Top 40 Relievers for Saves in 2019
Last but not least in our fantasy baseball rankings preview, we take a look at the top 40 closer options heading into 2019. The sole “closer” role seems to be fading across the league as teams are electing more and more to play matchups and/or use their best relievers earlier in games. Our own Alex Fast wrote a great Going Deep piece on the current value of “closers,” which is definitely worth a read before your draft. While it’s hard to predict closer usage and value, they are still an important part of most fantasy leagues and can make or break seasons for owners.
For fun, I decided to rank each tier in order of my favorite Rage Against the Machine albums (and that Prophets of Rage album) because Aroldis Chapman coming out to “Wake Up” is one of my all-time favorite pitcher entrance songs out there.
Tier 1: Rage Against The Machine
No. 1: Edwin Diaz (New York Mets)
Edwin Diaz was a popular breakout candidate heading into the 2017 season but proceeded to have a tumultuous season that even saw him lose his role as closer at one point. That breakout then came in 2018 — and in a big way as Diaz went on to lead relievers in multiple categories including saves, K/BB%, FIP, and xFIP while finishing top five in xwOBA, SwStr%, WHIFF%, and K%. The move to New York doesn’t affect his outlook much if any as even if he sees fewer save opportunities, he’s still far and away the top closer heading into 2019.
No. 2: Kenley Jansen (Los Angeles Dodgers)
There are no statistics from Kenley Jansen‘s 2018 campaign that suggest he belongs here in the rankings, but I’m ready to put 2018 in the rear view in this case. A slow start to the year as well as a troublesome heart condition led to the uncharacteristically mediocre season, but Jansen seems to be healthy after his second heart surgery and ready to move forward in 2019. While I still think I like the next name on the list better as far as overall ratio’s go, Jansen is one guy who is locked into at least 90% of his team’s save chances as long as he is healthy.
No. 3: Blake Treinen (Oakland Athletics)
A regular staple on our Nastiest Pitches segment this past season, it’s no surprise that Blake Treinen got the most swings and misses outside of the zone of any reliever this past season. His 42.8% O-Swing was backed by FIP, xFIP, and xwOBA marks all ranking in the top 10 among relievers. Treinen makes hitters miss quite easily out of the zone with his ridiculous fastball, slider, changeup mix, but he must be able to get ahead and stay ahead in counts to be as dominant as he was in 2018.
No. 4: Aroldis Chapman (New York Yankees)
Aroldis Chapman bounced back in a big way this past season, finishing as a top-eight relief pitcher in most formats despite dealing with a balky knee that severely limited him the second half of the season. The knee is something to monitor early on here, but it seems he’s moved past it and is ready to dominate the ninth inning for the Yankees. Walks were an even bigger issue than usual this past year (14.2. BB%), but his ability to make hitters miss as long as he is around the zone (70.8 Z-Contact ranked second among relievers) is still truly something special.
No. 5: Craig Kimbrel (Free Agent)
As of Feb. 25, Craig Kimbrel still doesn’t seem to have much of a list of potential suitors, which makes sense given his outrageous financial demands. Kimbrel was still a beast in the swing-and-miss department this past season, but the career-low FIP to go along with an elevated walk rate (12.6%) have to be a little concerning for any team interested in the 30-year-old’s services. It’s really anyone’s guess as to where he ends up, and we probably won’t have an idea until at least Bryce Harper signs. While it’s all but guaranteed he will be closing games wherever he lands, I think its safest to pass on Kimbrel come draft day this season.
No. 6: Sean Doolittle (Washington Nationals)
Still one of the most underrated pitchers in the game, Sean Doolittle was once again able to dominate opposing hitters just by throwing his 94 mph fastball 89% of the time. While that may seem fluky, the way he is able to command the pitch is what makes him a truly elite reliever. Doolittle was the only reliever with a minimum of 30 innings pitched this past season to finish in the top 20 in every one of these categories: whiff, xwOBA, WPA/LI, O-Swing%, Z-Contact%, SwStr%, K%, BB%, K-BB%, SIERA, FIP, and xFIP. There’s some injury risk here as he hasn’t eclipsed 60 innings pitched since 2014, but if he can get to that mark, he could easily finish as a top-five reliever after finishing sixth this past season.
