Liam Hendriks, coming off his best season, signed a deal to join a burgeoning White Sox team with World Series aspirations.

John Antonoff/Chicag Sun-Times

As the game of baseball has evolved, a new level of respect has been put on relievers' names.

Since the early to mid-2010s, managers started eschewing traditional workhorse starters for situational pitching and fresh arms that toss high-powered gas at will. A sturdy, trustworthy closer has always been important, but with the advent of “Holds" as a statistic and fantasy category even middle relievers have obtained a place of prominence.

More so than any other position, relief pitchers are dependent on situational value. How can a strong closer notch saves without playing on a team that consistently puts them in save situations? Over the course of a full season, there are usually enough wins to go around and allow a reliever to make their bones, but it's the little things that separate you from a championship or missing the playoffs. That attention to detail is reflected below.


THE SUMMIT

Cream rises to the top — whether we are talking about dairy products or relief pitchers, the idiom remains the same. There is a clear and defined group at the summit of these rankings with a steep drop off to base camp. The top three on this list are, on average, drafted within about 12 slots of each other (Hendriks At 58, Hader at 59, and Chapman at 70). This is no accident.

Liam Hendriks - CWS

Here's a guy who might benefit the most from a change in circumstances. For the past two seasons, he's been a lights-out closer on an Oakland team that routinely competes for the AL West crown with a bargain basement payroll. After hitting the free agent market, he was signed by the team that he absolutely smothered in the Wild Card round last season, the Chicago White Sox.

Most experts had the young upstarts poised for a long playoff run, but that all ended after the A's offense did just enough and Hendriks' Herculean effort. Now, firmly cemented as the closer on a legit World Series contender, Hendricks vaults to the top of this list with his potent arsenal and two straight years of a sub-1.00 WHIP and sub-2.00 ERA. It's hard to make an argument against the Australian not claiming the #1 spot.

Josh Hader - MIL

Up until recently, Hader held a death grip on the title of the MLB's undisputed best closer; and from a pure talent argument, he may still have a rightful claim to the throne. There's not much to say here that hasn't already been said about the long-haired flamethrower, and he represents a sure bet whenever you draft him.

However, the Brewers are on the verge of a make-or-break season after going from divisional winners to wild card round losers to finishing under .500 in a span of three years. As the team record declined, the likelihood of a Hader trade has increased, especially with the emergence of Devin Williams. If Hader were to be dealt to a prospect-rich contender, his fantasy value would Increase. This, also, would open the door to Williams, and his signature pitch, becoming a fantasy force of their own, forcing a re-configuring of any rankings.

Aroldis Chapman - NYY

Chapman never really got going in 2020 after missing the start of the season due to a positive COVID test and hitting the DL for about a month in the middle, leading to only three saves but more than respectable numbers for WHIP, strikeouts, and other periphery stats. His manager, Aaron Boone, pointed out during this Spring Training that Yankee fans and media have been able to avoid the annual tradition of worrying about Chapman's velo.

Usually, as he builds up to regular season strength, everyone goes all Chicken Little and screams that the sky is falling on the Cuban Missile's most important asset. Eventually, it ramps back up, and he returns to his usual best reliever in the AL form. As a Yankee fan, I've definitely been left with a bad taste in my mouth, having the season ended two years in a row by walk offs that Chapman let up, but EVEN that wouldn't stop me from drafting him, especially if he's adding a new pitch to his arsenal: the Splitter.

BASE CAMP

Edwin Diaz - NYM

James Karinchak - CLE

The path has been cleared for Karinchak to take sole possession of Cleveland's closer role with Brad Hand joining the anemic Nationals' pen. The 25-year-old moved up the organization quickly and established a reputation as a strike out force, punching out nearly two thirds of all batters he retired. There's no one else on the team that has as effective combo as his lively fastball and knee-buckling curve, so it seems to be a safe bet that he wins the job and becomes a productive addition to any fantasy team.

Kirby Yates - TOR

Ryan Pressly - HOU

Pressly assumed the closer role in lieu of Roberto Osuna, who went down with an elbow injury in 2020. The former Twin was one of the 'Stros original diamonds in the rough that they polished by emphasizing his four seamer and curveball. Since the trade from Minnesota, he's been one of the most effective relief pitchers in baseball and should prove to be equally effective as a closer with ample opportunities for saves.

Raisel Iglesias - LAA

Brad Hand - WSH

Kenley Jansen - LAD

Trevor Rosenthal - OAK

Will Smith - ATL

ON THE GROUND

Nick Anderson - TB

Rafael Montero - SEA

Craig Kimbrel - CHC

How the mighty have fallen. The once powerhouse All-Star has become as shaky as they come since his move to Chicago. The first year and half were not confidence-inspiring, and this Spring has done nothing to change this narrative. He's on the wrong side of 30, and while his velocity may have seen an uptick, there's no accounting for his command.

Matt Barnes - BOS

Richard Rodriguez - PIT

Joakim Soria - ARI

Drew Pomeranz - SD

A trade deadline pickup for the Brewers from the Giants in 2019, Pomeranz transitioned easily to the pen and went on to find new life as a reliever. He signed with the Padres and continued to effectively eat up innings for them, cutting out a nice role for himself. While San Diego brought in Mark Melancon to compete for the ninth inning job, but Pomeranz should be able to still rack up holds, and you can't rule out him taking hold of it and not letting go.

Jordan Hicks - STL

The Lakers looked lost in the Valley

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns are just a win away from sending LeBron James home in the first round of the playoffs for the first time in the King's illustrious career.

