We conclude our mono league series this week with a look at relief pitchers. Since this is a deep league article, we’ll focus less on each team’s closer (yes, Aroldis Chapman is good, guys) and more about the set-ups who could either get saves or possibly take the job if the primary closer falters.
Britton returns for his fourth season as Baltimore’s closer. Britton is not an elite strikeout pitcher, but his DRA was seventh best in baseball thanks to a ridiculous 80 percent ground ball rate. Britton is not signed to a long-term deal, but with an $11.4 million contract thanks to arbitration, he won’t be yanked by Buck Showalter unless there is significant slippage. This shouldn’t be much of a concern, though, as Britton only gave up multiple baserunners in back-to-back outings once in 2016. Even without high volume in strikeouts, Britton was the best reliever in AL-only, earning $28 and finishing fifth overall among all AL pitchers. In 5×5 Roto, I’m quite comfortable bidding in the $20s,
Britton’s back-ups are poor candidates for vulture saves. Both of Brach’s saves last year came in multiple inning outings when there was no save situation in the ninth. Despite O’Day’s sizeable contract, Brach’s 2016 performance puts him next in line in the unlikely event that Britton struggles or gets hurt. Brach’s numbers were glittering, although his 3.16 DRA speaks more to a solid reliever, not a spectacular one. In fantasy, Brach’s $17 season was the best year put up by a middle reliever in AL-only, beating runner-up Dan Otero by three dollars. Brach has increased his fastball velocity the last two seasons but his success is more because he has a legitimate three-pitch arsenal, something most relievers do not possess.
The Orioles rewarded O’Day’s strong performance from 2012-2015 with a four-year, $31 million contract, so naturally O’Day proceeded to have his worst season since 2011. O’Day lost part of 2016 to injury, so it is tough to merely look at his statistics and pejoratively judge his performance. O’Day earned $16 in 2015, so despite his lack of a high velocity pitch, the potential for double-digit earnings is there thanks to his deceptive, funky delivery. O’Day is the sort of reliever who is worth adding for a dollar or two at the end of your auction in the hopes that a return to his 2012-2015 form is in the offing. Mychal Givens is another alternative if Britton goes down.
The Red Sox big relief acquisition of the 2015/2016 offseason returns as closer for another year in Beantown. Thornburg did save 13 games for the Brewers last year, but this isn’t a competition. Kimbrel continues to throw gas, averaging 97 miles-per-hour on his fastball for the fifth year running. Hitters cannot sit on the fastball because Kimbrel also comes in with a mid-80s knuckle curve that is also an effective offering. While Kimbrel doesn’t strike out nearly as many hitters as he did in his first few seasons with Atlanta, his 38 percent strikeout rate was sixth best among all major league relievers. On the fantasy side, Kimbrel earned $16, in part because his walks tamped down his WHIP but primarily due to a meniscus tear in his left knee that cost him almost a month.
After years of yo-yoing between starting and relieving, the Brewers committed to putting Thornburg in the pen and the 28-year-old reliever responded with a breakout season. As noted above, Thornburg isn’t expected to close, but on a team that is the putative favorite, there will be plenty of opportunities for vulture wins and garbage time saves. Kimbrel’s propensity for wildness could give Thornburg a save chance here and there on the days where Kimbrel cannot find the plate. Since Kimbrel’s health issues last year weren’t arm related, the fantasy bet on Thornburg isn’t as a great closer-in-waiting candidate but rather as a strong reliever in his own right. The move to Fenway and the American League is a mild concern, but Miller Park was also a hitters’ park and Thornburg was fine there.
Like Thornberg, Kelly also alternated between starting and relieving for years, but now it appears that the Sox are committed to using Kelly in the pen. Kelly put up a 1.02 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in his last 17 2/3 innings of the season, all out of the bullpen. Kelly went from throwing a low to mid-90s fastball as a starter to hitting the upper 90s on the gun with regularity out of the pen. An even better piece of news was that the control Kelly couldn’t find in the first half as a starter was there as a reliever, as his walk rate dropped from 16 percent as a starter to seven percent as a reliever.
