Over here at Saves and Steals headquarters, we’re working through our own accelerated Spring Training. Last week, we dove deep to cover all the notably stolen base threats in the National and American Leagues. This week, we switch to closers. In the past, this column has closely examined each division from top to bottom. Necessity forces a higher-level approach this season. The plan for today is to focus on saves candidates in the National League. We’ll use the same format as the All About Steals pieces.
First, a few interesting relievers remain on the market. With the season right around the corner, we can assume the likes of Richard Rodriguez, Brandon Kintzler, Rafael Dolis, Dellin Betances, Yusmeiro Petit, and Tony Watson won’t be cast in high leverage roles this April. One wild card is Trevor Rosenthal whose recovery timeline from hip and shoulder issues remains uncertain. It’s possible he’s healthy now – I can’t find any fresh information.
National League East
Primary Saves: Kenley Jansen
Jansen is coming of a strange season. Over the 2020-2021 winter, he trained at a pitch lab, adding velocity. At his peak, Jansen relied on a similar plan to Mariano Rivera – throw the cutter. Throw it again. Last season, he mixed in a sinker or slider around a fifth of the time each. His usually pristine walk rate suffered as he struggled to harness his new pitch mix. Fortunately, he mostly avoided hard contact. From August onward, he posted a typical-for-him 2.51 BB/9.
Jansen should be viewed as one of the best closers in the National League after Josh Hader. However, there is a fly or two in the ointment – a problem most Opening Day closers face this season.
Smith got the job done last season, but it wasn’t always pretty. He also struggled mightily in 2020, leading the Braves to shore up the ‘pen with Jansen. It’s my opinion that Matzek and Minter are superior left-handed relievers to Smith. They both occasionally struggle with command. Jackson could also close in a pinch. His fantasy numbers don’t figure to be worth rostering if he’s not picking up saves. Inconsistency has robbed him of past opportunities. Such variation is a double-edged sword – Jackson has considerable upside and a painful floor.
Honorable Mention: Collin McHugh
McHugh is coming off an incredible season with the Rays in which he posted a 1.55 ERA with 10.41 K/9 and 1.69 BB/9 in 64 innings (37 games, 7 starts). The Braves figure to continue using McHugh in a flexible role, though he could emerge as another dark horse saves candidate if something happens to Jansen.
New York Mets
Primary Saves: Edwin Diaz
Diaz’s Mets tenure hasn’t been without its warts. He remains among the Top 5 closers in the league and yet there’s an ever-present risk of a demotion. He struggled with home runs in 2019 and 2020. Last season, he got the long ball under control only to lose his elite strikeout rate. Overall, his 3.45 ERA, 12.78 K/9 and 3.30 BB/9 still constituted very strong numbers. The volatile 28-year-old retains one of the highest ceilings among closers.
All three of these pitchers are second-string closer types. By virtue of being in the league longer, Ottavino has compiled more saves opportunities over the years. However, his errant command renders him the least reliable of the setup trio. May or Lugo – whichever is sharper at the time – is the best Diaz alternative.
Honorable Mention: Carlos Carrasco
This is a real stretch. My impression is that Carrasco is mostly cooked as a starting pitcher. The club might be better off with Tylor Megill making starts. Carrasco does still have excellent offspeed stuff. There’s some hope for a rebound in a short-format role – not unlike McHugh above. That could include high leverage innings if the Mets sustain their usual injury apocalypse.
Who is closing in Philadelphia? When they inked their deal with Knebel, they made it clear to him he was being brought in to work high leverage situations. The closer role was not promised. They haven’t publicly commented on their discussions with Hand, though the assumption is he’ll set up. While Knebel outperformed Hand last season, the southpaw has the longer track record as a quality closer. Knebel goes early in fantasy drafts whereas Hand is a last-round flier. I’m projecting them both for 12-18 saves.
