2019 Fantasy Baseball Relief Pitcher Preview: Sigh of Relief

by Dennis Sosic
Fantasy Baseball Closer Chart

Hello Fantasy Baseball Fans! Welcome back to the Fantasy Six Pack's Position Previews. I am the anchor leg on the position preview run as I start the final turn into the final position to review and discuss, which is the relief pitcher position.

In case you missed any of the other position reviews, take a look at my discussion on the catcher position. Also, find out who the talented and insightful writers believe you should draft and avoid at the first base, second base, third base, shortstop, and the starting pitcher positions.

Relievers are easily the most fluid position in baseball. The "Don't Pay for Saves" theory basically states that owners should not waste an early round pick for a player who generally contributes only in the saves category. Saves are everywhere, whether you get them on draft day or later on from the waiver wire.

The role of big league closer is one of the most turbulent job markets around, with players always being demoted and promoted due to individual and team struggles.

Who are the elite closers? Which relievers should owners target in the later rounds? Who are the relievers to avoid? Find out the answers to these questions and a whole lot more in the 2019 Fantasy Baseball Relief Pitcher Preview.

2019 Fantasy Baseball Relief Pitcher Preview

Free five-minute mock drafts against industry experts and custom analysis for your team with the FantasyPros Draft Wizard.

Who are the elite closers that Fantasy owners should target?

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The draft price to get saves from an elite closer is rough. Figuring out which closers will be in the upper-echelon in rankings is difficult. If you are the type of fantasy owner who likes to play it safe and grab an elite closer early, I came up with a list of 10 closers that you should feel confident in selecting:

Edwin DiazNew York MetsLook for continued mastery from Diaz. n 2018, he racked up 57 saves with a 1.96 ERA and 124 strikeouts. The 24-year-old is a K machine, with a 38.8 percent career strikeout rate.
Blake TreinenOakland A'sHe posted a 0.78 ERA, 0.83 WHIP and 100:21 K:BB while recording saves in 38 of 43 chances and picking up nine wins.
Kenley JansenLos Angeles DodgersIn a down year for Jansen, he recorded a 3.01 ERA and 10.3 K/9 while grabbing 38 saves. Now hopefully heart issues resolved with two procedures, look for a huge season.
Roberto OsunaHouston AstrosNow past his legal issues, Osuna posted a 1.99 ERA with 12 saves with Astros last season. With a full season on a playoff team, he might be the top closer at season's end.
Ardolis ChapmanNew York YankeesBattled injuries last season, but he is the elite of the elite closers playing on a championship-caliber team. Has a career ERA under 2.25, and only has one season with under 30 saves in a season in his career.
Brad HandCleveland IndiansWith Cody Allen and Andrew Miller both gone from the Indians bullpen, Hand will be the main closer and projects to garner 30+ saves on a winning team.
Craig KimbrelFree AgentPlease sign somewhere! He recorded 42 saves with a 2.74 ERA for the Red Sox last season. Assuming he is the lead guy in his next team's bullpen, he is a top 3 closer.
Felipe VazquezPittsburgh PiratesVazquez converted 37 of his 43 save opportunities with a 2.70 ERA and 1.24 WHIP.
Raisel IglesiasCincinnati RedsHe converted 30 of his 34 save opportunities with a 2.38 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 72.0 innings pitched on a losing team. Pretty impressive.
Jose LeclercTexas RangersLeclerc was excellent after taking over as the Rangers' closer last season, posting a 29:6 K:BB while going 12-for-12 in save opportunities.


What is going on with Craig Kimbrel?

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Most baseball fans are still waiting in anticipation (annoyance?) because we still don't know where Bryce Harper or Manny Machado will land. There is also an extreme mystery on where the best relief pitcher in baseball Craig Kimbrel will pitch next year.

The Boston Red Sox have not had a great offseason. They have not resigned any of their core guys from their 2018 championship team, specifically Joe Kelly and Kimbrel. The Red Sox have been fighting it all offseason long, but projected closer Matt Barnes simply does not have the experience to be the closer for the defending champions.

