After weeks of a position-by-position look at AL-only options, we have finally reached the end of the road… and what better place to end than with the players who often close out the actual game that we love? Last year’s format was so successful and generated so much discussion that we decided to revitalize it for 2016 and take a look at each team’s bullpen instead of having a narrower discussion about 15 closers. Reliever valuation in mono league formats is well understood, so there isn’t a great need to dive into a discussion about what closers earned last year and what their earning potential is this year. Only-leagues are the one place where non-closers have value not only for the saves they might provide later, but also for the quality ERA/WHIP they will provide over the pedestrian fourth and fifth starters at the back end of your typical major league rotation.
Baltimore Orioles: Darren O’Day, Brad Brach
O’Day has been masterful for the Orioles since they snagged him off of waivers from the Rangers in the 2011-2012 offseason, and now his role as Baltimore’s primary set-up man has been secured with a $31M/four-year deal running through 2019. He saved six games in 2015, so if Zach Britton did get hurt or was ineffective, O’Day is the logical choice to step in. O’Day has earned $11, $15, and $16 in AL-only the last three seasons, and I’d be okay with bidding $3-4 on him just for the rate stats.
A combination of an uptick in velocity with some more movement in his delivery has turned Brach from a borderline major league reliever to a valuable commodity in Buck Showalter’s bullpen. Brach is prone to periods of wildness, but while over four walks per nine innings isn’t ideal, he strikes out enough batters to keep that from being too much of a concern. Brach isn’t likely to get saves, but a 94-mph fastball combined with a solid change should help him produce positive value this year.
Boston Red Sox: Koji Uehara, Carson Smith
It was the same old, same old for Uehara last year (no, this isn’t a cheap shot at Koji’s age). Uehara was extremely effective when he pitched, but his season ended prematurely in early August after a comebacker broke his wrist. With Craig Kimbrel in tow, Uehara is expected to pitch in the eighth, and would appear to be a long shot for saves. Uehara is still quite effective, but his low to medium workload doesn’t make him someone to pursue aggressively, even in AL-only.
Smith wasn’t quite the headline-grabbing addition that Kimbrel was, but the former Mariners reliever had quite the year in his own right; his 66 cFIP was ninth best among relievers in 2015. The Yankees bullpen revitalization has certainly been more heralded, but Boston’s troika of late inning arms could be nearly as good as the Yankees. Smith will probably pitch in the sixth and seventh, but Smith is more likely to pitch on back-to-back days than Uehara, making the chances at some garbage saves slightly higher.
New York Yankees: Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances
Forget what I said above; as impressive as the Red Sox bullpen is, the Aroldis Chapman/Miller/Betances combination is going to be ridiculous. Miller will probably pitch in the eighth and Betances the seventh, but it is also possible that Joe Girardi mixes and matches not only in terms of roles but also with workload and keeping all three arms fresh and rested all season long.
As great as Chapman is, Miller was even better in 2015, posting a ridiculous cFIP of 53 in 61 2/3 innings. His 2.04 ERA and 0.86 WHIP pushed Miller to a $23 season, which was good for best among AL relievers and seventh-best overall in the American League. Chapman’s 30-game suspension makes Miller the early favorite for saves. Seven saves were worth $1.90 in AL-only last year, so don’t overpay Miller simply based on Chapman’s suspension.
Betances was the fourth best AL-only reliever in 2014 and the fifth best in 2015, this despite saving all of 10 games in both seasons combined. It doesn’t matter how many saves Betances gets this year, he is going to be worth an aggressive bid regardless of his role. With 266 strikeouts since 2014, Betances is 29th overall in the AL over the last two seasons in the category. I typically don’t like paying more then $3-4 for even the best set up relievers, but for Betances I’m willing to make an exception. Getting 130 strikeouts with those ridiculously good rate stats is worth bidding $9-11.
Tampa Bay Rays: Alex Colome, Danny Farquhar
After years of bouncing back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen, the Rays have settled on Colome as a reliever. The rub is that there is some talk of using Colome as less of a traditional set-up (an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one) and as more of a multi-inning reliever to preserve the young arms in the Rays’ rotation. The advantage of Colome as a reliever throughout his career has been greater velocity and a tough look for hitters only one time through the lineup. Colome could vulture some wins in this type of role, but if you’re looking for vulture saves or a closer-in-waiting, Colome may not be your best choice.
