Is there a greater roller-coaster ride in fantasy baseball than trying to accumulate enough saves? Every year, more teams shift their bullpens to more of a closer-by-committee approach, making reliable closers harder to come by than ever. This has bumped up closers’ respective values in drafts, while it’s also likely that a decent amount of your free-agent acquisition budget (FAAB) is going to be spent on chasing saves.
Meanwhile, even when we think we have a closing situation figured out, things can change on a dime. All it takes is one or two poor performances, and the manager is already contemplating a change when it comes to who pitches the ninth inning. When that happens, chaos ensues.
The best way to find value late in deep drafts? Try to identify which closers are likely to lose their job first. Not only can doing this give you players to potentially avoid in drafts, but also highlight players that may be of value if they were to take over the closer job. In the race for saves, you can never do enough to cover your bases. By being cautious of these three relievers, you’ll be off to a good start!
ADP Data via NFC.shgn.com (Drafts since January 1st)
Stats via Baseball Savant and Fangraphs
Joe Barlow (TEX)
Evidenced by signing Marcus Semien, Corey Seager, and Jon Gray to a combined $556 million, the Rangers are clearly aiming to compete very soon. Now, they have a long ways to go after winning just 60 games last season. Thus, it’s likely we see them remain aggressive when the lockout is over; their roster is nowhere near complete.
Could some reinforcements be coming to the bullpen? Texas had the fifth-lowest bullpen strikeout rate last year, traded multiple relievers at the trade deadline last year, and didn’t acquire any bullpen help prior to the lockout. If the team truly is aiming to compete, the bullpen certainly stands out as an area where they can at least stand to add a veteran or two.
As things stand right now, Joe Barlow is projected to be the team’s closer this season. In 29 innings pitched last year, the 26-year-old posted a 1.55 ERA, accumulating 11 saves in the process. By the end of the season, he clearly established himself as the team’s most reliable option, and now likely gets a chance to do the same this year.
At the same time, I’m not entirely confident Barlow is going to be able to hold onto that role. While his ERA was impressive last season, there are a lot of red flags surrounding it. His strikeout-to-walk ratio (24.3% K, 10.8% BB) did not stand out, nor did his 4.18 skill interactive ERA (SIERA). Rather, it was an incredibly unsustainable .143 batting average on balls in play allowed (BABIP) and 6.1% home run/fly ball rate that fueled his success. Heading into 2022, I certainly wouldn’t bank on that continuing.
Who would replace Barlow if he indeed struggles? If the team chooses to go with a veteran option, Spencer Patton would stick out as their next-best option. The 33-year-old had a better strikeout rate (27.9%) than Barlow, as well as a lower walk rate (8.7%) and SIERA (3.47). The team trusted with high-leverage spots down the stretch, and I’d expect him to be the first reliever to get a save opportunity if Barlow were to lose his job.
The “fun” option to take over the closer role? That would be Josh Sborz. The 28-year-old posted a 26.8% strikeout rate in his rookie season last year after being traded from the Rangers, and has a very intriguing arsenal. His fastball generates 2.5 more inches of vertical movement than average, while his slider (44.3% whiff) and curveball (35.1% whiff) both missed bats at a high level. He’ll need to display better command next season, but if he starts out strong, he has the type of skillset that teams are looking for in high-leverage spots.
Given his limited track record and the red flags from last season, I’d say Barlow has a very tenuous hold on the closer role in Texas. Patton would appear to be a better pitcher currently, while Sborz has the potential that Texas may be intrigued by. Plus, with money to spend, it’s very likely the team signs at least one to two veteran relievers; could a reunion with Ian Kennedy be in store? Barlow isn’t going incredibly high in drafts, but he’s still in the range where you may want to jump on your closers earlier than be stuck having to see this situation through. In other words, the bar might need be set low in 2022.
Rowan Wick (CHC)
Are the Cubs trying to compete this season? After tearing it down at the trade deadline last year, there were rumors they would continue to ship away well-known players, such as Willson Contreras. Then, right before the lockout, they signed Marcus Stroman to a three-year, $71 million contract. That would lead me to believe they’re intent on remaining somewhat competitive this year, though they still have a lot of work to do.
Despite finishing in the top-five in bullpen strikeout rate, the Cubs still ranked tenth-worst in reliever ERA. Why? Having the third-worst walk rate certainly doesn’t help, and without Craig Kimbrel closing games, they’ll have to figure out who manages the ninth inning for them this season.
Chicago mainly went with a committee approach in the ninth inning after trading Kimbrel to the White Sox. However, one player stood out in terms of getting more chances than the others: Rowan Wick. The 29-year-old led all non-Kimbrel Cubs with five saves in 23 innings pitched, and stood out with a 29% strikeout rate.
