The Only-Landscape: National League Relief Pitchers
As Nick Shlain alluded to in his AL-relievers piece yesterday, as we close out The –Only League Landscape series by previewing the senior-circuit crop, we thought it would be appropriate to stray a bit from the format used in the previous articles and take a look at the bullpens on a team-by-team basis, identifying relief arms that could have fantasy relevance this year. Like Nick, I am not going to focus on closers, since we know who those will be for the most part, and we understand their greater value based on save opportunities. Instead, I would rather offer up some setup men and middle relievers who can quietly amass fantasy earnings despite the lack of fanfare surrounding them. These pitchers do have value in mono leagues, and they are always available on the cheap. So let’s go around the senior circuit and pick a few relievers from each team that could be worthy of a roster/reserve spot come draft day.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Brad Ziegler, Matt Stites
Ziegler is a master of inducing groundballs and should find himself back in the setup role for the Diamondbacks after registering 29 holds in 2014. He’s not a big strikeout pitcher, but he will earn his keep with a solid ratios (2.56 ERA and 1.25 WHIP over his eight-year career). He has saved games before, so if Addison Reed struggles, he might even get a few ninth-inning chances. Ziegler had microfracture surgery on his left knee last September but reports suggest should be ready for Opening Day. He is nice insurance for $1 if you own for Reed.
Stites is a hard-throwing righty who thrived in the closer role while in the minors, racking up 47 saves over parts of four seasons while posting an impressive 1.76 ERA and 0.778 WHIP in 163 1/3 innings. He struggled with his command last year, but prior to 2014 his career K:BB ratio was 150-to-19 over 135 1/3 innings. With a fastball that clocks in the high 90s, Stites could make for an interesting reserve pick in deeper NL-only formats.
Atlanta Braves: Jason Grilli, Arodys Vizcaino
After a shaky start to the 2014 season, the Pirates moved Mark Melancon into the closer role permanently and eventually shipped Grilli to the Angels for Ernesto Frieri. While with Los Angeles, Grilli pitched better than his ERA would indicate (2.15 FIP) and continued to put up impressive K/9 numbers. Now with the Braves, expect Grilli to settle into the setup role ahead of Craig Kimbrel and provide value in NL-only with his peripherals.
Vizcaino returns to Atlanta, but now as a reliever. The former top prospect has regained his velocity after missing two seasons to recover from Tommy John surgery and is looking to make an impact in the Braves bullpen this year. The expectations for Vizcaino are not high this season, but some think he could excel in a short-relief role. He is still just 25 years old, so using a late reserve pick on Vizcaino as a flier is not the worst move you could make.
Chicago Cubs: Neil Ramirez, Pedro Strop, Jason Motte
Ramirez is a converted starter and was one of Chicago’s most reliable relievers as a rookie last season. His 1.44 ERA and WHIP just north of 1.00 helped him earn $9 in standard NL-only 5×5 formats. He has exhibited impressive K/9 rates at every level, and with his swing-and-miss stuff, he should be owned in NL-only leagues.
Strop was also a steady arm in the Cubs’ bullpen last season, and like Ramirez also earned $9 in NL-only 5×5. Armed with a filthy slider, he used that pitch to record 58 of his 71 strikeouts in 2014. He’ll make for a nice $1 end-game buy.
Motte is my sleeper of this bunch, and I felt so strong about it that I bought him in the CBS NL-Only Auction for $2. Joe Maddon has already hinted that he could look to Motte in late-inning, high-leverage situations this year. He struggled last year upon his return from Tommy John surgery, but that is not uncommon. Now with an additional year removed from the surgery, the hope is he will be able to regain some of the velocity that made a dominant reliever with the Cardinals. That’s what the Cubs (and I) are rooting for.
Cincinnati Reds: Jose “Jumbo” Diaz, Raisel Iglesias
After 12 seasons in the minors, Diaz was finally given the opportunity by the Reds to show what he could do at the big-league level. Not only did Diaz appear in 36 games for the Reds, he was also handed the ball in high-leverage situations and delivered. He throws gas and his 9.6 K/9 rate last year is legit. He saved 105 games in his minor-league career, so we might see him in even more late-inning situations this year. The Reds’ bullpen is fairly unimpressive beyond Chapman, so Diaz could see regular eighth-inning duties, making him a decent reserve selection.
