“Super bullpens” have become a league-wide trend, especially among contending teams. The Boston Red Sox shipped a pair of top-100 prospects, and then some, to San Diego for Craig Kimbrel. They went on to add the Mariners’ 2015 closer, Carson Smith, to perhaps be their seventh-inning guy. The New York Yankees proved that talent and winning always matter more than morality when they traded for Aroldis Chapman, who conceivably could miss the entirety of the 2016 season due to abuse allegations. Finally, the Houston Astros traded a massive package of prospects to Philly in return for the young, fireballing reliever Ken Giles.
In August, I anticipated this heightened investment on elite bullpen arms, writing at BP Milwaukee that the Milwaukee Brewers would be wise to focus on their relief corps if they wish to shorten their rebuilding process. It has recently proven to be an effective way to improve run prevention without spending $100+ million on high-end starting pitchers, which is what a team like the Arizona Diamondbacks have done this winter. The Astros, on the other hand, posted a 3.54 ERA in 2015 after a 4.14 ERA during the previous season. Dallas Keuchel certainly aided that improvement, but the additions of Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, and Will Harris a lot to do with that—all for a combined $31.5 million.
For fantasy owners, this concentration of elite relievers on contending teams has created significant uncertainty in many bullpens. Many fantasy drafts depend on predicting which relievers will actually get the saves. And on teams that lost their 2015 closers, the ninth-inning vacuum will surely cause consternation.
These teams currently have unclear bullpen roles heading into the 2016 season:
J.J. Hoover already has a foot in the door for the Reds’ closer role. He logged a 2.94 ERA last season with a single save, serving as the club’s setup man. The right-hander lacks consistency, though, and is far from dominant. His 112 cFIP suggest he’ll be a below-average reliever in 2015. He pairs an 11.7 percent walk rate with middling strikeout and whiff rates, which is a dangerous cocktail for a high-leverage arm.
Jumbo Diaz, 31, is a crowd favorite due to his name, physique, and personal story. His 2015 statistics don’t look tremendous on the surface. He posted a 4.18 ERA and 3.80 FIP, giving up too many home runs and not stranding enough runners. His 88 cFIP leads us to believe, though, that he’ll be much improved in 2016. The rocket-armed Diaz pounds the strike zone well enough and owned a 14.4 percent swinging-strike rate a year ago. He profiles as a much better fantasy closer than Hoover.
Tony Cingrani has an outside shot at closing—and has the strikeout rate to make fantasy owners happy—but won’t sniff the ninth inning until he stops walking the world. In addition, Brandon Finnegan could conceivably serve as a shutdown reliever for the Reds; it’s just difficult to imagine the organization traded for him to immediately transition to the bullpen.
Common consensus indicates that Jason Motte and Chad Qualls will enter spring training as the favorites for the Rockies’ closer role. That has the potential to be a trainwreck in the launching pad also known as Coors Field.
Motte saw his velocity return in 2015, but still can’t miss bats and only compiled a 30.3 percent ground-ball rate. Fantasy owners shouldn’t touch him on draft day. Qualls, on the other hand, profiles as a better high-altitude pitcher. The problem simply remains that he had a 3.95 DRA and 93 cFIP. He’s straight-up average, not someone who the Rockies should expect to save 30+ games next year.
Who else does Colorado have in the ‘pen that could grow into the role? Jairo Diaz throws in the upper-90s and keeps the baseball on the ground well enough to conceivably handle the difficult pitching environment; however, he’s still loose within the zone and projects to have troubles against lefties. Diaz isn’t dominant enough to effectively stash while the Rockies dink around with their “experienced” options, though.
Miguel Castro is a legit sleeper, especially in deeper dynasty leagues, but the Rockies are ultimately waiting until Adam Ottavino can return from Tommy John surgery. He’s scheduled to be ready sometime around the midseason mark.
The Brewers shed Francisco Rodriguez (and his contract) in November, leaving the ninth inning unclaimed in Milwaukee for the first time in several years. The obvious replacement is southpaw Will Smith, who had a 2.70 ERA in 2015 with an impressive 34.5 percent strikeout rate. He’s been mentioned as a potential trade chip, too, which should only increase the club’s desire to attach a shiny “closer” tag to his resume. The left-hander has run out of steam down the stretch in each of the past two seasons; however, his increased ability to retire righties should give him an opportunity to transition nicely to the ninth inning.
He’s not the only potential closer in Milwaukee, though. Right-hander Jeremy Jeffress has rebounded with the Brewers, posting a sub-3.00 ERA in both 2014 and 2015. He combines an upper-90s fastball, a ridiculous 58.2 percent ground-ball rate, and a newfound ability to throw strikes. His 90 cFIP suggests that he should find some success again next year, if the Brewers decide to give him the ball.