Tier 2: Battle of Los Angeles
No. 7: Kirby Yates (San Diego Padres)
After the elite options go, I think the best strategy is to either wait until way later in the draft or use a middle-round pick or two on something with truly elite upside. The next two names on the list represent just that. Kirby Yates was just two years ago a prototypical journeyman, bouncing around from team to team before the Padres found a spot for him in their bullpen, and he just took off. The biggest change came in his development of a devastating split-change offering, which was close to unhittable. Yates posted high marks across the board when it comes to swing-and-miss ability (16.7% SwStr), but what really stands out is his ability to get hitters to chase (39% O-Swing) and still miss bats at a high rate while working inside the zone (75% Z-Contact). Now let’s just hope an improved Padres team can give Yates some more save chances to work with in 2019.
No. 8: Jose Leclerc (Texas Rangers)
Jose Leclerc isn’t too far behind Yates, especially considering that splitter dominance, however, the save opportunities could be hard to find this season in Texas. Leclerc actually profiles closer to Chapman as they are both near unhittable when around the zone, but both go through bouts of erratic control. Leclerc was still able to bring his walk rate down almost 9% this past year from 20% to 11.2%, which — while still high — is a number with which he can still succeed. He’s not just a swing-and-miss reliever either, finishing 2018 with a .210 xwOBA and 1.90 FIP.
No. 9: Roberto Osuna (Houston Astros)
Roberto Osuna was able to turn in another solid season in 2018 despite off-the-field issues limiting him to only 38 innings between two teams. His ability to get hitters to swing and miss out of the zone while limiting walks is fantastic, but there are still some numbers that trigger red flags. His .308 xwOBA this past year puts him in the same company with the likes of Shane Greene, while his 26.8 WHIFF% is below average. As long as he is getting ahead of hitters, he will be just fine, and the Astros should provide plenty of save opportunities.
No. 10: Felipe Vazquez (Pittsburgh Pirates)
Felipe Vazquez was a steady if unspectacular RP1 this past season and should be again in 2019 as he enters his prime years. Like a lot of the names mentioned above, Vazquez is at his best when he works within the zone instead of trying to get hitters to chase, which can get him in trouble at times. The Pirates may not contend for a playoff spot this year, but they won’t be bad enough also to hinder Vazquez from seeing plenty of save chances as the clear cut closer for the team.
No. 11: Brad Hand (Cleveland Indians)
Brad Hand wrapped up his third consecutive sub-3.00 ERA season in Cleveland this past year as the team’s closer and should once again be a solid RP1 in fantasy leagues for 2019. Hand pairs a meh fastball with a plus curveball to get nice all-around numbers, but it’s more than likely he’s already hit his ceiling. Still, he has no competition in that Indians bullpen this year and should rack up a ton of saves pitching for the best team in the worst division in baseball.
Josh Hader broke out in a huge way this past season and has entrenched himself as one of the top bullpen weapons in baseball. The numbers speak for themselves as Hader was a strikeout machine with an absurd 143 strikeouts over just 81.1 innings. The only knock on him is that he could tend to nibble a little too much, but I think we can all agree he probably shouldn’t change a thing. Double-digit saves may be hard to come by this year as long as Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress stay healthy, but Hader should be able to help with ratios and of course strikeouts while being an even bigger asset in holds leagues.
No. 13: Ken Giles (Toronto Blue Jays)
One of these years, Ken Giles is going to finish a top-five closer, I swear we will see it happen. I’ll admit its likely not this season, but he should still come in as a great RP2 option. He adjusted his approach this past year to mixed results, as he clearly made a conscious effort to be more around the strike zone while sacrificing strikeouts in the process. Overall, he was still a fairly effective reliever, especially once he was moved at the deadline to the Blue Jays. If he can replicate his 16% swinging-strike rate and 3.3% walk rate over a full season in Toronto, good things will come. Just not elite … yet.
No. 14: Raisel Iglesias (Cincinnati Reds)
This ranking may seem low for Raisel Iglesias, but that’s not to say I don’t think he is a capable reliever. I just see a higher upside in the names mentioned prior and would rather not buy at his current ADP (106 overall in NFBC). I believe in the Reds to be competitive this season, so he may finally see a steady dose of save chances throughout the year, but beware of the bloated FIP (4.23) and xwOBA (.308) numbers. If the BABIP regresses, we can still expect something like a 3.50 ERA to go with a 1.20 WHIP and over a strikeout per inning. Not bad, just not great.
