Previewing 2019 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Top 20 relief pitchers show Edwin Diaz at the top, but Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman still up there
The closer role doesn't come with the assurances it once did, not that it was ever less than volatile. Scott White ranks some of the more likely choices to handle the ninth inning (along with some SPARPs).
Seeing as each team traditionally designates one reliever to serve as its closer, ranking this particular position this far out is a fool's errand. Player movement can change everything. A new addition can bump the incumbent out of the role and render him nearly valueless.
And plenty of longstanding closers are available this offseason. Any of Cody Allen, Zach Britton, Jeurys Familia, Kelvin Herrera, Fernando Rodney and Sergio Romo could wind up back in the role. David Robertson could. Pedro Strop, even. That's eight potential closer changes right there.
And I didn't even mention Craig Kimbrel.
But player movement only scratches the surface of what we don't know. Yes, traditionally each team designates one reliever to close, but so many bucked tradition in 2018, either playing matchups in the late innings or just switching around roles on a whim, that I'm not sure we'll have a great idea who's closing for even a third of the league come the start of the 2019 season.
Will it be Jeremy Jeffress or Corey Knebel in Milwaukee? Arodys Vizcaino or A.J. Minter in Atlanta? Who for Philadelphia? Who for San Francisco or Arizona? What about Chicago, be it the Cubs or the White Sox? Or will any of them bring in someone new? Those are just some of the more notable examples.
So as you might imagine, assurance of role has a big say in these rankings. You can expect changes as the offseason unfolds.
Edwin Diaz was hyped as the next elite closer heading into 2017 and followed through on that promise and then some a year later. It wasn't just the 57 saves, tied for second-most in MLB history. The guy legitimately blew everyone away with an MLB-leading 1.61 FIP and a K/9 that ranked among some of Craig Kimbrel's and Aroldis Chapman's best.
Diaz's rise is just the first sign that the near decade-long stronghold at the top of the relief pitcher rankings is beginning to crumble. Kimbrel himself isn't immune, though he of course would have to slide a long way to drop out of elite territory. He's still an unbelievable bat-misser, but for the second time in three years, control was an issue, sticking him with a mortal ERA and FIP.
The knee tendinitis that sidelined Aroldis Chapman for much of the second half this year isn't quite as worrisome as the rotator cuff issue that bit him in 2017, but the general way his body is responding to unprecedented velocities has to factor into the equation now. Of course, also factoring into it is the fact he remains the best bat-misser the game has ever seen, his 16.3 K/9 this year representing his highest since 2014.
It's amazing to think Blake Treinen, just a throw-in in the deal that sent Sean Doolittle to the Nationals last year, now ranks ahead of Doolittle for Fantasy purposes. Fair to say his stud turn wasn't the inevitability Diaz's seemed to be. And yet there's enough backing it to earn him the benefit of the doubt, be it the sinker that pushes triple digits or the cutter that appears to have brought it all together, making him more than just a ground-ball specialist.
Carlos Martinez is only eligible here because he kept coming back too soon from a lat injury and eventually had to concede there just wasn't enough time to rehabilitate as a starter. Of course, the ability to use a semi-proven quasi-ace like him at relief pitcher counteracts some of the injury risk, especially in points leagues where high-end starting pitchers tend to outscore even the highest-end relievers.
Maybe if Sean Doolittle escaped 2018 unscathed, he'd rank up there with the man he was traded for, Blake Treinen, but he ended up missing most of the second half with a toe injury. He may not have Treinen's ground-ball profile but is in a class of his own in terms of strikeout-to-walk ratio and might already be regarded as a relief ace if not for his injury history.
Kimbrel and Chapman offered reasons for concern in 2018, but the biggest red flag among the old guard belongs to Kenley Jansen, whose actual effectiveness suffered. His velocity dipped about a mile per hour for the second straight year, and he was more hittable overall, as demonstrated by his strikeout and home run rates. He wasn't bad but wasn't the stud closer we're used to seeing and may not get back there at age 31.
It was a tumultuous year for Roberto Osuna, whose 75-game suspension for allegedly assaulting a woman ended his stay in Toronto. He wound up with the Astros, which would seem like bad news given their tendency to reshuffle roles. He's a steadier ninth-inning guy than they've had at any other point during A.J. Hinch's tenure, though, and would probably rank among the elites if he had more consistent strikeout numbers.
