Closers…You either hate them or you…hate them. There’s really no other alternative. The position is extremely volatile. Imagine two friends hanging out on a road trip together. We’ll call them Swaggy and D-Lo. Swaggy is confiding in D-Lo about his infidelities regarding betraying his special lady friend — we’ll call her Black Widow. And what Swaggy doesn’t know is that D-Lo is secretly filming what Swaggy is saying about cheating on Black Widow. Then somehow D-Lo’s video finds its way to the internet, but he swears he doesn’t know how it got there…and then some guy named Kobe secretly gives it a nice long chuckle. Well, closers in MLB are more volatile than even that situation! Need proof? Consider this…
There are 30 teams in MLB. Last year at some point or another — whether it was due to injury, trade, poor performance, getting caught going heavy on the PED’s, having an asinine post-game celebration, wearing a baseball cap too far to the side, or some combination of the above (I’m looking at you Mr. Rodney) — 15 players that were their team’s closer on Opening Day were not their team’s closer for at least a total of 2 months of the season (the majority of the 15 weren’t closer for at least 3 months). 15 of 30. And if I know my fractions, that reduces to 1/2. Half the teams in baseball last year had a change at closer. 50%!
The point is that while it’s nice to have a couple of those fortunate 15 for your fantasy squad, it’s really not the most important thing. There WILL be a carousel of closers that could be readily available to you if you miss out on the ones that you want. All you have to do is pay attention, hit the waiver wire, plug and play — and BOOM! You now have saves.
This relief pitchers rankings list contains all of the pitchers who are either *expected* to be their team’s closer on Opening Day or who are *considered* to be their team’s closer but are going to start the season on the DL/suspended list. Other setup men might be mentioned within other players’ descriptions, but will not be ranked if they don’t meet the aforementioned criteria. But other setup men who I like to possibly ascend to closer status will be bullet pointed at the end of the rankings.
Below are THE BACKWARDS K 2016 FANTASY BASEBALL RELIEF PITCHER RANKINGS. Included for each player is “The Backwards K Quick Take” and a self-produced player projection for 2016.
***Please note the following:
- The player’s names are color coded to signal different tiers at the position.
- The rankings reflect standard 5×5 roto scoring settings (W/SV/ERA/WHIP/K) with position eligibility requirements as 10 total games played at a position in 2015, or 5 total games started at a position in 2015 (i.e. Yahoo! settings).
- The numerical order is not necessarily a suggested order to draft them in, but it is the order that is calculated based on each player’s listed projections, unless noted otherwise.
- Kenley Jansen (Dodgers) – The Backwards K Quick Take: Jansen just looks so huge on the mound in his 6’5″/265 lb. frame that it is pretty amazing to think that he used to be a catcher before thriving in his current reliever role. There are few relievers that can rival what Jansen has done since debuting in 2010 and thanks to an Aroldis Chapman suspension, Jansen comes in at the top of this list. His line drive rate of 11.1% from last year is most certainly incredibly low and not sustainable, so a rise in his BABIP can be expected. But the movement on his cutter is so nasty that it’s no surprise that he has never posted a K/9 lower than 13.0 K/9 in a single season and that he continues to baffle Major League hitters. He lost a tick on that cutter last year, but he started to mix in a slider more often, which likely helped to counteract the loss in velocity. He should be just fine. 2016 Projection: 5 W/2 L/44 SV/2.10 ERA/0.84 WHIP/97 K/14 BB in 67 IP
- Craig Kimbrel (Red Sox) – The Backwards K Quick Take: Kimbrel was traded from the Padres to the Red Sox in the off-season and it has to be a change that he welcomes as he will get the opportunity to pitch for a winner again where it seems he shines. Like Jansen, he has never posted a K/9 under 13.0 K/9 in a season and even though there are some beasts in the AL East, his stuff is filthy enough to sit down any hitter. He comes in with an upper 90’s fastball and then will drop that devastating curve that he gets everyone to lunge at. There was even some talk that he wanted to learn the splitter from his new teammate Koji Uehara. If Kimbrel picks up that pitch at some point then holy moly, look out. 2016 Projection: 5 W/2 L/44 SV/2.17 ERA/0.98 WHIP/99 K/24 BB in 67 IP
