(Photo by Tim Spyers/Icon Sportswire)
It’s good to finally have baseball back. With spring training fully underway as of this past weekend, it’s time to start getting on that fantasy baseball draft prep as move closer to the regular season. I’m happy to be back at it this year and look forward to discussing all things relief pitcher related.
So far we’ve covered the offensive side of the ball and Nick’s put together most of his initial “Pitcher List” so without further adieu, here is a look at how I feel the top 30 closers should be ranked right now. 2018 seems like it could be the year of the comeback at the position, with a lot of names mentioned below looking to right the ship after a disappointing 2017.
And for fun, I will be naming tiers after some Martin Scorcese movies (disclaimer: films are not in order of personal preference. Obviously Goodfellas is better than Casino).
Tier 1: Raging Bull
The Mike Trout of relievers, I shouldn’t need to tell you that Jansen should be the first RP off the board in your drafts. Among closer candidates for the 2018 season, Jansen ranked either first or second in the following categories: FIP, xFIP, SIERA, WAR, WPA, SwStr%, Whiff%, PutAway%, K/BB, Z-Contact%, Soft Contact%, and Shutdowns/Meltdowns, He’s in his prime and pitching the 9th for one of the best teams in baseball. I don’t think I need to convince you anymore, Jansen once again is the best closer in baseball for 2018.
If Jansen is the Mike Trout of closers, there is certainly a case for Kimbrel to be the Jose Altuve of the group. Just barely a step behind Jansen, Kimbrel actually has a tick more strikeout upside. His 19.8 SwStr% is just ridiculous, and his 70.3% Z-Contact to match ain’t too shabby either. He did have a pretty fortunate BABIP and combined with his high hard contact rate, that is just enough for me to comfortably rank him behind Jansen. But if you are targeting an elite closer early in the draft, be prepared to take Kimbrel immediately after Jansen goes, as he will surely not last long after.
Obviously Chapman’s 2017 was not what fantasy owners had in mind when burning a high round draft pick on him, and while most of what we saw was discouraging, there are some positives to take away here. He was more or less his typical self in the month of September, featuring a 17:2 K:BB ratio over 12 IP, allowing just 3 hits over that span, good for a .107 wOBA. Fangraphs Jeff Sullivan wrote a great piece last October explaining how a change in how Chapman grips his fastball was behind his big September comeback. The velocity is still there too, and is showing no signs of decline, so as long as he stays healthy, expect a nice bounce-back season from him finishing games for that stacked Yankees team.
Tier 2: Casino
Lets get this out of the way right of the bat, I do not care about Giles World Series meltdown. He was worn down from a long season, and was arguably overworked in the second half of the season. I will however talk about how dominant he was in the 2017 regular season and how there may even be room for more production going forward. Giles had a few hiccups during the first half of the year, but he was arguably the best reliever in baseball during the second half featuring a fastball that sits 98 with some arm side run and a devastating slider that avoids bats. While I don’t like to put too much stock into potential save opportunities, as it is impossible to predict, I’d imagine Giles sees a bunch of chances closing out games for what is likely to be the best team in baseball this season. Coming off a season that saw him post a 2.39 FIP, 16.4% SwStr%, and a knack to limit hard contact/produce soft contact, I will gladly have Giles on my fantasy team this year.
Similar to Giles, Osuna is another reliever who flashes true elite shutdown potential, but a rough patch or two was enough to keep him out of that discussion for now. The numbers seem to suggest Osuna can make that jump into the top tier this season, but there are a few factors that have and will always concern me with him. His mentality for the role is obviously a real question mark and he even missed time with anxiety issues last season. He’s only 23 years old still which is crazy to me, so I’d expect as he grows and matures, these issues may go away. He’s also still a HR scare to me, and the numbers seem to suggest he lucked out a bit last year in allowing just 3 longballs after being a flyball machine in 2015/16. On the contrary, his groundball rate did jump up big time and that could be here to stay thanks to his new cutter. I’ll still gladly take a chance on him in drafts giving his immense upside, and see his ADP (5th reliever off the board) as being dead on accurate.
