This is the 4th season in a row I’ve ranked relief pitchers for Major League Fantasy Sports and it is not getting any easier. We score relievers far differently than standard 5 X 5 leagues, so a very talented set-up man, or CLEW as I like to call them, can in theory score as many points for your team as the best closers can. This makes it tough to rank them as it is so ingrained in our fantasy IQ to rank closers over set up men because of the importance of the save in traditional leagues. I’d rather leave the draft with one bona-fide ace closer and five CLEWS than four closers all of whom may not make it through the season.
I admit I include a lot of closers in the early rankings, but the fact is that on about half of the MLB teams the closer actually is the best arm in the pen. It gets interesting in the other half of the league where the closer has to watch over his shoulder all season as a younger but far better, more dominant pitcher is just waiting for him to fail or get hurt. That pitcher is a CLEW, a Closer En Waiting, and I want to draft as many of them as I can for two reasons. The obvious reason is that they have a good chance of being named the closer at some point during the season, giving me a leg up on my league mates and allowing me to save my FAAB budge for much needed offense and pitcher spot starting. But the other reason is that I know these pitchers will contribute to all my counting and ratio stats while seldom blowing up an inning, and thus my fantasy week.
My leagues count Holds (H) and Inherited Runners Stranded (IRS) as well as Saves (S), giving middle relievers and even specialists special value. Next week, after finishing up with the lame duck closers I’ll dedicate the rest of the article to some CLEWS and the guys who will pad your IRS and Holds categories. Till then, here are my next 15 best relievers for fantasy value for 2018 drafts.
16. Edwin Diaz, RP, SEA: As mid range closers go, Diaz is about as reliable as there is. He can be wild at times, 4.4 BB/9, but he makes up for that with his 97 mph fastball and 12 plus K/9. Batters hit .183 against Diaz in 2017. Pencil him in for 35 saves and a lot of K’s. He is in no danger of losing this gig, and is being drafted at 103, or midway through the 9th round of a 12 team snake draft. I could wait until then for my first closer, even in a 5 X 5.
17. Raisel Iglesias, RP, CIN: Iglesias is in a similar situation as Diaz. He is the young but unquestionable closer on a smaller market team. This can add up to a lot of save opportunities depending on how the offense performs. He backs it all up with similarly high K-Rates, a great ERA backed by an equally great FIP (2.63) and a low BA against (.201). Where he differs from Diaz is that he walks far fewer batters ( .75 less BB/9) and gives up far fewer HR (.75 less HR/9) while maintaining an elite 1.6 GB/FB rate. While Diaz is on a better team and has perhaps a little more leash, I’d give Iglesias the edge in skill set at around the same ADP.
18. Brad Brach, RP, BAL: When Brad Brach was the O’s set-up man he was one of the best in the business. I ranked him very high last season as one of the top CLEWS out there. Not because I thought Zach Britton would lose his job, I didn’t, but because I thought Brach was that good. Like CLEW clockwork, Brach ended up as the O’s closer for a huge chunk of the 2017 season. He did ok, but his numbers showed a drop from his pre-closer performance, and he blew 6 of 24 save chances. I’m going to be optimistic and predict he goes back to himself regardless of what role the O’s ask him to fill. He’ll likely start the season as the closer and would have to pitch poorly early on to lose that gig. There are arms in the O’s pen who could potentially close like Darren O’Day and Mychal Givens. The big test will come when Zach Britton is ready to pitch again. There is no guarantee Britton reclaims his role, no more than there is that Brach will retain it, but I still think Brach is the more dominant pitcher than Britton. His current ADP is 224, or in the 19th round of a standard 12 team roto. That makes him a low end closer, but I’m drafting him either way. I’d almost rather own him as a high end set-up man. His wife Janae Cherry has been an NFL Cheerleader making this the start of an ALL-Star family.
19. Sean Doolittle, RP, WAS: I don’t have to tell you that Sean Doolittle is an injury risk any more than I have to tell you that when he is on the mound he is one of more dominant closers in the sport. His current ADP (Mid 12th round) shows that people are still counting on him to be their number two closer, though he has the ability to be a number one. If I draft him I will likely want to roster Ryan Madson in the late rounds as a handcuff CLEW, because, yes, Doolittle tends not to pitch complete seasons. As for his skill set, we are talking about a pitcher with an 11/1.75 K/BB per nine innings. In 2017, Doolittle posted a .897 WHIP and his 2.81 ERA was more than supported by a 2.53 FIP. Closers Close and Doolittle is no-doubt a closer. We just have to keep him on the mound. To be honest though, knowing my own ability to mine saves during the season, I think the 12th round is too rich for my risk tolerance, especially if I don’t have a closer by then. I could easily be wrong there though.
