At long last, I have finally finished my “Way to Early List” for next season, which wound up being 200 as there were just too many relievers I feel are worth keeping an eye on this early in the offseason. A lot of the stats I mention in the notes are part of the data used to come up with these preliminary rankings, amongst other metrics and considerations. The reliever position is the most volatile in the game and creates more turnover on a year-to-year basis than any other position. That and a fluid free agent/trade market will lead to these rankings being very different come March as we are yet to know how roles will shake out in most bullpens. For now, I’d stress that you look more at each tier rather than the actual number ranking as the deeper down the list you get, the wider the variety of potential outcomes per player. As far as draft strategy goes, I strongly believe in taking a strong, foundational reliever early before taking fliers on high upside targets later on.
- Tier 1 doesn’t need much explanation as these are the set and forget top closers in the game right now. Josh Hader in the top spot shouldn’t come as a surprise after his fantastic 2021 season in which he ranked first amongst all relievers in Whiff%, SwStr%, and K%. I think there still could be a case for Raisel Iglesias as the top RP, but his pending free agency is certainly a factor. While he should remain a closer wherever he winds up, it’s far from a guarantee the way teams manage their bullpens these days. A return to the Angels makes the most sense and would lock him in as one of the top five RP’s to target in fantasy drafts next year.
- Hader’s (current) teammate in Milwaukee, Devin Williams, remains the top non-closer reliever in the game despite the unfortunate end to his 2021 season. It was also a rocky beginning to the season for Williams, but he was dominant for most of the season, allowing just one earned run over a 29 inning span from June 4th to September 1st. Williams changeup once again was one of the most unhittable pitches in baseball, tallying a 47.2% Whiff rate, and was responsible for 70 of his 87 strikeouts. If the Brewers ever get serious about trading Hader, Williams enters the conversation as the first reliever off the board in fantasy drafts.
- Tier 2 consists of the pitchers who have Tier 1 level upside but come with some question marks. Craig Kimbrel is a great example as we don’t know where he will wind up pitching next year. Despite struggling with the White Sox (5.09 ERA), the team picked up his option with the hope of trading him this offseason to a closer needy team. With plenty of teams in the market for a closer this offseason, expect some contending team to take a chance on Kimbrel who not so unexpectedly broke down over the second half of the season after totaling just 36 innings during the 2019-2020 seasons. I think he bounces back next year, at least giving you another great half-season plus.
- Taylor Rogers may seem high on this list, but he was having another outstanding season prior to being shut down in August with a finger injury. He’s had some poor BABIP luck the past two years, but if he gets back closer to his career averages, he should be in the top 10-12 reliever range. It will be interesting to see what Paul Sewald (one of five relievers to top 100 K’s in 2021) and the rest of a potentially stacked Mariners bullpen do next year. Right now, they are probably the deepest bullpen in baseball, but a lot can change this offseason. Similar to Kimbrel, I think we see the Matt Barnes of the first half next season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he winds up being a draft-day steal in a lot of leagues next year. He dealt with really bad luck in the second half but still has a chance to open up the year as the Red Sox closer.
- Tier 3 still contains high upside arms, but a lot would need to break right for them to be in Tier 1 consideration. Lucas Sims certainly could be that guy, but we really have no idea what his role will be for the upcoming season and he’s also someone who has been inconsistent in the past, despite flashing shutdown ability. If there was a chance he’d be in the closer mix, I think I’d bump him up a tier by default but for now, he’s just outside of the top 15 relievers. With Nick Anderson out for most of 2022 (again), could we see Andrew Kittredge in a near full-time closer role? Probably not, but I still like him the most heading in that bullpen into next season.
