Closing Time: A Guide to the 9th Inning in 2020

Written by: Adam Ehrenreich (@mel_reich)

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Before you dive in, make sure you’ve read the rest of my preseason content. I discussed my breakout/sleeper hitters and breakout/sleeper pitchers, then I listed a handful of players I believe will be fantasy first rounders…. next season. Lastly, I released my redraft prospect list for the 2020 season. Check it out! 

The landscape of the closer position is an ever-changing one.

SV+HLD is an increasingly popular statistical category now in fantasy circles because of the volatility of MLB bullpens. The purpose of this article is not to tell you the best closer options by ability, predicted saves and pedigree. There are countless amount of already-published lists including that information if that’s what you’re looking for.

My goal for this piece is to rank bullpens by the situation. The top of the list will consist of bullpens that will use their closer in a traditional sense with fewer options to dethrone the incumbent closer. Moving down, you’ll see strong groups of bullpen arms, where every asset has the ability to save games. There are different approaches to drafting closers this season in redrafts, and different strategies in looking to acquire saves in dynasty leagues. I hope to guide your decided strategy through the tiers presented below.

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Tier one of this list may not seem like the typical list of elite arms, but rather it presents bullpens with expected stability at the top or the combination of a strong closer and strong supplementary options, should the unexpected occur.

Milwaukee Brewers Josh Hader may be the most dominant reliever in the majors, but what makes the Brewers so dangerous is the depth behind them. David Phelps is an underrated arm that has shown longevity during his time in the majors. Freddy Peralta, if used in a relief role, could have an elite K/IP and see some save opportunities and if Corey Knebel comes back to form, or Corbin Burnes finds himself in a relief role, the bullpen is that much deeper. Ray Black is a deep sleeper with tremendous strikeout upside. The Brewers are going to continue competing for the NL Central crown, and the bullpen will have a lot to do with that.

San Diego PadresIt was a tough race between the Brewers and Padres for #1 on this list. Kirby Yates has established himself as a top closer at the age of 33, which is an impressive feat. A lifetime middling reliever rarely becomes a dominant closer later in his career, but here we are. The Padres have put together one of the better bullpens in baseball, and that’s with Andres Munoz, the up and coming fire-baller, being out for the year following Tommy John surgery. Newly acquired Emilio Pagan and Drew Pomeranz look to be next in line following Yates. Craig Stammen, who has been the “next man up” the last few years, gives the Padres another strong asset at the end of ball games.

Houston Astros Another deep bullpen, Astros have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball top to bottom, and that is following to loss of Gerrit Cole to the Yankees in free agency. The bullpen anchor is Roberto Osuna who is followed by a crew of Ryan Pressley, Joe Smith, Bryan Abreu, Joe Biagini, Chris Devenski and long reliever extraordinaire, Brad Peacock. Osuna will see most if not all of the save opportunities, but the path to the ninth will likely be smooth sailing again in 2020.

Chicago CubsCall me crazy, but I believe we have not seen the last of Craig Kimbrel as an elite closer. Coming into a season without true spring training is difficult and that is what Kimbrel did in 2019. Enter 2020 (hopefully) and not only did Kimbrel have a full spring, but an extended spring training as well. If Kimbrel shows us that 2019 was not a fluke, and falters, the Cubs have put together an underrated bullpen. Rowan Wick contributed with several saves in 2019, Jeremy Jeffress brings end game experience to the club and Brad Wieck, who had a 16.2 K/9 in 14 appearances for the Cubs in 2019, could be a tremendous fantasy and real-life sleeper in 2020, especially in Saves + Holds leagues.

Cleveland IndiansThe Indians are at the top of this list solely because Brad Hand is the undisputed leader of this bullpen. There are names surrounding him who may seem to be possibilities for saves, but I don’t see any scenario, barring an injury, that takes Hand out of the role. That is the type of stability one is looking for in a fantasy closer. Hand saw his ERA drop to 3.30 in 2019, but he still had a 13.2 K/9 and a 1.23 WHIP. These numbers don’t seem elite, but he now has put together four straight impressive seasons, so the track record speaks for itself. One of the names in this bullpen I would keep a close eye on was sent back to the minors, and that is James Karinchak. His ERA and WHIP needs to come down a few ticks, but that 22 K/9 across 3 levels in 2019, can not be ignored. If Hand falters and Tito Francona’s reliance on veteran arms continues, Nick Wittgren would be considered the favorite to take the reins.

