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Saves and Steals

The 2016 Closer Tiers

by Brad Johnson
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

It's good to have real baseball again. We're three days into the season. Improbably, David Wright is tied with Carlos Correa for the stolen base crown. Both have swiped two bags. Wright's somebody I would have picked for five or fewer steals as he deals with spinal stenosis. Perhaps that expectation needs to be adjusted.

 

Spring Training is usually a sleepy time for closer turmoil, but we've had plenty of upheaval this year. Roberto Osuna held off Drew Storen in Toronto. Osuna is a better pitcher than Storen, but this may shut the door on Osuna as a starting pitcher prospect. Aroldis Chapman, Trevor Rosenthal, and Jonathan Papelbon are among the notable closers who were supposed to be starters. Osuna is following in their footsteps.

 

Luke Gregerson is not a better reliever than Ken Giles, but he is looking sharper at the moment. Giles owners should hang tight for the mean time. The Astros didn't pay a ransom to have him in the eighth inning – even if that could be potentially more valuable to the club. Giles got off to a slow start last year, and he looks to be doing the same now. Once he's on top of his game, all he needs are a couple shaky Gregerson outings to regain the ninth.

 

Here's more from around the league including our inaugural closer tiers of 2016 and some cheap steals targets.

 

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Tier 1: Elite (5)

 

Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers

Craig Kimbrel, Boston Red Sox

Wade Davis, Kansas City Royals

Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles

Andrew Miller, New York Yankees

 

Jansen missed Opening Day last year. This time around, he debuts as the top fantasy closer. The righty offers everything you can ever want – a Mariano Rivera impression with over 13.00 K/9, a tiny walk rate, and strong ratios. The Dodgers figure to win plenty of games, yet they won't always be by huge margins. Jansen has a realistic shot at over 40 saves.

 

Kimbrel is coming off his worst season – a 2.58 ERA with 13.20 K/9 and 3.39 BB/9. His velocity, pitch movement, and peripherals were all consistent with previous seasons. A career high home run looks fluky. Wouldn't you like to have a “worst season” that still rates as elite? The Red Sox should hand him plenty of save opportunities.

 

Davis' velocity was down this spring. In his first appearance of the season, he averaged his normal 95 mph. I'm not worried, just keep an eye on it. At his best, he tallies over 10.00 K/9 with a low walk rate and tiny ERA. He induces a lot of weak contact, leading to a low BABIP and HR/FB ratio.

 

Britton is much like Davis, but with more home runs allowed. He throws a ridiculous 96 mph sinker and induces more soft tappers than anybody. Really, he's the best at avoiding barrels. Britton mixed in an elite curve last year en route to 10.83 K/9. He also posted a sub-2.00 BB/9.

 

Miller would honestly be a contender for the top closer in baseball were it not for an injury to his non-throwing wrist. Theoretically, it's all about pain management. He should be able to maintain his mechanics and stuff – the right wrist has almost no role at all. But can he stay focused? I have no idea if it's a painful injury. When healthy, he consistently tops 14.00 K/9 with about a 2.50 BB/9. Too bad that Chapman guy is likely to come steal his job.

 

Tier 2: Nearly Elite (5)

 

Cody Allen, Cleveland Indians

Jeurys Familia, New York Mets

Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals

Roberto Osuna, Toronto Blue Jays

Mark Melancon, Pittsburgh Pirates

 

Don't feel bad if one of these guys is your best closer – they're all very good. Allen was a divisive guy last season. He got BABIP'd to death early in the season. A true ace closer is almost BABIP-proof. Allen's run of bad luck reveals a flaw – he can be hittable. He eventually settled in to post 12.85 K/9, 3.25 BB/9, and a 2.99 ERA. Those numbers will play in any league.

 

Familia was a wonderful surprise last year. He pitched to a 1.85 ERA with 9.92 K/9 and 2.19 BB/9. His peripherals suggest he could add more strikeouts as he becomes further accustomed to the ninth inning. Some regression (the bad kind) is possible, but there's no reason to think he'll lose his job.

