The Dynasty Guru’s Top 50 Dynasty Relief Pitchers, Nos. 1-20
It’s the time of the year where we offer congratulations to those of you brave dynasty league owners that survived the offseason. The greatness that 2016 will surely offer is upon us and that means we’ll be spending the next six weeks moving our way through the positional landscape, offering thoughts on the respective values of roughly 700 players throughout the process.
We sincerely hope that you enjoy the countless hours of hard work that went into these rankings and continue to support The Dynasty Guru by showing your appreciation through this link or via the splendid ‘donate’ button located on the upper right-hand corner of the homepage. Donations of any size are greatly appreciated.
Players are ranked where they played 20 or more games at during the 2015 season at their highest position on the defensive spectrum, e.g. Chris Davis played 30 games in the outfield, meaning he’s an outfielder for our purposes. We can’t assume that a player will have eligibility at a position in the future (so no Hanley Ramirez at 1b for these rankings) or that a player will lose eligibility at a position in the future. This should clear things up for all non-Javier Baez/Jurickson Profar players, and we’ll do our best to explain where those players are ranked when the time comes. All DH types, such as Evan Gattis and David Ortiz, appear on the 1B rankings, as we will not be doing a UTIL rankings list.
We begin our look at relievers with a new fireman atop the rankings:
1) Wade Davis, Kansas City Royals (Age: 30, Previous Rank: 20)
If you add up Wade Davis’ ERA from the past two seasons, it would still be lower than Clayton Kershaw’s 2015 total. That’s about all you need to know about Davis, who is very likely the most dominant pitcher on the planet. Davis somehow managed to further lower his ERA, dropping it from a ‘weak’ 1.00 ERA in 2014 to an absurd 0.94 mark in 2015. With Greg Holland being non-tendered after Tommy John surgery, Davis will not only be the top closer in Kansas City for a long time, but also likely the best in the majors. Davis did see his K/9 fall from 13.63 to 10.43, but he’s still an incredible pitcher deserving of the top spot on this list.
2) Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees (Age: 28, Previous Rank: 1)
Many wouldn’t argue if we were to name Davis No. 1A and Chapman No. 1B on this list. Chapman has the strikeout advantage, and it wouldn’t be surprising if his 16.05 K/9 mark from 2012-2015 is never topped. Chapman’s upside is also likely unmatched on this list. However, he isn’t number one for multiple reasons. Chapman’s ERA last season was 1.63–hardly a shortcoming, but also not exactly Davis’ mark. Chapman is also quite risky. He’s now employed as a part of the best bullpen in baseball, which means that his job will never be safe with Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances waiting in the wings. In addition, his off-the-field issues can’t be ignored. We can’t blame you if you don’t want to roster Chapman because of the risk of suspension, though he’s an elite pitcher while on the mound.
3) Craig Kimbrel, Boston Red Sox (Age: 28, Previous Rank: 2)
Kimbrel had a special run of dominance from 2010-2014, but finally looked human in 2015. While a 2.58 ERA and 13.20 K/9 is still outstanding, Kimbrel’s 2015 season was statistically the worst season of his career. He posted the lowest strikeout rate and save total of his career, along with his highest ERA (2.58). On the bright side, Kimbrel’s BABIP was higher than usual and so was his HR/9, so a bounceback wouldn’t be unprecedented. Kimbrel’s value is helped by his move to Boston, where he shouldn’t have trouble finding saves. Kimbrel could certainly become No. 1C on this list after a strong campaign, but he’s not there just yet.
4) Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers (Age: 28, Previous Rank: 4)
Jansen’s value almost took a dive this offseason when Aroldis Chapman was very nearly traded to the Dodgers, though the trade fell through at the last moment. Now the undisputed closer in Los Angeles, Jansen will look to build on a strong campaign. He hasn’t been able to pull it all together just yet, as his 2015 season started off on the wrong note due to foot surgery and his 2014 season was skewed by a .350 BABIP. It wouldn’t be a shock if 2016 is Jansen’s best year yet. Jansen’s managed to cut his BB/9 down to 1.33 in 2015, and a few less home runs could allow him to improve upon last year’s 2.41 ERA. The converted catcher is likely the best closer in the National League and on a team that could win plenty of games next season.
5) Ken Giles, Houston Astros (Age: 25, Previous Rank: 15)
Speaking of teams that win plenty of games, Ken Giles has gone from likely the worst team in baseball to one of the best in Houston. Although age isn’t as big a factor for dynasty relievers as it is for other positions, Giles’ dominance in his age-24 season shouldn’t be overlooked. His strikeout and walk rates aren’t yet at the heights of the pitchers in front of him, but Giles’ ERA is already among the best in the league. It’s worth mentioning that Giles’ velocity generally lags to start the season before improving, so don’t panic if he isn’t hitting triple digits to start his career with the Astros.
