From my perspective, it’s never too early to begin speculating about teams’ bullpens during the offseason and researching who could make a fantasy impact the following year. Playing fantasy baseball for as long as I have has taught me that finding those hidden reliever gems can be the difference between hoisting a trophy and waving the white flag in July. Spending time studying every arm in all major-league bullpens is a staple of my pre-draft routine, and just as important as the homework done for position players, starting pitchers, and impactful rookies.
Please note I am not talking about closers, but rather those reliable bullpen arms that have impressive peripherals and produce in high-leverage situations, not just save situations. These pitchers have earned the trust and confidence of their managers and will continuously be given the opportunity to pitch in similar future situations that could result in wins, holds, and potentially some saves. Even in deeper AL- and NL-Only leagues, the value of these relievers is sometimes unappreciated, despite how they can offset bad performances by starting pitchers in any given week.
One of my personal favorites in this genre over the past few years has been Tyler Clippard. The righty has been as steady as they come out of the Nationals bullpen, earning double-digit dollars in standard 5×5 NL-Only formats in each of the past five seasons with his ratios, strikeouts, and wins. Last season, he had just one save, but racked up seven wins, and 82 Ks with a 2.18 ERA and 0.995 WHIP over 70 1/3 innings, and based on Mike Gianella’s valuation here at BP, earned just $1 less than his teammate Gio Gonzalez (10 wins, 3.58 ERA, 1.20 WHIP) in NL-Only 5×5 leagues. That’s a nice ROI when you consider Clippard went for an average salary of $3 in CBS, Tout Wars, and LABR, and Gonzalez went for an average of $18 in those leagues. The bespectacled reliever earned more than NL starters Gerrit Cole, Matt Garza and Ian Kennedy—all of whom had fine seasons. Pirates setup man Tony Watson (10 wins, two saves, 81 Ks, 1.63 ERA, and 1.022 WHIP) and the Cardinals’ Pat Neshek (seven wins, six saves, 68 Ks, 1.87 ERA, and 0.787 WHIP) earned even more than Clippard last season—and neither was drafted in CBS, Tout Wars, or LABR.
Probably the best examples to illustrate from last year the value that these short relievers can bring to your fantasy squad were two pitchers in the AL, Dellin Betances and Wade Davis. Despite registering just one save last season, Betances ranked in the top 15 in 5×5 AL-Only fantasy earnings for all pitchers. In fact, he earned the same amount as the teammate he set up for, David Robertson and his 39 saves. The hard-throwing right hander’s overall numbers were simply spectacular (5-0, 1.40 ERA, 0.778 WHIP), and his 135 Ks in only 90 innings were more than many starters in either league logged. Wade Davis earned $20 in 5×5 AL-Only formats last year based on his sick stats: The converted starter had 109 Ks and allowed no home runs and just five extra-base hits all season, enough to finish eighth in AL Cy Young Award balloting.
The point here is that value can be found in non-closing relievers in even the deepest of bullpens: You just need to look for it. These relievers are low-risk investments, but they can yield high rewards and earn more than higher-cost starting pitchers. Here are a few relievers that you may want to circle on your draft sheets.
Kyle Crockett, Indians
Cody Allen took over the closer role for Cleveland officially in early June after John Axford’s struggles and saved 24 of his 28 opportunities with an 11.8 K/9, so the closer job will be his to start the season. Bryan Shaw held the eighth-inning spot for most of the season for the Indians and appeared in a league-leading 80 games, netting 24 holds in the process. However, his drop in K/9, 3.42 FIP, and allowing 29% of his inherited runners to score raise some concerns and suggest he did not pitch as well as the numbers indicate. So who could be next in line to be the trusted arm in late-inning, high-pressure situations? My feeling is it will be Crockett, who beat his former teammate at UVA, Danny Hultzen, who was drafted two years earlier, to the majors and was a big part of the Indians bullpen. The lefty went from a fourth-round pick in 2013 to a go-to guy in Terry Francona’s pen during in a playoff race in 2014 as a 22-year-old with just 49 innings logged in the minors. During his brief minor-league career, he put up a 0.55 ERA, 0.796 WHIP, 10.1 K/9, and 1.5 BB K/9 rates and saved six games. Crockett was lethal against lefties, but his stuff does not shoehorn him as a future LOOGY. After his call-up, he held his own against righties, and Francona showed trust in him in high-leverage situations late in the season. There is no reason to think Crockett won’t be a key member of the Indians bullpen this year and a viable fantasy option.
Carson Smith, Mariners
The 6-foot-6 righty rose up quickly through the Mariners organization and put up some gaudy strikeout numbers in the minors, all in relief, while racking up 40 saves over parts of three minor-league seasons. His fastball hits the high 90s on the gun, and he has been an extreme ground-ball pitcher, putting up worm-killer rates of 72 percent and 70 percent in Double-A and Triple-A respectively. He was impressive with the Mariners after his September call-up and could be groomed as Seattle’s closer in 2016. In terms of 2015 value, the fly in the ointment is the M’s have a surplus of hard-throwing short relievers, so his services might not be needed to begin the season. Despite Seattle boasting a stable of talented relievers, Smith is definitely a player you want to keep on your radar, as he should be pitching again in Seattle at some point this year, and the strikeouts will give him value in 5×5 formats.
