Previewing 2020 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Projecting the top 20 relief pitchers
Relief pitcher is especially difficult to rank this far out, with so many roles up in the air. Scott White offers a first glimpse of how the position shapes up for 2020.
Relief pitcher rankings are always the least scientific. That's especially true when they're assembled this far out.
It's all so very dependent on role, and while there's a clear front-runner for saves in most every bullpen as of now, things will change in the offseason. And if they change so that a pitcher is no longer a clear front-runner for saves, his value will drop like an anvil.
That's becoming less true with each passing year, it seems. More bullpens are turning to committees or semi-committees, which opens the door for more total relievers to contribute in the saves category. But it makes drafting relief pitchers even more of a guessing game in traditional leagues that reward saves first and foremost.
And then there's the added wrinkle of certain starting pitchers also being eligible at relief pitcher. The stats they provide are far different from those of a typical closer, of course, so ranking them alongside each other is often challenging and can vary widely across formats. In a standard points league, for instance, a steady and reliable starting pitcher tends to outscore the typical closer.
Because this position is most widely valued for saves, though, and because it's my only chance to highlight those who get them, I've made a point to prioritize them in this particular batch of rankings.That's not to say I've excluded all the SPARPs (starting pitchers as relief pitchers), but only the best have made the cut. Ryan Yarbrough and Julio Urias weren't among those who did, but if these rankings were strictly for points leagues, well, maybe they would have.
Josh Hader Milwaukee Brewers RP
|Injuries to every possible closing alternative made it so manager Craig Counsell no longer had the luxury of using the game's best reliever in a setup capacity. His deployment of Josh Hader was still less than typical, often involving multiple innings and occasionally putting the left-hander in line for a hold rather than a save. But in the end, only two relievers had more than Hader's 37 saves, and of course, none came close to his 138 strikeouts.|
Kirby Yates San Diego Padres RP
|The MLB saves leader continued his post-30 breakout by making extensive use of what's now clearly one of the game's most dominant splitters. Kirby Yates also led all relievers in ERA and FIP, ranking sixth in K/9, so while it's possible the Padres trade him entering the final year of his contract, he's a fairly safe bet to close no matter where he goes.|
Brad Hand Cleveland Indians RP
|Brad Hand dealt with some arm fatigue in the second half, inflating his ERA and preventing him from reaching 100 strikeouts for a third consecutive season. His K/9 rate was right on the mark, though, and his 2.80 FIP was actually a career best. As long as everything continues to check out structurally, he should be in line to dominate the ninth inning again.|
Aroldis Chapman New York Yankees RP
|Heading into his age-32 season, Aroldis Chapman isn't the strikeout outlier he once was, and even in a year when he managed to avoid an IL stint, the Yankees still held him to less than 60 innings. But his role might be the most secure of any closer, and he'll again be filling it for what figures to be a big winner.|
Roberto Osuna Houston Astros RP
|A steady strike-thrower who was brought in to stabilize the ninth inning for an otherwise championship-caliber roster, Roberto Osuna has done exactly that. He's not as much of a bat-misser as the four names ahead of him, but he was back over a strikeout per inning in 2019, seemingly finding another gear with an increased use of his secondary pitches in the second half.|
Carlos Carrasco Cleveland Indians SP
|The first of the RP-eligible pitchers who are expected to have a rotation spot in 2020, Carlos Carrasco only picked up RP eligibility because it's the role he was best suited to handle coming off treatment for leukemia. He has typically ranked alongside the ace starting pitchers, offering big strikeout potential over a true starter's workload, but he'll demand a more cautious approach this time around. Otherwise, he'd rank No. 1 here.|
Kenley Jansen Los Angeles Dodgers RP
|Seeing as he's signed through 2022, Kenley Jansen will remain the presumptive closer for the Dodgers, which of course presents him with an ideal scenario for saves. But the 32-year-old has proven to be mortal the past two years, having lost a little something off his trademark cutter and becoming more vulnerable to the long ball. He's still a fine closer, but not an exceptional one.|
Liam Hendriks Oakland Athletics RP
|Don't get me wrong. Liam Hendriks' ratios were nothing short of fantastic -- his strikeouts trailed only Hader among relief pitchers, and his FIP was second only to Yates -- but the last time a journeyman 30-something captured the Athletics closer role by dominating in a way he never had before, we all went all-in on Blake Treinen. Some caution is warranted this time around.|
Will Smith San Francisco Giants RP
