Fantasy Baseball: Early relief pitcher rankings for 2017
Not every relief pitcher is safe, of course, but according to Scott White, the best have become so plentiful that choosing between them can be a challenge. He gives his top 24 for 2017.
I'm going to give you a list of 12 names in a particular order, but I only care about this order to the extent I needed one to complete the assignment.
Such is the state of the closer role in baseball today. Player factories have so perfected the formula for a lockdown reliever that they're hardly one of a kind anymore.
And we could rank them by a number of factors. Pure ability might yield one order. Strikeout ability another. Job security, injury risk, projected save total, etc.
But my order is probably the least scientific of all: the order in which I'd draft them.
It takes all of those factors, filters them through my own sensibilities, adjusts for perception and spits out a list that, generally speaking, I can get behind. I can argue for. I have confidence in.
But at this position, particularly this year, I'm not sure I care. They're all so good and their biggest differentiator (saves) is so beyond their control that it seems foolish to pay a great deal more for one than the other.
It's like trying to decide between two different brands of milk. "Oh, this one is 50 cents more? Shoot, I don't need a re-engineered spout that badly."
Go far enough down the rankings, and that changes. The lock-down closer may be plentiful, but it hasn't fully permeated the league yet. It's just that the troubles don't begin until the second list of 12.
Top 12 relief pitchers for 2017:
1. Kenley Jansen, RP, Dodgers
2. Aroldis Chapman, RP, Cubs
3. Zach Britton, RP, Orioles
4. Danny Duffy, SP/RP, Royals
5. Dellin Betances, RP, Yankees
6. Seung Hwan Oh, RP, Cardinals
7. Jeurys Familia, RP, Mets
8. Mark Melancon, RP, Nationals
9. Craig Kimbrel, RP, Red Sox
10. Wade Davis, RP, Royals
11. Edwin Diaz, RP, Mariners
12. Roberto Osuna, RP, Blue Jays
This list ... it's indecent.
But I've already told you the order doesn't matter so much. If you want to draft Kimbrel first among closers next year, knock yourself out. His 14.1 strikeouts per nine innings this year were his most in four years, so he still has exceptional stuff. It's just that his 5.1 walks per nine innings were by far his most ever, and he nearly lost his job down the stretch because of it.
I understand he was working his way back from midseason knee surgery and may have needed to fine-tune his mechanics because of it, but still, who ahead of him has a bigger red flag than that?
Likewise, Davis had to contend with a forearm issue much of the year and saw his ratios drop as a result. He still had 1.87 ERA, so I don't think too many Fantasy owners were complaining about his production when he was able to pitch, but knowing that forearm troubles are often a precursor to elbow troubles, he's a clear health risk.
At his best, Kenley Jansen is as good as either anyway, so ranking him ahead seems like a pretty easy call. Yes, he's entering free agency, which introduces an unknown, but typically the only teams that shell out for a closer are the ones expecting to contend. Hard to see his stock dropping too much with the move.
And the same goes for Aroldis Chapman, who's also an impending free agent. Nobody is signing him to a setup role or to serve as trade bait later, and we've already seen him dominate for three different organizations. He comes with more baggage than Jansen, maybe, but he's about as worry-free as it gets at the position with the most turnover.
What does worry me about having three top closers entering free agency (Mark Melancon being the other) is their potential to impact less established closers like Dellin Betances, who has a chance to be just as dominant. He was at his worst stepping in for the departed Chapman over the final two months last year, and so the Yankees, whose pocketbook doesn't need to give the benefit of the doubt, may opt for someone a little more proven.
Which would be a shame since, despite his bumpy finish, his 1.78 FIP trailed only Chapman, Jansen and postseason hero (but non-closer) Andrew Miller. He also recorded more than 125 strikeouts for the third straight year. Only one other pitcher on this list (Kimbrel) has done it even once.
I guess you could accuse me of optimism by ranking him so high despite the free agency concerns, but I'm at least slotting him behind the premier reliever-eligible starting pitcher, Danny Duffy, if only in standard Head-to-Head leagues. That's one distinction that doesn't translate so well to Rotisserie, where you still need to get saves somehow, but in terms of Fantasy points, a competent starting pitcher will typically outperform a top closer. And Duffy is more than just competent, looking like an ace for the middle portion of this year and slotting as a top-25 starting pitcher for 2017.
And Betances may not be my most optimistic ranking anyway, at least not among those holding Seung Hwan Oh's career save total against him. But the 19 he recorded after replacing Trevor Rosenthal this year are nothing compared to what he did in Japan and Korea, where he earned the nickname "Final Boss" for his ninth-inning heroics. And his other numbers suggest he's everything you'd want in a closer:
Why him over Jeurys Familia, who led the majors with 51 saves? Familia had some control issues that resulted in an uncloser-like 1.21 WHIP this year, and he's not quite the bat-misser Oh is.
