'21 saves leader will be 1 of these relievers

March 20th, 2021

Leading the Majors in saves doesn’t just require skill, it requires opportunity. 

With bullpen roles becoming more fluid, some teams don’t even have a set closer. Most clubs still do, but there’s a high turnover rate, so the reliever who opens the season in the role often isn’t the one who’s getting the ninth-inning call in September.

Five MLB.com writers attempted to navigate through this uncertainty and predict who will be the MLB saves champion in 2021, with each choosing one American League reliever and one National League reliever.

Here are the selections.


-- RHP, White Sox
2019 total: 25 / ‘20 total: 14

Hendriks’ remarkable reinvention with the A’s over the past two seasons culminated in a four-year, $54 million free-agent deal with the White Sox that makes him the centerpiece of a potentially outstanding bullpen. After posting a 4.72 ERA for four teams from 2011-18, Hendriks has become a dominant late-inning force, recording a 1.79 ERA with a 32.3 K-BB% and 39 saves from '19-20.

Generating a ton of whiffs with a high-velocity, high-spin four-seamer and an excellent slider, the 32-year-old appears to be capable of living up to his contract.
-- Thomas Harrigan

-- RHP, Angels
2019 total: 34 / ‘20 total: 8

Iglesias isn’t one of the bigger names on this list, but don’t sleep on him. Since 2017, the right-hander ranks second in the Majors in games finished (186) and fifth in saves (100). The Angels acquired him from the Reds this offseason to fill that closer role, and there’s no clear competition for saves in the Halos' bullpen.

Expect plenty of opportunities for Iglesias, who is heading into a contract year and was praised recently by manager Joe Maddon for his durability and “premium-closer stuff.” If you doubt that, consider that Iglesias has ranked in at least the 91st percentile in whiff rate for three straight seasons, thanks to his ability to miss bats with his fastball, slider and changeup.
-- Andrew Simon

-- LHP, Yankees
2019 total: 37 / ‘20 total: 3

Chapman missed much of the abbreviated 2020 campaign after testing positive for COVID-19 in July, making only 13 appearances with a 3.09 ERA from Aug. 17 through the end of the regular season. He’s another year older, and that fastball, while still sizzling, has become rather predictable over the past couple of seasons.

But there’s reason to believe Chapman will have a big 2021. Chapman has been mainly a two-pitch guy -- fastball and slider. But toward the end of last season, he dusted off an old offering: a splitter. So far this spring, it’s been devastating. If it wasn’t hard enough to hit the Cuban Missile already, now opposing hitters will have to contend with a nasty pitch Chapman used to throw while he was a starter back in Cuba. The Yankees figure to be in a lot of save situations in 2021 as they continue their quest to get back to the World Series, but now in an ever-improving AL East. Chapman will get his opportunities, and if his splitter keeps the form it has now, look out.
-- Manny Randhawa

-- RHP, Astros
2019 total: 3 / ‘20 total: 12

Pressly hasn’t officially won the closer’s job in Houston yet, but it feels as if it’ll only be a matter of time. The Astros have quite a few options to lock down ballgames, though it was Pressly who got the call last season after Roberto Osuna -- now a free agent -- was lost for the season due to right elbow soreness. Pressly managed 12 saves over 52 team games without Osuna, a mark that would put him on pace for approximately 37 saves over a 162-game season.

An All-Star in 2019, Pressly has a 2.19 ERA in 104 appearances over parts of three seasons with the Astros, and his elite strikeout potential -- 12.1 strikeouts per nine with Houston -- certainly makes him a viable closer candidate. The Astros still figure to be in the mix in the AL West, and there's no reason to believe Pressly can't rack up 40-plus saves if (when?) he's named the club's closer.
-- Paul Casella

-- RHP, Royals
2019 total: 0 / ‘20 total: 0

Let's make things interesting. Staumont might have zero career saves, and he might not be the Royals' nominal closer at the moment with Greg Holland also in Kansas City, but he has the best stuff of any reliever there and should be able to build on his breakout 2020 (2.45 ERA, 13.0 K/9).

