Baseball resumes tomorrow, at least for those venues not already inundated with April showers. Like Major Leaguers, we at Saves and Steals Headquarters have completed a shortened Spring Training. The action kicked off with All About Steals for the National and American Leagues. The following week was All About Saves, again for the National and American Leagues. It’s time now to reveal the Opening Day roster – our initial Closer Tiers for 2022.
First, a few notes on the process. Long-time readers will know I care more about what’s likely to happen in the future rather than what has already transpired. Last season, I received grief for naysaying Matt Barnes, Alex Reyes, and Mark Melancon. While they all overperformed for far longer than expected, they also eventually succumbed to a reckoning.
My primary concern when evaluating a reliever is simple: are they good? Good pitchers are more likely to produce good fantasy stats and keep valuable roles. Inevitably, I have to be able to understand why they’re good to make this judgment call. Reyes is interesting because I initially missed the reason he was succeeding. He was effectively wild. I saw the crazy walk rate and didn’t believe it was sustainable. Reyes fixed the walks (sort of) and was promptly hammered out of the closer role.
Shall we go to the tiers?
Closer Tiers for 2022
Tier 1: Crème de la Crème (2)
Once a reliever achieves top closer status, they often stick around for many years. The old guard of Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, and Craig Kimbrel are beginning to slip out of the spotlight, but even they are still closing out games for top contenders. Hader, with his deceptive delivery and relative youth (he turns 28 on Opening Day), has years left as an elite reliever. Hendriks, 33, will need to stave off father time in the coming seasons. His stuff and execution have improved every season since his 2019 breakout. Pristine command leads me to prefer Hendriks by the tiniest smidge – I’m honestly indifferent between them when drafting.
Tier 2: The Elite (4)
During lockout drafts, these were the final “safe” closers – guys with regular jobs who almost certainly wouldn’t lose them (barring injury). Iglesias put together his best campaign to date thanks to an incredible 20.6 percent swinging strike rate. After a couple false starts in previous years, Clase established himself as closer royalty. His only shortcoming is an intentional decision to pitch to weak contact. He’ll chase down a strikeout when runners reach base.
Pressly is the most fragile of this group. Reports have his velocity down this spring, though my worries are somewhat assuaged by the contract extension he signed on Tuesday. His knee and elbow have acted up in recent seasons.
Diaz is coming off an odd season. He added velocity, finally got his homeritis under control, and still allowed a 3.45 ERA. An unusually low (for him) 12.78 K/9 was part of the problem. While his projections very much merit this ranking, bear in mind the Mets might not be patient with Diaz.
Tier 3: The Desirable (4)
Romano joins a trio of the old guard in this tier. He’s pitched like a Tier 2 closer since his breakout in 2020. I have small concerns about a steep drop in slider usage last season. He was more effective in 2020 when he tossed his slider 60 percent of the time. He used it only 37 percent last season. Sometimes, when we see a sharp decrease in breaking ball rates, it signals the pitcher is trying to avoid aggravating a known injury. Indeed, Romano missed brief periods with right ulnar neuritis (nerve discomfort) and a minor forearm strain/finger issue.
Jansen used a pitch lab over the 2020/2021 offseason and delivered career-best velocity. He also made some adjustments to his pitch mix (i.e. he threw more than just cutters) and his usually pristine walk rate climbed to 4.70 BB/9. Jansen thrived despite the free passes because hitters still can’t square up his offerings. His command also improved throughout the season. When a pitcher joins a new club for the first time in their career, it’s always slightly worrisome.
If I have one of these early picks completely wrong, it’s probably Kimbrel. In three spring appearances (two innings), he’s allowed nine runs including a pair of homers. The Dodgers have confirmed him as their closer after being all squirrely about naming the equally talented and enigmatic Blake Treinen to the role. Kimbrel himself blames not closing on his collapse with the White Sox. To me, that sounds like a convenient excuse. Kimbrel has struggled mightily at times in each of the last four seasons. The projections merit this ranking, but he’ll have to avoid meltdowns.
As for Chapman, I’ve discussed ad nauseum the challenges he faces maintaining his mechanics, velocity, and health as his body ages. He doesn’t do things the easy way which lends itself to slumps. The Yankees actively demote him from high leverage situations when he’s out of sync which happens at least once a season. This might be the year Jonathan Loaisiga nudges him aside. Chapman is scheduled for free agency after the season.
There’s a good chance I’ll combine the second and third tiers next week.