- Wade Davis (Royals) – The Backwards K Quick Take: Davis is a nice success story of a failed starting pitcher converted to a reliever to become one of the best in the game at his job. Since heading to the bullpen, Davis has posted microscopic marks of a 0.97 ERA and 0.81 WHIP to go along with 12.08 K/9 in the last two seasons combined. It wouldn’t be wise to think that he can keep posting such video game numbers, but he still should be among the league’s elite, despite having only half a season experience closing games. Draft him with confidence. 2016 Projection: 5 W/2 L/44 SV/2.11 ERA/0.96 WHIP/81 K/21 BB in 67 IP
- Jeurys Familia (Mets) – The Backwards K Quick Take: Familia found himself closing games for the Mets thanks to Jenrry Mejia’s idiocy to get suspended for PED’s… and again… and then again. Familia should send him a thank you card or something. Or perhaps Familia tampered with Mejia’s test results to get him to test positive…that would be surreal. But even if Familia didn’t earn his way into the closer’s role initially, he certainly earned his way into keeping it. So he’ll reprise that role this season and there’s reason to believe that he could be even better than last year. To go with his heavily used sinker, slider, and occasional four-seamer, Familia added a splitter to his repertoire late last season. It was a pitch that he had been toying with in side sessions and he finally unleashed it last August and boy, is it an exciting pitch. It’s a secondary pitch that averaged 93.4 MPH. No other pitcher in the game has a secondary pitch with that type of velocity. Essentially, it acts as a changeup to his 97.7 MPH sinker, and it can be used to neutralize lefties and induce a ton of groundballs from any hitter. With the incorporation of the splitter, from August through the end of the World Series, Familia had a 1.06 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, and 45 K/8 BB in 42.1 IP. With a whole off-season and Spring Training to hone the craftiness of his arsenal even more, the NL East should be scared. 2016 Projection: 5 W/2 L/43 SV/2.46 ERA/1.03 WHIP/83 K/18 BB in 71 IP
- Zach Britton (Orioles) – The Backwards K Quick Take: Britton is another story of a failed starting pitcher that found immediate success as a relief pitcher, and last year he stepped up his game quite handsomely. Britton is the epitome of a groundball pitcher. He pounds the lower part of the zone with a 97 MPH sinker that he complements with a curveball. This combo of pitches and his great command to pitch it low to exactly where he wants it led to a WTF groundball rate of 79.1% last year. As in, “79.1%?!? WTF?!?” But not only does he induce a bunch of groundballs, he is amazing at avoiding hard contact as 34.0% of the balls hit off him were classified as soft and only 19.5% were hard. I don’t think I have to tell you what happens to softly hit groundballs, but if I do need to…they go for very easy outs. And then last year Britton also turned into a big strikeout pitcher as he logged 10.83 K/9 after having just 7.31 K/9 in the year before. He’s not super elite like Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel, or Aroldis Chapman who are all just strikeout robots, but Britton is elite in his own craft as a groundball specialist that also has swing and miss stuff. Unfortunately, the Orioles starting pitching staff is somewhat hideous looking and could prevent Britton from matching the saves totals of some of these other closers, which has him a tier below the super elite. 2016 Projection: 5 W/2 L/38 SV/2.22 ERA/0.99 WHIP/73 K/15 BB in 67 IP
- Mark Melancon (Pirates) – The Backwards K Quick Take: Melancon struggled with his velocity early on in 2015, but he gradually recovered some of it as the year progressed. He finished the season with a 1.6 MPH average overall loss on his most used pitch, the cutter, but fortunately he’s more of a pitcher that relies on command and inducing groundballs. Yes, the velocity would be nice to have back and his longevity as an effective reliever may be shortened without that low-mid 90’s velocity, but he did prove that he can still be very effective closing games working primarily in the low 90’s. He’s far from the cream of the crop, but he’s a pretty steady closer, especially with the Pirates being a team that has been able to consistently produce a lot of save opportunities in the recent years. 2016 Projection: 5 W/2 L/43 SV/2.53 ERA/1.03 WHIP/61 K/12 BB in 71 IP