The Yankees reunited with Chapman this winter to the tune of an $86 million, five-year contract. Chapman had some less than stellar moments in the postseason, but this was primarily due to fatigue and he should once again be in top shape during the regular season. Chapman’s whiff rate of 41 percent was fifth best in baseball, and his 1.55 ERA and 0.86 WHIP fueled $24 in 5×5 mono league earnings
Betances is the obvious choice to close if something happens to Chapman, but given the amount and length of Chapman’s contract, Betances will be locked in as the set-up unless disaster strikes in the Bronx. Betances’ ERA did jump over three for the first time since his abbreviated rookie campaign in 2013, but this was primarily due to his strand rate dropping from 89 percent in 2015 to 68 percent last year
Clippard stands in for the many relievers in the Yankee pen who are far more likely to do yeoman’s work in the middle innings than they are to pick up saves. Clippard isn’t anywhere near Chapman or Betances in terms of raw velocity, but he gets by with excellent location on all his pitches and 12 miles of separation between his fastball and changeup. I wouldn’t spend more than a dollar on Clippard, but he is a reliable arm to have at the back of an AL-only staff.
Initially expected to be a mere fill-in for Boxberger, Colome forged ahead in the proud tradition of Tampa Bay fill-in closers like Kyle Farnsworth and J.P. Howell and ran with the opportunity. Colome did miss a little time with bicep tendinitis, but the injury was not deemed serious. In his first full season as a reliever, Colome abandoned his change and split his arsenal nearly equally between a four-seam fastball and a hard slider. The result was a significant spike in his strikeout rate that mitigated an uncharacteristic jump in home runs. Colome’s name has been bandied about frequently in trade talks, although the Rays say they have no plans to move Colome unless they are overwhelmed with an offer.
If Colome does get moved, Boxberger is the most likely candidate to replace him, although Farquhar and Shawn Tolleson also have that all-important former closer pixie dust magic. Boxberger closed for the Rays in 2015, Tolleson for the Rangers in 2015, and Farquhar for the Mariners way back in 2013. All three pitchers have their foibles. Boxberger struggled mightily with his control after returning from the DL in the second half, putting up a walk rate close to 17 percent. Farquhar’s walk rate was fine, but he gave up slightly more than two home runs per nine innings. Tolleson was highly regarded by some entering 2015, but a back injury severely hampered Tolleson’s numbers in 2016.
Osuna came out of nowhere last year, claimed the closer’s role in Toronto, and never looked back. The 22-year-old fireballer maintained his velocity and relied more heavily on his slider (in favor of his change-up) during his successful transition to the ninth. The options behind Osuna don’t come close to him in terms of quality or likelihood of success. If you’re looking to punch holes in Osuna’s bid price, you could point to his youth, but that’s a flimsy argument that doesn’t hold up.
At the age of 40, Grilli somehow keeps on chugging along with a 12.4 strikeout rate per nine innings. Toronto wasn’t afraid to use him in high leverage situations and Grilli could get a few more saves than your typical set-up since the Jays will probably want to protect Osuna’s young arm. Expectations were that Grilli would fall apart in Toronto given his poor performance with Atlanta, but he found new life for the Blue Jays, earning $7.76 out of the $8.24 he earned last year.
Despite a league average WHIP, Biagini earned seven dollars in 5×5, powered primarily by his four wins and 3.06 ERA in 67 2/3 innings. Given Grilli’s age, the Blue Jays might be more inclined to use Biagini as next in line or at the very least mix and match somewhat in the eighth. Offseason acquisition Howell isn’t likely to get saves but has been a very safe mono league pitcher for the Dodgers for years.
Thanks to a 3.47 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP, Robertson was almost earnings neutral in the qualitative categories Robertson’s 2.78 DRA was more indicative of his true performance, although the combination of pitching in The Cell along with a young defense do put Robertson’s real life numbers at risk. Robertson’s ERA at home (2.10) was much better than on the road (4.73), although his home/road FIP splits were nearly identical. Robertson’s big contract makes him a safe bet to stay in the role, although he has been the subject of many trade rumors and the rebuilding White Sox would love to move him.
Based on stuff alone, Jones is one of the most exciting relievers in the game. Jones features a fastball in the upper 90s and slider in the high 80s, and both pitches have sharp movement. Despite identical win totals and 34 fewer saves, Jones earned $14 to Robertson’s $16. Not many relievers should go for more than one or two dollars at auction, but Jones is someone worth paying at least $3-4 for based on Robertson’s trade risk.
Jennings is a decent enough middle reliever, but like the rest of the arms in this bullpen he isn’t a serious candidate for saves. His strikeout/walk ratio is poor and there aren’t enough whiffs to make Jennings relevant, even in AL-only. This is a bullpen worth passing on entirely after Robertson and Jones.