It's easy to see Staumont making the leap to the next lights-out closer, with his 100-plus mph fastball and 3,000 rpm curveball that hitters swing and miss at over half the time. No one threw a faster pitch than Staumont last season (102.2 mph) and no one had a faster strikeout pitch (102 mph). Hopefully his bout with COVID-19 is behind him and the closer role is ahead of him, because he's flat-out nasty.
-- David Adler


-- RHP, Cardinals
2019 total: 14 / ‘20 total: N/A

Hicks has to win the Cardinals' closer job sooner rather than later, right? The kid can throw 105 mph. It's a unique skill set. He's the righty Chapman, and he's already pumping triple digits in Spring Training as he returns from Tommy John surgery.

Since his debut in 2018, Hicks has the fastest three strikeout pitches thrown in the Major Leagues (104.2 mph, 103.7 mph and 102.9 mph), six of the fastest 10 and 10 of the fastest 15. He also has the three fastest pitches thrown overall (including two at 105), eight of the fastest 10 … and 60 of the 73 total pitches thrown 103 mph or faster. Just give him the ninth inning and never look back.
-- David Adler

-- RHP, Mets
2019 total: 26 / ‘20 total: 6

Díaz had an absolutely disastrous season in 2019, posting a 5.59 ERA en route to ultimately losing his closer job in his debut season with the Mets. Yet he seemed to figure things out in the abbreviated '20 campaign (could it have simply been his entrance music?), when he was arguably even better than he was during his '18 All-Star season with the Mariners in which he tallied an MLB-leading 57 saves to go with a 1.96 ERA.

Díaz averaged nearly two strikeouts per inning (50 K's in 25 2/3 innings) last year while finishing with a 1.75 ERA in 26 games. With the Mets expected to win some more games this season following the additions of Francisco Lindor and James McCann, among others, Díaz could be in prime position to rack up big save numbers -- assuming the ‘19 version proves to truly be an anomaly.
-- Paul Casella

-- LHP, Nationals
2019 total: 34 / ‘20 total: 16

Since 2018, Díaz is the only reliever who has accumulated more saves than Hand’s 82, and 57 of Díaz's 89 came in a single season with the Mariners in ’18. Hand led the Majors with 16 saves last year to go along with a 2.05 ERA for Cleveland.

The Nationals have had chronic bullpen problems over recent years -- since 2018, Washington ranks 25th in baseball with a 4.81 bullpen ERA. Being able to hand the baseball to the dominant lefty to lock things down at the end of games should go a long way toward remedying those woes and getting the Nats back into NL East contention. And as far as durability goes, Hand hasn’t had a stint on the injured list since 2014.
-- Manny Randhawa

-- LHP, Brewers
2019 total: 37 / ‘20 total: 13

Sure, it was only a 60-game season, but Hader still led the NL in saves in 2020, a year after finishing second in that category. The saves should be there again in ‘21 for a competitive Brewers club. There is some risk here in that Milwaukee has 2020 breakout bullpen ace Devin Williams waiting in the wings if Hader falters, but there’s no reason to expect that outcome.

Yes, Hader tends to get hit hard when he gets hit, with sky-high barrel rates and quite a few homers. But the key word in the previous sentence is “when.” Nobody makes it tougher to get a bat on the ball than Hader, who leads MLB with a ridiculous 44.1% K-rate over his career. The lefty also became less fastball reliant in 2020, throwing his slider nearly one-third of the time and holding opponents to an .038 average (1-for-26) against it, which bodes well moving forward.
-- Andrew Simon

-- RHP, Dodgers
2019 total: 33 / ‘20 total: 11

Jansen’s last pitch of the 2020 season came at the end of Game 4 of the World Series, as he allowed a two-out single to Brett Phillips that scored two runs and gave the Rays a wild walk-off win. While Los Angeles ended up winning the next two games to bring home the title, it was Blake Treinen and Julio Urías who closed out those contests, not Jansen.

But the 33-year-old righty remains the Dodgers’ closer, according to manager Dave Roberts, and that gives him as good of a chance as anyone to lead the Majors in saves. Jansen has registered the most saves (303) in MLB since the beginning of 2012, reaching the 30-save mark six times and recording a collective 2.43 ERA with a 12.9 K/9 rate in that span.
-- Thomas Harrigan