Playing Metallica, Dropkick Murphys or AC/DC over the stadium loudspeakers isn’t enough.
It takes a certain type of pitcher to close out a tight ballgame. What is required is one or two elite pitches and a mindset that won’t wilt under pressure. The role of the closer has evolved over time from the multi-inning masters like Lee Smith and Rich Gossage to the one-frame kings of Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, and it could be evolving again as clubs use their best relief arms in high-leverage situations regardless of inning.
No matter what, the ninth is its own animal, and only a few are capable of taming it. These are the prospects — one from each organization — who have the best chances at being Major League closers some day:
Blue Jays: Patrick Murphy, RHP (No. 20)
The 6-foot-5 right-hander already worked out of the Major League bullpen last year, so he’s halfway there as a potential future closer. While with Toronto, he became a classic two-pitch reliever, averaging 96.8 mph on his sinker and throwing his plus curveball 39.4 percent of the time. Murphy has a history as a starting pitcher, but injuries (like the current one to his right shoulder) will likely limit his workload further. If he can focus on getting the most out of those two pitches alone, a prominent bullpen spot could be his future. (Darkhorse here: Nate Pearson. The hard-throwing right-hander has the stuff to be elite at the back end of a bullpen, and though the Blue Jays will want to keep him starting as long as possible, his own injury concerns could move him to relief.)
Orioles: Gray Fenter, RHP (Unranked)
Fenter was originally a seventh-round pick in 2015 out of high school who was given second-round money to sign, but Tommy John surgery stopped him right when he was getting started, in 2016. The O’s had him start for much of the early stages of his Minor League career, though he pitched in both roles in 2018 and did a little relieving in 2019. Now 25, he’s jumped to Double-A as a reliever only and his fastball-curve combination is playing up nicely for an undersized right-hander who has always missed bats (10.4 K/9).
Rays: Brent Honeywell Jr., RHP (No. 18)
Trying to fit any Rays prospect into a conventional pitching role could be a fool’s errand, but who doesn’t want to see the screwball as the last pitch in a game? Several arm and elbow issues kept Honeywell off the mound in game action from 2017 until this spring, when he’s been used as a Triple-A and Major League opener. With a plus fastball, good cutter and promising changeup, Honeywell has the arsenal to work high-leverage innings as he regains experience. That might be as close to a closer as the Rays use in the years ahead.
Red Sox: Jacob Wallace, RHP (No. 28)
One of the top relief prospects in the 2019 Draft, Wallace went to the Rockies in the third round after setting a Connecticut record with 16 saves and joined the Red Sox last September as the player to be named in the Kevin Pillar trade. He has a pair of plus pitches in a 93-97 mph four-seam fastball with late tail and a sweeping 82-85 mph slider with depth.
Yankees: Luis Medina, RHP (No. 7)
Signed for $280,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2015, Medina has some of the best pure stuff in the Minors with an upper-90s fastball that reaches 102 with natural cut, a low-80s curveball that can be an absolute hammer and a 90-mph changeup with splitter action. He has had trouble harnessing it for much of his career before making some strides recently, and he definitely has closer upside if the Yankees ever decide to simplify his role.
Indians: Carlos Vargas, RHP (No. 17)
Currently sidelined after Tommy John surgery in April, Vargas has closer-worthy stuff when healthy. The recipient of the largest bonus ($275,000) in the Indians’ 2016 international class, the Dominican has worked at 94-97 mph and touched 102 with his fastball as a starter, backing up his heat with a mid-80s slider that shows signs of becoming a plus pitch.
Royals: Noah Murdock, RHP (No. 16)
It might be unfair to peg a closer projection on a pitcher with only 11 Minor League appearances, but all the pieces are there for Murdock, who is currently out with a minor pectoral strain. The right-hander stands 6-foot-8, can touch 100, features a plus curveball with plenty of spin and has a history of below-average control that could move him from starting to relief down the line. Murdock would certainly cut an imposing figure in the ninth in Kansas City.
Tigers: Alex Lange, RHP (No. 28)
A first-round pick by the Cubs in 2017, Lange struggled as a starter before a move to Detroit in the Nick Castellanos trade. He has been a reliever ever since. His velocity jumped as a result, and he’s been averaging 95.9 mph with his fastball in the Majors this season. His breaking ball, designated as a slider by Statcast, gives him a second plus option and one that he throws as often as his heater. Lange has hit some early bumps in the bigs but has struck out 16 batters in 11 1/3 innings and has posted a chase rate in the 89th percentile at the top level. His role could grow as he gets more comfortable.
Twins: Dakota Chalmers, RHP (No. 30)
Drafted originally by the A’s in the third round of the 2015 Draft, Chalmers’ development has been slowed by injuries and command issues. He was rehabbing following April 2018 Tommy John surgery when the Twins traded for him and he threw well enough upon his return in 2019, most notably in the Arizona Fall League, to get added to the 40-man roster that fall. He’s still starting to work on refining everything, and a lot would have to go right for him to close games (the 6.6 BB/9 rate stands out), but he does have a devastating curve and an electric fastball up into the upper-90s that would pair nicely in the ninth inning if he can harness them enough.