After signing a seven-year, $27M contract with the Reds last season, Iglesias will be counted on to pay dividends going forward. During his last season in Cuba back in 2012, the diminutive righty was used primarily as a reliever, but the Reds could look to add him to their rotation if Tony Cingrani or Anthony DeSclafani struggle out of the gate. Iglesias had a fine showing in the AFL, and if he has a strong spring, he’s a pitcher to keep an eye on. Even if he begins the season in middle relief, based on the upside, Iglesisas should be owned in all NL-only formats.
Colorado Rockies: Adam Ottavino, John Axford, Rex Brothers, Christian Friedrich
When 42-year old LaTroy Hawkins is slated to be your team’s closer heading into the season, it’s fair to let the speculation begin as to who will be next in line for saves. That is certainly not a knock on Hawkins, who has been solid the past two seasons with the Rockies, but the advanced age does lead to legitimate concerns about his ability to continue to pitch at that level. Out of all these names, Ottavino is the pitcher I like and trust the most, and believe he will be the next arm called upon for ninth-inning duties should Hawkins falter. Ottavino improved his control last year, and in watching some of his games, despite a great infield defense behind him, has was quite unlucky last year. Even if Ottavino does not close, he will strikeout enough batters to have value in NL-only leagues.
I am not a believer in Brothers or Axford, even though they have closed before, but I did include them in this piece for potential saves only. I personally would avoid both, but can understand an owner taking a gamble on either to possibly handcuff Hawkins, or trying to find potential saves from another source for teams with no set closer.
My big sleeper here is Friedrich. After missing most of 2013 due to a stress fracture in his back, Friedrich began the season in Triple-A and struggled mightily, and then continued his struggles with three horrible starts (0-3, 9.45 ERA, 2.18 WHIP) for the Rockies and a trip back to the minors. However, the Rockies still saw something in the former 2008 first-round pick 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, posting an 11-to-2 K:BB ratio, and permitting just three hits. If Freidrich has found his niche in the pen, he could be an interesting reserve pick.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Joel Peralta, J.P. Howell, Chris Hatcher
Kenley Jansen’s injury will likely sideline the closer for the first month of the season, leaving Don Mattingly to figure out who he’ll give the ball to in the ninth in the interim. Peralta would seem to be the favorite, but a sore shoulder is threatening to force the 39-year-old reliever to the DL to begin the season. If healthy, Peralta is worthy of an NL-only roster spot based on his K/9 rates and solid WHIP. His ERA was a tad misleading a year ago, as his FIP was a full run lower, so don’t let that scare you away.
Howell has been reliable left-handed arm in the Dodgers pen the past two seasons, and did save 17 games back with the Rays in 2009, so he could be an option for Mattingly if Peralta is indeed headed to the DL. Howell has put up strong ratios the past two seasons and is worthy of a reserve spot in deeper leagues. The intriguing arm in this ‘pen to me is Hatcher. The converted catcher improved his BB rates last year and was impressive in his 56 innings with the Marlins last year. With a mid-90s fastball and above-average slider, he could be a sneaky play in the end game.
Miami Marlins: A.J. Ramos, Mike Dunn, Carter Capps
It’s not often you see a pitcher who allows 43 walks in 63 inning earn $10 in NL-Only 5×5, but that’s exactly what Ramos did last year. Ramos certainly walks his share of batters, but he strikes out his share as well, and those who make contact have little success, as evidenced by his .164 BAA last year. Ramos is an exciting young arm and a nice $1 addition to any fantasy team despite the control issues.
I am not the biggest believer in Dunn, but when you earn $17 in NL-only 5×5 the past two seasons, you merit a little attention. He has had solid K/9 rates over his career, but walks a few too many, and his fantasy numbers were aided by his 10 wins a season ago. Dunn is worthy of a roster spot, but better as a reserve pick.
Capps is purely an upside play based on his live arm, and in hopes that his elbow troubles do not resurface. A healthy Capps has back-of-the-bullpen potential.
