With apologies to the Japan Series, the real Opening Day is looming. Last week, I unveiled the initial stolen base tiers. And now, drum roll please, it’s time to release the closers. Ah, but first, a little housekeeping.
A certain Craig Kimbrel remains unsigned. He’s been most closely linked to the Brewers and Braves. Both clubs desperately need relief help. The Brewers probably lost Corey Knebel for the season. Jeremy Jeffress will start the year on the disabled list, leaving Josh Hader and… Alex Claudio… to carry the burden in close games. In Atlanta, Arodys Vizcaino never makes it through a full season while A.J. Minter is currently nursing a minor injury. The rest of their relief corps is volatile for a variety of reasons. Kimbrel could prove an important stabilizing influence in a contentious NL East.
If and when Kimbrel does sign, expect him to need several weeks before hitting his usual performance level. A desperate club might have him work off most of the rust in the majors while a team with more foresight could send him on a minor league assignment.
And now, shall we go to the tiers?
Tier 1: The Elite (4)
Edwin Diaz, New York Mets
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Blake Treinen, Oakland Athletics
Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees
Diaz emerged as the premier closer in 2018, at times pushing two strikeouts per inning. No pitcher can match his ability to miss bats and limit walks. Switching leagues to join the Mets shouldn’t hinder his performance.
Jansen addressed a heart issue over the winter. We have every reason to expect modest improvement over his inconsistent 2018 campaign. Even at his worst, Jansen supplied his owners with over 10.00 K/9, 38 saves, and healthy ratios. If that’s the floor, sign me up.
Of 2018 performances, Treinen’s was bested only by Diaz’s ridiculous strikeout and saves totals. The Athletics leaned on Treinen for 80.1 innings over which he deftly wove a sub-1.00 ERA with 11.20 K/9 and 2.35 BB/9. While he’s flashed this talent in past years, this was the first time he maintained over a full season. There’s room for both growth and inconsistency.
Chapman’s inclusion among the elite is familiar. He regularly posts massive strikeout rates. He’ll also occasionally hand out too many free passes. Since the Yankees bullpen is so stacked, he’s actually temporarily lost the closer role multiple times over the last two seasons. Over the previous five years, he’s only once exceeded 60 innings pitched. Despite these flaws, a healthy Chapman is arguably the best single-inning pitcher in the game.
Tier 2: Nearly Elite (5)
Roberto Osuna, Houston Astros
Felipe Vazquez, Pittsburgh Pirates
Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers
Brad Hand, Cleveland Indians
Sean Doolittle, Washington Nationals
The Astros have a habit of getting the most out of their pitchers. Thus, Osuna’s presence on their roster is interesting. His stuff is consistent with an elite strikeout rate. He could easily fire off 12.00 K/9. However, he seemingly prefers to pitch to contact. We’ll see what, if anything, the Astros do to coax more strikeouts. I recommend Osuna owners roster a casual share of Ryan Pressly. For one, he’s probably a better reliever than Osuna – in itself a remarkable feat since Osuna is the fifth-best closer. Even if Pressly doesn’t save a single game, he’ll offer serious strikeout and ERA value.
Although I’m carefully watching Vazquez for signs of the yips – he had a couple disaster outings last season – we can be reasonably confident he’ll post over 10.00 K/9 with a potent ERA and WHIP. He’s carried a hefty workload over the last three seasons. Hopefully it doesn’t catch up to him.
Speaking of workloads, Hand has thrown the most reliever innings since the start of 2016. As the only good reliever on the Indians, he’ll once again be asked to carry a heavy burden. Expect multi-inning appearances to open some down-roster save opportunities. As to who those will go to, Cleveland first needs a palatable option to emerge.
Hader’s ranking is probably controversial. He would be in the Elite tier if not for the Brewers clear preference to use him as a multi-inning fireman. As such, I expect Claudio and perhaps Junior Guerra to receive some late-inning looks until Jeffress returns. Despite an incredible 2018, there are actual issues with Hader’s approach. His command can be iffy at times. As an extreme fly ball pitcher, Miller Park isn’t an ideal home venue.
Doolittle would also rank even higher if not for one thing – a balky shoulder has limited him to just 149 innings over the last four seasons. He’s incredible when on the field, but this is a recurring issue that has plagued him for half his major league career.
Tier 3: Core Performers (6)
Wade Davis, Colorado Rockies
Raisel Iglesias, Cincinnati Reds
Jose Leclerc, Texas Rangers
Kirby Yates, San Diego Padres
Alex Colome, Chicago White Sox
Arodys Vizcaino, Atlanta Braves
The difference between the third and fourth tiers can mostly be defined with one word: clarity. We know these six relievers are definitely the closer. Many of the fourth-tier closers are better relievers, but they’re mixed up in timeshares or have other issues.
Davis is probably the cheapest source of high volume saves. He struggled at Coors Field and also suffered for over a month during the middle months of the season. A mechanical fix redeemed him. Unlike the top tier closers, Davis can’t be counted upon to help your ERA and WHIP. He should supply plenty of saves and strikeouts. There is no internal competition for his job.
The Reds like using Iglesias in a multi-inning role which frequently renders him unavailable for back-to-back saves. Having improved in every facet except the bullpen, there’s every indication they’ll continue to use him in this way.
Of the pitchers in this tier, Leclerc has the most upward mobility. Last season, he halved his walk rate to a still shaky 3.90 BB/9 while maintaining an elite strikeout 13.27 K/9. Will he maintain the tolerable walk rate? Can he take another step forward with his command? As somebody who throws nearly 50 percent splitters, we should expect volatility.
Yates has battled homeritis over the years. After seemingly shaking the bug in the first half of 2018, the long balls returned in the second half of the season. The Padres have some interesting, unheralded pitchers who could emerge to bump Yates from the top spot if he’s serving up big flies. They’re clearly not shy about promoting the best talent. Expect close to 13.0 K/9 with a good-not-great ERA and WHIP. After aggressively improving over the winter, San Diego should offer plenty of save opportunities.
Colome is the confirmed closer of the White Sox. Although, he’s not the flashiest ninth inning guy, he’ll typically offer a strikeout per inning with solid ratios. Kelvin Herrera and Nate Jones are waiting in the wings.
If Leclerc has the most upward mobility, Vizcaino is the most liable to fall down the rankings. The presence of Minter – currently injured - further complicates the picture. Vizcaino struggles at times to command his two-pitch repertoire. There’s room for growth in his merely decent strikeout rate. The biggest concern is with his durability. Not once has he pitched 60 innings in a season. He’s only exceeded 39 major league innings once in his career.