Next Man Up – Trevor May
There’s no question who the closer is when it comes to the Mets. Edwin Diaz can be nearly unhittable with some of the best strikeout abilities in the majors. He rebounded from a disappointing 2019 season with a 1.75 ERA and a career-high 45.5% strikeout rate in 2020. What keeps Diaz from joining the top tier of closers is his high walk rates and occasional home-run trouble. Though his 26.8% HR/FB rate in 2019 looks like a clear outlier. While the top closers have produced a sub-1.00 WHIP, Diaz has been at 1.25 and 1.38 in the last two seasons. As long as Diaz can limit the long-ball, he’s set up on one of the most improved teams in baseball to produce a high save total with loads of strikeouts.
Setting up for Diaz will be the newly acquired Trevor May. Pitching for the Twins in 2020, May dropped his fastball usage, ditched his curveball, and featured more of his slider and changeup. This resulted in a significant jump in his swinging-strike rate, from 13.2% to 18.5%, leading to a 39.6% strikeout rate. May could end up being one of the top middle relievers to own in holds leagues and a decent handcuff to roster in draft-and-holds.
The Phillies bullpen was a mess last season, to say the least. As a team, they posted the worst bullpen ERA in the majors at 7.06. They tried to remedy that over the offseason by adding Archie Bradley and Jose Alvarado. Bradley comes in as a candidate to close and should battle Hector Neris this Spring for the job. Neris saved five games for the Phillies while posting a 4.57 ERA with a 1.71 WHIP. The odd thing is, he didn’t allow a single home run. And he seemed to have gotten a bit unlucky with a .381 BABIP and 59.5% strand rate. That, combined with an unusually high 12.6% walk rate, did some damage to Neris’s ratios.
Bradley had a more successful season with a 2.95 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. A vital part of his success was limiting walks to a 4.1% clip, leading to a career-best 20.5% K-BB rate. It’ll be fascinating to see how this camp battle plays out this Spring.
Closer – Brad Hand
Next Man UP – Tanner Rainey/Daniel Hudson
The Nationals signed last year’s MLB saves leader, Brad Hand, in free agency. Let’s me take a moment to mourn my Tanner Rainey shares….ok, I’m good. Hand converted 16 saves for the Cleveland Indians in 2020 with a 2.05 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, and 29 strikeouts in 22 innings. While many were waiting for the wheels to fall off, Hand said not so fast. Though some red flags remain. Declining velocity led to a 10.5% swinging-strike rate, his worst since 2015. The closer job is unquestionably his, but I would be cautious with my full-season expectations.
Tanner Rainey looked primed to take over the ninth-inning duties after posting a 2.66 ERA, 0.74 WHIP, and 32 strikeouts in 20.1 innings. With one of the best whiff-inducing sliders in the league, Rainey profiles as one of the top middle relievers worthy of a roster spot in holds leagues and a great handcuff to Hand.
NL Central State of the Bullpen
Closer – Craig Kimbrel
Next Man Up – Rowan Wick
Craig Kimbrel has not been what the Cubs envisioned they were getting since signing him to a 3-year, $42 million deal in 2019. While he posted a 5.28 ERA and only saved two games for Chicago, there’s some reason for optimism here heading into 2021. Kimbrel saw an uptick in velocity to his 2018 levels, his last successful season. His 40.6% strikeout rate was his best since 2017. And Kimbrel got better as the season went on. After starting the season horribly, giving up seven runs in his first four appearances, Kimbrel went on to have a 1.42 ERA, 0.98 FIP, and 26 strikeouts in 12.2 innings over his final 14 appearances. That looks more like vintage Kimbrel. If he can carry over and sustain those abilities into 2021, he could turn out to be a steal in drafts. Though there are clearly plenty of reasons to be cautious.
If the Twitter exchanges between Amir Garrett and Lucas Sims are a preview of the camp battle ahead for the closer role, we’re in for a treat. Garrett seems confident the job is his but is he the right man for it? He posted a 2.45 ERA with a 4.34 FIP, 100% strand rate, and .188 BABIP that say he was pretty darn lucky. Not to mention his splits. Garret has been significantly better against left-handed hitters than righties, with a .539 SLG allowed to right-handed hitters last season and a .043 mark against lefties. Not to say he couldn’t handle the job, and adding a second left-hander to the pen in Sean Doolittle helps his case, but Sims might have a more well-rounded profile for the job. Or perhaps we get a matchup-based committee.
Sims performed well in 2020, transitioning full-time into the bullpen. He posted a 2.45 ERA, identical to Garrett’s, with a 3.70 FIP and 34 strikeouts in 25.2 innings. He and Doolittle figure to play into the late-inning mix for the Reds in 2021.
Closer – Josh Hader
Next Man Up – Devin Williams
You will not find a better duo in any bullpen than Josh Hader and Devin Williams. Hader locked down 13 saves in 2020 to go with a 3.79 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and 31 strikeouts in 19 innings. His numbers might have even been inflated in the short season by a September outing in which he allowed four runs. While he did see a slight downtick in velocity, I wouldn’t be too concerned going into 2021.
Devin Williams was by far the best reliever in baseball in 2020, with one of the filthiest changeups in the game. His changeup induced a 30.4% swinging-strike rate. In 27 innings, Williams allowed one single earned run for a 0.33 ERA, 0.86 FIP, 0.63 WHIP, and 53 strikeouts! Unfortunately, Williams ended the season with shoulder soreness, and injuries aren’t something new to Williams. As much speculation as there is, I would be hesitant to expect the Brewers to make him a full-time closer unless Hader were to be traded.