Oakland AthleticsLiam Hendriks made Kirby Yates like ascension in 2019, outlasting the likes of Blake Treinen, Fernando Rodney and Joakim Soria to take the A’s closing job and hold it after a fantastic run to end the season. Soria still lurks behind if Hendriks proves to be a fluke, and Yusmeiro Petit is there as well, but Hendriks should hold this job throughout 2020 if things go as planned. Some lists have Hendricks as a top-three closer; I don’t like the supporting cast enough to have the A’s that high on this list.

Arizona Diamondbacks – The staff has been hesitant to place Archie Bradley in the closer role for some time, but the failure of the supporting cast forced their hand in 2019 and Bradley was finally given the role. His success had its moments, but the key here is that the role seems to be safe. Then again, the management may end up slipping back to their old ways and move Bradley back to that multi-inning doorstopper he has been for a few seasons prior to 2019. Kevin Ginkel has future closer written all over him, and his impressive MLB debut showed that was the case. 24.1 innings pitched with a 1.48 ERA, .986 WHIP, and 10.4 K/9 shows that he may be able to supplant Bradley in the role should they decide to go that route. Having an arm with that upside like Ginkel, and a veteran with closing experience like Hector Rondon, in the bullpen, makes me feel comfortable investing in this pen as a whole.

Toronto Blue JaysKen Giles is the sole reason why the Jays are in the top tier of this list. As you can see, there are only a number of teams with a clear cut closer; the Jays are one of them. Giles bounced back in a huge way in 2019, with a 1.87 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 14.1 K/9, which was elite by all standards. I don’t trust any other arm in this bullpen from a fantasy perspective, but if you trust that Giles is back and here to stay, don’t be scared to jump on this rising team’s undisputed closer.

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Tier two of this list may be my favorite. The combination of some elite closers and elite company can be found. The reason why some of these teams find themselves in tier two is because we saw their team’s willingness to mix and match in save situations in 2019, and I believe that may happen in 2020 as well. Some of these teams have stable closers at the top, but they may not last in their role if poor play persists.

New York YankeesOne of the most dangerous and best closers of the last decade, Aroldis Chapman has seen his role shift a little bit over the last few years due to injury concerns. With that said, he still had elite ratios and Ks and has back-to-back seasons of 30+ saves. What puts him in tier 2 of this list is the supporting cast. Zack Britton and Adam Ottavino have closing experience, the former once being elite in the role, and the Yankees aren’t afraid to use them if the scenario is right. This may be a contested opinion, but I believe the Yankees will ‘mix and match’ a little more than we’d like moving forward. If there is any concrete evidence that Chapman is the undisputed closer, I would move the Yankees within the top 5 and I would feel more comfortable drafting him in the earlier rounds of fantasy drafts.

New York MetsWhat transpired in 2019 was, well, disappointing. Edwin Diaz was a can’t miss closing option set to lock down games for the up and coming Mets, and he let a lot of people down. Seth Lugo was the pleasant surprise for the team, converting to a significant bullpen role and their most trusted late-inning option. The addition of Dellin Betances muddies the water even more for Diaz, in what has become an underrated bullpen. The opportunity to mix and match late-inning options is too vast for me to draft any one of them with confidence, so I would draft the cheapest one if you’re hunting for saves and hope for good ratios and Ks while you wait.

Los Angeles DodgersWhile the easy opinion is that the ratios and save numbers will continue to decline, likely due to the expectation of diminished stuff and injuries, Kenley Jansen, by my estimation, is nowhere close to finished. The underrated bullpen signing of Blake Treinen gives the Dodgers another option at the end of games, a better option than they’ve had the last few season. In the event that Jansen really doesn’t bounce back, I can see Treinen stringing together a solid season with double-digit saves if Jansen continues to decline.

Minnesota Twins This may be my favorite bullpen in baseball. Taylor Rogers, Trevor May and Sergio Romo (and even Tyler Duffey) can all get the job done for this young team full of sluggers. If they continue to win games, we could see any one of these three lead the team in saves. For that reason, we find them in this tier. There are numerous fantasy viable assets and a lot of opportunities to go around.

