One week of play is in the bag. Already, three closers have landed on the Injured List and several teams unveiled late-inning surprises. The biggest of those is the high leverage debut of Julian Merryweather. He has the stuff to be a fantasy monster – if he can stave off a long history of injuries and teammate Jordan Romano.
Not one of the closers to complete multiple saves entered draft season as a locked in ninth-inning guy. Mark Melancon leads the league with three saves. Merryweather, Jake McGee, Alex Reyes, Cesar Valdez, and Diego Castillo notched two saves apiece. All of the guys we paid out the nose to acquire have one or zero saves.
On the stolen base side of the ledger, Adalberto Mondesi is already among the fallen. So are Fernando Tatis Jr., Tim Anderson, Kolten Wong, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and Kevin Kiermaier. Eleven players are tied for the league lead with two steals apiece. The list is mostly a mix of the expected with a few surprises tacked on. Chris Owings and Mike Tauchman stand out the most if only because they weren’t supposed to have many opportunities to play. In fact, Tauchman’s two steals came as a pinch runner. He has only one plate appearance.
Fantasy managers desperately trying to cover for Mondesi, Tatis, and Anderson should look to Kyle Isbel, Taylor Trammell, and Tim Locastro. Isbel skipped the upper minors with an impressive spring performance. He’s a talented athlete who has already produced a 111-mph max batted exit velocity coupled with an ideal launch angle. If he can maintain these traits, he has 20/20 potential. Trammell also played his way onto the roster with a huge spring albeit less exciting peripherals. The Mariners will give him an extended look now so they can make decisions about where Kyle Lewis, Mitch Haniger, and Trammell fit when Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez eventually join the big-league roster. Locastro is typically used as a spot starter versus left-handed pitchers. Injuries could open some starts against right-handers too. Over his career, he’s a perfect 27-for-27 in stolen base attempts.
Tier 1: The Elite (4)
Our elite pitchers were largely absent from the first week of action. Hendriks coughed up a couple runs in a four-out save. He had his typical stuff but wasn’t hitting spots as successfully as in the past. While not an ideal outing, there’s no reason to overreact.
I’ve promoted Hader from second chair to Closer King not because of Hendrik’s outing but rather due to a nearly four-mph increase to Hader’s fastball. In his lone appearance, he cut through the Twins like butter while firing 98-mph bullets. His wipeout slider checked in at 87-mph – a full six-mph faster than last season. More velocity is generally seen as a greater good, but it can come with increased injury risk. He may also have to re-learn how to optimally use his weapons if, for instance, they behave differently.
Chapman worked a tune-up inning while Diaz has yet to appear.
Tier 2: Strikeout Kings (4)
Again, let’s not overreact to Kimbrel’s success or the failings of Iglesias and Jansen. Pressly, at least, has done nothing to quirk an eyebrow. Kimbrel faced six batters and struck out five. He looked mighty impressive, but the Pirates aren’t much of an opponent.
Iglesias is off to what I consider a fairly typical start for him. He’s allowed five runs in four innings with seven strikeouts and a win, a loss, and a save. His stuff and peripherals are all in line with past performances. At some point, he’ll reel off a couple sharp weeks to salvage his ERA. Now is an opportunity to buy low.
For Jansen, it might be time to consider selling high. Although he’s held opponents scoreless through 2.2 innings, his velocity is down yet again. More worryingly, he also wasn’t inducing whiffs and walked a pair.
Tier 3: Core Performers (8)
Hector Neris, Philadelphia Phillies
Julian Merryweather, Jordan Romano, Toronto Blue Jays
Alex Colome, Minnesota Twins
Mark Melancon, San Diego Padres
Will Smith, Chris Martin, Atlanta Braves
Jake McGee, Tyler Rogers, San Francisco Giants
Alex Reyes, Jordan Hicks, St. Louis Cardinals
Rafael Montero, Seattle Mariners
Neris’ splitter is as lethal as ever, but he’s missing one-mph of fastball velocity. By today’s standards, he’s verging into “soft-tosser” territory. Pitchers tend to gain zip throughout April and May which is why we shouldn’t yet fret too much about Neris, Jansen, and others.
I stuck my neck out last week when I rated Romano the eighth-best closer. Instead, Merryweather has nabbed the first two saves. The Jays bullpen usage implies a full committee. If Romano has been cut loose in your league, I recommend grabbing him. Rafael Dolis and Tyler Chatwood are worth a look in deeper formats too. As for Merryweather, he’s looked fantastic in the early going. His fastball is up two-mph. He has an extensive injury history. He’s thrown just 19 recorded innings since the start of 2018. It’s been speculated he won’t be available on back-to-back days very often.
To the surprise of very few, the Padres finally ended their preseason dithering by announcing Melancon as their closer. He’s already locked down three saves! Melancon’s velocity has checked in at 93-mph, his highest reading since 2012. He’s all about the cutter.
With Matt Wisler struggling and Reyes Moronta lacking his trademark velocity, the path is wide open for McGee to run with the Giants closer job. I’ve included Rogers here only because he could be used for situational saves, especially if threatening left-handed hitters are up in the eighth inning. McGee will move up these rankings as he further asserts possession of the role. Since the start of 2020, his hefty strikeout rate and low walk rate are on par with a left-handed Hendriks. Of course, that’s a sample of just 23.1 innings, hence my hesitation to rate him higher. He also relies almost exclusively on his fastball, adding fragility to his profile.
