Projecting saves leaders for every NL team

ESPN PLUS ($ MATERIAL)


Modern managers are getting smarter about bullpen usage, ever so slowly, realizing it is not necessary for an experienced closer to save each contest. As a result, saves are declining among the top-end options: Only 14 pitchers saved more than 25 games in 2018, down a bit from 2017 and further from 2016.


Put simply, there is so much change and volatility among closers that a fantasy manager should be able to find saves during the season. (Our closer chart is updated regularly to help you know which players are next in line to get saves.) Skills matter, of course, but opportunity is a key as well.


Here are my thoughts on how each team's saves will end up divided in 2019, starting with the National League. The average big league team saved 41 games in 2018. That's all. Sure, some individuals will save that many (or will they?), but for the most part, if you can secure a strikeout reliever likely to save 25-plus games, it's a good start, and then if you can't add another in the draft, you can fight for more saves through free agency or a trade.


For a look at my predictions for the American League, click here.


Arizona Diamondbacks: ESPN Fantasy (click on sortables for pitchers) projects 27 saves for right-hander Archie Bradley, which seems about right. The club might have brought in the more experienced Greg Holland to handle things, but he was awful last season and so far this spring has been no better. Bradley's 2018 stats nearly mirror his awesome 2017 ones, except for the home runs.


My projection: Bradley saves 31 games, while Yoshihisa Hirano is second on the team with four and a bushel of holds. Bradley, with all the strikeouts, flirts with being a top-10 fantasy closer. Holland is a fantasy nonfactor.



Atlanta Braves: The club claims it wants right-hander Arodys Vizcaino and lefty A.J. Minter to share the role, and that would make perfect sense and likely be best for the team. However, Minter has a sore shoulder and is likely to miss the first few weeks. Vizcaino is no picture of durability himself. Would it shock anyone if right-hander Dan Winkler and lefty Jesse Biddle split the saves in July?


My projection: Vizcaino leads the team with 24 saves, which is a third more than he had last season, so clearly I expect more health for some strange reason. Minter saves 11 games and Winkler, Biddle and perhaps Jonny Venters combine for another 10. No pitcher here gets more than 20 holds.


Chicago Cubs: More injuries! Brandon Morrow posted a 1.47 ERA last season but barely reached 30 innings. I do not expect much different in 2019. When the veteran right-hander is available, expect great innings and all the saves. Some veteran right-handers with similar skill sets await their opportunities.


My projection: Morrow debuts in June. However, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Steve Cishek and even newcomer Brad Brach are capable of finishing games. Most managers fail to realize that virtually any pitcher on a staff could save 30-plus ninth-inning leads of multiple runs, but I digress. Alas, Strop is likely first in line, as he saved 13 games last season. Strop saves 15 games this season, but Morrow tops him with 18 saves. If you ask me which NL team is most likely to sign Craig Kimbrel for one year, it is this one if Kimbrel is still available and Morrow is not progressing by mid-April. Edwards, who rarely seems in the closer conversation, gets the most holds.


Cincinnati Reds: New Reds manager David Bell says he wants to use proven right-hander Raisel Iglesias earlier in games. He is confident others can close. He's right! Use Iglesias for four outs in the seventh and eighth innings to preserve leads! It makes perfect sense!


My projection: We shall see if the well-intentioned Bell follows through. Look for right-handers Jared Hughes and David Hernandez to handle some ninth-inning work. Hernandez is a saves sleeper here, and I think lefty Amir Garrettchips in with a few saves. For now, it is Iglesias with 23 saves, Hernandez with 10, Hughes with five and Garrett with five as well.


Colorado Rockies: Wade Davis pitched well enough to save 43 games last season. Only one major league pitcher saved more. I admit to ignoring Davis a bit in drafts, because he is not what he used to be, and his inflated ERA was not all because of Coors Field (3.55 road ERA), but unless he gets hurt, myriad saves are coming.


My projection: Davis saves 37 games, while Seung Hwan Oh, who tamed Coors Field well enough in his brief work after joining midseason, is among the holds leaders with 25-plus, and he saves five games.


Los Angeles Dodgers: I want to believe Kenley Jansen is well after offseason heart surgery and that his signature cut fastball will return to normal and he'll pile on the strikeouts while yielding a fraction of the home runs. There is risk here that few seem to be considering as they gleefully select Jansen in Round 5 or so of mixed drafts.


My projection: Jansen has averaged 68 games the past three seasons, even while he was not fully healthy. I do think newcomer Joe Kelly is capable of giving him a few weeks off when needed, but I cannot predict the Dodgers actually do this. Jansen leads the majors with 41 saves, while Kelly and lefty Scott Alexander split six more.


Miami Marlins: Even bad teams get some saves, but the problem is that bad teams seldom stick with one option. Last season's Marlins won 63 games: 30 of them were saved, but nobody earned more than 10 of them. That seems like it could continue with leftovers Drew Steckenriderand Adam Conley, plus experienced newcomer Sergio Romo in play.


My projection: I originally believed Romo would be the top option once he was signed. Perhaps it still happens, but I am mostly ignoring this bullpen. I doubt anyone saves 20 games. I predict Romo leads with 15, and then it is Steckenrider with 10 and Conley with seven. There is no young, obvious right-hander in line to close here.