Because of the talent and reputation of the man behind him, Allen could be the most unheralded closer in baseball. But despite Miller’s prowess, Allen is expected to be the closer, which obviously gives him value. Allen’s low 2015 HR/ rate was a fluke, but Allen’s ground ball rate is high enough and the overall arsenal is strong. That ground ball rate jumped all the way to 46 percent, as Allen specifically worked on throwing his curve more frequently in fastball counts and keeping the fastball down when he did throw it. This isn’t to suggest that Allen is a finesse pitcher. His velocity dipped slightly but his strikeout percentage of 33 percent was 13th highest among relievers (minimum 40 innings). If this seems like a lot of words to devote to a strong closer, it is because Miller is currently being drafted three spots behind Allen in NFBC drafts.
While it might be tempting for Cleveland manager Terry Francona to flip roles based on ability, Miller is more suited to multi-inning appearances and is more of a weapon in the set-up role than Allen would be. The tall lefty continued to dominate, and even managed to see his walk rate drop, to a miniscule 1.1 per nine innings. Acquired at the trade deadline by the AL champions, Miller didn’t miss a beat, although he only saved three games after joining Cleveland. Miller is the only non-closer in baseball worth bidding into double digits, but I’d be careful not to go out on a limb. Ten wins from a reliever is not typical.
Rodriguez has a firm hold on the ninth inning role in Detroit. K-Rod is in the last year of a multiyear deal, so the odds of him keeping the job are more closely aligned with the fortunes of the Tigers than they are with his skill set. Rodriguez just keeps chugging along. In 2016, he registered the sixth 40+ save season of his career, Only Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, with nine 40+ save seasons apiece, had more. Even with a high save total in 2016, Rodriguez failed to earn over $20 thanks to a strikeout rate that was fewer than one per inning for the first time in his career. While Rodriguez was serviceable, you could see the impact of the reduced strikeouts on his DRA, which at 3.56 was his worst mark since 2012 and the third worst DRA of his career. Rodriguez could hang on to his job all year, but he’s reaching that age where there is a greater risk of a complete collapse.
Picked up from the Yankees last winter for Luis Cessa and Chad Green, Justin Wilson’s 4.14 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 58 2/3 innings look pedestrian on the surface. But his 3.13 DRA and 79 cFIP speak to a better pitcher than that. Given Rodriguez’s age and eroding skills, Justin Wilson isn’t a bad $2-3 target in the end game. In an AL landscape with mostly stable closers, Justin Wilson is one of the better closer-in-waiting options available, yet he is getting little to any play in the early expert leagues thus far. I would grab him for a dollar if I could in AL-only.
The main reason the Royals could ship Wade Davis to the Cubs without worrying about the consequences was the emergence of Herrera as a viable relief force in 2016. Herrera’s whiff rate jumped from 22 percent in 2015 to 30 percent in 2016. Herrera added a slider to his repertoire, giving hitters a different look to go along his nasty upper 90s fastballs. Herrera isn’t being drafted like an elite closer, but has a good chance to be one in 2017.
Soria has the contract and the pedigree, but it is clear he will be backing up Herrera. Soria went against past trends last season, getting pummeled by right-handers while being acceptable against lefties. After saving 202 games in his first nine seasons, Soria only picked up one save in 2016. The combination of no saves and the highest ERA and WHIP of Soria’s career led to his worst year in fantasy (four dollars). Soria’s velocity was higher than ever, but he also threw fewer “hard” pitches (fastball/slider) than in prior campaigns. Even with the name recognition, I’d avoid putting more than a buck down on Soria as the next-in-line to Herrera in AL-only.
I profiled Strahm in my AL-only starting pitcher article, but it appears that he will start out 2017 in the bullpen. Strahm is a good candidate for the Danny Duffy route, where he begins the year as a reliever and then picks up 20-25 starts later in the season. If you’re in a league that uses strict SP/RP slots, there is value in grabbing Strahm as a RP arm just in case.
Kintzler is a modern rarity: the closer with a strikeout rate below six per nine innings. He survived primarily because he walks very few batters and because he has one of the better ground ball rates among relievers. This is the Brad Ziegler formula, which worked for Ziegler in Arizona for years.
