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Saves and Steals

Opening Weekend Closer Tiers

by Brad Johnson
Updated On: July 26, 2020, 4:03 pm ET

We’re finally on the cusp of Opening Day. Last week, we covered strategy for targeting saves and stolen bases. A full accounting of relevant relievers was provided in the All Bullpen Report 2.0. Now it’s time to delve into the good stuff – the 2020 Closer Tiers! We’ll conclude by taking a quick peek at a few specific stolen base targets for the Opening Weekend.

In the past, the tiers have focused on what a pitcher is projected to do rather than stats-to-date. The 60-game schedule compresses our risk tolerance. Ditto real teams. If a Hector Neris loses command of his splitter, we (and the Phillies) might not have the luxury of waiting for a rebound. Similarly, if a seemingly bland closer like Brandon Kintzler goes on a heater, we might be best served to ride the wave.

 

Closer Tiers

 

Tier 1: The Elite (2)

Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers
Kirby Yates, San Diego Padres

In fantasy drafts, Hader is the consensus top reliever. There is some very minor cause for concern with how he’ll be used. Multi-inning saves might limit the number of games he participates in even if his innings totals outstrip other closers. His projected ratios are such that even a 10 save season from Hader merits his draft status. Yates is next off the board after posting the top closer season in 2019. While we have no reason to doubt, recent history hasn’t been kind to previous kings.

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Tier 2: Old Friends and New Studs (7)

Liam Hendriks, Oakland Athletics
Taylor Rogers, Minnesota Twins
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Ken Giles, Toronto Blue Jays
Ryan Pressly, Houston Astros
Brad Hand, Cleveland Indians
Edwin Diaz, New York Mets

While it’s tempting to bet on regression from Hendriks and Rogers, they both made tangible, replicable improvements in 2019. Hendriks, barring meltdown, has one of the most secure jobs in the league. Rogers does have some internal competition if he happens to struggle. I expect his combination of high strikeout rate, frequent ground balls, and few walks to deliver another profitable season.

Jansen and Giles are old standbys in the closer landscape. The Dodgers cutter specialist has bled velocity in recent years. With it, he’s declined from elite to merely reliable. He continues to deliver a strong strikeout to walk ratio; a leading indicator of ERA and WHIP. The Dodgers should win plenty of games – hopefully enough of them are close for Jansen to record saves Giles, while superb last season, is no stranger to long slumps. He was also limited by elbow issues which could morph into a bigger problem or continue to dog his availability for back-to-back saves.

A knee issue caused Pressly to fade in the second half of 2019. When healthy, he carried an impressive scoreless streak while delivering tasty strikeout and walk rates. Pressly is the total package, but his shelf life as the Astros closer may be limited. Roberto Osuna reported to camp out of shape and is making progress towards a return. This ranking assumes Osuna will take at least three weeks to reclaim the ninth inning job. If you're more bullish about Osuna, then Pressly should rank much lower in the tiers.

Hand finished 2019 on a sour note. His overall numbers still rated among the best closers including 13.19 K/9 and 34 saves. The Indians are well-positioned to pile up wins, and their lack of bullpen depth should force them to call upon Hand with frequency. Teammate James Karinchak might be the best non-closer in the league. The rest of the bullpen is shaky.

We’re giving Diaz the benefit of the doubt with his inclusion in this tier. Qualitatively, his stuff, strikeout, and walk rates add up to an elite profile. He was plagued by home runs and hard contact last season. In the past, he consistently avoided hard contact. There are many possible explanations: misuse by the Mets, tipped pitches, or a change of approach by opponents to name a few. If you catch vintage Diaz, you’re getting 15.00 K/9 and sparkling ratios at a discount. If he serves up a couple untimely long balls, he could be replaced by Dellin Betances or Seth Lugo.

 

Tier 3: Core Performers (6)

Nick Anderson, Tampa Bay Rays
Hansel Robles, Los Angeles Angels
Brandon Workman, Boston Red Sox
Hector Neris, Philadelphia Phillies
Raisel Iglesias, Cincinnati Reds
Sean Doolittle, Washington Nationals

Anderson would rank between Yates and Hendriks if he were a verified closer. With a lethal strikeout rate and few walks, there are few relievers who exhibit comparable talent (Diaz is one of them). It’s widely assumed the Rays will continue to use a fireman approach. If so, look to see Anderson in the seventh and eighth innings just as often as the ninth. Jose Alvarado, Diego Castillo, and Oliver Drake are among the alternate picks for saves.