Closer – Richard Rodriguez
Next Man Up – Chris Stratton
Like the team in general, there really isn’t much to say about the Pirates’ bullpen. Richard Rodriguez stepped up as the closer down the stretch and was by far the team’s best reliever in 2020. Rodriguez saved four games with a 2.70 ERA, 2.85 FIP, 0.86 WHIP, and 34 strikeouts in 23.1 innings. His K-BB rate was an extremely impressive 31.2%. Rodriguez will no doubt be saving games for Pittsburgh in 2021, as few and far between as they may come for that team until some team comes calling for his services.
St. Louis Cardinals
Closer – Jordan Hicks/Giovanny Gallegos
Next Man Up – Jordan Hicks/Giovanny Gallegos/Andrew Miller/Alex Reyes
Jordan Hicks will be making his return to baseball after opting out of the 2020 season as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. Hicks saved 14 games for the Cardinals in 2019 with a 3.14 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 28.2 innings. It’s no guarantee that he’ll get the role back. Often, we see a pitcher’s control lag behind in their first year returning from elbow surgery. And Giovanny Gallegos is the most skilled pitcher in that bullpen.
Gallegos posted a 3.60 ERA with a 2.06 FIP, 0.87 WHIP, 21 strikeouts, and four saves in 15 innings. His 20.1% swinging-strike rate and 7% walk rate are numbers you love to see from a closer. Gallegos’ numbers would be even better if not for a bad outing on September 10 against the Tigers. Gallegos allowed three runs and did not record an out. It was later discovered that he was dealing with a groin strain, and he was placed on the IL. If not for that outing, Gallegos would have a 1.80 ERA. It will be interesting to see how this situation shakes out this Spring.
NL West State of the Bullpen
Closer – Joakim Soria
Next Man Up – Stefan Crichton/Tyler Clippard
Before the signing of Joakim Soria, this was a situation that I was mostly avoiding. It was a situation that screamed veteran signing. Sure enough, the team brought in Soria, and while he hasn’t been a full-time closer in a few seasons, he has 223 career saves under his belt. Soria pitched well for the Oakland A’s in 2020, with two saves and a 2.82 ERA backed up by a 2.97 FIP.
Stefan Crichton finished the season as the team’s closer, saving five games with a 2.42 ERA, 3.42 FIP, 1.19 WHIP, and 23 strikeouts in 26 innings. Both Crichton and Soria have similar profiles as neither throws very hard or will strike out a ton of batters. While it may be presented as a camp competition this Spring, my money is on Soria starting the season as the closer. Arizona will no doubt be looking to raise his value leading up to the trade deadline.
Next Man Up – Scott Oberg/Mychal Givens
The two pitchers vying for the closer role this season have a couple of incredible stories. Daniel Bard spent six seasons out of baseball only to come back and save six games for the Rockies. Meanwhile, Scott Oberg might be the only person to actually figure out how to pitch in Colorado. Unfortunately, he’s been dealing with scary blood clot issues throughout his career. Oberg owns a 2.35 ERA in 114.2 innings for the Rockies since 2018. Bard might be the favorite going into the season, but Oberg should be right in the mix to close as well.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Closer – Kenley Jansen
Next Man Up – Blake Treinen
Kenley Jansen has been the man for the Dodgers over the last decade. He’s totaled 312 career saves and a 2.39 career ERA. While he’ll go down as one of the best relievers in history, it might just be time to fade him before the wheels completely fall off. Jansen started the season well, with a 0.77 ERA in the first half, but as the season progressed, his velocity dipped, and so did the results. He had a 6.52 ERA in September and was no better in the postseason, with four runs allowed over seven innings. Ultimately, it was Julio Urias, not Jansen, who locked down the final save and secured the team’s first championship since 1988. Jansen will undoubtedly enter the season as the closer, but it might be a good idea to keep Treinen on your watch list.
San Diego Padres
While the situation wasn’t exactly set, the addition of Mark Melancon just raised more questions for the San Diego bullpen. Melancon, Drew Pomeranz, and Emilio Pagan figure to be in the mix for saves. Pomeranz continued his success in relief last season with a 1.45 ERA, four saves, and 29 strikeouts in 18.2 innings. Meanwhile, 2019 looks like an outlier year for Pagan after a 4.50 ERA season with two saves and 23 strikeouts in 22 innings. Hopefully, we get some clarity on the situation this Spring. For now, bet on the most skilled reliever in Pomeranz.
San Francisco Giants
Closer – Jake McGee/Reyes Moranta
Next Man Up – Jake McGee/Reyes Moranta/Matt Wisler
Before the Giants signed Jake McGee, the closer role looked like Reyes Moranta’s to win this Spring. Moranta is returning from a shoulder injury that cost him the 2020 season. Before the injury, Moranta was fantastic for the Giants over three seasons, with a career 2.66 ERA and 160 strikeouts over 128.1 innings from 2017-2019. Meanwhile, McGee was one of the best relievers in baseball last season with a 2.66 ERA, 1.67 FIP, 0.84 WHIP, and 33 strikeouts in 20.1 innings. His 38% K-BB rate was among the best in baseball. Gabe Kapler may opt to use both pitchers to close games as Moranta throws right-handed and McGee throws left-handed. This will be a situation to monitor.
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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