After stating that "These shoulders were built for a reason," James referring to facing the challenge of taking on added responsibilities after Anthony Davis was ruled out for Game 5, the Lakers and LeBron disappointed in a big way Tuesday night. L.A. started off hot jumping out to a 10-5 lead behind a couple shots from James and a three from Davis' replacement Markieff Morris. But it didn't take long for the wheels to completely fall off for the defending champion Lakers as they spent most of the first half trying to remember how basketball works.

LeBron James LeBron looking on during Game 5Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Two numbers stick out in the Game 5 loss for the Lakers and those are 34.5 and 12. Los Angeles shot 34.5% from the field on Tuesday night and were minus 12 in turnover ratio. No matter who's on your team, if you can't shoot and you can't protect the ball, the outcome is already determined.

The Suns weren't simply beneficiaries of a poor performance however as the Suns put it on the Lakers early and often and they never let their foot off the pedal for 48 minutes. Phoenix ended with 15 more assists, had seven more combined steals and blocks, and outscored L.A. in the paint by 12 points. Devin Booker and Cameron Payne were spectacular and they seemed to hit big shots every time the Lakers appeared to threaten a comeback. Mikal Bridges was effective on both sides of the ball adding three steals and two blocks to help electrify his team with the defensive effort.


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Julio Jones is trying to force his way out of Atlanta

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The NFL's all-time leader in receiving yardage per game is looking for a new home.

Five time all-pro, Julio Jones, stated on FS1's Undisputed earlier this week that he was "out" of Atlanta and that his only focus on where he wants to play next year includes winning. This corroborates with reports back in April as Ian Rapoport indicated the Falcons were receiving calls for their star receiver prior to the NFL Draft.

It's no surprise that Jones wants out considering the Falcons have only made the playoffs once since their Super Bowl appearance in 2016. Jones is 32 now and coming off a season where nagging injuries kept him off the field for all but nine games in 2020. In those games Jones caught 51 balls for 771 yards while adding three touchdowns. Having only reached double-digit touchdowns once in his career in 2012, the volume and yardage have always been Julio's strengths. A lack of availability would certainly hurt his chances to be a major contributor for any title-contender.

According to SportsLine, the teams with the best odds to land Jones are as follows as of May 28, 2021.

  • Patriots +200
  • 49ers +300
  • Titans +400
  • Raiders +600
  • Ravens +700
  • Chargers +900
  • Colts +1000
  • Packers +1200
  • Dolphins +1400
  • Jaguars +1500
  • Cowboys +2000

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The Nets big 3 are set for a finals run.

Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The play-ins have been a short, but wild rollercoaster and the playoffs are getting ready to set off.

The seeds are finally set, and the first-round matchups are 76ers(1) vs Wizards(8), Nets(2) vs Celtics(7), Bucks(3) vs Heat(6), and Knicks(4) vs Hawks(5).



76ers vs Wizards:

The Russell Westbrook-Joel Embiid rivalry will continue during this year's playoffs and fans cannot wait. The Wizards finished the season with a 16-6 record, and after a lackluster start this season, they have made themselves a dangerous 8th seed. While the 76ers didn't finish the season hot, I'm sure with a team-full of veterans, rest was more of a priority. The 76ers beat the Wizards three times during the season, but two of those games were very close and came early in the season.

The Wizards can definitely make this series a challenging one for the 76ers. The Wizards have shooters all around with Bradley Beal, Davis Bertans. But the 76ers have a much deeper team with guys like Danny Green, Seth Curry, and Dwight Howard providing good veteran leadership. The Wizards are riding on the health of Bradley Beal, who has dealt with hamstring tightness in the past two weeks.



Nets vs Celtics:

The Nets finally seem to be healthy just in time for the playoffs, which is dangerous for Boston. Although the Nets big three only played eight games together, the Nets still finished with a 48-24. The Nets also have a great mix of reliable veterans like Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Jeff Green, and Joe Harris. These two teams meet three times during the regular season with Brooklyn taking all three games.

The Celtics have not lived up to expectations this year. After making a conference finals last year, it was expected to carry through the regular season, but they never found their stride. Jaylen Brown will continue to be sidelined with a broken wrist, so most of the load will be carried by Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker. I see this series being an easy one for the Nets.



Bucks vs Heat:

A rematch of the heated second-round matchup last year, where the Heat upset Milwaukee, who had Giannis dealing with injuries. Interestingly enough, both of these come to the playoffs on the right side with an 8-2 record in their last 10 regular-season games. Giannis is back with more weapons on his sides like Jrue Holiday, PJ Tucker, and Jeff Teague, while also keeping their core from last year. Giannis had had another MVP-type season averaging 28 points and 11 rebounds.

The Miami Heat started the season off slow, probably because of the NBA finals hangover, but got hot after the all-star break. Miami also acquired many new weapons like Trevor Ariza and Dewayne Dedmon. The Jimmy Butler-Giannis Antetokounmpo matchup will be the most important aspect of this series.

Knicks vs Hawks

After what seems like a lifetime drought, the Knicks are finally back in the playoffs! We can all agree that when the Knicks are good, the league is in better spirits. Tom Thibodeau has turned this team around, and you can't forget about how Julius Randle has been playing this season. Possibly the most improved player, Julius Randle has proved all his doubters wrong and has taken the keys to this Knicks franchise. The Knicks have great veteran leadership with guys like Derrick Rose, and Taj Gibson who are familiar with Thibodeau. They also have great young talent with guys like RJ Barret, and Obi Toppin.

The Hawks on the other hand have turned it around since firing Lloyd Pierce and having Nate McMillan made this team do a complete 180. Trae Young and John Collins are one of the best duos in the league. With guys like Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, and Bogdan Bogdanovic who can get hot at any point of the game. This series can definitely go to 7 games, with last-second shots determining the outcome.