September 18, 2021

Baseballpods

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Five Guys … who aren’t closers, but might be closers.

In preparation for the 2021 MLB season, I’m going to be writing a series of “Five Guys” posts for the website. These articles will be about “Five Guys” that share something in common in terms of their fantasy appeal, or lack thereof. Hopefully these will be entertaining and informative, and also make you crave double cheeseburgers. Mmm … cheeseburgers.

The first in this series was Five Guys … on a lot of my early rosters. Today, I’m addressing the closer position. 2021 might be the worst year for closers since fantasy baseball was invented in the 1980s. A combination of more advanced analytics informing smarter bullpen usage, the utter cheapness of baseball front offices, and the volatility inherent to relief pitchers has led us to a landscape bereft of strong closing options. The uncertainty of the closer position this year means you need to have a plan heading into your drafts. And part of that plan should include having a few bets you can make later in the draft on relievers who have the opportunity to rack up saves even though they might not be named their team’s official closer right now.

Without further introduction, here are my Five Guys … who aren’t closers, but might be closers:

1st Guy: Yimi García, MIA – Who? Exactly. Most folks aren’t paying attention to a 30 year-old journeyman with two career saves sitting in the Marlins bullpen. García came up through the Dodgers system, where he was one of an endless stream of talented arms. The Marlins brought him over last year, and he was probably the most effective arm in their bullpen. The right-hander has a four-pitch arsenal that he used to great effect in 2020, resulting in a 0.61 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 31.7 K%, and 8.3 BB% over 14 games.

García was undeniably lucky with a strand rate over 90% and zero home runs allowed. So we can throw some cold water on the notion that he’s repeating those gaudy numbers in 2021, even if his Statcast page looks like it is being sponsored by Hawaiian Punch.

But this off-season manager Don Mattingly has indicated that he has “total confidence” in García, and there is speculation he could end up closing in Miami. Brandon Kintzler, who led the Marlins in saves last year with 12, remains unsigned in spite of earlier offseason chatter that he was coming back. He could still return to the team to perform the role again. And the Marlins have already signed Anthony Bass, who performed fairly well in Toronto as closer for part of last season.

All this is to say that García isn’t guaranteed anything, but he has shown good skills, earned the trust of his manager, and is on a competitive team with no clear closer. Speculate late on Yimi.

2nd Guy: Amir Garrett, CIN – If you were to ask Amir Garrett, he would likely tell you that he shouldn’t be on this list, because as he has posted on Twitter, he is the Reds closer (check out the funny back and forth between AG and his competitor for the job on that link). In addition to laying claim to the role, Garrett has emerged as a team leader on the Reds, and flashed some very closer-ish numbers, including an elite strikeout rate over the past two seasons.

That being said, no one has actually been named the closer in Cincinnati, and Lucas Sims is very much in the mix for the role. Also, the team just signed Sean Doolittle, who has been a “proven closer.” At first glance, this situation looks muddier than the Ohio River (Tangent: Doolittle might have the best Twitter game of any active ballplayer. Between him, Garrett, Sims, and Joey Votto, this team isn’t short on personality).

But upon closer inspection, the signing of the left-handed Doolittle seems to indicate that he will serve as a lefty-specialist, freeing up fellow southpaw Garrett to close. Sims is a fine pitcher as well, but if the Reds end up moving one of their starters, he has the ability to slide into the rotation.

Given their NFBC ADPs, one strategy is to double-tap both Garrett (352) and Sims (364). I think Garrett ends up winning the role, but even if he doesn’t have it Opening Day, I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t end the year with double-digit saves.

3rd Guy: Chris Martin, ATL – The Braves lost a lot of players to free agency this offseason, and have been slow to bring them back. Among the unsigned are 2020 closer Mark Melancon and set-up man Shane Greene. This leaves Chris Martin and Will Smith as the two most likely arms to close games if the pitching staff remains as is.

Smith is being drafted as the closer in NFBC (252 ADP compared to Chris Martin’s 425), and he very well may get the role. But he has been homer-prone the last two seasons, not exactly a quality one wants in their closer. And he’s a lefty.

Meanwhile, Martin has been quietly spectacular over the last two seasons. In both 2019 and 2020, he had a K% over 30%, and a BB% of 4.5% or less. Truth be told, Martin has been very good for years. His career 4.09 ERA is much higher than his career 3.33 FIP in large part due to his first two seasons in Colorado and The Bronx.

Given that the Braves were able to land Marcell Ozuna for much less than they should have, and the holes they have on their staff, I’d bet on a couple of bullpen signings as we head towards Spring Training. But Martin is a nice guy to draft late now.

He could very well be named the team’s closer. Worst case scenario, he’s a relief pitcher with elite ratios you can plug into your lineup in the early weeks of the season to stabilize your ratios and give you Ks while you figure out which starters you trust.

4th Guy: Jake Diekman, OAK – Since the days of Moneyball, the Oakland Athletics have consistently identified and developed little-known relievers to serve as their closer. Australian Liam Hendriks was the latest A’s pitcher in that long line, but he has departed to the South Side of Chicago.

This leaves the A’s without a clear-cut closer. 34 year-old lefty Jake Diekman is the leading candidate for the role, even though he hasn’t recorded a save since 2018. While he can struggle with walks – not a great quality for a closer – Diekman features an elite strikeout rate, and very much limits the longball (career 0.55 HR/9 rate).

In a situation similar to that of the Reds with Doolittle, the Athletics acquired a lefty (Nik Turley in a trade with the Pirates), which has been interpreted as a move to allow Diekman to shift to closer. The A’s have come out and said Diekman would be a strong candidate to close, but nothing is official, and early fantasy drafters sure aren’t buying it (over the last month, Diekman’s NFBC ADP is 308).

This represents a great buying opportunity. As cheap as the A’s are, and as close as we are to Spring Training, Diekman should be considered the favorite for the role. And his ADP allows you to wait to grab some late saves. In deeper leagues, I love grabbing Diekman, and then pairing him up with his main competition for the role, Lou Trivino.

5th Guy: Giovanny Gallegos, STL – The Cardinals have a slew of arms that have played various roles in their bullpen in recent years. Going into the season, the closer role is being held for the flame-throwing Jordan Hicks. But Hicks hasn’t thrown in a game since having Tommy John surgery. Word out of Cardinals camp is that he should be ready for Opening Day. “Should” is a fun word, isn’t it?

What are their other options? Well, former closer Carlos Martínez seems slated for the rotation in 2021. And Kwang Hyun Kim, who notched a save last year, will likely join Martínez as a starting pitcher as well.

Of the other arms in the bullpen, Gallegos and Andrew Miller tied for the Cardinals team lead with four saves apiece in 2020. And Alex Reyes, Genesis Cabrera, and John Gant have all closed out games in the past.

This is all to say that if Hicks can’t start the season or gets hurt later on, it’s not crystal clear who will step into the role. But Gallegos has the skills to get the job done. Over four seasons in relief, Gallegos has a K% over 31% and a BB% of 6%. He also limits home runs at an above average rate (1.1 HR/9). If Hicks isn’t ready, or has a setback, Gallegos is my pick to step in as closer. And he has the ratios to make him worth rostering in many fantasy formats even if he doesn’t.

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