Kimbrel, the Red Sox closer for the past three seasons, has yet to find any takers on his contract request. He is still an elite option at closer. The 30-year-old had a 2.74 ERA while converting 42 of 47 saves in 2018. However, he had a rocky 2018 postseason, but he still converted all his saves.

Kimbrel, who has a career 3.92 postseason ERA, is a true difference-maker reliever and is somehow still available. Many teams already have their closers and don't want to spend the money on the proficient closer. It makes complete sense for one specific team to agree to a deal:  The Boston Red Sox!

The Red Sox need to stop the nonsense and give Kimbrel a contract. They are fooling themselves if they can think they can win it all again with Barnes as their closer. If and when Kimbrel does sign with the Red Sox OR a team that makes them their closer, Kimbrel jumps up to one if not the best reliever in Fantasy.

What if I didn't draft an elite closer, how do I handle the RP position?

You are preparing for your last picks of the draft. You filled the entire offense, starting pitchers, and bench players, and now you are looking to fill your relief pitcher position. All the elite closers are gone, you have options:

  • Draft two or more middle relievers:  The relievers will help you with ratios and the strikeout category. Profile pitchers who preferably throw multiple innings at a time or throw several days in a row. If you have a game start limit, load up on middle relievers can allow you to keep amassing stats. The combo will result in reaching close to 200+ innings, which is close what an elite starter will provide.
  • SP/RP eligibility: Each season there are a group of relievers who have starting pitching eligibility that can pitch out of the bullpen that makes perfect targets. This strategy allows you to accrue stats for that slot when you don't have a starter pitching.
  • Just Punt:  Since saves are just one category and in chasing them you have to forego two categories: strikeouts and wins. By completely ignoring closers you can strengthen yourself everywhere else. Focus your selections on relief pitchers who won't get you saves, but will produce equal or better stats at a fraction of their draft capital.

Player(s) on the Rise

Jose Leclerc, Texas Rangers

The Texas Rangers had another disappointing season in 2018. Unfortunately, the 2019 season does not look much brighter. Another finish in the basement of the AL West is more than likely and Rangers fans can expect another team rebuilds in 2019.

One brilliant player for the Rangers is relief pitcher Jose Leclerc. The 24-year-old was just announced as the closer for the 2019 season by Texas Rangers manager Chris Woodward. Leclerc was unbelievable last season. He finished with a 1.56 ERA, holding opponents to a .126 batting average and averaged 13.3 strikeouts per nine innings. Additionally, he inherited 36 runners last season and only allowed eight of them to score. That's 22%! Compare that with MLB saves leader Edwin Diaz, who allowed 60% of the runners he inherited to score.

Even more impressive is that Leclerc got better as the season went along. Among his many ridiculous statistics, in 18 appearances in August and September, he allowed zero earned runs. Leclerc is electric and his changeup might be the most unhittable pitch in baseball, as he is consistently hurling his fastball at 97 mph+.

Leclerc is currently ranked as a top 15 closer.  He would probably be higher if it wasn't for the Rangers suffering through another rebuilding phase. Which leads to another potential drawback with Leclerc, he is under team control for the next four seasons. That is a very enticing trade chip. However, if the Rangers don't get overwhelmed by an offer, look for Leclerc to be a top 12 closer and someone you can grab as your second closer in the later rounds.

Kirby Yates, San Diego Padres

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Good closers on bad teams make for outstanding value selections. Kirby Yates will be 32-years-old in 2019 but has thrown fewer than 600 total innings since entering pro ball as an undrafted free agent in 2009. The Padres view Yates as a long-term anchor to a bullpen that is filling up with youth and inexpensive upside.