Milwaukee Brewers: Two of the top seven relievers on the final 2018 Player Rater were Brewers, and naturally, I am going to predict neither leads this team in saves. Oh well. I wrote about electric lefty Josh Hader last week, to the dismay of too many that did not understand the actual premise. Check it out. Hader is still awesome, and he might end up a top-10 reliever again, but sometimes it's only about the saves. I think Corey Knebelis going to get them, just like in 2017.


My projection: Of course, now Knebel has a compromised elbow ligament and might not pitch soon or at all. We could simply assume Hader is the closer and if he pitches as awesomely as last season and saves 35 games, he'd be the top closer in fantasy. Numero uno. But I don't think manager Craig Counsell wants that. He wants to use Hader in several roles, several innings at a time. Last year Jeremy Jeffress emerged as a fantasy monster, joining Hader in the top 10 of relievers. His shoulder is hurting. If it's ok by mid-April, he gets saves. As of today, it seems reasonable to project several Brewers save double-digit games, but nobody reaches 25. Unless they sign Craig Kimbrel, which seems somewhat likely if Knebel needs surgery. I'm gonna predict Kimbrel lands here and picks up 25 saves.


New York Mets: Former Seattle Mariners closer Edwin Diaz is fantastic. The ERA and WHIP have to rise, and nobody predicts someone to save 57 games again. That total was the second-most saves in a season ever. Only 17 times has a pitcher saved 50 games.


My projection: Diaz saves a reasonable 38 games for a .500 team, while Jeurys Familia, as the obvious eighth-inning option and not likely to share it, reaches 30 holds. In leagues that count saves plus holds together into one category, that makes Familia oh so valuable as well.


Philadelphia Phillies: This club made one major bullpen upgrade, signing David Robertson to a new deal. Robertson will also rock in saves plus holds formats, as he figures to pile on in each category. By the way, nobody has ever accrued both 20 holds and 20 saves in the same season (Tim Worrell and Brandon Lyon each hit 19 of each once upon a time). Whether Robertson gets all the saves is a question, and perhaps manager Gabe Kapler doesn't even know. Seranthony Dominguez is more of a multi-inning option, but he figures to see end-game use as well.


My projection: Phillies insiders claim Robertson is more likely to see setup duty on a regular basis than Dominguez, who really struggled on consecutive days of work. Perhaps this occurs. I am skeptical. ESPN Fantasy projects Robertson for 27 saves, Dominguez for six. That still seems more likely of a breakdown to me, but I say it is more like 24 saves for Robertson and 12 for Dominguez. Hector Neris chips in with six saves of his own and lefty Adam Morgan should find his way into a few chances as well.


Pittsburgh Pirates: We can move quickly here.


My projection: The Pirates had 40 saves last season. Lefty Felipe Vazquez had 37 of them. I see little reason to expect much different in '19. Watch Keone Kelareach 25 holds, though.



San Diego Padres:Somewhat similarly, this club has an obvious hierarchy, though its closer is a bit more underrated.
My projection: Kirby Yates avoids a late-July trade and saves 33 games. Craig Stammen avoided the home runs last season and was terrific. Look for 25 holds.



San Francisco Giants: Club insiders keep saying right-hander Mark Melancon, making so much money, remains in play for closing duties for that very reason. Perhaps it is so, even though it's a ridiculous reason. Lefty Will Smith comes off an excellent season, so why alter the roles? There is a right-hander to watch here, but it's not Melancon.
My projection: Reyes Moronta needs to cut down on the walks, but he throws hard and saved games in the minors. Perhaps the Giants go to him only if the season is lost. Smith is risky if all you want are saves. I predict 19 of them, with Moronta next at 10 saves. Melancon, lefty Tony Watson and even ground baller Sam Dyson contribute up to five each.



St. Louis Cardinals: Guess last season's save leader. It was Bud Norris with 28! Who saw that coming? The current Cardinals can choose from the hardest thrower in the sport, right-hander Jordan Hicks, and lefty Andrew Miller, who also throws mighty hard and has closed in the past but does not have to in order to provide value. In addition, right-hander Carlos Martinez and his sore shoulder lurk, and it sure seems unlikely he returns to starting anytime soon.


My projection: Proponents of Miller closing point to a relatively modest Hicks strikeout rate. Sure, make that argument. He was a rookie and figuring things out, but whatever. I see Hicks getting the chance and riding it to 35 saves and 100 strikeouts. Perhaps that is just me. Miller chips in with seven saves -- which would still represent one more save than he had the past few seasons combined -- and 90 strikeouts of his own, while we simply do not see Martinez for a while.



Washington Nationals: Lefty Sean Doolittle permitted one base hit in 30 at-bats to left-handed hitters last season. One! Meanwhile, right-handed hitters hardly flourished, batting .160 with a .436 OPS. Doolittle is so good when actually pitching.



My projection: However, health is a skill, and as much as I like Doolittle on and off the field, he last reached 52 innings in a season in 2014. That has to matter in our thinking. Trevor Rosenthal missed the 2018 season, but he is experienced, throwing hard again and right-handed. That matters as well to most managers. Meanwhile, Kyle Barraclough walked two while you read this paragraph. I think Rosenthal saves 15 games, just five shy of Doolittle. Barraclough likely gets a few as well. Watch Rosenthal earn more than 20 holds.