That being said, it’s not all suns and roses for Wick. The impressive strikeout rate came with a 14% walk rate, as well as a 1.35 WHIP. Meanwhile, the poor command goes beyond the walks:
There’s a reason Wick’s breaking balls allowed a .425 xWOBA last year: he didn’t command them well at all. The same goes for his fastball and cutter, which also were left over the middle of the plate often. With just a 34.5% ground ball rate allowed last season, I’m not buying his 5.5% barrel rate allowed. With more barrels allowed in 2021, that’s going to lead to more home runs.
Walks and home runs? That’s not something a manager wants to deal with. Remember, Wick isn’t exactly an established name—he’s only thrown 82 career MLB innings. If there is an instant blowup, I don’t think manager David Ross would think twice about shuffling up ninth-inning duties.
The top candidate to replace Wick? That would be Codi Heuer. The 25-year-old was traded to the Cubs, alongside Nick Madrigal, in the Kimbrel trade, and was trusted with a few save opportunities. With just a 19.9% strikeout rate, you can question his ability to miss bats, but there is more untapped potential if you look at his arsenal and underlying numbers.
For starters, his 65th-percentile whiff rate and 24th-percentile strikeout rate do not match up at all and point to clear positive regression in terms of his strikeouts. Both of his off-speed pitches (slider and changeup) each yielded a whiff rate of 45% or higher, while the changeup is the star of the show. It induced a 47.2% whiff rate, allowed a .175 wOBA, and also produced a 56.3% ground ball rate allowed. With more usage of his off-speed pitches next year and better execution in two-strike counts, I think we could easily see Heuer emerge as the best reliever on this staff.
That’s assuming the team doesn’t add a veteran reliever, which I would consider quite likely given the current state of their bullpen. Either way, Wick’s volatile command and fly-balls allowed make him hard to trust when it comes to walks and home runs, making a blowup well within the range of outcomes. If that happens, look for the Cubs to switch to Heuer, or another veteran option they bring in. Wick is going past pick 300 in drafts, so he’s a fine speculative addition to your team in case all goes well. That being said, I wouldn’t trust him to be anything more than your third closer this season.
Gregory Soto (DET)
Who would have thought that the Tigers would be the closest team to competing of the teams mentioned in this piece? Yet, after improving to 77 wins last year and finishing with a winning record outside of the first month, they appear to be set on investing around their young core and making a playoff push.
As a likely fringe playoff hopeful, the Tigers are likely to be in a lot of close games. That means they’re likely to be asking a lot of whomever they trust in the ninth inning, which, by manager AJ Hinch’s account, will be Gregory Soto. The highest-regarded closer of these three, Soto saved 18 games for the Tigers last season, posting a 3.39 ERA in 63.2 innings. If he does that again, I’m sure Detroit would be quite pleased.
The problem? It’s not a lock that Soto repeats those numbers next season. For starters, his .257 BABIP allowed is quite low and is a reflection of his 20.1% line-drive rate allowed. Unfortunately, line-drive rate is very unstable season to season, and it’s likely Soto allows more in 2022. That will lead to his ERA and BABIP allowed being higher, as well as his expected statistics, which look quite good due to the low line-drive rate.
Then, there is Soto’s command. Walks are more acceptable in late-inning situations, as opposed to grooving in a fastball that can be taken advantage of, but Soto’s 14.5% walk rate was alarmingly high, and is right on pace with his career norms. Then, there is this:
I’d be a little wary about a sinker-baller with volatile command. There is definitely the possibility of a few blowup outings for Soto to start the year, and if cost the Tigers a game or two, that can lead to a change.
After all, unlike the other closers on this list, there is a clear replacement for Soto: Michael Fulmer. As you may remember, the 28-year-old is a former top prospect who won the Rookie of the Year award in 2016 and established himself as a clear building block for the Tigers. In 2021, though, he finally switched to the bullpen, which was a definite success. In 69.2 innings, he posted a 24.6% strikeout rate, in addition to a 6.7% walk rate and a 2.97 ERA.
As a reliever, Fulmer increased his slider rate to 39.9%, which helped lead to an elevated swinging-strike rate of 13.2%, as well as a 3.60 SIERA. In fact, it’s hard to find many stats where he is worse than Soto. If the Tigers are truly intent on competing, they’ll need to make sure they have their best reliever available in high-leverage situations. Soon enough, they should realize that is Fulmer. He already had 14 saves next year, proving the team already trusts him in those situations, and could be in line for a lot more this year. With that type of competition, you might want to avoid Soto in drafts.
Photos by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire and Tim Mossholder/Unsplash | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)