- Aroldis Chapman (Yankees) – The Backwards K Quick Take: The Yankees traded for Chapman knowing that a suspension could be handed down to him for his involvement in a domestic abuse episode, and indeed he did get slapped with a 30-game suspension. However, that shouldn’t prevent him from being one of the first 8 closers off the board in fantasy leagues. For comparison, Chapman’s new teammate Andrew Miller served as the closer for the Yankees last year and he missed a month with an injury, yet still collected 38 save opportunities and finished as the 4th most valuable reliever thanks to his supreme ratios and strikeouts. Guess what? Chapman is just as supreme as Miller in all regards, if not more supreme. Don’t discount him too much or you’ll be sorry. 2016 Projection: 4 W/1 L/33 SV/1.90 ERA/0.97 WHIP/94 K/26 BB in 55 IP
- Cody Allen (Indians) – The Backwards K Quick Take: Allen has been a fantastic reliever for the Indians in the last three seasons and he will once again be the fireman for what is shaping up to be one of the more intriguing starting pitching staffs in the American League. Allen’s biggest thing to overcome to truly launch himself into the elite tier of closers is to limit line drive contact. Outside of 2014 when he had a really low LD% of 15.3%, Allen has posted marks over 24% in each season and it leaves him with inflated BABIP marks in the end. There has to be something that he’s not doing right whether it’s falling behind early in counts so that he ends up grooving pitches, or poor sequencing of his pitches, or just plain missing his spots. He needs to figure out what it is that is letting hitters hit so many liners off of him — and then correct it. Also, something that could boost his value more is that his teammates have produced save opportunities for him at a surprisingly low rate for the type of quality starting pitching they have had the last couple of seasons. A little better fortune there and he can sniff 40 saves this time around. 2016 Projection: 4 W/2 L/39 SV/2.66 ERA/1.09 WHIP/89 K/25 BB in 68 IP
- Ken Giles (Astros) – The Backwards K Quick Take: The Astros made a big trade in the off-season to acquire Giles from the Phillies and he appears to be poised to land the closing gig ahead of veteran Luke Gregerson (though there should be some room left for Gregerson to surprise and reclaim the role). Giles profiles much better than Gregerson as the typical closer, but the Astros would have some financial incentive to stick with Gregerson. Ultimately, I would expect the talent to prevail over the dollars for a team that has an excellent window to be one of the best in the league. Giles brings the gas with the upper 90’s heat that he pairs with a devastating slider, but two points of concern would be that he had control issues coming up through the Minors and he struggled with his velocity early last season. If either of those things resurface, then manager A.J. Hinch would likely not have an issue turning back to the veteran Gregerson. But it’s pretty apparent that Giles has the potential to be the type of shutdown closer that Billy Wagner and Brad Lidge were for the Astros earlier in the millennium. 2016 Projection: 5 W/2 L/38 SV/2.54 ERA/1.11 WHIP/78 K/23 BB in 66 IP
- Trevor Rosenthal (Cardinals) – The Backwards K Quick Take: Overall, Rosenthal has done a fine job as the Cardinals closer the last two seasons, but I wouldn’t go as far to say it is applaudable. He’ll rack up a good amount of strikeouts, but his control can be spotty and when you own a .322 career BABIP, that’s probably not just a string of bad luck. He should be okay as a closer, but he’s not someone I would mark as a target. It seems that a good portion of his value lies in the sheer number of save opportunities that his team has provided for him the last two years, and if I’m going to pay for a guy like that, then I would rather go with one (Mark Melancon) that I feel can post better ratios. 2016 Projection: 4 W/3 L/42 SV/2.81 ERA/1.18 WHIP/81 K/25 BB in 68 IP
- A.J. Ramos (Marlins) – The Backwards K Quick Take: Ramos took over for Steve Cishek in the 9th inning early last season for Miami and he never looked back. With a new manager in town this season and the emergence of setup man Carter Capps last year, the table was all set for a good ol’ fashioned closer controversy. But fortunately for Ramos, Capps got the bad news that he would need Tommy John surgery. With Capps out of the picture, Ramos has quite a secure role and that fact shouldn’t be overlooked. Closers are so volatile and see lots of turnover throughout the year, so to have someone like Ramos who has no significant competition behind him is important to consider. Ramos really cut back on the walks last year and that is going to be the main factor for him to repeat his success. Ramos appears to be an excellent value at closer. 2016 Projection: 4 W/2 L/37 SV/2.60 ERA/1.10 WHIP/80 K/29 BB in 66 IP
