Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times
Building a good bullpen is always important in fantasy baseball even if you don’t value saves as much as other managers. Great middle relievers are becoming a necessity for major league teams as they limit their starters regular season innings to save them for the playoff run. We have seen guys come out of nowhere recently like Chris Devenski, Brad Peacock, and Archie Bradley that won’t rack up saves, but can certainly improve your ratios every week while piling up the strikeouts. These middle and long relievers are getting more use, making the need to spend a high pick on a Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel less necessary. Here are some of the most important relievers to own this season.
The following rankings were done based on 5×5 head to head leagues.
1) Kenley Jansen- There isn’t much else that I could tell you about Jansen that you don’t already know. He is on a great Dodgers team and is lined up for 40 saves with a great strikeout rate. He is mostly a one pitch pitcher in the mold of Mariano Rivera, but that doesn’t matter because his cutter is dominant. Jansen threw his cutter 853 times last season and he limited opponents to a .528 OPS. It won’t be easy to get Jansen because he is going inside the top 60 as of March 16th.
2) Craig Kimbrel- Kimbrel was lights out last year and is looking to keep his name in contention for the best closer in baseball. For the first time in his career, Kimbrel maintained a walk rate below two batters per nine. There is one issue that should concern fantasy owners for the Red Sox closer in 2018. Alex Cora stated in mid-February that Kimbrel may see a more flexible role this season. We don’t know if pitching outside the 9th inning in different situations would affect him mentally, but the ratios should still be top of the line once again.
3) Corey Knebel- After a rough 2016, Knebel became a lights out reliever for fantasy owners that were smart enough to grab him as a late round pick or in free agency. He posted a 1.78 ERA while maintaining a 14.92 K/9. Knebel uses a 97 mph fastball combined with a nasty curveball that elicits a good amount of swing and misses. The Brewers’ closer has no issues when it comes to platoon splits either for righties or lefties. Knebel is in line for a lot of save opportunities this year with the Brewers opening their competitive window by acquiring Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich.
4) Felipe Rivero- The Pirates may not be one of the more popular teams in the game, but Rivero should be known to everyone that plays fantasy baseball. Rivero didn’t become the closer until the beginning of June last year when Tony Watson struggled. Once he had a grasp of the closer role, he didn’t let go of it. He was lights out for most of the year, but struggled in the 11.2 innings that he pitched in August. He posted a 5.40 ERA in that time, but he reeled it back in September as shown by Rivero’s 2.70 ERA. The Pirates still love Rivero as shown by the contract extension given to him this off-season. Pittsburgh isn’t going to be one of the best teams in the league, but Rivero should have plenty of opportunities to close out games while posting great ratios and an above average strikeout rate.
5) Aroldis Chapman- Which Chapman will fantasy owners get this year? Chapman was elite to begin and close the year, but everything in between was mediocre to bad for the Yankees closer. In those 4 months, Chapman had a 5.28 ERA over 29 innings and his peripherals support how bad he was. Luckily for fantasy owners and Chapman himself, he pitched 12 innings and held the batters he faced to a .107 wOBA. His fastball was flat during the times that he struggled, but it did return in September and into the playoffs as well. There should be some concern because of the slump that Chapman fell into because he could lose the closer role again to anyone in that Yankees’ super bullpen should he struggle.
6) Ken Giles- Giles was one of the most talked about closers this off-season thanks to speculation on how long the leash might be for him entering 2018. Giles was great throughout the 2017 regular season, but then didn’t show up once in the playoffs. On the road to the World Series win, Giles pitched 7.2 innings to the tune of a 11.74 ERA while serving up 12 hits, 10 earned runs, and 5 walks. It was one of the worst playoff meltdowns I have ever seen, but the Astros still ended up the World Series champs because of a sneaky deep bullpen. That bullpen could eat into Giles’ save chances as Astros manager, A.J. Hinch, has hinted at using Giles in higher leverage situations since they have Chris Devenski, Will Harris, and Hector Rondon that could close.
7) Roberto Osuna- The Blue Jays closer had an interesting year in 2017. Osuna opened up about his anxiety issue, but also had the best year of his career even if his ERA doesn’t show it. Osuna cut his walk rate, improved his strikeout rate, and even increased his ground ball rate by 15%. All of his peripherals pointed to a lights out closer year, yet his ERA ended at 3.38 even with a better home run to fly ball rate. Some fantasy owners might get scared away because of that high ERA, but take him and be confident since the Blue Jays should provide plenty of close games.
8) Andrew Miller- Miller is the first non-closer reliever that is in our rankings and you should all know why. He has averaged 14.42 K/9 since 2013 and hasn’t had an ERA above 2.70 since 2012. Miller saw a downtrend in his control this past season, which could have easily come with the change of the baseball. Even with the huge jump in walks, Miller’s peripherals show that he didn’t just get lucky and continues to be one of the most dominant relievers in baseball. He won’t rack up the saves, but his combination of great ratios and high strikeout rate is still valuable.
