Last season, closers were tumbling down draft boards as drafters were scared off by the elite at the position struggling in 2019. The high-end options were better in 2020, however, and we've seen Josh Hader, Liam Hendriks, Aroldis Chapman, Edwin Diaz and Raisel Iglesias move back into the top 100 in Average Draft Position for 2021 Fantasy baseball drafts. And it might not be an overreaction.
As of this writing, we are just over one week away from opening day, and the closer landscape looks as unsettled as ever. The market for free-agent relievers was especially cold this offseason, and only a handful of teams ultimately ended up going out to grab a legitimate closer. Even this close to the start of the season, we're facing a situation where potentially half of the closer jobs are in serious question right now.
That's not an exaggeration. The Orioles, Rays, Blue Jays, Cleveland, Tigers, Royals, Twins, Rangers, Braves, Marlins, Phillies, Reds, Cardinals, Padres and Giants all have legitimate questions about who will close. We were hoping spring training would provide some clarity, but it looks like a lot of teams are going to go down to the wire before naming a closer -- if they do at all.
It's almost never a good idea to invest heavily in closer, a position where roughly half of the teams churn through multiple options most seasons. However, if you do want some certainty, you might have to pay up for one of the increasingly rare assumed sure things.
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Relief Pitcher Preview
Josh Hader RP
MIL Milwaukee • #71 • Age: 27
With Devin Williams' breakout in 2020, Hader may actually no longer be the best reliever on his own team. However, there's no reason to think he won't be the closer, and there's no reason to overreact to last year's inflated ERA. He's still one of the premier strikeout pitchers in the game, and one of the few relievers who could compete with some starters in total strikeouts.
CHW Chi. White Sox • #31 • Age: 32
Hendricks had no trouble following his breakout season, posting nearly identical numbers en route to another season as an elite closer. He signed with the White Sox this offseason and figures to get plenty of saves for a contending ball club.
NYY N.Y. Yankees • #54 • Age: 33
Chapman is getting up there in age, but he still struck out nearly half of the batters he faced in 2020, so there's not much to be worried about, especially when you consider that he missed the first three weeks of the season with COVID. He's talked about adding a splitter this offseason, so that will be something to watch in spring. Chapman is about as reliable as they come.
Edwin Diaz RP
NYM N.Y. Mets • #39 • Age: 27
Diaz was much better in 2020 than 2019, but he wasn't much different. His velocity was essentially unchanged and his pitch mix was nearly identical, but the results were obviously much different. His 2019 looks like an outlier season for Diaz, who didn't have the feel for his slider, his most important pitch. As long as he has that, he'll be one of the best relievers in baseball.
Brad Hand RP
WAS Washington • #52 • Age: 31
The Indians let Hand walk this offseason, and he was only able to land a one-year deal with the Nationals, so there are definitely questions about how long he can remain an elite closer. However, the Nationals should be competitive, and Hand really hasn't struggled very much even when things have gone poorly. The elbow is a concern, but assuming Hand is healthy, he should remain a high-end Fantasy reliever.
LAA L.A. Angels • #32 • Age: 31
Iglesias bounced back from a subpar 2019 with the highest strikeout rate (34.1%) and lowest walk rate (5.5%) of his career, while also sporting his highest average fastball velocity since 2017. Iglesias is usually in the second group of closers off the board, and he should once again be one of the best, with at least a chance of joining the elite tier if the gains from 2020 stick.
LAD L.A. Dodgers • #74 • Age: 33
Fantasy players have been forecasting doom for Jansen for years, but he continues to get the job done. He's not as dominating as he once was, but Jansen has held onto the job with an ERA between 3.01 and 3.71 over the last three seasons. The Dodgers have a dominant bullpen, with the likes of Blake Treinen and Brusdar Graterol looming if Jansen does falter, but he hasn't lost the job yet.
Facing Karinchak is an uncomfortable experience for opposing hitters, and not just because he sometimes struggles with control. His mid-to-high 90s fastball and curveball come from an unusual arm slot thanks to his unique delivery, and batters have basically never been able to figure him out. He struck out nearly half of the opposing batters he faced, and the ones who did manage to make contact couldn't do much with it. The problem is he's going to struggle with his command, and that's been an issue during the spring, as he's battling with Nick Wittgren and Emmanuel Clase for the closer job. He should be an elite reliever either way, but the upside is a lot lower if he's pitching in the seventh and eighth.
Ryan Pressly RP
HOU Houston • #55 • Age: 32
Pressly has struck out at least 11.98 per nine innings over the past three seasons, and even his uncharacteristically high 3.43 ERA in 2020 was backed up by a 2.81 FIP. He lost a tick on his fastball, but still put up an elite swinging strike rate, so it didn't seem to cost him much. The Astros have less competition in the bullpen than in recent years, so Pressly should be able to hold down the job if he doesn't falter.
