2019 Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep: Top strategies for the relief pitcher position

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First base has taken on a different look these days. Shortstop, too. But no position is undergoing a more drastic change right now than relief pitcher, where the age-old model of one guy accumulating the bulk of his team’s saves may finally be coming to an end.

It’s by no means a sudden change and hardly a universal one, but 2018 was the year in which the approach gained real traction, with teams like the Phillies, Brewers and Rays more or less taking a by-committee approach to the ninth inning, just like the statheads had long envisioned. Others like the Braves, Astros, Angels and White Sox struggled to commit to any one pitcher for any length of time. And shoot, most of those teams are in the same predicament today.

It was late in the offseason when we saw Cody Allen (Angels) and Jose Leclerc (Rangers) anointed closers for their teams. Such declarations will surely increase leading up to opening day, but it won’t be a case like as recently as two years ago (or just about every year prior), when we knew who the first choice was for every team going into the season. We’ll be lucky if even two-thirds have a dedicated closer.

How’s that for scarcity?

In a standard mixed-league context — say, 12 teams or fewer — 30 closers were more than enough to go around, but reducing that number to 20 could result in a Draft Day panic. Even in Head-to-Head points leagues, where we’ve grown accustomed to seeing a handful of closers go undrafted because every owner has only two reliever spots to fill, 20 could leave a few owners short. And there may not be a more debilitating downgrade in all of Fantasy than going from a closer to a non-closer.

But the thing is you wouldn’t have to resort to a non-closer. That’s not how this transition works. Fewer dedicated closers means more semi-closers. Josh Hader, Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress each had between 12-15 saves for the Brewers last year, and while Knebel clearly has the leg up this spring with Jeffress expected to begin the year on the IL, you can’t assume Hader is completely out of the picture. Would you rather have someone with a clear shot at 30-40? Yeah, probably. But even among the dedicated closers, there are few assurances. Another reason most of us aren’t used to investing heavily in relief pitchers, apart from their perceived abundance, is that they’re notoriously volatile.

And in points leagues specifically, you have another alternative to the growing closer shortage: the SPARP, a starting pitcher who is nonetheless eligible at relief pitcher. It’s a great year for SPARPs, too. Collin McHugh is a proven innings eater who may have learned some new tricks during his dominant stint in the bullpen last year, Tyler Glasnow is an exciting up-and-comer, Kenta Maeda is a proven option for at least four months of the year, and Brad Keller is a ground-ball specialist who should be able to pitch deep into games. And that’s not even counting rotation hopefuls Ross Stripling, Brad Peacock, Matt StrahmBrandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes. No, with only two reliever spots to fill, you should still be OK in points leagues.

But safe counts for something when you can’t just assume replacements will emerge on the waiver wire, which is why I’ve come to accept, for maybe the first time in my days as a Fantasy Baseball analyst, that investing in a top-tier closer may not be such a bad idea. I’m still not angling for any of Edwin Diaz, Blake Treinen, Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman prior to Round 7 or so, but I’m ending up with one of them (most often Treinen) more and more.

Mostly, though, I want to make sure I came away with two from my top four closer tiers, which basically run through Archie Bradley in my relief pitcher rankings. They all seem to have a fairly strong claim to the role and possibly some staying power in it.

Scott’s relief pitcher to buy:
Jose Leclerc. Now that new manager Chris Woodward has confirmed Leclerc is in fact the closer, what’s not to like about a guy who ranked (minimum 50 innings) third in ERA, third in FIP, 10th in K/9, second in HR/9 and first in H/9 last year?

Scott’s relief pitcher to sell:
Kenley Jansen. He’s just a tier below Kimbrel and Chapman for me but could probably be two given that health concerns (vascular), velocity issues, a shrinking strikeout rate and skyrocketing FIP all point to impending disaster.

So which Fantasy Baseball sleepers should you snatch in your draft? And which undervalued pitchers can help you win a championship? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy Baseball rankings for every single position, all from the model that called Scooter Gennett’s huge breakout last season, and find out.

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