With the rest of the positions throughout ranking season, we've been ranking the top prospects at each position and providing brief write-ups on the top ones. However, just like speculating on saves in the majors can drive you crazy, it is that much more so when looking for them among minor leaguers.The idea that you can reasonably predict which prospects will end up as the top closers at the end of next season, let alone 3-5 years from now, is like hitting on 19 at the blackjack table. You may get the card you need, but most of the time it's going to be a bust for you. However, you can still help yourself with a look at what major league teams are looking for, and build in a similar manner.
Over the past few seasons, we've seen a shift in how bullpens are constructed, as teams look more and more to shorten the game rather than try to find more starting pitchers that can go six or seven innings on a regular basis. In general, the profile is relatively straightforward: get as many high strikeout, hard throwing relievers as you possibly can. Ideally, these pitchers will have an elite fastball, at least one other above-average to elite pitch (preferably a breaking ball), and a third pitch that moves in a different manner than their second pitch to keep hitters at worst and fool the heck out of them at its' best. We've seen teams successfully shorten the game in this manner, with the Royals being the best example at the moment with Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Ryan Madson and Luke Hochevar helping toward a World Series title last year.
With that in mind, here's a look at 10 relief pitching prospects who could end up working into a closer role long term, and potentially still provide fantasy value in deeper formats even without saves.
Mychal Givens - Orioles
After spending three seasons as a infield prospect, the Orioles converted Givens to relief pitching, and he is expected to be a key member of the bullpen this year. He checks all the boxes, with an excellent sinking fastball to go with a slider and a changeup that have already shown the potential to generate a high strikeout rate (34% between AAA and the majors in 2015). With Zach Britton under team control for another two seasons after 2016, it's not clear that Givens would get a shot to close any time soon, but can still put up excellent stats in three categories even without the saves.
Jacob Lindgren - Yankees
Lindgren is as blocked as it gets when it comes to potential saves with the elite three-armed monster that the Yankees have built to finish off games for them. He's posted elite strikeout rates at every stop in the minors and could be a high-end closer if he can keep his command in check. And you know, Chapman, Miller and Betances are all out of the picture in the future.
Frankie Montas - Dodgers
The Dodgers acquired Montas as a part of the Todd Frazier trade, and while he has been developed as a starting pitcher to this point, his long-term future may still be in the bullpen. He's shown off a 100+ mph fastball in the majors, and questions about the strength of his third pitch (a changeup) have kept his name mentioned as a potential relief option. With Kenley Jansen set to hit free agency after this season, Montas could make a lot of sense as an eventual closer option for the Dodgers.
Miguel Castro - Rockies
Acquired in the Troy Tulowitzki trade, Castro was used out of the bullpen by the Blue Jays at the start of the season despite having never pitched above High-A at that point, and even worked as the closer for a little bit at the start. It sounds more like he's going to be developed as a reliever primarily (h/t Purple Row), and with three potential above-average pitches, could turn into an elite option at the back end of their bullpen fairly soon.
Joe Jimenez - Tigers
Jimenez may be the furthest away of this group of prospects, having pitched in Low-A only last year, but he has been developed as a reliever since signing and has posted excellent strikeout rates (37.7% last year) at each stop. With two above-average offerings in a fastball and slider, Jimenez could be the closer in Detroit by the end of the 2017 season if it all clicks.
Nick Burdi - Twins
The Twins drafted Burdi in the 2nd round back in 2014 with the expectation that he would move quickly through the minors. However, he struggled in the first half of the season in 2015 and was demoted, but was able to return to the AA level to finish out the year. Between that second stint and his time in the Arizona Fall League, Burdi posted a 0.98 ERA with 27 strikeouts and 10 walks in 18 IP. With a triple-digit fastball paired with a slider and changeup, Burdi could be the closer of the future in Minnesota depending on the long-term health of current closer Glen Perkins.
Carl Edwards Jr - Cubs
The knock on Edwards for a long time as a starting prospect was that his small stature (6'3", 170 lbs) would make it difficult for him to hold up with a full starter's workload. He worked exclusively in relief in 2015, and even appeared in five games in the majors. Questions about his ability to command his pitches (specifically his fastball) could keep him out of a closer's role long-term, but there have been flashes that at least point to the possibility.
Carlos Estevez - Rockies
Estevez flew through two levels of the minors last year, and finished the season as the closer for the Rockies' AA affiliate, recording 18 saves between both stops. He's another reliever who relies on a plus fastball and a potentially above-average slider, and has been a groundball machine in the minor leagues. Again, if you're speculating, I like the combination here of potential opportunity in a year's time in Colorado and a pitcher getting a ton of strikeouts and keeping the ball on the ground in Colorado.
Sam Tuivailala - Cardinals
Another converted infielder, Tuivailala features a high 90s fastball and two other offerings that sometimes work well and sometimes don't. He has posted high strikeout totals (above 30% at all stops except the AFL), and also has posted high groundball rates (> 42% each of the last two years). Trevor Rosenthal is firmly entrenched in St. Louis as the closer, but Tuivailala could help without saves, and potentially be an elite option for fantasy if he ends up with consistent save opportunities.
Nick Wittgren - Marlins
Look, the Marlins are usually a team that struggles to find prospects in the first place, but Wittgren could be a useful reliever for them as soon as this year. He spent the majority of last season as the closer for AAA New Orleans, and posted over a strikeout per inning and just 8 walks in 62 innings. He has consistently posted solid but not spectacular strikeout rates through the minors, and with a low walk rate to go with it, could get a shot to close at some point in 2016 given the injury to Carter Capps.