The Cardinals have a reputation for befuddling decision-making when it comes to their relievers. Reyes isn’t their best or even third-best closer candidate, and I can’t imagine he’ll hold the job for long. Sure, he throws like a closer, sitting a 97-mph with an above average slider. But he also has below average command and a fly ball problem. He’s going to cost them some wins if they aren’t careful. Giovanny Gallegos and Hicks are inarguably superior pitchers. Bet on their skills winning out over Reyes sooner rather than later.
Montero is yet another guy missing a tick on the ol’ radar gun. Keep an eye on southpaw Anthony Misiewicz and veteran righty Kendall Graveman. The latter has gained over one-mph of velocity and seems to have found confidence in a slider for the first time in his career.
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Tier 4: Upside (7)
Diego Castillo, Pete Fairbanks, Tampa Bay Rays
Nick Wittgren, James Karinchak, Emmanuel Clase, Cleveland Indians
Matt Barnes, Adam Ottavino, Boston Red Sox
Amir Garrett, Lucas Sims, Sean Doolittle, Cincinnati Reds
Ian Kennedy, Matt Bush, Texas Rangers
Daniel Bard, Colorado Rockies
Anthony Bass, Miami Marlins
So far, the guy in Tampa is Castillo, and he’s answered the call. He uses a slider as his primary pitch so it’s not as concerning that he’s missing velocity in the early going. For the first time in ages, the Rays seemingly lack a surprise pop-up relief ace. On talent, Castillo is comparable to Colome and Melancon. His higher strikeout totals make up for slightly weaker ratios and ever-present job insecurity.
The Indians are one of eight teams yet to produce a save. From all reports, manager Terry Francona is going to try to balance the workload of his relievers early in the season. If your rivals discard any of Wittgren, Karinchak, or Clase in frustration, try to find a place to stash them. I expect one of them to eventually emerge as the regular closer by June. Karinchak would be the ideal winner since he’d rank fifth on this list. He got in trouble this week on social media.
The Red Sox are one of the zero-save clubs. The order of operations appears to be Hirokazu Sawamura in the seventh followed by Ottavino in the eighth and Barnes to close. We might see an Ottavino save today since Barnes threw two innings yesterday.
Garrett has bullied his way into saves by setting expectations high and delivering during spring training. His first outing was a mixed bag – he earned the save but allowed a home run. Doolittle is in vintage form and seems poised to steal the job in short order. And we can never underestimate a manager’s desire to have a right-handed closer. Sims is a spin-rate king and appears to be fully recovered from his injury. Whether it’s Doolittle or Sim, patient fantasy managers are eventually going to land a windfall.
Kennedy earned the Rangers first save. He’s sitting at 95-mph with his fastball, a career high. He’s yet to throw a cutter, a poorly performing pitch he relied on too much last season. Bush hasn’t looked worthy of late-inning consideration, but he’s still in the mix for want of an alternative. His stuff has visibly declined since his brief heyday.
Bass blew his first save opportunity. I expect Dylan Floro to emerge as the Marlins closer by some point in May. He would have been the favorite if not for a minor injury during Spring Training. Yimi Garcia is also nipping around – he’d have to build upon a fluky 2020 campaign to be a legitimate late-innings candidate.
Tier 5: Assorted Messes (7)
Tanner Rainey, Washington Nationals
Richard Rodriguez, Chris Stratton, David Bednar, Pittsburgh Pirates
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Jake Diekman, Sergio Romo, Oakland Athletics
Cesar Valdez, Baltimore Orioles
Chris Devenski, Stefan Crichton, Kevin Ginkel, Arizona Diamondbacks
Gregory Soto, Bryan Garcia, Detroit Tigers
Brad Hand is sidelined with COVID-19, granting Rainey a brief opportunity to audition as his primary backup. While he has closer-like attributes, there are a lot of rough edges to his game which could push him into more of a middle relief role. Hand should return shortly.
Bednar has acquired a certain momentum towards high leverage work. Rodriguez may need to be nearly perfect to hold him back. In his own right, Rodriguez is a better closer candidate then Reyes and Montero. However, I don’t believe he’ll be finishing many games by mid-May.
Holland fumbled his first outing. Wade Davis bailed him for the Royals first save. Jesse Hahn, a woefully generic depth reliever, earned the second save. Josh Staumont averaged 99.1-mph in his only appearance. He’s the most interesting late-innings option on the roster. I fully expect Holland to hang around the ninth inning for at least a couple months.
Throughout the offseason, I saw an awful lot of confidence around Diekman, a southpaw who hasn’t recorded less than 5.00 BB/9 since 2016. The sterling 0.42 ERA he posted last season was one of the flukiest performances of the flukiest season. While he does induce closer-caliber strikeout rates, Romo is by far a more even-keeled performer. Somebody else will eventually emerge, although I don’t have a name for you just yet. Maybe Wandisson Charles?
Valdez is a joy to watch. In an era of velocity, he leans almost exclusively on a dead fish changeup with a hefty ground ball rate. His approach is reminiscent of a knuckleballer complete with an 85-mph “fastball.” As he’s unconventional, he’ll constantly be under threat from the likes of Hunter Harvey (if he’s ever healthy), Tanner Scott, and others.
The Diamondbacks assembled a discount late-innings duo of Joakim Soria and Tyler Clippard. Both are now injured, leaving the club to sort through a shambling corpse, baseball’s most average reliever, and a slider-specialist with errant command. Devenski earned the first save, but his velocity is down four-mph from his peak and his stuff really doesn’t offer many redeeming traits. Ginkel offers a whiff of fantasy potential if he can clamp down on the free passes.
Rosenthal has thoracic outlet syndrome, a shoulder injury which can be career-threatening. A return this season seems unlikely. Hand and Soria should be back in short order.