Knebel broke out in a big way last year, and was a major factor in the Brewers surprise success that saw them barely miss the playoffs. He was a legit top tier option for most of the year last season, however, I think we are bound to see some regression this season. . His GB% (38.3%), SwStr% (14.1%) and 3.15 K/BB ratio aren’t exactly terrible, but they are far from elite. For what its worth, the Brewers also led the league in save opportunities last season with 79, 20 more than the league average suggesting that the chances are bound to take a hit this year. And while solid across the board in most categories I take into consideration for my projections, he only ranked higher than 6th among current closers in one category (Z-Contact%). I think he is being a little overrated based on his monster 2017 campaign, but he is still someone I would consider around pick 100 if still available.
Like Knebel, Rivero came from out of nowhere to be one of the leagues best closers last season. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise though, as his 3 pitch repertoire is pretty unfair to both righties and lefties alike. They posted some similar numbers across the board, but whereas Knebel has an edge in the overall upside department, I think I’d considered Rivero the safer option. The only knock on him from last season really is a lucky BABIP (.234) but everything else checks out for Rivero to be a locked in top 10 option this season. He and Knebel should be considered in the same range, with Rivero the pick for those looking for safety and Knebel for those more into risk/reward.
Diaz was such a disappointment for me last year, as I was really expecting him to take a step forward after what he had shown in 2016. It got so bad that at one point he even lost his job for a while in order to figure some things out. In researching him for this article, I got a major case of deja vu, as I had to read about how everyone in Mariners camp is excited about Diaz working on a new changeup. Fool me once, shame on…shame on you. Fool me…you can’t get fooled again (that is how that old Tennessee saying goes, right?). Back to why this matters, I’d rather him perfect his FB/SL combo before he does anything else. Almost everyone on this list is a two pitch guy and he actually has been just fine against left-handed hitters without the changeup. As far as his 2017 goes, Diaz was actually much better in the second half of the season. July and September were clearly his best two months, with his only issues in August coming from two bad outings where his command escaped him (8/10 vs. LAA and 8/16 vs. BAL). I am buying into a bounce-back season for Diaz and really do believe he can be a special talent with his innate ability to miss bats and limit hard contact, but his ADP is way too rich for me right now given the potential risk involved.
Tier 3: Goodfellas
Allen seems like the forgotten guy when it comes to discussing the top closers, but he has been really consistent now for over a year, so let’s try to remember how solid he is. Across the board, he ranks average to above average compared to the rest of these closer options, while improving upon his ability to miss bats in the second half of last season. He also lowered his BB/9 number to sub 3 territory for the first time in his MLB career. He should be a safe bet to rack up 30+ saves for the 4th straight year and is one of the safer options at the position once you get into the triple digit pick range.
I have been on the Doolittle bandwagon for a while now, and while he may be the oldest name on the list to this point, he should still have plenty left in the tank for this season. He may not be overpowering, but his fastball command is top notch, and allowed him to see ridiculous 14.3 pVAL last season. I’m buying his low BABIP as being more legitimate than luck due to his excellent command that limits hard contact and produces soft contact. He threw his fastball 88% of the time, which probably needs to come down going forward, but he is re-working his slider this offseason in hopes of making it that go-to second offering. I see Doolittle as a good floor/ceiling option this year, and think he is a reasonable pick come round 10 in most drafts.
The lesser-publicized of the RP waiver dynamos from last season, Hand used his stellar command to his advantage once taking over the closer role in notching 21 saves on the year. His slider is one of the best in the league, with opponents only able to hit .105 off it last season with a 19.5% SwStr% and will need that pitch to remain this good going forward. His fastball is very mediocre, but he threw it less last season, while mixing in his slider more to keep hitters guessing. I’d expect some regression this season as his BABIP was quite low and I think his fastball will get hit around more often, but I’d still expect an ERA bordering 3 and a WHIP around 1 to go with 1+ K per inning. Can’t complain about those numbers from a closer taken at this stage of the draft.
Iglesias was really great to start the season, compiling a great first half before somewhat disappearing in the second part of the season. He was still there and posted good, if unspectacular numbers across the board, but I can’t help but imagine that is likely how his 2018 goes down. I really like Iglesias the pitcher and think he is actually one of the safer options here with some room to grow still. If he could just tighten up his command a little and maybe pitch for a team that was actually trying to win ball games (poor Joey Votto), I think we are looking at a surefire top 8 closer. As is, he should be just fine as a low-end RP1 for those looking to wait on the position come draft day.
