It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2022 or even drafting now. The hot stove league is just taking shape, but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2022 fantasy baseball season.
For the eighth year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. The first six articles in the series were batting average, WHIP, home run, strikeout, ERA, and stolen base sleepers. This week, we’ll be looking at saves sleepers. Over 10 weeks, I will be providing a list of sleepers for each 5x5 roto category (BA, HR, RBI, R, SB, W, ERA, WHIP, K, SV). After looking at categories that were more based on player skill over the first five weeks, we shift to categories that are more dependent on opportunity, supporting cast, and batting order spot.
Before reading any further, it’s important to note the definition of a sleeper. In this case, it’s a player who will exceed draft day ADP AND projections in a particular category. The players are broken down by mixed league sleepers and single league sleepers.
Saves are one of the most frustrating categories for fantasy managers because we are at the mercy of major league managers. Much of the fun in fantasy preparation is forecasting based on indicators, talent, and predictable skill, yet saves are just as much about opportunity and being in the right place at the right time.
Below is a rundown of the obvious saves sleepers heading into 2022 – mostly pitchers with a history of closing and at least a fair probability of getting a significant opportunity to close at some point this season. Also, there are a few less obvious picks to keep an eye on. Despite our best efforts to predict, there will surely be a few new closers crowned in 2022 that no one expected. This endeavor is even more of a dart throw at this point in the offseason with several closer-capable relievers still available in free agency, so the situation for most of the pitchers mentioned below remains fluid.
The Obvious (Mixed League Worthy)
Ken Giles, Mariners
If you’ve been playing fantasy baseball for at least a couple years, you are likely very familiar with Giles. A seasoned closer with experience in Philadelphia, Houston, and Toronto, Giles signed a two-year, $7 million contract with Seattle last offseason as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. After undergoing the procedure at the end of the 2020 season, Giles will be coming up on 18 months removed from surgery as the 2022 season opens.
Every pitcher’s journey to returning is different, but Giles will have ample time to be at full strength. With 115 career saves and a 2.74 ERA, we certainly know Giles is capable of serving in the closer role if he is fully healthy. Unfortunately for Giles, it’s not that simple. Seattle is returning two pitchers who recorded double-digit saves for the team last season in Drew Steckenrider and Paul Sewald, plus former Rays closer Diego Castillo is also on the roster. Still, no reliever in that group has a better track record than Giles, including a career 12.3 K/9, and his 270 ADP in NFBC leagues still puts him more in flier territory.
Andrew Kittredge, Rays
The Rays seem to produce one new closer candidate after another, and some seemingly out of nowhere like Kittredge. He’s a late bloomer who made his first All-Star appearance last year, finishing the year with an outstanding 1.88 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and 5.13 K/BB ratio in 71.2 innings. The right-hander rode his mid-90’s sinker to closing duty late in the year, converting six saves beginning on August 24. He finished the season with the most saves of any player on the roster after the team traded Diego Castillo, and Kittredge remains the most notable closer candidate on the roster currently with Nick Anderson recovering from elbow surgery.
Despite his success last season, there’s clear skepticism of Kittredge with an ADP near 300. It’s easy to see why fantasy managers would be nervous given Tampa Bay’s recent hesitancy to use a primary closer, along with Kittredge’s lack of an MLB track record. Still, Kittredge has all the momentum going into 2022, as well as the clear ability with added velocity and a 54% groundball rate last season. He might not be a great bet for more than 20 saves with the team’s preference to spread the save opportunities around, but Kittredge’s dominance should make him a great find, even if he’s a part-time closer.
Corey Knebel, Phillies
Once an elite closer in Milwaukee, Knebel’s career has taken a turn over the last few years due to injuries. Since 2018, the list of injuries includes hamstring, Tommy John surgery, and lat. As a result, he’s made a total of 42 appearances over the last three seasons, but the flashes he showed last year were enough for the closer-needy Phillies to sign him for $10 million.
Even for a big market team, that hefty salary is a clear indication Knebel will be counted on in late innings. The Phillies have lost both Hector Neris and Ian Kennedy in free agency, making Knebel the clear favorite for saves as the roster sits now. Knebel looked the part on the Dodgers last season when he was healthy, with a 10.5 K/9 while averaging 96 mph on his fastball. If the Phillies don’t make any other significant moves in the pen, Knebel is likely their go-to on Opening Day. Even with the very significant injury risk, Knebel looks like a fine option with an ADP near 218.
Taylor Rogers, Twins
Sometimes your best option is right under your nose. The Twins brought in experienced closers Alex Colome and Hansel Robles last year, but Rogers was clearly the best reliever of the bunch. Unfortunately, the left-hander suffered a season-ending finger injury in late July, or he would have likely had two months as the team’s top closer option.