- Aroldis Chapman still showed an ability to miss bats at a high-level last year, but he (like many relievers) was not the same over the second half, and at some point, his drop in velocity will start to have negative consequences. Perhaps that won’t be next year, but it shouldn’t shock anyone if his production were to just fall off a cliff in the next year or two. Art Warren is one of my favorite sleepers for next year, and if he can stay healthy should be in the mix to close out games for the Reds next year. While injuries limited him to just 21 innings, he would have ranked in the top six amongst all relievers in multiple categories (pCRA, PutAway%, Whiff%, xwOBA, SwStr%, K%, K-BB%, SIERA) had he qualified. Add Alex Reyes to the list of relievers who were not good in the second half but make for nice bounce-back candidates in 2022. The stuff is clearly there for him to be an elite reliever, however, there’s also the chance he moves into the rotation next year, although I think it’s more likely that Jordan Hicks does instead.
- Tier 4 is full of talented relievers, with lingering question marks. I’m not so sure Matt Wisler and Collin McHugh will repeat their career years. Wisler only had a 33% Whiff rate on his slider which he throws 91% of the time. McHugh heads to free agency at age 35 and should get paid quite nicely for the next year or two, but who knows what his role will be if he leaves Tampa. Brooks Raley may be one of the most underrated relievers heading into free agency this year. He should be the top lefty reliever on the market whereas his former Astros teammate Kendall Graveman is likely to be overpaid this offseason. I’d expect Graveman to get a contract similar to what Trevor May got last year, in the two years, 15 million range.
- Garrett Whitlock may get a chance to work as a starter in spring training, but assuming the Red Sox add a starting pitcher to the mix this offseason, he’ll more than likely wind up in the bullpen again for the 2022 season. His 2.90 pCRA ranked in the top 20 amongst all relievers and there’s likely more swing and miss ability left to unlock. Corey Knebel hits the free-agent market after a fairly successful season for the Dodgers despite only appearing in 27 games due to a lat strain. Keep an eye on him as closer needy teams may consider him as a cheap fill-in closer for next season as the 30-year-old saved 39 games in 2017. Tyler Matzek is coming off a terrific postseason run, but I’d say beware of the playoff tax here. He was great in the second half and through the postseason though and should be considered if the price is right.
- Nick Sandlin starts off tier 5 and would be in tier 4 or higher if we could count on him to give us 50+ innings next season. The young sinker/slider reliever does a great job of limiting hard contact and was also able to produce a 34% K rate over 33.2 innings last season. Sandlin’s former teammate Phil Maton excelled once moving to Houston at the deadline in the deal that sent Myles Straw to Cleveland. Like Paul Sewald, Maton doesn’t throw hard electing for more sping than velocity on his “gyro” fastball. That fastball and his curveball (also a high spin rate) led to an impressive 16.3% SwStr rate this past season. Soon to be 35 year old Luis García (the reliever) turned into one of the Cardinals’ most trusted setup options once Giovanny Gallegos took over the closer role in August. The free-agent had himself a career year with a 14.9% SwStr and 31.9% CSW rates and should get a nice pay raise this offseason.
- This tier has eight lefties in it, with the two free agents in Andrew Chafin and Jake Diekman, among the more intriguing options. While the K rate may not show it, Chafin’s slider remained dominant last season (54.6% Whiff rate) and should land Chafin a multi-year contract. Diekman was still able to rack up whiffs last year (44%) but his luck from 2020 ran out. He should still find a guaranteed MLB deal for this upcoming season. I think Amir Garrett is due for a bounce-back next year as he was still missing bats at a high rate (32.5% CSW), but he’ll need to find a way to limit damage from right-handed hitters (10.3% K-BB rate, .882 OPS against in 2021). And who will be the closer in Detroit this season? It seems likely Gregory Soto opens the year in the role, but Michael Fulmer was awfully impressive in his transition to the bullpen and might be the better fit.
- To say 2021 was a disappointment for James Karinchak is an understatement. He lost the closer role to Emmanuel Clase and eventually was sent down to AAA as he struggled mightily after the league started cracking down on sticky substances on the mound. Tyler Matzek struggled just as much initially, and eventually made the proper adjustments and figured things out, so don’t forget about Karinchak in 2022. There’s certainly a case to be made for Aaron Loup to be the top left-handed reliever available in free agency this offseason, after posting a .95 ERA and .94 WHIP over 56.2 innings this year. While he’s certainly a quality reliever, there’s just no way he repeats his 2021 success. Jake McGee’s role in San Francisco is certainly up in the air as the team has found their closer of the future in Camilo Doval. I’m leaning towards Doval keeping that role heading into next year, but if McGee is closing out games again, he’ll probably make for a great late-round value again in drafts next spring.
