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Relief pitcher preview: Just like last season, this position comes cheap

2015 fantasy baseball relief pitcher preview: Breakouts, sleepers, busts, early rankings and more

There’s a famous quote that gets attributed variously to Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, the Bible and John Maynard Keynes that has made its way into common lore. Depending on the alleged speaker, it goes something like this: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.

Whoever did was certainly onto something. This can be applied to a number of situations, fantasy baseball included. You may think that one or more of your leaguemates are fools, but there is a sure way they can remove all doubt by speaking out. All they have to do is be the first person to take a closer.

Quick links: Breakout | Sleeper | Deep sleeper | Bust | Prospect | Rankings

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The closer position is the most volatile in baseball from year to year. Just two of last year’s top 10 in saves were also in the top 10 in 2013 (Craig Kimbrel and Greg Holland). Jim Johnson tied with Kimbrel for the league lead with 50 saves in 2013. Grant Balfour and Sergio Romo each locked down 38. All of them were out of the closer’s chair by the middle of June, never to return.

Last year, 11 teams—the Brewers, Orioles, Pirates, Cubs, Mets, Indians, Ahtletics, Rays, Astros, Angels and White Sox—had a different pitcher lead the team in saves than the one who began the year as its closer. Six teams—the Angels, Giants, Orioles, Padres, Nationals and Rays—had two relievers with at least 10 saves. Fernando Rodney, Steve Cishek, Francisco Rodriguez, Zach Britton and Mark Melancon were not high on anyone’s cheat sheet last year, but Rodney led the league in saves and all five were top-15 closers by the end of the year.


All of the above should make it clear that it never makes sense to pay a premium for relievers. Aroldis Chapman is the best closer in the game today. If you end up with him on your team, he’s going to give you a lot of strikeouts and contribute positively to your rates. At the same time, he’ll get four innings in a good week, and he’s coming off the board earlier than Yu Darvish in a typical draft. Do not be a fool. Let someone else speak out and be the first person—and second and third—person to take a closer.

When we talk about relievers, we really mean closers for most fantasy leagues. Yes, there are guys, like Dellin Betances and Wade Davis last year, who have immense value for what they bring in strikeouts and the rate categories, even if they aren’t getting saves. There are also leagues that use holds or saves plus holds as a category, and in those leagues the pool of useful relievers deepens. If this describes your league, you’ll want to make sure to check out the bottom of our tiered rankings for some of the league’s best setup men. Those guys should also be on the radar of owners in tradition leagues, because today’s setup men are tomorrow’s closers.

Dodgers shouldn't sweat losing Kenley Jansen to foot injury

For the most part, however, we’re really evaluating closers when we look at the position. Chapman, Kimbrel and Holland aren’t the most valuable closers because we expect them to lead the league in saves. As our quick study of the top-10 save getters the last two years should tell you, it’s impossible to predict with a lot of certainty who is going to be at the top of the leaderboard. No, Chapman, Kimbrel and Holland are in a tier by themselves because they get a lot of strikeouts and have unimpeachable job security. The saves will come organically. Whenever you’re going to draft a closer you have to ask yourself the following two questions:

Is he the best strikeout closer on the board? How secure is he in the closer’s role?

By focusing on strikeouts and job security, and by not getting involved in the position too early, you can build a strong bullpen on the cheap.

• ​POSITION PRIMERS: SP | RP | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | C

Breakout: Hector Rondon, Chicago Cubs

With Jose Veras falling apart from seemingly his first day with the Cubs, Rondon got a chance to take the closer’s job last May. Coming back from two previous elbow surgeries, he saved 29 games in 33 opportunities and struck out 63 batters in 63 1/3 innings. Rondon has all the stuff of a dominant closer, with an average fastball that sits at 96 mph, a biting slider and a sinker to mix things up (he used it 20% of the time last year). Rondon walked 15 batters and gave up just two homers last year, and his 2.26 FIP ranked 15th among relievers. The Cubs do have other options if he falters (Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop), but Rondon is the leader of a potentially great three-headed bullpen monster in Chicago.

