If I'm being honest, I've sometimes wondered why I even bother to publish early relief pitcher rankings given how much is normally up in the air heading into the offseason. I guess a year like 2023 is why.
What it offered was a return to convention, to the best reliever being reserved for the ninth inning on basically every team. I think it was less a return to old-school principles than the stars aligning to make every team's best reliever pretty obvious. Rather than having to feel it out over the course of the season, swapping out one alike option for another as results warranted, most managers were able just to plug in one guy and let him eat.
Early rankings:| | | | | | |
Since so many of those guys were up-and-comers settling into the role for the first time, they figure to stay put for now. As things stand, something like 25 teams have a clear front-runner for saves heading into the offseason. At this time last year, it was more like seven.
Of course, not all of those 25 are featured here, with some of the more notable omissions being Adbert Alzolay, Jose Leclerc, Clay Holmes and Yennier Cano (yeah, imagine how deep this position would be if Felix Bautista didn't just have Tommy John surgery). Still, it's an impressive group of prospective closers, with as much upside to be found from 15 through 20 as from five through 10.
Note that the focus here is standard 5x5 scoring (such as Rotisserie leagues), but scroll a little further and you'll see my rankings for points leagues.
Devin Williams Milwaukee Brewers RP
|Riding three straight years of relief dominance, mostly on the strength of his "airbender" changeup, Williams finds himself at the top of the closer heap (though you wouldn't be wrong opting for any of the top three at No. 1).
Josh Hader San Diego Padres RP
|Hader faces some uncertainty as he enters the free agent market for the first time, but there's little doubt he'll sign somewhere to fill the role he's crushed for the past five years. His 1.28 ERA was tops among closers in 2023.
Edwin Diaz New York Mets RP
|Seeing as it was a knee injury that cost Diaz all of 2023, there's little doubt he'll pick up where he left off, as he regularly appeared to be the most dominant closer in the game prior to injury. The doubt is whether a depleted Mets squad will give him as many save chances as the two ahead of him here.
Cole Ragans Kansas City Royals SP
|Rarely is it crystal clear where to shoehorn in the starting pitchers who happen to qualify at relief pitcher, but I'll slot my SP11 just behind what I consider to be the elite tier at closer. If you scroll down to the points league rankings below, you'll see that Michael King and Ryan Pepiot also crack the top 20 in that format.
Emmanuel Clase Cleveland Guardians RP
|Despite emerging as a total saves hog for the Guardians, leading the majors with 44, Clase was alarmingly hittable at times, with his strikeout rate dropping below one per inning and his ERA more than doubling from the year before. Of course, that meant it was still only 3.22.
Camilo Doval San Francisco Giants RP
|If Doval could make even Gabe Kapler believe in the true closer, then you know his role is safe now that Bob Melvin taking over as manager. The right-hander kicks off a group of closers who are less dominant than the elites in every way but are still highly stable overall.
Jordan Romano Toronto Blue Jays RP
|The distinctions between Romano and Camilo Doval are virtually nonexistent, but the former has had a few IL stints in his career while the latter has had none. You could talk me into flipping the two based on team strength, but even that's pretty close.
Raisel Iglesias Atlanta Braves RP
|If team strength is your preferred differentiator, then no one is in a better spot than Iglesias, who managed to notch 33 saves despite missing the first five weeks with a bum shoulder. He was more hittable than usual, though, which raises concerns for a will-be 34-year-old.
David Bednar Pittsburgh Pirates RP
|It can be dangerous investing in a closer on a bad team, but the Pirates are showing incremental improvement, such that Bednar actually led the NL with 39 saves last season. His control is clearly better than the reliever I've ranked below him.
Alexis Diaz Cincinnati Reds RP
|In the first half of his first year closing, Diaz was nearly as dominant as his brother Edwin, but he fell off a bit in the second half. A pair of disastrous outings back to back in September are largely to blame, but the strikeouts had begun to dwindle even before then.
