This article is intended for owners in a fairly standard 12 team league; the kind where maybe the top 28 closers are rostered (hands off Kevin Gregg) and maybe a handful of ultra-elite setup men like Kenley Jansen, David Robertson, or Mike Adams before they became closers/got hurt. I know a lot of RotoGraphs readers are not in standard leagues, so while I’ll try to include names that will be available in a large range of formats, I can’t help everyone.
Let’s start with the argument for rostering non-closing, elite relievers in non-holds leagues. Owners who rostered Koji Uehara last season probably enjoyed all three possible benefits. His excellent rate stats and high strikeout total can mitigate the damage done by a mid-tier starter or one who underperformed expectations. He also cost around $1-3 in most leagues despite projecting to be more valuable than several of the lower quality closers. The gamble on talent paid off with a midseason promotion to closer. The opportunity cost to using a non-closing reliever is that you give up a roster spot.
When searching for elite relief candidates, I’m looking for only a few factors. Statistically, I care most about K/BB ratio with an emphasis on K/9 greater than nine. So while Edward Mujica is a good bet to post an excellent K/BB ratio and thus a strong ERA and WHIP, I’m not thrilled about using a spot on a reliever who projects to under seven K/9. My other concern is proximity to the closer job. All things equal, I prefer a reliever who is next in line to one who is down the depth chart. For today’s article, I’ve largely ignored prospects. We can talk about them in the comments.
Some of these pitchers are more attractive than others. Hochevar broke out last season after moving to the pen full time. Things are crowded in Kansas City; even if Greg Holland hits the disabled list, there is no guarantee that Hochevar is next in line.
Santos and Tazawa share that “maybe not next in line” concern. Santos threw less than 30 innings in his return from injury last season and Steve Delabar has entered the mix. If the Jays fall out of the race, Casey Janssen is probably a trade candidate, so there are a couple ways Santos could find himself closing games. He was originally acquired for that role. Tazawa will have to compete with Mujica who does things less impressively. Keep an eye out, Tazawa allowed a lot of hits last season.
Smith and Gausman may start, which in my mind would severely dampen their fantasy value. I would be excited to own either player as a reliever but will pass on them as starters. Smith is a lefty and clubs remain biased about using lefties in the closer role. He may need to wait out both Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler if he is to close this year. Gausman could conceivably win the job outright. Tommy Hunter is the presumed favorite to close in Baltimore. Hunter only has a short track record of success and doesn’t touch Gausman’s raw stuff.
Melancon is at the top of most people’s list of non-closers this year. Jason Grilli is old and was injured last season. Melancon was also all kinds of excellent, just watch out for regression in his home run rate, which could cause him to produce good rather than great numbers. Melancon thrived in his short spin as the closer, so there’s no doubt that he’s the guy if Grilli goes down.
Crain maybe doesn’t belong on this list. He’s the presumed favorite to close for the Astros, but I think his combination of new team and recovery from injury is leading some owners to overlook him. Certainly, you need to be aware that the injury could completely eliminate his value and/or prevent him from matching last season’s success. He’s a decent speculative pick.
On a stuff level, Fien and Vincent don’t seem to fit with the others on the list. They both top out around 90 mph. Vincent is buried behind Huston Street and Joaquin Benoit, but Fien is probably the eighth inning man for the Twins. Don’t worry too much about the stuff, Robertson and Tyler Clippard have been helping fantasy teams for years with a similar profile.
That leaves Heath Bell who continued to post poor ERA numbers despite seeming to recover his formerly potent peripherals. The Rays recently brought in Grant Balfour, which is a shame for those hoping to get cheap performance out of Bell. Personally, I prefer Bell to Balfour.
Let’s rattle through these options. Jones is competing for a closing gig and seems to be a popular “sleeper.” You know, one of those guys who everybody waits on and then bids twice what they hoped he would cost. Parker has a very outside shot at winning to closer role from Jose Veras. Currently, he’s competing with Pedro Strop for the eighth inning role.
Farquhar was the presumed closer in Seattle before the club signed Fernando Rodney. Now he’s second in line. He features a big strikeout rate, but his control can come and go.
Herrera and Coleman are part of that very deep Royals bullpen I mentioned earlier. They’re probably behind Hochevar on the depth chart. Coleman definitely is since he’s a recent breakout whose stuff doesn’t match his impressive numbers last season. Guys with underwhelming fastballs have to doubly prove themselves.
Walden is the eighth inning man to the guy with the most stable job in baseball. That said, injuries happen. That leaves Allen, who is behind John Axford at the moment. Expectations for Axford vary with some hoping that he’ll return to form now that he’s not tipping his pitches. We’ll see, but Allen could step in if there’s a string of blown saves.
The list could go much deeper, but I think this is a nice starting point for notables. Let’s discuss others in the comments.
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