Relief pitcher. What can you say about it? It's volatile. It's unpredictable. It's almost certain to be a year-long headache. But it's also where the saves are. An entire category is confined to that one position, which means that for all its frustrations, relief pitcher is essential for Fantasy Baseball success. 

That's true even in leagues that have redefined the saves category as saves plus holds. I'm not a fan, really. The scarcity of saves is the most interesting aspect of the position. And sure, there's a possibility saves become too scarce as more teams opt for bullpen committees rather than having defined roles, but on the other hand, if you expand the relief pitcher talent base too much, it becomes as frivolous as the kicker position is to Fantasy Football.

Still, counting holds the same as saves will encourage players to pursue relievers for their ability rather than their role, which might strike some as a refreshing change of pace. Seeing as I mostly stick to leagues that value saves on their own, the role is all that matters to me.

I'm not saying I wouldn't take a Josh Hader or Liam Hendriks type over a bottom-feeder saves source like Rafael Montero. The studs are better, contributing more in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts, and their superior talent gives them better odds of retaining the closer role. But volatility is what most defines this position. Every closer is just a bad week away from losing his job and, with it, virtually all of his Fantasy value. The more the investment, the greater the loss when it happens.

Position Strategy: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | OF | SP   

And it does happen, every year, to more than half the relievers who begin in the closer role. 

Because saves are what matter most at relief pitcher and because a middling closer is as capable of providing them as a high-end one, "don't pay for saves" is an age-old piece of Fantasy Baseball advice that I personally still subscribe to. 

Of course, knowing which pitchers will supply them is becoming more difficult to predict in the lead up to the season. While I don't need the best of the best closers, I do want my relievers to be closers, which might force me to pay a little more than I'd like. Still, my top reliever doesn't need to come from this first group.

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The Studs

2021 ADP2020 ERA2020 WHIP2020 K/9
Liam Hendriks CHW RP
Aroldis Chapman NYY RP
James Karinchak CLE RP

Judging by ADP, it's probably no surprise that the one I'm most likely to draft here is James Karinchak. His K/9 rate was tied for best in baseball with non-closer Devin Williams, so the talent level is certainly there. Maybe not everyone is so convinced he'll be inheriting Brad Hand's role in Cleveland, but to me, there's no doubt.

Trade rumors have surrounded Josh Hader for a couple of years now, but by now, he's so established as a closer that I don't think his role would change even if his team did. Liam Hendriks lived up to his breakthrough 2019 last year and might actually be some people's choice to go No. 1 at the position.

The riskiest from this group is probably Edwin Diaz given that the Mets have had to remove him from the role for parts of the past two seasons. The stuff is still unbelievable, though, and he finished last season on a high note. 

Quality closers

2021 ADP2020 ERA2020 WHIP2020 K/9
Kenley Jansen LAD RP
Kirby Yates TOR RP

I'm tempted to include Brad Hand with The Studs because his track record and 2020 production both support it, but a velocity decline has some folks on edge. At this position especially, you can't possibly play it too safe. It's worth noting, then, that the Kenley Jansen bubble may be even closer to bursting after another harrowing postseason run.

Kirby Yates' ADP seems unfair. His ugly line last year came in just 4 1/3 innings and ended with surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. His stuff appeared intact, and keep in mind we all valued him on the same level as Hader a year ago.

Will Smith isn't technically promised the job for the Braves yet, but he's paid like a closer, was an All-Star closer two years ago and throws from the left side, which actually works to his advantage given the number of lefties in the Braves bullpen. I'll take my chances.

Saves are saves, right?

2021 ADP2020 ERA2020 WHIP2020 K/9
Matt Barnes BOS RP

^2019 stats

We're only 12 pitchers in, and already we're scraping the bottom of the closer barrel. As much as I don't want to pay for saves, I'd consider it a problem if I didn't have even one reliever by this point, at least in a traditional 5x5 league where everyone is inclined to start three relievers or more. In a Head-to-Head points league, where every team starts only two, I could settle for the bottom of the barrel, trusting that the waiver wire will soon be replete with alternatives should the need for one arise.

Craig Kimbrel has had a tumultuous couple of years that have no doubt shaken the confidence of anyone who invested in him during that time. But he finished last season with 7 1/3 straight scoreless innings in which he struck out 13 while allowing just three base runners. I'm not especially confident in him either, but he's probably the last reliever with true No. 1 upside, at least among those currently in line for the closer role. And the price tag is reasonable enough.  

For Rotisserie play, my second and third relievers usually come from this group. While Rafael Montero and Richard Rodriguez aren't exciting anyone, they're clearly their teams' best choices for saves and good enough I think to keep the role. Most often, though, I'm turning to Greg Holland of the Royals, Joakim Soria of the Diamondbacks and Daniel Bard of the Rockies, believing they have few impediments to claiming the role and a reasonable chance of keeping it. I'm not as confident in Matt Barnes, Archie Bradley or Jose Leclerc.

Closing by committee

2021 ADP2020 ERA2020 WHIP2020 K/9
Nick Anderson TB RP
Drew Pomeranz SD RP
Jordan Hicks STL RP
Peter Fairbanks TB RP

^2019 stats

Bottom line is I don't expect any of these pitchers to have a full-time claim to the closer role, at least not to start out. The Cardinals I think will eventually want to settle on one of Giovanny Gallegos or Jordan Hicks. Ditto the Padres with Emilio PaganMark Melancon and Drew Pomeranz. Still, unless you're going to commit to taking both, you risk wasting a pick by guessing wrong.

There's no team more committed to the committee than the Rays, so I wouldn't hold out hope of Nick Anderson ascending to the closer role. The Twins were trending that way even before they signed Alex Colome to pair with Taylor Rogers.

The Prospectives

2021 ADP2020 ERA2020 WHIP2020 K/9
Yimi Garcia MIA RP
Aaron Bummer CHW RP
Lucas Sims CIN RP
Josh Staumont KC RP

Devin Williams probably won't be in line for many saves backing up Hader in Milwaukee, but he's drafted as high as he is because his stuff is just that good. It seems like there's one reliever every year who's targeted purely for his ratios, and Williams, the reigning NL Rookie of the Year, is that reliever this year.

Most of the other relievers listed here are the backup closers for their respective teams, though it's still technically possible Stefan Crichton, Lucas Sims and Nick Wittgren open the year as closers. Both Hector Neris and Jose Alvarado have the potential to beat out Archie Bradley for the Phillies.


2021 ADP2020 ERA2020 WHIP2020 K/9

^2019 stats

You may have noticed there's been no talk of relief pitcher-eligible starting pitchers up to this point. SPARPs (starting pitchers as relief pitchers) are often prized commodities in Head-to-Head points leagues, where an average starting pitcher is capable of outscoring a top closer, but this year's SPARP crop is particularly bad. I guess not enough pitchers had a chance to shift between roles during a short season.

A.J. Puk remains a top prospect and could still come through big for the Athletics if his surgically repaired shoulder responds well. He's by far the most attractive of these four, and a big spring would push him further up draft boards. Michael Lorenzen did have a couple of nice starts down the stretch, though, and may benefit from some of the Reds' newly adopted pitching philosophies. Consider him a deep sleeper.

So which 2021 Fantasy baseball sleepers should you snatch in your draft? And which undervalued first baseman can help you win a championship? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy baseball rankings for every single position, all from the model that called Will Smith's huge breakout last season, and find out.