We continue our fantasy baseball preview today with a look at some relief pitchers who may not be in a position to close out the majority of their teams’ games this season but can help in other categories such as holds. Seriously, if you aren’t in any leagues where holds are counted, I highly suggest you find one this year. The league is rapidly adapting to more of a closer-by-committee approach, making these leagues more appealing than ever before. On Friday, we’ll release a top-100 list for save+hold leagues, where I’ll also discuss some of the deep sleeper options ranked in the bottom 25 or so.
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, holds and of course strikeouts while being an even bigger asset in holds leagues.
No. 2: Will Smith (San Francisco Giants)
Will Smith and Mark Melancon are the two front-runners for the Giants’ closer role this season, with a 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.
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.
Dellin Betances heads into 2019 as one of the more well-known commodities at the position. Six consecutive years with at least a 38% strikeout rate highlight the immense strikout upside he brings to the table, and when he keeps his walk rate below 10%, he becomes one of the toughest relievers in baseball. The Yankees bullpen figures to shake out similarly to this past season, with new addition Adam Ottavino replacing David Robertson, so Betances should still be on track for around 25 saves+holds.
One of the most intriguing bullpen arms throughout the first half of this past season, it wasn’t until a trade to the Astros that Ryan Pressly began to show his true ability. Over his final 33.1 innings pitched, Pressly impressed with a 46:6 K/BB rate while allowing just three runs. The Astros and the spin rate revolution helped Pressly to a 17.6% swinging-strike rate, more than 5 points higher than his previous career high. He figures to open up as one of Roberto Osuna’s top setup men and should be a good bet for 20-plus holds.
Andrew Miller’s health, particularly that right knee of his, is to blame for what was a disastrous 2018 by his standards. After this past year, it’s tough to bank on health being on his side for his soon to be 34-year-old season, but it’s tough to just forget about how steady he was prior to 2018. He’s in a great position to help out fantasy owners this season if his health cooperates, and he may even earn more saves than usual with not much competition in front of him on his new team.
No. 7: Seranthony Dominguez (Philadelphia Phillies)
I love what Seranthony 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, potentially leaving fantasy owners frustrated.
Jeurys Familia transitioned well into a setup role once going to Oakland at the trade deadline and should fit in just fine in front of Edwin Diaz as he heads back to New York. Familia was able to get his K/9 rate over 10 for the first time in his career this past season and still should have plenty left in the tank.
Oakland should be a great landing spot for Joakim Soria, where he should slide right into seventh or eighth inning work in front of closer Blake Treinen. Soria is another reliever who may not have flashy stats to back him up but just seems to be above average all across the board and should be in line for plenty of holds this season.
No. 10: Joe Jimenez (Detroit Tigers)
Just when it seemed like Joe Jimenez was going to push Shane Greene out of the closer’s role in Detroit, he had to go push himself further away with a July and August from hell. Those two months proved that while he’s still got the look of a future full-time closer, he still has some work to do, particularly with his command. He still returns as Greene’s top setup man and figures to be a good bet to finish the season earning saves.
No. 11: Jose Castillo (San Diego Padres)
It’s unfair to label anyone “this year’s Hader” but if I had to, Jose Castillo would get the nomination. Castillo saw just over 38 innings of work in his first MLB season, impressing not only with his swing-and-miss ability but his over command and a .230 xwOBA. He should be ticketed for a high leverage role in the Padres bullpen in front of Kirby Yates and makes for one of my favorite RP picks in hold leagues. EDIT: Castillo is experiencing some forearm tightness, which is often a precursor for TJS. He should be bumped down draft boards until we hear an official diagnosis.
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.
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.
While he may never post gaudy strikeout rates, Taylor Rogers has made a name for himself for getting outs in high-leverage situations with 48 holds over the past two seasons. Despite a dip in the hold totals in 2018, it was the most effective year in his career as he posted a 2.33 FIP and .246 xwOBA over 68.1 innings.