Corey Knebel is another possibility. He’s a Texan with a traditional power fastball-curveball arsenal, but his command both inside and outside the zone should keep him from receiving the role in 2016. The smart play for fantasy owners is currently Will Smith, who has a great high-strikeout closer profile that plays well in traditional rotisserie leagues.
The squad formerly known as the Philadelphia Quakers should’ve had a scramble for the ninth inning after trading Ken Giles and Jake Diekman to the state of Texas; however, they quickly inked right-hander David Hernandez to a one-year deal. He’s already slated as the team’s presumed closer. The 30-year-old is a couple years removed from his dominant form for Arizona, though, and may not be a great fit in Philly. He had a 5.05 DRA in 2015 and has become a home-run machine. His pedigree as a veteran reliever with high-leverage experience should prove too much to overcome in spring. It just won’t be attractive for fantasy owners.
Hernandez’s main challenger is probably Luis Garcia, but the dude owns a career 14.3 percent walk rate that mirrors the bad version of Jonathan Sanchez and nears the career mark of Carlos Marmol. While that’s workable with an obscene strikeout rate, Garcia has never whiffed more than a batter per inning in his Major League career. Again, fantasy owners shouldn’t be too interested. Any potential saves are likely to be paired with a high WHIP and ERA without the copious number of strikeouts necessary to make up for it.
I’m more partial to Jeanmar Gomez as a sleeper candidate for the closer’s role, but there’s also the corpse of Edward Mujica that refuses to remain buried in fantasy baseball’s cemetery of fallen closers. Perhaps the Phillies turn Vincent Velasquez loose in the bullpen, too, which would instantly catch fantasy owners’ collective attention.
SAN DIEGO PADRES
The Padres sent Craig Kimbrel to Boston for an impressive haul—which was supposed to be impossible, given the fact A.J. Preller supposedly ruined the Padres by not making any moves last summer—which leaves them unsettled at the back end of their bullpen. The club has some known quantities, though, with Brandon Maurer and Kevin Quackenbush likely in the mix for the closer’s role.
Maurer found some success in 2015, posting a 3.00 ERA in 51.0 innings, and would be one of my favorite sleeper’s of the year if he does claim the ninth inning. Fantasy owners have expressed concern over his mere 18.9 percent strikeout rate; however, his 12.3 percent swinging-strike rate indicates that significant upside exists in this area. He held lefties to a .156/.206/.221 slash line and has shown solid command. Although the right-hander wasn’t anything special as a starter, he could breakout as a shutdown reliever in 2016.
Quackenbush is a year removed from dominating the National League. He compiled a 2.48 ERA out of the bullpen for the Padres in 2014, striking out over a batter per inning and posting a 2.65 FIP. Things regressed last year. His fastball velocity took a step backward, while his strikeout and walk rates moved slightly in the wrong direction. He even gave up more home runs. Quackenbush should bounce back a bit in 2016, as evidenced by his 97 cFIP and 3.59 DRA, but it doesn’t appear to be interesting in fantasy leagues.
Marcos Mateo has gotten some hype as a sleeper, but he’s far too inconsistent to be worried about unless he actually starts saving some games. The right-hander is simply too deleterious to other categories to be a speculative pickup.
New general manager Jerry Dipoto has been ruthless, moving almost anything that hasn’t been tied down in Seattle. He shipped Carson Smith to Boston in an effort to bolster the starting rotation, but quickly responded by acquiring Joaquin Benoit and Steve Cishek, with the latter already being named the team’s closer.
Cishek doesn’t seem to be a prime fantasy target for the closer’s position—due to his velocity loss, his 3.58 ERA a year ago, his increased walk rate, and his removal from the exact same role with the Marlins — but those seasonal numbers hide the fact that he was very good down the stretch. The right-hander had a 1.98 ERA in the second half. Of course, it should be mentioned that this improvement stemmed from a .250 BABIP. His strikeout rate didn’t rebound, nor did his walk rate decrease. Still, the stellar run prevention should ensure that he begins the year as the Mariners’ closer. Pay attention to his velocity in the spring. If that shows up, he could be poised for a bounce-back campaign in 2016.
Joaquin Benoit is great insurance for Seattle, as he’s posted a sub-3.00 ERA for the past three seasons. Fantasy owners had hoped he was in line for some saves in San Diego, after the departure of Kimbrel, but he’ll once again be playing second fiddle on the West Coast. Some fantasy owner in deeper leagues will stash him in hopes of it paying dividends in the second half. I’ve played that game for the past two years, though, and it’s always unsatisfying. His Major League club is always looking for someone else to trust in the ninth inning, preferring Benoit as a high-leverage arm in the seventh and eighth. It looks to be more of the same this upcoming season.