The Mets valued Edwin Diaz highly enough to pull out all the stops to acquire him — and fantasy owners should too.
Diaz headlines the top tier of closers for 2019. If you’re planning to grab a relief pitcher relatively early, it’s going to be either him or one of the few established, year-in, year-out stars at the position.
Otherwise, you could grab a breakout star closer like Blake Treinen in the next tier, or wait a little longer for someone like Jose Leclerc or maybe even a high-strikeout beast like Josh Hader. If it’s more your style to wait on relievers, you could take a flier on someone like Andrew Miller to have a bounceback year, or someone who’s riskier from a runs-allowed standpoint like Wade Davis. Maybe even wait for someone whose team situation isn’t ideal like Drew Steckenrider. Whatever your fantasy-drafting style, you’ll have options.
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Here’s how the fantasy tiers of relievers break down for 2019:
Tier 1: Edwin Diaz, Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman
Diaz has emerged as an elite closer over the last two seasons. In 2018, he was beyond lights-out, racking up 57 saves with a 1.96 ERA and 124 strikeouts. The 24-year-old is a K machine, with a 38.8 percent career strikeout rate. He pairs an overpowering fastball (97.3 mph average velocity in 2018) with a wipeout slider that got whiffs on 53.8 percent of swings last season. In other words: look for more dominance in Diaz’s first year in the Big Apple.
Video: Diaz wins 2018 AL Reliever of the Year Award
The next three closers in Tier 1 have been getting it done for a long time. Jansen battled through issues with his mechanics and velocity last season to post yet another top-tier stat line. There is some lingering concern, as his ERA jumped from 1.32 in 2017 to 3.01 in ’18, and his strikeout rate dropped from 42.3 percent to 28.4 percent, but Jansen has still been one of the most reliable fantasy closers overall. The 31-year-old has averaged 41 saves over the last five seasons, with a 2.26 ERA over that span and a 37.6 percent strikeout rate.
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For Kimbrel, the main question is still, “Where will he sign?” Once he has a home, he should continue to be one of the top fantasy relievers, even with the pitch-tipping and command issues that popped up during the 2018 playoffs. Kimbrel has saved over 30 games in each of his eight full big league seasons, averaging 42 a year with a 1.97 ERA (he had 42 saves and a 2.74 ERA in ’18). He has a career 41.6 percent strikeout rate.
Video: Kenny takes in-depth look at free agent Kimbrel
Chapman’s triple-digit heat from the left side makes him one of a kind. Even in a loaded Yankees bullpen with closer-caliber arms in Zack Britton, Dellin Betances and Adam Ottavino, Chapman is the clear-cut No. 1 when the ninth inning rolls around. The 30-year-old has been bitten by the injury bug a little over the last couple of seasons, but that hasn’t stopped him from appearing in 50-plus games both times — and in every season since he first became a full-time closer in 2012. Chapman can rack up the strikeouts like few others: He has a career 41.7 percent strikeout rate and had a 43.9 percent mark in 2018.
Tier 2: Blake Treinen, Felipe Vazquez, Brad Hand, Roberto Osuna
Treinen’s breakout 2018 vaults him into the top of Tier 2. The 30-year-old had 38 saves, a 0.78 ERA and 100 strikeouts for the surprising A’s squad last season. He can throw both a four-seamer and sinker in the high 90s — and the sinker has crazy movement — plus a slider that got whiffs on 52.1 percent of opponent swings last season. With that lights-out stuff, there’s no reason Treinen’s breakout can’t continue into ’19.
Video: Blake Treinen’s sinker confuses hitters
If not for Chapman, Vazquez would be the top dog when it comes to overpowering lefty closers. He can run his fastball into the triple digits, too, and he used that heat to collect 37 saves with a 2.70 ERA and 89 strikeouts in 2018. Vazquez has been excellent since taking over as the Pirates’ closer in ’17, and he should be in position to save 30-plus games again this year.
Hand is a lefty closer who’s not fastball-first, although he can still throw in the mid-90s. His primary pitch is a slider that he threw more than half the time in 2018, drawing whiffs on 40.3 percent of swings. That helped Hand earn 32 saves last season with a 2.75 ERA and 106 strikeouts. The 28-year-old is locked in as the closer for a division-title favorite in the Indians, so 30-plus saves and more great strikeout numbers are well within his reach.
Video: [email protected]: Hand strikes out the side for 32nd save
Osuna took over as closer in a loaded Astros bullpen last season, saving 12 games with a 1.99 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 23 appearances after Houston traded for him. As the closer for one of the Majors’ biggest powerhouses, the 24-year-old should get plenty of saves again in 2019 — he projects for 30-plus — and solid strikeout numbers.
