Here in New England the ground is still frozen. Ball fields in school yards are still snow and puddles with no green grass to be found. We still have to scrape the ice off our car windows in the morning while the car warms up and, once in a while, shovel a bit of snow. But, in Florida and Arizona, major leaguers are getting ready for the season. You should be too, as I am. One of the areas I like to be ready for before draft day is relievers.
So, while Bryce Harper, Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel are all still free agents, Manny Machado has signed with the lowly San Diego Padres. $300 Million for 10 years. So much for collusion.
It won’t be long before I get to do my favorite thing and that is pick weekly spot starters for fantasy baseball. In the meantime, I am charged with ranking relief pitchers for fantasy purposes and I do it a bit differently than your average “closer” ranking. I play in leagues where all relievers can be relevant, so my criterion for ranking is not just saves and save opportunities. This week will be my first 15 and over the next two weeks will be the rest.
You will see several relievers mixed in my top-20 or so who are not closers, but setup men supreme. Guys who pile up K’s, holds, IRS (Inherited Runners Stranded) and won’t hurt your ratios. They are also often next in line to be closers if something should happen to the incumbent and often are the best pitcher in the pen. These Closers En Waiting, or CLEWS, are just as important to own in fantasy as the closers themselves, especially in leagues like mine that value non closers as as well as closers themselves. If you haven’t already, consider adding another category for holds or better yet Holds + IRS. This not only makes the SAVE less important to the overall scoring, but also makes middle relievers and specialists relevant as well. Bottom line, though, what better way to not pay for saves than to already own the next closer for team X. You can laugh when your friends run to the wire only to see you already own him.
This Week’s Trivia Question: Can you name the eight relievers in the MLB who had at least 25 saves in each of the last two seasons.? (2017 & 2018). That is right, only eight. Answer Below. (Hint: All but two are in this article.)
1. Craig Kimbrel, CL, FA, 30: One of my theories is that a player is No. 1 at his position until he is not. Some relievers have more K’s per 9 innings, lower ratios, more saves, etc. However, no reliever has done it as long or consistently as Craig Kimbrel. If you have it in you to draft Kimbrel as high as you’d have to draft him, or invest in him at auction, you can pencil him in for 35-45 saves and good if not great contributions in other categories, then ignore him on your roster. If we were to nit pick him about anything it is that he does give up more than his share of walks, but he keeps them from crossing the plate and that is all that really matters. His lifetime numbers, in nine MLB seasons, of 1.91 ERA, nearly matching 1.96 FIP. .920 WHIP, .6 HR/9 and 14.7 K9 are pretty impressive and the fact he is only 30 gives hope that he could be doing this another nine years. The question is where he will be doing it. My bet is when the dust settles he ends up back in a Red Sox uniform, though other teams, like his original team the Braves, have kicked the tires as well. He is likely the best free agent left on the market at this point.
2. Kenley Jansen, CL, LAD, 31: Jansen has been jockeying with Kimbrel and Chapman for the top spot in the reliever rankings for a few years. While he might even have better stuff than Kimbrel, I can’t fault anyone for taking Jansen first in a draft among relievers. He has between 35-47 saves for each of the past six seasons and until 2018 had never had a K/9 below 13.0. He missed some time in 2018 with an irregular heartbeat and had a rather mortal 10.3 K/9 and 3.01 ERA. As long as he is healthy, no one else will be saving games for LA in 2019. For those who need stability from their closers, Jansen provides exactly that, though you’ll have to be ready to draft him in a very early round.
3. Edwin Diaz, CL, NYM, 25: At 25 years old, Diaz is on his way to being the best reliever in baseball, as he was in 2018. His 57 saves topped all of MLB, and he posted a top-5 showing in ERA (1.90), FIP (1.60), WHIP (.79), K’s (124), K/9 (15.2), & K/BB (7.3). His K/BB was a ridiculous 124/17 as he cut his 2017 walks total in half and added 40 K’s in seven more innings pitched. He had an 18.9% swinging strike rate which was 2nd in the MLB and 124 strikeouts, both of which were 2nd to Milwaukee’s Josh Hader. Getting traded to the Mets as part of the Robinson Cano trade should not dampen his save chances as mediocre teams actually generate more save chances than very good or very bad ones. The Mets are about as mediocre as the Mariners and that is not likely to change in 2019.
4. Aroldis Chapman, CL, NYY, 31: Chapman did not strike out more than 100 batters in 2018. He also did not save more than 35 games. What is more surprising, and scary, is that he has not accomplished either of those feats in three years — four years for strikeouts. He is still one of the most feared relievers in baseball and even had his 2nd best K/9 in 2018, 16.3, which led all of baseball. But if your goal is to accumulate saves and K’s and not just roster one of the best relievers in baseball, you may be in for a disappointment. I still think at 31 he is one of the best relievers in baseball, but in a game that counts stats to score itself, he falls a bit short of the top. That is why I moved him down to 4th this season. In his defense, he did lose some time to injuries and a domestic suspension over the past few years, dwarfing his stats. Hopefully, in 2019, he remains able to take the mound for the whole season. The Yanks have quite an assemblage of former closers and quality pitchers to step in if he can’t. Let someone else take Chapman before the 10th round. I won’t.
