For the earlier articles in this series, click below:
- State of the Catcher
- State of First Base
- State of Second Base
- State of Third Base
- State of Shortstop
- State of the Outfield
- State of the Starting Pitcher
Welcome to the collective headache, better known as the fantasy reliever market. Anywhere between one-quarter and one-third of closers can reasonably be expected to lose their job for a portion of the season. Projecting relief performance is an inexact science—due to the fact that relievers pitch fewer innings and thus deal with relatively small sample sizes, which naturally results in an extreme range of potential outcomes.
We humbly accept the burdens of the job, though, and will strive to analyze the fantasy impact of relievers across the league. Just remember: closers may come and go, but Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman are forever. Be still, my beating heart.
The League Breakout
The Cincinnati Reds may not challenge for the NL Central crown this year, but if you’re looking at the NL for relievers, Aroldis Chapman has eclipsed Kimbrel as the number-one option. He struck out 52.5 percent of the batters he faced in 2014. That’s the best mark of any qualified reliever in baseball history. In fact, he had more strikeouts last year (106) than Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez, and Dillon Gee. The saves certainly make up the meat-and-potatoes of his value in standard leagues, but he’s one of the few relievers who can dominate other categories enough to make him as valuable as if he were a low-end starter (plus the saves).
Chapman was the ninth-best reliever and didn’t pitch in a game until May 11th; give him another month-plus this year, and he’s elite.
If you’re scouring the depths for a breakout candidate in the National League, Hector Rondon could be a nice mid-tier option with the potential to be something more. The Cubs should be a much-improved ballclub, and he posted a 2.42 ERA (2.26 FIP) with 29 saves a year ago. Best of all, he compiled a 11.1 percent swinging-strike rate and experienced a nice velocity bump. I’m worried about his ability to neutralize lefties and the Cubs have other viable bullpen options who could steal the closer role if he slips up, but I’d prefer Rondon to someone like Santiago Casilla—who has received a bit of buzz as a sleeper candidate among the closers. Casilla doesn’t strike out enough batters for my taste, and I think Sergio Romo will severely threaten to regain command of the ninth inning.
Shifting to the American League, there are many intriguing options. Jake McGee closed games for the Rays a year ago, but the 26-year-old Brad Boxberger turned some heads with a 2.37 ERA and a 14.47 K/9. His fastball-changeup combination was lethal in 2014. His 14.4 swinging-strike rate ranked 12th among qualified relievers. Of course, a nice velocity spike helped things immensely, too.
Other relievers such as Wade Davis, Andrew Miller, and Ken Giles will be knocking on the door to shut down opponents in the ninth inning. All seemingly have the stuff to be fantasy producers without the closer’s position, but if they can ultimately grab it, their fantasy value will skyrocket upward. Perhaps a late-round flyer would be wise.
The Strategy in Mixed Leagues
As much as I love Chapman and Kimbrel—and I do—they’re being drafted in the top 50 overall. Chapman is going 43rd and Kimbrel at no. 50. That’s too high for me, as only one reliever was a top-40 fantasy producer a year ago: Greg Holland. Too much volatility exists, and the upside of Chapman or Kimbrel at those spots is inherently limited. I’d much rather draft someone like Carlos Gonzalez at no. 47 and have the upside of a top-10 producer.
I’m traditionally one to pass on the top four or five options at closer and make my money elsewhere. This allows me to grab someone like Zach Britton at 126th overall, when he was the third-best reliever in baseball in 2014. Also, it’s important to capitalize on the waiver wire, but that’s not something you should rely on during your draft. Give me a pair of closers, such as Britton and Rondon, in the 12th through 15th rounds, and I’ll back it up with a couple of non-closers with high earning potential, such as Boxberger and Davis.
Having a top-tier closer is always attractive. I’m more apt to succumb to the allure in auction leagues, but I generally advocate grabbing a couple mid-tier closers that you like more than most and supplement with a couple dominant set-up men who could take the closer’s role and run with it. Sometimes that results in someone like Rex Brothers, but it also occasionally yields someone like Cody Allen. The goal is to speculate on saves with relievers who can still provide marginal value without saves—this obviously becomes more valuable in leagues that reward holds.
The Long-Term Outlook
The top-five relievers in dynasty leagues remain fairly static: Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel, Greg Holland, Dellin Betances, and Kenley Jansen. There’s a drop off for me after that, with guys like Cody Allen and David Robertson heading up the next tier.
It’s rarely prudent to draft minor-league relievers in dynasty leagues, simply due to the freaks of fortune that accompany the relief market. However, someone like Nick Burdi seems to cut against the grain. He’s 22 years old, touches triple digits, and should begin the year in Double-A. It won’t be long until his nasty fastball-slider combination arrives in the majors. Other minor-leaguers worth targeting: Jairo Diaz, Raisel Iglesias, and Derek Law.
If you’re looking for other future closers in the minors, I’m not sure how fruitful that search will be. I’d be more comfortable grabbing guys like Brandon Maurer, Jenrry Mejia, Kevin Quackenbush, Corey Knebel, and others of that ilk.
A Closing Haiku
Some will make you cry.
Some will make you grin. Good
Luck figuring out who.
Thank you for reading
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