Dominguez is a dark horse of sorts only because he vanished for a couple seasons due to injury. He’s healthy and pitching well this spring including five strikeouts and no hits allowed in just two official innings. He’s also pitched well in unofficial situations. Last time we saw him healthy, he was a potential Top 10 closer.
In recent years the Phillies bullpen always seems to enter the season looking like a deep and robust unit. Then they fall apart completely. Brogdon nearly walked away with a swathe of saves last season as a reliever of last resort. Alvarado and Familia have some past experience closing. Their recent performances indicate they’d be miscast as the last guy. They’re both prone to spates of walks.
Floro was Plan A as closer all offseason. Nagging arm soreness has his Opening Day status in doubt. Meanwhile, Bender is a perfectly capable closer, and he’s pitching well this spring. Since Bender also induces the higher strikeout rate of the pair, he’s the more interesting target for fantasy managers. Floro’s advantage is a long-proven talent for avoiding hard contact.
Dark Horse: Anthony Bass
Bass was in the same conversation as Floro and Bender this time last year. A slow start and weak peripherals saw him demoted to a middle-innings role. The stuff hasn’t changed so a rebound is entirely plausible. Overall, he’s similar to Floro except without the success limiting hard contact.
Honorable Mention: Edward Cabrera
A top prospect, Cabrera has suspect command and a four-pitch repertoire fronted by a fastball-slider combo. Given the Marlins excellent starting pitcher depth, they could opt for the quick path to Major League relevance for Cabrera. Ditching his curve and changeup could unlock closer-like ability. He’s also dealt with myriad injuries during his young career.
Another top prospect, Max Meyer, could also land in the bullpen and immediately capitalize.
Rainey is the preferred option for saves according to manager Dave Martinez. There’s only one problem. Although his stuff reads as closer material, he’s never succeeded for more than 20 innings at a time. Borderline dreadful command is the main culprit. Entering his age 29 season, there isn’t any reason to expect sudden improvement. Chances are, he fumbles a few saves in April and resumes pitching earlier frames.
Finnegan doesn’t merit much discussion. He’s no better than a league average reliever. Probably worse. Expect around a 4.25 ERA, 9.00 K/9, and a 4.50 BB/9.
Here’s the shambling corpses of several veterans who once had closer-like stuff. Probabilistically, at least one of them will probably have a good season – perhaps even a closer-caliber year. Personally, I’m keeping an eye on Doolittle (and not only because he’s the only remaining player I faced in my youth). Despite poor results last season, Doolittle recovered his stuff and mostly just struggled with command. He’s had no issues hitting spots in the past so he might only be a small adjustment away from a rebound.
Honorable Mention: Hunter Harvey
The never-healthy former Oriole could figure out how to stay on the field. It’s possible, right? Presently he’s, you guessed it, injured. Triceps soreness will prevent him from being ready on Opening Day. His stuff looks fit for a closer, but his brief Major League experience includes an awful lot of hard contact and very few whiffs.
National League Central
Primary Saves: Josh Hader
Nobody misses bats better than Hader. What little contact he does allow tends to be in the air which has led to home run issues in the past. It also leads to a homer-or-bust mentality among opposing hitters – Hader doesn’t often let anyone score another way.
Williams instantly ranks as a Top 5 closer anytime Hader hits the injury skids. Calling him a “dark horse” is a misnomer. A Hader trade is a real possibility this season if the Brewers somehow fall out of contention. I’m not betting against them, but it’s certainly possible.
Boxberger is coming off his best season since 2014. He’s grown more comfortable with his slider over the last three seasons. Along with his career-best velocity last year, there’s cause for cautious optimism.
Honorable Mention: Aaron Ashby
Ashby is a dead nasty left-handed pitching prospect. Sinker-ballers of his ability often struggle to hit the strike zone – see early-career Framber Valdez. One solution is to stash them in the bullpen where their iffy command is less damaging over short bursts. Ashby seems especially suited to this treatment since he’s a three-pitch guy. His potential future as a starter won’t be detrimentally affected by a year in relief. He only worked 95 innings last season so the Brewers are probably aiming for about 125 frames this year – that implies around 10 starts and a lot of relieving.