9) Cody Allen- Next on the list is the Indians actual closer. Allen isn’t as flashy or as loved as Miller, but he did have a great season in 2017. Even though Allen doesn’t have the best control, he did drop his walk rate by 3% last year while maintaining the level of strikeouts. Progressive Field isn’t a pitcher’s park and while Cody Allen doesn’t have the highest ground ball rate, he makes it work year in and year out. Allen will come in as a top-10 closer once again in 2018 while closing games for an Indians team in a bad AL Central division.
10) Brad Hand- Even though the Padres won’t be the most competitive team this year, Brad Hand should easily return top 10 closer value for his fantasy owners. Brandon Maurer blocked Hand from the closer role for the first half of the year, but Maurer was finally dealt to the Royals in July. Hand took advantage of his closing opportunity and racked up 18 saves and a 38:6 K:BB in 28.1 innings. The 2.22 ERA that he accrued in that same time is likely to go up a bit due to his unsustainable strand rate of 100%. A solid ground ball rate combined with a pitcher-friendly ballpark will keep Hand in the top couple of tiers of closers for 2018.
11) Raisel Iglesias- The Reds originally believed that Iglesias could be a starter in the majors, but that experiment is obviously over. After 21 starts in the majors, they converted him to the bullpen during the 2016 season and gave him the full time closer role before 2017 began. In his first full season as the Reds ninth inning guy, he pitched 76 innings with a 2.49 ERA and 1.11 WHIP. There was a noticeable increase in the velocity to his fastball as it went from 93 mph to 96.4 mph and topped out at 100 mph. Iglesias blew only 2 saves last year out of the 30 opportunities he was given, which is a fantastic rate for any relief pitcher. The Reds won’t be one of the top 5 teams in the NL this year, but they will provide him enough chances to save 30 to 34 games.
12) Archie Bradley- Bradley is in the same mold as Raisel Iglesias where he was believed to be a starter, but after struggling was converted to the bullpen. He was dominant in the 73 innings that he pitched as shown by his 1.73 ERA, .205 batting average, and .248 wOBA. One of the problems that Bradley had when he was a starter is that he would try and nibble at the corners of the zone, which would get him into trouble quickly. That quickly changed as Archie added 4 ticks on his fastball and became more aggressive in the zone, as shown by his 8% increase of pitches inside the zone. The Diamondbacks haven’t given Bradley the closers job outright just yet, but he has shown what he can do and will be in high leverage situations at the end of games one way or another.
13) Sean Doolittle- Everyone remembers just how bad the bullpen was of the Washington Nationals for most of 2017, but that won’t be the case in 2018 with Doolittle clearly cemented into the closer’s role. With a 1.75 BB/9 in 51.1 innings last year, Doolittle continues to show just how great the control of his pitches is. He was even more deceptive this past year as he forced hitters to chase pitches outside of the zone 46.3% of the time, the best of any pitcher that threw at least 50 innings in 2017. Even though Doolittle wasn’t a pitcher to start his career, he has easily become a dominant closer and will be in for plenty of saves on a Washington Nationals team that’s ready to dominate the NL East.
14) Edwin Diaz- Some attribute the early season struggles of Diaz to his participation in the World Baseball Classic before the 2017 season. However, we won’t ever truly know why he got off to the rough start that saw him rack up 12 walks to 27 strikeouts in the span of April and May. He was all over in the zone, yet limited opponents to a batting average below .200 in that same time span. The Mariners gave Diaz a break from the ninth inning so he could fix whatever needed to be fixed. He eventually righted the ship and from July 2nd until the end of the season, Diaz was able to strike out over 12 batters per nine and a batting average of .154. Walks mostly remained an issue until September where only walked 2 batters in almost 10 innings while striking out 13. If Diaz can carry that same performance into the 2018 season, Diaz could easily become one of the scariest young closers in the game.
15) Wade Davis- Had Wade Davis gone anywhere else but Coors Field, I would have felt more confident in him. However, that didn’t turn out to be the case as Davis signed a 3-year deal with the Rockies over the off-season. Davis will be on a competitive Colorado teams for the next few years, but he isn’t the same Wade Davis that we saw even 2 years ago. Between 2014 and 2016, Davis pitched 182.2 innings and allowed all of 3 home runs. This past season however, he allowed 6 home runs in only 58.2 innings of work. The ground ball percentage dropped down to 40.5% last season compared to the 48.6% we saw from him in his last year with the Royals. The walk rate has been increasing by almost one extra walk per nine each of the past two years, which makes me nervous. The loss of control and lower ground ball percentage has me nervous about the ratios for Davis this year, but he will be in line for a ton of save opportunities once again.
