Fantasy baseball: Closer, relief pitcher picks off Edwin Diaz concerns

Since April 28, Edwin Diaz has seen his ERA rise all the way to 5.50 from 0.93. Rhona Wise-USA TODAY Sports

Score another one for the "don't pay for saves" fantasy baseball contingent, as Edwin Diaz of the New York Mets, the second best-scoring closer from 2018-22 combined (covering the five seasons before knee surgery cost him the entirety of 2023), will take a break from his traditional ninth-inning role. Diaz blew back-to-back save chances and has surrendered seven runs in three outings over the past eight days.

"I'm trying to do my best to help the team to win," said Diaz. "Right now, I'm not in that capacity."

Fantasy managers agree, especially in light of the performance of Reed Garrett in the innings that previously preceded Diaz. Garrett has been one of the game's most effective setup relievers all year, thanks to his position-leading 41 strikeouts, his 0.72 ERA and a 43.9% whiff rate on hitters' swings. His 112 fantasy points scored for the season, in fact, are 35 more than Diaz had before his aforementioned slump.

While a straight waiver-wire swap of Diaz (85.5% rostered in ESPN leagues) for Garrett (19.0%), provides an easy fix in our standard game, the decision is more complicated in any deeper format. One can argue it's hardly "easy" even here, considering Diaz's overwhelming past success in the closer role. After all, he was the No. 2 closer selected, on average, during the preseason. However, he's also the first among the top-10 RP draft picks -- putting aside No. 7 Jordan Romano's season-opening IL stint -- to be formally removed from the role due to performance.

That's the oddity of 2024 thus far. On the whole, the top-10 closers in ADP have struggled to return similar value on their selections, with only four registering a top-20 fantasy point total (counting only pure relievers and exclusively in their relief work). However, among those same top 10, eight have managed to maintain the role (at least until this point) -- although we can debate Andres Munoz's consistent hold on the Seattle Mariners' closer role while still recognizing that he still appears to be the leading man in a bullpen that occasionally goes the matchups route.

Expanding that job security analysis across the entire league, of the 22 teams that formally declared or had a widely presumed closer as of Opening Day, 14 have seen that closer maintain the role. That's an unusually high retention rate this deep into May, as anyone who has played this game for more than a few years can attest.

One-third of a season -- or at least close to that -- doesn't a trend make. Still, thus far, it absolutely made sense to wait for saves in your draft. Among top-10 point scorers, you could have had Ryan Helsley (third in points) in the 13th round, Craig Kimbrel (10th) in the 14th, or Robert Suarez (second) or Kyle Finnegan (eighth) as final-round fliers. That might provide fuel for the "don't pay" crowd, but let's recognize that every year seems to be its own beast in terms of saves speculation.

In 2023, for example, six of the top-10 closers in ADP finished among the top-10 in fantasy points at the position, another (Ryan Pressly) finished 13th, and top-15 picks Clay Holmes, David Bednar and Alexis Diaz finished 20th, third and fifth. It was one of the most stable seasons for the saves market in recent memory, but it is that stability among closers which has become a more recent trend.

Does that mean that this year's closer crop will shift nearer to preseason expectations over the season's final two-thirds of the way? Perhaps. But with there being so few truly elite, 100-plus-mph-throwing, near-50%-whiff-rate types in terms of raw stuff these days, closers' identities might be more obvious nowadays. Those with lackluster stuff and/or who pitch for weaker teams that shuffle in and out of the role can't deliver the goods to keep up with those flamethrowers.

If you're the unfortunate manager who rosters Diaz (either of them) or Evan Phillips or Pete Fairbanks or Kimbrel (and perhaps even Bednar) and are frustrated with their level of production, consider scooping up any of the unexpectedly elite-performing setup men with increasing prospects of holds or save chances -- "2024 Yennier Cano" types, to reference one of last year's most unexpected reliever breakthroughs.

With the advent of two-point holds in ESPN's game, which began last season, pitchers like Garrett and his brethren can help make up the difference.