Tampa Bay Rays – The Rays remind me of the Twins in that they have three capable closers in their bullpen. Between Jose Alvarado, Nick Anderson and Diego Castillo, we can potentially see double-digit saves for each of them. My prediction here is that Nick Anderson, who is getting all the smoke and attention as the closer come Opening Day, ends up with the least saves amongst this trio. I believe he will thrive in a setup role and provide excellent Ks and ratios, but Alvarado and Castillo have closing experience and I think that goes a long way towards receiving opportunities in a stacked bullpen.

Cincinnati RedsRaisel Iglesias has been among the most polarizing closers the last few years, possessing elite skills but being inconsistent. With Pedro Strop in tow, the Reds are putting together the assets for a division title run on both sides of the ball. If Iglesias is used in high leverage as he has been, Strop and Michael Lorenzen (and perhaps Robert Stephenson) will be in line for numerous save attempts. I don’t feel overly confident that any of these guys are worth drafting unless you are looking at Strop as a late-round flier.

Washington NationalsSean Doolittle threw 60 innings for the first time since 2014 last season, and they were uninspiring innings at best. Daniel Hudson ended up closing out six games at the end of the season and had elite ratios to sweeten the pot. Hudson is likely going to be relegated to the setup role in 2020, and Will Harris will accompany him in setting games up for the ninth inning. The question is whether Doolittle and stay healthy and produce because if he does, he is a top-10 closer. I just don’t see him staying healthy enough to regain that form in its entirety. And don’t forget Tanner Rainey, who would be the high-upside option if manager Davey Martinez looks elsewhere to close out games.

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Tier three present uncertain situations and second-tier closers who could prove to be great fantasy assets in 2020. There are also a few elite stash options here for those searching for closers.

Atlanta Braves – This scenario is an interesting one. Mark Melancon will likely start the year as the closer, but Will Smith and Shane Greene will certainly be in the mix. I would consider each of these three options to be middle tier, and there will likely be a lot of mixing and matching going on in Atlanta.

Philadelphia Phillies – Hector Neris should hold down the Phillies’ job as he did tremendously in 2019. The thing that makes me nervous is if he falters, the supplemental options are nothing to write home about. Remember that Seranthony Dominguez is currently awaiting a second opinion on his ailing right elbow, and David Robertson was placed on the 60-day injured list in February as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery.

Chicago White Sox – My favorite closer candidate on the south side of Chicago is Aaron Bummer, I just don’t think it is his time yet. His improved stat line in 2019 felt like the real deal, but Alex Colome proved to be more than capable to hold down the job for the White Sox. Depending on how Bummer is utilized with the new three-batter minimum in effect, it might be Steve Cishek who slots into the 9th inning if Colome proves to be inadequate this summer.

Detroit Tigers Joe Jimenez is the undisputed closer in Detroit, the problem is that it may not amount too much given they may not be competing. With that said I have been watching Jimenez, waiting for him to get a full-time chance for a few seasons now, and I think 2020 is the year he puts it all together. He reminds me of a mix of Francisco Rodriguez and Armando Benitez (I know, lofty expectations) and I think this is the season he becomes a viable saves option in fantasy, despite the Tigers likely cellar dwelling in the AL Central.

Texas Rangers – A similar situation to that of the Tigers, Jose Leclerc is the guy going into 2020, and his Ks will keep him in the conversation until things completely unravel. With that said, the Rangers aren’t likely to provide Leclerc with the volume needed to become an elite option, and the ratios have been inconsistent to say the least. If he can iron things out this season, he can leap to the next tier of closers.

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Simply put, tier four is less about the man in the closer role and more about the long-term prospects for the people behind them.

St. Louis Cardinals Depending on when baseball officially returns, Jordan Hicks is an ultra-intriguing option in fantasy drafts as he continues his rehab from Tommy John surgery. He’s expected to return to action later this summer. In the interim, Giovanny Gallegos, who broke out in a big way in 2019, will take the reigns of this role and should prove to be serviceable. Underrated bullpen asset who could take a Gallegos type leap in 2020 is Ryan Helsley.

Colorado Rockies This club is just waiting for an opportunity to move on from Wade Davis and hand Scott Oberg the role full time. It’s only a matter of time before this occurs, and is among the “best bet” for the first closer domino to fall in 2020. With that said, Wade Davis has had stints of excellence in the closer role, and not many people can say that, but at 34 years old, I don’t see him regaining that form. Jairo Diaz is also an interesting, deeper league option if things go wayward in Denver.