Neris is one of the more underappreciated bullpen weapons in the game, and continues to be even if Gabe Kapler for some reason refuses to name him the Phillies closer. Despite that, Neris has earned the full time gig, and entering a contract year, the 28-year-old could be primed for a monster season. He has a filthy split/change that combined with his mid 90’s fastball (with arm side run) led to a 16.9% SwStr%, good for 4th among closers on this list. After a shaky start to the season, he really got it going in the second half and was a big reason the Phils were a .500 team post All-Star break. Yes, his FIP and xFIP numbers remain dangerously high (3.71, 4.21), but they have been inflated his whole career and it has yet to translate to his on field performance. I’m also not worried about the “bad team, no save chances” stigma, as I don’t really believe in that outside of extreme cases and I do think the Phillies are winning at least 80 games this year anyway. I’ll gladly target him two rounds before his current ADP (161), and feel he is the classic high upside option to consider at that point in drafts.
I still am trying to determine if Davis is just really lucky, or if he really just has this uncanny ability to do his job and finish games. It’s probably a bit of both, while he does have good stuff that can miss bats, he once again posted mediocre FIP (3.38), xFIP (3.57) and SIERA (3.29) numbers to go along with a low BABIP (.262), mediocre GB%(40.5) and poor K/BB percentages (2.82). He has also lost 2 MPH on his fastball and cutter over the past two seasons, which is obviously a concerning trend, although the cutter is still filthy and should take over as his primary offering as soon as this season. But he did have the best Clutch rating of everyone on this list, with the lowest meltdown total (just 2). Bottom line, he still misses bats and limits hard contact, which will be key with him moving to Coors field for half of his games. He’ll need to improve on that walk rate though, or he could be in for some rough outings.
I am expecting a nice comeback season from Melancon this year, but I have to imagine his days of a sub 2 ERA and sub 1 WHIP are behind him. Still, a closer with say a sub 2.75 ERA and 1.15 WHIP ain’t too shabby. It is still tough to rank Melancon much higher however, given his limited K upside, especially compared to the previously mentioned names on this list. Despite his rough injury plagued 2017, the positives from Melancon’s prior seasons were mostly all there. He held a 52.7 GB%, 4.6 BB%, all while limiting hard contact. Outside of the injuries, he was mostly burned by a ridiculous .374 BABIP, a number that hadn’t been higher than .260 in any of the previous 3 seasons. I’ll believe in a bounce back season for Melancon, I just don’t expect him to replicate his Pirates years.
Tier 4: Cape Fear
One of the more surprising names on this list for this season, I never thought I’d be talking about Brandon Morrow as a closer this time last year. That’s not to say he hasn’t earned the opportunity, as he posted elite numbers last season in a relief role for the Dodgers. He showed great command (5.56 K/BB), an ability to miss bats (16% SwStr%) and an overall ability to be productive (1.55 FIP). Like most starters turned relievers nowadays (for whatever reason), Morrow developed a pretty devastating cutter to go along with his high 90’s four seamer, a good recipe for success in the closer’s role. However, the negatives with Morrow certainly cannot be ignored. Due to his extensive injury history, he hasn’t thrown more than 43 innings since 2013. Closers are typically asked to work 60+ innings in a season, so Morrow’s ability to perform throughout the entire season is certainly in question. He also only has 18 career saves to his name, 16 of which came back in 2008/09. Given his peripherals last season, he was lucky to not allow a single HR and I’d have to imagine he puts up a crooked number in that category this year. Morrow is definitely the biggest boom/bust option at the position this season and one that I am willing to take a chance on. His 184 ADP seems fair, and I may even say he is worth a look a round or 2 prior to that point.
Another surprise name, Parker was rock solid when thrust into the closers spot for the Angels late in the season and should be given the chance to earn the bulk of the opportunities this year, despite what grumpy old Mike Scioscia says. He has certainly earned it after posting an ERA, FIP, xFIP, and SIERA under 2.75 while limiting walks (6.3 BB%) and inducing close to a 50% GB rate thanks to his nasty splitter. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff and won’t miss a ton of bats, but consider him the safer, lower upside alternative to Morrow. He also comes at a nice discount right now, as the threat of a potential committee has Parkers ADP sitting at 210. He should start going in the late 100’s soon enough, so the time to buy low is likely closing.
