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Saves and Steals

2018 Closer Tiers

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

It begins. Major League Baseball returns to a device near you on Thursday, March 29 at 12:40pm ET. In preparation for the season, we’ve performed a detailed review of every bullpen. Last week, we turned our attention to stolen base threats in the National League and American League. Now it’s time for the grand reveal – the 2018 MLB Closer Tiers.

 

As in the past, my goal is to rank these players based on their quality. With rare exceptions, it is assumed full-time closers will have equal opportunity. Therefore, their rating in this column relates to their expected performance in strikeout rate, ERA, and WHIP. I’ll use peripherals like swinging strike rate, K%-BB%, and xFIP (an ERA estimator) to gauge who has been lucky and who is a legit stud.

 

The guiding theory behind this process is simple – manage the quality of reliever on your roster and the saves will follow.

 

Now, shall we go to the tiers?

 

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Tier 1: The Gods (2)

 

Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers

Craig Kimbrel, Boston Red Sox

 

What qualifies one to be a Closer God? It starts with an elite strikeout rate, preferably accompanied by a low walk rate. Add a long track record of success, impeccable peripherals, and untouchable pitches. Both Jansen and Kimbrel typically supply over 60 innings of elite production. Expect about 40 saves with over 13.50 K/9, a sub-1.50 ERA, and a sub-0.80 WHIP.

 

Jansen is the reincarnation of Mariano Rivera. He leans almost exclusively on an elite cutter. Kimbrel relies on a potent fastball-curve combination.

 

Tier 2: The Elite (3)

 

Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees

Cody Allen, Cleveland Indians

Corey Knebel, Milwaukee Brewers

 

These guys may not be gods, but they’re still really good. In fact, Chapman was the King of Closers at the outset of last season. A decline in strikeout rate and swinging strike rate bumped him from his top spot. Temporarily losing the closer role didn’t help his case. Look for his 100 mph heater and wipeout slider to supply top five value this year. Just watch out for the competition. The Yankees roster includes five closer quality relievers.

 

Allen has run afoul of slumps over the years. He’s counterbalanced his blunders with long scoreless streaks. The result is around 12.00 K/9 and a sub-3.00 ERA. Despite walking an inconsistent path, he always seems to finish among the top closers. Knebel emerged last season like an early-career Kimbrel. His command requires further refinement. The stuff is unholy. His fastball-curve pairing is among the best in the league.

 

Tier 3: Nearly Elite (6)

 

Felipe Rivero, Pittsburgh Pirates

Roberto Osuna, Toronto Blue Jays

Ken Giles, Houston Astros

Brad Hand, San Diego Padres

Edwin Diaz, Seattle Mariners

Wade Davis, Colorado Rockies

 

Here’s where the rankings start to become difficult. The six pitchers in this tier could be listed in any order. They all have potential to join the elite ranks. They’re just a little less elite than the Tier 2 crew.

 

The Pirates heisted Rivero from the Nationals back in 2016. It took him less than one season to ascend to the closer mantle. He’s already better than peak Mark Melancon. Rivero has modest breakout potential – his swinging strike rate could support a higher strikeout rate. Even without improvement, I’ll happily bank 10.50 K/9 and a 2.50 ERA. His effective four pitch repertoire is rare among relievers.

 

Osuna recently turned 23. With continued health, he’ll grow to become one of the top closers in history. Like Rivero, his stuff could play in the elite tier. Counterintuitively, Osuna might benefit from throwing fewer strikes.

 

Giles is a less-rich-man’s version of Allen. He’s very good most of the time, and can go on long sprees of dominance. He also tends to fall into a month-long slump once a season. Buy low if/when he’s scuffling. The end of season numbers will reward you.

 

If I have any concerns about Hand, it’s the volume of innings he’s pitched. The stuff is potent, and the stats are fantasy gold. You can comfortably expect over 11.00 K/9 and a 2.50 ERA. Diaz is probably a little less reliable. He’s still honing his craft. That he’s supplied 13.54 K/9 and a 3.06 ERA while learning on the job is very encouraging. He’s entering his age 24 season.

 

Davis has the track record of success. Based purely on the merits, he should rank higher than 11th. I suspect you know why I’m hesitant – I want to see him thrive at Coors Field. Altitude can mess with pitch movement and effectiveness. It’s also theorized to increase injury risk. Davis has battled forearm issues in recent seasons – a precursor to Tommy John surgery. His velocity has declined three straight years. I expect him to be effective, but there is enough risk to merit some early-season caution.

