For the earlier articles in this series, click below:
The Big Question: How many closers do you need to remain competitive in saves?
15-team Mixed: 2
12-team Mixed: 2-3
15-team AL/NL-Only: 1-2
12-team AL/NL-Only: 2
The Big Question Part II: When does it make sense to punt saves?
Closers are a necessary evil in fantasy baseball. They’re the riskiest possible investment on draft day. Investing in a high-priced closer is like getting on a party bus with Rob Gronkowski. There are a million ways it could go, and it’s definitely going to get crazy. Still, I would never advocate fantasy owners in standard mixed leagues enter a draft (or auction) with an explicit mandate to “punt saves.” It’s barely mathematically acceptable to punt a football game these days, never mind throwing away an entire fantasy category.
This is especially relevant to consider in mixed leagues. Because of the extreme turnover rate at the position, there will always be saves available on the waiver wire mid-season, making it nearly impossible to punt the category entirely. A few of the notable names that emerged out of free agency (as a result of either injury or ineffectiveness) to save 15-plus games last season included: Sam Dyson, Alex Colome, Jeanmar Gomez, Ryan Madson, Jeremy Jeffress, Fernando Rodney, Jim Johnson, Seung-Hwan Oh, Edwin Diaz, Tony Cingrani, Brandon Kintzler and Tony Watson.
There is an undisputed elite tier comprised of Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman, and Zach Britton. My colleague Mike Gianella’s preliminary 2017 bid limits have them valued at $22, $21 and $20, respectively, in standard mixed leagues. The benefits of securing a member of that trio include: the luxury of avoiding closers with elevated risk factors in the lower tiers altogether, and being able to speculate on one or two “high-risk, high-reward” potential closers (or at the very least relief aces) in the later stages of an auction, like Shawn Kelley, Kyle Barraclough, Addison Reed, Cam Bedrosian, or Hector Neris.
Regardless of format, targeting an established, upper-echelon closer is an ideal strategic approach that not only minimizes as much risk as possible (relative to the rest of the options at the position), but also enables fantasy owners to avoid wasting valuable auction dollars (and roster spots) on lower tier options. Overpaying for an elite closer is a mistake, but if one is available at the appropriate price, don’t hesitate to grab them.
Punting saves can be an effective in-draft strategy in mono leagues (AL/NL-Only) simply because the pool of reliable closers dries up even faster and it’s more likely that other owners will overspend on the elite options. For example, let’s take a look at an AL-only league. If I failed to land Britton or Chapman at my desired price (ideally $21-to-$23), I wouldn’t have any interest in chasing the likes of much riskier stoppers like Sam Dyson or Francisco Rodriguez into the mid-teens, just to ensure that I have a closer. I would much rather re-invest that money into another hitter or beef up my starting rotation. If you are confident that everyone else is “overspending” on closers, there is legitimate value to be extracted elsewhere.
Punting saves during the middle of a draft is an extreme strategic shift, which should only be employed during extraordinary circumstances. Personally, I would try to avoid it, but sometimes it’s the right move in deeper formats.
Mixed League Strategy
Since we’ve already covered an overall strategic approach, let’s delve into the actual landscape at the position in greater detail. Outside of Jansen, Chapman and Britton, there are several appealing options. They carry a bit more risk, but they could pan out. If you want to include Mark Melancon and Roberto Osuna in the mix with the #BigThree, or just a notch below, I completely understand. Given the control issues (5.1 BB/9) that cropped up for Craig Kimbrel in his Boston debut, I would hesitate to pay the full freight for him this spring. While there’s a plausible argument to be made in favor of Wade Davis being in that group too, given his track record and the offseason trade to a loaded Cubs team. However, after missing significant time last season with a forearm strain, it’s difficult to be optimistic long-term.
The next tier is the real sweet spot of up-and-coming talent. Kelvin Herrera, Seung-Hwan Oh, Cody Allen, Ken Giles and Edwin Diaz are all enticing propositions. However, they aren’t going to be available for anything resembling a discounted price tag on draft day. You have to pay up if you miss out on one of the #BigThree and still want a quality closer.
The lower tiers comprised of veterans like Jeurys Familia, Alex Colome, Tony Watson, A.J. Ramos, Ryan Madson, Francisco Rodriguez, and Sam Dyson are exactly the type of investments that I would advocate staying away from. I would much rather roll the dice on some of the names I listed earlier (especially Shawn Kelley or Addison Reed) at a lower cost, than sink auction capital and roster space into a closer with minimal upside. There are several situations like Philadelphia, Arizona, San Diego and Colorado that might be worth avoiding altogether this season. Finally, the value of true “relief aces” like Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances is strictly format-dependent since they are unlikely to record more than a handful of saves. Adjust accordingly.
An insane turnover rate due to injuries and ineffectiveness saps the long-term value of every relief pitcher. Unless you’re name is Mariano Rivera. That’s the lone exception. It also hasn’t helped that the vast majority of major-league front offices are reluctant to allow their most talented young relievers to rack up prodigious save totals before they become expensive in arbitration. Betances and Neris are the most obvious recent examples of this phenomenon, yet far more egregious cases like Allen and Giles precede them within the last decade.
The Dark Horse Candidate: Kyle Barraclough, Marlins
If you’re looking for a true “sleeper” saves candidate then #BearClaw fits the bill. I would’ve covered Shawn Kelley in this space, but I wrote him up earlier this week for our staff targets piece. We’ve been touting the former collegiate starter from St. Mary’s on the Flags Fly Forever podcast for nearly two years because of his insane slider and prodigious strikeout rate. On the heels of a dominant campaign in which he posted a 2.33 DRA (the 11th-best mark in baseball), while striking out 113 batters in 72 2/3 innings, the 27-year-old is primed to challenge for the closers role in Miami.
The subpar control (5.8 BB/9 in 97 career innings) remains the biggest bugaboo in an otherwise spectacular profile. Unless he completely fails to iron out those issues long-term, there’s a realistic possibility that he overtakes incumbent A.J. Ramos at some point in the near future. Even if he remains in a setup role, he’s an outstanding source of strikeouts in deeper mixed leagues. If he starts throwing more strikes, the upside gets scary. The time to invest is right now.
The Dark Horse Candidate Part II: Brad Hand, Padres
The 27-year-old southpaw led the major leagues in appearances (82) and relief innings (89 1/3) while recording a 3.57 DRA (2.92 ERA) and 111 strikeouts (11.2 K/9). As much as I would like to anoint Carter Capps the logical favorite to vault into the role for San Diego, his unconventional hop-step delivery was literally banned by the league this offseason, and he’s only a year removed from Tommy John surgery.
Let’s be honest, we could put almost anyone in this space and it would make sense. Last year, I was convinced that Liam Hendriks was going to get a chance to save games in Oakland. With that caveat noted, let me just say that I’m not convinced Brandon Maurer (and his pedestrian strikeout rate) holds onto the job all season in San Diego. Keeping someone like Hand on your radar could pay dividends.
The Final Stat
Only four relievers in major-league history (minimum 50 innings in a single-season) have struck out 14 batters per nine while issuing more than five walks per nine: Byung-Hyun Kim (2000), Carlos Marmol (2010), Craig Kimbrel (2016), and Kyle Barraclough (2016)…