- Roberto Osuna (Blue Jays) – The Backwards K Quick Take: After seeing what the kid did last year and owning him in some fantasy leagues, I liked Osuna a lot heading into this year…and then the Blue Jays went and traded for Drew Storen. The two battled it out in Spring Training and the popular thought was that Storen would claim the job if neither of them stood out from the other because Storen is a veteran with more experience closing games and has an expensive price tag attached to him. However, while Storen wasn’t horrible in Spring Training, he wasn’t good either. And Osuna looked like the same pitcher that he was last year, so it’s still Osuna’s job. While he will have Storen breathing down his neck, I would feel rather confident that Osuna won’t relinquish the position via poor performance. The 21-year old is a hard thrower with good control, but the thing to watch out for is his flyball tendencies. He kept his home run rate decent last year, but playing in the AL East is a tough spot to be in. I’m not saying that he can’t do it, but just be aware that home runs could become an issue. One other concern, which is out of his control, is that his team provided him with very few save opportunities last year after he usurped the closer’s role because the Blue Jays offense was so ridiculously good that the team was seemingly always up by 4 or more runs. The Jays will return with much of the same offense, so Osuna could be feeling some deja vu at some point this season, but at the very least he should collect a few extra save opportunities this time around and he has the look and feel of being the next K-Rod (Francisco Rodriguez). 2016 Projection: 5 W/2 L/33 SV/2.78 ERA/1.02 WHIP/75 K/19 BB in 69 IP
- Jake McGee (Rockies) – The Backwards K Quick Take: Over the last 4 seasons since Huston Street departed Colorado, the Rockies as a team have averaged 32.75 saves per season. This is the team’s whole bullpen we’re talking about, not just the team’s primary closer. That’s a very low average total for a team in 162 games played and part of it speaks to the rather iffy bullpen talent the Rockies have had, while part of it does likely reflect the home environment at Coors Field and just how difficult it can be to pitch well enough to collect saves in the thinner air. But fear not this year. While it probably wasn’t wise for a team that is not going to contend to trade for a closer type of pitcher, they went out and got the talented lefty McGee. McGee has never been a full-time closer, but he does have some experience in closing games with 25 saves in the last two seasons. He’s a southpaw, but he’s no LOOGY (left-handed one out guy). McGee actually has better splits against righties in his career and they are extremely good ones too — .187/.256/.280 with a 30.7 K%. McGee throws a fastball (4-seam or 2-seam) around 90% of the time while mixing in a very occasional curveball. Given that he doesn’t rely heavily on breaking pitches, and instead relies more on location of his fastball, the thin air in Colorado may not have much of an effect on him as it has had on many other pitchers. McGee may have some competition when Adam Ottavino returns from Tommy John surgery later this summer, but the Rockies will have no need to thrust Ottavino back into the closer’s role right away. While others are being afraid of a Colorado pitcher, pounce on McGee for a good roto value. 2016 Projection: 4 W/2 L/32 SV/2.85 ERA/1.05 WHIP/80 K/19 BB in 63 IP
- David Robertson (White Sox) – The Backwards K Quick Take: In his first year as the closer for the White Sox after signing a big 4-year deal, Robertson probably deserved a better fate than a 3.41 ERA while his xFIP stood at 2.27. His hideously low 65.7 LOB% was a huge factor as he had some minor issues with the long ball. However, he also posted a career best walk rate (5.2%) that was well out of the norm for him, so there could be some regression in store there. Overall, Robertson is a perfectly fine closer with high strikeout numbers, but for some reason I worry about his health even though he has had no major arm or shoulder injury in his career that kept him out for more than a few weeks. Maybe it’s just a hunch, but I think some of the luster on Robertson is wearing off. Like Trevor Rosenthal, he’s a perfectly fine closer with high strikeouts, but he’s just not one that I would specifically target. 2016 Projection: 3 W/3 L/36 SV/3.13 ERA/1.13 WHIP/86 K/22 BB in 64 IP