The margin for error for pitchers like Kintzler is miniscule, which is why fantasy managers tend to look in bullpens like this for other options. May was a guy people were looking at even before Perkins got hurt as the logical next-in-line. But May collapsed, leaving the Twins bullpen behind him in disarray, even before Perkins got hurt. May is a prime example of the perils of paying for a set up reliever. May is getting no play in fantasy leagues but is worth throwing a dollar or two at in AL-only because of Kintzler’s soft skill set. May isn’t safe by any stretch of the imagination, but there is a difference between purchasing skills and trying to get saves. Skills are important, but so many undrafted relievers will have skills and will not be purchased in AL-only auctions. May has a better chance at saves than any non-Chapman or non-Betances reliever in the Yankee bullpen, as an example.
In most other bullpens, Pressley’s relatively uninspiring eight strikeouts per nine wouldn’t garner much attention. Behind Kintzler in what is a soft bullpen, attention must be paid. Pressly is the type of reliever who could take the closer’s role without much fanfare and rack up 15-20 saves. He could also continue to toil in obscurity. I’d like him more if the fly ball rate hadn’t spiked in 2016.
It isn’t often that a closer who can hit triple digits on the gun is underrated, but so it is with Giles, who is being discounted slightly in the expert leagues thus far. The raw numbers last year didn’t look great, but this partially due to a horrific April that masked how strong Giles was down the stretch. From June 1 until the end of the season, Giles struck out 74 in 44 1/3 innings, which was good for 15 whiffs per nine. He had a 3.05 ERA in that span but only a 2.20 FIP; the ERA was mostly fueled by a .348 BABIP. Giles is young, doesn’t have much mileage on his arm, and has the elite stuff and skills that check off all the boxes. Edwin Diaz (we’ll get to him below) is getting more hype right now, but Giles could easily emerge as the next high strikeout, elite closer option and he cost under $20 in AL LABR. The Astros were quick to pull the plug on Giles last year, but this year it is likely he will have more wiggle room.
Gregerson was given the ball in the ninth after Giles struggled in Spring Training last year. Gregerson was capable for a time but then struggled in his own right before giving way to Harris. He gets knocked for not having elite stuff, but Gregerson has been one of the more reliable relievers in baseball over the last eight years. His 2.98 FIP since 2009 is 23rd best over that time frame (minimum 250 innings), and while Gregerson isn’t an elite strikeout pitcher he keeps the ball on the ground and in the park. Gregerson is a safe $2-3 play in AL-only.
Harris closed briefly in 2016 after Gregerson faltered but before Giles was ready to return. It is difficult to get excited about a pitcher who doesn’t light up the radar gun, but after increasing his curve usage significantly Harris increased his effectiveness. It doesn’t seem likely that Harris gets another opportunity for saves, but then it didn’t seem likely he would get 12 saves in 2016 either.
Will Mike Scioscia do the right thing and use Bedrosian as the closer? The Angels’ manager has been in the thrall of veterans for years, and nowhere has this been more evident than in the ninth, where Street has remained the closer despite declining effectiveness, velocity, and raw numbers. Bedrosian put up a glittering 1.12 ERA (his 2.13 FIP was more indicative of his talent, but still) yet only picked up one save in 45 outings. To be somewhat fair to Scioscia, prior to 2016 Bedrosian looked like a right-handed specialist, with vastly superior numbers against right-handed batters than against southpaws. But Bedrosian solved that, and pitched his way to the front of the line behind Street. An injury for Street opens the door for Bedrosian, but Bedrosian is batting his own malady (in this case a groin injury) and might not be ready for Opening Day. Bedrosian is a nice sleeper in AL-only but shouldn’t be treated like a closer just yet.
Huston Street is the established closer in Los Angeles, and could get his job back even if Bedrosian is on fire in the early going. Scioscia loves him some veterans, and even last year when Street got hurt it was Andrew Bailey – not Bedrosian – who was used in the ninth inning. This is one of those bullpens that for fantasy purposes is kryptonite. None of these relievers should garner a double-digit bid, even in AL-only. Street wasn’t just hurt last year he was bad, with a K/BB rate close to one. Both Bailey and Street don’t offer much strikeout potential, so unless you’re desperate for saves they’re not worth more than a one or two-dollar bid.
Madson isn’t getting much love in early fantasy drafts but given his contract it is likely he starts 2017 as Oakland’s closer. He had a sore arm earlier this spring, but it turns out the pain was due to his attempts to use a splitter. Given Madson’s age and injury history, this is worth watching. Madson’s strikeout rate dipped last year, although his velocity sat around 94 for the second consecutive season. Madson is an acceptable option as closer, but given the Athletics penchant for mixing and matching, Madson might not repeat his 30 save performance.