Among qualified National League relievers in 2018, Yates ranked 7th in WAR (1.8), fourth in strikeout rate (12.9 K/9) and second in Skill-Interactive ERA (2.26 SIERA). He posted a 2.14 ERA, 12 saves and a 5-3 record. In 63 innings pitched, he had 90 strikeouts, allowed 41 hits and, 17 walks and 15 earned runs. His K-BB% was good for sixth in the Majors among qualified relievers, better than elite relievers such as Craig KimbrelAdam OttavinoKenley Jansen, and Brad Hand

Yates, promoted to the closer role after the Brad Hand trade, adopted the splitter pitch to the tune of surrendering a paltry .181 opposing batting average. His split-finger was rated third overall in effectiveness according to Pitch Info Pitch Value. He also rated a 4.30 in Quality of Pitch Average (4.13 is league average).

Kirby Yates is the perfect option for Fantasy owners to select late in the draft or if your plan is to punt the relief pitcher position. While other owners may shy away from owning closers from bad teams, please don't be one of them. The draft value can provide you with the winning edge. The only caveat with Yates is that he is also a prime trade candidate. Yates produces elite numbers and he is still two years away from free agency.

Pedro Strop, Chicago Cubs

Pedro Strop took over the closer role in mid-July once Brandon Morrow went down and thrived in the role.  In 20 1/3 innings as the closer: 1.77 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 18 strikeouts, seven walks, .139 opponents batting average and 52.8 percent ground ball rate.

Strop heads into the 2019 season as the Cubs' closer as Brandon Morrow underwent elbow surgery. He just started throwing and is expected to be out at least the first month of the 2019 season, if not more. The 33-year-old Strop had arguably his finest campaign in 2018, posting a 2.26 ERA, 13 saves and 0.99 WHIP in 60 appearances.

Over the last five-plus years, Strop carries a 2.63 ERA across 361 appearances. He’s never posted an earned run average higher than 2.91 in a Cubs uniform. His situational versatility and electric arm are critical to Chicago's bullpen efforts.

Strop suffered an injury as well last season when he injured himself running out a ground ball to first base.  He displayed his toughness and will when he triumphantly returned from a severe hamstring injury to pitch in the NL Wild Card game to close out the 2018 campaign.

Strop, a 2.1 WAR player in 2018, will be the Cubs' closer to start the season. I believe he will retain that role regardless of the suspected return of Brandon Morrow. A sneaky pick for fantasy owners at the end of their drafts. Also, the type of selection that win you championships.

Player(s) on the Decline

Cody Allen, Los Angeles Angels

The Angels did sign Cody Allen to be their closer, to a one-year deal after a disappointing and alarming 2018 season. Allen finished with career worsts in ERA (4.70 ERA) and save percentage (84.4). Allen, the Indians' all-time saves leader with 149, converted 27 of 32 opportunities in 2018.

There certainly is a good reason for alarm with Allen. He had the highest WHIP since his rookie season at 1.36 as he issued the most walks in a season in his career. And while his K/9 rate of 10.7 is still really solid, it’s the lowest it has been since his rookie season in 2012. His strikeout rate dropped while his walk rate increased, signaling command issues with his two-pitch arsenal.

Allen, who has spent his whole career in Cleveland, recorded a 12.7% swinging-strike, his lowest since he became the Indians closer. His hard contact soared to 38.4% while giving up nearly a homer and a half per nine innings. His average fastball velocity dipped to 93.5 mph, 2 mph slower than what he was throwing in 2015, according to MLB.com's Statcast system.

The right-hander has made at least 67 appearances and pitched at least 67 innings in each of the last six seasons.  Did this workload get the best of him? Optimistic Fantasy owners may see Allen as a bounce-back candidate, I see his latest struggles as the direct result of a dead arm and a reliever whose decline I don't want any part of.

Player(s) on the Horizon

Ty Buttrey, Los Angeles Angels

Ty Buttrey, acquired from the Red Sox in the July deal for Ian Kinsler, was promoted to the majors on August 16th. He was slotted into the Angels' bullpen and performed well. Buttrey posted a 3.31 ERA in 16.1 innings with an impressive 20/5 K/BB. He was used as a closer in September and gathered four saves in six attempts.

Buttrey, who put up shutout outings in 13 of his 16 appearances, struck out 13.6 per nine innings in the Minors, then 11 per nine in the big leagues. Unfortunately, he was shut down in late September for the remainder of the season due to a recurrence of knee bursitis.