Paul Sewald Arizona Diamondbacks RP
|On a pure statistical level, Sewald isn't so different from Camilo Doval and Jordan Romano, which shows how large of a tier we're working with here. However, he was a bit shaky following the trade that sent him to the Diamondbacks and had a couple blowup outings in the World Series.
Jhoan Duran Minnesota Twins RP
|Manager Rocco Baldelli is coming around to the idea of a true closer -- as he should with a choice as good as Duran -- but he still plays the leverage game from time to time, which is why Duran got only 27 saves despite dominating in the role from the start. Otherwise, he's another one as good as Doval and Romano.
Ryan Pressly Houston Astros RP
|Pressly turned in maybe his healthiest season as Astros closer but was a little less dominant than usual, particularly in the second half. The difference seems superficial, like mostly the byproduct of a small sample, but if you have the luxury of choosing, maybe you play it cautiously with the soon-to-be 35-year-old.
Craig Kimbrel Philadelphia Phillies RP
|Kimbrel wasn't fully the Phillies closer until late May and fell victim to the leverage game at times thereafter. These events robbed him of more save chances, but all in all, he had a great year as his 94 strikeouts led everyone on this list. Unfortunately, his past inconsistencies make him no lock to land a closer gig in free agency this offseason.
Pete Fairbanks Tampa Bay Rays RP
|You know the committee craze is falling out of fashion when even the Rays steer away from it. Of course, that may be more a testament to the talent of Fairbanks, who would surely rank higher if he wasn't so brittle, having fallen short of 50 innings each of the past three years.
Ryan Helsley St. Louis Cardinals RP
|Speaking of brittle, Helsley missed nearly half of 2023 with a forearm issue, but he came back in September still pumping 103 mph on his fastball. His competition for saves had mostly been eliminated by that point, too, so his relatively low ranking here, much like those surrounding him, is more a question of safety than upside.
Andres Munoz Seattle Mariners RP
|Munoz's triple-digit fastball, wipeout slider and third-best swinging-strike rate among relievers, leaves little doubt that he has the potential to be a stud closer if only the Mariners would commit to the idea. To make matters worse, manager Scott Servais has always been flaky when it comes to bullpen roles. The right-hander didn't do himself any favors with repeated hiccups down the stretch.
Tanner Scott Miami Marlins RP
|A look at Scott's 2.31 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 12.0 K/9 and 2.17 FIP, tops of anyone on this list. His numbers suggest he belongs in the top five -- and again, it's amazing just how much upside remains at this point in the rankings. But the left-hander didn't actually inherit the closer role until September and has some major control issues in his past.
Evan Phillips Los Angeles Dodgers RP
|Oh, you want upside? Well, Phillips had a 2.05 ERA, 0.83 WHIP and 9.7 K/9 in his first year as mostly a closer for the Dodgers. These numbers are actually worse than his breakthrough 2022 season. But I say he was mostly a closer because his chances would disappear for stretches as Dave Roberts played the leverage game, which could get pretty frustrating.
Kenley Jansen Boston Red Sox RP
|At this time last year, Jansen got the benefit of the doubt for his escalating ERA since there were so few surefire closers across the game. Now that there are more, the increasing hittability is more than a little worrisome for a 36-year-old. Still, what else are the Red Sox going to do?
What changes in points leagues?
1. Cole Ragans, KC
2. Devin Williams, MIL
3. Josh Hader, FA
4. Edwin Diaz, NYM
5. Emmanuel Clase, CLE
6. Camilo Doval, SF
7. Jordan Romano, TOR
8. Raisel Iglesias, ATL
9. Alexis Diaz, CIN
10. David Bednar, PIT
11. Paul Sewald, ARI
12. Ryan Pressly, HOU
13. Jhoan Duran, MIN
14. Michael King, NYY
15. Craig Kimbrel, FA
16. Pete Fairbanks, TB
17. Ryan Helsley, STL
18. Andres Munoz, SEA
19. Tanner Scott, MIA
20. Ryan Pepiot, LAD