Doolittle brings the heat, throwing a four-seam fastball almost exclusively. He is the Athletics’ reliever most likely to return strikeout value even if he doesn’t get the saves. If Doolittle is completely healthy and can give your fantasy team 60 or so innings at his 2013-2014 levels of performance, there is plenty of sneaky value to be had regardless of his role.
Santiago Casilla is a trendy pick for saves (by trendy I mean a couple of AL LABR experts were talking about him after our auction and sounded excited), but he finished 2016 struggling to keep the ball down and wound up losing his job as closer for the Giants. Casilla could bounce back, but he won’t be a high-end closing option in fantasy even if he wrests the role from Madson. The Athletics bullpen is deep and has a few intriguing options on the back end, including Ryan Dull, John Axford, and Liam Hendriks. Hendriks is the kind of pitcher I like in fantasy: last year’s trendy closer-in-waiting pick who everyone has forgotten about in 2017. His final numbers were solid outside of a poor ERA that was torpedoed by a few bad outings early last season.
Diaz could be a $20+ earner in 5×5 AL-only, yet the expert market thus far has been slightly conservative when his name comes up for bid. Diaz struck out batters at an amazing 41 percent clip last year, and managed to keep his walk rate below three batters per nine. There could be even more value coming in 2017 if his BABIP was bad luck; his .377 BABIP for Seattle didn’t line up with anything Diaz had done previously in the minors. If you want to take Diaz right behind Britton in AL-only be my guest. I think I just convinced myself to move him up a buck or two in my next bid limit update.
Steve Cishek is the logical next-in-line when he’s healthy, and since he’s not recovering from an arm injury, he’s a fine stash at a buck or two if you want a proven closer to back up Diaz. My advice would be to take a reliever behind a weaker option, as I’m not a big believer in handcuffs. If you must take a handcuff behind Diaz, my recommendation is Altavilla, who is getting absolutely no play in early NFBC drafts and AL-only auctions. He has looked tremendous thus far in camp, and looks to build off 12 1/3 great innings in his major league debut in 2016. Altavilla struggled as a starter for two years in the minors but has transitioned to relief easily.
Nick Vincent isn’t a name that generates excitement, but he struck out over a batter an inning last year and is a reliable set-up worth considering in AL-only. He saved three games for Seattle last year, and will probably be good for one to three saves this year when Diaz needs a rest. Vincent isn’t likely to close though because he doesn’t throw hard. Even in this era of analytics, the bias against soft tossing stoppers remains intact.
Dyson isn’t quite viewed as negatively as Twins’ closer Kintzler, but because of a low strikeout rate and the presence of the talented Bush behind him, some believe Dyson could quickly lose his job in Arlington. If you’re not a big strikeout guy, you must have something else going for you. In Dyson’s case, this something is the ability to keep the ball on the ground. Only Britton and Blake Treinen had a better ground ball rate among relievers than Dyson (minimum 50 innings) and while Dyson’s 2.43 ERA probably won’t hold, he is a safer candidate to keep his job than some are suggesting. Love to throw shade in a 4,600-word column that almost no one will read.
Among AL set-up relievers, Bush is second to only Nate Jones in terms of the buzz he has generated. The funny thing about Bush is he doesn’t have the elite strikeout rates you would expect from a reliever generating this kind of excitement. Bush also had an odd reverse split. His strikeout rate against righthanders was an ordinary 7.4 per nine innings while his BABIP was .206 despite a relatively high contact rate. He is a fine set-up option in AL-only, but unless I’m missing something obvious, against righthanders Bush looks like Dyson with more batted ball luck mixed in and without quite the same ability to generate ground balls.
A year ago, Jeffress was the closer for the Brewers, saving 27 games in a four-month span. Jeffress was then traded to the Rangers, where was merely another face in the crowd during the Rangers’ run to a division title. Jeffress could find himself back in the running for the ninth if Dyson fails, but Bush seems to be the organizational favorite at the moment. Jeffress’ whiff rate dropped precipitously in Texas, although the sample size is very small, particularly since he missed most of September after entering a rehabilitation program after a DWI. Keone Kela was a trendy bullpen sleeper entering 2016 but was demolished to the tune of a 6.09 ERA. The whiff rate was still high, so it is entirely possible that Kela can once again emerge as a dominant stopper. Even if Kela only posts a 3.50 ERA, the strikeouts would make him worth rostering in AL-only.