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2024 Fantasy Baseball Relief Pitcher Preview: Why you shouldn't be so quick to draft a closer early

Emmanuel Clase #48 of the Cleveland Guardians
Emmanuel Clase led the league in saves in 2023. (Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images)

Saves are just an incredible nuisance.

The statistic itself was originally created as a well-intended means by which to define success within a previously underappreciated role, but it has been a source of fantasy consternation for over four decades. Every season, we burn our waiver priority and our player acquisition budgets in pursuit of saves. It’s just one category out of 10, but it dictates so many of our decisions. Saves are a terrible burden.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course.

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First of all, you can simply punt this dreadful category and focus your attention elsewhere. You might not win the league, but you will at least be spared the misery of monitoring bullpen activity in late-finishing West Coast games every single night through the end of September. That life isn’t for everyone.

Even when your original intent is to punt saves, however, they just lure you back into the chase with their in-season availability — new sources emerge almost weekly, either as a result of injuries or persistent save-blowing. It seems silly to punt a stat that’s consistently obtainable. Also, punting any category will limit your path to ultimately winning a league. Doing it successfully requires real dominance in almost every other stat, which is easy to imagine but not so easy to achieve.

Another solution is to convince your commissioner to either whack this category completely or switch it to saves+holds, one of the many available options at Yahoo Sports. The problem with simply eliminating the category is that it makes the league less challenging and competitive; the problem with the latter fix is that … well, holds are kind of a trash stat.

[More Baseball Positional Previews: C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | SP | RP]

Recording a hold is a relatively light lift for a reliever, a low bar to clear. Holds are everywhere. The fantasy league in which every reliable source for holds will be rostered has yet to be created — no league is so deep. Last year, 96 different MLB pitchers recorded at least 10 holds. It’s a statistic that’s ludicrously plentiful.

So, as appealing as it may be to incentivize your league to simply roster the best relievers regardless of role, adding holds to the mix actually tends to devalue the position. Also, convincing a long-established fantasy baseball league to make any significant change to its settings is actually a pretty grueling process, which may involve backroom deals, years of lobbying and perhaps blackmail. It’s not a practical solution for everyone.

Which means most of us are, regrettably, stuck with saves. I’m so sorry.

[2024 Fantasy Baseball Draft Rankings: C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | SP | RP]

It has never really been good process or optimal strategy to draft upper-tier relievers in the early rounds, even if the high-stakes community occasionally convinces itself to do so. Whenever someone takes a specialist near the top instead of a four or five-category contributor, it’s a gift to the rest of the league.

We can always find ace closers in the middle and late rounds, in part because many people cling to verifiably bad ideas about where and how to mine for saves. Plenty of fantasy managers will avoid quality relievers on losing teams, believing those pitchers can’t possibly produce useful save totals. We’ll simply point out the fact that the World Series champion Texas Rangers produced 30 total saves last season while the 71-win Washington Nationals delivered 42. Emmanuel Clase led the majors in saves (44) on a 76-win squad. David Bednar and Camilo Doval each saved 39 games, tying for the NL lead last year while pitching for sub-.500 teams.

So, yes, you can in fact compete in saves without a premium-priced closer attached to a division favorite. As in prior years, my preferred method of building a fantasy bullpen is to draft at least one semi-bankable source for saves outside the opening rounds, prioritizing skills over team context. I might add a second potential closer if someone unexpectedly slips, but we absolutely don’t need to have a finished fantasy bullpen entering the regular season. Again, saves become available throughout the year, always.

Bargain building blocks for fantasy bullpens

Robert Stephenson, Los Angeles Angels

Stephenson tweaked his pitch mix last season, adding a cutter (and/or reinventing his slider) and the results were outrageously good. He struck out 13.2 batters per nine innings and produced a 0.88 WHIP. Among all pitchers who threw at least 50 innings, Stephenson led the majors in swinging-strike (24.8%) and CSW (40.6%) rate. He may not yet have the official closer designation for the Angels, but it’s coming. With ratios like his, he has significant fantasy value regardless of role.

Adbert Alzolay, Chicago Cubs

Bullpen life has definitely suited Alzolay, who’s struck out 86 batters and walked only 15 in 77.1 relief innings over the past two seasons. He saved 22 games for the Cubs last year, then dodged the Josh Hader bullet in the offseason. The late-inning plan appears settled for Chicago, with new addition Hector Neris in a setup role and Alzolay retaining the ninth.

José Alvarado, Philadelphia Phillies

For those of you who continue to insist (wrongly) that we need to focus exclusively on the bullpens of 90-win teams, here you go.

Alvarado enters spring training as the presumptive favorite for saves in a talented Philadelphia 'pen. He closed the door 10 times for the Phillies last year, producing a 2.34 xFIP and 1.74 ERA. He’s also delivered a K% north of 37.0 in each of the past two seasons, so he’s exactly the sort of reliever we want in leagues that feature seasonal innings caps (as is the case in Yahoo Sports roto formats).

Tanner Scott, Miami Marlins

Scott slashed his walk rate by more than half year-over-year (from 15.9 to 7.8) while his K% actually ticked up to 33.9. The result, of course, is that he transformed himself from a terrifying WHIP-bomb to a trustworthy relief ace. He saved a dozen games for Miami last season while delivering sparkling ratios (2.31 ERA and 0.99 WHIP). When you see this much dark red on a guy’s Statcast page, you should probably be interested.

Top-12 Relief Pitcher draft rankings

1. Jhoan Duran

2. Josh Hader

3. Edwin Diaz

4. Emmanuel Clase

5. Jordan Romano

6. Raisel Iglesias

7. Camilo Doval

8. Paul Sewald

9. Alexis Diaz

10. Cole Ragans

11. Evan Phillips

12. Ryan Helsley