- There’s a good chance Raisel Iglesias returns to the Angels next year, or the team acquires another closer, but for now, I suppose Mike Mayers would be the favorite for saves? He did not pitch well out of the gate but turned things around towards the end of the season enough so he should be on your radar again next year. There’s definitely a case to be made that Robert Stephenson is the best reliever in Colorado, but like with other former Rockie relievers, we may never know until he finally leaves the organization. The home runs have been an issue, but he has the stuff to be a great high leverage option in time. Adam Morgan represents one of the more underrated relief options this winter and should come as a bargain. With an ability to miss bats (33.3% CSW) with a plus slider (46% Whiff rate), I could see him being this year Andrew Chafin depending on where he lands.
- Tier 7 represents the ultimate high ceiling, low floor tier which certainly describes Nationals’ potential closer, Tanner Rainey. The swing and miss ability was still there for Rainey (35.3% Whiff rate) but it still led to a horrible K-BB rate (11.2%) and his 5.90 xFIP was one of the worst amongst relievers with at least 30 innings pitched. Still, he finished the year as the Nationals closer and has tier 1/2 upside which is hard to find at this point on the list. Jeurys Familia enters free agency after recording his best season since 2018 and still has upper 90’s velocity. It’ll be interesting to see if teams look at him as a potential closer given that he saves 94 games between 2015-16. Continuing with the NL East theme, I guess José Alvarado would currently be the favorite for saves in Philadelphia but the team will most likely add at least one piece to their bullpen if not multiple.
- While it may be Rowan Wick who opens the year as the Cubs closer, Codi Heuer is my favorite arm in that bullpen for now and has a chance to break out in 2022 with three potentially above-average offerings. The Orioles’ closer job is likely up for grabs, but Tyler Wells, who finished the year with four saves in September, could be a savvy late-round flier. Wells allows some loud contact, but he gets hitters to chase his stuff out of the zone at a high rate (33.7% Chase, 39.1% O-Swing). Don’t be fooled by Yimi García’s 5.48 ERA in Houston as the underlying numbers looked quite good (23.3% K-BB%, 2.98 SIERA). After recording 15 saves for the Marlins last year, don’t be surprised to see García get another shot at closing out games for a new team next year, and if he finds himself pitching in a pitcher-friendly park for half his games could be a bargain.
- Julian Merryweather was one of the hottest FAAB targets of the year after he ascended to the Blue Jays closer role in April, only to go on to miss four months with an oblique injury. He wasn’t the same upon returning in September and he’s dealt with injuries his whole career, but if he can get/stay healthy for 40+ innings, he’s likely worth rostering. Former outfielder turned reliever Anthony Gose has likely earned a spot in the Guardians bullpen after impressing in 6.2 innings this past September. Gose averaged 99.3 MPH on his fastball while having a 15.3% SwStr rate, but doing that over a full season is another story, as his walk rates in the minors are concerning (20+%). After leading the league in saves last year it might be a surprise to see Mark Melancon this low but the soon to be 37 year old just isn’t very exciting but if he lands in a good situation (like San Diego again), he’ll certainly move up the list. From May on (51.2 IP) Melancon was fairly mediocre with a 1.43 WHIP, 4.15 SIERA, 8.6% SwStr, and 9.5% K-BB rate.
