Fantasy Baseball 2023 Relief Pitcher Preview: Top-12 rankings, sleepers and draft strategy

How to attack saves varies greatly depending on specific fantasy leagues, unlike other scoring categories. In leagues that highly value closers, the top tiers are likely to be pushed into the early rounds of drafts thanks to a clear trend: More relievers are recording saves, while fewer are individually reaching 20-plus. Again, your league might vary, but Edwin Díaz and Emmanuel Clase have become common second- or third-round fantasy picks in early 2023 drafts.

Roughly counting, only about half the teams in the league enter the season with a named closer, with the other half being a complete guessing game (and you can be sure there will be chaos among those currently holding down the job).

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It's fair to argue that saves are the most annoying part of fantasy baseball, given that role is essentially all that matters (i.e., Raisel Iglesias went from a top-35 fantasy asset to droppable solely because he was traded into a setup role midseason last year). It’s worth noting that elite relief performances come out of nowhere every season — and frequently disappoint the following year. Skills matter when drafting relievers, but the main goal is to select those with the clearest/safest path to the closing job.

The top tier

Edwin Díaz is typically the first closer off the board after he was historically great last season, though Emmanuel Clase isn’t far behind in ADP. Díaz has the clear better peripherals (and MLB’s best entrance song), but it’s hard to argue against Clase’s results (and stuff). Díaz benefits from one of baseball’s best pitcher’s parks but also has a five-year trend of rotating strong seasons with disappointing ones.

Editor's note: Edwin Diaz tore his patellar tendon at the end of Puerto Rico's victory over the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. He will undergo surgery and is expected to miss the 2023 MLB season.

Josh Hader would normally be a prime rebound candidate and could rack up saves on a Padres team projected to win the second-most games this season. But there’s at least mild concern regarding his declining stuff.

The wild cards

Devin Williams, Milwaukee Brewers: With Josh Hader gone, Williams has the upside to finish as fantasy’s top closer in 2023, as he possesses elite skills and pitches for a team that should provide many save opportunities. Health is the only question when it comes to Williams. He has dealt with numerous arm injuries in the past and throws a nasty Airbender that could lead to more. Matt Bush is a fantasy sleeper as a result.

Ryan Helsley, St. Louis Cardinals: Helsley is the real deal, but St. Louis has another truly elite alternative in Giovanny Gallegos, who shared high-leverage situations down the stretch last season.

Pete Fairbanks, Tampa Bay Rays: He’s absolutely filthy and could see the majority of TB’s saves after signing a three-year deal. But Fairbanks has past durability concerns, and while the Rays have shown a willingness to use a full-time closer, Tampa Bay has no shortage of dominant bullpen arms to mix and match (there’s an argument that Jason Adam was the AL’s best reliever last season).

Pete Fairbanks #29 has fantasy value
Pete Fairbanks would be an easy top fantasy choice at closer if not for the competition he faces on his own team. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Jhoan Duran, Minnesota Twins: He's throwing even harder this spring after his fastball averaged 100.9 mph last year; ZiPS is projecting a modest 14.5 K/9 rate. The Twins could also win a bunch of games in 2023. But Jorge López looms and is more “established” as a closer.

[2023 Fantasy Positional Previews: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | OF | SP | RP]

Scott Barlow, Kansas City Royals: While the first four “wild cards” have “fantasy’s No. 1 closer” among their range of outcomes, Barlow probably doesn’t, if only because Kansas City won’t provide as many save opportunities. Otherwise, he’s an elite reliever whose main fantasy question is role: Will newly signed Aroldis Chapman and his 315 career saves (top-25 all time) enter into the closing mix?

Kenley Jansen, Boston Red Sox: Jansen is a “wild card” for entirely different reasons, as he’s clearly locked in as Boston’s closer. But he’s in the decline phase of his career, and as one of the slowest pitchers in baseball, he could be affected by the new clock.

In fact, the pitch clock rules could affect a number of potential closers.

The sleepers

Carlos Estévez, Los Angeles Angels: His stats need to be taken with a grain of salt, as he has pitched his entire career in Colorado, but he’ll no longer have to deal with Coors Field’s extreme elevation as a member of the Angels. Los Angeles has a wide-open bullpen (and by that, I mean not very good — the Astros and Rays each have four relievers projected for more WAR than anyone in L.A.’s pen), and Estévez watched his K/9 jump from 6.3 at home to 10.8 on the road; his xFIP fell from 5.51 to 3.02 when away from Coors Field last season. He's a reliever to target now freed from Colorado.

A.J. Puk, Miami Marlins: Injuries remain a huge concern with Puk, but Miami traded for him reportedly in hopes of turning him into the next Josh Hader. Puk is a former top prospect as a starter and has the stuff to be a lights-out closer should health cooperate. Dylan Floro certainly isn’t going to stand in his way, but manager Skip Schumaker recently threatened to not go with a traditional closer this season.

[2023 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | OF | SP | RP]

A.J. Minter, Atlanta Braves: Raisel Iglesias should have Atlanta’s closer’s role mostly to himself this season, but the 33-year-old’s stuff dropped off some last season. The Braves are projected to win the most games in MLB, and Kenley Jansen has moved on. Meanwhile, Minter was quietly one of baseball’s best relievers last year while finishing top-five in WAR. He has the upside to match any fantasy reliever in 2023, yet has a 225+ Yahoo ADP.

Michael King, New York Yankees: Clay “Sure Lock” Holmes enters as the favorite to close in New York with Aroldis Chapman out of town. Jonathan Loaisiga and Tommy Kahnle (among others) are also competition, but King should emerge as New York’s best reliever by a wide margin if he’s truly healthy. There’s some concern that the Yankees will prefer to use him in a multi-inning role, but there’s a ton of fantasy potential should King end up closing in New York. There are about 60 relievers going ahead of him in Yahoo drafts right now.

Top-12 relief pitcher rankings (as of Feb. 27)

1. Edwin Díaz

2. Emmanuel Clase

3. Josh Hader

4. Ryan Pressly

5. Raisel Iglesias

6. Jordan Romano

7. Devin Williams

8. Ryan Helsley

9. Félix Bautista

10. Camilo Doval

11. Kenley Jansen

12. Alexis Díaz

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