It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2021 or even drafting now. The hot stove league is just taking shape, but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2021 fantasy baseball season.
For the seventh year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. The first five articles in the series were batting average, WHIP, home run, strikeout, and ERA sleepers. This week, we’ll be looking at stolen base sleepers. Over 10 weeks, I will be providing a list of sleepers for each 5x5 roto category (BA, HR, RBI, R, SB, W, ERA, WHIP, K, SV). After looking at categories that were more based on player skill over the first five weeks, we shift to categories that are more dependent on opportunity, supporting cast, and batting order spot.
Before reading any further, it’s important to note the definition of a sleeper. In this case, it’s a player who will exceed draft day ADP AND projections in a particular category. The players are broken down by mixed league sleepers and single league sleepers.
Saves are one of the most frustrating categories for fantasy managers because we are at the mercy of major league managers. Much of the fun in fantasy preparation is forecasting based on indicators, talent, and predictable skill, yet saves are just as much about opportunity and being in the right place at the right time.
Below is a rundown of the obvious saves sleepers heading into 2021 – mostly pitchers with a history of closing and at least a fair probability of getting a significant opportunity to close at some point this season. Also, there are a few less obvious picks to keep an eye on. Despite our best efforts to predict, there will surely be a few new closers crowned in 2021 that no one expected. With the cost of saves rising due to lack of supply, the added unpredictability makes the strategy of dumping saves seem that much more attractive.
The Obvious (Mixed League Worthy)
Daniel Bard, Rockies
Bard was one of the best stories of 2020 in sports. A former first-round pick by the Red Sox in 2006, Bard climbed quickly to the majors but saw his control suddenly escape him. After success in his first three MLB seasons from 2009-2011, Bard struggled the following two years and made what would seemingly be his final MLB appearance in 2013. After a few more years in the minors, Bard retired in 2018 to work for the Diamondbacks organization.
Last February, at age 34, Bard attempted a comeback and secured a minor league deal with Colorado. A strong Summer Camp allowed the right-hander to make the MLB roster with velocity that was completely back, averaging 97 mph, and also control similar to what we saw in his first three seasons with the Red Sox. Bard was in the right place at the right time, converting six saves for a poor Rox bullpen beginning in mid-August, and his season concluded with a solid 3.64 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and 2.70 K/BB ratio. To this point, Colorado hasn’t made any notable signings in their bullpen, so there are few threats to Bard maintaining the closer job at the start of 2021. An NFBC ADP of 339 currently puts Bard in the lower tier price range. That price is likely to rise considerably as we get closer to Opening Day and also indicates some of the risk with Bard’s history, but it’s easy to foresee profit at that value.
Greg Holland, Royals
What an interesting few years it’s been for Holland. He was an All-Star with 41 saves back in 2017, but waited until the start of 2018 to sign with the Cardinals. Holland wasn’t quite right when he did sign with the Cards and was eventually released before finding himself in Washington later in the year. He struggled with his control again in 2019 with Arizona and was released again despite recording 17 saves. Returning to where his career started in KC last year, Holland got back on track in the abbreviated season, eventually ascending to closer after Trevor Rosenthal was traded and finishing the year with a 1.91 ERA and career-best 2.2 BB/9.
Holland re-upped with the Royals on a very reasonable $2.75 million deal, and would seem to be the clear frontrunner for saves entering the year. He did lean on his secondary stuff last season more than usual, which could partially explain the improvement. Regardless, Holland is a clear example of the year-to-year volatility in projecting relievers, and doesn’t come without risk. The Royals bullpen is also loaded with hard-throwing fallback options like Josh Staumont and Scott Barlow, but so far this winter the price has been right for Holland with an ADP of 336, just ahead of the aforementioned Bard.
Jose Leclerc, Rangers
What a difference a year makes. Leclerc looked like he was on the cusp of becoming a top 10 closer entering last season, having recorded 14 saves and 100 strikeouts in 2019. Poor control showed some risk during that season (5.1 BB/9), but Leclerc’s emergence on a competitive Rangers team made him a very attractive draft day find.
Unfortunately, fantasy managers who spent on Leclerc last year got almost nothing in return due to a Grade 2 teres major strain in his right shoulder. He made only two appearances before his 2020 was history. Still, it would seem that Leclerc is the favorite for saves again in Texas with a rebuilding team that traded Rafael Montero this offseason. For all the missed time, Leclerc still has a career 3.19 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and 12.5 K/9 over five MLB seasons, numbers that almost anyone would take on their fantasy team. Leclerc will likely have to hold off the likes of Jonathan Hernandez and Joely Rodriguez in spring training, but a 425 ADP could make him one of the best buys of your draft given the upside.