 

Rosenthal struggled mightily with command in 2014. He rebounded in 2015 to post 10.88 K/9 and 3.28 BB/9 with a 2.10 ERA. He has an overwhelming 98 mph fastball that helps him to limit home runs. So long as he keeps the walks under control, he'll contend for the top saves total for a third straight season. The Cardinals may need to learn how to manage his workload.

 

Jumping from Single-A to the majors is a tough task. Osuna responded with a 2.58 ERA, 9.69 K/9, and 2.07 BB/9. The 21-year-old fly ball pitcher has a 96 mph fastball, and the potential to improve in his first full season as the Jays' closer. Osuna figures to provide more relative value than any other closer – he cost almost nothing on draft day with Storen muddling the picture.

 

Melancon is different than the others here. The cutter specialist doesn't have an elite strikeout ceiling. He generally limits hard contact, home runs, and walks. So long as he doesn't break from his heavy workload, he should be a reliable source of saves with good ratios.

 

Tier 3: Good Veterans (4)

 

David Robertson, Chicago White Sox

Hector Rondon, Chicago Cubs

A.J. Ramos, Miami Marlins

Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins

 

These four guys are good. Not great, but good. You might wish to quibble about Robertson. If he was the Pirates or Giants closer, he'd be up a tier. At U.S. Cellular Field, the fly ball pitcher is just too homer prone to be called a top guy. You'll get about 12.00 K/9, 2.00 BB/9, and a 3.00 ERA from Robertson.

 

Manager Joe Maddon hates committing to a closer. At some point, we'll probably have a repeat of the Jason Motte fiasco. Rondon was one of the top relievers last season despite losing the closer gig for a portion of the year. Expect about a strikeout per inning with a low walk rate. He had an ugly spring so be wary in the early going. He may already have a short leash. Handcuff him with Pedro Strop.

 

Ramos all but lost his job over the winter when the Marlins announced he would be competing with Carter Capps. Luckily for Ramos (and unlucky for the rest of us), Capps with miss the season after installing a new elbow. I'm not sure Chapman can beat a healthy Capps in a fair competition – Ramos certainly can't.

 

That said, Ramos is still a solid close. His fastball is his weakest offering which limits his ceiling. He possesses an elite changeup. He rode the pitch to 11.13 K/9, 3.33 BB/9, and a 2.30 ERA. He sometimes loses command of the zone. You'll also see hitters try to jump on early count fastballs.

 

Perkins has fallen into a pattern – strong first, diminishing second half, and an eventual finish on the disabled list with a bum neck. Despite throwing a billion sliders, Perkins rarely walks anybody. The breaking balls keep him around a strikeout per inning. Sell high in early July before the floor drops out from under him.

 

Tier 4: The Mid-Tier (6)

 

Huston Street, Los Angeles Angels

Jake McGee, Colorado Rockies

Luke Gregerson, Houston Astros

Jonathan Papelbon, Washington Nationals

Francisco Rodriguez, Detroit Tigers

Arodys Vizcaino, Atlanta Braves

 

Street has been a soft-tossing righty for years. His velocity was down around 86 mph this spring and that carried into his first appearance. He's typically in the 88 to 89 mph range. Street's best pitches are a slider and change. As long as the lost velocity doesn't affect those pitches, he should remain serviceable. Be ready for implosion or an injury.

 

McGee throws fastball. Weirdly, that could make him a good fit for Coors Field. I'm comfortable using him on a regular basis while expecting some regression in his 2.41 ERA, 11.5 K/9, and 1.93 BB/9. The lefty was rumored to be behind Motte (him again?!?) in the closer competition before Motte hit the disabled list. Adam Ottavino is also working his way back from Tommy John surgery.