Felipe Vazquez can be a little erratic at times — after a couple rough outings in May, in fact, he looked like he might be on the verge of losing his job — but the stuff will ultimately win out. Truth is there aren't really any closer alternatives in the Pirates bullpen, and because Vazquez is already signed to a long-term deal and not subject to arbitration increases, the Pirates have added incentive to keep him in the role.
Brad Hand's Fantasy value figured to take a hit when the Padres dealt him away midseason, but he wound up splitting saves with Cody Allen. Allen is gone now, hitting the free agent market this offseason, which presumably opens the door to full-time closing duties for a pitcher coming off three consecutive 100-strikeout seasons — that is, as long as the Indians don't decide Hand serves them better in the Andrew Miller role.
This ranking is contingent on Ross Stripling remaining in the starting rotation, which is hardly a foregone conclusion given the Dodgers' constant surplus of of viable rotation options. The soon-to-be 29-year-old was having a breakout season, even making the All-Star team, before having to contend with toe and back issues in the second half, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio suggests there's more where that came from.
Though Kirby Yates didn't get a ton of save chances after the Padres dealt Brad Hand to the Indians, there was little doubt he'd be the guy with the kind of numbers he was putting up. For the second straight year, he struck out hitters at an elite rate, but this time with a heavy emphasis on his splitter, which not only gave him another swing-and-miss pitch but also brought his fly-ball rate down to size. Love the upside here.
Jose Leclerc probably did enough in the two months after the Rangers traded Keone Kela, giving up no runs on just three hits in 18 appearances, to enter 2019 as the favorite for saves. In fact, he put together the third-best FIP among relievers with at least 50 innings this year, behind only Diaz and Treinen. Still, given his fly-ball tendencies and hitter-friendly home venue, he was lucky to allow just one home run all year.
Wade Davis seems to get a little more vulnerable every year, and when half of his appearances are at Coors Field, those vulnerabilities are understandably exacerbated. His velocity isn't quite what it was in his heyday. He'll give up some walks and home runs, too. But he finished 2018 on a high note and is early enough into a long-term deal that his job appears pretty secure, especially with Adam Ottavino hitting the free agent market.
The Reds have an annoying habit of using Raisel Iglesias for multiple innings in non-save chances, which means he's not always available on those rare occasions they actually do need a closer. Between that, the constant threat of him being traded out of the closer role and some concerning batted-ball tendencies, I tend to be glass-half-empty when it comes to the right-hander. Still, there's no threat to his role as long as he stays put.
If the Brewers would just commit to any one of Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel for saves next year, it'd vault that pitcher into the top 10. Hader is the least likely of the three to claim the job outright but the most likely contribute to it in some capacity, often staying in to close out games that he enters in the eighth inning. Those multi-inning appearances also put him in a class of his own in terms of strikeouts.
A late collapse prevented Will Smith from leading all relievers in FIP and may prevent him from retaining the closer gig (which he filled for only about three months) next year. But how close he came to topping the leaderboard also shows the extent of his potential and how suitable the left-hander is for the role. It may depend on whether the Giants look outside the organization for bullpen help or direct their resources elsewhere.
The Cubs took a chance on making Brandon Morrow their closer after watching him develop into a top-flight setup man for the Dodgers last year, and it worked brilliantly until the 34-year-old did what he's most known for doing and got hurt, suffering what turned out to be a season-ending injury just before the All-Star break. He's under contract for another year, though, and his replacement, Pedro Strop, is not, so you have to figure Morrow is the favorite to close entering 2019 — that is, unless the Cubs opt to bring in someone safer.
True, Tyler Glasnow's transition back to a starting role upon joining the Rays at the trade deadline was as successful as it had any right to be and the most encouraging stretch of his major-league career, but the walks and home runs still stuck him with an ERA over 4.00 during that stretch. You can make the case for him to be drafted a few spots earlier in points leagues, where his relief pitcher eligibility is more valuable, but his upside ensures he'll be drafted everywhere.
Particularly with Hyun-Jin Ryu hitting the open market, Kenta Maeda figures to occupy a rotation spot for the Dodgers again, at least until about the All-Star break when they're looking to curtail his innings to keep certain incentive clauses from kicking in. Normally, his class of bat-misser would generate considerable enthusiasm on Draft Day, especially with an offense like the Dodgers' backing him, but the early exits and shifting role severely undermine his value, making him more like a peripheral piece in Fantasy.
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