Fantasy Baseball Position Preview - Closers In Waiting
Andrew Cooper breaks down his top save potential relievers who are not currently slated to start the year as their team's closer.
So far we’ve given you two parts of our four part reliever series. We’ve given you the guys who are locked in to the closer role, making them the best bet for saves season long. And we’ve given you the guys who are current front-runners for the role now but might be shaky fantasy choices given their situation. Now we are going to look at the group of guys that is obviously the most fun – the ones who could steal a closer role and carry you to fantasy greatness. Everyone dreams of finding that late bullpen arm who notches you 25+ saves and lets you smugly dump on the poor saps in your league who drafted his predecessor. These are those guys.
If you’ve been following along so far, you’ll notice that there were two teams that were conspicuously left out of the first two articles. And that wasn’t an accident. The reason these two teams were left out is simple: we don’t feel the front runner is your current best bet for saves season long and saves are the focus of these first three articles (we’ll get you your holds in the fourth installment, you deep league animals) For most teams, we believe the incumbent is most likely to lead the team in saves over the season. For these two teams, we feel strongly that that might not be the case.
Likely Opening Day Closer: Yoshihisa Hirano
Hirano has closer experience, not only with the Diamondbacks, but for years as a star closer in Japan. He’s been a sneaky source of holds the last couple years pitching in a lot of high leverage situations but he’s not a great source of ancillary stats as he’s your quintessential ground ball pitcher. He essentially plays the 50/50 guessing game of throwing a fastball half the time and then a splitfinger fastball with identical delivery that drops off the table, resulting in his 47% ground ball rate over his two MLB seasons. Because the next player we are going to mention is nursing a should injury, Hirano should open the year as the closer and may make for an interesting guy to draft late and use as trade bait.
Our Projected Long Term Closer: Matt Magill
Matt Magill finished the season as the closer and he’s our best bet to take over the role at some point this year. And the biggest piece of info for us is this tidbit from manager Scott Servais via 710 ESPN Seattle when asked about Yoshihisa Hirano .
"We don't want to take opportunities away from our young players but understanding the games we have leads, early in the season, let's give it to the veteran guy, let's try to hang on and win those games. I think Hirano is an important pickup for us," - Mariner’s manager, Scott Servais
This essentially tells you all you need to know. “We are trying to win games, especially early, but we don’t want to hold back the younger guys”. The reality is that Seattle has an over/under win total of 68 games and are +10,000 to win the AL West so they should realize sooner or later that it’s time to give the young guys a chance. Hirano just turned 36.
San Francisco Giants
Likely Opening Day Closer: Tony Watson
This situation is near identical to the one discussed above. The team is bad (O/U 69.5 wins, +10,000 to win the division). Watson has experience as a closer but he’s not young (turns 35 in May). He could hold the job down and provide reasonable stats but he’s unlikely to be the reliable arm he was for the Pirates years ago and the strikeout numbers were down last season.
Our Projected Long Term Closer: Shaun Anderson
He’s currently stretched out and auditioning for a rotation spot though that hasn’t been going great after a couple shaky outings, so he’s projected to wind up in the pen. In fact, they’ve already worked him into that role a little in spring training and he picked up a save on two K’s while giving up a homerun this past Sunday. Our rationale is the same here as it is above – the wheels should fall off quickly for the Giants. If Watson is any good, he’s a trade piece. If he’s bad, the job is up for grabs. The likelihood of someone else finishing the season in that role is good and our money is on the former third round pick of the Red Sox in 2016.
Now let’s get into the fun guys. The ones you might want to take a stab on that could pay big dividends if things go the way we might suspect. Here are some guys who could outright steal the closing job this year and make you look like a genius. These first three guys are ones I’d personally draft before any of the four potential closers for the woeful Giants or Mariners listed above.
Will Smith –Atlanta Braves
We alluded to Will Smith being included in this article and here he is. And why wouldn’t he be? Look around this part of the list. Do you see anyone that has notched 34 saves before (in the previous season, no less). Do you see anyone that just got paid over $13 million AAV for three years? Mark Melancon turns 35 this month and is in the twilight of his career while Will Smith at 30 has been better than he’s ever been the last two seasons. Vegas has the Braves as the favorites in the NL East and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who could be top 10 in saves at this point of the draft. His K/9 of 13.22 last year makes it all the more enticing.