 

Tier 4: The Core Performers (4)

 

Sean Doolittle, Washington Nationals

Jeurys Familia, New York Mets

Raisel Iglesias, Cincinnati Reds

Brandon Morrow, Chicago Cubs

 

This tier performs exactly like the third tier. They also have more red flags. As those are settled, these two categories could merge.

 

Doolittle, when healthy, consistently ranks among the league leaders in K%-BB%. That stat doubles as a measure of strikeout prowess and as an ERA estimator. The deceptive southpaw will probably give you over 10.00 K/9, a low walk rate, and a sub-3.00 ERA. A sub-1.00 WHIP is also possible. The best case scenario could be a top five reliever. The worst case scenario includes a recurrence of his shoulder issues.

 

Familia, with his mix of over a strikeout per inning and stingy 60 percent ground ball rate, was one of the top closers from 2015 to 2016. Last year, a domestic violence suspension was followed by a blood clot. When he returned, his stuff was intact. Unfortunately, his command vanished. Keep an eye on his walk rate. So long as he’s throwing strikes, I doubt A.J. Ramos or Anthony Swarzak can wrest the job away. The Mets roster is built in such a way that they could lead the league in save opportunities.

 

Iglesias would rank higher except for one problem – the Reds like to use him as a multi-inning reliever. Occasionally, that means appearing before the ninth inning or in tied games. It also limits his ability to pitch multiple days in a row. The way he’s used means he’ll likely receive fewer opportunities than comparably skilled closers.

 

Just based on 2017, Morrow’s statistical profile held an uncanny resemblance to Osuna. I have Osuna penciled in as the seventh best reliever. So why is Morrow ranked 15? In short, Morrow has a long history of poor health and rocky performance. He could push top five closer ability, or he may fall apart. I’m a big believer, but these rankings are conservative by nature.

 

Tier 5: Maybe Good? (9)

 

Brad Boxberger, Arizona Diamondbacks

Alex Colome, Tampa Bay Rays

Kelvin Herrera, Kansas City Royals

Blake Treinen, Oakland Athletics

Brad Brach, Baltimore Orioles

Arodys Vizcaino, Atlanta Braves

Fernando Rodney, Minnesota Twins

Dominic Leone, St. Louis Cardinals

Hector Neris, Philadelphia Phillies

 

We’ve reached the bulk bin. Absent an unusual event – like Colome’s 47 saves last season – these guys aren’t likely to move up more than a tier. For most of them, it’s a matter of talent. In some cases, the issue is opportunity.

 

My prognosticating was vindicated with regard to Boxberger. While Archie Bradley shot up draft boards, I was worried the club was too invested in him as a multi-inning reliever and spot starter. Sure enough, Boxberger gets the nod despite being technically inferior to Bradley. Boxberger hasn’t had a fully healthy season since 2015. A high strikeout rate is accompanied by shaky command. Consider him a volatile asset.

 

Colome lost a big chunk of his strikeouts last season. The drop in K-rate was supported by a corresponding decline in his swinging strike rate. A rebound to his 2016 form would push Colome up a couple tiers. A repeat of 2017 makes him a fine volume closer with no standout categories. A mid-season trade to a setup role is likely.

 

Like Colome, we’re hoping Herrera can rediscover his 2016 mojo. Don’t overreact to the 4.25 ERA he posted last season – he had some issues with home runs early in the season. He’s probably past them. He usually limits hard contact. The Royals roster is a mess. They don’t appear to have any alternative contenders for saves.

 

Treinen changed his pitch usage after joining the Athletics. The result was a low ERA and over a strikeout per inning. I’m modestly hopeful he’ll maintain those rates while continuing to induce a 60 percent ground ball rate. The profile looks remarkably similar to Familia. All he’s missing is a full season of sustained success. Of the pitchers in this tier, Treinen has the most potential to surge up the rankings.

 

Filling in for Zach Britton, Brach picked up 18 saves with useful strikeout, ERA, and WHIP totals. He’s once again stepping in for Britton who’s probably sidelined until at least June with an Achilles injury. Since he’s only expected to close for two or three months, it limits his fantasy value. There’s always a chance something else goes wrong with Britton.

