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Saves and Steals

2020 All Bullpen Audit 2.0

by Brad Johnson
Updated On: July 26, 2020, 3:56 pm ET

Saves and Steals is back for a wild ride. Major League Baseball may look different in 2020, but this column will continue in a familiar form. Closer tiers will be the backbone of this beast with advice, analysis, and strategy peppered throughout. Today, we’ll update the status of big league bullpens since our All Bullpen Audit in March. The upcoming weekend is a busy one for drafting leagues so we’ll discuss strategy too. Next week, we’ll finally drop 2020 closer tiers.

On the base thief side of the equation, the All About Steals columns for the National League and American League remain relevant. Rather than reevaluating these targets, let’s instead focus on how a 60-game season might affect your draft plans for the stolen base category.

Target Acquired: Relievers

A 60-game season with a minimalist Summer Camp presents fantasy (and real) managers with a unique challenge. The league was already increasingly using elite relievers in the biggest spots. Even top-of-the-line pitchers like Nick Anderson and Josh Hader were often called upon in the eighth inning. The Rays in particular are notorious for eschewing a classic closer gig. This season, we should expect more clubs to follow the Rays model.

The fantasy fallout is obvious enough: saves will be more widely distributed. As somebody who monitors the closer marketplace very closely, my default draft strategy is to plan on collecting a goodly chunk of my saves from the waiver wire. Last season, working on this column helped me to nab plenty of Taylor Rogers and Liam Hendriks on the cheap.

Now, chasing saves on the waiver wire will be more of an uphill battle than ever before. Although saves will be spread around, predicting and starting the correct reliever on any given day will prove difficult. In the National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC), top closers are flying up draft boards. Some of the best fantasy managers play NFBC, and they’re going out of their way to lockdown “safe” premium closers like Kirby Yates, Aroldis Chapman, and Roberto Osuna.

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High quality, but less clearly delineated bullpens like the Braves and Rays are liable to offer plenty of saves. It’s just something of a mystery as to who will finish each game. Nobody should be surprised if the Rays hand five save opportunities to five different relievers. In less stable situations like the Rangers, Mariners, and Orioles, it’s possible a palatable closer will never emerge.

Clearly, the easy road to winning the saves category is to use multiple top 100 picks on closers. You’ll want at least two. To be truly confident, you’ll need to nab three or four. After all, an unfortunate COVID test or two could otherwise nuke your saves plan.

Alternatively, managers in daily moves leagues can opt for a high energy streaming plan. You’ll need to carefully track which closers worked the previous day(s) and which setup men could step up into their shoes. The most successful managers will probably marry both approaches. We’ll certainly be discussing it in this column on a weekly basis.

Keep an eye out for precocious starting pitcher prospects making the leap to the majors.

Stolen Strategery

The first thing to consider when targeting stolen bases is whether your league has weekly or daily moves. A weekly format will limit your recovery options if you botch the category in-draft. Using a one-category player like Mallex Smith or Jarrod Dyson for seven days – even with good matchups - could be ruinous. As such, you’ll want to make a special effort to draft hitters with some stolen base potential early. For instance, if you find yourself considering Tommy Pham or Nelson Cruz, Pham is the more flexible target. This is also the path of least resistance for those of you in daily moves leagues. You just have a little more recourse to pick and choose spots for a Smith or Dyson.

In general, you’ll find steals are dear in all formats. You might be tempted to “solve” the category by selecting Trea Turner, Fernando Tatis, or Adalberto Mondesi. These players are usually marked up relative to their total output because of their gaudy stolen base projections. They’ll also contribute a certain brittleness to your roster. Typically, a manager who selects one of these players will be tempted to put their stolen base eggs in this one basket. If your Tatis lands on the IL or COVID-list, you’ll be forced to decide between punting steals or damaging other categories.

A few late-round targets with multi-category production include Wil Myers, Domingo Santana, Kolten Wong, Franchy Cordero, and Dylan Carlson. All five are available after pick 200 and offer a cheeky stolen base total without giving away too much in the other categories. Wong is the most limited of the bunch. Carlson is expected to begin the year on the taxi squad. He should be called up within the first 10 games.

All Bullpen Report: Take Two

The first run of the All Bullpen Report from March 20 describes most of the relevant pitchers we’ll discuss today. Rather than focusing on their stuff and effectiveness, I’ll analyze how relievers might be used for each team.