White Sox: Zack Burdi, RHP (No. 13)
The original plan was for Burdi to have taken over as White Sox closer years ago, as he went 26th overall in the 2016 Draft out of Louisville and finished his pro debut in Triple-A. His career has taken detours with Tommy John surgery in 2017 and a torn knee ligament in 2019, but he still averages 98 mph with his fastball and 88 mph with his slider.
A’s: Jack Weisenburger, RHP (Unranked)
The A’s took Weisenburger in the 20th round of the 2019 Draft out of the University of Michigan after he spent three years pitching out of the Wolverines’ bullpen (though not as their closer). He’s now in High-A for his first real full season and already picked up a save in three hitless innings over three outings. His fastball, up to 95 mph, just jumps out of his hand, and he couples it with a slider that can be plus, with late break, depth and sweep. He even has a decent changeup he sells well.
Angels: Oliver Ortega, RHP (No. 15)
Signed for just $10,000 back in Feb. 2015, Ortega really started gathering some momentum when he reached Double-A in 2019, though he was left off the 40-man roster and wasn’t taken in the 2020 Rule 5 Draft. A starter in the past, his power repertoire, not to mention some issues with finding the strike zone, have moved him to the bullpen this year. In shorter stints, the six-foot right-hander’s fastball, which was already touching 99 mph, and his spike curve that flashes plus, could trend upward.
Astros: Shawn Dubin, RHP (No. 11)
An unheralded $1,000 senior sign as a 13th-rounder out of Georgetown (Ky.) in 2018, Dubin dominated in his first full pro season by leading the High-A Carolina League with 132 strikeouts in just 98 2/3 innings. He employs a mid-90s fastball and lively mid-80s slider, but he weighs just 171 pounds and features some effort in his delivery, so he may hold up better with a shift to the bullpen.
Mariners: Matt Brash, RHP (Unranked)
The Mariners got Brash, the Padres’ fourth-round pick in the 2019 Draft out of Niagara University, as the player to be named later in the Taylor Williams Deadline deal, but he didn’t pitch last fall because of a shoulder impingement. His fastball was up to 95 mph as a starter in college, with more in the tank especially in shorter stints. His best secondary offering is his excellent changeup, but he does have the ability to spin two different breaking balls. He’s pitching multiple innings now, but has shown swing-and-miss stuff with 16 strikeouts against only three walks in seven High-A innings.
Rangers: Hans Crouse, RHP (No. 7)
Though the Rangers plan on developing Crouse as a starter, there are evaluators who believe his delivery and high-energy approach ultimately will fit best in a late-inning bullpen role. The 2017 second-rounder from a California high school definitely has closer-worthy stuff with a riding fastball that reaches 99 mph and a wipeout slider with mid-80s velocity and two-plane break.
Braves: Daysbel Hernandez, RHP (No. 17)
The 5-foot-10 Hernandez has been pitching out of the bullpen ever since the Braves signed the Cuban defector in Sept. 2017. He has the kind of fastball-slider power combination that can work very well late in games, with a fastball that touches 99 mph and a slider that’s a plus put-away pitch when it’s tight enough. Command, which doesn’t have to be pinpoint as a short reliever, has been elusive at times, but the right-hander was off to strong start in the Gwinnett (Triple-A) bullpen.
Marlins: Kyle Nicolas, RHP (No. 17)
One of the hardest-throwing starters in last year’s Draft class, Nicolas worked in the mid-90s and reached 100 mph in shorter stints en route to becoming a supplemental second-round pick out of Ball State. The Marlins envision him staying in the rotation, but his heater and power curveball would fit a high-leverage relief role if needed.
Mets: Ryley Gilliam, RHP (No. 18)
Gilliam has been a full-time reliever dating back to his days as a sophomore at Clemson in 2017, and he has the mid-90s fastball and plus curve to work well in the role. Like so many, control is his biggest bugaboo due to a delivery that can be too high-effort at times. But Gilliam has fanned 90 batters in 59 2/3 innings in the Minors thus far — a sign that the heater and curve are enough to keep any hitters off-balance.
Nationals: Matt Cronin, LHP (No. 10)
The Nationals have pegged the former Arkansas reliever as a quick riser since they took him in the fourth round of the 2019 Draft, and it’s easy to see why. Cronin throws regularly in the mid-90s and earns extra honors for bringing the heat with 20 inches of vertical break. His 12-to-6 curveball gives him another plus pitch necessary to close. Of note, Cronin earned 27 saves during his days with the Razorbacks, so he should already be comfortable in the back of a bullpen. That day in the Majors may not be far away.