Rafael Montero, Mariners
Struggling to find a consistent closer over the last two seasons, Seattle acquired Montero from Texas this offseason. The former top prospect with the Mets has had a second life in the bullpen, posting a 3.09 ERA and 53/11 K/BB in 46.2 innings over the last two years. With Leclerc sidelined for the Rangers last year, Montero also recorded eight saves.
Durability has been an issue for Montero during his career, with a history of arm problems that included elbow tendinitis early last year. Still, his velocity has seen a sharp increase since moving to the pen, averaging better than 95 mph on his fastball over the last two seasons, and the peripherals have been outstanding. At the time of this writing, the only other pitcher in Seattle’s bullpen with significant closing experience is Keynan Middleton, who is still getting back into form after Tommy John surgery. The M’s aren’t in a position to compete yet, but the closer job would seem to be Montero’s to lose. A current ADP of 194 is a very reasonable price for what’s a relatively safe option.
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The Less Obvious (Single League Worthy)
Anthony Bass, Marlins
Last season the Marlins signed slightly experienced closer Brandon Kintzler to lockdown the ninth inning, and it looks like they could take a similar approach after signing Bass. The veteran right-hander has gained some experience closing games over the last two years with Seattle and Toronto, with a combined 12 saves over those two seasons. Most importantly, there are signs he can be effective in the role with velocity that’s increased above 94 mph on his fastball over the last three years, along with a groundball rate above 50%. Those trends have helped Bass post an ERA below 4.00 since 2018, along with a respectable 2.69 K/BB ratio.
It’s true that the Marlins remain in rebuild mode without an expectation of making the playoffs despite doing so in last year’s abbreviated season, but the potential save opportunities should be attractive for fantasy managers. While other relievers in the Marlins bullpen like Yimi Garcia, Richard Bleier, and Adam Cimber have moonlighted in the closer role briefly during their MLB careers, none of them can match Bass’ experience. His current ADP is near 600, though we should expect that to rise sharply as we get closer to Opening Day.
Kevin Ginkel, Diamondbacks
Arizona has had a relatively quiet offseason with the Dodgers and Padres looking overwhelmingly dominant in the NL West. As things stand now, the backend of the team’s bullpen looks similar to the conclusion of 2020, with Stefan Crichton likely closing games and a host of unproven arms behind him. Crichton pitched well enough last year to receive the benefit of the doubt as the Diamondbacks closer, converting five saves with a 2.42 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 26 innings.
There are still questions about Crichton’s profile in closing games, lacking dominant strikeout numbers for most of his career and averaging only 92 mph on his fastball last season. On the other hand, Ginkel is a former hotshot relief prospect with a clear closer profile, averaging better than 95 mph on his fastball with a K/9 above 10.0 in back-to-back seasons. Ginkel’s control did escape him last year following an excellent debut in 2019, but he did mostly get back on track late in the year. Arizona’s lack of veteran experience on their current bullpen could cause them to bring in a veteran to close, but Ginkel still looks like the heir apparent with a history of closing in the minors and prototypical stuff.
Reyes Moronta, Giants
It wasn’t exactly unexpected based on his history, but new Giants manager Gabe Kapler failed to settle on a closer in 2020. The team had five different relievers record saves, none of which had more than four. That could change this season if someone “takes the reins,” and Moronta seems capable if he’s fully recovered from surgery for a torn labrum.
Last we saw Moronta, the right-hander had a 2.86 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, and 11.1 K/9 over 56.2 innings in 2019, capping off his third consecutive year with a sub-3.00 ERA. The big concern following a shoulder injury is velocity, however, and that has been Moronta’s calling card with an average fastball that was up to 97 mph in 2019. We won’t know much about Moronta’s velocity until he arrives at spring training, which creates a risk for anyone investing, but that risk is much easier to swallow with a current ADP of 534.
Lucas Sims, Reds
The Reds seemed to go all-in one year too early in 2020, and have instead shed payroll this offseason. The team is set to lose Trevor Bauer and traded closer Raisel Iglesias, opening up the ninth inning for a new name. Following the trade, Reds baseball ops head Nick Krall mentioned Sims, Amir Garrett, Michael Lorenzen, and Tejay Antone as candidates to closer games in 2021. Recently, the Reds also signed former Nats closer Sean Doolittle. All five of those pitchers should have a chance to convince the team this spring, but Sims looks particularly intriguing. The former first-round pick of the Braves had a breakout showing in relief last year, with a 2.45 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, and 11.9 K/9 in 25.2 innings. Among the positive signs were fastball velocity that increased to 94 mph and a curveball with elite spin that produced a 47% whiff rate and .083 batting average against.
Sims’ current ADP of 396 reflects a pitcher without a clear hold on the closer role, yet last year’s peripherals show that he could have some fantasy value in a non-closer capacity. The current price is on par with Garrett (407 ADP), Lorenzen (428), and Antone (357), a price that could provide profit in almost any role for NL-only fantasy managers.