For the earlier articles in this series, click below:
- State of the Catcher
- State of First Base
- State of Second Base
- State of Third Base
- State of Shortstop
- State of the Outfield
- State of the Starting Pitcher
I want to die.
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) September 2, 2012
For three-and-a-half years it has been a mystery why Piers Morgan tweeted those four fateful words1, but it would surprise no one if it turned out that Morgan was talking about relief pitchers. Saves are so terribly, incredibly bad. Whoever invented the save category in fantasy baseball should be forced to watch every episode of Two Broke Girls without a bathroom break. A noble attempt to make sure that relievers were properly valued has, in fact, done the exact opposite. Closers are valued far too much in fantasy relative to what they are worth in real life.
This is a fantasy article, however, so wasting my time and yours with a 2,000-word diatribe against the evils of the save might leave you nodding your head in agreement but it won’t help you win your fantasy leagues. So buckle up, kiddos, as we take a look at relief pitchers.
The League Breakout
The quantity of rebuilding teams in the National League has had an impact in fantasy across the board, but nowhere has the impact been felt more than at closer. Aroldis Chapman, Ken Giles, and Craig Kimbrel were traded to the AL and a number of other teams are simply going with internal options who are unproven and—more importantly—don’t have the skills that speak to an elite reliever. As a result, you will want to make sure to spend a little extra if you want saves. Kenley Jansen, Jeurys Familia, Trevor Rosenthal, and Mark Melancon are the elite options this year, with Jansen’s strikeout potential and consistency putting him a cut above the rest.
Jansen was the seventh best reliever in the NL last year, but didn’t pitch until May 15 due to a foot injury. I don’t recommend paying big bucks for a closer, but if you do want to spend heavily for one, he’s your guy.
The mid-tier options in the NL don’t seem particularly appealing, but Santiago Casilla, Brad Ziegler, and Jacob McGee have more job security than the passel of arms at the bottom of the heap. The Phillies, Reds, and Brewers all have completely unsettled job situations while the Braves, Padres, and Marlins either have a weak option at the front of the line or an open competition shaping up for the job. This instability could make it imperative to grab a closer early before a big rush shapes up for the last stable name on the board. Gambling at the bottom of the NL closer pool is a high reward/high risk gambit. David Hernandez, J.J. Hoover, and Will Smith could all finish the season with 30 or more saves, but paying the full-ticket price for that in March is not the best plan.
The influx of talent to the AL makes spending big on a top closer less important. Nevertheless, if you do decide to spend big, Wade Davis and Kimbrel are the types of closers with whom you can feel comfortable betting at least $20. Chapman’s suspension puts him at the front of a strong second-tier with Zach Britton, Giles, Cody Allen and David Robertson and negates the need to chase any specific stopper.
Another nice thing about the AL at the moment is that nearly every job situation is settled. Toronto is possibly the lone team with a job battle in camp, with Drew Storen and Roberto Osuna potentially in competition. Steve Cishek is arguably the shakiest AL-only option, but we have all seen weak closers who were expected to lose their jobs in April finish the season with 30 or more saves.
The Strategy in Mixed Leagues
Despite the mass uncertainty at the bottom of the closer pool the top closers this year are being drafted later than they were in 2015, when Chapman went 39th overall and Kimbrel 50th in NFBC drafts. Davis (62), Jansen (68), and Kimbrel (72) are being drafted a round or two later. In the past, I have avoided reaching for a top reliever, but with the instability at the bottom of the pool—as well as the potential value a stud like Davis can bring back not only in saves but in ERA and WHIP—I like the idea of zigging when others are zagging and locking in a top-five closer.
This advice assumes that your league drafts similarly to LABR Mixed or NFBC. One caveat about reliever advice is that more than any other position your strategy will be dictated a great deal by your league’s behavior. In LABR, Bret Sayre and I passed on Familia in the sixth round and as a result lost out on a second closer. Rather than reach for a weaker option whose fantasy value is mostly provided by saves, we took Andrew Miller in the 18th round. I dislike dumping categories. I hate overpaying for a category even more. Hampering your team so you can take a risky closer in the middle rounds is a bad play.
Some fantasy players like being aggressive and drafting a set-up man behind a weak closer as early as the 15th or 16th round of a 15-team draft. In leagues with liberal player movement and a rich free agent pool, this is a waste of a pick. Giles was an example of a reliever who was taken relatively early last year, with the assumption that Jonathan Papelbon would get traded. Giles was the 23rd best reliever in fantasy baseball last year. Six of the 22 relievers who finished ahead of Giles were drafted behind him, with A.J. Ramos, Shawn Tolleson, and Ziegler taken outside of the Top 500. Skilled relievers are great to have in any format. But they’re a dime a dozen in mixed leagues in the endgame. Don’t overreach for them.
The Long-Term Outlook
Greg Holland’s injury moves Davis up to the top of dynasty league rankings with a bullet. Giles’ trade to the Astros moves him up toward the top of the heap as well, with Chapman, Kimbrel, and Jansen holding most of their value. Allen, Familia, and Britton are the next best reliever options in keeper formats.
I like answering your fantasy baseball questions, except when it comes to questions about reliever prospects. Then I get sad. Then I eat ice cream right out of the bucket. Then I cry myself to sleep. While some relief prospects do make it to the majors and eventually wind up closing, many of your future closers are minor league starting pitchers, or non-prospect relievers who put it all together while toiling their craft in the majors. Dillon Tate and Mark Appel are examples of pitchers who could be closers someday they don’t work out in the rotation. These are also complete guesses.
Carter Capps was the most obvious closer-in-waiting who could sustain long-term value if he gets an opportunity to close, but now his health is in question. Kevin Quackenbush, Tony Cingrani, Luis Garcia, and Corey Knebel could all fit the bill as potential closers this year as well. There are a lot of guys like this in baseball. The long term outlook in relief is always hazy.
A Closing Sonnet
How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.
I hate the way I have to invest such
A large amount of money in such a flighty category.
I hate the way my stomach hurts in the ninth inning
Of a meaningless Phillies/Reds game in mid-September.
I despise having to spend hours scouring the
Waiver wire because the closer I spent $25 on
Got hurt, leaving me wondering if I should
Trade something useful for saves. Saves!
A category that shouldn’t have been invented!
What were you thinking, otherwise sage founders
Of this great game that I love and cherish?
I hate that this category has sucked the joy
Out of otherwise watching great pitchers pitch.2
 #actually, Morgan did state why, but my way is funnier3. You worry about reality; let me worry about the mediocre comedy.
 I don’t know if this is the correct form for a sonnet, but frankly I don’t give a damn.