It may sound strange, but one of my absolute favorite parts of running a fantasy team is finding undervalued relievers. Having Matt Kemp fall to me in the middle of the first round and getting 10 home runs through the first three weeks? Eh. Having my 24th-round pick throw a perfect game? Color me mildly elated. But grabbing Jason Grilli for $1 in Tout Wars? I’m throwing a parade in my mother’s basement!
Middle relievers can be an underappreciated source of value, especially in AL/NL-only leagues and in leagues with innings caps. Not only are they capable of producing elite ratios, but they can also match near-elite starters in wins on a per-inning basis, which is incredibly important in leagues with innings caps. Even if your league doesn’t have an innings cap and is simply deep, these relievers can be worth several dollars. Your pitchers are going to get injured, and when you find out that Michael Pineda is done for the season, there aren’t exactly a lot of options out on the waiver wire. In a lot of leagues, there may not be a single starter available at all, even of the Adam Wilk variety.
So we turn to relievers. Of course, we all know that Kenley Jansen and Matt Thornton are elite non-closers, and chances are, they’re already owned in your league, so we’re going to ignore them. Today, I’m going to rattle off a list of guys who are widely available but who could have a big impact on your fantasy team (at least, as big of an impact as a $1 waiver-wire pickup can be expected to produce). These are guys who, despite getting overlooked, have the chance to run the gauntlet of value. Great skills are a given, but these guys also have the chance of posting a handful (or more) wins. Last year at THT, I examined the qualities that lead to vulture wins, which I key in on when digging through the bargain bin. The most important qualities were, in order: total innings (even on a wins-per-game basis this is most important, serving as a proxy for manager fondness), leverage index (relievers used in the late innings are in better position to win games), lack of (non-closer) late-inning competition, and being a good pitcher.
Jason Grilli | Pittsburgh Pirates | RP (Yahoo! 1%, ESPN 0%, CBS 0%)
Grilli has always had the pedigree to succeed—he was selected as the fourth-overall pick in the 1997 draft—but it’s taken him a long time to begin to make good on it. After a breakout 2011 campaign, he now finds himself pitching late innings for the Pirates. Tony Watson and Juan Cruz currently have higher leverage indexes, but that could be small sample-related, and Grilli has been the primary setup man for Joel Hanrahan. He’s off to a tremendous start in 2012, and his plus fastball and plus slider suggest good things going forward. His current 15-per-nine strikeout rate may be unsustainable, but K-ing more than one per inning is a near certainty. Teammate Evan Meek may be grandfathered into the good graces of fantasy owners, but Grilli is the superior fantasy option, at least for the time being.
Pedro Strop | Baltimore Orioles | RP (Yahoo! 5%, ESPN 1%, CBS 5%)
Acquired from the Rangers in the Mike Gonzalez deal last season, Strop now finds himself setting up for Jim Johnson. Even aside from the tastiness of being the guy setting up one of the least-talented closers in baseball, Strop has fantasy value. He’s always thrown hard, but his fastball is averaging over 97 mph this year after sitting at 95 for the past few seasons. It may be relatively straight, but the velocity and the rise more than make up for it. Plus, he’s begun working his two-seamer into the mix more, and guess what? It also is sitting at 97. That’s just ridiculous. Throw in a splitter and a slider, and Strop has plenty of options to get hitters out. Control may be an issue for him, but if he’s punching guys out and getting groundballs, he can get away with a few walks. Between his uncontested high-leverage innings and being third among AL non-long men in relief innings pitched, his win potential is huge.
Tom Wilhelmsen | Seattle Mariners | RP (Yahoo! 7%, ESPN 1%, CBS 11%)
Like Grilli, Wilhelmsen was a top prospect years ago. Unlike Grilli, Wilhelmsen left the game in 2005 to become a bartender and didn’t return until 2010. Luckily for fantasy owners, his electric stuff returned with him. His fastball very much resembles Strop’s in that it is fast (near 96 mph) and relatively straight but with a lot of rise. He complements it with a big curve while mixing in a sporadic sinker, slider, and change-up. There is plenty to like here, and there’s even an outside chance for saves if League is injured or traded.
Well-known for vulturing a win in the first game of the season at the Tokyo Dome, causing him to be drafted almost unanimously in NFBC drafts that took place between the Japanese series and Opening Day in the United States, Tom Wilhelmsen has a good chance of piling on plenty more where that came from. Seattle’s bullpen is a bit of a lost cause this year, allowing Wilhelmsen to firmly entrench himself as Brandon League’s setup man with no challengers in sight for his late-inning, high-leverage situations. Oh, and he’s thrown the most innings of any reliever in baseball.
Josh Lindblom | Los Angeles Dodgers | RP (Yahoo! 3%, ESPN 0%, CBS 3%)
Lindblom’s appeal differs from the other three on this list. His win potential is limited by the presence of several other late-inning options for the Dodgers—Kenley Jansen, Matt Guerrier, and Scott Elbert—and his fastball is the slowest of the group, sitting just below 93 mph. He is, however, the third-most-used non-long man in the National League and is the most highly-regard by PECOTA (he barely edges out Grilli in projected ERA). While I’d choose any of the other three before Lindblom, he should still be quite good and is unowned in most leagues.