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Saves and Steals

Way Too Early Closer Tiers

by Brad Johnson
Updated On: September 24, 2020, 2:24 am ET

We’re down to the final five days of the season. Brad Hand leads the league with 14 saves. Liam Hendriks (13) is hot on his heels. Ryan Pressly and Alex Colome both have 12 saves. Nobody stood out over the last week with seven relievers locking down two saves apiece.

Rather than our usual review of the closer tiers, today we’ll look ahead to the 2021 campaign. First, let’s quickly touch on situations which could deliver a free save or two in the waning hours of the 2020 campaign. Let’s also cover stolen base opportunities.

Last week, I name dropped Angels reliever Mike Mayers as someone I would be excited about under normal conditions. He’s since picked up two saves and could grab more in the next few days. The righty has a 1.57 ERA with 12.87 K/9 and 2.20 BB/9. A new cutter has unlocked a second life for the overlooked veteran. He’s likely unavailable on Wednesday due to a heavy workload.

In Toronto, Ken Giles’ multi-year attempt to escape Tommy John surgery is at an end. Rafael Dolis is currently dealing with a sore knee which temporarily puts Anthony Bass in the driver’s seat. Dolis is a breakout reliever - one I hyped way back in February. He should quickly regain the ninth-inning role once fully recovered.

Stefan Crichton is still available in many fantasy leagues. On a skills basis, he’s unremarkable – neither good nor bad. The Diamondbacks are finishing out the season against the Rangers and Rockies. That should help the club produce save opportunities.

The Orioles have recently turned to gimmicky righty Cesar Valdez. He’s a ground ball pitcher who almost exclusively throws 78 mph changeups. His seldom-used fastball sits 85 mph. It’s working, the 35-year-old veteran is piling up easy outs and inducing a career-best whiff rate.

 

The Steals Department

 

Switching gears, a few base running matchups stand out for the final weekend. Sadly, the Athletics don’t steal many bases as a team. They’re hosting the Mariners who have a league-worst caught stealing rate (5-for-49). On base machine Robbie Grossman is the lone stolen base threat on hand.

With catcher J.T. Realmuto nursing a sore hip, there’s a chance the Phillies will be a little less stingy with allowing stolen bases. They have a three-game series against the Rays, the team with the most steals over the last two weeks. The most actionable waiver wire target is Joey Wendle. The high average, low power lefty should start against the Phillies heavily right -handed pitching staff. Manuel Margot continues to run frequently, but his playing time is slightly more difficult to predict.

The Mets and Nationals are two of the worst teams at shutting down the running game. They’ll face one another in the final series. New York hasn’t stolen a single base in the last two weeks, although Andres Gimenez and Amed Rosario remain regular threats. Lately, Rosario is drawing more starts at shortstop than Gimenez. Brandon Nimmo shouldn’t be counted out either. Trea Turner represents the bulk of Washington’s stolen bases. After a miserable season, Victor Robles might be available on the wire.

A potentially sneaky source of stolen bases is Colorado. They’re seventh in the league with 37 steals. They’ll play four games against the Diamondbacks. Arizona has allowed the fifth-most stolen bases – 39 steals in 46 attempts (84.7% success). Obviously, Trevor Story won’t be available. However, a typical 12-team mixed league will have multiple of Raimel Tapia, Kevin Pillar, Garrett Hampson, and Sam Hilliard on the wire, especially since the Rockies are on the road.

 

Way Too Early 2021 Closer Tiers

 

One note about these new Closer Tiers: there is an almost unprecedented quantity of relievers heading to free agency. We’ll also see a fresh wave of pitching lab success stories. Things will change between now and 2021 draft season. Let’s start with those free agents.

 

Potential Free Agents

Liam Hendriks (contract expires)
Brad Hand (club option may be triggered)
Kirby Yates (contract expires, injured but should be ready for 2021)
Keone Kela (contract expires, working back from injury)
Trevor Rosenthal (contract expires)
Alex Colome (contract expires)
Mark Melancon (contract expires)
Shane Greene (contract expires)
Sean Doolittle (contract expires, multiple injuries but should be ready for 2021)
Ian Kennedy (contract expires)
Trevor May (contract expires)
Joakim Soria (contract expires)
Blake Treinen (contract expires)
Brandon Workman (contract expires)
Greg Holland (contract expires)
Sergio Romo (club option likely to be declined)
Tony Watson (contract expires)
Jeremy Jeffress (contract expires)
Anthony Bass (contract expires)
Yoshihisa Hirano (contract expires)
David Robertson (club option certain to be declined)
Wade Davis (mutual option certain to be declined)
Ken Giles (contract expires, out for 2021 season)

Hendriks is the jewel of free agency. He’s a candidate for top reliever in the league. He should command a rich payday, although any dreams of a historic contract length or AAV are surely out the door due to COVID.

Hand has a reasonable $10MM club option. The penny-pinching Indians might be unlikely to trigger it, although they could trade Hand to somebody who believes this to be a sensible one-year investment. I’ve identified some red flags in Hand’s profile which he managed to avoid stumbling over in 2020. Most teams will also be wary.