If the Rays do embark on this plan, Farquhar is the likely fallback if Boxberger is ineffective. The former Mariner does have experience in the ninth, but both Farquhar’s velocity and effectiveness have diminished since he saved 16 games in 2013. The Rays have a good track record getting struggling relievers back in sync, but even in AL-only it isn’t worth putting more than a dollar down on Farquhar until it is certain he has figured it out. He has to learn to pitch more effectively with a diminished fastball, which is always easier said than done.
Toronto Blue Jays: Roberto Osuna, Brett Cecil
Toronto is perhaps the only AL bullpen where the ninth inning role won’t be decided until spring. Most signs point to Drew Storen, but it is possible that Osuna takes the job or at least a share of the job to start the season. Osuna came out of nowhere last year, jumping all the way from High-A to the Blue Jays bullpen at the tender age of 20. While he doesn’t have the pedigree or brand name recognition of the Yankees set-up relievers or Uehara, Osuna could also provide fairly strong value even if he is only limited to the eighth inning. If you’re looking to pick nits, Osuna’s strikeout rate doesn’t speak to a dominant reliever, but regardless of the role he’ll get the job done, and a good team usually means vulture wins for its bullpen
Cecil is often viewed as a middling pitcher, but his cFIP in 2015 was better than both Storen and Osuna’s. He has been terrific since the Jays moved him to the pen in 2013, but despite fairly relatively even splits versus lefties and righties, Cecil has been cast as a quasi-LOOGY at times. The signing of Rafael Soriano clouds the picture even further for Cecil. He is a one-dollar flier for rate stats at the moment.
Chicago White Sox: Nate Jones, Matt Albers
I’m not an advocate of chasing set-up relievers, but if you are going to do so, avoid speculating in bullpens where the closer has a big contract. David Robertson has a longer leash than a closer who is making $3-4 million and is not on a long-term deal. Robertson also happened to be very good last year (his cFIP was eighth best among relievers), so this isn’t a case of a middling closer benefiting from a fat contract.
If he is completely healthy and can return to his 2013 form, Robertson and Jones could make for a formidable one-two punch for the White Sox. Jones returned from Tommy John surgery at the tail end of 2015 throwing gas, hitting the upper 90s on his fastball and the low 90s on his slider. He gave up home runs left and right, but command is often the last thing to come back after the procedure. Jones may be a bad bet for saves, but he will be a solid middle relief option in AL-only.
The rest of Chicago’s bullpen looks unspectacular, and while Albers is the reliever listed above, nearly anyone in the White Sox pen could be the default back-up-to-the-back-up behind Robertson. Albers posted a sizzling 1.21 ERA last year, but his 3.15 DRA is more indicative of his true performance level. In fantasy, when in doubt I prefer to fill out the back end of my staff with relievers who strike batters out, not relievers like Albers who only struck out 6.75 batters per nine. Zach Putnam is the stab-in-the-dark play to make, although his walk rate in 2015 is troubling.
Cleveland Indians: Bryan Shaw, Zach McAllister
If “don’t pay for past performance” is a mantra in fantasy baseball, it is a Gregorian chant where middle relievers are concerned. Shaw has been a reliable set-up for Cody Allen the last two years, picking up 47 holds and four saves and posting steady numbers. But the velocity dropped at the end of 2015, and the home run rate spiked as a result. Allen has been rock-solid, but even if Shaw was backing up a shaky closer, investing anything more than a dollar in a reliever with Shaw’s so-so strikeout rates isn’t highly recommended.
I believe in Allen, but McAllister is the guy you want to get as a handcuff in AL-only. The former starter dominated out of the pen, striking out almost 11 batters per nine and keeping the walks to an acceptable rate. McAllister’s fastball jumped two miles an hour last year while his slider jumped five miles per hour. Some touts believe you should avoid relievers like this since there isn’t a clear path to saves, but in addition to cheap saves, you also need quality rate stats in AL-only. The Sea Captain will provide those.
Detroit Tigers: Mark Lowe, Justin Wilson
The Tigers revamped the back end of their bullpen, acquiring Francisco Rodriguez from the Brewers to close and bringing in Lowe via free agency/grabbing Wilson from the Yankees to set him up. After a parade of seasons where Lowe struggled with inconsistency he put it all together in 2015, adding three miles-per-hour to the heater and slicing the walk rate considerably. K-Rod is worried about every year by fantasy owners in March and winds up being a solid citizen, but Lowe is the guy to get if this is finally the year that Rodriguez falters.
