In the early fantasy draft season, Chris Martin was considered a co-option for saves for the Braves. He throws strikes with an improving arm, but his 2021 value was based on 18 excellent innings (1.00 ERA and 0.61 WHIP). Martin worked as a closer in Japan in 2016 (21 saves). At age 34, his arm is improving in the majors while being more of a backup plan if Will Smith struggles. He pitched two no-hit shutout innings with three strikeouts so far in spring training.
A summer battle with Covid knocked Will Smith out of the save conversation for Atlanta last year. He looked more than worthy of pitching in the ninth over two seasons for the Giants (48 saves) while being tough to hit and owning a rising strikeout rate. Smith dominated over his first five appearances in March (no runs, one hit, and no walks over five innings with 10 strikeouts). A fantasy owner should be able to draft him with confidence over the final days for fantasy drafts.
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The top two choices for saves for the Marlins early in 2021 are Anthony Bass and Yimi Garcia. My bet is in the Garcia camp.
Bass offers a veteran arm who lacks a difference-maker arm at age 33. He earned 12 saves over the past two seasons with the Mariners and Blue Jays, which was more due to injuries. Over 7.1 innings or work in spring training, he allowed two runs and nine baserunners with six strikeouts.
Garcia has the talent to close injuries cost him development time in the majors from 2018 to 2020. Last season he allowed one run over 15 innings with 19 strikeouts for the Marlins. His arm has been up and down so far in March (five runs over seven innings with nine strikeouts.
New York Mets
Edwin Diaz failed to live up to expectations in saves (32) in his first two seasons with the Mets, and his walk rate remains a concern. His ceiling is immense with better command, and he should have a clean ride to the closing role for New York in 2021. Over five innings in spring training, Diaz hasn’t given up a run or issued a walk with seven strikeouts. His foundation skill set gives him the tools to be the best closer in the majors in 2021 if his walk rate approaches his 2018 success (17 over 73.1 innings).
Over six seasons in the majors, Trevor May has seven saves while starting his career as a starter. He has a 3.19 ERA and 153 strikeouts over his 113 innings, which puts him next to save with the Mets with Seth Lugo injured. May allowed two runs over six innings in March with seven strikeouts.
The coin toss for saves in Philly remains a dead heat between Archie Bradley and Hector Neris. Both players pitched well in spring training with no disaster showings.
Neris has more experience (72 career saves) with a higher ceiling in strikeouts at this point in his career. His arm can have peaks and valleys with occasional battles with home runs. He allowed a pair of runs over 6.2 innings with no walks and nine strikeouts in spring training.
Bradley has a 2.95 ERA and 259 strikeouts over 234.2 innings since converting to a reliever while picking up 28 saves. He has a 1.13 ERA in March over eight innings with five strikeouts.
The dark horse for saves for Philadelphia this year is Jose Alvarado. He brings a big fastball while batting walks over his recent years with Tampa. Alvarado battled injuries over the past two seasons after pitching well in 2018 (2.39 ERA and 80 strikeouts over 64 innings). Based on his spring training (no runs over six innings with one walk and 10 strikeouts), he deserves a chance at saves if the Phillies are willing to use a lefty arm in the ninth inning.
Last season fantasy owners wrote Brad Hand off after fading in 2019 (3.30 ERA). He converted all 16 saves for Cleveland, leading to him picking up a new closing role for the Nationals. Hand has 103 saves over the previous four seasons with 323 strikeouts over 230.2 innings. Despite no competition for saves with Washington, his arm hasn’t been sharp in spring training (four runs and 12 baserunners over five innings) while walking five batters.
Craig Kimbrel lost momentum over his two seasons with the Cubs (6.00 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, and 58 strikeouts over 36 innings). Over this span, he battled some injuries while giving up 11 home runs. Fantasy owners have had a love/hate relationship with him this draft season. They bet on his career resume and a bounceback season in January and February. Still, a couple of ugly performances in spring training led to Kimbrel falling by many rounds in drafts. His fastball is trending up over his last couple of games while pitching two shutouts innings with no walks and three strikeouts.
The closing battle in Cinci looks messy and unclear as we approach the end of March. Amri Garrett battled a forearm issue in early spring, leading to only two electric innings or work (no runs, no walks, and six strikeouts). His first step in seizing the ninth-inning role for the Reds is improving his command.
Lucas Sims also missed time in March with a right elbow issue. In his only appearance, he allowed two runs and three hits over one inning. I don’t believe in him as a live closing option due to questionable command.
The Reds have pushed Tejay Antone toward a starting role this March, but his arm may be better served in a late-inning role. He added velocity to his fastball, showing in his strikeouts (45 over 35.1 innings) in 2020. Over 7.2 innings of work in spring training, Antone has a 1.17 ERA and 13 strikeouts. He’s missed time over the last week or so with a hip issue.