The trio of Robles, Workman, and Neris could appear in any order. Pick your poison. Do you prefer the quiet competence of Robles? He only offers around a strikeout per inning despite strong production in the other categories. Want more whiffs? Workman has them, but they come at the cost of a high walk rate. You also have to buy into a fluky-looking low home run rate. Neris is shaking off the after-effects of COVID, and he has a history of painful two-week slumps when he’s not otherwise dominating the competition.

Iglesias had an uneven 2019 campaign during which he whined publicly about his frequent usage in tied games. Not a great look for a high leverage reliever! As a fly ball pitcher with half his games at homer-friendly Great American Ballpark, he’s prone to underperforming his stuff. He can be expected to provide around 11.00 K/9 with a solid walk rate and high-3.00s ERA.

Doolittle is a fly ball pitcher who leans on a frequently thrown, deceptive fastball. The league might be catching up to him – he was an early mover in the trend towards using high fastballs. Now he’s not nearly as unique. Doolittle has also dealt with injuries in every season since 2014. Daniel Hudson and Will Harris might absorb a portion of the Nationals saves.

 

Tier 4: Red Flag Vets (7)

Archie Bradley, Arizona Diamondbacks
Zack Britton, New York Yankees
Craig Kimbrel, Chicago Cubs
Alex Colome, Chicago White Sox
Kwang-Hyun Kim, St. Louis Cardinals
Mark Melancon, Atlanta Braves
Ian Kennedy, Kansas City Royals

Each of these seven have a glaring issue. They’re still plenty usable for fantasy purposes. For Bradley, the problem is a lack of a strength. He’s a classic second division closer. He’ll get the job done more often than not even if the Diamondbacks opponents never feel out of the game. Aside from saves, he probably won’t help or hinder any categories.

Britton’s shortcoming is his low strikeout rate. He makes up for it by limiting hard and fly ball contact – nobody is better at inducing soft grounders. Britton will eventually give way to Aroldis Chapman. Don’t count out Adam Ottavino for cheap saves. Britton may be needed to neutralize lefties in the eighth inning – especially against the Red Sox and Rays.

Kimbrel is one of the most successful closers in history. Everybody is edgy about using him after a brutal return to action in 2019. Injuries and a mid-season signing might bear responsibility for his bad outcomes, although there were red flags in 2018 too. If he gets a handle on home runs, he’s an easy pick for best closer value.

Colome thrives on avoiding barrels. He leans heavily on a cutter which he’ll pair with a slightly faster heater to keep opponents off balance. He doesn’t offer any standout categories. The White Sox are built to deliver a healthy total of late-inning leads.

Kim, a southpaw, was expected to start for the Cardinals. Instead, the club has decided he’ll be the closer with Carlos Martinez joining the rotation. He’s a command and control guy whose stuff could play up in relief. Snag a share but don’t be surprised if it’s a wild ride.

Melancon, like Bradley, is perfectly acceptable in the ninth inning. He’s not a dominant force, and the Braves have plenty of stingier alternatives. Those will be deployed in the earlier innings – at least so long as Melancon avoids blown saves.

Kennedy’s ascent from terrible starter to 30-save closer wasn’t inevitable. After recording a save on March 30, his next one didn’t come until May 5. He locked down his third save on May 30. Due to a terrible pitching staff, this is a club that might not produce many save opportunities. Then again, from June 7 through the end of the season, no closer notched more saves. Expect bland but tolerable fantasy stats.

 

Tier 5: Mess Hall (8)

Jose Leclerc, Texas Rangers
Joe Jimenez, Detroit Tigers
Brandon Kintzler, Miami Marlins
Tony Watson, Tyler Rogers, San Francisco Giants
Mychal Givens, Hunter Harvey, Baltimore Orioles
Wade Davis, Colorado Rockies
Kyle Crick, Nick Burdi, Pittsburgh Pirates
Matt Magill, Seattle Mariners

This will be a messy season. Usually, the Mess Hall isn’t so populated on the eve of Opening Day. Leclerc is the name we most associate with late-innings in Texas. The club plans to use him in a fireman role rather than as a closer. Rafael Montero is widely presumed to benefit from this arrangement. Old friend Cody Allen might enter the picture too. However, I received an unexpectedly glowing report yesterday about Jonathan Hernandez. He was a big stuff, no command guy in the past. Apparently, he was far and away their best reliever both during Spring Training and Summer Camp. Stash him in deeper formats.

