(Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire)
About a year ago today, I put together my first article for PitcherList, ranking the 30 closers around the league at the time. By late September, only 13 of those 30 names were in my last Closing Time article. Whereas I was expecting about a third of the teams going through closer turmoil, we saw more than half of the league experience it over the course of the season. That’s crazy to me and has me rethinking draft strategy in regards to relievers. It’s not just that you can get cheap saves on the waiver wire throughout the year, you can also find legitimate 4 category studs that can win you fantasy championships. The two big names that fill the bill for this from last year would be Corey Knebel and Felipe Rivero. Guys we had heard about in years past but were never believed to be placed in the closer role last year. Others like Sean Doolittle and Brad Hand were two other solid pickups that helped owners out down the stretch and could by putting in a simple waiver claim. I think my favorite strategy for relievers this year will be to go get a top tier option early, then basically punt the category until the end of the draft. That being said, here is a look at some lesser-known names that have a chance to turn into 2018’s version of Corey Knebel.
1. Carl Edwards Jr (Chicago Cubs) – This was supposed to be Edwards’ year to finally take over as Cubs closer. Just like it was supposed to be Knebels at the start of last year. Like Knebel, Edwards struggles last season, primarily with his fastball command, which is obviously a concern but also fixable. All he really needs to do is hone that control and let his hammer breaking ball do the rest and he’ll become a true lights-out closer. Brandon Morrow will get the first crack, but he has a troubling injury history and has no closing experience to speak of. It’s not a sure thing he holds down the job all year long.
2. A.J. Minter (Atlanta Braves) – Full disclosure, Minter only threw 246 pitches last season over 16 outings, a small sample size for sure, but what he flashed in that sample was that of Billy Wagner 2.0. If he were to qualify among the rest of the leagues’ relief pitchers, he would have ranked top 5 in FIP (.96), xFIP (1.63), SIERA (1.45), SwStr% (18.2%) and K/BB ratio (26:2). His 30.23% Put Away percentage ranks 5th, and his Whiff/Swings (36.36%) come in at 13th among relievers. Basically, Minter is just pure filth on the mound. His biggest concerns are that he is three years removed from Tommy John and Arodyz Vizcaino was solid last season in the role and should have a fairly long leash this year. There was however positive news on Wednesday, as it was reported that Minter will pitch with no restrictions this season, allowing him to pitch back to back days. It’s a matter of when, not if, he will take over the 9th inning role in Atlanta.
3. Kenyan Middleton (Los Angeles Angels) – It shouldn’t be shocking to hear that Mike Scioscia doesn’t want to name one single guy as the teams closer, but just as he did last year with Blake Parker, he will ride the hot hand in the role if at all possible. I actually like Parker a lot, and Cam Bedrosian can’t be forgotten, but keep an eye out here for Middleton too, he did, after all, close out a few games for the Angels last year and has arguably the best swing and miss stuff of the group. Backed by a 35.25% Whf/Sw%, 77% Z-Contact and 16.7 SwStr%, he has potential to be that lights out closer the team has lacked for some time now.
4. Dominic Leone (St. Louis Cardinals) – Leone is my sneaky pick to lead the Cardinals in saves this year and he may not even have a high leverage role to begin the year. Among the Cardinals relievers on the current roster, he clearly had the best season of the group in 2017 and is, like Knebel and Rivero, entering his prime, mid 20’s years. There really isn’t a knock on him, outside of maybe lacking elite fastball velocity, but he was steady across the board last season, finishing in the top 50 in every category I look at when assessing reliever projection. He still can get his fastball up to 99 and sits around 95/96, but it’s his hard cutter that can be a true dominating offering for him. Luke Gregerson will likely get the first crack at save chances, but after a disastrous 2017, he is far from a lock to hold on to the role. If Leone gets off to a strong start, expect his name to start creeping into the closer discussion in St. Louis.
5. Drew Steckenrider (Miami Marlins) – Steckenrider is similar to Leone, although he does lose command of the zone at times. He does have a bit of an easier path to the closer role in Miami with just Brad Ziegler to beat out. His delivery has some deception in it, and hitters weren’t able to square him up often (79.4%) and posted a cool 3.14 xFIP last year. Perhaps an even bigger concern is, even if he ends up as the teams “closer”, how many opportunities will he get on a team that is far and away one of the worst in baseball this season.
6. Jose LeClerc (Texas Rangers) – LeClerc, basically Carl Edwards Jr.lite, struggled throughout his first MLB season with control issues but he did flash some tantalizing upside that we had heard about at the start of the season. He was second among all relievers with a 38.84% Whf/Sw rate, while also posting a solid 15.7% SwStr% and 75.7% Z-Contact%. Command is the big issue here but his stuff is clearly nasty and there is a clear opening in Texas for someone to win that closers job, and while LeClerc is doubtful to end spring training in the role, he could be an option early in the season if the alternatives falter. Keone Kela is a name that should be drafted in most formats and has almost as much upside with a good chance to win the job out of spring training.
7. Joe Jimenez (Detroit Tigers) – I was so excited and hyped up for Jimenez last year after the World Baseball Classic, which made it all the more disappointing when he finally got called up in Detroit and posted a 12.32 ERA in 24 games. It’s important not to write him off just yet as A. he still has an electric fastball/slider combination and B. he has an easy route to that 9th inning role with only the likes of Shane Greene in front of him. He was on the wrong side of some bad luck BABIP last season and does need to tighten up his command some, but the stuff speaks for itself and he has plenty of success closing out games in the minors.
8. Trevor Hildenberger (Minnesota Twins) – Hildenberger isn’t your prototype closer, throwing from a 3-9 angle, rarely if ever touches 90 MPH and he also fails to generate a ton of swings and misses compared to the rest of the list. He does make up for all of that though with a great GB rate (58.8%), great command (7.33 K/BB%) and flashed a deadly changeup. He should open up as the teams primary 7th inning setup man to start the season, but Fernando Rodney isn’t getting any younger and Addison Reed has been hit or miss in his career when asked to close out games.
Mychal Givens (Baltimore Orioles)
Edubray Ramos (Philadelphia Phillies)
Kevin Shackelford (Cincinnati Reds)
Emilio Pagan (Oakland Athletics)