Familia wasn’t quite right at any point of last season, with him only appearing in 26 games due to a suspension and injuries. When he did pitch, he didn’t look as sharp as he has in the past and his velocity was down a bit from previous seasons. He’s still only 28, was great at inducing ground balls still and supposedly healthy so I’ll give him a pass on last year. While he remains a big risk for fantasy owners, it’s one that can pay off big time if he can recapture his 2016 form. I’d be more likely to let someone else take a chance on that given where he is being drafted (168) but if he falls down a few more rounds, he is a name to consider given that upside.
Treinen is one of the most frustrating guys to rank, because he has unhittable stuff at times, as he was featured regularly flashing all three of his pitches on our GIFS of the night section. The numbers don’t quite back up his unhittable-ness though, as he only posted a 13.1% SwStr number. It was, however, a career high for him, and if that number continues to trend upward, as well as that high BABIP (.344) leveling out, he could be in line for a really nice season. He was pretty solid in the second half of the season after moving to Oakland, showing a respectable 3.04 xFIP while ranking in the top 20 across the board in the majority of categories considered. He could wind up being a nice draft day steal if he takes a step forward this season, which is certainly possible. At the very least, he should provide safe RP2 value and is worth any potential risk at his current ADP (213).
Yes, Alex Colome led the league in saves last year, I am fully aware of this fact. I also know that save chances are completely impossible to predict on a year to year basis, but the Rays seeing 75 save opportunities (2nd in MLB) while only winning 80 games seems like a huge anomaly considering the league average was 59. Colome was good more often than not shutting the door on opponents, but other than that, it’s really hard to find a reason to rank him in the top 20. His 4.32 xFIP, 4.05 SIERA, 11.9% SwStr%, 2.52 K/BB, 84.2% Z-Contact and 33.5% Hard Contact all ranked in the bottom 5 among this group of 30 last year. The only reason I have him in the top 20, is because he was pretty good in 2016, although he was pretty overrated then as well. I think he is certainly trending downward, and a potential trade from the rebuilding Rays could see him in a setup role somewhere at some point this season. He is just a flat out mediocre option at this point, with one above average pitch (his 89 MPH cutter). Avoid him on draft day.
Tier 5: Shutter Island
Outside of a good SwStr% (14.8), Vizcaino fails to stand out in any category, grading out as a clear-cut bottom 10 closing option for 2018. He should have some job security to begin the year, although A.J. Minter has to be considered for the role at some point after he just dismantled MLB hitters over 16 games last season in his first taste of the show. I do like Vizcaino as a set-up/middle relief option, but he just really doesn’t cut it as a closing option long term. He is being way over drafted right now (153 ADP) and you’d certainly be better off leaving him alone at that cost.
I hate this, because I was really high on Herrera last season and thought he was gonna turn in to a bona fide closer but alas, he was pretty darn terrible in 2017. We can blame some of that on injuries, but in general he regressed in most categories on his way to posting a 4.30 FIP after posting a cool 2.47 FIP in 2016. He may have been the worst closer in the league over the second half of the season, and seemingly lost his ability to make people miss last year (15.2% SwStr in 2016, 11.5% in 2017). Even if a bounce back happens here, it is tough to get too excited about him given how bad the Royals will be this year, but I’ll still gladly take a shot on him over the rest of the names to follow because of that 2016 promise.
At this point, being 2018 and Fernando Rodney is still closing out games for MLB teams, I’m pretty convinced he would be out there finishing games following a nuclear winter. Bad jokes aside, Rodney was actually quite good last year at age 40, and there isn’t exactly anything to suggest he will just fall of a cliff anytime soon. However he isn’t Tom Brady, and as far as I am aware, he has yet to commit to the TB12 method of training, so a demise must be rather imminent. As solid as he was last season, nothing screams out that he belongs in the top half of the closer rankings, as he didn’t do anything particularly great and is always prone to an epic meltdown or 3. He was really good in the second half of the season though, signs that he still has something left in the tank. As is with most back-end relievers, the fall from grace is rather sharp and can be without warning, so be aware when drafting Rodney that the end could come at any moment.