Three must-hold guys

Hunter Harvey, RP, Washington Nationals (14.5% rostered): Finnegan has been great. There is no denying that. Still, there's little in Finnegan's profile that suggests a significant skills boost, and his 4.90 Statcast expected ERA says that he has good vibes to give back in the coming weeks. Harvey, pitching directly behind Finnegan, has elite stuff, is second in the majors in holds (14), and has exhibited a huge drop in launch angle/fly-ball rate (down 5.4 degrees for the former, 20.7% the latter), lowering his risk of big, damaging innings.

Injuries have always been the question for Harvey, but if he can stay healthy, he's a top-three prospective hold-getter who might even see extensive time in the ninth inning if a change is required. By the way, Harvey's 21st-ranked 89 fantasy points are only 20 shy of Finnegan's total, and bear in mind that almost 60% of Finnegan's points have come from saves.

Bryan Abreu, RP, Houston Astros (10.2%): To think that, as the 2022 postseason dawned, he was shaping up as the "heir apparent" to close -- a future that could've even arrived in advance of Pressly's end-of-2024 contract expiration. Today, Abreu is two steps away from said closer's role, with slim chance at claiming it before 2029 (in Houston, at least). All throughout, though, Abreu's stuff has remained as elite as ever, including at least a 34% whiff rate in each of his three full seasons as an Astros setup man. He's among baseball's best bets for 30-plus holds and should approach his No. 16 finish among pure relievers in fantasy points from 2023.

Yimi Garcia, RP, Toronto Blue Jays (5.6%): You might remember him as Romano's primary fill-in during the pitcher's three-weeks-and-change absence to begin the season, but Garcia has established himself as one of the game's more underrated primary setup men since the beginning of last July. During that time, he has a 3.00 ERA, an 0.94 WHIP, and 30.3% strikeout and 4.5% walk rates. He has also exhibited an elevated average fastball velocity of 95.8 mph on average, spiking to a personal-best 96.7 mph this season. Garcia has two saves, both before Romano's return, and eight holds in his last 13 appearances alone, elevating himself to a potential holds leader over the course of the full season.

Three names to save

Luke Weaver, New York Yankees (5.6%): Wait, who appears to have emerged as the team's primary setup man? Yes, Weaver, who had a six-plus ERA in three of the last four seasons entering 2024, has re-emerged as a force under pitching coach Matt Blake's tutelage, adding significant velocity to his fastball (now 94.9 mph on average), effectively ditching his mediocre curveball, and re-establishing the changeup that made him an emerging force as a starter for the St. Louis Cardinals nearly a decade ago.

Weaver is an entirely different pitcher this season and, while the Yankees are widely expected to be in the market for relief help, he's currently capitalizing in a way that could keep him as a regular source of holds regardless of any additions. Best yet, if your league settings place value on this, he's also SP-eligible.

Bryan Hudson, Milwaukee Brewers (3.4%): Scooped up in January in a trade from the Los Angeles Dodgers, who had a 40-man roster crunch, Hudson has snuck into the Brewers' primary setup role in very much the same way that Trevor Megill has emerged as the team's primary closer. Hudson's arrival has been fueled primarily by the addition of a sweeper, which has generated a 41% whiff rate and 16 of his 31 total strikeouts, while allowing only two hits among 14 batted balls.

As with Weaver, Hudson's role might appear to be threatened by the potential late-summer return of closer Devin Williams, but left-handers often have a way of piling up save chances due to the number of late-inning, lefty matchups across the league.

Lucas Erceg, Oakland Athletics (1.4%): While new closer Mason Miller has been the talk of the rebuilding A's, Erceg has done a sneaky-good job of settling into the primary setup role behind him -- and it could be a relevant role, considering the team's interest in keeping Miller's innings in check.

A converted third baseman, Erceg didn't register on many radars when he was purchased from the Brewers last May, but he has averaged better than 98 mph with his fastball since, while getting a 41% whiff rate this season with his emerging slider. As he continues to pile on late-inning experience, while also potentially improving his control, he should see a spike in holds for a team that has more of a fighting chance to steal some wins in 2024.