Scott Oberg - Colorado Rockies
This Massachusetts native and UConn alum has flashed all the right stuff in terms of what you want from a closer. Over the last two years he’s kept his WHIP and strikeouts per inning near one, his ERA under 2.50, he’s pitched in high leverage situations, he’s kept the longballs to a minimum (Tony Watson had a HR/9 of 1.5 last year in the most pitcher friendly park in the league while Oberg was at 0.8 pitching in the least pitcher friendly). That 1.5 HR/9 rate is coincidentally what incumbent closer Wade Davis was at last year while sporting a thick 8.65 ERA over 50 games. The leash has to be short at this point and Oberg is the next man up for a ballclub that should win some games. Of course pitching most of your games in Colorado isn’t ideal but Oracle Park is a great place to pitch within the division and, with the humidor, Chase Field isn’t so bad either so not every Rockies-Diamondbacks game is a blood bath like it once was.
Daniel Hudson – Washington Nationals
We said earlier that we don’t predict injuries but it’s hard to ignore the injury plagued history of Sean Doolittle with his various knee ailments. We discussed that briefly in our last article in terms of why we believe Doolittle was a little shaky. When it comes to finding guys who could sneak into the closer role and disappear into the night with it, you still need that open window to get in through and, as far as teams projected to win ~90 games, the Nationals have one of the more open windows. Hudson sported a shiny 2.47 ERA last year and he was even better once he landed on the Nationals (1.44) so he’s arguably our best bet to rack up a ton of saves this year despite not being atop the depth chart to start the season.
Diego Castillo – Tampa Bay Rays
This player needs to be mentioned here because he’s arguably the most flexible reliever in fantasy and becomes infinitely more valuable in a number of formats. And that’s mostly thanks to how the Tampa Bay Rays have operated the last couple years. That’s not to say Castillo isn’t a great pitcher in his own right – he’s 25 years old with a 10.5 strikeout per nine and 3.53 FIP over his first two seasons which is quite solid. He struck out 81 batters last year which was more than 10+ of the closers mentioned in the first two articles. The two big things for us are that the Rays aren’t shy about mixing him in at the very back end of games(he got 8 saves last year so with his high leveraging pitching he’s valuable in saves+holdsor points leagues that have a slightly higher value for saves than holds). The other is that his deployment as a starter has allowed him to have SP eligibility on Yahoo and similar sites that have a 5 start threshold for the previous season. If your league is a daily start league where everyone fills their RP and P spots with relievers every day, the fact he can be left in a SP spot is a pretty significant bonus. For instance, if it’s a deep liked with 5 SP spots, 5 RP spots that counts holds as a stat, many teams will probably have 5 RPs going every day but, if you own Diego Castillo and José Leclerc who are both SP eligible, you can now have 7 RP going every day.
Ryan Helsley – St. Louis Cardinals
Lost in the shuffle a bit between the talk about Giovanny Gallegos ’s great WHIP and the potential for CarMart or Alex Reyes to join the pen as closer is this 25 year old 100 MPH mustard-slinger lurking in the pen. If you look at how Jordan Hicks stole the job last time around with his blazing fastball, it’s not crazy to imagine a world where the Cards use their other assets strategically and just put the prototypical cannon at the back end. His curveball is below average and his fastball doesn’t have the insane movement that Hicks’s had but there’s something about that velocity that mesmerizes all of us, including MLB scouts and managers.
Hunter Harvey – Baltimore Orioles
Let’s look at some of our boxes here. Young player with good pedigree? Check (former first round pick that just turned 25). Flamethrower? Check (fastball that AVERAGED over 100 MPH in August last year. Not cracked 100 a couple times – averaged). Incumbent who isn’t a world beater? Check (Mychal Givens is a solid reliever and he should make a great set up guy for another team before the trade deadline). All signs point to Harvey getting the ball at the end of games at some point though obviously for what will likely be a pretty bad team. But in his very short stint with Baltimore last year he struck out 11 batters in 6.1 innings which leaves us wanting to see more. There are already rumblings from manager Brandon Hyde that he’s in the mix as of now so I’d certainly keep a close eye on the situation. It’s just too bad there won’t be many saves to go around on that team.
James Karinchak – Cleveland Indians
James Karinchak has the biggest obstacle of any of these guys in my opinion in Brad Hand . But beyond that, he’s a young pitcher with a similar profile to some of the others mentioned so he deserves acknowledgement. He has an upper 90s fast ball and a massive hook that provides swing and misses (16% overall swinging strike rate last year puts him on par with guys like Yates, Jansen, Will Smith etc.). Hand has shown some signs of decline and we’ve noted that Francona won’t be able to use his left/right one batter strategy any longer with the new rules so Karinchak should find himself second on the depth chart to start the year. And he could eventually find himself at the very top if he continues to impress.