- Sean Doolittle (A’s) – The Backwards K Quick Take: Doolittle’s 2015 season was marred with injury as he struggled with his velocity after trying to recover from a rotator cuff tear in his throwing shoulder. But with a full off-season to get back on track, he should be good to go for 2016 and he might even be appearing with a new splitter pitch. Doolittle has been 87.7% fastballs during his Major League career, mixing in very occasional sliders and changeups. So adding a new wrinkle to his arsenal does not sound like a bad idea at all. It’s a pitch that he worked on a lot in the off-season and it should give him an added layer of deception if he can make it into a Major League pitch. He has been a super extreme flyball pitcher, so adding a splitter could also help him to shift toward being more of a neutral pitcher to groundballs/flyballs. He might see a BABIP increase if he does end up utilizing the splitter, but overall it should help him more in the long run than not. We’ll have to see what the early results are in the regular season, but it’s a promising development. Just hope his shoulder doesn’t act up again. 2016 Projection: 4 W/2 L/33 SV/2.67 ERA/1.03 WHIP/69 K/15 BB in 65 IP
- Jonathan Papelbon (Nationals) – The Backwards K Quick Take: Papelbon’s velocity has dropped significantly since the beginning of the decade and his strikeout rate has gone downhill with it. However, he’s turned to his slider a bit more to compensate for the velocity loss and the end results in ERA, WHIP, and save conversion rate have been just fine. Eventually though, something will have to give and instead of choking his teammates, he’ll be choking in the 9th inning blowing games. For now though, consider him a fine, if not unspectacular, closing option. But he definitely won’t be making it on to any of my fantasy rosters. 2016 Projection: 4 W/3 L/36 SV/3.14 ERA/1.08 WHIP/60 K/15 BB in 65 IP
- Hector Rondon (Cubs) – The Backwards K Quick Take: Not that Rondon doesn’t have good stuff or can’t be a successful closer, but Cubs manager Joe Maddon appeared to have some trust issues with Rondon last year even though Rondon was performing just fine. Rondon blew some saves early on last year but on June 20 he was on a nice little streak with 3 straight clean saves and an overall 2.54 ERA and 1.20 WHIP, but the next time out he was used as a setup man — and that continued for the next 6 weeks. Maddon is a forward thinking manager, so I don’t think that he necessarily cares about set roles in the bullpen, which I think makes Rondon a bit of a murky option to be treated as a top 12-15 closer. If at any point he struggles even for just a few games, then it would not be surprising to see Maddon turn to someone else. 2016 Projection: 4 W/2 L/30 SV/2.62 ERA/1.08 WHIP/62 K/16 BB in 64 IP
- Francisco Rodriguez (Tigers) – The Backwards K Quick Take: As he’s gotten older and lost velocity on his fastball and bite on his breaking ball, Rodriguez has had to kind of reinvent himself as a pitcher and figure out a way to continue to get Major League hitters out. With his average fastball velocity not even coming in at 90 MPH last year, he compensated by throwing both his fastball and curveball less in favor of his changeup, which he threw 42.8% of the time. The results were pleasant and while I don’t think he’ll have the same type of success this year, I still think he will be a decent closer in his first year with the Tigers. 2016 Projection: 4 W/3 L/36 SV/3.36 ERA/1.15 WHIP/69 K/18 BB in 64 IP
- Huston Street (Angels) – The Backwards K Quick Take: It’s Street’s age 32 season and he lost a tick on his fastball last year and his best days are in the rearview mirror. He likely won’t pitch poorly enough to lose the job (and because manager Mike Scioscia would probably be too stubborn to make a switch), but he won’t pitch well enough to floor anyone. He’s kind of just…there. He’s the AL version of Jonathan Papelbon. 2016 Projection: 3 W/2 L/35 SV/3.04 ERA/1.08 WHIP/54 K/16 BB in 60 IP
- Andrew Miller (Yankees) – The Backwards K Quick Take: (EDIT on 4/1/16: Added Miller to the rankings) In a turn of events, Miller will in fact be ready for the start of the season and he will close for the Yankees while Aroldis Chapman is out. Even when he isn’t saving games, he will still be a valuable relief pitcher in roto leagues. 2016 Projection: 5 W/1 L/9 SV/2.22 ERA/0.95 WHIP/97 K/21 BB in 63 IP
- Dellin Betances (Yankees) – The Backwards K Quick Take: When David Robertson left the Yankees via free agency after the 2014 season, Betances appeared to be in excellent position to assume the closer’s role in the Bronx after having just completed a season with a 1.40 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, and a ridiculous 135 K in 90 IP. But…the Yankees went out and signed Andrew Miller to be their closer. There were no complaints from Betances though and in 2015 he practically replicated his 2014 season by posting a 1.50 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, and 131 K in 84 IP. And if Miller wasn’t enough of an obstacle standing in his way to becoming an elite closer, the Yankees went and traded