Phillies: Eduar Segovia, RHP (No. 29)
Segovia is just 20 and in full-season ball for the first time, so it’s a bit too soon to say for certain he can’t start, especially since he’s made strides when stretched out. But the six-foot right-hander has a fastball that was touching 97 mph during instructional league play last fall and a slider that’s unhittable when he locked in. We mean that literally. In August of 2019 during his United States debut in the Gulf Coast League, Segovia didn’t allow a single hit off of his slider. His size, lack of a dependable changeup and periodic control problems could land him in the ‘pen.
Brewers: Abner Uribe, RHP (No. 30)
Uribe is a bit of a one-trick pitcher at this stage, but that one-trick is enough to get him going on a track to the back of a Major League bullpen. The 6-foot-2 right-hander’s one plus pitch is his fastball that actually received a 70 grade this spring because of its ability to touch 101 at last year’s instructs. His slider and changeup have a lot more room to grow, but that hasn’t mattered yet at Low-A Carolina, where he has fanned seven of the 14 batters he has faced as a reliever. If he can get either offspeed pitch to even average status, Uribe has the capability to find a way to a prominent bullpen spot in Milwaukee.
Cardinals: Junior Fernández, RHP (No. 14)
Alex Reyes seems to have locked down the closer role in St. Louis, but there’s always a chance someone else could be required down the line. Among those currently in the system, Fernández has perhaps the best stuff to fill the role if necessary. The right-hander’s velocity was down in 2020 but was back up to touching 97 with the sinker this spring. He also leans on a changeup that earns above-average grades. Fernández is with Triple-A Memphis after turns in the Majors in the last two seasons, but a return to St. Louis isn’t likely far off for the 24-year-old.
Cubs: Burl Carraway, LHP (No. 17)
The consensus best reliever in the 2020 Draft, Carraway was the first Dallas Baptist player ever to make the U.S. collegiate national team and went in the second round. He relentlessly attacks hitters with a 93-98 mph fastball with riding life and an upper-70s curveball that bottoms out at the plate.
Pirates: Blake Cederlind, RHP (Unranked)
While he’s currently rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, Cederlind certainly has closer-type stuff. It’s a fastball that regularly tops 100 mph and he throws a cutter-like slider that often touches the low-90s. He misses bats and gets ground-ball outs with his sinking heater. He won’t be back until 2022, when he’ll be 26, but he was just figuring things out as a short reliever when he got hurt.
Reds: Graham Ashcraft, RHP (No. 19)
The Reds are letting their 2019 sixth-round pick start for now in High-A Dayton so he can work on developing all of his pitches along with his command of them. But they also know his fastball, which touched triple digits this spring and sat in the mid-90s, to go along with his above-average mid-80s slider and a tempo that seems better suited for the bullpen, could let him move fast.
D-backs: J.B. Bukauskas, RHP (No. 16)
Arguably no one was more dominant in Spring Training than Bukauskas. The 24-year-old right-hander struck out 14 of the 25 batters he faced and didn’t allow a run over 7 2/3 innings. Last month, he jumped to the Majors, where results have been more mixed in a small sample, but with a 94.4 mph average fastball and slider that generates whiffs 46.7 percent of the time, his stuff is still that of a dominant reliever. As he gains more experience at the top level, his role in the Arizona bullpen could certainly grow.
Dodgers: Clayton Beeter, RHP (No. 12)
Some scouts who saw Beeter last spring at Texas Tech thought his stuff was as good as any pitcher in the 2020 Draft, yet he lasted until the supplemental second round because he had two elbow surgeries (including Tommy John) while in college and had little track record. If the Dodgers decided to develop him as a reliever, he could move quickly with a 93-98 mph fastball with good carry at the top of the strike zone, a high-spin curveball in the low 80s and a sharp slider in the mid-80s.
Giants: Gregory Santos, RHP (No. 13)
Santos displayed some of the most overpowering stuff in the system after joining the Giants in the Eduardo Núñez trade with the Red Sox in July 2017, and he kicked it up a notch in shorter stints during instructional league last fall. When he continued to deal at 97-100 mph and flash a plus-plus slider this spring, he made his big league debut with three relief appearances in April.
Padres: Mason Thompson, RHP (No. 11)
The Padres moved the 6-foot-7 right-hander to relief during last year’s instructs, and he seems incredibly well-suited for the role. Thompson will throw his fastball in the upper-90s, and his power slider earns above-average grades. He used to throw a curveball and changeup in his starting days, but those likely won’t be as necessary in the bullpen. The 2016 third-rounder is now pitching in relief for Triple-A El Paso and should be an option for San Diego at some stage this summer.
Rockies: Justin Lawrence, RHP (No. 30)
It’s been a roller-coaster for Lawrence, initially drafted back in 2015, a ride that’s included injuries, a breakout that led to a spot on the 40-man roster in 2018, struggles and a suspension for a positive test for a performance-enhancing drugs. He jumped back on the map this spring and made his big league debut this year after a very strong Spring Training. He has nasty stuff, with a sinking fastball that was up to 98 mph this spring, and a solid mid-80s slider, both of which come from a funky low three-quarters to sidearm slot.