Tier 4: Upside Plays (7)
Taylor Rogers, Minnesota Twins
Scott Barlow, Kansas City Royals
Giovanny Gallegos, Jordan Hicks, St. Louis Cardinals
Corey Knebel, Philadelphia Phillies
Andrew Kittredge, Tampa Bay Rays
Jake McGee, San Francisco Giants
David Bednar, Chris Stratton, Pittsburgh Pirates
For the most part, these are pitchers I like. Really, really like. In each case, there’s a tiny lack of clarity. A crack in the door for someone else to potentially slip through without notice. I consider Rogers the likeliest to hold the job. He’s produces numbers similar to Pressly but has struggled with high BABIPs in recent seasons. I’m inclined to blame an unwillingness to risk walking hitters. Jorge Alcala, Tyler Duffey, and Jhoan Duran are a few names to watch out of the corner of your eye. Duran would be especially dangerous for Rogers if the Twins didn’t also desperately need rotation depth.
In my opinion, Barlow lacks in-house competition. That didn’t stop the Royals from avoiding him until the latter portions of the 2021 season. They might prefer him in a fireman role. Kansas City turned to Josh Staumont before Barlow and could do so again. If they use Barlow as a traditional closer, he could be the saves leader when the dust clears – I anticipate many close victories for the Royals.
The Cardinals are talking about using a “fluid” bullpen which to me means they want Gallegos back in his fireman role with Hicks closing. They just don’t want to commit to anything until Hicks proves himself healthy and effective after missing most of the last three seasons. This bullpen is not especially talented so their desires for fluidity probably won’t last long. Gallegos along would easily merit inclusion in the second tier. Hicks probably fits in the third tier.
The Phillies have said very little about their late-inning plans. The widespread assumption is Knebel will close. The only thing they’ve publicly said on the topic – and this was ages ago – is that they made clear to Knebel he wasn’t automatically going to close. I think we need to consider this as another fluid bullpen with Brad Hand and Seranthony Domínguez also in the mix for early saves.
Kittredge was a revelation for both the Rays and fantasy managers last season. Nine wins, eight saves, 9.67 K/9, 1.88 ERA, and 0.98 WHIP – what more could you ask of a formerly unestablished pitcher? I anticipate more of the same this season, albeit with regression to around a 2.90 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. Maybe he nabs 16 saves instead of eight. One thing we can always count upon – the Rays won’t have just one closer. Early competition for Kittredge includes JT Chargois, J.P. Feyereisen, Matt Wisler, and Jalen Beeks. Others will come out of the woodwork. They always do in Tampa.
Manager Gabe Kapler has publicly anointed McGee as… well, not the closer. The guy who will most often work the ninth inning? My concern all winter with Camilo Doval revolved around his ability to maintain an acceptable walk rate. He never achieved it in the minors then magically did upon reaching the Majors. This spring, Doval pitched five innings with no walks, one hit batsman, and nine strikeouts. I’m quietly scooping up cheap shares. I already had McGee. Don’t forget Tyler Rogers for cheap situational saves once he’s healthy.
Bednar is an excellent reliever, but the Pirates are telling their beat reporters they’ll share saves between him and Stratton. While Stratton does have some enviable traits – namely elite spin rates – he’s only a middle reliever caliber pitcher. In a merit-based organization, Bednar would quickly earn the full job and notch 30 saves. The Pirates are not merit-based so who can say how this will end.
Tier 5: Increasing Uncertainty (6)
Art Warren, Luis Cessa, Hunter Strickland, Cincinnati Reds
Lou Trivino, Oakland Athletics
Mark Melancon, Arizona Diamondbacks
Anthony Bender, Miami Marlins
Gregory Soto, Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers
Robert Suarez, Emilio Pagan, Dinelson Lamet, San Diego Padres
Sometime between the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2021, Warren turned into a monster. His accomplishments in 2021 would place him somewhere in the Iglesias-to-Diaz range of closer. There are just a few issues with jumping in feet first. The Reds have yet to name a closer, though the options consist of a couple middle relievers (Cessa and Strickland), Tony Santillan, and Warren. Santillan has interesting traits but doesn’t fit well at Great American Ballpark. Warren remains cheap in drafts and could be the annual bargain stud.
Trivino and Melancon have an advantage the others in this tier (and even the one above) lack – the job is theirs alone. That said, neither pitcher is likely to supply any help outside of the saves category. Their supporting staff could struggle to hand them leads to finish. Furthermore, both are mid-season trade candidates and almost certainly won’t close for their new club. All in all, I’m avoiding them. There’s so much affordable upside to chase with other clubs.
Bender was receiving subtle internal hype even before it emerged that Dylan Floro would miss Opening Day. He’s certainly closer caliber and will rank at least one tier higher if he has an effective first week. He fumbled his opportunities last year in the midst of an otherwise excellent season. Anthony Bass and recent acquisitions Cole Sulser and Tanner Scott are the main competition for now. Floro shouldn’t be out long, and they might convert Edward Cabrera and/or Max Meyer into a fireman for the playoff hunt. Don’t write off Miami just yet, they have the deepest roster in the NL East.