- Joe Barlow had an impressive rookie year with a 1.55 ERA and .83 WHIP over 29 innings to go along with 11 saves, but it’s fair to wonder if he remains in the closer role next year with José Leclerc and Jonathan Hernández returning. The 1.55 ERA came with a 4.56 xFIP and a mediocre 25.8% Whiff rate. Emilio Pagán’s second year with the Padres was just as bad as his first, if not worse, and he’s now two years removed from his fantastic 2019 season with the Rays. The closer role may be up for grabs in San Diego, but I wouldn’t expect Pagán to leave spring training with the role. Drew Steckenrider on the other hand has a decent chance at remaining in the closer role for the Mariners but just as likely could find himself on the outside looking in as the lowest upside reliever in that bullpen. Despite his 2.00 ERA, Steckenrider held an 8.6% SwStr rate and 4.37 xFIP so expect some serious regression in 2022.
- Dellin Betances has thrown a total of 13.1 innings over the past three seasons, so expecting anything out of him next season is wishful thinking. However, if he is healthy heading into spring training, I’d imagine a team will at least give him a look. Andrew Miller is coming off arguably his worst season in ten years and continues to lose velocity on his fastball. A free agent, he too may need to settle for a minor league contract or spring training invite to prove he still has something left in the tank.
- Since signing a three-year, $24 million deal in Washington, Will Harris has totaled just 23.2 innings over two seasons, allowing 12 earned runs on 28 hits and 12 walks over that time. Recovering from thoracic outlet syndrome, Harris is expected to be ready for Spring Training but what he has left to offer remains to be seen. David Phelps was limited to just 10.1 innings last year as he dealt with a lat injury, but those innings were very much quality as he allowed just one run while striking out 15. Phelps is up there in age but continues to show he has swing and miss ability and could be a steal in free agency if he’s able to stay on the field next year.
- Kirby Yates underwent Tommy John surgery last March and likely won’t be ready until mid-way through the 2022 season. Even as he enters his age 35 season, Yates should still be able to land a one-year prove-it deal this offseason and could be closing out games come July. Trevor Rosenthal is in a similar boat as he, too, missed all of last season, but it sounds like he will be ready for the start of spring training after undergoing labrum surgery on his hip. There’s obviously some risk here, but assuming Rosenthal is healthy entering the season, he should provide nice value to fantasy managers as well as whatever team signs him.
- After missing all of last year, Ken Giles should be ready to go at the start of the year for the Mariners, giving that bullpen one more high leverage reliever. Pitchers usually have command issues as they come back from Tommy John surgery though, and in that deep Seattle bullpen, it’s best to temper expectations for Giles this season. It was only one inning, but it was nice to see Seranthony Domínguez back on the mound at the end of last season as he returned from TJ surgery. As the Phillies look for their next closer, perhaps the best in-house candidate is Domínguez who saved 16 games back in 2018 in his rookie season.
- Speaking of that Mariners bullpen as well as young pitchers coming back from Tommy John, we shouldn’t forget about Andrés Muñoz (still just 22 years old). It wasn’t pretty but it was great to see Muñoz get into a game last month and still have his 100 MPH fastball. If he’s healthy and can return to his 2019 form, he’ll eventually work his way into high leverage work regardless of who else is in that bullpen. It was only a 14.2 inning sample, but Scott Effross was awfully impressive with a 2.38 SIERA, 35.1% CSW and 29.3% K-BB rate. The sidearm righty only averages 90.7 MPH on his fastball/sinker but gets plenty of swings and misses on his slider while his four-seamer was very effective against left-handers (41.2% Whiff, 30% PutAway%).
- While their careers haven’t quite taken off as expected, I think there’s still some hope for Kevin Ginkel and Joe Jiménez. Ginkel (and J.B. Bukauskas) should benefit from Brent Strom heading to Arizona and has the type of stuff to be a late-inning weapon as long as he’s able to command said stuff. Jiménez struggled mightily with his command last year (16.7% BB rate) however there were some positive signs including his .311 xwOBACON. After walking nine batters over his first 1.2 innings of work, Jiménez settled down and had an ERA 4.53 and WHIP of 1.33 to go along with a 27.3% K rate over his final 43.2 innings pitched. Certainly not ideal numbers, but perhaps a step in the right direction.
|Green = locked in closer|
|Yellow = potential closer|