20. Hector Neris, RP, PH: Neris is being drafted as a 14th rounder, or 3rd tier closer on a rising force in the NL East. He has no competition for his job although the presence of Pat Neshek should make Phills fans feel a bit more easy that they will be ok if something goes wrong. As expected, Neris grabbed the closer role in 2017 making all of those people who rostered him as a CLEW starting in 2016 look smart. It is hard now to even remember the name of the closer he replaced on the Phills. He saved 26 of his 29 chances with an 11.5 K/9 and elite 1.3 GB/FB rate producing a 1.13 WHIP. His 3.52 FIP is a bit high, as are a BB/9 over 3.0 and those are areas Neris needs to improve to be an elite closer. I think he will.
21. Jeurys Familia, RP, NYM: I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about Jeurys Familia. He is a pitcher with a great skill set and was on the verge of becoming a top five closer in the MLB before his disastrous 2017 season. Between his suspension for domestic abuse and his subsequent injury, Familia lost his role, first to Addison Reed and then to A.J. Ramos who came in a trade from Florida mid-season. Familia should claim his role once again out of Spring Training as he is the most talented, experienced, and dominant pitcher in the Mets’ pen. Is there risk? Of course there is, as with any closer, and he still has Ramos and Anthony Swarzak in the wings if he can’t regain the magic. While it may be politically correct to boycott Familia for his domestic crimes, this is fantasy baseball, and someone will get his 35-40 saves and other dominant stats. I don’t judge my fake players. With an ADP in the 15th round I smell a huge bargain right here. Closers Close and Familia is a closer.
22. Blake Trienen, RP, OAK: Some facts to start: Trienen is a good pitcher. Trienen did blow the gig he was groomed for in Washington, and was traded out of town to start over somewhere else and in another league. Trienen did pitch much better in Oakland and is the closer to start the Spring. He has virtually no competition for the role and is being drafted in the 18th round long after most closers are already rostered. Why would I rank him this high then? Because I think he is that good. I own him in my contracts keeper league and was very close to dropping or trading him in 2017, but I held tight, like i did with Brad Hand. Now with those two and Giles I’ll enter a season in that league with three closers for the first time in six years. He comes with risk of course as a failed closer once before, but his skill set is too good to continue to fail, and I’d be happy to own him even if he was a set-up man. What is most concerning is that he only posted an 8.8 K/9 (vs 3.0 BB/9) in 2017, and that was not too much different than what he has done to date thus far in his career. So, he is not going to pad your stats, but with his 1.67 GB/FB rate and improving walk rate, he is a pretty safe pitcher to keep your ratios intact. Because I don’t necessarily trust his psyche should he lose another closer gig, I am drafting him as a closer since I don’t know if he can excel now as a CLEW again. I like his ADP where it is, and think it is great value at that level. His wife liked him in grey, I hope she likes him better in green.
23. Mark Melancon, RP, SF: Don’t forget me! Don’t worry, no one will, but if he continues being drafted in the 16th round he is a bargain, albeit a risky one. But, like I keep saying, Closers Close, and Melancon was one of the best for a few years before injury derailed his 2017. If Sam Dyson is Melancon’s biggest threat, he’d have to fail big time to lose his gig. I had Melancon in my top 10 relievers the past two pre-seasons, not just because he was a closer but because he contributed across the board like few other relievers, so it feels weird to rank him this low. I’m hoping that leads to a profit on draft day for me.
So, I admit I’ve been talking a lot about closers even though I preach skills over saves. I’ve now covered most of the bona-fide closers who will start the season as closer for most teams. There are more pitchers penciled in as their respective team’s closer, but often more by default than proven results. For that reason I will fill the next several spots with high skill set pitchers who do not own the closer role on their teams. In a Progressive scoring scheme, these are your holds and IRS guys, and guys that will also contribute to your overall pitching scores in K’s and ratios. In a standard 5 X 5, these are all going to be must own CLEWS in 2018.