No. 15: Wade Davis (Colorado Rockies)
Wade Davis carried an ERA higher than 5.00 into Aug. 19, 2018, but was able to right the ship from then on out to finish the year at 4.13. While he certainly encountered some bad luck, I still see Davis as mid-3.00’s ERA option at best in his second season with the Rockies. His ability to miss bats and overall command scream average at best, making him a hard pass at his current ADP (126 overall in NFBC).
Tier 3: Evil Empire
No. 16: Corey Knebel (Milwaukee Brewers)
This past season was a tale of two Knebels, as he was one of if not the best reliever in baseball if you were to use just two months of a pitcher’s season, which for him was June and September. Combing those two months, he had an absolutely absurd 48:6 K/BB ratio over 24.1 innings pitched while allowing just nine hits and one run. Outside of that, things were pretty ugly for Knebel overall, with command issues and a hamstring injury mostly to blame. I certainly think he is a prime bounce-back candidate this season, but you have to wonder just how exactly he will be used with Hader and Jeffress also in that bullpen. He should be considered the favorite for saves, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see something like a 20/15/10 split between the three.
No. 17: Jose Alvarado (Tampa Bay Rays)
While he hasn’t been named closer yet and the Rays are one team that will happily play the matchups and use a committee approach in the ninth inning, Jose Alvarado is certainly the best weapon they have in that bullpen heading into the season. Diego Castillo is another intriguing option here, but Alvarado should see the bulk of the high-leverage ninth-inning work to begin the season. Even if he doesn’t get every save chance, he can still help out owners with low ratios and more than a strikeout per inning.
No. 18: Will Smith (San Francisco Giants)
Will Smith and Mark Melancon are the two front-runners for the Giants’ closer role this season, with a good chance they open the season splitting the role. Hopefully, the Giants have realized Melancon cannot be trusted to stay healthy and/or be effective, and they let Smith work the ninth, where he can be a top-tier closer. Even if Smith isn’t the full-time closer, he will still be a valuable fantasy asset after finishing this past season with a .222 xwOBA, 2.07 FIP, and 39% O-Swing.
No. 19: Matt Barnes (Boston Red Sox)
Matt Barnes is expected to compete with Ryan Brasier for the Red Sox’s closer role this spring training, with Barnes the front-runner for the job depending on what news sources you follow. I think the job should be Barnes’ to start, especially with Brasier having a slow start to spring training. Barnes was very effective for most of 2018, posting career numbers in plenty of categories and holding a top-10 whiff rate at 36.56%. Unfortunately, that came with a career-worst 11.7% walk rate, but all things considered, he should be a great value pick in drafts with a current ADP of 362 in NFBC.
No. 20: A.J. Minter (Atlanta Braves)
A.J. Minter is in a similar situation to Smith in 2019, as both relievers are clearly their team’s best options, yet both are likely to see the bulk of their innings before the ninth inning, at least early on. That should lead both to be great value picks later on in fantasy drafts, with the potential that they take over the closer role permanently at some point in the season, providing top-10 closer upside. One of the more hyped up relievers heading into 2018, Minter posted solid numbers across the board, and there should be room to improve his strikeout rate moving forward.
No. 21: David Robertson (Philadelphia Phillies)
David Robertson was one of the more underrated free agent pickups this season for the Phillies as he should get a chance to close out games for them this season. There’s still Seranthony Dominguez to deal with, who the team is still really high on, but I’d imagine Robertson’s success against left-handed hitters may prove to set up the two for sharing the role. With Robertson now making $23 million over the next two seasons as well as 137 career saves to his name, expect him to begin the year as at least the 1A option in any potential closer committee.
No. 22: Cody Allen (Los Angeles Angels)
Unlike the bulk of relievers mentioned earlier in this tier, Cody Allen is certainly in the driver’s seat to run away with the closer’s role this season. The only other option would likely be Ty Buttrey, who pitched well once called up this past year, but he is likely to settle into a setup role. Allen’s coming off the worst season of his career but is in a good position to bounce back on a one-year “prove it” deal with the Angels.