Boston Red Sox – The Red Sox bullpen is a mess in my opinion. Any one of their relievers tends to be excellent in their role, with elite Ks and ratios, until they are given the ball in the ninth inning. A deep sleeper for this role is Darwinzon Hernandez, who had 16.9 K/9 in 30 innings in 2019. If he can minimize the walks going forward could be a sneaky asset in the backend of this bullpen. For now, the Red Sox have to hope Brandon Workman replicates his 2019 campaign (perhaps with less walks) this summer.

Pittsburgh Pirates – This bullpen is a no go for me in fantasy, as I have always found Keone Kela to be too erratic for my liking. But if Kyle Crick were turned into a closer for the long term, I would immediately be in love with him from a fantasy perspective. While the ratios have not been there for Crick, he has a great arsenal of pitches and can strike out anyone he faces.

Miami Marlins – This is quite an intriguing situation. I don’t see 34-year-old Brandon Kintzler and his career 1.24 WHIP and 6.3 K/9 holding down this job for long. Yimi Garcia has shown promise over the years, and his ability to keep his WHIP low and Ks high is a promising sign (though he has interesting leverage splits). Ryne Stanek was given a chance to run with the job when he was traded to Miami in 2019, but his ERA is not encouraging. He has an elite slider to use as a strikeout pitch, and I would not be surprised if he ends up getting the gig if Kintzler is dethroned.

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Tier five simply represents the last resorts, including a surprise inclusion all the way at the bottom.

San Francisco Giants – Tony Watson performed admirably in 2019, but I can’t see the career setup man thriving in the role for an entire season. The options behind him are bleak at best, and for that reason, this is a bullpen to avoid in fantasy in 2020. Shaun Anderson was optioned to minors camp before Spring Training was suspended, but he’s an interesting option if the Giants find themselves looking for a non-Watson option before the end of the season.

Kansas City RoyalsIan Kennedy gave some hope in 2019, but with Trevor Rosenthal looming in the wings and Mike Matheny now at the helm in Kansas City, it is safe to say this is a volatile situation. The Royals will be looking to move Kennedy to a contender if at all possible (who knows what the trade landscape will look like this summer), and I can see Rosenthal taking over quickly. Of course, his history of injuries and erratic appearances keeps me on the fence. I would steer clear from this group for 2020.

Baltimore OriolesHe isn’t the best option out there by any means, but another season has arrived and Mychal Givens appears to once again be the frontrunner for saves in Baltimore. Of course, Hunter Harvey is both the high-upside option within this organization and likely the long-term ninth inning arm for the Orioles. Depending on the structure of the shortened 2020 season, he may get looks to close out games at some point this summer.

Seattle MarinersYou are reading that right. The names on this list are Yoshihisa Hirano, Matt McGill and Erik Swanson. Enough said. This is a motley crew of relievers that find themselves vying for a thankless role in Seattle. I don’t think the winner will be worthy of your attention in fantasy. Keep an eye on Austin Adams, who is currently rehabbing from ACL surgery last September. If he’s returned to full health by the time Opening Day finally arrives, he becomes the most intriguing Saves option within this organization.

Los Angeles Angels Maybe it’s because I am a Mets fan, but there is nothing more terrifying than Hansel Robles in the later innings—despite his solid performance last season. Ty Buttrey had his chance in 2019 and was a sleeper in fantasy circles, but proved his worth more as a high leverage fireman. However, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Buttrey be the ‘next man up’ if Robles falters this summer. As long as latter sits atop the depth chart, I am staying 500 feet back and then some.

Last season, I was all in on a lot of the later options. This season, I don’t know where to start. As the years go on I become less and less interested in the closer role as a whole. Spending a higher pick on such a volatile position is bad practice in my opinion, yet, with such weak options on the backend of this list, I find myself going a different route entirely.

Drafting some of the next-men-up and sleepers seems to be the way to go. You are helping your fantasy squad with solid ratios and Ks and hoping to compete in saves down the road. In a rotisserie league, punting saves is not easy, so targeting cheaper options in stacked bullpens, like Diego Castillo and Sergio Romo for example, might be the route tree to follow. Saves is always a fun game to play, second only to prospect game, and this season could be one of the most outrageously unpredictable closer seasons of recent memory.

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Follow P365 staff writer Adam Ehrenreich on Twitter! @mel_reich

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