for the most elite closer in the game, Aroldis Chapman, this off-season. It’s a murderer’s row of a bullpen for the Yankees, but it absolutely buries Betances on the totem pole. So after all that, who would’ve thought that Betances would be the likely closer for the Yankees for possibly the first month of the season? Chapman got issued a suspension and then Miller suffered a wrist injury in Spring Training. Betances closed games for the month that Miller was injured last year, so he should have no problems filling in again until Chapman’s suspension is over. Betances is basically a clone of Craig Kimbrel and due to his silly strong ratios and strikeout total, he is actually a viable RP in roto leagues for the whole season even when he’s not saving games. In fact, he finished last year as the #7 RP despite only tallying 9 saves. He probably shouldn’t be drafted before some other RP’s that have clearer paths to save opportunities for the whole season, but he can be a very valuable fantasy role player. (EDIT on 4/1/16: In a turn of events, Andrew Miller has been deemed good to go for Opening Day, meaning Betances won’t be closing for the first month. He’s still a great source of ratios, strikeouts, and potential relief wins. I’ll leave him in the rankings but he does get moved down from #16 to #21) 2016 Projection: 6 W/2 L/9 SV/2.51 ERA/1.05 WHIP/116 K/33 BB in 80 IP
- Glen Perkins (Twins) – The Backwards K Quick Take: Perkins established himself as an excellent reliever from 2011-13 after making the transition from starting, but back then he was averaging nearly 95 MPH on his fastball. These past two seasons where he has dealt with nagging back and neck injuries, he has been more in the 93-94 MPH range with his average fastball and not surprisingly his strikeout rates have gone way down and his ERA has gone way up. He’s still been quality — he’s not Fernando Rodney or anything — but it’s leaving smaller room for error for the lefty Perkins. At 33 years old and with the way that injuries have hampered his performance recently, Perkins isn’t someone I would put a whole lot of confidence in. 2016 Projection: 3 W/3 L/32 SV/3.57 ERA/1.16 WHIP/56 K/12 BB in 60 IP
- Fernando Rodney (Padres) – The Backwards K Quick Take: How this guy keeps landing closer gigs, I’m not quite sure, but it’s really pissing me off! But I could actually see him being just acceptable enough for the non-contending Padres to let him close all year long given that the Padres have no other obvious options. They do have a few alternatives, but not one that just screams “future closer!” Roster him at your own risk. 2016 Projection: 3 W/3 L/25 SV/3.57 ERA/1.34 WHIP/63 K/29 BB in 64 IP
- Alex Colome (Rays) – The Backwards K Quick Take: With an injury to Brad Boxberger that has him slated to miss about the first month of the season, Colome is probably the best option to fill in for the Rays, though Danny Farquhar is another option. Colome began last season as a starting pitcher for Tampa, but once some of their other starting pitchers got healthy, Colome was shifted to the bullpen. This was Colome’s first ever extended look as a relief pitcher in his professional career, but it sure didn’t seem that way with the way he pitched. As a reliever, Colome had a 2.66 ERA with a 1.13 WHIP and 9.74 K/9, which was a vast improvement over his starting pitching numers. That type of performance would be pretty useful in the 9th inning. The one stumbling block that could prevent Colome from being first in line after Boxberger though is the fact that since he has spent most of his career as a starting pitcher, he has the ability to be stretched out to pitch multiple innings and that seemed to be a trait that Kevin Cash appreciated about Colome last season. 2016 Projection: 4 W/3 L/9 SV/2.99 ERA/1.15 WHIP/67 K/19 BB in 65 IP
- Steve Cishek (Mariners) – The Backwards K Quick Take: Cishek had an epic meltdown in April of last year for the Marlins, which led to a brief demotion to the Minors. In that month of April, viewing his vertical pitch location charts, it can be seen that he struggled to get his sinker down in the zone compared to the previous couple seasons when he had success. If a sinker ball pitcher isn’t getting the ball down far enough so that it disappears out of the zone, then he’s just leaving it in hitters’ wheel houses. After he returned from his demotion, he did find better success as he worked lower in the zone. In fact, in the second half of last year he posted a 1.98 ERA. However, there still is something amiss from last year despite the second half turnaround. Overall, Cishek’s velocity was down about 1 MPH after already having lost over 0.5 MPH from 2013 to 2014. This resulted in significantly less strikeouts. Cishek can be an adequate closer for an improved Mariners team, however, I would be rather surprised if he actually is the Mariners best reliever. It is imperative that he locates his pitches at the knees or lower and it would really help if he can gain some velocity back. 2016 Projection: 3 W/3 L/16 SV/3.47 ERA/1.32 WHIP/59 K/25 BB in 65 IP