No. 23: Mychal Givens (Baltimore Orioles)
Although nothing has been made official yet, Mychal Givens should be given the keys to the closer’s job to begin the year as he faces limited competition from others in that bullpen. While he’s a safe bet to earn the majority of the teams saves this season, those could be few and far between with the Orioles in full rebuild mode, limiting his upside.
Tier 4: Renegades of Funk
No. 24: Arodys Vizcaino (Atlanta Braves)
After missing the majority of the second half to a shoulder injury, Arodys Vizcaino enters his contract year with the Braves as the tentative favorite to open the year as closer. When healthy, Vizcaino tends to be a mixed bag, being shaky one day and dominant the next. He should get some leash to begin the season, but if he falters early on, Minter will be there nipping on his heels.
Outside of leading the league in holds, Archie Bradley doesn’t bring all too much to the table in terms of ratio or strikeout upside. He failed to rank as a top-70 reliever in 2018 when it comes to most swing and miss or expected outcome stats and had a dismal 9% swinging-strike rate. It does sound like he will start the season as the Diamondbacks’ closer, but I’m not so sure I wouldn’t rather take a flyer on Greg Holland in the last round of my draft over Bradley at pick 212 (NFBC).
No. 26: Jordan Hicks (St. Louis Cardinals)
When looking at Jordan Hicks‘ numbers from 2018, it hard to believe that this is a guy who can routinely throw a baseball over 100 mph with movement. Similar to Bradley, Hicks seems to be vastly overrated and didn’t rank inside the top 100 relievers when it came to swing and miss or expected outcome stats, outside of suppressing home runs. He really struggled to get hitters to miss this past season and also had major issues with his control at times. There is definitely tantalizing upside here in the 22-year-old’s arm — and he does seem to have a leg up on others in that bullpen when it comes to closing — but I think his ADP (222) is too high to take the gamble on.
No. 27: Seranthony Dominguez (Philadelphia Phillies)
I love what Dominguez brings to the table, and I think he may be one of the best dynasty assets among relief pitchers, though he may have to wait his turn as full-time closer until Robertson’s contract is up. When around the strike zone, he was consistently one of the most dominant relievers this past season. He was particularly dominant against right-handed hitters, who could only muster a .179 wOBA with a 44:8 K/BB ratio over 30 innings. Combined with Robertson’s success against left-handed hitters, the two could make the perfect ninth-inning combo for the Phillies, while leaving fantasy owners frustrated.
No. 28: Pedro Strop (Chicago Cubs)
After Brandon Morrow went down for the year with an elbow injury this past July, Pedro Strop filled in admirably as the team’s closer over the second half and could be in a position to lock down the job permanently if all goes well in April. Strop’s slider was able to get a ton of hitters to miss, leading to a 38.7% O-Swing and 16% swinging-strike rate. Strop could be a big steal in drafts this season with a real shot he keeps the job for the majority of the year.
No. 29: Trevor May (Minnesota Twins)
The Twins closer battle has upward of six potential candidates right now, but I think we can safely narrow them down to Trevor May and Blake Parker. May, being the incumbent and most highly skilled option, could really be a steal in drafts if he breaks camp with the job. However, I see the Twins letting Parker open up in the role given his experience. That doesn’t mean May has no value or won’t earn any saves, as his 25 innings from 2018 showed there’s potential here for May to become an elite relief option. There are injury and role risks here, but good luck finding this type of upside after the first 250 or so picks.
No. 30: Alex Colome (Chicago White Sox)
Alex Colome should find himself back in the closer’s seat to begin 2019, with Kelvin Herrera still coming along in his return from a foot injury he suffered this past season that required surgery. Colome had a nice year for himself setting up Diaz in Seattle, with a 3.04 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. While not a flashy source for saves, getting the first save chance once the season begins certainly gives him some fantasy value.
No. 31: Jeremy Jeffress (Milwaukee Brewers)
After a disappointing 2017 that saw him as an afterthought in the Brewers’ bullpen, Jeffress was a key contributor to the Brewers 2018 postseason run. The big question entering 2019 is what role will he play in that bullpen with Knebel and Hader around. There’s sure to be some regression here from the 1.29 ERA and .99 WHIP, but if we can still get an ERA hovering around 3.00, a WHIP around 1.20, and a strikeout per inning, then there’s some deep mixed-league value to be had here.
