Drafting relievers in 2020 is the fantasy version of paying your taxes — no one wants to do it, but you’re better off, in the long run, to close your eyes and make it happen.
With closer volatility at an all-time high (just eight hurlers picked up more than 30 saves last year), fantasy managers are constantly waging a mental battle between paying up for saves and avoiding them altogether. But the good news is that the tentative approach to drafting relievers has led to bargains in many leagues. Let’s look at the best and worst options for the coming campaign.
Liam Hendriks, Oakland A’s (ADP 102)
Hendriks performed at the level of a top-tier closer last season, posting a 5.9 K:BB ratio and a 1.80 ERA that was supported by a 1.87 FIP. And with Blake Treinen moving down the coast to the Dodgers, Hendriks should have a long leash in his first full season as a ninth-inning man. The seventh reliever off the board thus far, he could outperform relievers who are being drafted 2-3 rounds earlier.
Craig Kimbrel, Chicago Cubs (ADP 128)
In short, I am giving Kimbrel a mulligan on his 2019 season. Pitchers are creatures of habit, and waiting until June to sign a contract was bound to have an impact on his performance. Instead, I’m choosing to focus on an exemplary career track record that includes a 2.08 ERA, a 0.95 WHIP, a 14.6 K/9 rate and 346 saves. The 31-year-old has had control issues in his past two seasons, but by fixing that issue he will remain on a path towards the Hall of Fame. And getting a potential HOF closer for his age-32 season as the 13th reliever off the board feels like great value.
Archie Bradley, Arizona Diamondbacks (ADP 163)
After teasing fantasy managers for a couple of seasons, the D-backs finally gave Bradley a fair chance at holding the closer’s role in the second half of 2019. The results were outstanding, with the right-hander posting a 2.10 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP while converting 18 of 19 save chances after July 30. Bradley also settled down his control issues once working the ninth inning (3.2 BB/9 rate), reestablishing a pattern of solid walk rates during 2017-18. The 20th reliever off the board, he is on the shortlist of pitchers who could lead the NL in saves.
Matt Magill, Seattle Mariners (ADP 240)
Magill will be an afterthought in mixed-leagues drafts after providing a 4.09 ERA, a 1.40 WHIP and five saves last season. But those who take a deeper look at his numbers will notice that the right-hander earned his late-season save chances by logging a 2.65 ERA, a 1.12 WHIP and an eye-popping 7.7 K:BB ratio after August 7. Available in Round 20-something in most leagues, Magill could hold the closer’s role for an extended period of time.
Ken Giles, Toronto Blue Jays (ADP 123)
Giles is undoubtedly a skilled hurler, and he is coming off an effective 2019 season in which he produced a 1.87 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP and a 14.1 K/9 rate. But his ADP is that of someone who is going to hold a closer’s role all season, which may not be the case. Giles is heading into the final year of his contract, making him trade bait in July unless the Blue Jays dramatically exceed expectations. My guess is that the right-hander records fewer than 25 saves before working the eighth inning for a contender down the stretch.
Jesus Luzardo, Oakland A’s (ADP 134)
Luzardo is fantasy gold in dynasty leagues, but he is unlikely to log the necessary volume to warrant his current ADP in redraft formats. After all, the 22-year-old was limited by injury to 55 innings last season, which means that even in a perfect scenario he should be capped at fewer than 150 frames this year. Luzardo could spend time in the Minors, have starts skipped, work in long relief or find some other way to frustrate fantasy managers. Drafting him ahead of secure closers such as Raisel Iglesias or established starters such as Lance Lynn and Kyle Hendricks makes little sense.
Will Smith, Atlanta Braves (ADP 170)
As the Braves closer, Smith would warrant his current ADP. Unfortunately, the current plan in Atlanta is for the southpaw to set up for Mark Melancon. And although Melancon is an unreliable closer in the eyes of many fantasy managers, he excelled down the stretch last season (1.74 ERA, .456 OPS allowed in September) and earned the trust of Braves management. Setup men such as Smith can have plenty of fantasy value, but not the kind of value that a drafter is seeking at Pick 169.
Nick Anderson, Tampa Bay Rays (ADP 169)
This one is going to be a little confusing. At his current ADP, Anderson is a decent value. So, why is he listed in this section? Well, the recent trade of Emilio Pagan to the Padres has sent Anderson’s ADP into orbit. Managers are starting to connect the dots that as arguably the most talented reliever in Tampa Bay’s bullpen, Anderson could combine 100 strikeouts with 35-40 saves this season. But the Rays have been reticent to use a full-time closer of late, and there is no guarantee that Anderson will get the job if they go in that direction. After all, this is a forward-thinking organization that understands how to best utilize a reliever with elite swing-and-miss ability. I’m not comfortable projecting Anderson for more than 20 saves, which keeps him outside the top-180 picks.
Top Setup Men
Here are a handful of relievers who can help mixed-league teams despite having little chance of posting a double-digit saves total.
Drew Pomeranz, San Diego Padres (ADP 218)
The southpaw was dynamite as a reliever with the Brewers down the stretch (2.39 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 15.4 K/9 rate), which earned him a lucrative contract to fill the same role in San Diego. He is among the setup men most likely to top 100 whiffs.
Emilio Pagan, San Diego Padres (ADP 183)
Now that Pagan is in San Diego, his ADP will sink like a stone. But the right-hander has outstanding skills (2.31 ERA, 0.83 WHIP in 2019) and is a better candidate than Pomeranz to pick up saves if Kirby Yates were to suffer an injury.
Seth Lugo, New York Mets (ADP 209)
Lugo logged a heavy workload of high-leverage innings last season, which resulted in seven wins and six saves. Although his save chances will likely be minimal this year, the right-hander should pick up more wins than the average reliever while also collecting 100 whiffs and posting quality ratios.
Blake Treinen, Los Angeles Dodgers (ADP (244)
Treinen struggled mightily last season, but he is just over a year removed from a magical 2018 campaign (9 wins, 38 saves, 0.78 ERA, 0.83 WHIP). Now with the Dodgers, a healthy Treinen is one Kenley Jansen injury away from closing games for arguably the best team in the National League.
Matt Barnes, Boston Red Sox (ADP 238)
Barnes isn’t going to post ultra-low ratios, but his swing-and-miss skills are remarkable (15.4 K/9 rate in 2019). The right-hander can combine 100 whiffs with roughly five wins, and he could be called on for ninth-inning duties if Brandon Workman (16 career saves) can’t repeat his breakout 2019 season.