Sleeper: Brad Boxberger, Tampa Bay Rays

As of this writing, Boxberger’s average draft position of 255.89 makes him a prime target for the wait-on-your-closers set. With Jake McGee set to begin the year on the DL, Boxberger will have a chance to win the closer’s role, and keep it when McGee returns. The 26-year-old struck out 104 batters in 64 2/3 innings last season (not a typo) thanks to a wicked fastball-changeup combo. He gets about 14 mph difference on the pitches, throws them out of the same arm slot, and pounds the bottom of the strike zone with both, making it near impossible for hitters to distinguish between the two. He’s exactly the type of player were thinking of when we talk about the building blocks for a strong, inexpensive bullpen.

Deep sleeper: Ken Giles, Philadelphia Phillies

It's no secret that the Phillies would have liked to unload Jonathan Papelbon and his albatross contract yesterday. The sooner he's in another uniform the better from Philadelphia's perspective, and it's at least a decent bet that Ruben Amaro Jr. eventually finds a taker. When he does, Giles will slide into the closer's role, for which it seems he was born. The 24-year-old fanned 64 batters in 45 2/3 innings last year, allowing six earned runs and rolling up a 1.34 FIP and 0.79 WHIP. He's all power fastball-power slider, with his heater averaging 97.2 mph. He could use a changeup to keep lefties honest, but his existing offerings are so good that he can easily succeed with them against all comers.

Bust: Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles

Britton may have rescued the Orioles’ bullpen last year, saving 37 games and posting a 1.65 ERA, but he’s one of the best bets to be out of a closer’s job early in the season. His 21.8% strikeout rate was third lowest among relievers with at least 20 saves (read: regular closers) last year, and his 8.1% walk rate was the 10th highest of that same group. Add in the fact that he was the beneficiary of a .215 BABIP and 82.3% strand rate, and you have the cocktail for a prime bust. Britton’s ADP makes him the No. 13 closer off the board. Stay away.

Prospect: Aaron Sanchez, Blue Jays

By their very nature, there shouldn’t really be any prospects that qualify here, since the actual pitching prospects project as starters. Such is the case with Sanchez. The Blue Jays have long groomed him for the rotation, and he’s going to get a shot to win the fifth starter’s job in spring training. He did, however look great in a 24-game stint out of the bullpen last year, allowing just four earned runs and striking out 27 batters in 33 innings. The team could very well decide to plug fellow prospect Daniel Norris or Marco Estrada into the final spot of the rotation, and anoint Sanchez the new closer. There’s no doubt the 22-year-old would be more valuable as a starter, but the closer position makes organizations do bizarre things. Keep an eye on what the Blue Jays do with Sanchez, as well as Norris and Estrada, during spring training.

Early relief pitcher rankings

Tier 1

1. Aroldis Chapman
2. Craig Kimbrel
​3. Greg Holland

Tier 2

4. Dellin Betances
​5. David Robertson

Tier 3

6. Mark Melancon
7. Cody Allen
8. Koji Uehara
9. Trevor Rosenthal
10. Glen Perkins
11. Kenley Jansen
12. Hector Rondon
13. Huston Street

Tier 4

14. Drew Storen
15. Jonathan Papelbon
16. Steve Cishek
17. Fernando Rodney
18. Tyler Clippard
19. Joaquin Benoit
20. Santiago Casilla
21. Addison Reed

Tier 5

22. Jenrry Mejia
23. Jake McGee
24. Neftali Feliz
25. Luke Gregerson
26. Zach Britton
27. Joe Nathan
28. Wade Davis
39. Brad Boxberger

Tier 6

30. Ken Giles
31. Jonathan Broxton
32. Andrew Miller
33. Sean Doolittle​
34. Aaron Sanchez
35. Francisco Rodriguez
36. LaTroy Hawkins
37. Sergio Romo
38. Brett Cecil
39. Adam Ottavino
40. Bobby Parnell
41. Joel Peralta
42. Casey Janssen
43. Rafael Soriano
44. Chad Qualls
45. Kevin Quackenbush
46. Danny Farquhar
47. Joe Smith
48. Pat Neshek
49. Tony Watson
50. Daniel Norris


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