Analyzing Every Closer Situation For 2019
Top 12 potential free agent closers:
Tier 1: Craig Kimbrel, Adam Ottavino, Jeurys Familia, David Robertson
Tier 2: Cody Allen, Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, Kelvin Herrera
Tier 3: Joakim Soria, Sergio Romo, Greg Holland, Bud Norris
Honorable Mentions – Joe Kelly, Brad Brach
The end of the World Series marks the beginning of the MLB offseason and in turn, we can start to fully look toward Opening Day 2019. When looking forward to saves for next year, this offseason brings a lot of question marks whether it be from impending free agent decisions, trade candidates, roles to be won in Spring Training, potential committee situations, etc. For now, this list constitutes where all 30 teams currently stand as far as their closer situation goes. It will obviously change as free agents sign and trades are executed, but for now, here’s how I see things shaking out for each club.
Tier 1 is fairly clear-cut, as these 9 closers have been steadily consistent in their value over the past few years. They have proven they can be top tier closers at this level and are all locked into the role for their respective teams heading into 2019. It’s always nice to grab at least one name from this group to give your reliever corp a solid base before picking through the upside options later.
- Despite a tumultuous season for Roberto Osuna he should still find himself as one of the top closers off the board in 2019 drafts. Despite only logging 38.1 innings, he still posted career lows in ERA (2.37) and BB (0.95). However, he did see a noticeable dip in the K department with career lows in K/9, K%, and SwStr%. He did post better numbers once in Houston (ERA under 2, SwStr up to 16.9%) which if he were able to sustain for a full season would easily make him a top 5 closer.
- As it currently stands, Brad Hand has no competition for the 9th inning with Cody Allen and Andrew Miller both set to hit free agency. Even if one or both of them were to return, the job should be Hand’s to lose.
- Sean Doolittle always feels like one of the more underrated closing options as he was arguably a top 3 option at the position last year…when healthy. That will always be the risk involved in taking him on draft day, but the numbers when healthy make him worth the gamble in the early to mid 100’s of your draft.
- Raisel Iglesias deserves to be in this tier after yet another successful year as the Reds closer. Back to back 28+ save (one of only 5 relievers to do so from 2017 to 2018), 10+ K/9 and sub 2.50 ERA seasons are nothing to sneeze at. The Reds are slowly but surely improving, and despite the constant trade rumors will likely roll with Iglesias to end games for another season.
Tier 2 features a lot of the same upside as tier 1, but question marks loom over many of these pitchers as some lack consistency, some lack experience, and some lack job security. That being said, this is a tier I plan on investing in heavily as many of these names can be had in the back half of drafts, allowing me to piece together a well-rounded offense and starting pitching staff. With the closer position typically being so volatile year to year, I try to add 2 or even 3 of these options in drafts but do so feeling confident in my ability to play the waiver wire for saves throughout the season if need be.
- After dominating the final two months of the season and showing the ability to shut the door in high leverage situations again, expect to see Corey Knebel as the Brewers main closer come April. Knebel was flat-out silly from September on, posting a 47/6 K/BB ratio over 26.1 innings while allowing just 7 hits and 1 run. He’ll still see competition from Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress, the latter of which may have struggled enough in the postseason for Knebel to distance himself from in this race. Hader is still likely to see save opportunities from time to time, limiting Knebel’s ceiling some, but for the most part, should work in the earlier innings in a fireman role.
- Outside of an ugly month of August, Seranthony Dominguez’s rookie season was a resounding success. He still finished his first season with an ERA under 3 over 58 innings pitched, while flashing elite swing and miss ability at times. He’ll need to do a better job at limiting walks next season to be considered truly elite, but the talent is here for Seranthony to be a consistent top-tier arm. He is likely to start the season as the teams closer, but we should still keep an eye out for Hector Neris, who came back last season to have a strong second half which saw him post a 2.04 ERA, .211 wOBA and a 35/5 K/BB ratio over 18.2 IP and he was the only reliever to post a SwStr rate over 20% over the second half.
- Brandon Morrow was on his way to a very successful season as the Cubs closer before an arm injury sidelined him for the second half of the season. He should return as the clubs closer, but fill in closer Pedro Strop will also return and could be in the mix for saves. Morrow has always had the talent to do big things in this league but injuries continue to prevent him from doing so. He has yet to top 45 innings since 2013 when he was a starter, he still had his season cut short by injuries. Now going on what is basically eight straight injury-filled seasons, the 34-year-old still makes for an intriguing dart throw in drafts in case his health actually can hold up for a season.
- I still consider Arodys Vizcaino the favorite for saves, at least early on, in Atlanta next season after he finished the season as closer. A.J. Minter still likely to get the “closer of the future” nod, but I get the sense the team prefers to have him work in front of Vizcaino more often than not when both are healthy. I still see Minter as having the most upside of the duo, but if I were to bet on the situation, my money is on Vizcaino to finish with more saves than Minter. The problem with drafting either one inside the top 200 picks is that they very well could wind up in a strict platoon situation given each others splits and handedness.
- The Giants closer situation also seems to be a two-man race between the highly effective Will Smith and the higher priced, oft-injured Mark Melancon. Melancon was brought in to close when he signed a 4 year, $62 million deal in the winter of 2017 and has yet to remain healthy for a long enough period of time to fulfill that job. While multiple relievers have filled in for him over that time period, none has been more effective than Will Smith. Smith proceeded to pick up 14 saves last season while keeping a cool 71/15 K/BB ratio and WHIP of just .98 over 53 innings. Ideally, the Giants would want Melancon to come back healthy this spring, pitch like the 2013-2016 versions of himself, and rack up 40 saves. If that doesn’t pan out they will at least have a solid contingency plan in Smith…maybe. Smith figures to be a hot trade commodity this winter and with the Giants far behind most of the NL West, we could see them sell off some soon to be free agent veteran pieces.