Milwaukee Brewers: Jonathan Broxton
The signing of Francisco Rodriguez pushes Broxton back to the setup role in which he thrived in last season with the Reds and Brewers. Detractors will point to his .234 BABIP and high strand rates for his success, but Broxton’s 10 percent line-drive rate against was also a factor in helping him compile 23 holds last season. The rest of Milwaukee’s bullpen is full of question marks, but Broxton is a solid $1 end game option. Corey Knebel has upside, but is probably better suited for keeper leagues as his impact will probably not be felt in 2015.
New York Mets: Jeurys Familia, Jenrry Mejia, Vic Black
This is assuming Bobby Parnell will be back in May and resume the closer role for the Mets. Mejia did a fine job taking over as closer for the Mets last season, and will probably begin the season again as the their ninth-inning arm. Mejia was very inconsistent at times and a healthy Parnell should supplant him as the closer. Mejia’s value would be extremely limited in another role, so just keep that in mind when preparing your valuations.
I like Familia more than Mejia as a ninth-inning option, but even in a setup role, Familiar is a solid play in NL-only this year. Despite Mejia’s six wins and 28 saves, he only earned $3 more than Famila in 5×5 last year, so don’t be afraid to pony up a dollar for Familia’s services.
Black is another live arm, but command issues have hindered his chance to be a high-leverage option for Terry Collins. If he works on his fastball command this spring, he could be a player to keep an eye on during the season.
Philadelphia Phillies: Ken Giles, Jake Diekman
Giles went for $3 in the NL-Only CBS Auction last week, and that could prove to be the steal of that auction. Giles has closer written all over him, and if the Phillies are finally able to move Jonathan Papelbon at some point this season, the former seventh-round pick has the potential to excel in that role. With an average fastball velocity of 97.2 MPH and a devastating slider that limited opposing batters to a .113 SLG, Giles was able to rack up $11 in NL-only 5×5 in just 45 2/3 innings. He’s worthy of a $5 bid in NL-only formats.
As for Diekman, when a relief pitcher strikes out 100 batters in a season, you take notice. Diekman was great against lefties, but was not nearly as effective against righties, and his history with control issues resurfaced last season (5.1 BB/9 in over 427 innings in the minors). Diekman’s 12.7 K/9 in 2014 makes him relevant in NL-only 5×5 formats and an end-game option if you need a K-happy pitcher to fill out your staff.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Tony Watson, John Holdzkom
Watson’s $16 earned in NL-only 5×5 illustrates how these “non-closer” relievers can still bring considerable value in mono formats. Ironically, Watson was not drafted in any of the expert leagues last season, but earned more than notable starting pitchers Gio Gonzalez, Gerrit Cole, and Ian Kennedy, not to mention netting more earnings than five NL closers, including Rafael Soriano, who had 32 saves. The lefty has improved his ERA and K:BB rates in each of the past seasons, so this is no fluke. Watson should be owned in all NL-only 5×5 formats.
Holdzkom was one of the better stories near the end of last season, with his strange path to the majors culminating in a September call-up to the Pirates, after which he pitched in meaningful games during their playoff run. Holdzkom has posted stellar strikeout rates at every level he has pitched, and was impressive in his nine appearances with the Buccos. I selected him with my last reserve pick in last week’s CBS NL-Only auction, which is probably where you’ll be able to draft him if you want.
San Diego Padres: Kevin Quackenbush, Nick Vincent
While not overpowering, Quackenbush has excelled at every level he has pitched while posting some impressive strikeout rates. His success stems from his deceptive delivery and ability to effectively change speeds, and even though he is primarily a fly-ball pitcher, he has only allowed four homers in his 233 1/3 innings in professional baseball. Quackenbush saved six games in seven opportunities when called upon last year by the Padres, so he should be first in line in the event Joaquin Benoit is unable to close. Quackenbush is a solid NL-only end-game play given his peripherals.