Yates and Kela might have a hard time convincing a team they’re healthy. Doolittle is in a similar boat except he hasn’t performed well since mid-2019. Kela is trying to make it back for one more appearance this season to improve his case.

Most of the remaining pitchers have closer experience and could fill the role in a pinch. They’re nobody’s idea for a Plan A in the ninth inning. The exception is May who has closer-quality stuff but hasn’t managed to find an opportunity. I suspect he will probably sign a short-term deal with a club that can promise him save opportunities.

For fantasy managers in leagues where you’ll consider keeping closers, Hendriks is the only one that can be trusted to definitely land on both feet. Yates, if healthy, is likely to close too. As Will Smith and Drew Pomeranz showed last winter, teams will sometimes sign top lefties for fireman roles. That’s a risk with Hand. Others you might consider keeping without more information are Kela and Colome. Obviously, if/when we learn where some of these players are headed, it’ll affect their future value.

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Teams Without Closers

Potential Contenders in Need of Reinforcement

Atlanta Braves
Los Angeles Angels
Oakland Athletics
Washington Nationals
San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
Chicago Cubs
Miami Marlins

The Braves have some internal options such as Chris Martin, Will Smith, Luke Jackson, A.J. Minter, and any number prospects who have struggled to start but could play up in relief. Although the team is run to be more profitable than most franchises, they should still have a considerable war chest this winter. Even if they aren’t in the market for a Hendriks, they should have no problem grabbing a couple mid-tier options.

The Angels are expected to hire a new front office. Prospect raider Dave Dombrowski has been mentioned as a candidate. The relief corps is the obvious weak spot on this roster although they do have internal options like Mayers. The payroll is a little crimped until Albert Pujols and Justin Upton are off the books after 2021 and 2022 respectively. They could play in the budget pool.

Oakland always runs on a paper-thin budget. We could see some of their pitching prospects – perhaps oft-injured southpaw A.J. Puk – called upon to fill this void. A return engagement with discount options like Soria, Doolittle, or Treinen is plausible.

Although the Nationals are coming off a miserable season, the club is loaded with talent. The one exception is the relief corps which is a mess. I could see them being in play for Hendriks. A reunion with Treinen feels plausible too.

I expect the Giants and Diamondbacks to bargain hunt while building rosters to compete for a Wild Card in the expanded playoff format. Both clubs will return pitchers with modest ninth-inning experience – Tyler Rogers and Sam Coonrod for San Francisco and Stefan Crichton for Arizona. Those options are… upgradeable.

Theo Epstein’s Cubs are in a weird place. Thanks to COVID, it looks like they’ll definitely have to cut costs in 2021, meaning they might just give Craig Kimbrel a third try while bringing in a non-roster invitee like Hector Rondon to serve as the backup. They also have glaring holes in the rotation to address.

We really don’t know how the Marlins will respond to their successful 2020 campaign. Will they continue to pursue discount veterans (probably) or aim to make a splash. I could see them making closer the one position where they attempt to reach beyond their means – especially if free agency is frigid this winter.

 

Non-Contenders

Pittsburgh Pirates
Seattle Mariners
Kansas City Royals

These are teams which probably won’t go out of their way to bring in a free agent closer. If a Greene or Watson is struggling to find a job, they’re a potential landing place. The Royals have Josh Staumont and Scott Barlow as internal options. Prospects like Carlos Hernandez could eventually land in the ‘pen too.

In Pittsburgh, Richard Rodriguez might remain the default option. Old friends Kyle Crick and Nick Burdi might re-enter the picture too. From a fantasy perspective, I don’t see an actionable direction.

 

Tier 1: The Elite (6)

Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers
Edwin Diaz, New York Mets
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, New York Yankees
James Karinchak, Emmanuel Clase, Brad Hand, Cleveland Indians
Nick Anderson, Oliver Drake, Diego Castillo, Tampa Bay Rays

These six teams don’t need to address their high leverage innings even if a couple of them might not be sure who will fill the role. As always, expect the Rays to run a convoluted committee even though Anderson is probably the best reliever in the league. Sometimes, their third-best reliever will emerge as the regular closer.

Diaz re-established himself as a relief ace in 2020. While I’ve hedged by leaving Hader above him here, I believe Diaz will eventually ascend to the first reliever off the board.

Jansen and Chapman are edging closer to the precipice. Both are entering their age 33 season with a couple chinks in the armor. Their velocities have declined in recent seasons, and they’re both running decent but unexceptional mid-3.00s ERAs.

The Cleveland bullpen is fascinating. Clase missed the 2020 season due to both a 60-game PED suspension and a torn teres major (an upper back muscle). The injury required an eight-to-twelve-week recovery. Karinchak has performed exceptionally setting up for Hand. It’s possible, if unlikely, that the club could decide to stick with their current closer for one more year – they have a team option.