NL East

Atlanta Braves: Mark Melancon, Will Smith (COVID-list), Shane Greene, Luke Jackson
New York Mets: Edwin Diaz, Dellin Betances, Seth Lugo
Washington Nationals: Sean Doolittle, Will Harris, Daniel Hudson
Philadelphia Phillies: Hector Neris, Victor Arano
Miami Marlins: Brandon Kintzler, Brad Boxberger

The Braves are swimming in closer quality relievers. Melancon is the nominal closer, but it’s clear this could devolve into a bullpen-by-committee. Beyond the four listed above, Chris Martin, Darren O’Day, and A.J. Minter have late-inning experience. Chad Sobotka has breakout traits despite a lack of positive results to date.

Nothing has changed for the Mets. They still feature a prominent three-headed monster backed by solid veterans like Justin Wilson, Jeurys Familia, Robert Gsellman, and Hunter Strickland. One thing to watch out for: injuries in the rotation could press Lugo into a bulk innings role. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for fantasy managers, it just means he’ll be removed from the saves picture.

The Nationals also have a three-person mix for saves. The supporting depth is largely unproven. Presently Hudson and Doolittle are expected to receive the bulk of the save opportunities. In a normal season, I’d bet heavily against Hudson repeating his solid 2019 campaign. However, the Nationals will often need to use Harris and Doolittle just to reach the ninth inning with a lead. That should fuel save opportunities for Hudson.

The Phillies have one of those unstable bullpens. Neris has already returned from the COVID-list and should be ready for the start of the season. Arano is behind schedule and probably won’t break camp with the club. That leaves lesser lights like Bud Norris, Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, and Robert Stock as possible alternatives to Neris. Remember, the Phillies closer is prone to losing command of his splitter. He’s suffered a deep two-week slump in nearly every season of his career. He’s also among the most effective closers when he’s on.

The Miami relief corps is liable to put fantasy managers to sleep. Kintzler and Boxberger lack for either strikeouts or premium rate stats. The next tier down of Ryne Stanek, Yimi Garcia, Drew Steckenrider, and Adam Conley are even more prone to meltdowns.


NL Central

Milwaukee Brewers: Josh Hader, Corey Knebel, Corbin Burnes
St. Louis Cardinals: Carlos Martinez, Giovanny Gallegos (not in camp), Ryan Helsley, Alex Reyes (non-injury)
Cincinnati Reds: Raisel Iglesias, Amir Garrett, Michael Lorenzen
Pittsburgh Pirates: Keone Kela (non-injury), Kyle Crick, Nick Burdi
Chicago Cubs: Craig Kimbrel, Rowan Wick

Hader offers fantasy managers a difficult gamble. He projects to be the best reliever in the league, but the club could find themselves using him as a bridge to the ninth inning. Milwaukee is one of the most aggressive clubs with using their best relievers to maintain narrow leads regardless of the inning. They also love to pinch hit for pitchers, putting a lot of pressure on the bullpen. If effective, Knebel, coming back UCL replacement, might settle into a traditional closer role where his workload both on the field and warming up in the bullpen can be more carefully managed. Burnes is a candidate to start, provide bulk relief, or handle high leverage innings. Freddy Peralta figures to have a similarly flexible role.

Cardinals reliever Jordan Hicks has opted out of the 2020 season rather than try to force a speedy return from his UCL replacement. That leaves us with a mess of candidates for saves. Martinez is still preparing for a rotation role, but the club has six able candidates (and that’s not even counting Daniel Ponce de Leon). If CMart lands in the bullpen, it will probably be as the closer. Helsley was a popular up-and-comer back in March. Gallegos will probably miss the start of the season. He’s stuck in visa limbo. Reyes is also behind schedule for “non-injury” reasons. Remember, clubs can’t report a player has COVID without their permission. Other potentially relevant Cardinals include John Gant and Kodi Whitley.

The Reds could present us with either one of the most or least complicated closer pictures. If Raisel Iglesias avoids meltdowns, this will be a low-drama bullpen. However, Lorenzen, Garrett, Pedro Strop, Robert Stephenson, Nate Jones, and Lucas Sims all have the raw ability to leapfrog a struggling Iglesias.