With the two veteran right-handers out of the way, Rogers currently stands as the team’s top closer option again. Rogers has proven he can handle the role, as he did in 2019 with 30 saves, but manager Rocco Baldelli has been hesitant to pigeonhole his best reliever as a ninth inning only option. That’s understandable, but Minnesota could be in mini rebuild mode this season after trading Jose Berrios and losing Kenta Maeda to Tommy John surgery. Few relief pitchers have been more effective over the last three seasons, as Rogers has a cumulative 3.06 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, and 7.52 K/BB ratio over that time, and the clear path to saves creates a high likelihood for profit at his 228 ADP price.
The Less Obvious (Single League Worthy)
Jose Leclerc, Rangers
Making a total of two appearances over the last two seasons due to arm injuries, it’s easy to forget Leclerc was recently considered the closer of the future for Texas. He converted 26 saves between 2018-2019, but he missed 2020 with shoulder trouble followed by Tommy John surgery last March. It’s unclear where Leclerc is in his recovery, but a midseason return is a conservative estimate.
The Rangers have been aggressive in free agency, signing Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, and Jon Gray, but haven’t done much of note in their bullpen. It’s assumed Joe Barlow will be the early-season option after finishing last year as the closer, though his shaky track record with control and 2.25 K/BB ratio last season doesn’t make him the safest of options. Leclerc has had a lot of control issues, in his own right, with a terrible 5.7 BB/9 in his five MLB seasons, but the upper-90’s velocity and 12.5 K/9 will play. Unless the Rangers add a proven closer before Opening Day, Leclerc could be a viable stash in AL-only leagues.
Andres Munoz, Mariners
Seattle has no absence of closer candidates, as mentioned above with Ken Giles adding to Drew Steckenrider and Paul Sewald. While less experienced, Munoz could also be part of the late-inning equation for Seattle. The former Padres farmhand was acquired along with Ty France and company in 2020 while he recovered from Tommy John surgery. He was able to make four minor league appearances and one MLB appearance late last season as he ramps up for the 2022 season, as a potentially significant part of the M’s pen.
Munoz’s stuff screams closer, averaging just a touch under 100 mph on his fastball with a nasty slider that accompanies the elite heat. He also saw significant MLB time with San Diego in 2019, posting a 3.91 ERA and 11.7 K/9 in 22 appearances at age 20. He has a proven minor league track record, albeit with poor control, with a career 3.20 ERA, 12.9 K/9, and 5.4 BB/9. It’s obvious that the Mariners are high on the reliever, giving him a four-year, $7.5 million extension prior to the lockout, and he very well could be the team’s closer in waiting. Whether that happens as early as 2022 could be based on both Munoz’s success and the success of the team, as regression from the M’s could push them to take a look at younger players in the second half of the season. Either way, the elite stuff and strikeout potential could be worth stashing in AL-only and keeper leagues.
Robert Suarez, Padres
It’s rare that a team with high expectations goes into February without a clear closer, but the Padres are in that position due in part to the lockout. They let veteran Mark Melancon walk in free agency after a great 2021 season as the full-time closer, and now are left with a bevy of options. Among the holdovers on the roster with closing experience are Emilio Pagan and Drew Pomeranz, and there are some who believe Pierce Johnson, Dinelson Lamet, and Luis Garcia could be viable closer candidates. Though, we can’t have a discussion about the Padres closer without mentioning Suarez, who was signed before the lockout out of Japan after serving as Hanshin’s closer over the last two seasons.
Suarez converted 67 saves over the last two years, and showed off pinpoint control last year with only eight walks in 62.1 innings. He lacks MLB experience and doesn’t have prototypical closer strikeout numbers, but Suarez can still reach the upper 90’s with his fastball and also features a plus changeup. At age 31, he’s a bit of a crapshoot without any experience pitching to MLB hitters, but that could be to his benefit in his first time around the league. If the Padres don’t add a more experienced arm following the lockout, Suarez looks like a worthy speculative stash in NL-only leagues.
Devin Williams, Brewers
Williams’ breakout over the last two seasons in Milwaukee is well documented. He won the NL Rookie of the Year in 2020 and had an excellent 2021 season before fracturing his hand late in the year. He’s been elite, working off his “airbender” changeup that he threw 64% of the time last season and complementing it with a mid-90’s fastball that’s helped him produce an amazing 15.6 K/9, 1.78 ERA, and 1.00 WHIP over the last two seasons.
Despite his elite ability, Williams barely sniffed the closer role last season behind lefty Josh Hader. Hader is arguably the best closer in the game, but his status as a high-priced reliever on a mid-market squad has also made him the subject of trade rumors over the last year. He didn’t sound pleased with his arbitration hearing two years ago, and there have been unsubstantiated rumors he’s not a big fan of organizational management. It’s smart to stash closer backups in any case, but especially when the closer is mentioned as a possible trade subject. The Brewers should feel confident that they have a viable replacement in Williams should they finally move Hader, and even in the worst case, Williams is extremely valuable for fantasy rosters in a non-save role with plenty of vulture wins and a 100 strikeout upside.