 

Tier 2: Possible Top Performers (7)

Ryan Pressly, Roberto Osuna, Houston Astros
Jordan Hicks, St. Louis Cardinals
Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey, Minnesota Twins
Drew Pomeranz, San Diego Padres
Aaron Bummer, Garrett Crochet, Chicago White Sox
Raisel Iglesias, Cincinnati Reds
Hector Neris, Philadelphia Phillies

Osuna is trying to work back from an elbow injury. We should learn by mid-November if he’ll need Tommy John surgery. For now, I’m anticipating the surgery will be necessary, leaving Pressly in place as the 2021 closer. Even with some notable expiring contracts, the club might not have the resources to add to their thin relief corps.

Don’t sleep on Hicks. There’s a chance he’s buried on the waiver wire in some keeper leagues. He was in the midst of a breakout 2019 campaign when his elbow quit early. Between a 101-mph fastball and an over-60 percent ground ball rate, he’s an imposing opponent. Of course, there’s a chance the velocity doesn’t fully return.

Rogers had an off year in Minnesota in terms of his ERA. However, all of the traits he showed in his breakthrough 2019 are still present. Duffey has also emerged as a closer-quality reliever.

The Padres value a deep bullpen, and they have plenty of payroll flexibility. If they don’t shop for a top outfielder or second baseman – George Springer or DJ LeMahieu would look nice in that lineup – then they could turn their resources to acquiring Hendriks and/or other top relievers. That would be a shame for Pomeranz who has premium closer written all over him.

Crochet is the wild card. Through three appearances, he’s proven himself to have the hardest fastball in the league (Hicks threw harder in 2019). Crochet could instantly join the top five closers, but it might be more reasonable to expect a veteran with a set contract like Bummer to handle the ninth. Both pitchers are left-handed so that won’t affect the choice. There are some dark horse alternatives.

Iglesias and Neris aren’t quite on the same level as the others in this tier. When they’re firing on all cylinders, they can keep pace with the best closers in the league in all four relevant categories. However, they’ve also shown a penchant for slumps over the years. The Phillies in particular will be keen to shore up a bullpen which might have cost them a trip to the postseason.

 

Tier 3: Not Ideal Keepers (5)

Rafael Dolis, Toronto Blue Jays
Rafael Montero, Jonathan Hernandez, Texas Rangers
Hunter Harvey, Cesar Valdez, Tanner Scott, Baltimore Orioles
Gregory Soto, Detroit Tigers
Matt Barnes, Darwinzon Hernandez, Boston Red Sox

To make something clear, I love Dolis. I believe he deserves to remain the closer. However, Toronto needs to fully flesh out this bullpen if they want to survive a 162-game campaign with a playoff berth in hand. It’s quite possible they’ll import several pitchers north of the border. I see them as an obvious candidate to trade for (or sign) Hand.

I’m also driving the Hernandez bandwagon. It all comes down to his command. Historically, pitchers who experience similar breakouts (7.02 BB/9 in 2019, 1.63 BB/9 in 2020) usually give back most of those gains in the following year (caveat: the research was applied to starting pitcher). If he’s continuing to induce whiffs and avoid free passes, he’ll oust Montero in no time. Montero is more of a good-not-great late-inning option. A fine Plan B. Jose Leclerc could re-enter the picture if his shoulder is healthy.

I don’t foresee the Tigers or Orioles making any effort to import free agents. However, with expanded playoffs, we can’t rule it out. Still, I’d expect no better than a Greg Holland sort. Baltimore has a diverse mix of choices while Detroit really only has Soto and a fourth try with Joe Jimenez.

I don’t have a good read on what the Red Sox plan. Their pitching staff is beyond laughable. Barnes is passable if volatile. Hernandez looks the part of a future closer, but they may try to use him as a starter for want of better alternatives.

 

Tier 4: The Rockies (1)

Daniel Bard, Colorado Rockies

The Rockies tend to mount confusing forays into free agency. While I fully expect the club to sign free agent pitchers, it’s safest to bet on the guy with the most recent success at altitude. Incredibly, that’s Bard.

 

Injured or Ill

Roberto Osuna, Houston Astros (out for season)
Scott Oberg, Colorado Rockies (out for season)
Jose Leclerc, Texas Rangers (out for season)
Kirby Yates, San Diego Padres (out for season)
Jalen Beeks, Tampa Bay Rays (out for season)
Keone Kela, Pittsburgh Pirates (out for season)
Ken Giles, Toronto Blue Jays (out for season)

 

Deposed

Craig Kimbrel, Chicago Cubs
Hansel Robles, Los Angeles Angels
Jairo Diaz, Colorado Rockies
Trevor Gott, San Francisco Giants
Zack Britton, New York Yankees (Chapman returned)
Taylor Williams, San Diego Padres (traded by Mariners)
Archie Bradley, Cincinnati Reds (traded by DBacks)
Joe Jimenez, Detroit Tigers
Cole Sulser, Baltimore Orioles
Kevin Ginkel, Arizona Diamondbacks
Oliver Drake, Tampa Bay Rays
Wade Davis, Colorado Rockies
Brandon Workman, Philadelphia Phillies
Anthony Bass, Toronto Blue Jays
Ty Buttrey, Los Angeles Angels

Brad Johnson

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