Cody Allen, Cleveland Indians
2016 was the fourth consecutive season that Allen threw at least 68 innings, a stretch during which he’s never struck out fewer than 11.3 batters per nine innings. On top of his regular season excellence, Allen threw 13.2 innings of scoreless ball in the playoffs, striking out 24 of the 55 batters he faced. Andrew Miller’s postseason grabbed most of the headlines because of the creativity with which he was used and the sheer volume of innings he racked up, but Allen’s performance matched the tall lefty’s on a per inning basis. Most importantly for our game, Allen notched six October saves to Miller’s zero, continuing the predominant usage pattern Terry Francona established after Miller’s arrival at the trade deadline. Allen saved 12 games to Miller’s three from August on. You have to take these things with a grain of salt, but Tito affirmatively declared Allen the primary closer recently. Will Miller poach a save here or there? Yeah, sure, but given what saw down the stretch last year, there’s little reason to believe a sea change is coming.
In spite of a 6.97 ERA in 10.1 April innings and Miller’s presence for the last third of the year, Allen was a top 10 reliever in 2016. He’s squarely in his prime, owns a stellar track record, and has the end-game job for a team who projects to win 92 games. That he’s currently the 13th reliever off the board is a farce, the product of early drafters hedging based on a narrative that is not corroborated by the evidence. —Greg Wellemeyer
Kelvin Herrera, Kansas City Royals
In the land of new school reliever usage, the closer with an old school manager is king. Since 2013, the Royals have ranked in the top five for team saves in three of the last four seasons. It’s been well documented that Ned Yost loves well-defined bullpen roles, and this year, that means Kelvin Herrera in the ninth.
The 27-year-old Herrera has been one of baseball’s best relievers since his full-time debut in 2012, making at least 70 appearances in four of the last five seasons. In his “audition” for the closer role in last season, he basically scrapped his sinker, and relied more on the curveball to accentuate his 98 mph heater. The result was a career-high 30.4 percent strikeout rate in 72 innings of work. In addition to the tantalizing strikeout numbers, Herrera cut down on the walks, issuing a career low 12 free passes, neatly equaling his save total. He has also shown a knack for limiting contact, as last season his 68.2 percent contact rate was nearly 10 percentage points better than league average. If you’re looking for a great WHIP, limiting contact and walks is a wonderful place to start.
Now that Wade Davis is a Cub, Herrera will get every opportunity to take the torch as the next, great Royals closer. Sure, he’s not a Proven Closer (™) just yet, so if he scuffles, it’s possible Yost could get an itchy trigger finger and turn the ball over to Joakim Soria (which would probably be a mistake, by the way). I wouldn’t expect that to happen, but even if it does, Herrera should provide great rates and strikeout numbers while racking up holds. He’s good and valuable in any role. —Mark Barry
Shawn Kelley, Washington Nationals
While I’m delighted that my esteemed colleague Ben Carsley is touting #BearClaw in this space, I’m unable to tout the virtues of my favorite sleeper candidate. Instead, I’ve elected to highlight a potential closer that is being criminally underrated this spring. Did you know, that over the last four seasons, Kelley’s 11.8 strikeouts-per-nine ranks eighth out of 84 relievers with at least 200 innings? The 32-year-old right-hander is coming off a stellar campaign in Washington, highlighted by a sparkling 2.86 DRA (2.64 ERA), a career-high 80 strikeouts (12.4 K/9), and just 11 walks (1.7 BB/9) over 58 innings.
The reluctance of manager Dusty Baker to formally name Kelley his closer, insisting that Blake Treinen and Koda Glover are also in the mix, has driven down his average draft position this spring. Currently being selected as the 24th reliever off the board in the 15th round (222nd overall), the combination of an elite strikeout rate and command is too good to pass up. It’s mystifying that Kelley isn’t garnering more interest from fantasy owners this spring. Statistically speaking, he’s one of the best relievers in baseball, even if the Nationals don’t seem to think so. —George Bissell
Addison Reed, New York Mets
Jeurys Familia will likely be suspended for the first month of the season, giving Reed the closer role to start off. Reed made some tweaks with his delivery in 2015, and along with large improvements with his slider after joining the Mets, has since emerged as a top reliever. Reed’s 1.97 ERA and 1.97 FIP were both in the top 10 among all relievers last season. His 30% strikeout rate was also well above average for a reliever. It looks like Reed will have the closer gig for at least a month, and there’s always the outside chance that he runs away with the job. Reed has a good chance to be an excellent source of run prevention, strikeouts, and saves for the first four weeks of the season, and he isn’t going to cost a lot in fantasy drafts. —Tim Finnegan
Hector Neris, Philadelphia Phillies
Before 2016, Hector Neris was just another bullpen guy. In Triple-A, he posted a 4.19 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP in 2014 followed by a 3.62 ERA and a 1.67 WHIP in 2015. He also threw 40 1/3 innings across 32 games in the majors in 2015 with a similarly mediocre line: 3.79 ERA, 1.19 WHIP.
In 2016, the Phillies encouraged Neris to throw his splitter, his best pitch, more often. He listened, throwing it 52 percent of the time in 2016 compared to 27 percent of the time in 2015. The change paid immediate dividends, as Neris threw 80.3 innings for the Phillies with a 2.58 ERA, a 1.11 WHIP, 59 hits, 30 walks, and 102 strikeouts.
That last stat put the 27-year-old in rare company: he was one of only eight relievers with at least a hundred strikeouts last year. And, as luck would have it, the incumbent closer in Philadelphia isn’t that good at striking guys out. Neris could unseat Jeanmar Gomez as the closer before the team leaves Clearwater given Neris’ superior stuff and Gomez’ struggles at the end of the 2016 season.
Even if the team breaks camp with Gomez as the closer, Neris is likely to get a shot at saves at some point. If Gomez does well, he’ll probably be traded midseason, opening a spot for Neris. If Gomez struggles, Neris is one of the frontrunners to supplant him. But if the Dominican righty ends the season with zero saves, he’s still a safe bet to provide plenty of value from his strikeouts and his rate stats regardless of his role. —Scooter Hotz