Don’t pay for saves

It’s been an eventful 24 hours in the whacky world of relief pitchers. First, came the announcement that Kirby Yates of the Toronto Blue Jays will be shut down as he prepares for his second Tommy John surgery. I have Yates on one of my teams, so I checked the waiver wire to see if Jordan Romano was available. He wasn’t. I then checked my other league and found him. Within hours, I had a trade offer from another manager.

As the Yates story continued to develop during the day, there was more relief pitcher news. The San Diego Union-Tribune was reporting that Emilio Pagan is “the name mentioned most by those in the organization as the pitcher expected to assume the closer role.” Multiple pitchers had been in the mix for the Padres’ closer job, including Drew Pomeranz, Mark Melancon and Pierce Johnson, but it appears Pagan is the frontrunner.

While the fantasy baseball world was buzzing about the news out of Toronto and San Diego, more news broke. In Cleveland, Indian manager Tony Francona had high praise for Nick Wittgren in an interview with the Associated Press and said he was a top option for the closer job. This news will certainly drive the James Karinchak stock value down, since he was the presumptive favorite to have the ninth-inning gig in Cleveland.

There is a morale to this story, and the morale is don’t pay for saves. Drafting closers in the early rounds of your fantasy draft is foolish because the situation is fluid. The best advice I can give is never pay for saves. I wish I had taken my own advice and hadn’t used a 14th round pick on Yates. I was able to trade him yesterday at a discount, which was fortunate since he will have no value when the season-ending surgery is announced.

In my opinion, top relievers go far too early in drafts. Consider the Yahoo league I’m in where Brad Hand went in the fourth round, Josh Hader in the fifth, Aroldis Chapman and Devin Williams in the sixth, Edwin Diaz in the seventh and Karinchak in the eighth. These are the rounds where you should be loading up on starting pitchers and position players. In my humble opinion, even thirty saves isn’t worth an early draft pick.

Its true that MLB managers are leaning more on their bullpens, changing the statistical landscape for pitchers. Managers are quicker with the hook and more starters are limited to five innings a start. This means once you get past the top few elite starters, the gap in strikeouts and wins is shrinking. As relievers grab an increasing percentage of innings, their strikeout totals and ratios will mean more to their fantasy managers.

Let me suggest a reasonable approach to acquiring relief pitchers. Wait. The first relief pitcher I took in my ESPN league was Matt Barnes in the 16th round. He was my 183rd pick. I took Daniel Bard with my 298th pick. Barnes, Bard and Romano are my three rostered relief pitchers on this team, and all are expected to get a lot of saves for their respective teams. But if they don’t, I haven’t wasted an early-round pick on them.

What follows is a list of relief pitchers that I have compiled. All of these relievers are expected to perform well in 2021. Some will strike out enough batters to be relevant in that category. Some will get saves and some will vulture a few wins. All of them should help you ERA and WHIP ratios. And all of them will be available in the final rounds of your draft. Again, don’t waste those valuable early picks chasing closers and saves.


He is by far the second-best reliever on the White Sox right now and should be for a while. Bummer had some injury trouble in 2020 but when he was out there, he was filthy. In 9.1 innings (over nine appearances), he had an ERA of 0.96 and a WHIP of 1.071 with 14 strikeouts.


The 35-year-old former No. 1 overall pick, a non-roster invitee who hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2018, could grab a share of the closer role as the season starts, with Jose Leclerc, Jonathan Hernandez and Joely Rodriguez sidelined. Ian Kennedy is his main competition.


The Twins signing Alex Colome ruined hopes of Duffey getting a good share of saves in Minnesota. Regardless, he’s been one of the most skilled relievers in baseball over the last two seasons. With low ERA and WHIP projections, he should help in ratios as a middle reliever.


Fairbanks was acquired from the Texas Rangers in 2019 in exchange for Nick Solak and paid it paid off. He recorded six wins and seven holds. Although his WHIP left something to be desired, that could improve with some regression to the .350 BABIP Fairbanks posted last season.


With Jordan Hicks expected to be the team’s primary closer, Gallegos can still help a fantasy team with ratios and strikeouts. His slider-heavy pitch selection results in him striking out at least a third of the hitters he’s faces. His fastball was inconsistent in the shortened 2020 season.