 

Giles would be ranked higher, but Gregerson is a perfectly acceptable ninth inning guy. He's a right-handed Perkins, throwing 40 percent sliders while maintaining about a strikeout per inning and a sub-2.00 BB/9. It's hard to guess how long he'll hold the job. Possibly the whole season. Probably less.

 

Despite collapsing late last season, Papelbon is a steady, reliable closer. The 35-year-old is no longer flashy, but his pitchability is off the charts. His strikeout rate may continue to fall to around 7.50 K/9. He'll make due by limiting walks and hard contact. The Nationals do have some interesting backups.

 

The Tigers bullpen is always a nightmare. K-Rod's fastball is down two mph. The more velocity he loses, the harder it will be to keep hitters off his excellent changeup. Rodriguez is typically homer prone, and he has more downside than upside.

 

There's still a small window for Jason Grilli to claim the ninth inning. He'll need some help from Vizcaino. The young righty is considered the primary closer. He's just 25 despite having been around the league since 2011. Last season, he posted 9.89 K/9, 3.48 BB/9, and a 1.60 ERA. I foresee more of the same with a higher ERA. Save opportunities could be few and far between.

 

Tier 5: Questions (3)

 

Santiago Casilla, San Francisco Giants

Shawn Tolleson, Texas Rangers

Brad Ziegler, Arizona Diamondbacks

 

It's easy to see these three guys ceding their role by the end of the season. For now, they're relatively secure in the ninth inning. An old 35-year-old, Casilla still has the same stuff he's used to outperform his peripherals for six straight seasons. Since 2010, he has three sub-2.00 ERA seasons and three sub-3.00 ERA campaigns. Boring veterans can be valuable.

 

Tolleson is a perfectly respectable closer. You'll get something like a 3.00 ERA, a strikeout per inning, and 3.00 BB/9. That all works in the ninth inning. The problem is that he's the third or fourth best reliever in his bullpen. Sam Dyson, Keone Kela, and Sam Diekman all have a higher ceiling and/or floor. This is a deep pen.

 

Ziegler's inability to record strikeouts hurts his fantasy use case. There's always somebody who tells me I'm overreacting. If you feel that way, go ahead and use Ziegler with confidence. The rest of his profile is superb – he's a low strikeout, side-winding Britton clone.

 

Tier 6: Roller Coasters (7)

 

Alex Colome, Danny Farquhar, Tampa Bay Rays

Jeremy Jeffress, Milwaukee Brewers

Sean Doolittle, Oakland Athletics

Steve Cishek, Seattle Mariners

Fernando Rodney, San Diego Padres

JJ Hoover, Cincinnati Reds

Dalier Hinojosa, David Hernandez, Jeanmar Gomes, Philadelphia Phillies

 

And here's the messy section. I actually like Colome quite a bit. Look for about 10.00 K/9 with a decent walk rate and ERA. The problem is he's left to compete with Farquhar. When Brad Boxberger returns from injury, he may also bump Colome from closing.

 

Jeffress was a prospect about a thousand years ago. Now the 28-year-old is finally an actualized major league reliever. He throws 96 mph heat with decent secondary stuff. He could wind up as a very similar reliever to Tolleson. Will Smith and Corey Knebel are out of the way with injuries, leaving Jeffress with an unexpectedly secure job.

 

One of my first notes in this column was my personal tie in to Doolittle. I used to play against and occasionally train with him in high school. While the fan in me is rooting for him, the analyst says to stock up on Ryan Madson and Liam Hendriks. Doolittle's velocity hasn't fully returned to pre-shoulder injury levels. As a guy who lives and dies on a high fastball, he's needs every tic on the gun. If he settles back into the job, he's a Tier 3 or 4 guy. He already has a blown save.

 

The Mariners reclamation project hasn't appeared yet this season. I don't have spring velocity data on him yet. Look for a rebound to 92 mph before feeling comfortable. A rebound is quite possible, but he needs to recover velocity AND command. It might be too much to ask. Joaquin Benoit is next in line. Tony Zych is the best reliever in the unit.