Vincent is the unheralded star in the Padres bullpen, and he allowed only six of his 42 inherited runners to score while registering 20 holds a season ago. His numbers would have been electric if not for a bout with shoulder fatigue in June, when he gave up nine runs in just 2 1/3 innings over four appearances before being put on the DL. When he came back off the DL in July, he returned to his dominant form and had 25 consecutive scoreless appearances. Vincent has improved his BB/9 rates in each of the past three years while his K/9 rate jumped to 10.1 last year. Vincent is lethal against right-handed batters, having held them to a sick .162/.199/.227 line the past two seasons. Vincent’s peripherals will help any fantasy team and make him a solid reserve selection.
San Francisco Giants: Sergio Romo, Yusmeiro Petit, Ryan Vogelsong, Hunter Stickland
After a horrific June, Romo was removed as Bruce Bochy’s ninth-inning man in favor of Santiago Casilla. Romo did get back on track after the demotion and posted a 1.80 ERA, 0.850 WHIP, and 23-to-3 K:BB ratio over 20 innings in the second half. Even if Romo is not closing, he brings fantasy value with his strong ratios and deserves a roster spot in NL-only formats.
It appears both Petit and Vogelsong will begin the season in the bullpen with Tim Lincecum being announced as the team’s fifth starter. I like Petit more than Vogelsong, especially with his strikeout rates, but Vogelsong has performed well in his opportunities as a starter with the Giants (except for 2013), and with Cain and Lincecum no sure things this year, he could get the starting nod again at some point. Both are end-game plays for cheap pitching depth.
Hunter Strickland’s postseason performance last year was a cautionary tale for young fireballers that big-league hitters can turn on a high-90s fastball when there is no movement on it. That said, Strickland has the potential to be a force in the back end of the Giants bullpen if he can work on that fastball. His value will be low, so he is a nice reserve pick to stash away for later in the season.
St. Louis Cardinals: Jordan Walden, Seth Maness, Sam Tuivailala
Walden will now assume the eighth-inning role with the Cardinals to setup closer Trevor Rosenthal and provide Mike Matheny with a veteran presence at the back end of his bullpen. The BB/9 rates did rise last year, but so did his K/9 rates, and he registered 20 holds while allowing just 33 hits in is 50 innings of work. If Rosenthal’s control issues continue this year (5.4 BB/9 in 2014), Matheny could look to the veteran Walden to assume the ninth-inning duties. Even in a setup role, Walden is worth owning in NL-only formats.
Maness is the type of reliever you would think would have more value in real baseball than in our world, but the sinkerballer has earned $17 in standard NL-only 5×5 formats the past two seasons showing he brings fantasy value as well. Maness does not strike many batters out, but he also does not allow many free passes and his ground-ball rates have led to strong ERA and WHIP totals helping his fantasy owners.
In contrast, Tuivailala throws gas, and has struck out 170 batters in 108 1/3 innings during his three years in the minors. He has had some control issues, but it did not stop the converted shortstop from rising three levels in the minors and getting a September call-up from the Cardinals in 2014. If Tuivailala can earn a roster spot with the Cardinals to begin the season, he could be a player to keep on your radar.
Washington Nationals: Aaron Barrett, Tanner Roark, Casey Janssen
Barrett appeared in 50 games for Washington as a rookie in 2014, and very quietly lead the Nationals bullpen in K/9 last year with a 10.84 K/9 over 40 2/3 innings. The righty reliever was a closer in the minors, saving 54 games while posting an impressive 11.6 K/9 rate, so pitching in pressure situations is nothing new to Barrett. His sinker/slider combo is effective against both righties and lefties, and his HR:FB rates have been impressive over his professional career (allowed just one HR last year). Barrett ended the regular season with 12 scoreless appearances and should see more time in late-inning situations, possibly earning setup duties in front of Drew Storen.
To illustrate the embarrassment of riches that is the Nationals starting rotation, Roark has been banished to the bullpen despite winning 15 games while posting an impressive 2.86 ERA and 1.09 WHIP last season. Roark still needs to be on NL-only radars because he is one injury away from stepping back into the starting role.
While Janssen has seen a drop in velocity the past few years, he has remained a model of consistency except for a shaky second half last season. It’s too early to dismiss Janssen after a bad couple of months, so expect him to be a productive arm in Washington’s pen. The “proven closer” tag could point to Janssen being next in line for saves should Storen miss any time.
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