24. Addison Reed, RP, MIN: Reed did it all in 2017, and this is important to me as I like playing in leagues that lessen the value of the save in the scoring by also assigning value to holds and inherited runners stranded. Every year I try to target relievers who have a good chance of contributing in all three, especially among my final few picks in the draft. They come cheap, never paying more than a buck or a 20 plus round pick for them, but they can add a lot of value over the course of a season compared to a backup 2nd baseman who may sit on my bench whenever he is not going 0 for 4 in my lineup. Reed started the season on the Mets and ascended to the closer role when Jeurys Familia, whom I also owned in many leagues, was suspended. Reed nailed down 19 saves while blowing 2, but also added 15 holds and 20 IRS. His 9.0 k/9 and 1.8 BB/9 rates didn’t hurt me and neither did his 2.84 ERA and 1.093 WHIP. When entering mid-inning, he had a 61% strand rate, which while not elite, did add to my IRS totals. His bugaboo is the HR, another reason it is good he does not put a lot of ducks on the pond. His 4.7% HR rate and 18.5% HR/FB rates are well below average which may be why the stat geeks and closer hoarders don’t like him too much. However, while he may not be elite, Reed has closed before, and there is a good chance he closes again in 2018, as Fernando Rodney is not exactly the most reliable option either, and someday the wheels have to fall off, don’t they? OK, maybe not, but Reed has accumulated 125 saves already in his brief career serving as the ChiSox and D’backs closer for three years in his early 20’s before racking up nearly another 20 for the Mets in 2017. If he is still there in the late rounds he’ll be on all my teams.
25. Chad Green, RP, NYY: This is one of my sleeper picks for seriously meaningful fantasy contributions for 2018. With all the talent in the Yankees bionic bullpen, after Chapman, Green may be the best pitcher among them. He is currently being drafted in the 22nd round, but with no definable role in the Yanks pen, that he is being drafted at all is testament to the expectations heaped on him for 2018. In 69 innings pitched in 2017, Green gave up 34 hits and 17 walks. Digest that for a minute before I tell you that is a .739 WHIP. With an 11.3 K/9 and a 2.22 BB/9 his 6.06 K/BB is remarkable for a power pitcher, and yes he was the 4th member of the Yank’s bullpen 100 K club with 103 Ks. He not only limits base runners, but he only gives up .52 HR/9 and 7.69 HR/FB and a .117 BAA. They are not only having trouble hitting him hard, but they are not even hitting him, and he is not walking them. His .183 ERA with it’s accompanying 1.68 FIP rounds out the incredible numbers Green put up in 2017. But he is not the closer or the chief set-up man you say? That is OK, as he stranded 27 of the 31 runners he inherited in 2017. Whatever role he has in 2018, he will contribute, especially in a progressive scoring system such as I play in. If you are in a 5 X 5 he may not even be the 3rd CLEW with three guys with closing experience ahead of him, but the cream tends to rise, and even without a potential closing role, Green will help your team if he is in the lineup every day far more than a back-up anything will.
26. Dellin Betances, RP, NYY: I’ll be Back! I’ve had the pleasure of doing the reliever rankings for Major League Fantasy Sports for the past four years now. I’ve bucked the trend of ranking solely closers in the upper ranks of Fantasy relievers and based on our Fantrax Scoring System have ranked Betances as the 5th best reliever in all of baseball four years running. Well, in those first three seasons, Betances finished in that top five, including closers, even coming in first place in our leagues one of those seasons and second the other. But, in 2017 he failed me and all his owners. He simply forgot how to throw strikes. Some thought it was his arbitration loss and the lousy way he was treated by Yankee Brass at the time, but he pitched well enough in the first half of the season before falling apart in the second half. He didn’t lose velocity at all, he just lost the strike zone. I’m hoping he just suffered some burnout and after an off-season of rest, he’ll be fine come Spring. That happens with relievers who are used a lot and maybe even over-used. They’ll have two or three good seasons followed by a bad one, then go back to what they were again the following season. Call me crazy, but I’ll be drafting Betances as an elite set-up man and potential CLEW once again. Hopefully I’ll be able to snag him in the later rounds this season.
27. Brandon Morrow, RP, CHC: I remember when Brandon Morrow was supposed to be the next great starting pitcher. I took a spec pick on him a few times only to have to drop him shortly after the draft when he disappointed or got hurt. But dominant pitchers like him tend to resurface later on in another role, and Morrow has as a reliever at the age of 33. I’m going to talk about him like he is a CLEW, and set-up man, but the truth is he has a chance to be the Cubs closer if they don’t sign or trade for a more experienced closer. In 2017, Morrow put up a minuscule 1.85 BB/9, something he could never do as a starter. He also gave up zero HR in 2017. ZERO. There is not ratio for that. Part of the reason for that is the 1.50 GB/FB rate that he has developed since becoming a reliever. He also chips in a 10.3 K/9 sporting only a slightly diminished fast ball from when he was a budding starter. His ratios were 2.06 ERA, .916 WHIP and a minuscule FIP of 1.49 that makes his ERA look bad. Morrow’s wife is very happy he has found success. His wife is the one in the pic not picking her nose.