Not too long ago, Gregerson was highly regarded as one of the top setup man in all of baseball. Then 2017 happened and he was phased out of high leverage roles for the Astros as the season went along. His 4.62 is obviously pretty gross, but there were still some glimmers of hope for him to return to his 2016 form. He had extremely bad luck it seems, especially in the HR department (23.6% HR/FB) that went along with a .306 BABIP, the highest of his career. He was still able to miss bats at a nice rate though (15.6% SwStr, 35% WHIFF and a 26.62 PutAway%) so he still has that going for him. Most have linked Greg Holland to the Cardinals as likely to this point, but if he winds up elsewhere, Gregerson is a nice bounce-back candidate who can be had for basically nothing right now at his 314 ADP. Worth a shot at the end of drafts as a dart throw RP3/4, in hopes he can get back to the 2016 version of himself (20.1% SwStr! with a sub 3 FIP and xFIP).
Soria was once a pretty good closer, and not all that long ago either, but while he had a nice season in a setup role for Kansas City last year, his best days are probably behind him. He had a nifty little 2.23 FIP last season despite his 3.70 ERA and was certainly the victim of some bad BABIP (.329) luck. He should be given a chance to run with the job this season, and despite ranking dead last in save chances last year (40), the White Sox should be a little bit better if they can stay healthy and give Soria some chances to return value on his bargain basement 324 ADP.
This is the one position battle here to really monitor closely, as all three options seem to have an even shot at this point. I’m leaning towards them starting with Boxberger in the role, as he has experience doing it and finished the year strong (17/2 K/BB in September). I get the feeling they prefer Bradley in that fireman/setup role (see Andrew Miller, Chris Devenski), and it makes some sense to ease Hirano into pitching in his new league by giving him the 7th/8th inning. Boxberger is by no means an ideal option in the role, but barring a surprise signing of Greg Holland (potential dark horse team for him?) he may have to do for now. He, like Gregerson, can be had for basically nothing (322 ADP) but provides some, albeit limited, upside if he can hang on to the role.
Tier 6: Bringing Out The Dead
This is the one spot where I really have no idea who wins this job. I think if Kela is good this spring, it could go to him but then again, Claudio pitched pretty well in the role last year and probably deserves a chance to run with it. Leclerc should be viewed as the long-term option, given that he shores up the horrendous command issues that plagued him last year. Diekman is the wild card, coming back from an injury that caused him to miss most of last year but has the track record of being a pretty good reliever at this level. This is just a headache to me and a situation to avoid, but if I had to draft one of these guys, I think Kela provides the most legitimate upside since Claudio doesn’t help out at all with strikeouts.
Another situation that I will be avoiding at all costs is likely in Baltimore, as I want nothing to do with Brach. If Givens were given a shot at the role, I’d consider him a fringe top 20 guy, but at the end of the day, this is basically a two-month rental anyway, as Zach Britton should return in June. Back to Brach though, he posted lackluster numbers in 2017, and was especially bad in the second half (bottom 5 in FIP, xFIP, SwStr%, and K/BB). He’s a nice middle relief option on a good team, and does a good job inducing soft contact for the most part but I’m not buying him as a steady 9th inning option this year.
The one thing I do like about Greene is that he keeps the ball out of the air at a fair clip, and did (somehow) manage to have the second highest Clutch rating on this list. So maybe the high leverage situations don’t get to him, but his stuff just isn’t all that great and he will get exposed in the role eventually, sooner rather than later. Like Brach, he is a good middle relief option on a good team, but just doesn’t quite cut it as an MLB closer. His career low .265 BABIP (previous low at any professional level was .304 in AAA in 2015) has a lot to do with his “success” last season as his SwStr% was a meager 8.6%. Let’s hope Joe Jimenez development gets back on track this season as that’s name I can really get behind.
Ziegler does get plenty of groundballs and reduces hard contact with the best of them, but that’s about all there is to get excited about with him. The Marlins are in complete dumpster fire mode this season, and will likely produce limited fantasy value anywhere on the field. Whoever has this role this season will be hard pressed to find opportunities for themselves but it is worth noting that at least Barraclough and Steckenrider carry some strikeout upside. I personally prefer Steckenrider to Barraclough at this point, but Barraclough is likely to get the first chance at saves if/when Ziegler is removed from the role.
Greg Holland (unsigned)
Zach Britton (Baltimore Orioles)—expected back in June