Searching For Under-25 Reliever Upside

One of the things I’ve really had to spend time on as I’ve transitioned to much deeper, dynasty-style leagues over the past few years is relief pitching. In a standard league, I can get away with taking one or two weaker closers towards the back end of drafts, fill out RP slots with some high upside guys, and churn the wire for the next flavor of the week. However, if you’re playing in a 16-team dynasty league with 40-man rosters, you can’t quite get away with that strategy. Danny Farquhar is the new closer? Taken. Looks like Jim Henderson has taken John Axford‘s job? He’s been gone for weeks. Koji Uehara is the new ninth inning guy? Please, he was drafted months ago.

So while I still don’t pay heavily for guys with the closer(TM) tag, I have become much more interested in trying to snag high-upside, late draft relievers. If possible, I also try and grab guys on their way up, since we know fastball velocity is strongly tied to reliever strikeouts and said fastball velocity peaks early. Very early. There are a few names that stand out in 2014 who may be interesting options. All three have massively suppressed stocks after iffy seasons last year as well as the added benefit of being barely old enough to legally purchase a case of Coors Light. Yes, they may not be as high on the projection-based rankings as a guy like, say, Steve Delabar, but their lottery ticket upside is more intriguing. Not to mention having more upside for 2014 is great, but beyond is even better, too.

Carter Capps

Heading into 2013, Capps was one of the shiniest relief prospects in the known universe. His fastball flirted with triple digits and he had posted a double-digit K/9 at every stop during his professional career. Pitching the majority of last season at the big league level, he turned out to be a massive disappointment for those hoping they had grabbed Seattle’s “closer of the future” in fantasy drafts. A 5.49 ERA and only 9 holds? Blech. But it wasn’t such a lost season for Capps. He posted a solid 12.6 SwStr% which pushed a 25% K%. His 3.16 SIERA was much lower than his actual ERA, thanks in large part to .365 BABIP and a 75% LOB% (above and below league average, respectively). Of some concern is the fact his velocity was down a bit, although it rebounded somewhat towards the end of last season.

Seattle apparently remained down on Capps, however, and he was sent to Miami in the trade that brought Logan Morrison to the Pacific Northwest. He now moves to the easier circuit, and will help set up incumbent closer Steve Cishek. The Marlins don’t figure to push for contention soon, so Capps should have a nice long leash as one of Miami’s in-development setup men. He’s not without warts, lefties have put up a .435 wOBA against him over his career, but he could be scooped up as a nice source of strikeouts late in drafts with fairly sizable holds and rates upside if he can keep the ball in the park and hold lefties to more reasonable splits.

Kelvin Herrera

My how quickly some fantasy owners forget. Herrara was a key sleeper last April, especially when fellow Royal Greg Holland showed signs of stumbling out of the gate (batted ball luck is obnoxious like that). The wheels came off quickly, however, as the right-hander posted ERAs north of 4.50 in each of April, May, and June, and even found himself back in the minors during the heat of summer. The time on the farm apparently helped, as the righty returned to post a 2.18 xFIP after the All-Star Break. The velocity was up (he routinely touched 100 on the four-seamer) and the ball was staying in the yard. All good signs headed into the offseason.

For 2014, Herrera should settle back into a setup role behind Holland. Like the other guys on this list, he has the upside of an elite relief arm. Unfortunately, his opportunity is most constrained thanks to his starting cast around him. Not only is he behind one of the top six closers in baseball, but he also works alongside Luke Hochevar and Tim Collins, two equally impressive arms in a surprisingly stacked Royals bullpen. If you are hoping your “big winner scratch-off!” gives you saves, Herrera is probably not the guy you want to buy in on, although it certainly wouldn’t be unfathomable for him to give you 85-90 punchouts and a sexy ERA out of a RP spot. I’d take that in deeper roto leagues.

Heath Hembree

OK. I referred to Capps as a “closer of the future” but Hembree really had the trademark stamp on that designation. The owner of a mid-90’s fastball and a plus slider, Hembree was similar to Capps in his elite minor league whiff rates. Unlike Capps, his small sample size at the big league level last year was outstanding (12 of 29 batters faced whiffed, 16% SwStr%, 1.30 SIERA) but his Triple-A numbers were much more mediocre. He has the crutch of saying “hey, I pitched in the Pacific Coast League,” but that doesn’t completely absolve him of the subpar 12% BB% he posted there in 2012. The walk rate was better during his minor league stint last season, but the PCL homers reared their ugly head so his FIP has kind of been a story of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” the last few years.

Hembree will likely open the season again at Triple-A unless he blows everyone’s doors off in spring training. Of course, that’s a distinct possibility given his cup of coffee rates from last year. When he does come up, however, it is easy to envision a scenario where he ascends to a setup role rapidly. There still is obvious risk he doesn’t pan out (as with the other two on this list), but the talent is there for him to be an elite, late-inning, relief arm within the next couple of years.

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There are few things Colin loves more in life than a pitcher with a single-digit BB%. Find him on Twitter @soxczar.

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Kurt Russell
Kurt Russell

What about Carlos Martinez of the Cardinals?