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State of the Position: Relief Pitchers in 2021

A survey of the closer landscape, with a fantasy baseball slant.

Getty Images/Pete Rogers Illustrations

Last week the state of the starting pitcher position was delayed until the weekend, but at least you got nearly 2200 guilty words out of yours truly as a result. This week, I am a little more on time. You may get a tad fewer words, but mostly because it’s relievers. Surely it won’t take us THAT long to figure things out with regard to closers.

The First Five: Liam Hendriks, Josh Hader, Aroldis Chapman, Edwin Diaz, Raisel Iglesias

Yes, I’m drafting one of these five to build around. Last week I mentioned Scott Pianowski’s idea of having an anchor at the starting pitcher position. In truth, I prefer two stud starters in 2021. But with relievers I am 100% sold on this “anchors aweigh” strategy. I want one solid rock to build around, and then I’ll figure out the rest of my reliever stable without overreaching. One of these first five will likely be my foundation, and the one I’m drafting the most is Raisel Iglesias.

Since Iglesias became the Reds’ full-time closer in 2017, he ranks fifth in saves (100) across all of baseball. Only Kenley Jansen (123), Edwin Diaz (123), Brad Hand (103), and Alex Colome (101) have more. Over that same time frame, Iglesias has pitched more innings than any of those other four relievers, and that’s something we might expect to happen again in 2021. Angels manager Joe Maddon is on the record as saying that he won’t be afraid to use Iglesias in multiple-inning save situations this year. That’s music to my ears given Iglesias’ solid ratios and career 28.4% strikeout rate. He’s a great place to buy in given that he’s the cheapest of this bunch and that he’s the unquestioned closer in Anaheim. When a guy has the skill set AND the role...I’m all over it.

In this tier, if it wasn’t Iglesias it would be Edwin Diaz for me. He’s the other guy of the five that is generally the cheapest—though Iglesias is typically drafted fifth of this bunch so that’s where most of my shares are. Still, if you’re curious about Diaz, look no further than these strikeout rates: 40.6%, 32.0%, 44.3%, 39.0%, and 45.5%. Just pure filth. At some point these abnormally high BABIPs have to come down...right? Marks of .381 and .377 over the last two years just doesn’t seem sustainable for a guy with his stuff. For reference, he has a career .316 BABIP. He’s also never had an expected batting average higher than .198, and that was all the way back in 2016. In 2020, he showed some growth in hard hit rate, average exit velocity, and barrel rate. I’m happy with him if someone else goes rogue and takes Iglesias...Diaz is a fine consolation.

The Veteran Tier: Trevor Rosenthal, Brad Hand, Ryan Pressly, Kirby Yates, Kenley Jansen

I’m not really hoping to roll the dice in this tier. But if I have to take the plunge somewhere, I suppose I’d go with Jansen—he’s been talked up all spring by Dodgers’ brass as the closer, and he’s the cheapest of this bunch typically (sans Kirby Yates). As for Yates, he’s returning from missing most of 2020 due to bone chips in his right elbow. He worked a scoreless inning in his first appearance of the spring and touched 93.8 MPH. But he’s also 33 years old, only pitched 4 13 innings last year, and has a fireballer-in-waiting in the form of Jordan Romano. There’s just too much for me not to like in that situation. I’m taking shots on Romano late in all my deep leagues.

One to Avoid: Craig Kimbrel, Chicago Cubs

Kimbrel isn’t inspiring much confidence this spring after compiling only 36 innings pitched over the last two years—with a 6.00 ERA and 1.53 WHIP. So far he’s allowed nine earned runs over 2 23 innings, with one lone strikeout against two walks. Absurdly low sample, sure. But not inspiring when you stack it up against the last two seasons. The only appealing thing about Kimbrel right now is that he’ll almost assuredly start the year with the closer’s job. I can’t buy in at his 150 ADP given the negatives, though. I’d rather have Alex Colome a little bit later, given that he’s been a far more reliable pitcher in recent years. Colome won’t get 100% of the work in Minnesota given the presence of lefty Taylor Rogers—but I think as the right-handed option he’ll see plenty of save opportunities all year and wind up more valuable than Kimbrel. I do not see Kimbrel making it through the year as the Cubs closer, and therefore can’t pay up for him.

The Sleeper: Tanner Scott, Baltimore Orioles

Hunter Harvey (oblique) is expected to return in May or June, and he’s fast becoming a guy I really start to wonder about long-term with regard to health. The top of the Baltimore reliever depth chart is now the 26-year-old Scott and 36-year-old Cesar Valdez. It should be noted that Scott is a lefty and Valdez is a righty. But Scott is routinely sitting at 98 MPH this spring and he’s got a nasty slider. His Statcast data from 2020 was excellent, too. As for Valdez, he averaged 85.5 MPH on his fastball in 2020, which sounds unexciting. He was, however, effective as a starting pitcher during winter ball this offseason, so there’s a least some chance that Baltimore uses him in more of a long relief role or as a spot starter. Given that Scott has the more typical closer stuff, I’m leaning into him as an early source of saves—think RP2/3 for your fake team—for a Baltimore squad that shouldn’t have an issue scoring runs in 2021. Lastly, Scott topped 100 MPH on the gun yesterday against Atlanta. Just awesome. Give me all that high heat.

The Prospect to Watch: Luis Patiño, Tampa Bay Rays

Maybe it’s a copout since Patiño would likely be used in some form of long relief if he hits the majors in 2021, but there aren’t really tons of prospects in the running for saves, are there? In Patiño we have a guy who headlined in the trade that sent Blake Snell to San Diego...so we know the Rays have a high opinion of the young hurler. Patiño was optioned to minor league camp early this week, but when he gets the call we can expect multiple innings with regularity, and plenty of strikeouts due to his mid 90s heat and nasty slider. I know the Rays are drowning in pitchers/relievers, but these things have a way of sorting themselves out. Patiño will be a priority add if/when he gets the call this season.

Who are YOU drafting at reliever in 2021?