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Ranking the top 40 relief pitchers in fantasy baseball [UPDATE]

We take a look at the relief pitcher position, including notable offseason transactions, injury news, and rank out the best options for your 2021 fantasy baseball drafts.

What stats should you look for when rostering a Pitcher?

March 31 update: The Reds won’t name a closer prior to tomorrow’s Opening Day. Despite that and the fact that Cincy’s bullpen has a bunch of closer-quality arms, I’m sticking with Amir Garrett at No. 13. I think he has the skill set to be a solid ninth-inning pitcher, and he has been dynamite during spring training.

Matt Barnes is back with the Red Sox after missing some time following a positive COVID-19 test. It was later determined that he was non-infectious. I’ve moved him back up to No. 14.

Phillies manager Joe Girardi said Wednesday that Hector Neris will begin the year as the team’s closer. OK. I still don’t think Neris is very good, and you probably need to keep a close eye on Archie Bradley in any of your final drafts. But because of that announcement, I’ve created some space between those two players, pushing Neris up from No. 28 to No. 21.

March 26 update: Kirby Yates pitched just 4.1 innings last season before undergoing season-ending elbow surgery. He went back under the knife this week and is done for the year before the 2021 season even begins. Yates was diagnosed with a strained elbow a few days ago and underwent Tommy John surgery on Wednesday. Blue Jays setup man Jordan Romano has been inserted at No. 19. He is equipped with a high-90s fastball and a low-90s slider and pitched well in 2020. It’s worth taking a chance on his skill set, but there is also a good chance that this becomes yet another closer-by-committee bullpen. Rafael Dolis is someone else to keep tabs on.

Speaking of closer-by-committee bullpens, the Rays’ Nick Anderson will likely be out for more than three months due to a partially torn elbow ligament. Both Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo have moved up in these ranks, but you know not to expect reliability with the closer situation in Tampa Bay.

Also coming out of the ranks is Texas’ Jose Leclerc, who will miss an indefinite period of time due to a sore elbow. Unlike what’s going on in Toronto or Tampa Bay, I don’t think there is an evident replacement for Leclerc right now, mostly because those replacements are nursing injuries of their own. Ian Kennedy and Matt Bush are possible options. No, thanks.

I’ve given up trying to figure out how the San Diego Padres will navigate the ninth inning. I thought it would be Drew Pomeranz’s job to lose at the start of spring training, but not only does it appear to be a committee situation, Pomeranz apparently isn’t even at the head of that committee. Instead, it’s former Rays reliever Emilio Pagan. I have placed him, Pomeranz and Mark Melancon at Nos. 22, 23 and 24, respectively. I would very much want whomever the closer is in San Diego, but it does seem like there will be more than one.

March 17 update: Presumed Orioles closer Hunter Harvey has been put on the 60-day IL because of an oblique strain, so he has been removed from these rankings. Tanner Scott has been inserted at No. 38. Even if Harvey was healthy, the Orioles’ bullpen closer situation was probably going to be a revolving door anyway, so don’t put a ton of trust in Scott.

Hours after my last update, it was reported that Zach Britton will miss multiple months due to an elbow injury. He underwent surgery Monday. Darren O’Day, Chad Green and Justin Wilson are the best arms behind Aroldis Chapman in the Yankees’ pen while Britton is out. Since Chapman will be suspended for the first couple of games this season, somebody from that group could notch a save or two.

March 9 update: Oakland Athletics closer Trevor Rosenthal has been sidelined by a minor groin strain. He is expected to play catch this week. I’ll assume for now that he will be OK in short order; I still have him at No. 9 in these ranks. However, I have added Jake Diekman into the top 40. Sergio Romo might also be worth a flier in very deep leagues.

Kirby Yates is expected to get into a game later this week. The new Blue Jays closer has been absent from spring training action as he recovers from an elbow clean-up last year. He is at No. 11.

The Yankees are sending Zack Britton to get an MRI on his left elbow. Uh-oh. Until we hear more information, I’ll keep Britton at No. 33 since he is one of the best setup men in baseball.