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With Devin Williams pitching so well last year in the Brewers’ bullpen, Josh Hader lost some of his value in drafts. His ceiling is electric, and Milwaukee will pitch him over multiple innings. Over the past three seasons, he has 2.66 ERA, 312 strikeouts, and 62 saves over 176 innings. In his career, almost one-third (31.8 percent) of his hits allowed have left the ballpark. The Brewer stated over the last week that Hader would be used more in the ninth inning in 2021. He has a difference-maker arm even if he doesn’t get all the saves. Hader gave up three runs over 5.1 innings in March with a dozen strikeouts.
Devin Williams came in spring training with a right shoulder issue, which led to him being brought along slowly. His stats from last year paint an electric picture, but his minor league resume was not as elite. Williams has a plus changeup with closing upside if he repeats his breakthrough season. He gave up one run over 1.2 innings with two walks and three strikeouts in his two spring training appearances.
The top option for saves in Pittsburgh early in the season is Richard Rodriguez. He only has five career saves on his major league resume, but he did shine over the 60-game season in 2020 (2.70 ERA and 34 strikeouts over 23.1 innings). Rodriguez battled home runs in 2019, which is something to keep an eye on this year. Over his first five games in March, he allowed three runs and nine hits over 4.1 innings with eight strikeouts.
Kyle Crick tends to walks too many batters to be trusted in the ninth inning. He gave up one run over 6.2 innings in spring training with 10 strikeouts.
The Pirates may turn to David Bednar for saves at some point in 2021 if his right arm is ready to handle major league batters. Over four seasons in the minors, he has a 2.70 ERA with 303 strikeouts, and 39 saves over 219.1 innings. In his two chances with the Padres over the past two years, Bednar posted a 6.75 ERA over 17.1 innings with 19 strikeouts. He allowed one run over 7.1 innings in March with one walk and 14 strikeouts.
St. Louis Cardinals
When the regular season opens in 2021, there will be some fantasy anticipation with who gets the first save in St. Louis. Jordan Hicks has a big fastball, but he needs to throw strikes to land the job all season. Hicks gave up one run over 2.2 innings in spring training with four walks and two strikeouts.
Giovanny Gallegos hasn’t been sharp in March (six runs and 14 base runners over 5.2 innings with eight strikeouts), which may be the window Hicks needs to earn the closing job out of the gate.
The Cardinals have pitched Alex Reyes out of the bullpen in spring training, leaving in the mix for saves. He allowed two runs over 6.2 innings with 10 strikeouts.
The early favorite for saves in Arizona is Joakim Soria. His arm played well in the ninth inning from 2008 to 2010, which led to 115 saves. Over the past decade, he converted 91 saves with a 3.56 ERA and 1.19 WHIP over 470.2 innings. Soria can strikeout batters at age 36 with reasonable command. His spring stats (five runs over 3.2 innings with three strikeouts) suggest he still has job loss risk.
The Diamondback sent J.B. Bukauskas back to the minors in mid-March. His arm has been electric in spring training (no runs, no hits, or walks over five innings with 10 strikeouts). He has a high 90s fastball with a swing and miss slider. Bukauskas is a dark horse for saves at some point in 2021 if he can continue to throw strikes, something he struggled with in the minors.
Stefan Crichton is only a flier for saves, but I don’t believe he has the skill set to take the job and run with it. Over three innings of work in March, Crichton hasn’t allowed a run with five strikes. He’ll start the year at age 29 with only five saves on his major league resume.
The Rockies named Bard as their closer in mid-March. After missing six seasons, he handled himself reasonably well last year for Colorado (3.65 ERA and 27 strikeouts over 24.2 innings). His command still needs work, which may lead to some off days in the ninth inning. Bard hasn’t given up a run over five innings in spring training with six strikeouts.
Scott Oberg is next in line for saves. He tossed four shutout innings in March with four strikeouts to remain a phone call away from closing.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Despite 11 years of experience in the majors with 312 saves, Kenley Jansen had a fade feel in the early fantasy draft season. Last year his fastball and command moved in the wrong direction. He pitched well in spring training (one run over six innings with 10 strikeouts), which led to rekindled interest in him in the late fantasy drafts.
Corey Knebel looks to be regaining his once electric form after giving one run over six innings with seven strikeouts. If Jansen trips up, Knebel will only be a phone call away.
San Diego Padres
The closing dart for the Padres could land on multiple players as the season moves on in 2021. Drew Pomeranz brings success over 20 appearances last year (1.45 ERA), but he is battling a forearm issue.
The inside track appears to be favoring Emilio Pagan after underperforming in 2020. He saves 20 games in 2019 for the Rays, but Pagan can battle home runs allowed. He allowed two runs, eight base runners, and two home runs over six innings in March.
Keone Kela has the most closing experience (28 saves) in San Diego’s bullpen behind Mark Melancon, but he never pitched over 61 innings in the majors. His fastball sits in the mid-90s while still having a closing pulse in March (three runs over six innings with eight strikeouts).
San Francisco Giants
Jake McGee has emerged as the top closer for the Giants after looking sharp in spring training (no runs over 6.1 innings with no walks and eight strikeouts). He tends to be a one-dimensional arm that relies on his fastball over 90 percent of the time.
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