- Jeremy Jeffress (Brewers) – The Backwards K Quick Take: Jeffress really was fortunate here and he should be counting his lucky stars. He was set to battle lefty Will Smith (no, not that Will Smith) for the closer’s role in Milwaukee this spring, but Jeffress got a late start to Spring Training as he was nursing an injury. Falling behind Smith in camp and the fact that Smith is simply just more talented than Jeffress likely meant that Smith would open the season as closer. But wildly enough, Smith tore his LCL while trying to take off his shoe. Unless he was wearing Robocop’s boots I am not sure how that happened. So Jeffress is likely to start the year as closer. He had some prospect pedigree when he was advancing through the farm system and he’s performed fine over the last 2 seasons as a Major Leaguer, but I’m not all too keen on him for upside. He induces a lot of groundballs, which is nice, but he also gives up a bunch of line drives that drive up his BABIP. And he hasn’t shown any ability at the Major League level to be a major strikeout force. If he doesn’t improve in either his line drive rate or strikeouts then he’s going to be rather mediocre and won’t hold the closer’s role when/if Smith comes back this year. 2016 Projection: 3 W/3 L/17 SV/3.35 ERA/1.30 WHIP/66 K/23 BB in 66 IP
- Shawn Tolleson (Rangers) – The Backwards K Quick Take: Tolleson was quite a find for the Rangers and fantasy owners alike last year when he took over as closer in the place of the struggling Neftali Feliz. He made improvements in just about every peripheral facet, but there’s one thing that can haunt his chances at maintaining the closer’s role: the long ball. Tolleson allowed 1.12 HR/9 last year, which was better than his 1.26 HR/9 the previous year, but it was still a high rate and certainly not a desirable trait for any pitcher, let alone one who is trying to save games. Out of all relievers who notched 20 or more saves last season, only Brad Boxberger and Glen Perkins had worse rates in home runs allowed. Then there’s another three-fold of complications for Tolleson heading into the year. First, he has been nursing a back issue this spring, which has put him behind in getting prepared for the season (though he still expects to be ready for Opening Day). Second, in the post-season last year, it wasn’t Tolleson who was put in for save opportunitites, it was groundball specialist Sam Dyson. Third, there’s a fireballing youngster named Keone Kela who was incredible in the second half of last year and he profiles as the most “prototypical” closer out of the trio. At the very least, I think that this situation ends up in some sort of committee based on matchups. 2016 Projection: 4 W/3 L/14 SV/3.59 ERA/1.21 WHIP/68 K/21 BB in 67 IP
- Santiago Casilla (Giants) – The Backwards K Quick Take: Casilla has seemingly defied FIP and xFIP by consistently posting ERA’s that are well below what his peripherals indicate. And then something strange happened last year where he posted a career best 9.62 K/9 at the age of 34. But the really odd thing about it is that he did this despite posting a career worst swing% at 44% while posting basically the exact same swinging strike% that he did in 2014. In 2014, he had a career high swing% but only struck out 6.94 K/9. Last year he didn’t have a new pitch, increase in velocity, or drastic change in pitch usage, so there was no logical reason for all the strikeouts. It appears regression is in his future. Casilla is probably not even the 2nd best reliever on the Giants, so it’ll be interesting to see how long of a leash he has. 2016 Projection: 3 W/3 L/24 SV/3.59 ERA/1.28 WHIP/46 K/20 BB in 57 IP
- J.J. Hoover (Reds) – The Backwards K Quick Take: Hoover will open the season as the closer for the Reds, but it’s quite possible the Reds will need the Hoover Dam to stop the flood of runs from coming in when he’s on the mound. Hoover’s final numbers last year were way better than his peripheral statistics, so without some serious improvement in something of skill, he’s bound for regression. He has shown poor control and the inability to keep the ball in the park as a Major Leaguer. Hoover may get some early saves, but as an arbitration eligible player on a rebuilding team, he would then be a trade candidate if he does somehow perform well — and whatever team he would end up on likely wouldn’t use him as a closer. So either way, I don’t see him closing games for more than half a season. He shouldn’t be counted on as a RP2 closer. The “next in line” option would be Jumbo Diaz, but he’s rather uninspiring as well. The lefty Tony Cingrani is the player that I would like to see become the closer, but he’ll have to figure out a better way to get out right-handed hitters. 2016 Projection: 3 W/3 L/16 SV/3.60 ERA/1.27 WHIP/65 K/27 BB in 64 IP