Jimenez’s best trait is that he has no competition. At varying times, he’s exhibited every trait of a quality closer. We’re still waiting for him to piece it all together.

Kintzler is exceptionally bland - a sort of poor man’s Britton. There doesn’t appear to be much internal competition for Marlins saves.

The Giants will play mix and match with Watson and Rogers. As they both have platoonable traits, their usage should be dictated by the opposing lineup. Neither features a standout fantasy category.

Givens and Harvey would spur quite a few arguments if the Orioles projected to win more games. Strangely, Givens was terrible in 2019 while showing every sign of being his usual self. His was the Edwin Diaz Story II, starring a less popular actor than the first film in the franchise. Harvey looks the part of a closer. The Orioles want him to earn the role. He’s also struggled mightily with health over the years.

Now we’re really in the muck. Desperate fantasy managers can chase Rockies saves by deploying Davis or Scott Oberg. It’s better to avoid this disaster in the making even though Oberg was fine when closing last season.

With Keone Kela still sidelined, Crick and Burdi are in the mix for saves. Crick has middle reliever stuff with poor command. Burdi has a better closer profile, but he’s yet to stay on the field long enough to settle into the majors. He’s a wild card.

Just like last year, the Mariners haven’t bothered to provide us with any kind of usable closer. Magill is a decent middle reliever thrust into the limelight by injuries and general incompetence. We’ll see if a better alternative emerges.

 

Injured or Ill

Aroldis Chapman
Roberto Osuna
Keone Kela

 

Chapman is still recovering from COVID. A return date has yet to be set. Kela is also sidelined for an undetermined time with an undisclosed injury. Osuna is said to be out of shape and has yet to pitch in a game or scrimmage.

 

The Steals Department

 

Finding stolen bases on the waiver wire can be a challenge. I’ve uncovered a few ripe options for the plucking. Let’s focus specifically on the opening weekend since some usage patterns are still unknown. All ownership rates are for Yahoo.

Braves center fielder Ender Inciarte is lined up to face at least two right-handed pitchers this weekend. He’s only three-percent owned. Inciarte was one of the league leaders in stolen bases as recently as 2018. The Mets tend to allow droves of stolen bases, especially when bat-first catcher Wilson Ramos starts. They haven’t committed to a rotation after Jacob deGrom. It looks like Steven Matz and Michael Wacha are lined up to start on Saturday and Sunday. The deGrom and Wacha matchups are when you’d want to use Inciarte.

While not as prolific on the basepaths, Tigers outfielder Cameron Maybin is expected to bat leadoff. The Yankees made some adjustments to his approach last season which seem to have unlocked a new Maybin – one who can fully benefit from his copious physical tools. At just two-percent owned, Maybin might be one of the best kept secrets on the waiver wire. He’ll face the Reds this weekend – a better than neutral matchup from a base running perspective.

With Hunter Dozier on the COVID-list, it’s all but certain there will be room for Franchy Cordero to start from day one. No low-owned player (3%-owned) can match his combination of raw power and speed. He’s also a risk to your batting average and OBP. The downside might look like Lewis Brinson. You may wish to wait until after his opening series with the Indians.

The Red Sox seem optimistic about Jose Peraza (5%-owned). They believe he has another gear to crack. The speedy infielder has a friendly matchup against a terrible Orioles pitching staff. Opposing catcher Pedro Severino doesn’t control the running game especially well.

The Padres have three very different targets for swipes. Wil Myers (31%-owned) is a familiar veteran who consistently produces at a 20-20 pace. Adding the designated hitter should help him to stay in the lineup on a daily basis. Offseason acquisition Trent Grisham used to be a base thief in the lower minors, but he’s now a 10-steal guy over a full season. Deep on the bench, unowned Edward Olivares might draw a couple starts versus lefties in the opening weekend. Reportedly, Olivares outperformed Cordero in camp, making the latter available via trade. Unfortunately, the Diamondbacks do a good job of preventing steals.

Last and least is Jarrod Dyson, an older one-category burner. He has a three-game series against the Cardinals and their all right-handed rotation. Few teams attempt steals against Yadier Molina.

Brad Johnson

You can read more from Brad Johnson on Rotoworld, FanGraphs, and RotoFanatic. Find him on Patreon and Twitter @BaseballATeam.