Wilson finds himself with his third team in three seasons, but it isn’t because he is a fungible reliever. Wilson is left-handed but is anything but a LOOGY; his FIP was better against righties than lefties and the Tigers shouldn’t be afraid to use him against any batter. Wilson’s approach is hard, harder, and hardest (with a curve sprinkled in there once in a while), but he displays good movement and his cut heater gives enough of a different look to hitters to consistently keep them off balance.
Bruce Rondon looks slimmer in camp and has always had amazing raw ability. Keep an eye on him.
Kansas City Royals: Kelvin Herrera, Joakim Soria
For a guy whose fastball clocks in at 98 miles per hour, you would expect some more impressive strikeout rates from Herrera than he has had throughout his career. He’s still a very solid reliever and is the likely choice behind Wade Davis for saves, but as a set-up Herrera isn’t the dominant kind of choice that can carry your team in AL-only. He should put up an ERA around 3.00 with a strikeout per inning again. That’s fine for $2-3. It isn’t worth chasing beyond that.
For the past two seasons, Soria has been a closer during the first half of the season and then a stretch-run, non-saves reliever for a contender. Soria eschewed another opportunity to close this winter when he opted instead to sign a three-year deal with Kansas City. In a different bullpen, I’d like Soria as a sneaky option to jump up a few spots quickly, but on this team he’s buried.
Minnesota Twins: Kevin Jepsen, Trevor May
Glen Perkins has been solid for three and a half years, but a declining strikeout rate and increasing home run rate make many feel that 2016 could be the end of the run. Jepsen has been touted as the replacement for Perkins should that happen, and with 10 saves last year, he would be the logical next choice. Jepsen’s whiff rate did drop, but otherwise he was reliable, and provided the kind of innings the Twins are accustomed to in the ninth. Jepsen’s high groundball rate makes him less combustible than the pedestrian whiff rate would indicate.
May is the kind of under-the-radar reliever I dig in AL-only. After starting 2015 in the rotation, the former Phillie was moved to the bullpen in July and put up sparkling numbers that are buried in his overall 2015 line. A 10.63 K/9 rate—which is what May put up in the pen—would play in the ninth. The fastball velocity jumped from 93 mph April to 96 mph in September. Jepsen is at the front of the line, but May is the guy who could put up an elite season if Perkins loses his grip in the early going.
Houston Astros: Luke Gregerson, Will Harris
Gregerson is exhibit number 587 as to why the idea of a “proven closer” is—if you’ll forgive this old, salty dog a moment of uncensored candor—poppycock. Irony is a kick in the head; Gregerson has lost his job to Ken Giles, the offseason acquisition from the Phillies who throws triple-digit heat. Gregerson will be perfectly fine in the eighth for Houston, but Giles’s strong skills make it unlikely that Gregerson will find himself back in the ninth due to poor performance by the new young stud.
Harris was the fifth highest earner in AL-only among relievers in strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP combined. Despite this, he flew under the radar in fantasy leagues last year and its likely you’ll be able to obtain him for a minimal bid (he was not purchased in CBS or LABR’s AL-only auctions). All this being said, while Baseball Prospectus’ ERA estimators favor Harris more than other sites’ do, Harris’ skills aren’t elite and an ERA in the neighborhood of three is more likely this year. That’s fine, but there isn’t a big bargain lurking.
Los Angeles Angels: Joe Smith, Fernando Salas
Much is made of the idea that Smith and Salas—and every other reliever in the Angels’ bullpen for that matter—would be an uninspiring choice to replace Huston Street and as a result Street’s job is safe. This ignores the fact that Street’s cFIP was significantly lower than either Salas or Smith’s and was the fifth highest in the Angels’ bullpen. I get why Smith is uninspiring in fantasy (sub-90-mph fastball, pedestrian whiff rates), but he keeps the ball on the ground and gets outs when he’s in there. All you need to know in fantasy is that Smith is behind a closer who isn’t invincible by any stretch of the imagination.