28. Mike Minor, RP, TEX: Minor is another guy who was no more than a mediocre SP after some minor league fanfare. But, again, dominant pitchers don’t forget how to pitch or lose that dominance unless they get hurt or some other reason saps their effectiveness. Minor has the chance to follow in the footsteps of his former teammate Wade Davis and become another SP turned dominant reliever. Minor was actually a pretty good starting pitcher until he missed all of 2015 & 2016 with arm injuries. But in 2013 he won 13 games and struck out over 180 batters leading to big expectations in the following year’s drafts. Now, he has just turned 30 and is coming off a truly dominant season as a set up man for the KC Royals. This season he will be a member of the Texas Rangers pen and with Alex Claudio and Matt Bush as potential closers ahead of him, Minor is a must-own CLEW for 2018. As for 2017, Minor contributed across the board, invaluable in progressive scoring leagues by adding 6 Wins, 6 Saves, 17 Holds and another 20 IRS to your score. That means that every week you could count on at least two important counting stat scores for Minor on top of his K’s and great ratios (2.55 ERA & FIP, and a 1.017 WHIP and .204 BAA) For us stat geeks, Minor held a 2.55 BB/9 and a 6.67 HR/FB rate leading to .58 HR/9 and a 1.1 GB/FB rate. We’ll also take his 88 K’s in 77 Innings coupled with a 4.0 K/BB. Minor must be owned.
29. Anthony Swarzak, RP, NYM: Swarzak, unlike Minor and Morrow has not been around that long as a SP hopeful. Instead he’s a 32 year old journeyman reliever who burst on the scene in 2017 as a viable set-up man and potential CLEW for the NY Mets after they got him from the ChiSox in a trade. Maybe it was a career year for the righty, or maybe he finally figured out a few things and put it all to good use. His 91 K’s and 2.56 BB/9 translated to an elite level 4.14 K/BB, and coupled with his 27 hits led to a 2.33 ERA (2.68 FIP) and 1.034 WHIP. He also keeps the ball in the park, holding hitters to a .7 HR/9 and .211 BAA, partly thanks to a nifty 1.27 GB/FB rate. If you are in leagues that reward Holds and IRS, Swarzak was your man in 2017 as he stranded 31 inherited runners leading to 58 IRS+H good for 5th best in all of the MLB in 2017. He may be 3rd in line on the Mets for saves but either way he needs to be rostered in all leagues. Currently he is not being drafted in the majority of leagues. I’ll change that. Last season really boosted Swarzak’s daughter’s Instagram account, which was off to a good start on it’s own.
30. Ryan Madson, RP, WAS: Madson has been Sean Doolittle’s handcuff for a few seasons now, and that can be valuable considering how much time Doolittle has missed over the last few seasons. Now 37, Madson has been a quality reliever in the MLB for 12 years now, and saved 30 plus games twice in his career, most recently 2016 when Doolittle missed most of the season. In 2017, Madson saved two games but statistically had one of his best season of his career. He chipped in 5 Wins, 25 Holds and an 85% success rate at stranding inherited runners. He was remarkable when it came to limiting his own base runners as well, giving up 38 hits and only 9 walks in 59 innings pitched. That led to a miniscule 1.37 BB/9, and coupled with his 10.22 K/9 we had an elite 7.44 K/BB ratio. His 1.83 ERA (1.92 FIP) and .797 WHIP helped your ratios as well. This was not smoke and mirrors either. He posted a 2.88 GB/FB rate which led to an elite .31 HR/9, 7.69 HR/FB rate and a .187 BAA. If he strikes out a third of the batters he faces and gets 75% of the rest of them to hit a grounder, there are never going to be a lot of ducks on the pond.
Thanks for reading and I hope at the very least I reminded you of a CLEW or two that you forgot to add to your draft cheat sheet. Remember, next week I’ll round out the probable 2018 closers and then dedicate the rest of the article to your IRS & H leaders from 2017 and the list of RP’s you should have in front of you during the last few rounds of your draft. Save a few bucks for these guys in the lightening round of the auctions as well since no one can outbid you anyway. Remember. You really don’t need a backup 2nd baseman. You don’t, I mean it.
Major League Fantasy Baseball Radio Show: Join host Brian Roach, Jr, and John Gozzi live on Sunday February 25th, 2018 from [7:30]-9pm EST for episode #101 of Major League Fantasy Baseball Radio. We are a live broadcast that will take callers at 323-870-4395. Press 1 to speak with the host. This is our kick off show for the new 2018 fantasy baseball season. We will discuss the latest information in the world of fantasy baseball.
Our guest this week is Professor Mark Rush. By day Mark is the well respected Law & Political Professor of Washington & Lee University and by night is the Chief Editor as well as a writer with majorleaguefantasysports.com. His articles are published every Monday morning and his primary focus is starting pitching.
The link above is to listen on our blog talk radio website. You can listen to the show directly on the homepage of majorleaguefantasysports.com without the annoying popups and obnoxious ads that are on the blog talk website. It will be playing automatically during the show time.