Soto struggles with command and has habitually fallen into at least one slump per season. He also pumps upper-90s gas from the left side and avoids barrels. The overall profile is volatile in a Jose Alvarado or Jake Diekman kind of way. You’ll note neither pitcher has held a closer role for long. Barring newfound command, I think Soto too will struggle to remain “The Guy.” Fulmer was the first choice last season, and he was perfectly decent in an Ian Kennedy kind of way. He pitched poorly in four spring innings.
The Padres are intent upon confounding us. Suarez is something of a blind spot for me. I have nothing except his spring stats (4 IP, 7 K, 3 H, 1 R) and projections based on Major League equivalents from his excellent performances in Japan. Those include heavy regression and therefore see him as a middle reliever. Pagan hasn’t looked particularly sharp since a magic season in 2019. That’s starting to look like the outlier on an otherwise unimpressive resume. I’m excited about Lamet finally landing in the bullpen. He’s always been an elite reliever masquerading as a decent starter, though I am worried about the forearm issues he experienced last season. Assuming he stays healthy, he’s a great bet for something like Kittredge’s 2021 output: 7-10 wins, 8-10 saves, 100 strikeouts, and good rate stats. He might not be the closer, but he gives every indication of being a great fantasy asset.
Tier 6: Fog of Spring
Drew Steckenrider, Paul Sewald, Diego Castillo, Andres Munoz, Seattle Mariners
Matt Barnes, Hansel Robles, Garrett Whitlock, Boston Red Sox
David Robertson, Mychal Givens, Rowan Wick, Chicago Cubs
Greg Holland, Matt Bush, Joe Barlow, Texas Rangers
The Mariners have adopted a committee approach for the beginning of 2022. With Ken Giles sidelined by a finger injury, Munoz is the guy to watch closest. He could be the Clase of this season – and with better strikeout rates too (and fewer ground balls). Munoz pumps 100-mph cheddar from a bulldog frame. Steckenrider might most of the early opportunities, but he’ll fade into the background before long. Castillo too seems destined to slot more in the sixth and seventh innings when all is said and done. Sewald was fantastic last year, striking out nearly two in five hitters to come to the plate. However, his approach is gimmicky and managers tend to avoid using such relievers as a regular closer. He’ll be most valuable if the committee holds up all season. He should wind up with similar numbers to those I projected for Lamet. To be clear, this bullpen is a lot more valuable than this ranking in the sixth tier. It’ll move up once Steckenrider is out of the way.
The Red Sox, Cubs, and Rangers aren’t in as good of shape. They belong here. Barnes is missing velocity this spring after flopping late last year. Robles, who is behind in his preparations for the season, is being talked about as the backup. By talent, it should be Whitlock. The Sox want him to start someday, so they’ll need to feel pain before installing Whitlock as the closer.
We haven’t seen a healthy Robertson since 2018. There’s no reason to believe his stuff would age out of relevance – he just needs to hold up physically long enough to shake off the rust. He’s a cutter specialist with a plus curve. Robertson has never relied upon velocity. Givens has a better recent track record of health, but he’s limited by a middle reliever skill set. Like Strickland, teams keep trying him out as a temp-closer. Maybe the Cubs will too. Around 10 days ago, Chicago explicitly left Wick out of a list of four closer candidates when discussing the bullpen. Which adds up to me. He’s in that Strickland/Givens bucket of guys who are better as pinch-closers on bad teams. Keep an eye on Ethan Roberts who was recently told he made the team.
Barlow was the offseason favorite to close in Texas in part because he finished last season with the role. However, he’s yet to show a true high leverage profile. Ditto the other popular choice, Spencer Patton. He was demoted to Triple-A on Wednesday. Once they signed Holland as a non-roster invitee, I was confident he’d get first crack. To be fair, Holland has a long track record of acceptable results through the first couple months. Then he fades. Bush is also in the mix despite only a couple decent seasons to his name – and those came a half decade ago. Josh Sborz might eventually emerge as the best of a bunch of mediocre options. Garrett Richards, currently out with a blister, pitched well in relief last season and could fall into that Fulmer-Kennedy bucket. Jonathan Hernandez might return in the second half.
Tier 7: Do Not Roster (3)
I am not sanguine about Colome’s chances of pitching well at Coors Field. By contrast, a viable closer could emerge for the Nationals. Rainey has some high leverage traits but has yet to prove he can prevent runs. Finnegan is a low leverage pitcher. Similarly, Baltimore could find someone perfectly rosterable for fantasy purposes. They don’t expect to lead enough games to bother with traditional relief roles. Their best relievers will pitch in any remotely close game when they’re rested. Keep a close eye on Felix Bautista. If he’s avoiding walks, he’s an add.