While a new breed of pitcher, one who can rack up holds, strikeouts and throw multiple innings, is beginning to emerge as an integral role on a baseball roster, becoming the “closer” is still the ultimate goal for a Major League relief pitcher. The closer gets the entrance music. The closer gets the congratulatory hug from the catcher after the third out, followed by handshakes from every teammate. Closers get paid! Most importantly, being the closer usually means that your manager trusts you above all other pitchers in that bullpen.
Give up a lead in the seventh or eighth inning and your team still has a chance to pick you up. The later in the game a players fails, the better chance that mistake will stand out to anyone watching. It will be in the headlines. Fantasy Baseball owners will want to know who is “next in line.” And for a team that has fought tooth and nail to get to the ninth inning with a lead, it can be debilitating if the last pitcher standing can’t close things out. Managers don’t have much patience for blown saves, either. There is a lot of pressure and a lot of turnover, which is why most teams won’t have the same closer in September as they did on Opening Day.
Here’s a look back at each National League team’s closer situation on Opening Day versus where they are now and where they will be as they head into the offseason. (We ran through the American League earlier this week.)
Future Outlook: The Diamondbacks opted to keep their best reliever, Bradley, in a setup role while plugging offseason acquisition Boxberger into the closer’s role. For the majority of the season, things went according to plan. That duo, along with Hirano and lefties Andrew Chafin and T.J. McFarland, were a strength on a team that led the NL West on September 1. But as the bullpen has fallen apart over the past few weeks, the team has quickly descended in the standings and fallen out of the playoff hunt.
As a result, the D-backs will head into the offseason with their closer situation somewhat up in the air. Overall, Boxberger, Bradley and Hirano have each been mostly effective and can still be counted on as valuable late-inning relievers. The D-backs will need to decide if they want add a better ninth inning option, though with numerous holes to fill as key players like A.J. Pollock and Patrick Corbin depart via free agency, the team could decide it has bigger needs.
Atlanta Braves | Braves Depth Chart
Opening Day 2018: Arodys Vizcaino
September 2018: Arodys Vizcaino
Future Outlook: Vizcaino was entrenched as the Braves’ closer to start the season, and he’s seemingly back in as the Braves prepare for their first playoff series since 2013. A.J. Minter proved to be a capable fill-in during both of Vizcaino’s disabled list stints. For a time, he even appeared to be more of a co-closer with a healthy Vizcaino on the roster, presenting a very formidable righty-lefty combination in the late innings.
With a solid group of relievers, including Minter, Jesse Biddle, Shane Carle and Dan Winkler, all under contract for next season and the chance that one or two of their enticing young prospects could help out of the ’pen, the Braves appear to be in good shape in 2019. They could be tempted, however, to bring back free agent Craig Kimbrel, who had 186 saves, four All-Star appearances and won the NL Rookie of the Year award during a five-year stint with the team from 2010-2014.
Chicago Cubs | Cubs Depth Chart
Opening Day 2018: Brandon Morrow
September 2018: Committee — Jesse Chavez, Jorge De La Rosa, Steve Cishek, etc.
Future Outlook: The offseason signing of Morrow came with significant risk due to his long history of injuries and a heavy postseason workload (14 appearances) with the Dodgers in 2017. And while the Cubs did their best not to overuse him—he made back-to-back appearances just six times and pitched on three consecutive days only once—his season ended in mid-July due to a bone bruise in his elbow and biceps inflammation.
Pedro Strop was up to the task as the fill-in closer—he had a 1.77 ERA and 11 saves in 13 chances after Morrow went on the disabled list—but a strained hamstring ended his regular season on September 13. He could return for the playoffs. In the meantime, the Cubs have been mixing and matching in the late innings, at times relying on journeymen like Chavez and De La Rosa as they try to hold off the Brewers in the NL Central race.
Morrow and Strop will be back in the picture in 2018—Strop’s $6.25MM club option will almost certainly be exercised—as will setup men Carl Edwards Jr. and Cishek. Finding a left-hander who can close, if necessary, might be on the team’s agenda. Zach Britton could be a target if that’s the case.
