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Saves and Steals

2021 Closer Tiers

by Brad Johnson
Updated On: April 1, 2021, 2:54 am ET

It’s the eve of Opening Day. Throughout the last two months, Saves and Steals has completed its own Spring Training. We’ve thoroughly reviewed every bullpen (AL WestNL WestAL CentralNL Central, AL East, and NL East) and scraped the barrel for stolen base targets in the American League and National League. Now it’s time to reveal the flagship of this column – the closer tiers.

As in past seasons, the tiers reflect projected future performance and predicted usage rather than what has already happened. This year, quite a few teams have yet to commit to a firm late-innings plan. Typically, managers love to talk about running closer committees, but only a few of them will actually do it for months on end. Pitchers prefer to have a set, narrow role so they can develop a routine.

Closer Tiers

Tier 1: The Elite (4)

Liam Hendriks, Chicago White Sox
Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers
Edwin Diaz, New York Mets
Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees

Over the last two seasons, the Opening Day “elite” pitchers have proven to be somewhat cursed. Last season, Kirby Yates immediately fell off the face of the earth. The previous season, Diaz and Blake Treinen crapped the proverbial bed while Kenley Jansen entered a decline phase. Only Hader and Chapman escaped the Saves and Steals curse unscathed.

These four pitchers have worked the late-innings for years and should be among the safest assets in an inherently unsafe job. Hendriks perhaps has the least wriggle room. His stuff isn’t quite on the same level as these others. He’s thrived by executing his pitches to a degree beyond what any of Hader, Diaz, or Chapman can accomplish. They let their overpowering stuff do most of the talking.

Chapman will serve a two-game suspension before his season can begin. Grab Chad Green for a cheeky save or two. One wrinkle with Hendriks, Hader, and Diaz is that they’re backed by elite setup men. The White Sox are awash in ridiculous relievers, Devin Williams was better than Hader last season, and Trevor May would rank as a Top 10 closer if he had the role.

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Tier 2: Strikeout Kings (7)

Ryan Pressly, Houston Astros
Raisel Iglesias, Los Angeles Angels
Jordan Romano, Toronto Blue Jays
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Trevor Rosenthal, Oakland Athletics
Brad Hand, Washington Nationals
Craig Kimbrel, Chicago Cubs

This tier is populated by pitchers who project to contribute in every category. The Astros lack an obvious setup man to Pressly – at least for now. He’s one of the safest closers in the league. Iglesias seems safe too. His main backup, Mike Mayers, had a rough spring. Rosenthal and Hand are also members of this “safe” closer club. As long as they’re healthy and pitching decently, they should be in line for nearly every save opportunity. They come with their share of red flags. Rosenthal’s walk rate should be closely tracked while Hand’s velocity and general health are of modest concern.

The others here have issues. By far my boldest ranking is Romano. He was superb during Spring Training, leading me to believe he’s retained the stuff he showed in 2020. A frequently-used hard slider helped him to 12.89 K/9 with a tolerable 3.07 BB/9 and 58.1 percent ground ball rate. Extrapolated over a full season, he’s demonstrated the potential to go pitch-for-pitch with the likes of Pressly and Iglesias. Of course, regression – in its myriad forms – is an ever-looming threat.

While it wasn’t loudly trumpeted, Jansen went to a pitching lab over the winter and had a superb spring. There’s rebound potential for him to climb into the Elite tier. He rates here because I’m not confident he’ll receive the Dodgers full complement of saves. There are so many talented relievers in that bullpen that it’ll take only a short slump for roles to shift – especially if the Padres are able to push for the division crown.

And that leaves us with Kimbrel. The Cubs have compiled a bullpen of veteran retreads and ne’er-do-wells. In this day and age, it’s always possible one or more will experience a late-career breakout. Until that becomes apparent, Kimbrel will be given plenty of leeway. He’s historically quite terrible during Spring Training and this year was no different. If he can get a handle on his walk rate, his stuff remains every bit as potent as it was during his peak. If it works out, he could challenge for the top strikeout rate. Beware a high WHIP. You might consider sitting him for the first couple weeks.

