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Questionable Closers: An Early Look at Some Unsettled Bullpens

As anyone who has played fantasy baseball for even five minutes knows, bullpens around the league are always in flux. There are fewer and fewer closers who are no doubt, always in for the ninth inning, always healthy, never slumping, and always celebrating wins for their team. We're seeing more and more teams go with some form of committees, with a lot of teams finally realizing that the best way to use your team's best reliever is to not pigeonhole him into one inning, but instead to put him in when he's most needed. Still, while the closer position seems to be losing some value in real baseball, it remains a critical one in fantasy baseball (although even in that world, holds and saves+holds are becoming more popular stats, devaluing the closer even more).

It's still early and there's plenty of Grapefruit and Cactus League to go before Opening Day, but we do seem to have more solidly established closers than usual at this time of year. The only thing about bullpens that we can guarantee is that if you took a screenshot of our Closers and Saves Depth Charts right now, it would be very, very different come October. But again, for now? Some pretty firmly established roles and only a few bullpens that are truly questionable.

Let's take a look at some of those questionable bullpens and see just why there are questions and maybe try to answer a few of them.

Be sure to check all of our fantasy baseball lineup tools and weekly lineup resources:

 

Tampa Bay Rays

The Tampa Bay Rays and a settled, predictable bullpen are just not things that go together. Emilio Pagan was the closest thing the Rays had to a traditional closer last season, finishing with 20 saves, but he was traded to the San Diego Padres over the winter. Diego Castillo had eight saves and 17 holds in 2019, but also served as the opener six times. Jose Alvarado was third on the team in saves with seven. Chaz Roe ended up leading the team with 23 holds and Colin Poche picked up 16 of his own.

So which of those guys will close for the Rays in 2020? Castillo and Alvarado will probably be part of the committee, but that committee looks like it will be led by Nick Anderson. Anderson was acquired from the Miami Marlins at the trade deadline last season, and he put up a 2.11 ERA/1.19 xFIP, 0.66 WHIP, and 52.6 K% in his 21 1/3 innings as a Rays pitcher. If he had the role to himself, we could be looking at a potentially elite fantasy closer, but the way Rays manager Kevin Cash uses his relief pitchers makes any Rays reliever a risky fantasy prospect in standard leagues. In leagues where holds count, however, Anderson is a must own, and Castillo and Alvarado make for solid depth pieces as well.

Prediction: Anderson should lead the team in saves, but the closer carousel in Tampa Bay will limit him to about 25 if he stays healthy.

 

Seattle Mariners

The Seattle Mariners bullpen was a bit of a mess last season, and there's not much reason to think it won't be at least a bit messy again in 2020. Roenis Elias led the team in 2019 with 14 saves, followed by Anthony Bass and Matt Magill with five each. Then came Anthony Swarzak with three and Hunter Strickland with two. Only one of those pitchers remains with the Mariners for 2020. Elias and Strickland are on the Nationals, Swarzak is with the Phillies. Matt Magill is the only pitcher who had more than one save for the Seattle Mariners in 2019 to remain with the team for 2020. That gave him the early lead for the 2020 closer's role. He was good with the Mariners last season after a mediocre start to the season as a member of the Minnesota Twins. As a Mariner, Magill tossed 22 1/3 innings, posted a 3.63 ERA/3.34 xFIP, and put up a strong 29.2 K% with a 5.2 BB%. Now, Magill is a journeyman 30-year-old with a career 4.52 ERA and 2018 was his first real big league season (after six starts in 2013 and five relief appearances in 2016), so expectation, while already mild, need to be tempered.

While Seattle does have some exciting young arms in the bullpen, Magill's only real competition at this point is veteran free agent signing Yoshihisa Hirano. Hirano had closing experience in Japan before joining the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2018, so while he's only earned four big league saves, he's shown the ability to close things out in the past. Hirano was pretty good (4.01 xFIP) and very lucky (2.44 ERA) in 2018, then similarly good (4.24 xFIP) but much less lucky (4.75 ERA) in 2019. He has a career 24.2 K% to go with a 9.1 BB%. He isn't going to blow guys away or strike out the side too often, but he's a solid veteran reliever in a bullpen full of upside kids. He's the early front-runner in Seattle, but Magill could jump back into the conversation if he recovers well from his early spring shoulder issues.

Prediction: Magill would be the more intriguing fantasy prospect, but Hirano seems more likely to get the nod and should be solid enough to keep the role for most of the season (unless he's dealt at the deadline). 

 

Atlanta Braves

The Atlanta Braves have a ton of guys with closing experience in their bullpen. The "Questionable" tag for this bullpen is more about an embarrassment of riches than a lack of options. Mark Melancon, Will Smith, Shane Green, and Luke Jackson all had at least a dozen saves in 2019. Add Chris Martin's 18 holds from 2019, Darren O'Day's 155 career holds, and even A.J. Minter's still-there-somewhere upside, and you have the makings of a seriously elite bullpen. Mark Melancon wrapped up 2019 as closer for the Braves, going a perfect 11-for-11 in save opportunities with a 3.86 ERA/2.16 xFIP. Melancon had a small 21-inning sample size with Atlanta, but he put up the best strikeout numbers (27.0 K%) and showed the best control (2.3 BB%) of his career. So it would make sense to assume that Melancon would be the closer in 2020, right?

