If there’s one thing you want to say about Seattle’s bullpen it’s… well, it’s pretty cheap. Like getting paid “what fell out of Robinson Cano‘s coin purse” cheap. But while it’s cheap, it’s filled with guys who throw hard. Guys who throw hard tend to get whiffs. Guys who get whiffs have a chance to be valuable. And if you’re concerned with middle relievers in your fantasy leagues, guys who get whiffs are exactly who you should be targeting as upside plays.
Farquhar burst onto the scene in 2013, notching 16 saves in the stead of a certain former bartender-turned-closer who shall remain nameless (but appears below). The righty’s 4.20 ERA isn’t too exciting, but the 34.7% K% and 2.30 SIERA is. He’s followed an interesting career path, spending time with the Blue Jays, Athletics, and Yankees before ending up in the Pacific Northwest. Maybe teams just didn’t see his upside? Well, he hasn’t put up sustained strikeout numbers that match his 2013 mark, so it’s questionable as to whether we should project a repeat in 2014. His control doesn’t seem to be an Achilles’ heel; outside of a few innings here and there, he hasn’t posted a double digit BB% at any major or minor league stop since 2010. If Farquhar can head into April with the job, he’ll be a nice sleeper pick for saves once the first 15 closers come off the board. That said, you might not want to invest too heavily as A.) closers without a track record tend to have shorter leashes (i.e., “don’t mess up!”) and B.) the Mariners may still be in the market for a proven vet (hello, Fernando Rodney?) to anchor the back of the ‘pen instead. Any big-name trade or signing pushes everyone back a slot.
Medina was somewhat the reverse of Farquhar last year, posting a solid ERA, but less appealing peripherals. His 3.76 SIERA isn’t bad by any stretch, but it isn’t the elite level that some just buying in on the surface stats may be projecting. The righty pushes a mid-90’s fastball and a double digit SwStr%, so the raw stuff is not lacking. Medina’s big issue is walks; he barely cracked 50% on F-Strike% (that’s bad) and his 13.8% BB% is not a sustainable mark for an elite setup man. He should open the season working in fairly high-leverage situations and has strikeout upside, so he’s worth a snag in holds leagues (and might be Farquhar’s handcuff to open the season), but don’t hold on too long if he’s also the owner of a 5+ BB/9 in April.
A few years ago, Furbush was a semi-interesting back-of-the-rotation candidate, but little else. After not winning the #5 starter job in 2012, he’s found a home as Seattle’s main southpaw at the back end of their bullpen. There’s no doubt he’s tough on lefties, as his .235 wOBA against attests to. He can arguably hold his own against righties, but with a .300 wOBA against, he’s not one who should be overexposed. Unfortunately, the platoon splits probably keep him from being a serious closer candidate — his only conceivable path to saves may be a few implosions and a lefty-righty situational ninth inning situation (similar to Scott Downs and Ernesto Frieri in 2012). That said, he was good for 20 holds last year, and as long as Lloyd McClendon doesn’t misuse him, he should be a solid bullpen filler in deep leagues where middle relievers are carried.
Wilhelmsen may have the most upward mobility of this group, only because we know he has the stuff to be top dog. Unfortunately, after establishing himself as a late-blooming, high-end reliever in 2012, he went backwards on multiple fronts in 2013, seeing his K% plummet and his BB% rise. His 4.58 SIERA shows his inflated ERA wasn’t just bad luck, too. Interestingly, his SwStr% and fastball velocity remained constant, which raises the question of why his strikeout rate dropped from 27% to 18%. His F-Strike% and Zone% were down (explaining the walks) but not horrendously so, so there’s reason to believe room exists for a bounceback. It may not be a probability, but a guy one year removed from a 2.97 SIERA who throws just as hard as he did before? I’d rather have him over some less exciting middle relievers with better 2013 stats if I needed to fill a non-closer void.
While Furbush may be able to pitch to the occasional righty, Luetge is a legitimate LOOGY. His .280 wOBA against same-handers is certainly useful, but his low projected inning total and mediocre strikeout rate should keep him off your fantasy radar. Noesi will likely open the season as the sixth starter/swingman-type in the M’s pen. Armed with a low-90’s fastball, he’s “eh” in the stuff department as his peripheral rates have been mediocre for three years running. He has four decent pitches, but he would need to show something first (either in the rotation or bullpen) before anyone is concerned with him from a fantasy standpoint.
Stephen Pryor would push Wilhelmsen for the “upside” crown beyond Seattle’s top three bullpen arms, but the young right-hander missed most of 2013 with lat issues, culminating in August surgery. There was hope he’d be ready by Opening Day but recent word from the Mariners brass makes the all-star break seem like a more likely target. Like many of the others mentioned (see the theme?), Pryor boasts a big fastball has historically coupled elite swinging strike rates with average-ish control in the minors. Not a draft day target but keep tabs on his progress for later in the season.
The lefty LaFromboise rode the Seattle-Tacoma shuttle a few times in 2013 and will probably do the same in 2014. He offers platoon independence but lacks elite stuff to garner fantasy interest. Bawcom operated as Tacoma’s closer for a large portion of 2013 and may be able to break camp with the team with a strong showing in March. He has interesting strikeout numbers between AA and AAA the last few years, but needs a wait-and-see period to see if his mid-90’s fastball and passable slider can get enough swings and misses against good hitters.
The sub-six-foot Leone was an unexciting draft pick out of college but has posted solid numbers in the minors. He really shined in the Arizona Fall League this past year, showcasing a mid-90’s fastball and gaudy strikeout rates while being stingy with free passes. He’s not super-projectable, but he’s made my watch list. Smith perked up ears with a strong AFL showing in 2012, and followed that up with more elite numbers (1.94 FIP, 35% K%) in AA in 2013. Like Leone, pitchers who are already relievers in their early-20’s aren’t sexy, but Smith could certainly find his way into Seattle’s bullpen at some point in 2014 if he continues his string of minor league dominance.