While Smith has the role, Salas is the pitcher I’m more intrigued by. Salas moved away from his change-up in favor of his slider and saw his strikeout rate leap to the highest rate of his major league career. Unfortunately, Salas’s ERA jumped over four, in part because of some bad luck with men on base but also due to a spike in home runs allowed. The bad luck should reverse itself. The propensity for home runs isn’t as easy to explain away, and isn’t the kind of thing that generates confidence in a manager when he’s looking for alternatives. If I’m using a handcuff for Street, Salas is the guy I want, although the typical caveat about not spending more than a dollar to two applies. The rotation doesn’t have a true workhorse (maybe Garrett Richards will get there in 2016), so if you’re looking for volume out of your relievers, this is a good place to shop.
Oakland Athletics: Ryan Madson, Liam Hendriks, John Axford
This is one of those bullpens where any of the secondary options could step forward, claim the mantle of stopper, and surprise no one. Sean Doolittle is still the man, but he is a mere 13 2/3 innings removed from rehab to a labrum tear. Doolittle opted against surgery, and while he should be fine, those are famous last words.
Madson is the logical second choice based on his prior closing experience as well as the three-year deal he signed this winter. Madson returned to the majors after missing three seasons and put up a season reminiscent of what he did with the Phillies. He wouldn’t be a lights-out closer, but he could step in for Doolittle if needed and the A’s wouldn’t miss a beat.
You are forgiven if you believe that Hendriks was replaced by a pod person last year. The once replacement-level starter reinvented himself as a dominant reliever, adding several miles an hour to his fastball and showing off a power slider that made him difficult to hit, especially for righties. Hendriks now has the advantage of moving from a hitters’ park in Toronto to a pitchers’ park in Oakland, and if the gains from 2015 hold, he should have another strong campaign this year.
Axford has had many opportunities to close in the past, but his control inevitably abandons him and he loses the job while the fixes whatever it is that ails him. He’s much lower on the totem pole in Oakland, but gets a mention in this space because of his past experience in the role. The strikeouts are great, but he is risky in every other category.
Seattle Mariners: Joaquin Benoit, Anthony Zych
The Mariners insist that Steve Cishek will close, but while he should have the job on Opening Day, he won’t have it for long if he pitches like he did for the Marlins last year. Benoit is the most obvious candidate on the roster to take over if Cishek can’t answer the bell. The downside to Benoit is that his that his cFIP was barely above average, as his K:BB ratio took a slight hit. Benoit will be 39 years old in July, and while he has pitched well over the last few years, he obviously can’t last forever. If he does close in Seattle, will they call it the Time of the Ancient Mariner?
Zych is a true sleeper; a reliever who is so far off the radar that he isn’t being taken as a reserve in most leagues. Relievers with Zych’s career profile are understandably overlooked, but in his case the awesome results last year aren’t a sample-size fluke but rather the product of cleaning up his delivery and allowing Zych to maximize the oomph on his mid-90s fastball and power slider. Benoit is going to go for $5-6, but Zych is the pitcher who could run with the closer job this year.
Texas Rangers: Keone Kela, Tom Wilhelmsen, Jake Diekman
Kela is one of the more highly regarded arms in fantasy circles, particularly in keeper/dynasty formats. The 22-year old rookie was lights out in 68 appearances, posting the highest strikeout rate in the Texas bullpen while keeping his walk rate below three per nine innings. Kela had all of 99 1/3 innings of professional experience entering last year, making his immediate dominance against major league batters all the more impressive. Kela’s groundball rate isn’t elite, but at 51 percent it suppresses the fly balls that can be a problem for pitchers in Arlington. The Rangers’ bullpen is crowded (see below) but in terms of skills, Kela should be next-in-line for saves.
Given Wilhelmsen’s mid-90s fastball, you would expect a higher strikeout rate than the 8.7 per nine The Bartender racked up last year, but Wilhelmsen has managed not only to survive as a reliever, but thrive as a closer for the Mariners for two-and-a-half seasons. The control is shaky enough and the Rangers bullpen is strong enough that I don’t expect Wilhelmsen to jump in for Shawn Tolleson for more than a save or two if it comes to that, but stranger things have happened.
Diekman started out 2015 with the Phillies looking like a LOOGY, but after he was traded to the Rangers in the Cole Hamels deal, the coaching staff worked with him to focus on throwing only his fastball against righties. It is a small sample, but the results were impressive. Diekman throws the kind of gas you would expect to see from a closer, and could push past the LOOGY perception quite easily this year.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now