|There are strong similarities statistically between Hand and Will Smith, who both happen to throw left-handed, but it's that left-handedness that makes it less than a foregone conclusion Smith will sign somewhere to close in 2019. If he does, there's still the same top-five upside he delivered on with the Giants.|
Taylor Rogers Minnesota Twins RP
|Taylor Rogers got the Hader treatment for part of 2019, having to cede save chances to lesser righties so that the Twins could use him situationally or for multiple innings. As the season progressed, though, it became clear he was their best bet to close out games and was well-suited for the role, excelling in all three FIP measurements. The Twins' offseason maneuvers should tell us once and for all if they're fully on board.|
Jesus Luzardo Oakland Athletics RP
|Because Jesus Luzardo's first taste of the majors ended up consisting of a few multi-inning relief appearances down the stretch, he'll be eligible here rather than at starting pitcher at the start of 2020. But we all know what role he's expected to fill for the Athletics -- they would have put him in their starting rotation as early as last spring if injuries hadn't intervened. Innings could be an issue, but he looks poised to dominate.|
Craig Kimbrel Chicago Cubs RP
|Though once closing royalty, Craig Kimbrel doesn't get a total pass for a 2019 season that saw him sit out the first three months only to hurry back after signing a free-agent deal midseason. It may explain why his numbers were so uncharacteristically bad, but then again, his velocity was down for a second straight season. The Cubs signed him to too many dollars to back out now, but he's not a sure thing.|
Edwin Diaz New York Mets RP
|Clearly, I'm assuming Edwin Diaz gets first claim to the role even though the perfectly capable Seth Lugo was handling it down the stretch. Diaz still has massive strikeout ability, is only 25, and the Mets have too much invested in him to admit defeat already. Though the disappointment wasn't as acute, he went through something similar in 2017 and recovered brilliantly the following year, so I wouldn't bet against him doing it again.|
Ken Giles Toronto Blue Jays RP
|Ken Giles may go down as the one pitcher the Astros couldn't get right. In his first full season away from the talent factory, he finally delivered the dominant numbers his peripherals always said he should. Of course, he also had to contend with recurring elbow soreness and a supporting cast that rarely gave him save chances. At least the latter figures to be true again 2020.|
Brandon Workman Boston Red Sox RP
|How unlikely is it Brandon Workman actually remains the Red Sox closer when the bullpen took most of the blame for their disappointing 2019? Well, it's worth pointing out he wasn't the problem, flashing near-unhittable stuff en route to a top-10 ERA and FIP. A high walk rate is cause for concern, though, and may be justification enough for them to find someone to take the pressure off.|
Emilio Pagan Tampa Bay Rays RP
|After going the by-committee route for much of the first half, the Rays finally settled on Emilio Pagan as their closer after the All-Star break, and the hard-throwing righty piled up bunches of saves down the stretch. In terms of strikeouts and walks, he's exactly what a team hopes to find in a closer, but he's so vulnerable to the long ball that he wound up with nine blown saves. You have to assume the Rays will continue to experiment, given their history.|
Carlos Martinez St. Louis Cardinals RP
|Carlos Martinez was passable as the Cardinals closer, and if they decide this is the role for him long-term, then it's reasonable to expect a respectable saves total and ERA. But he's not an exceptional bat-misser for a closer, and his deep secondary arsenal is wasted in the role. There's a more than decent chance the Cardinals reintroduce him to the starting rotation next year, which would presumably elevate his Fantasy appeal.|
Mark Melancon Atlanta Braves RP
|After an injury-plagued first couple years with the Giants, Mark Melancon appears to have recaptured the form that made him such an effective closer for the Pirates a few years back, putting together a 2.93 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 10.0 K/9 in the second half. The Braves certainly think so, agreeing to take on the last year of his big-money deal at the trade deadline. He particularly excels at home run and walk prevention.|
Sean Doolittle Washington Nationals RP
|Though Sean Doolittle has had stretches when he's looked like a dominant closer, health and consistency have been two major hurdles. He got hit hard in 2019, and come playoff time, it was Daniel Hudson picking up saves for the Nationals instead. Because Hudson is a free agent, the presumption is Doolittle will get another crack in 2020.|
Hector Neris Philadelphia Phillies RP
|Hector Neris seems to have finally settled in as the closer after having to contend with manager Gabe Kapler's whims and his own inconsistencies last year. He's a good enough bat-misser for the role but doesn't excel at either of the other FIP measurements, leaving him vulnerable if a reasonable alternative emerges in the Phillies bullpen this season.|
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