Other rankings changes: I have become more indecisive with the Twins’ and the Phillies’ bullpens. In Minnesota, I moved Alex Colome from No. 18 to No. 21. Taylor Rogers has been nudged up from No. 29 to No. 24. In Philly, I have put Hector Neris (No. 26) and Archie Bradley (No. 27) next to one another. I don’t really want anything to do with that particular pen right now. I like Rogers a lot, but I do think that Colome will ultimately get the bulk of the save chances in Minnesota.

With the Padres’ ninth-inning situation looking more and more nebulous. Drew Pomeranz has been moved from No. 11 to No. 18. I bumped the Rays’ Nick Anderson down from No. 12 to No. 13. I added the Reds’ Michael Lorenzen in place of Oakland’s A.J. Puk.

You can’t overstate the value of Josh Hader, Liam Hendriks or Aroldis Chapman in fantasy baseball. Those three sit in their own tier among relievers as they possess the inevitable mix of job security, outstanding skills and a track record of fantastic results dating back to at least 2019. From there, it gets dicey in a hurry. There are about 10 teams that haven’t anointed a singular closer as we near opening day. The adage is you don’t pay for saves. But if you feel compelled, go with one of those top three before speculating with the more unsettled bullpens.

Offseason transactions

Hendriks was the prize of the offseason among the crop of free-agent relievers, and the White Sox landed him with a four-year deal. Over the past two seasons in Oakland, Hendriks registered a 1.79 ERA, a 1.70 FIP, 39 saves and a 161:24 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Trevor Rosenthal (Athletics), Brad Hand (Nationals) and Kirby Yates (Blue Jays) all signed one-year pacts with new teams and, assuming good health, could all be top-10 closers this season.

The Angels acquired Raisel Iglesias from the Reds in December. Although he saved 34 games in 2019, that came with a 4.16 ERA. He had better ratios, including a sub-1.00 WHIP, in 2020.

Notable injuries

Yates will try to regain his All-Star form with Toronto. He was dominant in 2019, but then posted an unsightly 12.46 ERA in six appearances last year for San Diego before undergoing season-ending elbow surgery in August. He is reportedly healthy now, but he has something to prove in this year’s camp.

Top 40 RP rankings

Relief pitcher rankings 2021

Rank Player Team
Rank Player Team
1 Josh Hader Milwaukee Brewers
2 Liam Hendriks Chicago White Sox
3 Aroldis Chapman New York Yankees
4 Edwin Diaz New York Mets
5 Ryan Pressly Houston Astros
6 Raisel Iglesias Los Angeles Angels
7 Kenley Jansen Los Angeles Dodgers
8 Brad Hand Washington Nationals
9 Trevor Rosenthal Oakland Athletics
10 James Karinchak Cleveland Indians
11 Craig Kimbrel Chicago Cubs
12 Rafael Montero Seattle Mariners
13 Amir Garrett Cincinnati Reds
14 Matt Barnes Boston Red Sox
15 Richard Rodriguez Pittsburgh Pirates
16 Alex Colome Minnesota Twins
17 Jordan Hicks St. Louis Cardinals
18 Devin Williams Milwaukee Brewers
19 Jordan Romano Toronto Blue Jays
20 Greg Holland Kansas City Royals
21 Hector Neris Philadelphia Phillies
22 Emilio Pagan San Diego Padres
23 Drew Pomeranz San Diego Padres
24 Mark Melancon San Diego Padres
25 Taylor Rogers Minnesota Twins
26 Giovanny Gallegos St. Louis Cardinals
27 Pete Fairbanks Tampa Bay Rays
28 Diego Castillo Tampa Bay Rays
29 Archie Bradley Philadelphia Phillies
30 Will Smith Atlanta Braves
31 Daniel Bard Colorado Rockies
32 Joakim Soria Arizona Diamondbacks
33 Chris Martin Atlanta Braves
34 Anthony Bass Miami Marlins
35 Nick Wittgren Cleveland Indians
36 Tejay Antone Cincinnati Reds
37 Jake Diekman Oakland Athletics
38 Yimi Garcia Miami Marlins
39 Jake McGee San Francisco Giants
40 Tanner Scott Baltimore Orioles