Cincinnati Reds | Reds Depth Chart
Opening Day 2018: Raisel Iglesias
September 2018: Raisel Iglesias
Future Outlook: Iglesias has had three consecutive good seasons out of the bullpen with 63 saves in 71 opportunities. The Reds, however, have been in last place with less than 70 wins in each of those years, making Iglesias’ contributions less significant.
If the Reds are confident that they can be a much better team in 2019, it makes perfect sense to hold on to the 28-year-old right-hander—he’s under team control through 2021—and make him available via trade only if they fall out of contention during the season. Since he’s been able to stay healthy as a relief pitcher—not to mention that there is no clear “next in line” closer in the organization—they’re be better off leaving things as they are rather than experimenting with a move back to the rotation. The ninth inning should belong to Iglesias again come Opening Day 2019.
Colorado Rockies | Rockies Depth Chart
Opening Day 2018: Wade Davis
September 2018: Wade Davis
Future Outlook: Despite a few rough patches along the way, the 33-year-old Davis has 42 saves for the first-place Rockies and has been on a roll when it counts the most. In his last 17 appearances, he’s 10-for-10 in save chances with 23 strikeouts in 17 innings and only one earned run allowed.
Davis is still guaranteed $36MM over the next two seasons—he’ll also get another $14MM in 2021 if he finishes 30 games in 2020—so his mid-season struggles and continued decrease in fastball velocity (95.9 MPH in ’15; 94.9 MPH in ’16, 94.3 MPH in ’17; 93.8 MPH in ’18) are a concern. He has done enough to hold on to the closing job for 2019, but it would be a good idea to have a backup plan in place. Adam Ottavino, the team’s most valuable reliever with a 2.47 ERA, six saves and 33 holds, will be a free agent after the season. Re-signing him or replacing him with a top free agent will be difficult considering that Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw, both disappointments thus far, signed $27MM contracts last offseason. They could rely heavily on Seunghwan Oh, who recently had his $2.5MM option vest for 2019 and has been very good since being acquired from Toronto in July.
Los Angeles Dodgers | Dodgers Depth Chart
Opening Day 2018: Kenley Jansen
September 2018: Kenley Jansen
Future Outlook: Jansen allowed six earned runs with two blown saves and a loss in his first seven appearances of 2018. He missed 13 days in August due to an irregular heart beat that will likely require offseason surgery. Upon his return, he allowed seven earned runs with two losses and a blown save over four appearances. And yet, the 30-year-old right-hander has 37 saves and a sub-3.00 ERA for a Dodgers team that is fighting for a playoff spot as we head into the last weekend of the regular season.
Jansen’s occasional struggles on the mound and health concerns only magnified the team’s inability to replace Morrow, who was their primary setup man and bullpen workhorse last post-season. Setup relievers seem likely to be an area of focus this winter, and the Dodgers will be keeping their fingers crossed that Jansen comes back strong in what will be year three of a five-year, $80MM contract.
Miami Marlins | Marlins Depth Chart
Opening Day 2018: Brad Ziegler
September 2018: Co-Closers — Drew Steckenrider and Adam Conley
Future Outlook: It’s not clear why the rebuilding Marlins stuck with the veteran Ziegler through a rocky two-month stint as the closer to begin the season. Even though he had just one blown save in 10 chances when he was removed from the role, he had an ERA near 8.00 and Kyle Barraclough, next in line, had a 1.48 ERA. If they had any reluctance to turn it over to Barraclough, he showed why that might’ve been the case by losing the job two months later.
After locking down all seven save chances while allowing just one hit over 12 scoreless innings in June, Barraclough fell apart in July. Over his next 13 appearances, he blew four saves and allowed 14 earned runs in 10 2/3 innings before the Marlins decided on a closer-by-committee approach in early August. Steckenrider and Conley lead the team with four and two saves, respectively, since Barraclough was removed from the closer’s role. Both pitchers have an ERA over 5.00 in the second half, however, so it’s very likely that the team will look to find a more reliable option during the offseason.