A.J. Hinch has yet to name a closer, so Bryan Garcia is sort of penciled in here as he ended the 2020 season with the job. Garcia doesn’t have prototypical closer stuff, striking out only 12 batters in 21.2 innings. But he did have a stellar 1.66 ERA, along with a decent 1.29 WHIP.


Since his Tommy John surgery in 2019, Garcia has a faster fastball and greater spin on his slider. Garcia is in the mix to close, although Anthony Bass appears to have the inside track on the job so far. In 2020, Garcia pitched to a 0.60 ERA, a 0.93 WHIP, with an 11.40 K/9 and 23.3 K-BB%.


Green has become one of the most reliable relievers in baseball over the last four seasons. Green found his footing in the Yankees bullpen and is ninth among MLB relievers in WAR since 2017, in a variety of roles. With Zach Britton, out, is he the No. 2 guy behind Aroldis Chapman.


Another promising young reliever in the White Sox system, Codi Heuer, had an outstanding debut season. With a high-velocity fastball and whiff-inducing slider, Heuer is primed for a long future in a high-leverage role, although it’s unlikely that he has any road to the closing job. 


After a disaster 2018 season, Johnson pitched in Japan for a year. Ditching his cutter for a curveball helped him. In 2020, he was 3-1, with a 2.70 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. He is recovering from a groin strain and does not appear to have a road to the closing job in San Diego.


Even older than Matt Bush, Kennedy may have the inside track on the closer job in Texas after getting 30 saves in 2019. He was ineffective, mostly due to an injury, in 2020. He’s been perfect so far during his Cactus League appearances, striking out four over three scoreless innings.


The Mets are planning to use Lugo out of the bullpen in 2021 since he has been far more effective in that role than as a starter. Currently recovering from February elbow surgery, which was expected to shut him down for six weeks. Lugo is expected to miss a few weeks in April.  


Since the start of 2019, Marshall has a 2.45 ERA in 73.1 innings for the White Sox. Marshall has been dropping his fastball usage over the last three seasons. The results have led to more strikeouts. Marshall should continue to see high-leverage work behind Liam Hendriks.


Matzek returned to the game after four seasons, and his 97mph fastball from the left side induced a 14.3% swinging-strike rate. Now, with Mark Melancon, Shane Green, and Darren O’Day out, Matzek should see work. But Will Smith and Chris Martin are ahead of him for saves.


Trevor May had been consistently good for Minnesota over the last few seasons. In 2020, he raised his game even further with an improved swinging-strike rate after dropping his fastball usage. Now with the Mets, May is currently the primary setup man behind Edwin Diaz.


Mike Mayers enjoyed a breakout season for the Angels in 2020. By adding a cutter, Mayers saw a 4% jump in his swinging-strike rate. While he’s no longer in line to close with Raisel Iglesias in town, Mayers could be a middle reliever worth adding. He’s off to a slow start in spring training.   


Recovering from a minor injury to his collarbone, Rainey will be in a setup role behind Brad Hand. His 21.7% swinging-strike rate was second in the majors among relievers, behind only Devin Williams. When healthy, Rainey should be valuable for holds, ratios, and strikeouts.


Once a top pitching prospect, Reyes’ career has been derailed by injuries. The Cardinals’ goal is to get Reyes 100 innings of work in middle relief in 2021. When healthy, he is electric and misses bats.  He has a career 2.48 ERA over five years and parts of four Major League seasons.


Still recovering from an ankle sprain, Rodriguez is expected to start the season on the IL but should be ready in a few weeks. He impressed last year with his return from Japan. He is a dark horse to close. Regardless, he should be in the mix for high-leverage work out of the bullpen.


He was Baltimore’s best reliever in 2020, and now he’s the leading candidate to replace Hunter Harvey as the closer after the latter went on the 60-day IL. Scott posted a 1.31 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP with 23 strikeouts in 20.21 innings and recorded one save for the Orioles last season.


Soto is in the mix with Bryan Garcia for the closing job. He has better stuff but more control issues. The lefty throws a 97mph sinker and has spent the offseason working on refining a slider he plans on using often. He had 29 strikeouts, a 4.30 ERA in 2020 and a 1.22 WHIP in 2020.


Wittgren has impressed manager Terry Francona and could be used as a closer in Cleveland.  Wittgren posted a 3.42 ERA and 1.01 WHIP, with 28 strikeouts in2020. He’s not as dominant as James Karinchak but his walk ratio is less than half which means he’s not as volatile an option.   

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