- Jason Grilli (Braves) – The Backwards K Quick Take: It’s no certainty that Grilli will be the closer for the Braves on Opening Day, but I think that he appears most likely to be despite being outperformed by Arodys Vizcaino. The reasoning is that the Braves are in a rebuild and if Grilli is closing games then that will build his trade value so that the Braves can flip him mid-season for a piece that might help them in their efforts to contend in future seasons. So that would mean at some point in the season, Vizcaino should be closing for the Braves whether it’s Grilli getting traded, Grilli not pitching well, or Grilli getting injured. 2016 Projection: 3 W/3 L/12 SV/3.18 ERA/1.17 WHIP/61 K/16 BB in 52 IP
- Brad Boxberger (Rays) – The Backwards K Quick Take: Boxberger had what some will label as a “breakout” year because he notched 41 saves and was an All-Star. But he actually was not very good when it was all said and done. First of all, those 41 saves also came with 6 blown saves, he allowed 1.29 HR/9, and he allowed 4.57 BB/9. What’s there to like here? Not much really. He is slated to miss the first month of the season after undergoing abdominal surgery, so this could really open the door for someone like Alex Colome to take the closer’s job and not look back. Although I do imagine that Boxberger will be given the opportunity to close once he is healthy — but don’t hold your breath that he’ll be any good if he can’t find the plate. 2016 Projection: 2 W/2 L/15 SV/3.52 ERA/1.21 WHIP/53 K/19 BB in 46 IP
- Brad Ziegler (Diamondbacks) – The Backwards K Quick Take: If there’s ever a non-conventional closer in the league then it surely is Ziegler. Ziegler has the novelty of being a submarine pitcher and he’s very good at inducing weak groundballs, so it’s not like he’s not useful — but he owns a career 5.87 K/9 and he’s now 36 years old. The Diamondbacks are clearly in a win now mode after signing Zack Greinke to the mega contract and trading away the #1 pick from the 2015 draft, so if Ziegler makes one false move then the D-Backs should not be afraid to make a switch and they have a few other capable arms that make a little more sense to close out games. 2016 Projection: 4 W/3 L/13 SV/3.36 ERA/1.27 WHIP/41 K/20 BB in 68 IP
*Note: I didn’t include a Phillies closer because it’s impossible to tell who will be their Opening Day closer at this point. No matter who it is, they would likely appear at the bottom of the rankings.
Here are my favorite setup men to watch:
- Keone Kela/Sam Dyson (Rangers) – The Rangers have a deep bullpen and could really turn to either of these guys over Tolleson or just go straight to a committee based on matchups because all of these guys have different things that they can do well. I love Dyson’s ability to induce weak groundballs combined with a respectable strikeout rate. But Kela is the one who profiles best as a closer out of all three of them and he really impressed last year as a 22-year old. My money would be on Kela to collect the most saves in the Rangers bullpen.
- Hunter Strickland (Giants) – With Casilla’s age and expected regression, I don’t see him lasting all season long as the closer for a contending team. Strickland was groomed as a closer in the Minor Leagues and he’s got some big strikeout potential. With a full season’s worth of Major league experience from last year, he looks ready to play the part of the shutdown 9th inning man.
- Nate Jones (White Sox) – Jones essentially missed all of the 2014 season and most of the 2015 season as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, but he did pitch towards the end of last year and showed the same high velocity that he had pre-Tommy John surgery. Jones has high strikeout appeal and would be an immediate add should anything happen to David Robertson.
- Arodys Vizcaino (Braves) – Vizcaino took over as the closer for the Braves last year when Jason Grilli had a season-ending injury. In the role, Vizcaino was rather impressive and he’s been even more impressive this Spring Training. He’s a near must-own in roto leagues because of the likelihood of Grilli being eventually traded/injured.
UNDERVALUED RELIEF PITCHERS TO TARGET (Based off positional ADP):
OVERVALUED RELIEF PITCHERS TO AVOID (Based off positional ADP):