16) Brandon Morrow- The Cubs just love cycling through closers and 2018 will be no exception as Morrow will start the year as their 4th closer in the last 4 years. Morrow was once a starter, but injuries forced him into a full-time reliever role in 2016 with the Padres. He was great out of the bullpen for the Dodgers in 43 innings during the regular season as he finished with a 2.06 ERA and 0.92 WHIP. Morrow has collected 18 saves in 26 chances throughout his career, which is by no means great, but the 33-year-old righty is also a much different pitcher than he was before. Morrow uses a fastball-cutter-curveball combo to elicit an elite swinging strike rate of 15.9% that ranked 19th of all pitchers with a minimum of 40 innings in 2017. There should be plenty of save chances on a great Cubs team along with a great possibility of reaching close to 100 strikeouts, but there is a lot of injury risk with Morrow going into this season.
17) Chad Green- Green may be buried in a very deep Yankees bullpen that is anchored by Chapman, Robertson, Kahnle, and Betances, but Green can be a reliable relief pitcher in fantasy thanks to his elite ratios. In 69 innings last year, Green produced a 1.83 ERA, 13.43 K/9, and 2.22 BB/9 and he is likely to see that amount and likely more in 2018. Even with a rotation that includes Luis Severino, the Yankees will need Green as the fireman on days that Sabathia, Tanaka, and Montgomery have short outings as not to kill the rest of their bullpen. Even if your league doesn’t value holds, Green is going to be one of the best relievers to own as 29 of his 40 appearances were of the multiple inning variety.
18) Alex Colome- The Rays are in the middle of a rebuild and Colome isn’t an elite closer, but he can easily be a valuable RP2 in fantasy. With a ground ball consistently close to 50% and an ability to limit the home run ball, Colome is awfully good at racking up saves when given the chances. The Rays’ closer has racked up 84 saves in 93 chances over the past 2 seasons, with 47 saves coming this previous year. The Rays will be playing a lot of close games this season and with very little competition for the ninth inning, Colome is set collect all the saves he wants once again.
19) Hector Neris- I feel like the Phillies are set to surprise a lot of people this year and Neris is going to be a cog in that machine as he has a stranglehold on the 9th inning. Pat Neshek is ahead of him and will be a perfect setup man to get the ball to Neris with every save opportunity. Neris does have some risk to him as he relies on his splitter over 50% of the time and he is a fly ball pitcher in a hitter-friendly park. If his splitter isn’t on in an outing, he has trouble keeping hitters off the basepaths due to walks and it not setting up his other pitches. Neris has a small issue with walks and control at time, but with a year as a closer under his belt, Neris is in a great situation for 25-30 saves this year.
20) Chris Devenski- Devenski is essentially Andrew Miller-Lite for the Houston Astros. He threw 80.2 innings over 62 appearances and piled up 100 strikeouts on the dot. The Astros fireman was great against lefties as he limited them to a triple slash line of .110/.178/.236 while right handers had a bit easier time with a .238/.314/.448 line. Devenski looked more human to end the season and in the playoffs, but this was his first full year in the role and will be able to use that experience to prepare for his multi-inning role once again. If he can bring the home run rate down to his career norm, Devenski could reach a sub-2 ERA in 2018.
21) Arodys Vizcaino- Vizcaino didn’t have the prettiest of 2017 campaigns, but he got the job done well enough for the Braves last year. There is a lot of risk with Vizcaino, not just because of his performance, but also with the young A.J. Minter waiting in the wings. Vizcaino walked 3.30 batters per nine last year, which was an improvement for him, but the ground ball rate dropped by a heavy 15%. Arodys is currently locked in as the closer to start the year, but the Braves may have him on a short leash with the young Minter ready to supplant him at any point.
22) Greg Holland- Holland has yet to find a home for the 2018 season, so it is truly hard to value his services properly. Holland was possibly the best reliever in the first half of the year, but once August rolled around it all fell apart. In August alone, Holland was charged with 14 runs in only 9.1 innings while also handing out 6 walks to 8 strikeouts. He recovered in the last month to bring his ERA back down to a respectable 3.61, but overall his control remained an issue most of the year. His 4.08 BB/9 does not inspire confidence, but if he finally finds a home it will be as a closer and he could be a solid RP2 for any fantasy team since he will no longer be in Coors.
23) David Robertson- Robertson will no longer have the closer tag put on him this year as it was removed once he was dealt back to the Yankees this past trade deadline. He is once again set in the 8th inning for a very competitive Yankees team that is looking to win the AL East. Even in an offensive environment, Robertson was able to reduce his home run rate even more thanks to an even increasing ground ball rate. Robertson has yet to have a HR/9 above 1.00 and I don’t see that changing any time soon. He is not in line for saves any time soon, but his ratios are going to be some of the best in the game while striking out over 10 batters per every nine innings.