Tier 5: Prophets of Rage
No. 32: Shane Greene (Detroit Tigers)
You certainly won’t get the prettiest numbers from Greene when it comes to underlying stats, but he was able to secure 32 saves this past season despite a 5.12 ERA. He also enters spring training locked into the closer’s role and will remain there until traded or the Tigers finally deem Joe Jimenez ready for the role. Despite being the front-runner for the first closer to lose his job, he’s not the worst gamble late in drafts in case he does start the year strong. Just don’t expect any prolonged success, and be ready to grab Jimenez at any moment.
No. 33: Ryan Brasier (Boston Red Sox)
With his most recent MLB appearance coming in 2013, Brasier came from out of nowhere and winded up being one of the Red Sox’s must trustworthy setup men late this past season with a filthy fastball/slider combination, with the slider specifically leading to a 39.7% O-Swing. He’s been mentioned to be in the mix for saves in Boston this year but is likely to begin the season setting up Barnes. Still, it’s possible we see a committee approach here, making Brasier an intriguing late-round flier.
No. 34: Brad Boxberger (Kansas City Royals)
Brad Boxberger started off on the right foot this past year before fading hard in September and becoming an afterthought in free agency this offseason. That one month led to the closer-needy Royals getting him at a discount, and I’d imagine he can take the job away from incumbent Wily Peralta (don’t let the 3.67 ERA fool you). There won’t be many chances on a Royals team lacking talent outside of a few middle infielders and a catcher, but the job should still be his to himself early on in the season with his strikeout upside a nice added bonus.
No. 35: Sergio Romo (Miami Marlins)
Sergio Romo finds himself in a good position to get back to closing out games in Miami this season, where he and Drew Steckenrider will battle for however many save chances the Marlins can muster. I like Romo a little bit better, with the Marlins’ best bet being to let him run with the closer’s role, then move him at the deadline for a prospect. This will probably wind being a full-blown committee approach, but I’ll take Romo coming off a respectable 2018 over the “Jekyll and Hyde” Steckenrider.
No. 36: Blake Parker (Minnesota Twins)
I tentatively consider Parker the front-runner for saves in Minnesota because of that “experience” factor thing, but he’s not who I’d be drafting for fantasy purposes. Based on his past and some of the peripheral numbers, 2018 seems to be a lot closer to the real Parker than 2017, which isn’t exactly a terrible thing, He’s effective when it comes to limiting free passes, but everything else just speaks to a very plain reliever. He’s another reliever who needs to have a strong April to keep his competition on the depth chart behind him.
No. 37: Drew Steckenrider (Miami Marlins)
A popular sleeper pick for saves coming into the season, Steckenrider finished 2019 on shaky ground and now finds himself in a battle with Romo for saves in Miami. Despite being the de facto closer for much of the second half of the season, he could only account for five saves to go with a 4.91 ERA during that stretch. He may have more hypothetical upside, but Romo is the better save gamble giving their respective ADPs right now.
No. 38: Kelvin Herrera (Chicago White Sox)
With reports that Herrera could miss the start of the season, it gives Colome a huge jump-start on winning the role of the closer for the White Sox. Herrera may have made more sense to close given Colome has arbitration years remaining for the rebuilding White Sox, but a full spring training from Colome should give him a big leg up. Herrera’s still a quality reliever and could split saves with Colome but is best left toward the end of drafts or on waivers in standard leagues.
No. 39: Mark Melancon (San Francisco Giants)
Heading into his third year with the Giants, to say Melancon has been a disappointing free agent signing would be an understatement. Maybe he can get healthy and turn his career back around this season, but don’t count on it. I guess it makes sense to give Melancon a shot at the beginning of the year to perform in the role he’s paid to fulfill, and that could be just what happens with Smith moving into more of a Hader role.
No. 40: Hunter Strickland (Seattle Mariners)
It’s a bit of a shame Hunter Strickland is the front-runner for saves in Seattle as there should still be plenty available for a team that could surprise despite being in the middle of a rebuild. Strickland doesn’t bring much else, if anything, to the table for fantasy purposes, so he will likely only be a fantasy option for those desperate for saves.
Next five: Brandon Morrow, Anthony Swarzak, Jimenez, Andrew Miller, and Peralta.
(Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)