Tier 3 is where all the major question marks fall, whether it be due to their team likely to add to their bullpen, uncertain role as is, personal on-field performance, or a combination of these things. There’s still some upside and value to be had in this group, especially at the top, but the inherent risk right now outweighs tier 2’s while being on par with the potential upside. I still like to grab 1 or 2 of these options late in drafts, specifically the more upside options knowing full well they are just as likely to be dropped then stay on my team for a full season.
- Cardinals “closer in waiting” Jordan Hicks may have to wait his turn as the team is likely to spend some money on their bullpen in the coming months but that’s still far from certain after their handling of the bullpen last offseason. It’s fair to question if Hicks is even ready to be closer after he posted disappointing K numbers across the board in 2018 to go along with a woeful 9.8% SwStr rate and the worst K/BB ratio among relievers mentioned in this post outside of Wily Peralta. It’s obviously not those numbers that get people excited about Hicks’s future, but it’s that that 100+ number that shows up every time he throws a fastball. He’ll need to keep working on his slider to start piling up strikeouts, which is certainly possible, but for now, I am a little skittish on his 2019 prospects and see him being over drafted if he indeed starts the season in the 9th inning role.
- The Rays seem reluctant this past season to fully hand over the closing keys to Jose Alvarado, despite him being their best reliever all season so I’m inclined to suggest we will see more of the same. Alvarado is a big-time talent, and if he could just shore up his command a little bit could be in line for a Felipe Rivero type breakout season soon. However, I wouldn’t expect it this season, as I’d imagine the overachieving Rays will add a veteran reliever to close out games, perhaps even bringing back Sergio Romo.
- As Trevor Hildenberger had his issues over the second half of last season, it was Trevor May who along with Taylor Rogers helped shut the door on opponents in September. The 6’5″ 240 lb May was possibly the most underrated reliever from the trade deadline on, showcasing just how good he can be when healthy. Featuring a rare 4 pitch mix for a late-inning reliever, he was able to finish the year with a sub 2 SIERA, a 16.4% SwStr and 32.8 K-BB% over 25.1 innings. He ended the season as the team’s closer but it wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone to see the Twins add a free agent to the bullpen mix this offseason. That certainly limits his value some, but he is still one of my favorite late round lottery tickets for saves right now.
- Ty Buttrey is a similar, built like a horse late-inning reliever, who flourished once giving a chance in the second half of 2018. Right now he should be considered the favorite to open as closer, but keep in mind the Angels can and are willing to spend. Also, despite Buttrey’s emergence, we can’ forget about Blake Parker who still put together a solid season with 14 saves and an ERA of 3.26.
- I don’t feel like taking too much time to talk about Shane Greene, but I would just like to point out that it’s really time for the Tigers to move on here. The only reliever of the 40 mentioned in this article to post both a negative WAR and WPA and also happens to have the lowest SwStr rate and should either be shopped by the team or pushed back into more of a middle relief role. Despite a 7.78 second half ERA, I’d like to see the Tigers turn things over to Joe Jimenez as he at least shows flashes of being a dominant closer. At the very least they should sign a cheap veteran to work the 8th or 9th inning this winter.
- The best team in baseball currently has the biggest hole at this spot, as they very well could lose both Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly (still can’t believe his postseason). It leaves them with Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier as the only somewhat dependable options for next season, so expect the Red Sox to be active in free agency and the trade market for a reliever. The team is a bit strapped for cash this winter, so they may turn away from Kimbrel and look at signing one of Adam Ottavino, David Robertson or Cody Allen. I could also see them going hard after someone like Will Smith, possibly dangling Jackie Bradley in the return package. Both are free agents after next season and the Giants are known JBJ fans while the Sox have expressed interest in Smith before. There’s definitely a non-zero chance Barnes is closing come next April, but I don’t see the team taking that route n their efforts to become repeat champions.
Craig Kimbrel headlines the class of free agent relievers this season and is probably the only one of the group that I can see in tier 1 come March. I’d love to see premier set up man Adam Ottavino get a chance to close out games next year after posting a 2.43 ERA and 112 K’s over 77.2 innings of work and routinely being featured on our Nastiest Pitches segment. After having his 5 consecutive seasons of a sub 3 ERA streak snapped, Cody Allen may wind up being a steal this winter coming off what was a down year. A dip in velocity may have led to an overall dip in production, but he is still only 30 years old and has a chance to bounce back in 2019. It will be interesting to see where Andrew Miller winds up following what was a disappointing, injury-plagued season for the 33-year-old. I’m sure there will be at least one or two teams willing to offer him top dollar and a chance to close out games but I also expect most contenders to be in on the veterans services as a bridge to their current closer. The more I look at it, the more it feels inevitable that Greg Holland will get another closing gig next season. He was night and day from the 1st half (7.99 ERA, 2.20 WHIP, 21/19 K/BB, .379 wOBA) to the 2nd (1.19 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 26/13 K/BB, .225 wOBA) last year though, and could be a bargain on a 1 or 2-year deal. I have to mention Joe Kelly given what he was able to accomplish during the postseason, but buyer beware, he is one of the most enigmatic pitchers in baseball and still not someone I’d trust giving a large contract to finish games for me.