5. Josh Hader, CLEW, MIL 25: I’ve been ranking relievers for several years at Major League Fantasy Sports. Each year there is at least one reliever who cracks my top five relievers in baseball who is NOT a closer. For several years, it was Dellin Betances, who at 31 still has not gotten his shot at the role. This season, I am seriously impressed with Josh Hader. He has closer stuff and I doubt he will have to wait too much longer to claim the gig. The problem is that he is blocked by Corey Knebel, a pitcher with a similar skill set and more experience in the role. That will change at some point, but for now it is what it is. As I mentioned in my intro, I play in leagues where a middle reliever can have as much value as a closer if he is that good. Hader is that good. He led all relievers in baseball with 143 K’s, and an 18.9% swinging strike rate, and also took a top-5 spot in WHIP, K/9, and FIP. In 2018, he also chipped in 12 saves when Knebel was injured, proving that he already has what it takes to close games at the age of 25. He also contributed in the holds category with 22 and chipped in almost 20 IRS, both numbers that would have been higher had he not spent two months closing. In leagues that value middle relievers, I’d take Hader over most of the leagues projected closers. He will return more than enough value.
6. Blake Treinen, CL, OAK 31: It would be easy to think that Treinen came out of nowhere to suddenly become one of the best relievers in baseball. I had been watching him for years though, even prematurely drafting him in 2017, thinking he was ready to take the closer’s role in Washington. He had been exclusively a starting pitcher in the minors, even starting seven games for the Nats in 2014 after being called up. In 2017, he was traded to Oakland in the deal that brought the more experienced Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson to Washington. The Nats got the better of that deal in my opinion. In the 2nd half of 2017, he saved 13 games with great peripherals and strikeouts. In 2018, I invested heavily and it paid off. Not only did Treinen save 38 games, but he led MLB relievers with a 0.78 ERA, logged a 100/21 K/BB and hitters were 17-for-71 with runners in scoring position. I was even able to include him in a trade that brought me Aaron Judge in a long-term keeper league. I doubt I’ll own him in 2019, as he will likely be drafted right after the top 4 or 5 closers in most drafts, and that will still be too early for me. I will spend the next several weeks figuring out which future Treinens I will target in 2019 drafts because that is what I do.
7. Roberto Osuna, CL, HOU, 24: The Astros were opportunists when Toronto decided to cut bait with Osuna after a suspension for domestic assault in 2018 and traded for him before the suspension was even over. Osuna logged a 2.37 ERA and saved 21 games during the Astros quest for another playoff berth in the 2nd half of 2018. What has Osuna been doing the past four years? He came up as a 20 year old in 2015 and saved 125 games for the Blue Jays over the past four seasons. 2017 has been his best season so far with 39 saves and a career high 11.7 K/9. Unless something catastrophic happens, Osuna should be the ‘Stros closer for all of 2019. Draft with confidence.
8. Dellin Betances, CLEW, NYY, 31: Back to the well. I can’t get enough of Dellin Betances. Maybe he does not have the closer mentality – at least not in NY. Maybe he is prone to a mental lapse for a month now and then, but otherwise this guy is a big time fantasy asset. I don’t know where the time went, but suddenly Betances is 31 (in March). No longer a young up and comer, he is what he is. 2018 was his 5th year in a row of 100+ K’s. Strikeouts are of course one of the few things we use to judge relievers in fantasy, and owning as many guys from the 100 K club as possible is imperative. He also sports a lifetime 2.36 ERA backed up by an impressive 2.32 FIP and a 1.045 WHIP. Some seasons he even gathers a dozen or so saves, but that is not what you are counting on when you draft Dellin.
9. Felipe Vazquez, CL, PIT, 27: Washington seems to have bad luck when it comes to trading for closers. Before trading Treinen for Doolittle in 2017, they traded Vazquez to the Pirates for Mark Melancon in 2016. I do realize hindsight is 20/20, but all Vazquez has done since the trade is pitch to a K/9 of nearly 12.0, low ERA’s and WHIP’s and saved 55 games for the Pirates. His average fastball velocity is over 98 mph and he does not give up a lot of walks (24 in 70 IP in 2018) nor gives up a lot of HR (4 in 2018). He is only 27 and there is no one else in Pittsburgh posing a threat to his role.