Kela is widely presumed to be recovering from COVID. At this point, it’s safe to assume he won’t be ready for the start of the season. That opens the door for Crick and Burdi to battle for saves. Richard Rodriguez, Michael Feliz, and Chad Kuhl could all hop into the picture, although they’re uninspiring from a fantasy perspective.

If the Cubs don’t get the good Kimbrel, they’re going to have a hard time finishing games. Wick and Jeremy Jeffress aren’t awe-inspiring backup plans – and they’ll be needed as a bridge from the starters to the ninth inning.


NL West

San Diego Padres: Kirby Yates, Drew Pomeranz, Emilio Pagan
Los Angeles Dodgers: Kenley Jansen
San Francisco Giants: Tony Watson, Tyler Rogers
Arizona Diamondbacks: Archie Bradley, Hector Rondon, Kevin Ginkel
Colorado Rockies: Wade Davis, Scott Oberg

The Padres bullpen lost one of their firemen, Andres Munoz, to an elbow injury. Yates, Pomeranz, and Pagan still represent a formidable late-innings trio. Possibly the best in the league. With less risk of serving as a stopper than Hader, Yates is arguably the best closer in drafts. Pomeranz and Pagan are excellent picks for ratios.

The Dodgers are expected to win a lot of games which should mean plenty of work for Jansen – perhaps enough that Pedro Baez, Joe Kelly, and Blake Treinen get a shot at a handful of saves between them. Jansen has had issues with heart arrythmia in the past. I mention this because it probably puts him at higher risk of COVID complications.

With manager Gabe Kapler scraping for every marginal advantage, the Giants bullpen is likely to fall into a committee from Day 1. Watson and Rogers remain the best bets for saves, depending on if a lefty or righty is the better fit on a given day. Barring a breakout, Trevor Gott and Sam Coonrod lack closer-quality stuff. They might still find a save or three. Shaun Anderson’s stuff improved upon switching to relief last season.

Bradley should have a long leash in the Arizona bullpen. This is a deceptively competitive roster so any sort of slump might force a look at Rondon, Ginkel, or Junior Guerra instead. As for the Rockies, Davis is nominally the closer. Oberg is the guy with some semblance of recent success while Jairo Diaz and Carlos Estevez also look like better options than a fast-fading Davis. The safest thing to do is avoid Rockies relievers altogether.


AL East

Tampa Bay Rays: Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, Jose Alvarado, Colin Poche, Oliver Drake
New York Yankees: Aroldis Chapman (COVID-list), Zack Britton, Adam Ottavino
Toronto Blue Jays: Ken Giles, Anthony Bass, Rafael Dolis
Boston Red Sox: Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes
Baltimore Orioles: Mychal Givens, Hunter Harvey

With Chapman likely to miss the start of the season, the Rays now clearly have the best bullpen in the division – and arguably tops in the sport. They feature a deeper collection of talent than the Padres, but they’ll also be less useful for fantasy purposes. That’s because Anderson isn’t the closer. He’ll be used as a stopper in critical situations. Castillo, Alvarado, Poche, and Drake all have closer-quality stuff. They should supply palatable ratios and occasional saves. It might pay to avoid using them against the Yankees juggernaut offense.

As mentioned, Chapman is likely sidelined to start the year which elevates Britton back to his old closer role. A ground ball specialist, Britton won’t post gaudy strikeout rates. He still possesses mid-tier talent for as long as he holds the job. Ottavino’s slider remains a weapon of mass destruction. He’s looked sharp in camp and could challenge Britton. If you grab the former, you should also consider taking the latter. Tommy Kahnle and Chad Green have also had their moments of relief glory. We shouldn’t count them out.

Giles needed extra rest to limp through the 2019 season. The work stoppage might prove a panacea for the longstanding closer, or he might still require those off days. Bass and Dolis were recently confirmed as the setup relievers. Dolis in particular is a mysterious upside play. He dominated the scene in Japan.

The Red Sox bullpen is both familiar and liable to supply a headache. Workman’s success was partially fueled by avoiding home runs. Both he and Barnes are a little too free-handed with walks, but they mostly make up for it with a high strikeout rate. Ryan Brasier, Heath Hembree, and Darwinzon Hernandez (COVID-list) await on the horizon.

The Orioles have talked up a committee of Givens, Harvey, and Richard Bleier. Givens struggled in 2019, but his peripherals were largely consistent with his past successes. Harvey looks the part of a long-term closer. The club seemingly wants him to “earn” the role. Bleier is virtually unusable for fantasy purposes unless he’s getting the bulk of save opportunities. He’s a no-strikeout sinker-balling left-hander. The best outcomes for this profile are Britton or Aaron Bummer, but they have some swing-and-miss ability.