St. Louis Cardinals
Primary Saves: Giovanny Gallegos
As I’ve often said in this column, Gallegos is the Cardinals best closer. This should have been his job back in 2019. Perhaps new manager Oliver Marmol will feel less inclined to use Gallegos earlier in games. My guess is the org likes him early because he can occasionally take on multiple innings.
Beyond this trio, the Cardinals have a lot of interesting relief prospects, some of whom will almost certainly jump onto the big stage. We could spend a thousand words on their depth and only scratch the surface.
Hicks is once again (mostly) healthy and throwing 100-mph bowling balls. His strikeout rate is liable to always disappoint relative to his stuff, but he does have the makings of a Top 10 closer. The club is unwilling to commit him to full-time relief. Helsley is a guy they like internally even though the results have never matched the love. His fastball-cutter repertoire isn’t built for whiffs OR hitting spots. He needs to find one or the other. Cabrera is a good left-handed reliever who is best used in the middle innings.
Honorable Mention: Alex Reyes
Reyes won the (fake) Enigma of the Year award last season. He spent the first phase of the season with borderline elite fantasy numbers despite an utter inability to limit free passes. Around mid-season, he stopped walking as many guys and opponents battered his stuff. Rumor on the street is he showed up to Cardinals camp out of shape, tried to stretch out to start, and promptly injured his shoulder. He’s already on the 60-day IL.
Primary Saves: David Bednar
Bednar is generating hype for a second consecutive spring. The Pirates may struggle to win games, but their should-be-closer looks destined for a Top 10 reliever season. I say “should-be” because this is a habitually cheap ballclub. And penny-pinching teams have a nasty habit of keeping their best young relievers out of save situations in order to reduce their earnings in arbitration. The Pirates are already messing with Oneil Cruz so I won’t put it past them to block Bednar.
An advantage for Bednar is the club lacks an obvious alternative. Stratton’s been around for parts of three seasons. He’s a spin-rate success story who has stalled out as a good middle reliever. He could pass as a closer on a bad team in a pinch, though it’s telling that the Pirates have barely given him any opportunities. Hembree has the stuff and whiff rates of a high-leverage reliever but for one fatal flaw – he allows murderous quantities of hard, fly ball contact. Spacious PNC Park could help him to a career season.
Honorable Mention: Mitch Keller
The Keller hype train is in runaway mode based on his spring velocities. He’s still getting hammered. A move to the bullpen could unlock more velocity and allow him to focus on shaping just one breaking ball to complement his heater. He’s maybe 10 failed starts from a permanent move to relief – or at least he should be with the likes of Roansy Contreras waiting for a rotation spot.
Warren took a weird path to relevance. He’s now one of the most exciting relievers in the league. He’s a big right-hander with juicy whiff rates, average or better command, and a penchant for avoiding barreled baseballs. If there’s an off-the-radar guy who could conceivably finish as the top reliever in baseball, it’s Warren. Bump him up your draft board because his main competition, Strickland, is a middle reliever.
Dark Horse: Hunter Greene
Greene is on track to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster. Scouts remain torn about his best role. He can maintain 100-mph velocity deep in to starts. Those who stop their analysis there view Shane McClanahan as a potential comp. Greene’s velocity has always underplayed due to elements of pitch shape and extension. He might ultimately land in the bullpen where he could dial up vintage Aroldis Chapman numbers on the radar gun – possibly with less effect.
Honorable Mention: Lucas Sims
Sims is battling a double-whammy of back and elbow soreness. He missed most of 2021 with forearm issues. Overall, it’s unclear when or how much of Sims we’ll see. He certainly has closer-caliber ability.