Well, maybe. Besides having plenty of qualified internal candidates already, the Braves went out and signed the best relief pitcher on the free agent market, former San Francisco Giants closer Will Smith. Smith was excellent last season, saving 34 games in 38 chances. He put up a 2.76 ERA/2.73 xFIP and a 37.4 K% with just an 8.2 BB%. For now, the Braves are saying they'll use Melancon in the ninth inning and their best reliever, Smith, in the eighth and in earlier, high leverage situations. They seem ready to use Smith in the "fireman" role that's becoming more and more popular over the last few seasons.

Prediction: Melancon will be solid and should keep the ninth inning mostly to himself, but Smith will get in there when there are tough lefties due up. Melancon could get close to 30 saves and Smith should get about a dozen of his own. Smith will be the better option in holds leagues because of better rate stats.

 

New York Mets

The New York Mets bullpen was supposed to have been fixed heading into last season. They had Edwin Diaz. They had Jeurys Familia. They had the eighth and ninth innings locked down, right? Then Diaz posted a 5.59 ERA. Then Familia posted a 5.70 ERA. Seth Lugo more or less took over the bullpen and was one of the few bright spots in Queens. So what did the Mets do to address their relief corps? They signed one of the best relievers in baseball...from 2018. Dellin Betances pitched just 2/3 of an inning in 2019, but he still got a one-year deal for over $10 million from the Mets in 2020. His upside is undeniable, as he's been a ~3 fWAR pitcher twice and is an absolute strikeout machine when healthy. But to a bullpen full of question marks, the Mets added one more.

Diaz was extremely unlucky in 2019, and despite a step back from his elite 2018, he certainly deserved better results. His 5.59 ERA does not match his 3.07 xFIP or his 2.63 SIERA. He was still excellent and making batters swing and miss (39.0 K%) and showed acceptable control (8.7 BB%). The main issue with Diaz's 2019 was letting batters get under the ball, as he allowed the worst home run rate of his career by far (2.33 HR/9 compared to a previous high of 1.36 and a career number of 1.27) and induced the fewest ground balls (36.7 GB% compared to a career number of 41.5% and a 2018 rate of 44.4%). There's less hope for Familia, who just couldn't throw strikes and has a 5.05 SIERA to match. Diaz should have every chance to close and is a prime bounce back candidate in 2020. Betances will be waiting in the wings, if healthy, to jump into the ninth if Diaz struggles again though. Lugo should remain in more of a fireman role, but he could mix in for saves too if things go Extremely Mets again this season.

Prediction: Diaz bounces back and returns as an elite fantasy option. He'll save 35 games or more, with Betances (if healthy) reprising his role as a good-even-without-saves fantasy reliever.

 

San Francisco Giants

The San Francisco Giants lost their closer, Will Smith, to the Atlanta Braves through free agency. They're left with a very shallow bullpen where the most experienced relief pitcher has 30 career saves, and none since 2017. That's Tony Watson, who worked in a short relief role last year and pitched 54 innings of 4.17 ERA/4.89 xFIP ball. He showed good control, with a 5.2 BB%, but didn't miss many bats with just a 17.8 K%. He's generally been good at limiting home runs, but struggled a bit in that regard in 2019, allowing a 1.50 HR/9 rate, the highest of his career. He's penciled in as the closer for now, solely based on his experience and that lack thereof in the rest of the bullpen. Shaun Anderson showed some flashes of competency in a late-inning role last season, but he's being stretched out as a starter this spring in hopes of being a member of the rotation once games start to count.

Other arms in the Giants bullpen are Trevor Gott, Jandel Gustave, and Tyler Rogers. Gott had mostly solid rate stats out of the bullpen last season and picked up the first save of his career, but had a bloated 4.44 ERA. He'll likely work the eighth inning but could get a chance to close as well. Gustave posted a strong 2.96 ERA but it wasn't backed up by a 4.89 xFIP and 5.23 SIERA. He put up a meager 14.1 K% and a bloated 9.1 BB%, neither of which are stats you want from a late-inning reliever. Tyler Rogers only pitched 17 2/3 innings at the big league level last season, but they were strong innings. He ended up with a 1.02 ERA/2.87 xFIP. He had solid rates as well, with a 22.9 K% and a 4.3 BB%. His lack of experience could keep him out of the ninth to start the season, but he could work his way there if he continues pitching well. Reyes Moronta is due back sometime around the All-Star Break, and he could take over as closer if nothing else has worked out until then.

Prediction: This could be one of the worst bullpens in the National League, fantasy-wise. None of the arms are worth owning in most formats unless one of them gets named closer. Rogers is worth keeping an eye on, and Moronta could provide some late season value, though.

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