Why him over Melancon, who has consistently delivered a sub-2.00 ERA and sub-1.00 WHIP in recent years? He's definitely not the bat-misser Oh is -- or, really, any modern closer is -- which gives him a thin margin for error when his stuff begins to go. In the off chance it does this year, you're protected.
Next 12 relief pitchers for 2017:
13. Alex Colome, RP, Rays
14. Alex Reyes, SP/RP, Cardinals
15. Cody Allen, RP, Indians
16. Ken Giles, RP, Astros
17. Tyler Thornburg, RP, Brewers
18. David Robertson, RP, White Sox
19. Dylan Bundy, SP/RP, Orioles
20. A.J. Ramos, RP, Marlins
21. Francisco Rodriguez, RP, Tigers
22. Jim Johnson, RP, Braves
23. Sam Dyson, RP, Rangers
24. Tony Watson, RP, Pirates
Notice how I skipped over Edwin Diaz and Roberto Osuna just now? To me, those two have more in common with Alex Colome than the 10 ahead of them -- and really, Cody Allen is part of that tier as well.
Because while I can complain about Familia's WHIP or Melancon's strikeout rate as a way of differentiating between the elite, the fact is you're still drafting them with complete confidence they'll deliver a high save total and meet your needs at the position all season long.
With Diaz, Osuna, Colome and Allen ... I mean, you're pretty sure, but each probably raises in you just the smallest bit of concern.
Maybe that's not fair to Osuna, who's coming off back to back seasons that would have made him closing royalty just a few years ago, but he can be vulnerable to the long ball and struggled with a heavy workload this year, allowing at least one earned run in seven of his final 22 appearances for a 4.56 ERA.
I do think Diaz's overall ceiling is higher. For as good as Jansen and Chapman are, the 22-year-old rookie topped both with 15.3 strikeouts per nine innings (only Betances' rate was higher). But like Osuna, he faltered down the stretch, compiling a 4.82 ERA over his final 17 appearances.
OK, so a top-five ceiling for one and a strong two-year track record for the other. Pretty good. Should we really be valuing them on the level of Colome, who was initially intended to be just a short-term fill-in for Brad Boxberger?
There's a reason he ended up keeping the job.
Pretty good indeed. He may have only one year to hang his hat on instead of two, but the ratios are comparable to Osuna's. And even though the Rays won only 68 games this year, they're built on pitching, which should feed him plenty of opportunities.
And that's the end of the "safe" closers. Go further down the rankings -- let's say after Allen, who we have little reason to believe will suddenly cede the job to Andrew Miller -- and you'll find ones with glaring flaws or unstable roles.
Ken Giles did end the year as the Astros closer, but he compiled a 5.06 ERA over 21 appearances in the role, and his overall numbers -- apart from the strikeout rate, which was elite -- left much to be desired as well. Tyler Thornburg's are certainly closer-worthy -- and if I had every assurance he was the guy for 2017, I might slot him right behind Colome -- but he blew three straight saves to end the year and played second fiddle to Jeremy Jeffress for most of it.
David Robertson and A.J. Ramos have the strikeouts you want from a closer, but severe control issues hold them back. Francisco Rodriguez will be 35 next year and seems to lose a little off his fastball every year. Jim Johnson looked like a bona fide closer from the time he took over the role, compiling a 1.48 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings over his final 30 appearances, but where did it come from and how quickly will the Braves turn the page if it ends? Sam Dyson and Tony Watson are currently the best options for their teams, but neither is an ideal fit for the role. The Rangers and Pirates both have something to play for in 2017, so they may look to upgrade.
One reliever to keep an eye on is Cam Bedrosian, who the Angels had just anointed to the closer role when a blood clot in his shoulder shut him down for the year. If he gets first dibs in spring training, he'll shoot up draft boards with numbers like these:
I also like Hector Neris coming off a 100-strikeout season in Philadelphia and Raisel Iglesias, who looked good in a few scattered appearances over the final two months. Keep an eye out for Greg Holland, who could get back in the mix after losing a year to Tommy John surgery, as well. These are all pitchers who still need to lock up the job first, though. At a position where role is everything, we still have plenty to sort out between now and Draft Day.
You'll notice I sprinkled in reliever-eligible starting pitchers Alex Reyes and Dylan Bundy. It's always a challenge ranking those guys, especially since their relevance varies widely from format to format. Duffy matters everywhere, so slotting him in the top five probably isn't the scandal of the century, but Reyes and Bundy, for all their upside, aren't as valuable as a surefire closer in some formats.
They're sure to be drafted in every league, though, so even if you don't intend to use them as relievers, you'd like to have an idea when you can expect them to go off the board. And now you do, relative to other relievers.
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