Primary Saves: Rowan Wick
Wick has flashed the necessary traits to pitch high leverage innings. A handful of injuries and general inconsistency have prevented him from notching more saves despite the Cubs yearly need for a stand-in closer. I’m projecting around a 4.10 ERA with 10.50 K/9 and 4.25 BB/9. It could be enough to keep the job this season. This is a volatile pitcher; he could plausibly range from a 3.00 to over a 5.00 ERA.
Like the Cardinals, this is another club with a slew of true dark horse relievers who aren’t on anybody’s radar. Guys like Ethan Roberts and Brendon Little are legitimately interesting and worthy of deeper analysis. Rodriguez is the young name we saw last year. He’s a classic wild, ground-balling reliever right down to the 6.00 BB/9. If he solves the walk rate, he’s a late-innings contender.
Robertson, Givens, and Martin are the ghosts of closers past. Givens fits best as a middle reliever. We’ll see if Robertson can shake off three (mostly) missed seasons to recover his 2018 form. Martin is a command-and-control guy who keeps the ball on the ground but doesn’t miss many bats. Such pitchers fit well as temporary closers.
Honorable Mention: Scott Effross
Effross is a quirky ground-ball machine who somehow still misses bats with his sinker-slider-heavy approach. His success might not scale out of low-leverage innings. The main issue is middling stuff. It plays up due to plus command. Such relievers have no margin for error.
National League West
Los Angeles Angels
Primary Saves: Blake Treinen
Dodgers personnel keep going out of their way to say Treinen is not the closer. He should get the bulk of the opportunities. The sense around the league is the Dodgers will finally adopt a Rays-style approach to the late-innings now that Jansen is out of the picture. Expect to be frustrated. Treinen also happens to be very sensitive to changes to the baseball. We can map his slumps against when different balls were introduced. Rob Manfred has said the pre-tacked baseball might enter circulation mid-season.
Hudson was long a punching bag in this column – an able reliever who was a misfit as closer. Last season, he made meaningful improvements. He’s now an acceptable closer rather than an imposter. Consider a last-round flier on him.
Graterol, 23, is viewed by many as a closer of the future. While his approach differs from Emmanuel Clase, the outputs are comparable. Jordan Hicks also works as a loose comp. Graterol’s 100-mph sinker is used to induce a pile of soft grounders at the cost of only 7.29 K/9 last season.
Dark Horses: Victor Gonzalez, Ryan Pepiot
Gonzalez has quietly out-pitched Graterol since arriving on the scene around the same time. He’s a southpaw with big ground ball rates, an ability to induce whiffs when needed, and inconsistent command. In 2020, he posted 0.89 BB/9. Last season, he was up at 4.84 BB/9. Pepiot has Devin Williams’ changeup and Williams’ fringy profile as a starting pitcher. In another franchise, I think Pepiot would get a few years runway as an unusual starter prospect. The Dodgers have an embarrassment of riches and therefore can accept reality without regret.
Honorable Mention: Dustin May
May went under the knife last May. Normal recovery for Tommy John surgery ranges from 13-to-16 months. He could return to the bullpen as soon as June or July. Likelier, we’ll see him for a final postseason audition starting in late-August. If his recovery goes to plan, I expect May to be the postseason closer. But we won’t see May in May.
San Francisco Giants
Doval has a dirty cutter-slider combo that flummoxes opposing hitters. He also has horrific command – or at least he did prior to his 27 Major League innings last season. He posted a 3.00 ERA with 12.33 K/9 and 3.00 BB/9. By comparison, he fired 7.04 BB/9 in 30.2 Triple-A innings. I expect painful inconsistency; perhaps not unlike the Alex Reyes experience last season. McGee is reportedly in top form and a far more consistent late-inning option for the Giants.