Jeff Beliveau, Rays
With Joe Maddon’s heavy bullpen rotation last year, it was easy to lose sight of Beliveau‘s contribution, and the fact that he was quietly one of the Rays most effective relievers. The lefty was only called upon to face 100 batters, but he struck out 28 of them over 24 innings, allowing just 24 total bases in that span. He may seem to be your prototypical LOOGY, but he was just as effective against righties as lefties last year, and even put up a 15-to-3 K:BB ratio against RHB. His K rates are no fluke, as in just under 400 innings in the minors, Beliveau put up a 12.1 K/9 clip. He is also accustomed to pitching in high-leverage situations, saving 11 games last season in Triple-A Durham. Not only that, he saved a game for the Rays in September and again this November against the Japanese All-Star team. Despite the Rays having plenty of big arms in their bullpen, Beliveau could work his way into being an intriguing fantasy play this year.
Jordan Walden, Cardinals
While Walden has lost some velocity off his fastball since his 2011 All-Star appearance, that did not prevent him from being one of the most reliable setup guys in the league last year for Atlanta. His BB/9 rate did rise last year, but so did his K/9 rate, and he registered 20 holds and even picked up three saves on nights when Craig Kimbrel needed a breather. Walden now moves to St. Louis along with Jason Heyward in exchange for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins, and he should settle in as a key component of the back end of the Cardinals bullpen. Walden posted his best H/9 at 5.9 and K/9 at 11.2 in 2014, and his résumé of success as a closer will give manager Mike Matheny the confidence to turn to him if Rosenthal struggles as he did at times last season.
Nick Vincent, Padres
The metrics show Vincent has ninth-inning stuff, and he has improved his BB/9 rates every year since his rookie season (1.8 BB/9 last year), while his K/9 rate jumped to 10.1. His ERA and WHIP were skewed by June, when he gave up nine runs in just 2 1/3 innings over four appearances before being put on the DL due to shoulder fatigue. Joaquin Benoit is the closer next year, and Kevin Quackenbush closed for the short time Benoit was hurt in 2014, but Vincent proved to be a steady force in the Padres ‘pen with 20 holds, allowing just six of 41 inherited runners to score. When Vincent came back off the DL in July, he returned to his dominant form and had 25 consecutive scoreless appearances. If given the chance, Vincent has the arsenal to close games, but even if he does not, he will have value in NL-Only leagues based on his K rates and WHIP.
Aaron Barrett, Nationals
Who led the Nationals bullpen in K/9 last year? It wasn’t Clippard or Storen, or Blevins or Soriano…. it was Barrett, with a 10.84 K/9 over 40 2/3 innings. The righty reliever appeared in 50 games for the Nationals last season as a rookie, and ended the regular season with 12 scoreless appearances. Barrett was used as a closer in the minors, saving 54 games while posting an impressive 11.6 K/9. Barrett’s sinker/slider combo is effective against both righties and lefties, and his HR/FB rates have been impressive over his professional career (he allowed just one HR last year). The .328 BABIP shows he might have been a little unlucky. Even in that deep Nationals bullpen, Barrett has the stuff to be a solid back-end pitcher providing good peripherals and opportunities for relief wins.
Christian Freidrich, Rockies
The former 2008 first-round pick missed much of the 2013 season due to a stress fracture in his back, and began 2014 in Triple-A and struggled mightily. Despite his poor performance, he was still called up by the Rockies in June and plugged into their rotation. What followed were three horrible starts (0-3, 9.45 ERA, 2.18 WHIP) and a trip back to Triple-A. The Rockies still saw something in the lefty, and recalled him in August to be used exclusively as a reliever. From that point forward, Freidrich was used in late-inning situations, allowing just one ER in 12 appearances with an 11-to-2 K:BB ratio and just three hits. Colorado’s bullpen could be an open competition for late inning duties this spring, and if the Rockies are ready to commit to move Friedrich to the bullpen, he could be an interesting endgame flier. This situation will need to be monitored this spring, but if he is moved permanently to the bullpen, he could be a late-inning option for the Rockies if he can repeat his late-season showing in relief.
Jake Diekman, Phillies
When a relief pitcher strikes out 100 batters in a season, you take notice. The hard-throwing lefty was called upon 73 times last year out of the Phillies ‘pen, and while he did rack up 18 holds, he had his struggles, mostly against righty hitters. His .382 BABIP last season indicates he might have been a tad unlucky, and Diekman was great against lefties, with a 38-to-5 K:BB ratio in 92 plate appearances against. He was not nearly as effective against righties, and his history of control issues resurfaced (5.1 BB/9 in over 427 innings in the minors. His calling could be as a shut-down lefty specialist, and while he is probably not ready to be an eighth-inning guy right now, he could be soon. He did save 23 games in the minors but is behind Jonathan Papelbon and Ken Giles in terms of save opportunities in 2015. It’s Diekman’s K rates that make him a nice cheap option in 5×5 formats, but just be ready to pull the plug if his control problems continue.
Andrew Miller, TBD
The former no. 6 pick in the 2006 draft has found his niche as a late-inning specialist. After posting a 14.1 K/9 out of the pen for the Red Sox in 2013, he improved upon those numbers last year with a 14.9 K/9, and like Diekman, he hit the 100-K threshold. What makes this lefty so valuable is his effectiveness against both left-handed and right-handed batters. Last season Miller held righties to an amazing .145/.245/.202 line in 144 plate appearances, and he also limited lefties to a .163/.206/.261 line over 98 plate appearances. The control issues that had hindered his career disappeared in 2014, yielding a career-best 2.9 BB/9. There’s a reason there is a bidding war for his services this offseason, and he should be a solid contributor to fantasy squads.