24) Jeurys Familia- Familia missed a good portion of 2017 thanks to a blood clot in his shoulder. He underwent surgery in May and didn’t return until late August. The Mets’ closer was roughed up for 3 runs upon his return from the disabled list, but quickly returned to form for the final month of the season. In his final 14 appearances, Familia put together a 3.14 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP. While Familia isn’t a dominant strikeout pitcher, he will use a heavy mix of ground balls and soft contact to once again lock down games for the Mets.
25) Blake Treinen- Don’t let the full season numbers lead you to believe that Treinen is a completely terrible reliever. The 3.93 ERA and 1.39 WHIP clearly aren’t ideal over a full season’s worth of work, but those numbers were mostly inflated because of how awful he was for the Nationals. Treinen had an ERA over 5 before he was traded to the Athletics in July, but in his 38 innings with the Athletics he maintained a 2.13 ERA, 3.08 FIP, and 3.04 xFIP. The control improved once he got to Oakland and it should carry over into 2018. There may only be 25 or so save opportunities this upcoming year, but Treinen has the good swing and miss stuff keep his ratios at a good level.
26) Mark Melancon- Melancon was once a great closer, but injuries and age are putting that at risk. His 2017 campaign was ended prematurely after he had to have surgery on his throwing arm. When he did pitch, Melancon was effective but also suffered from a bout of bad luck, shown by his .374 BABIP. His peripherals show that he should have been closer to a 3 ERA than the 4.50 ERA that he put together last year. The additions of Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen to the Giants should help Melancon rack up more save opportunities in a tough NL West, but if Melancon can’t stay healthy, he could lose the closing gig early on.
27) Blake Parker- It is unknown whether or not Parker will open the season as the Angels’ closer, but he seems like the most likely candidate. Between Blake Wood, Cam Bedrosian, Jim Johnson, and himself, Parker was the best of them all with a 2.54 ERA. He showed great control that he never seemed to have while a part of the Brewers organization in 2016 as he walked under 2.20 batters per nine. There should be plenty of save opportunities as the Angels chase a Wild Card spot in 2018 after adding Shohei Ohtani, Justin Upton, and Zack Cozart this past off-season.
28) Zach Britton- Britton won’t open as the Orioles’ closer in 2018 due to an Achilles’ injury during the off-season. Once he does return around the All-Star Break, he will become one of the best relief pitchers once again. He hasn’t been overpowering batters the last few years, but he has an elite ground ball rate that is needed when pitching in the AL East. He is going to come at a discount due to the injury and is well worth a late round pick, but make sure you have enough DL spots in your league that you will be able to hold him for almost 3 months until he returns.
29) Josh Hader- Hader enjoyed a fabulous rookie campaign out of the bullpen in the Andrew Miller role. He appeared in 35 games and went more than 1 inning 16 times this past year. There is still a chance that Hader could move to the starting rotation this year for the Brew Crew should Brent Suter and Wade Miley not be able to get the job done. That chance will mostly rely on Hader’s ability to use his changeup more consistently as a strong third pitch compared to his 7.2% usage in 2017. There is a lot to love with Hader with his great swing and miss stuff that he put on display last season. Despite walking over 4.00 batters per nine, he still managed a WHIP of 0.99 and held his opponents to a batting average below .160. Hader is lined up as a great long reliever this year thanks to a shaky back end of the Brewers rotation, he should see a ton of work even if he doesn’t become a starter in 2018.
30) Kelvin Herrera- The Royals clearly aren’t the team they once used to be, so that means Herrera has a lower ceiling than his fellow closers. However, the 2017 season shouldn’t inspire much confidence in the 28-year-old reliever. His home run rate nearly doubled, he struck out 2 less batters per nine, and he doubled his walk rate of 2016. Herrera even lost the closers role before the end of the season. The hard contact given up Herrera jumped from 26.9% to 33.5% this past season even though he forced 4% more soft contact than 2016. The Royals will be battling with the Marlins to be the worst team in baseball this year, so the save opportunities will be limited and the terrible supporting cast doesn’t do much from Herrera either. I’d rather grab a speculative closer such as Keone Kela or Addison Reed this year.
Honorary Mentions- Brad Brach, Addison Reed, Carl Edwards Jr., Keone Kela, Shane Greene
Thanks for reading our breakdown of the top 30 relief pitchers for 2018! If you have any questions or comments on our rankings, you can find me on Twitter @DadSox or our fantasy baseball podcast’s Twitter @SixManRoto. We are always taking fantasy questions from our readers and listeners for our mailbag so don’t be afraid to ask! Don’t forget to read the breakdowns of every other position that we posted over the past couple months.