Currently sidelined with a bruised shin, Rogers is destined to find his way into 10 or more save opportunities. This is, after all, Gabe Kapler’s roster. And Kapler’s had an affinity for Rogers ever since he used him as his OOTP* closer during the 2020 work stoppage. Leone is coming off an excellent, carefully managed season and shouldn’t be viewed as more than a spot-alternative for saves.
*Out of the Park Baseball, a popular simulation software
You all remember C-Mart, right? He and Delaplane, a former Mariners sleeper who was derailed by injuries, are in camp as non-roster guys. With expanded rosters to the start the season, I bet one or both make the club. Martinez has pitched poorly since losing three-mph of zip between 2019 and 2020. Delaplane has barely played at all during the last three years.
Honorable Mention: Tyler Beede
Beede is the odd man out of the rotation at the moment. He’s also out of options so we’ll see him in a multi-inning relief role. He’s been on the verge of a breakout for years but keeps falling afoul of injuries. Let’s see if the fourth time is the charm.
San Diego Padres
In a telegraphed move last spring, the Padres refused to name Mark Melancon as their closer until the last moment. They’re doing the same this season, except they don’t have nearly as obvious a candidate as Melancon this time around. While I have no doubt Lamet is their best reliever on paper – his stuff and approach were always designed for closing – they’re talking about him as a multi-inning guy. Even if he does collect saves, it might only be once or twice a week.
Suarez pitched well overseas including a 1.16 ERA in Japan’s NPB. Scouts have mixed expectations ranging from a low-to-high leverage role. I’m still waiting for contacts to fill in more details about Suarez. The Padres have received strong results from Johnson who followed a similar path as Suarez to San Diego. He’s a plausible candidate for saves – perhaps the best non-Lamet option. Pagan and Adams pitched well in 2019 but haven’t quite pieced it together since then.
Honorable Mention: Ryan Weathers
As basically a two-pitch starter who relies on plus stuff, Weathers could play up out of the bullpen. The Padres have other rotation depth pieces like Chris Paddack and MacKenzie Gore so they can afford to try Weathers in a more effective role – kind of like Lamet but without the added pressure of injuries.
Primary Saves: Mark Melancon
Melancon, aka the most overrated closer of 2021, is unlikely to post such a large saves total this season. He’s a ground ball pitcher who relies on his fielders to keep his ERA low. He’s above average (but not elite) at preventing hard contact. Assuming he’s healthy in July, a contender will want him as a setup man.
You might recall, this is a reunion of sorts for Kennedy. He’s a comparable quality reliever to Melancon, albeit of a very different profile. They might be platoonable, or else Kennedy could step in if and when Melancon slumps. And vice versa. Smith has long struck me as a guy who might play up out of the bullpen. When he had the chance last season, he posted a 2.70 ERA in 56.2 relief innings – mostly by halving his walk and home run rates. I’m not eager to roster him at this time.
Honorable Mention: Luis Frias
With a plus fastball, roughly 50 percent ground balls, and errant command of a four-pitch repertoire, Frias seems destined for the bullpen – at least in the short-term. The prospect hummed at 97-mph in three appearances last season. FanGraphs tossed a very loose Sandy Alcantara comp on Frias. The interesting part of that: Alcantara was always likeliest to turn out as a reliever.
Primary Saves: Alex Colome
It’s best to avoid Colorado for saves. Even when it’s working, it’s only a matter of time before it isn’t. Colome is the latest import to be tasked with taming the altitude. His cutter-heavy approach seems ill-suited. Moving fastballs in general tend to yield poor results at Coors Field.
Bard revived his career in 2020. He battled a command slump in the middle of the 2021 campaign, losing the job to Estevez whose 97-mph heater helps to keep him in the late-innings mix for the Rockies. They need to find more diamonds in the rough.
Honorable Mention: Scott Oberg
I have no updates on Oberg’s status. He pitched excellently in 2018 and 2019, even at altitude. Alas, injuries and a life-threatening blood clot have prevented him from pitching the last two seasons.