6) Cody Allen, Cleveland Indians (Age: 27, Previous Rank: 6)
This might surprise you, but Cody Allen had the highest WAR among relievers in 2015. This distinction may overrate him, as his 2.99 ERA wasn’t at the top, nor was his 3.25 BB/9 and 34 saves last season, but Allen boasted the best strikeout rate and walk rate of his career in 2015, along with a stellar 1.82 FIP mark. He also had a .342 BABIP, indicating some bad luck that should change
this year. A groundball rate of just under 33 percent (129th among relievers), should worry you some–and the fact that he allowed just two home runs despite that ground ball rate is a red flag. An increase in home runs allowed should be mitigated by the decrease in BABIP, making Allen a very good option next season.
7) Jeurys Familia, New York Mets (Age: 26, Previous Rank: 43)
Familia exploded last year when given the opportunity to close for the Mets, running with what was only supposed to be a temporary gig until Bobby Parnell returned from injury. Familia dominated batters to the tune of a 1.85 ERA, 9.92 K/9, and 2.19 BB/9. These numbers aren’t quite at the level of some of the best relievers in the league, but he can certainly get there. Familia has been pitching out of the bullpen for only two seasons and gaining some experience–along with a decrease in his .272 BABIP–could bring big things for the man with the 97 MPH sinker.
8) Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles (Age: 28, Previous Rank: 9)
Britton, like many other good relievers, took the long way to the bullpen. Finally given up on as a starter after posting a 4.95 ERA in 2013, Britton took his special fastball to the ‘pen and starting inducing groundballs at a historic rate. His 2014-2015 groundball rate has been unmatched since the statistic has been kept. Predictably, home runs are hard to come by when the batter hits the ball on the ground almost eight out of every ten times, and runs are even harder to come by when that same pitcher has an elite strikeout-to-walk rate.
9) David Robertson, Chicago White Sox (Age: 31, Previous Rank: 7)
Robertson’s 2015 was a bit disappointing, as he had a 3.41 ERA; his highest since 2010. However, there’s not a ton that Robertson could have done better, as much of the higher ERA was a product of bad luck and awful White Sox defense. His K/BB rate was fourth best in the league, and his 2.27 xFIP backs up the bad luck notion. Robertson is similar to Cody Allen in that a low groundball rate will make home runs a concern, but he should be able to work through it thanks to his great strikeout and walk rates. If Robertson comes at a discount this season due to last year’s ERA, don’t hesitate to pounce on the opportunity.
10) Mark Melancon, Pittsburgh Pirates (Age: 31, Previous Rank: 13)
You may be wondering: why is last year’s saves leader tenth on this list? The answer: regression. Melancon is a very good reliever, and there’s no doubt about that, but he is no longer as good his save totals indicate. It looks like he’s seen a skill decline over the past season, as shown by his career-low strikeout rate, rising walk rate, and lowest fastball velocity of his career. Melancon’s far from done, but he’ll be hard pressed to repeat last year’s numbers.
11) Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals (Age: 25, Previous Rank: 10)
The knock against Rosenthal, inasmuch as there is one, is that he has struggled in the postseason. This has been the source of plenty of #content from “The Best Fans In Baseball™”, but even the vast majority of Cardinals fans understand Rosenthal is one of baseball’s best closers. In 2015, his strikeouts-per-nine-inning rate dropped for the second straight year to 10.88–still in the top tier of all relief pitchers. He trimmed his walk total down a bit from his comparably-disappointing 2014 season, and his strand rate was a career-high 85 percent, buoyed by an uptick in his groundball rate. Like a prophet, a closer is never accepted in his hometown, but Rosenthal remains one of the most consistent closers and is among the best bets to retain the role for the long-term in dynasty leagues.
12) Hector Rondon, Chicago Cubs (Age: 28, Previous Rank: 27)
Rondon is less likely to provide as many strikeouts as the elite relievers that surround him on this list. His value as a closer comes from his ability to induce weak contact and avoid free passes–leading to an above-average groundball rate–along with a stellar WHIP and ERA. A great team that wins a lot of games can help an average closer to an elite season, and Rondon’s value for 2016 will likely be inflated on draft day. On the flip side, a team chasing a championship is less likely to be patient if a closer struggles. While Chicago doesn’t have any better options waiting in the wings, there’s reason to buy with caution and monitor the season closely.
13) Huston Street, Los Angeles Angels (Age: 31, Previous Rank: 18)
Locking Street up through 2017 was one of the few meaningful offseason moves for the Angels, and he’s a sure bet to remain in the closer role for the next two years, barring injury or catastrophe. That sort of job security in a position as fungible as closer carries a fair amount of value, and Street has provided 40 or more saves in each of the past two seasons. The flip side is that 2015 was a big step back for Street in every way except for his save count: he put up his worst ERA since 2011, allowing more walks and home runs. Andrelton Simmons was the other Angels’ meaningful offseason move, and that defensive upgrade may help Street continue to outperform his FIP.
14) Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins (Age: 33, Previous Rank: 8)
Like Huston Street just above him, Perkins has been able to successfully compensate for his lack of flash through his consistent production, providing 30 or more save totals in each of the past three seasons. Also like Street, there were signals of struggle in Perkins’ 2015 season, as his strikeout rate dropped to just under 23 percent, down from 32 percent in 2013, and more of his fly balls allowed left the park. Add to this the concerns around Perkins’ occasional days lost to back spasms, and there are plenty of red flags. Even so, Perkins is a hometown hero in Minnesota and has more than earned the benefit of the doubt. There’s every reason to assume another 30-plus save season is in store, although Perkins owners may want to keep an eye on Kevin Jepsen in case they need a backup plan.
15) Francisco Rodriguez, Detroit Tigers (Age: 34, Previous Rank: 29)
We’re just as surprised as you to see K-Rod as a top-15 reliever for the first time in TDG’s history, but here we are. After two straight seasons of hanging onto the closer’s role in Milwaukee, Rodriguez takes his talents to Detroit for his 15th season. While the Tigers have struggled mightily in their search for a veteran closer over the years, there’s reason to believe K-Rod can break the mold. His 2015 campaign was overall a career-best season for the six-time All-Star, as he surpassed or nearly equalled his previous personal bests by any metric you choose–ERA, FIP, cFIP, DRA, or any flavor of WAR. He’s still striking out more than a batter per inning and limiting the free passes and home runs. At some point, he’ll stop racking up saves, but we’ve been saying that for years and we’ve been wrong then too.
16) Brad Boxberger, Tampa Bay Rays (Age: 27, Previous Rank: 23)
After an All-Star campaign in 2015 that saw Boxberger accumulate 41 saves, some may have assumed he was a shoo-in for the closer role again in Tampa, but there was reason to worry until Jake McGee was moved. Although Boxberger strikes out a ton of batters, he still issues walks at an above average rate, which will put his WHIP behind the elite relief options higher on this list. If you’re looking at his career stats and expecting him to improve upon them in 2016, that may be wishful thinking as his insane 2014 campaign appears to be the outlier. As long as he’s accumulating the saves and the K’s, the Rays have no reason to think outside the Box.
17) Brad Ziegler, Arizona Diamondbacks (Age: 36, Previous Rank: NR)
Ziegler defied the odds by becoming the best closer since John Franco in 1988 to compile an ERA below 2.00 along with a K/9 below 5.00. It stood to reason that the seasoned veteran wouldn’t get many strikeouts, but his 1.85 ERA surpassed expectations. Coupled with his WHIP, his ability to limit runs could make Ziegler a three category contributor in the closer role for an improved D-Backs squad heading into 2016. Expecting Ziegler to fall closer in line to his career 2.47 ERA is probably more prudent, which should still be enough to allow him to keep the closer job to himself.
18) Jake McGee, Colorado Rockies (Age: 29, Previous Rank: 17)
If you’ve seen trades like the one where the Rockies dealt Corey Dickerson for McGee earlier this winter, it might have been at your fantasy league’s deadline involving a team desperate for saves–and you still might have considered vetoing it. The prospect of a move to Colorado should scare McGee owners, but only because the team is bad enough to reduce the number of save situations presented. The Rockies have the fewest cumulative saves of any team across the past three seasons. Outside of that, there’s reason to trust McGee’s fastball heavy approach will continue to work in Colorado. The thin air can’t carry a ball that isn’t hit, and McGee strikes out 10-11 batters per game consistently.
19) Jonathan Papelbon, Washington Nationals (Age: 35, Previous Rank: 26)
Professionally, it’s bad form to burn bridges, but Papelbon has started more fires on his way in and out of town than anyone since William Tecumseh Sherman. Baseball’s reigning villain (non A-Rod category) was shipped out of Philly after becoming their all-time saves leader, and proceeded to somehow make his reputation even worse. Off-field antics and dugout assaults aside, Papelbon remains an underrated closer in fantasy circles, consistently converting saves over 90 percent of the time in five of the past six years. He will be a public relations disaster, but he still has the talent to continue getting saves wherever the opportunity presents itself.
20) Drew Storen, Toronto Blue Jays (Age: 28, Previous Rank: 11)
After the way he was treated by the Nationals throughout the past four seasons, it’s a wonder Storen didn’t expatriate to Canada sooner. By his peripherals, Storen has been great for three of the past four years, and pretty average in 2013. That trend includes 2015, when his strikeout-to-walk ratio was far and away the best of his career at just over 22 percent. The Blue Jays have had terrible luck with closers, and while there’s reason to expect Storen can lock the position down early, the youth trickling up through their system may challenge him for the role at times. Had he been on nearly any other team prior to arriving in Toronto, Storen would have “Proven Closer™” written all over him. Now it’s up to him to earn that title with the Jays.
Commentary by Ben Diamond and Tyler Baber