Keone Kela returns to Pittsburgh as Felipe Vazquez’s top set up man and should remain a good source of holds, ratios and strikeouts. After two consecutive seasons with a walk rate of 11.3%, Kela greatly was able to get that number down to 9%. His fastball/curve combo is good enough to close out games in this league, but for now, he’ll just have to settle in as a quality setup man.
Jace Fry was the only reliable reliever in the White Sox bullpen this past season, with the rest of the bullpen refusing to bail him out if ever needed. Fry showed he has great potential as a setup man or possibly even a closer, with a 34.47 WHIFF rate and 2.67 FIP. He’ll open the year working in front of Alex Colome and/or Kelvin Herrera but could find himself closing out some games as the season goes on.
No. 17: Seung-hwan Oh (Colorado Rockies)
Seung-hwan Oh wound up being a nice fit in Colorado this past season after a deal sent him there from Toronto and proved in both spots 2017 wasn’t reflective of his true self. Despite a small dip in velocity and a full-time move to Coors Field, Oh should be a great source of holds, strikeouts and low ratios as he sets up Wade Davis.
After his most impressive campaign to date, Ottavino signed with the Yankees for $27 million over three years. This might be the worst destination for him from a fantasy perspective as he joins an already loaded bullpen. He should still get plenty of hold chances as he essentially swaps places with Robertson but can be more of a wildcard giving his command issues.
With his most recent MLB appearance coming in 2013, Ryan Brasier came from out of nowhere and winded up being one of the Red Sox’s most 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.
Ty Buttrey was very impressive in his short 16.1-inning stint with the Angels this past year, so much so he ended the season as the team’s de facto closer. However, with Cody Allen coming in this offseason, Buttrey should move back into a setup role for the time being, where he should excel.
A surprise name among the top 10 relievers in FIP this past season, Stammen had himself a career year in 2018. His 27.8% strikeout rate was the highest it’s been since 2011 while also reaching a 10-plus K/9 mark for the first time since then, proving he’s not just all about the ratios and holds. Stammen should remain in a setup role for what has the makings of a really strong Padres bullpen.
There’s been some talk of Diego Castillo getting some save chances this year, and if it weren’t for Jose Alvarado, he’d be the perfect candidate. He’s a power arm with a fastball that can get up to 98 mph, and he has a two-pitch arsenal with a 33.21 whiff rate. As long as he can refine his command some in his sophomore season, as well as stay out of the opener role, he should provide plenty of value in hold leagues.
Smith is the lefty in the Giants bullpen we here talked about most, but Tony Watson had himself a very successful 2018 as well. He had the third-most holds in baseball with 32 this past year, and while he’s unlikely to top a 10 K/9, he can still help out with low ratios.
The first big wildcard on the list, it’s tough to guess what Trevor Rosenthal may bring to the table this year. When healthy, he can be a dominant reliever with elite strikeout upside. He is expected to get some high-leverage work early on in the season and could steal some save chances from closer Sean Doolittle. He’s your prototypical risk/reward pick in fantasy drafts.
Carl Edwards Jr. seems to always tease us with his tantalizing strikeout upside before going off on wild bouts of command problems. Unfortunately, this past year, we saw a dip in his strikeout rate and a 15.8% K/BB is nothing to write home about. With Brandon Morrow out for the foreseeable future, Edwards should still be in the mix for high-leverage situations early on and arguably has the highest upside of anyone else left on this list.
No. 26: Hector Neris (Philadelphia Phillies)
I’m not sure where exactly Hector Neris will slot in when it comes to the Phillies bullpen, which is very deep, but he’s still a name to keep an eye for a few reasons. The big reason being he ranked first in both swinging-strike rate (19.1%) and whiff rate (42.12%) this past year. He was much better after returning from a minor league stint in August, finishing the season with 35:5 K/BB rate over his final 17.2 IP. He needs to figure out how to keep the ball in the park better to reach his full potential, but at just 29 years old, he still has time to figure things out. He’s one of my favorite sleeper picks, especially in hold leagues.