Milwaukee Brewers | Brewers Depth Chart
Opening Day 2018: Corey Knebel
September 2018: Committee — Knebel, Jeremy Jeffress, Josh Hader
Future Outlook: Knebel suffered a hamstring injury during his third appearance of the season, forcing him to the disabled list for a month. By the time he returned, Hader and Jeffress had each established that they were more than capable of picking up the slack if Knebel could not return to his 2017 form. And this did prove to be the case. The 26-year-old Knebel, sharing the closer’s role with Hader and Jeffress, had a 5.08 ERA through August 31st. September has been a different story, however, as Knebel has allowed just four hits and three walks over 13 1/3 scoreless innings with 26 strikeouts. Regardless of how things go in the playoffs, the Brewers appear set with the same trio of late-inning relievers heading into 2019.
New York Mets | Mets Depth Chart
Opening Day 2018: Jeurys Familia
September 2018: Committee — Robert Gsellman, Seth Lugo, Anthony Swarzak
Future Outlook: The return of Familia, who missed time in 2017 due to a 15-game suspension and a three-and-a-half month-stint on the disabled list, was supposed to help propel the Mets back into playoff contention. While things have not gone swimmingly for the Mets, Familia’s comeback has actually gone quite well. He posted a 2.88 ERA with 17 saves for the Mets, was traded to Oakland in July and should be headed for a decent payday in free agency this offseason.
The Mets, coincidentally, will likely be in the market for a closer, although it’s not known whether they or Familia would be open to a reunion. Gsellman has held his own as the primary closer, saving eight of nine games since Familia’s departure, but probably isn’t the long-term answer. Lugo has been terrific out of the ’pen, although his best role could be as a multi-inning setup man for whoever the team’s next closer will be.
Philadelphia Phillies | Phillies Depth Chart
Opening Day 2018: Hector Neris
September 2018: Committee – Neris, Seranthony Dominguez, Tommy Hunter, etc.
Future Outlook: Neris was 8-for-10 in save chances with three losses and an ERA over 5.00 in mid-May when manager Gabe Kapler declared that he would no longer have a set closer. It didn’t take long for rookie Seranthony Dominguez to emerge as the most significant part of the group, pitching 14 2/3 scoreless innings with only two hits allowed, no walks and 16 strikeouts to begin his MLB career. He would falter as the season progressed, though, leaving Kapler to rely more on veterans Hunter and Pat Neshek down the stretch.
Considering that Dominguez was a starting pitching prospect with no experience in the upper minors prior to the 2018 season, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think he can take a big leap forward and solidify the closer’s job for a full season. But with expectations for the Phillies likely to be in the high-to-extremely-high range, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Phillies pursue a more established free agent to close out games.
Pittsburgh Pirates | Pirates Depth Chart
Opening Day 2018: Felipe Vazquez
September 2018: Felipe Vazquez
Future Outlook: Vazquez signed a $22MM contract extension in the offseason and changed his name in April. By the end of May, Vazquez had an ERA near 5.00 and four blown saves. There wasn’t the normal negative buzz that surrounds most closers after blowing a save or two, though. He had only allowed an earned run in four of 24 appearances and the Pirates were playing much better than expected. He was also dealing with forearm discomfort and, of course, was one of the most dominant relief pitchers in baseball in 2017. He earned that long leash. Over his last 44 appearances, the 27-year-old lefty has a 1.77 ERA and 26 saves in 27 chances. Yep– still one of the most dominant relievers in baseball.
With three games to go, Vazquez is two appearances shy of reaching at least 70 games for the third consecutive season. He pitched both ends of a double-header twice in 2018 and pitched three consecutive days on three occasions, including two days after experiencing the forearm pain. The acquisition of Keone Kela and the emergence of Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez as reliable setup men should help ease Vazquez’s workload in 2019.