Tier 3: Core Performers (8)

Hector Neris, Philadelphia Phillies
Nick Wittgren, James Karinchak, Cleveland Indians
Jordan Hicks, St. Louis Cardinals
Alex Colome, Minnesota Twins
Will Smith, Chris Martin, Atlanta Braves
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Rafael Montero, Seattle Mariners
Joakim Soria, Arizona Diamondbacks

With the exception of the Atlanta and Cleveland committees, this is a collection of pitchers who should get a fair shake at saves. The situation is somewhat fragile for Neris. He’s prone to deep slumps – usually once per season – and he’s backed by several able alternatives in Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado, and rookie Connor Brogdon. Neris typically delivers tantalizing strikeout rates. If you can magically dodge his meltdowns, you’ll be pleased to have him compiling saves.

The Indians have made a point of elevating Wittgren as a closer candidate even though he’s not nearly of the same caliber as Karinchak or Emmanuel Clase. The signal is plain to see. The Indians wish to follow the Rays bullpen model – a system that develops consistent trade assets while reducing arbitration costs for their top young relievers. If he was the primary closer, Karinchak would rank adjacent to Chapman in the elite tier.

Hicks too would rate higher if there wasn’t a whiff of uncertainty about how he’ll be used. Giovanny Gallegos is continually mentioned as a possible committee member in St. Louis. History suggests the club will settle on a primary closer. Hicks is tossing his usual 100-mph sinker. He was learning how to record more strikeouts back in 2019 when he landed on the Injured List. For now, I’m expecting about 8.50 K/9 and a lot of mild contact.

Colome is liable to have similar output to Hicks despite a very different profile. The Twins offseason hire is a cutter specialist who has been remarkably consistent over the years. Minnesota has a talented bullpen. Included is Taylor Rogers, a southpaw who, if closing, would rank adjacent to Pressly in the second tier.

The Braves aren’t coughing up many details about their late-inning plans. The assumption among Atlanta beat writers is that Smith will see the bulk of the save opportunities while Martin will be reserved for specific situations against right-handed opponents. The Atlanta bullpen is stocked with southpaws capable of filling a high leverage role, meaning Smith need not be called upon early for a run of lefties. Injuries could change those usage patterns. I don’t have enough of a read on Brian Snitker to tell if he’s one of the many managers who prefer a right-handed closer.

Holland tends to race out of the gate before fatiguing after two or three months. The likes of Josh Staumont, Scott Barlow, and even Wade Davis wait in the wings if and when Holland scuffles. Until then, he should be a solid, unspectacular source of saves.

By talent, Montero is worse than nearly all of the names listed in the fourth tier (below). He rates inclusion here because he’s The Guy in Seattle – at least until somebody else demonstrates an aptitude for high leverage relief. Personally, I have my eyes on Anthony Misiewicz and minor leaguer Sam Delaplane (out for undisclosed reasons). Montero is a capable middle reliever who should be expected to record a mid-4.00s ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and over a strikeout per inning.

Soria has much the same profile as Montero – he even projects to outperform him in every category. I’m just a tad nervous because his stuff backed up last season, and his fly ball tendencies could quickly turn into a home run problem. If his swinging strike rate rebounds to pre-2020 levels, he’ll zoom towards the top of this tier. J.B. Bukauskas made a case for a high leverage role this spring.

Tier 4: Who’s the Guy? (6)

Mark Melancon, Emilio Pagan, Drew Pomeranz, San Diego Padres
Diego Castillo, Pete Fairbanks, Tampa Bay Rays
Adam Ottavino, Matt Barnes, Boston Red Sox
Amir Garrett, Lucas Sims, Sean Doolittle, Cincinnati Reds
Jake McGee, Matt Wisler, Reyes Moronta, Tyler Rogers, San Francisco Giants
Anthony Bass, Miami Marlins

The Padres plans remain unknown. The San Diego Union-Tribune ran a feature on Pagan, a guy the Padres clearly like. He struggled last season, although he finished on a high note and pitched well this spring. Pomeranz would be a Top 10 closer if he had the job. Multiple arm injuries including a recent elbow scare have led to uncertainty about his durability. He’ll be managed carefully in the early going. In many ways, Melancon is the least interesting of the potential high leverage relievers. He specializes in soft, ground ball contact while leaning on a cutter-curve combo. Also in the mix is Keone Kela, a volatile power pitcher.

The Rays bullpen was dealt a stark blow when it was revealed that Nick Anderson will miss at least a chunk of this season to a partially torn UCL. Castillo and Fairbanks seemingly are the only plausible candidates for saves. The Rays have a mystifying habit of finding unexpected contributors.