No. 27: Richard Rodriguez (Pittsburgh Pirates)
It took a while for him to start earning consistent setup time, but Richard Rodriguez was one of the most steady relievers in baseball this past year, with a .250 xwOBA to back it up. He should begin the year seeing high-leverage work in front of Kela and Vazquez and makes for a solid option in holds leagues.
No. 28: Oliver Perez (Cleveland Indians)
After a few subpar seasons in Washingon, 37-year-old Oliver Perez showed he wasn’t dead quite yet with an amazing 50-game stretch with the Indians. A 30% K/BB rate and 1.74 FIP confirm as much, and with Miller out of the picture in Cleveland, Perez could find himself with some late-inning hold work.
A popular sleeper pick for saves coming into the season, Drew Steckenrider finished 2019 on shaky ground and now finds himself in a battle with Sergio 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.
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.
To label Greg Holland’s stint with the Cardinals in 2018 a disaster would be a severe understatement, but it wasn’t a completely lost year. He was able to get things going in the right direction for the Nationals over his final 21.1 innings. He needs to get his BB rate back closer to 10 to get back to being trustworthy, but with only Archie Bradley and Yoshihisa Hirano standing in his way in Arizona, Holland should find himself in high-leverage situations from the get-go.
No. 32: Darren O’Day (Atlanta Braves)
A healthy Darren O’Day can be a nice fantasy asset in deeper hold leagues, but he has only thrown 110 innings over the past three years now and isn’t quite as effective as he was before. He should still settle into a setup role in a Braves bullpen that will be trying to figure itself out in the early stages of 2019.
No. 33: Zach Britton (New York Yankees)
Zach Britton certainly didn’t have the type of bounce-back season he wanted but is still only three years removed from his legendary 2016 season. Consistent hold chances may be difficult to come by in this loaded Yankees bullpen, but Britton is worthy of a gamble still based on his not too distant dominance.
No. 34: Hector Rondon (Houston Astros)
Hector Rondon filled in admirably as the Astros closer this past season after Ken Giles‘ multiple meltdowns opened up the role to him. He faded come September, but he pitched well enough during the rest of the season to get some hold chances in a still very talented Astros bullpen.
Tony Cingrani looked to be in for a huge season before injuries derailed him. He was able to turn himself into a strikeout machine with a 31.6% K/BB rate, far and away a career high for him. A 2.02 SIERA ain’t too shabby either, so hopefully, we can get a full season out of him here in 2019.
Dan Winkler was finally able to put together a full season in 2018 after suffering numerous injuries since making his debut in 2015. He was quite effective as a reliever before hitting a bit of a wall in September. He should continue to see high-leverage innings as long as he can stay healthy.
Will Harris hit a rough patch in the middle of 2018 but still finished with good ratios, and his 2.44 FIP and 2.77 xFIP both rank in the top 20 of relievers with 20 innings pitched. Holds may be tough to come by with so many talented arms in that bullpen, but Harris is still a steady option here.
No. 38: Chad Green (New York Yankees)
Chad Green won’t win you any hold categories, but his high usage combined with great ratios and strikeout production still make him a valuable contributor in deeper leagues. A 26.5% K/BB rate and 2.59 SIERA highlight just how good he can be.
While it was a down year for Chris Devenski, who saw his ERA climb to higher than 4.00, he makes for an intriguing bounce-back candidate as long as he’s missing bats with his slider and changeup. A 14.4% swinging-strike rate still suggests he can, but after a down season and stuck in a deep Houston bullpen, will he be much help with holds?
No. 40: Pedro Baez (Los Angeles Dodgers)
Pedro Baez is now going on three consecutive seasons with an ERA lower than 3.04 and despite hitting shaky rough patches throughout, is still more trustworthy than Joe Kelly. Kelly had a dominant postseason run that got him paid, but Baez has been the more steady performer with higher strikeout upside during the regular season.
No. 42: Victor Arano (Philadelphia Phillies)
No. 46: Yoshihisa Hirano (Arizona Diamondbacks)
(Photo by Jimmy Simmons/Icon Sportswire)