Tier 3: Jose Leclerc, Kirby Yates, Raisel Iglesias, Josh Hader, Cody Allen, Sean Doolittle
Leclerc and Yates both took over their team’s closer jobs during the 2018 season and ran with them. They’re now in line for a full season of save opportunities in ’19, and they’re coming off career years. After Leclerc took over as Rangers closer on Aug. 4, the 25-year-old didn’t allow a single run in 18 appearances over the final two months of the season, saving 12 games and racking up 29 strikeouts over that span. Yates took over for the Padres after Hand was traded to Cleveland on July 19, and the 31-year-old collected 10 saves with a 3.20 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 25 1/3 innings over the second half.
Iglesias has been more than reliable in his two seasons as Reds closer, averaging 29 saves and 86 strikeouts with a 2.43 ERA from 2017-18. The 29-year-old projects for similarly consistent production again in 2019 and could make it three straight years around the 30-save range.
In Hader, we get the first really interesting option as someone who isn’t his team’s clear-cut closer. Milwaukee uses Hader similar to how the Indians used Miller — as a versatile relief ace, who comes into games whenever he’s most needed. But the 24-year-old’s strikeout numbers are so gaudy that he warrants fantasy consideration alongside a lot of closers. Hader racked up 143 strikeouts in his 81 1/3 innings last season, which was the highest total for a reliever since Brad Lidge’s 157 in 2004. He struck out 46.7 percent of all batters he faced.
Video: Hader wins 2018 NL Reliever of the Year
Allen has a clear path to saves, as the Angels signed him to close, but he has some questions to answer. The 30-year-old saw his ERA balloon to a career-worst 4.70 last season, allowing a career-high 11 home runs. Allen’s 27.7 percent strikeout rate was his lowest in any full season, as was his 93.5 mph average fastball velocity. Still, he’s averaged 29 saves over the last five years.
Doolittle has been great for the Nationals, but he just needs to stay healthy, having spent stints on the injured list for each of the past several years. But the 32-year-old has still averaged 25 saves the past two seasons, in which he’s posted a 2.24 ERA and 122 strikeouts in 96 1/3 innings.
Tier 4: Corey Knebel, Wade Davis, Andrew Miller, Archie Bradley, Ken Giles, David Robertson
You’re going to take on some risk no matter who you take from Tier 4. Knebel had a great stretch run for the Brewers, but he struggled for much of the year and more significantly could split closer duties with Jeremy Jeffress and Hader. Davis saved an NL-leading 43 games in his first year in Colorado, but the Rockies closer also saw his ERA spike to 4.13, the first time it had even been above 3.00 since he converted to the bullpen in 2014.
Miller should slot in as the Cardinals’ closer, but one of his greatest strengths is his flexibility, and St. Louis could deploy him in some other situations as needed. The 33-year-old is also coming off an injury-plagued year, with knee and shoulder issues leading to Miller’s worst season in years; he had a 4.24 ERA, although he still struck out 45 batters in his 34 innings.
Video: MLB Tonight on Miller joining Cards, their bullpen
Bradley will likely inherit the D-backs’ closer role with the departure of Brad Boxberger, but the 26-year-old had some struggles in 2018 after a dominant ’17. He still had a solid 3.64 ERA and 75 strikeouts last season, though. Giles also has a good situation as the Blue Jays’ undisputed closer, and he was a perfect 26-for-26 in save chances last year. But the 28-year-old has also seen his performance fluctuate wildly. He had a 4.65 ERA on the season, and the Astros even sent him to the Minors before trading him to Toronto.
Robertson has the consistent track record, but not the firm grip on the closer job. Yes, he’s the Phillies’ nominal closer, but the 33-year-old will also split save opportunities with Seranthony Dominguez and maybe Hector Neris. But no matter what, you should be able to count on Robertson for a solid ERA and very good strikeout numbers: He’s averaged 86 K’s a year since 2010, including 91 in 69 2/3 innings last season.
Video: Zolecki on options Philadelphia has to close games
Tier 5: Drew Steckenrider, Jose Alvarado, Brandon Morrow, Will Smith
Steckenrider’s main problem is his situation. He’s the likeliest closer for the Marlins, but there could be some sort of a committee, and Miami being a rebuilding team coming off a 63-win season could also mean fewer save chances to go around. Alvarado carries similar question marks. He could be the Rays’ closer and has excellent stuff — a high-90s fastball to complement a good curveball and cutter — but Tampa Bay’s innovative bullpen usage means anything is on the table.
Morrow is the Cubs’ closer when healthy, but he’s not currently healthy and his injury history is concerning. The 34-year-old might be out until late April or early May as he recovers from a debridement procedure performed on his right elbow this offseason. But his late-career resurgence — a 1.82 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 74 1/3 innings since the start of 2017 — makes him a high-upside flier in fantasy drafts, and he could be a good buying opportunity.
Video: [email protected]: Morrow tosses scoreless 9th for his 22nd save
Smith had a great year in 2018 after missing all of ’17 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. The 29-year-old lefty had a 2.55 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 53 innings while saving 14 games for the Giants. Smith could reprise his closer role in ’19, but there are some questions about how San Francisco will deploy its bullpen, and he might even be a trade chip in his final year before free agency as part of the team’s retooling efforts.
David Adler is a reporter and researcher for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.