Like quite a few of the remaining teams, the Red Sox aren’t saying which of Barnes or Ottavino will close. On the surface, you could write this off with a shrug. Both pitchers feature comparable stats and performed similarly this spring. Walks are known to plague them. While Ottavino’s free passes stem from suspect command related to his deceptive delivery, Barnes has to throw curve balls out of the zone to survive. I consider Ottavino’s profile to be more adaptable and hence a better fit for the highest leverage situations. For now, chalk it up as a 50/50 until they show us otherwise. When one emerges, he’ll likely leap to the third tier.

Cincinnati has taken the underwhelming step of committing to a committee. Garrett had a fantastic spring, recording 10 strikeouts in four innings. Sims missed much of February and March while Doolittle scuffled in general. The ingredients are here for Garrett to run with the job and quickly move up the tiers. Reading between the lines, I think the club would like Doolittle to take over, but it’s hard to name someone with a 14.63 spring ERA as your closer.

Gabe Kapler won’t even tell opponents who will start so it should come as no surprise that the closer role is very much up in the air. McGee and Wisler are coming off strong seasons for other teams while Rogers is the in-house name Kapler is most familiar with using. Moronta is finally back from injury, but he’s always been inconsistent while flashing closer-like stuff. Kapler claims he’d like a set closer, and judging from spring performance, McGee should be first in line.

Unlike the other closers in this tier, Bass has won the Marlins closer job outright. He’s not definitively better than Dylan Floro – in fact, I’d argue a healthy Floro is clearly superior. However, he missed much of March, opening the door for Bass to claim the top job. He is an upgrade on Miami’s ninth-inning situation last season (Brandon Kintzler). For fantasy purposes, a low strikeout rate and uninspired run prevention reduce his value.

Tier 5: The Rest

Daniel Bard, Colorado Rockies
Ian Kennedy, Matt Bush, Texas Rangers
Richard Rodriguez, Kyle Crick, David Bednar, Pittsburgh Pirates
Tanner Scott, Shawn Armstrong, Cesar Valdez, Baltimore Orioles
Gregory Soto, Bryan Garcia, Detroit Tigers

Bard appears to be superior to Bass. However, history has taught us that few closers can put together multiple effective seasons in Colorado. Even the success stories like Ottavino and Rafael Betancourt ran into issues from time to time. Bard deserves to be rostered for his role and solid strikeout rate. We just need to be mentally prepared for a potential disaster.

Kennedy’s emergence as a quality closer in 2019 is all but forgotten after a dreadful 2020 campaign. Still, a larger sample of his work suggests he could be a perfectly decent closer for Texas until Joely Rodriguez and/or Jonathan Hernandez manage to return. Rodriguez is on the fast track back from an ankle sprain while Hernandez has a more uphill recovery from a sprained elbow. Bush briefly closed for Texas in 2017. The 35-year-old more closely resembles a middle reliever than a closer.

The Pirates spent the winter discarding many of their tradeable veterans. Thus, it’s a surprise Rodriguez is still on the roster. What’s more, Pirates officials discredited him as a closer candidate on several occasions this spring. Bednar is gaining hype as a pitcher with closer traits, but he’ll have to pitch his way into the late-innings. For now, familiar and not-so-talented faces like Crick, Michael Feliz, and Chris Stratton are expected to supplement Rodriguez in a committee. Stratton has premium spin-rate metrics.

Baltimore is another club on the committee bandwagon. Valdez finished last season as the closer, but he’ll supposedly be redeployed to a multi-inning bulk reliever role. His unique changeup-focused approach probably isn’t designed to hold up over the long haul as a closer. Scott, a southpaw, seemingly has the best stuff of the bunch while Armstrong, Cole Sulser, and Dillon Tate are also in the mix.

Perhaps no club is less talented at finding relievers than the Tigers. Since the K-Rod era, they’ve failed to develop, sign, or otherwise uncover late-inning talent. Soto had his moments early last season before his stuff declined in the second half. The likes of Garcia, Buck Farmer, and Jose Cisnero really aren’t likely to help your ratios. I suppose if Cisnero can replicate his career-best 3.03 BB/9 from last season, he would be a passable option. Don’t count on it.

Brad Johnson

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