AL Central

Minnesota Twins: Taylor Rogers, Sergio Romo, Trevor May, Tyler Duffey
Cleveland Indians: Brad Hand, James Karinchak
Chicago White Sox: Alex Colome, Aaron Bummer
Kansas City Royals: Ian Kennedy
Detroit Tigers: Joe Jimenez

The Twins relief corps is both deep and effective. Rogers was a revelation last season and should continue to be among the best closers. Speculators might wish to gamble on the strikeout upside of May and Duffey over the veteran grit of Romo.

Back in March, I rated the Indians as having the best relievers in the AL Central. Since then, they lost Emmanuel Clase to a PED suspension. That effectively limits the ninth-inning choices to Hand and Karinchak. Hand is a steady and familiar source of saves, even if he faded a bit down the stretch last season. Karinchak could be one of the 10 best relievers in the league. Or he might be just another guy with an amazing breaking ball and suspect command.

Chicago features a collection of veterans. Bummer is the most talented of the bunch. From a results perspective, he’s a near-clone of Britton. However, Colome will likely continue to see the save opportunities – and they should be plentiful in this division. In a pinch, Steve Cishek, Evan Marshall, Kelvin Herrera, and Jace Fry all have late-inning experience.

Kennedy and Jimenez are relatively insulated by the paucity of alternatives in Kansas City and Detroit. The Royals at least have a couple reclamation projects in Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal. The Tigers only alternative to the as-yet-unproven Jimenez is bland middle reliever Buck Farmer.


AL West

Houston Astros: Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly
Oakland Athletics: Liam Hendriks, Joakim Soria
Los Angeles Angels: Hansel Robles, Ty Buttrey, Keynan Middleton, Cam Bedrosian
Texas Rangers: Jose Leclerc, Rafael Montero, Jesse Chavez, Cody Allen
Seattle Mariners: Matt Magill, Yoshihisa Hirano (COVID-list), Erik Swanson, Austin Adams

The Astros know how to build a bullpen. Osuna and Pressly are the big names here and both are worthy of rostering. Osuna is among the five best closers for this 60-game campaign. Pressly has spun together long scoreless streaks on multiple occasions. He’s one of the sharpest non-closers on the draft board. The remainder of the pen lacks the same combination of surety and firepower. Bryan Abreu and Cristian Javier feature exciting stuff but lack experience. They could be thrown into the late-inning fire if needed. Brad Peacock is dealing with shoulder soreness.

Hendriks is perhaps my favorite closer target. He’s at least as talented as Osuna despite being available a full round later in most drafts. I’ve found myself waiting for Osuna to go then snatching Hendriks with my next selection. If Hendriks happens to be snatched away, Rogers is usually available as a Plan B. The Oakland bullpen has talent in the form of Soria, Yusmeiro Petit, and Lou Trivino.

Prior to 2019, Buttrey was one of my top sleeper picks. Robles came out of nowhere to block Buttrey’s ascension. It’s still a matter of time, patience, and continued health. Buttrey remains the Angels most gifted reliever. However, Robles is a perfectly acceptable closer who probably won’t fumble the role. That means Buttrey, Middleton, Bedrosian, and Justin Anderson are fighting over table scraps.

The Rangers have said they’ll use Leclerc as a stopper. This is a patchwork bullpen where non-roster invitees could play a huge role. In addition to former closer Allen, Juan Nicasio and Derek Law are on hand. Montero showed some positive growth last season but remains unconvincing as a high leverage reliever. Chavez is the sort of ho-hum veteran who could scoop up a bunch of saves despite offering no other standout categories. In brief, this looks to be one of the most volatile bullpens. We neither know who will close nor who might provide acceptable innings.

Seattle never truly picked a closer last season, and they’re not likely to do so this year. Hirano, by virtue of being a veteran, was considered an early favorite for the role. Now he’s sidelined with COVID. Magill finished out 2019 as the preferred ninth-inning guy, tallying a whopping five saves. He’s more of a middle reliever than a true fireman. Adams is probably the most talented reliever on hand, but he’s recovering from a knee injury. He’s on pace to make the Opening Day roster.

Brad Johnson

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