 

The Braves closer of the future is already on the roster – A.J. Minter. Although he isn’t a sure thing, he has obvious elite upside. By comparison, Vizcaino is merely an acceptable steward. Injuries and general inconsistency have prevented him from putting together a successful full season. Last year, he posted a career best 14 saves with 10.05 K/9 and a 2.83 ERA. Those are legitimately inspiring numbers; it’s too bad his 4.21 xFIP is a better predictor of future performance.

 

This guy. Still. At times, Rodney is the worst closer in the business. Then he’ll snap off a 25-inning scoreless streak. When he flops, you can usually point directly at walks and poor command. His positive moments usually coincide with walk-free outings.

 

Leone has some potential as a closer. His breaking ball is sufficiently effective to post 10.00 K/9. His command is good enough to limit walks. It’s unclear if his fastballs will perform well enough to let the breaking ball do its job. He’ll have a very brief window to prove he should be in charge over the rehabbing Luke Gregerson. Watch out for Tyler Lyons, Jordan Hicks, and Alex Reyes.

 

Neris, like Vizcaino, is a steward for the position. He’s good enough to close, but you better believe the Phillies are hunting for their next relief ace. Some options already exist on the roster, including Tommy Hunter, Edubray Ramos, and Victor Arano. Their pitcher-heavy farm system will produce more late-inning options in bulk. Neris relies heavily on a splitter. He’ll occasionally lose feel for the pitch, opening the door for a guy like Ramos to ascend.

 

Tier 6: Unsettled (6)

 

Alex Claudio, Keone Kela, Jake Diekman, Texas Rangers

Joakim Soria, Nate Jones, Chicago White Sox

Brad Ziegler, Miami Marlins

Shane Greene, Detroit Tigers

Blake Parker, Los Angeles Angels

Sam Dyson, Tony Watson, Hunter Strickland, San Francisco Giants

 

In a real sense, Claudio is one of my favorite relievers. The soft-tossing southpaw posts huge ground ball totals. He’ll record a few strikeouts, but his game is all about throwing bowling balls. As I warned all offseason, the Rangers prefer Claudio in a multi-inning role. Presently, I expect him to save about 15 games. Diekman, Kela, Matt Bush, and others will share the other save opportunities. Kela may be on tap for the first opportunity. Eventually, one of them could emerge as the regular closer.

 

Both Soria and Jones easily qualify for the fifth tier. Maybe even the fourth tier. However, the White Sox have yet to select their closer. I see this as a 60/40 toss up with Soria’s long history as a reliable reliever outweighing Jones’ slightly superior stuff. Jones has also missed most of the last few seasons. Keeping him out of the ninth inning role may make it easier to manage his workload. Until the Sox commit, they’ll reside here.

 

Ziegler’s lack of strikeouts makes him a bitter pill for fantasy owners. Typically, you want your relievers posting at least a punchout per inning. Ziegler managed just 4.98 K/9 last year. He also ran afoul of the luck dragons (.346 BABIP, career .288 BABIP). He’s a king of ground balls, and the internal competition for his job is light. The bigger issue is the inevitable mid-season trade into a setup role.

 

Greene looks like a fairly typical middle reliever. He’ll offer about a strikeout per inning and a few too many walks. He needs to tinker with his pitch usage in order to improve. Detroit lacks obvious alternatives.

 

Despite a poor spring, Parker gets the nod over Cam Bedrosian. I still fully expect Jim Johnson to receive way too many save opportunities later in the season. Parker is extremely inconsistent season-to-season. There’s a reason the Angels picked him up for free. The upside is sufficient to belong in the fourth tier. The downside could be designated for assignment by the end of May. Keep a close eye on his walk and strikeout rates.

 

The poor Giants… Mark Melancon isn’t officially ruled out after “feeling something” in his arm. I’m treating him as disabled list bound. Dyson and Watson have plenty of closing experience. They were also both torched this spring. I’m far more concerned about Dyson’s struggles since he was terrible for large swathes of the 2017 season. Watson is my bet to nab a few early season saves. Strickland has solid career numbers, but his fastball-only profile is fragile. Besides, the Giants have had a hundred opportunities to let Strickland close. They always bypass him.

 

*********************************************

 

Injured

 

Mark Melancon, San Francisco Giants (arm)

Luke Gregerson, St. Louis Cardinals (groin, oblique)

Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles (Achilles, forearm)

Brad Johnson

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