The Angels decided against tendering a contract to incumbent closer Blake Parker, who then left to sign with the Minnesota Twins. This left the team without a veteran presence in the bullpen. That was until the Angels reached an agreement with former Indians closer Cody Allen.

Allen struggled last season, ending with a career-worst 4.70 ERA and a 4.56 FIP. His walk rate increased from 2.8 percent in 2017 to 4.4 percent in 2018, and he had a higher home run rate (1.5%).

Allen will probably start the season as the Angels' closer. However, I don't have much faith that he will be able to pitch well enough to hold on to that job. He had a horrendous 2018 season and he has lost some zip on his fastball. Definitely not what you want to see from your pitcher. I foresee that Allen will show once again that his days as a premier closer are behind him. Enter Ty Buttrey. The hard-throwing right-hander will end up closing games this summer and is a reliever to definitely keep your eyes on.

Players to Avoid

Alex Colome, Chicago White Sox

The White Sox were determined to upgrade their bullpen this season. The bullpen ERA ranked 23rd and finished 26th in bWAR in baseball last season. The South Side Sox added two All-Star type relievers to bolster their bullpen by acquiring Alex Colome from the Mariners and signing free agent Kelvin Herrera.

Alex Colome and Kelvin Herrera will get the bulk of the opportunities as the closer. Nate Jones will be thrown into the mix a little bit as well. That trio should drastically improve a bullpen on a club that should be much better in 2019. Each will compete for their return to a closing role. White Sox manager Ricky Renteria really can't go wrong with either reliever in the eighth or ninth innings of a tight game.

Colome started 2018 with the Rays and recorded 11 saves before being traded to Seattle. He finished with a 3.04 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 12 saves, 30 holds and 72 K's in 68 innings. The 29-year-old right-hander racked up a career-high 47 saves in 2017 and owns a career 3.12 ERA.

During the early portion of 2018, Herrera posted a 1.05 ERA with 14 saves and 22 strikeouts in just 25.2 innings of work. After the trade to Washington, he served in a set-up role before suffering a Lisfranc ligament tear in his left foot that saw his season end prematurely in August. Between the Royals and Nationals, Herrera finished 2018 with a combined 2.44 ERA, 1.195 WHIP, 38 strikeouts, and 17 saves in 44.1 innings pitched.

I can see either reliever taking over the closer role. However, it will make fantasy owners pull their hair out when the other reliever vultures saves. The dreaded bullpen by committee is something I avoid like listening to Justin Beiber.

Greg Holland, Arizona Diamondbacks

The 33-year-old split last season between the St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals. Holland got off to a brutal start after signing very late in the offseason with the St. Louis Cardinals. In 32 appearances with the Cards, he pitched to a 7.92 ERA. Holland allowed 12.2 hits per nine innings and posted a horrendous 2.240 WHIP. He was such a disappointment that St. Louis decided to designate him for assignment at the end of July.

The Washington Nationals still saw something to salvage from that start. They chose to take a chance on Holland and were rewarded with 21.1 innings of 0.84 ERA, 2.97 FIP, 0.89 WHIP and a 25/10 K/BB.

The Diamondbacks seem to believe that Holland still has something still left in the tank and signed him to a one-year deal. He will compete with Archie Bradley and Yoshihisa Hirano for the job to close out games in Arizona. Each of those pitchers is more than capable of closing out games. It makes Holland a precarious fantasy closing option for the Diamondbacks and your fantasy rosters.

2019 Fantasy Baseball Position Previews
CatcherFirst BaseSecond BaseThird BaseShortstopOutfieldStarting PitcherRelief Pitcher

Check out the rest of our 2019 Fantasy Baseball content from our great team of writers.

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1 comment

Wednesday, February 13, 2019 – Fantasy Baseball Links | FantasyRundown.com February 13, 2019 - 11:19 am

[…] previews the relief pitcher position, naming some players at the position on the rise and decline, on the horizon, and […]


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