OAK Oakland • #41 • Age: 30
Rosenthal was back at peak form in 2020, striking out a career-high 41.8% of opposing hitters with his lowest walk rate since 2015 to boot. It was a small sample, size, but his average fastball velocity was as high as it's ever been, and the Athletics believed in him enough to bring him in to close. He has top-five potential.
CHC Chi. Cubs • #46 • Age: 32
Kimbrel's stuff mostly looks as good as it did when he was a dominant reliever, but he just hasn't had the control the past two seasons. The circumstances of each season were pretty strange, but at this point it's hard to have much faith -- especially because he's had trouble with his delivery in spring.
SEA Seattle • #47 • Age: 30
Kimbrel being 11th and Montero at 12 is pretty good proof that the position is only about 10 names deep in terms of guys you can feel good about at this point. Kimbrel and Montero could both be very good closers, but is there any reason to reach for either? Montero especially is an injury risk in addition to being a big performance question mark.
Don't forget about ...
Hicks will be ready for opening day after recovering from Tommy John surgery, and his stuff has been every bit as good as it was before the surgery. The question is whether the Cardinals will opt to work him back in slowly or just trust him to close from the start. I'll take him to lead the team in saves, and I hope it isn't close.
Will Smith RP
ATL Atlanta • #51 • Age: 31
At this point, the assumption is Smith will close for the Braves after Mark Melancon's departure in free agency, and he certainly has the chops for it -- before 2020, he had an ERA below 3.50 with at least 10 K/9 every season since 2014. He's a terrific late-round target who hasn't built up much buzz yet.
Emilio Pagan RP
SD San Diego • #14 • Age: 29
It seems like Pagan might have the lead for the Padres closer job, and while he wasn't great in 2020, he was an elite closer for the Rays in 2019, posting a 2.31 ERA with 12.34 K/9 and 20 saves. If he really is the closer for the Padres, he's going to be one of the steals of the draft.
TOR Toronto • #68 • Age: 27
With Kirby Yates suffering a flexor strain during spring training, Romano looks like the guy for the Blue Jays for the first month of the season. And, while Yates may come back and take the job, outside of the top 10 or so at the position, there's nobody you can really be confident will keep his job by May. Romano is on a good team and has the stuff to be a good closer, so he's a good option if you're waiting.
Relief Pitcher Sleeper, Breakout & Bust
Hicks is one of the toughest pitchers in baseball to square up, with a .254 BABIP and 7.8% HR/FB rate backing that up. And, in 2019 before his injury, he was starting to figure out how to miss bats, too, getting his K/9 over nine while increasing his swinging strike rate to 11.9%, too. The stuff is here for Hicks to be an elite closer, and the fact that he's just so hard to hit means he'll likely post a good ERA even without the strikeouts going up. If they do, however, he could be one of the best in the game, and the fact that he's throwing as hard as ever in spring is a very good sign. He's become one of my go-to relievers in the mid-to-late rounds as spring has gone on.
Amir Garrett RP
CIN Cincinnati • #50 • Age: 28
Garrett hasn't been quiet about his desire to be the Reds closer this offseason, and his pitching over the past two years has spoken pretty loud on his behalf, too. Garrett has a 3.03 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 74.1 innings over the last two seasons after embracing a slider-heavy approach, with his swinging strike rate spiking to 18.1% in 2020 as well. Teams can sometimes be hesitant to put lefties in the closer role, preferring to keep them around for high-leverage situations against tough left-handed sluggers, but Garrett has been effective enough against righties over the past two seasons to get the job done if asked. The Reds have no shortage of potential closers, including Lucas SIms and Michael Lorenzen, and the newly-added Sean Doolittle obviously has plenty of experience in the role. I'm hoping Garrett is the one they turn to, and it's possible the addition of Doolittle frees them up to use Garrett in that role. He could be excellent for Fantasy if that's the case.
Karinchak should be an elite source of strikeouts, and I'd bet on him being very good at preventing runs, too. But he's also going to struggle with control, and homers could potentially be a problem, given how many fly balls he gives up. The biggest issue, however, is that I'm just not convinced he's going to be the closer. Clase and Wittgren are viable closer options, and Karinchak's control issues could give a manager a lot of anxiety about using him in the ninth. Either way, he's got a lot of competition, and even if he is named the closer, that increases the risk. Why spend a top-100 pick on him when Nick Anderson and Devin Williams are available later?
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.