Everyone’s Signing Relievers, But Who Will Close?
In most fantasy leagues, about the only reason to care about a reliever is if they are closing or have a chance to close down the line. For those in leagues that count holds, it’s generally the same pitcher pool. The two major factors that determine if a pitcher will close is talent and opportunity. Here is a quick rundown on where some recently signed relievers fit into those two categories.
After struggling to find a closer last season after trading away Brandon Kintzler, the Twins went out and bought a “proven closer” in Fernando Rodney. Rodney always seems to have a closer role and usually keeps it throughout the season. At some point, he’ll blow up and be ineffective, but it’s tough to guess when.
The 40-year-old righty can still bring it, throwing 95 mph and saving 39 games for the Diamondbacks last season with a 4.23 ERA and 10.6 K/9. He was particularly effective in the second half, posting a 2.55 ERA and 11.3 K/9 after the All-Star break. For now, Trevor Hildenberger moves out of the closer role, but he will regain the position if/when Rodney falters.
The 33-year-old righty falls into the extreme groundball pitcher category, like Sam Dyson and Alex Claudio, who force teams to piece together three or four singles to score a run. For this reason, their ERAs are lower than their peripherals suggest (Kintzler’s 3.03 ERA vs. 3.77 FIP and 4.36 xFIP in 2017).
Kintzler’s 55% GB% doesn’t appear elite, but he pairs a heavy sinker (61%) with a pop-up generating slider (20% GB%), which brings down his over groundball rate. With his low strikeouts (4.9 K/9), he won’t be an elite closer, but he will compete with Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson for the Nationals’ ninth-inning role.
The 31-year-old Nicasio is a perfect example of how a replacement-level starter can become a great reliever (2.61 ERA, 9.0 K/9 in 76 games last year). After struggling for years as a starter, he settled in as a reliever and was the Cardinals’ closer for a while late last season.
With the Mariners, Nicasio is behind current closer Edwin Diaz. Diaz has about a 50% chance of losing the closer role because of injury or ineptitude at some point during the season, so Nicasio could eventually close.
Swarzak becomes the most talented reliever in the Mets bullpen, but he will likely start the season behind Jeurys Familia and possibly A.J. Ramos in the ninth-inning pecking order. While all three are projected for a 10.0 K/9, Swarzak is the only one whose walk rate should be under 3.0 BB/9.
Swarzak hasn’t always been lights out, but a ~1.5 mph jump in his fastball velocity has been the driving force behind his improvement (2.33 ERA, 10.6 K/9 in 70 games). For owners who like to gamble on setup men, Swarzak is a perfect target.
Neshek produced for both the Rockies and Phillies with a 1.59 ERA with 9.8 K/9 in 62 innings of work last season. The 37-year-old righty is a steady setup man and can close if Hector Neris faulters. He’s an extreme flyball pitcher who has been burned by the long ball in the past, so don’t be surprised if it happens again.
The 33-year-old righty posted a career-best 11.8 K/9 in 59 games in 2017, leading to a BABIP-inflated 3.33 ERA. He’s good enough to close, but he joins a loaded Astros bullpen with Will Harris, Chris Devenski, and Ken Giles all likely ahead of him on the depth chart.
I would not invest in Smith on draft day, but monitor the Astros’ situation for injuries or inferior performance by other relievers, which may push him up the depth chart.
Cishek was a productive bullpen arm last year (2.01 ERA), posting a nice strikeout (23.6%) and walk rate (8.1%). Like Smith, he has the stuff to close, though the opportunity may not exist. The Cubs have Brandon Morrow or Justin Wilson as likely closers and are also rumored to be looking for a top-end closer like Wade Davis.
Previous Hot Stove Analysis