 

With Drew Pomeranz in the rotation, the Padres don't have any real threats to compete with Rodney. The 39-year-old could still lose his job at any time. He may be the least consistent bonafide closer in baseball. He's coming off his worst season since 2008, and his velocity may be down 1.5 mph. Brandon Maurer and his low strikeout rate may be next in line. Or middle reliever Kevin Quackenbush.

 

Hoover is too homer prone to be a good closer at Great American Ballpark. He thrives on inducing soft contact, but he's not good enough at that trait either. He walks too many guys, doesn't strikeout enough hitters, need I go on? Despite the flaws, he's probably a better option than Jumbo Diaz.

 

Somebody will eventually emerge from the ashes of the Phillies bullpen. My early bet is on Gomez by virtue of his predictably acceptable middle reliever stuff. He's a high floor, low ceiling guy. The rest of the bullpen has a super low floor and...well...not that much ceiling. Hinojosa is the dark horse du jour and Hernandez will continue to get looks.

 

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Injured

 

Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees (domestic violence)

Will Smith, Milwaukee Brewers (knee)

Brad Boxberger, Tampa Bay Rays (oblique)

 

Chapman isn't injured, but let's just pretend. He'll be back in early May. Some wonder if the Yankees may keep Miller in the ninth inning, but I just don't see it happening.

 

Smith will miss a big chunk of the season with a knee injury. He was the top closer breakout candidate this spring. Now it's Colome.

 

Speaking of Colome, Boxberger should be healthy around early June. I thought Colome could eventually take Boxberger's job before the injury. We'll see if Box rejoins the ranks above (tiers) or below (the deposed).

 

The Deposed

 

Ken Giles, Houston Astros

Drew Storen, Toronto Blue Jays

Jason Grilli, Atlanta Braves

 

Technically speaking, neither of Giles or Storen were ever officially the closer for their respective teams. The fact that they still aren't is shocking enough to include them here. Grilli got a late start to Spring Training and never looked sharp. I'm sure the Braves would prefer for him to build value ahead of the trade deadline, but he can't do that if he's noisily blowing saves.

 

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The Steals Department

 

The steals department is generally focused on freely available player. Today we'll talk about Anthony Gose, Leonys Martin, Eddie Rosario, and Jose Iglesias.

 

Gose is a temporary one category roster patch while Cameron Maybin remains sidelined. He could platoon with Maybin once the righty is back in action. Gose is too strikeout prone for a power-lite speed threat. He doesn't produce enough hard contact to overcome the whiff rate. While he's in the regular lineup, he should score runs and steal bases. Asking for anything more is a mistake. Ignore the 2-for-4 debut with three runs and a homer.

 

Martin is much the same as Gose, but he'll have a longer leash. I still expect Franklin Gutierrez to eat into his playing time, although it's an open question if Gutierrez can still handle center field. Martin doesn't have quite as much trouble with strikeouts as Gose. He shares the same issue of not hitting the ball hard with regularity. A full season could include 10 home runs, 25 stolen bases, and otherwise empty stats.

 

As long as you're not in an OBP league, I'm a big fan of Rosario. An aggressive hitter with a high strikeout rate, Rosario can still post an acceptable average. He has a decent role batting fifth or sixth for the Twins. While he won't steal as much as Gose or Martin, Rosario is a candidate to go 15/15 with some run production. Not bad for a waiver grab.

 

If it's a middle infielder you need, I find Iglesias intriguing. He stole 11 bases last year and could top that total in his first full season. He's a high contact hitter who could begin to show signs of a breakout. A .300 average could eventually push him up the order.

Brad Johnson

You can read more from Brad Johnson on Rotoworld, FanGraphs, and RotoFanatic. Find him on Patreon and Twitter @BaseballATeam.