10. Raisel Iglesias, CL, CIN, 29: Another consistent lock down closer. Raisel put up nearly identical ratios and peripherals in 2018 as he did in his breakout 2017 and his pre-closer 2016. including increasing his saves from 28 to 30. He just turned 29 and has a lightning grip on the closer role in Cinci. His 10.0 K/9 may not light up the scoreboard, but it is good enough when coupled with his other numbers to make him one of the first and safest closers off the board. He is one of only 8 MLB relievers to log at least 25 saves the past two seasons. Answer to this week’s trivia question. (Iglesias, Kimbrel, Jansen, Diaz, Ken Giles, Cody Allen, Wade Davis, and the immortal Fernando Rodney)
11. Adam Ottavino, CLEW, NYY, 33: Another member of the 100 K club, Ottavino has had a much tougher road to get to this level of performance than the pitchers I’ve written about so far. He endured years pitching in the mile high air of Colorado, missed a year with TJ surgery and had a propensity for walks most of his career. His MLB career started late, when he was 26, so that is why he is already a surprising 33 years old. He is able to go multiple innings, which should bode well for him in the New York Yankee pen where he will not be relied upon to be the number one or number two guy. I owned him on several teams in 2018 and I grew to love having him on my roster. Just don’t expect saves.
12. Corey Knebel, CL, MIL, 27: The Brewers pen is interesting, boasting three of the games best relievers. It appears that both Knebel and Hader have similar skill sets, one with more experience and the other perhaps with more raw talent. I’d love to own both, but your league mates may not let that happen. Knebel finished 2018 on a good roll and seems poised to open 2019 with the role as well. In 2018 drafts, he had Knebel very high on my draft board. Others did too as I hardly owned him at all in 2018, something in hindsight I was grateful for. He got off to a bad start, battled through injury and then settled back in. Aside from having logged 55 saves over the past two years, he also has 214 strikeouts in 131.1 innings. No that is not a miss print, that is about a 14.5 K/9. The skills are there, it just depends on what the Brewers plan is. I would not rule out a mid-season trade for a much needed SP either. Otherwise, draft with confidence. He may fall pretty far.
13. Brad Hand, CL, CLE, 29: This guy is one of my favorite relievers and I owned him before any of you, lol. No, I realize that is not true either, but I know this is the 3rd year in a row I have him ranked high in my pre-season rankings. The Padres got him off waivers from the Marlins before the 2016 season and it seemed the light went on. Not only did he double his K rates to over 13 K/9 from about 6.5 K/9 in Miami, but he became the Padres closer in 2017. Halfway through the 2018 season, they shipped him to Cleveland in a deadline deal. The Indians have lost Andrew Miller and Cody Allen now making Hand the easy pick as Indians closer. I loved him as a CLEW too. If you read this far your get a special treat. Numbers 13-15 here are pictured with their wives, in various stages of parties.
14. Wade Davis, CL, COL, 33: Woo-Hoo, the scary Colorado air. Davis saved a career high 43 games in 2018. He had to battle a little more than he did in his magical 2014/15 seasons when he had sub 1.00 ERA’s for the Royals, but not even Mariano Rivera could sustain those numbers. He still maintains K/9’s above 10.0 and doesn’t put a lot of ducks on the pond. What he does do is accumulate saves and I don’t see any let down there anytime soon. In a pure 5 X 5, he should be one of the first 8-10 closers off the board. In more progressive scoring, he may fall further, but is till well worth owning.
15. David Robertson, CLEW, PHI, 34: This may seem like a high ranking for Robbie, and maybe, just maybe it is reliant on him claiming the closer role in Philly. I don’t think that will be a problem. But aside from that, one of the things we fantasy owners look for on draft day is stability. Yes, we have to take risk on some upside plays, but for the most part we want a core of guys we know we can rely on day in and day out. That is Robbie. He has a 12.0 K/9 for his career, never once dipping below 10.0 in a season. He has closer experience and has also setup greats like Mo Rivera and Aroldis Chapman. Aside from that, at age 33 he established a seven-year high in average fastball velocity at 92.3, which coupled with his electric off speed pitches makes him nearly unhittable. I think he’ll close for the Phillies for a long time.
Next week, we’ll tackle the next 15-20 relievers when it starts getting tougher. Until then, thanks for reading and as always I’ll be on Reddit all day Sunday talking relievers and all things fantasy. If you want to reach me directly here are my email and Twitter digits:
email@example.com @joeiannone2 Twitter
Major League Fantasy Baseball Radio Show: Join Corey D Roberts, and Kyle Amore on Thursday February 21st, 2019 from 8pm – 9:45pm EST for the Major League Fantasy Baseball Radio Show. Call in number is 323-870-4395. Press 1 to speak with the host. You can listen live on blogtalk, majorleaguefantasysports.com, or download the podcast on I-Tunes or any Android podcast app. Our topic for tonight will be the A.L. West.
Be sure to check out our Sunday night show February 24th from 8pm to 9:45pm EST. They will cover the N.L. West.
Major League Fantasy Baseball Radio Show: Join host Cole Freel live on Sunday February 24th, 2019 from 8-9:45pm EST for episode #140 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. You can listen live on blogtalk, majorleaguefantasysports.com, or download the podcast on I-Tunes or any Android podcast app. This week we will break down the N.L. West.
Our guests this week is are Kyle Klinker, and Bilal Chaudry. Both Kyle and Bilal are veteran owners in Major League Fantasy Baseball leagues and have won several titles between the two of them.