San Diego Padres | Padres Depth Chart
Opening Day 2018: Brad Hand
September 2018: Kirby Yates
Future Outlook: While Hand’s offseason contract extension removed any sense of urgency that the Padres had to trade him, it also made him a much more valuable trade chip. After saving 24 games and posting a 3.05 ERA with 13.2 K/9 in 41 appearances, Hand was traded to the Indians for catcher Francisco Mejia, one of the top prospects in baseball. Yates stepped into the closer’s role, although there was a decent chance that it would be a short stint with 12 days to go until the non-waiver trade deadline and several contending teams potentially interested in acquiring him. The 31-year-old stayed put, though, giving him an extended opportunity to prove himself as an MLB closer. He’s passed the test with flying colors, saving 10 games in 11 chances—he has 12 saves overall—while continuing to strike out more than 12 batters per nine innings.
The Padres, who currently have 95 losses, aren’t likely to build a legitimate playoff contender during the offseason. However, they’re far enough into their rebuild that they’ll want to go into 2019 with a team that can at least be .500. In that case, holding on to Yates would be smart, although general manager A.J. Preller will surely be willing to pull the trigger on a deal if a team meets his asking price.
San Francisco Giants | Giants Depth Chart
Opening Day 2018: Hunter Strickland
September 2018: Will Smith
Future Outlook: With Mark Melancon on the disabled list to begin the season, the Giants turned to Strickland as their closer. For the most part, he did a fine job, but his days as a closer swiftly came to an end, at least for the near future, on June 18th. Strickland entered the game with a two-run lead over the Marlins, an ERA just over 2.00 and 13 saves in 16 chances. After allowing three earned runs in the eventual 5-4 loss, he punched a door in frustration and fractured his hand. Upon returning in mid-August, Smith had 10 saves and a strong grasp on the closer’s gig.
Smith will likely be the front-runner to keep the job in ’19 with Melancon also firmly in the mix given his experience and his sizable contract (four years, $62MM). He’s not quite back to his pre-injury form, but Melancon has a 3.08 ERA in 40 appearances.
St. Louis Cardinals | Cardinals Depth Chart
Opening Day 2018: Committee — Dominic Leone, Tyler Lyons, Bud Norris
September 2018: Carlos Martinez
Future Outlook: The committee was supposed to be temporary while Greg Holland, who signed a one-year contract in late March, worked his way back into shape with a Minor League stint. Holland, though, was brought to the Majors before he was ready and never looked right with the Cardinals. He walked four in his St. Louis debut and never quite recovered. Norris, as he did in 2017 with the Angels, quickly separated himself from the other closer options and proved to be a steady force in the ninth inning with 28 saves and a sub-3.00 ERA through August. The 33-year-old ran out of gas, though, forcing the team to use a temporary committee in early September. Martinez, who returned from a disabled list stint to pitch out of the bullpen in late August, has emerged as the team’s primary closer as they fight for a Wild Card spot.
It’s highly unlikely that Martinez, the Cardinals’ Opening Day starter, will remain in the bullpen beyond this season. Barring any injury concerns, he’s just too good as a starting pitcher. Rookie Jordan Hicks, who has dazzled with his 100+ MPH sinking fastball, is a good bet to be the team’s closer at some point. It’s just not certain that the Cardinals will trust him enough at the beginning of the 2019 campaign, which could put them in the market for a stop-gap closer this offseason.
Washington Nationals | Nationals Depth Chart
Opening Day 2018: Sean Doolittle
September 2018: Sean Doolittle
Future Outlook: Doolittle was the Nationals’ closer on Opening Day, an NL All-Star selection in July, and he’s the Nationals’ closer as we enter the last weekend of the regular season. You’d figure things went pretty well for the Nats in 2018. But you’d be wrong.
A stress reaction in Doolittle’s foot forced him out of the All-Star game and out of action for a majority of the second half. When he returned in September, the Nats were out of the playoff chase. Five different relievers, including Kelvin Herrera, picked up saves while Doolittle was out. Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Shawn Kelley were all traded, and Herrera suffered a season-ending foot injury in late August.
Doolittle will be back in 2019—his $6MM club option will surely be exercised—and should jump right back into the ninth-inning role unless the Nats make a bold acquisition for another closer. In all likelihood, they’ll bring in another veteran setup man to help out a group that includes Koda Glover and Justin Miller. Greg Holland is one possibility. He has been a pleasant surprise since signing with the team in early August (0.89 ERA in 23 appearances) .