As we embark on what is certain to be an abbreviated season, fantasy players are left to determine the draft value of many players.
How do we look at relievers? Some players will pay up for a top-of-the-line closer. Some fantasy owners “punt” the saves category or draft second-tier closers. Some use a combination of strategies.
Many owners will draft a top closer and fill in with cheaper options to help control ratios and vulture wins and saves. Bullpens are often volatile; the closer chair can change from day-to-day on some teams without an elite option.
Our team of writers at RotoFanatic has been having internal debates about relief pitching. Many agreed that middle relievers will have an increased chance for the ever-elusive wins. Managers will likely have quick hooks for struggling starters.
In a 60-game season, every game will count; teams cannot afford to give long leashes to a poor start. Starters, at least initially, may only pitch 3-4 innings to begin the season. And with a season about one-quarter of the regular season, each game may take on a playoff atmosphere as “must-win.”
Middle relievers also can help you control ratios in ERA and WHIP. They could also vulture saves from established closers as well.
One thing is for sure: you will be under pressure to make the right call on middle relievers who can help your team; one or two bad outings in weekly leagues could sink your season.
So who are some relievers to target?
Emilio Pagan, San Diego Padres
Pagan finds himself a member of the San Diego Padres and thus seems stuck behind Kirby Yates for the closer role. Yates is one of the best closers in the business.
However, the Padres may look to turn games into five-inning starts for their young rotation while maximizing the usage of their elite bullpen.
This is where Pagan comes in. Pagan had 20 saves last year for the Rays and showed a 12.34 K/9 ratio and a 2.31 ERA. While the ERA may go up from last year as evidenced by an xFIP of 3.15, this is still an elite arm that will pitch meaningful innings for the Padres. Grab him late in drafts.
Ryan Pressly, Houston Astros
Pressly has been dominant in the last two seasons. While Roberto Osuna is entrenched at closer, Pressly provides high strikeouts and ratio controls. Pressly kicked in three saves last year as well. An 11.93 K/9 rate shows the elite pitch mix he features a fastball, curveball, and slider.
The slider is his best pitch and results in high groundball rates, along with 72 strikeouts in 54 innings. There is no reason to think his success will not continue in 2020. Pressly will get high-leverage innings even if he does not get save opportunities. Pressly would be best taken in a saves + holds league.
Drew Pomeranz, San Diego Padres
Pomeranz found his niche in the bullpen after several stints as a failed starter. The Padres have talked about having Pomeranz serve a multiple inning role, perhaps similar to the role of the Milwaukee Brewers’ Josh Hader. The numbers were rough for Pomeranz in 2019: 2-10 with a 4.85 ERA. He was stuck between starting and relieving in Boston.
Back in San Diego, he will focus on coming out of the bullpen. Looking deeper, the recipe for success is there. Pomeranz has an elite 11.86 K/9 rate with 137 strikeouts in 104 innings. Last year’s xFIP was a full run lower at 3.88.
He could become a weapon for your team, especially with dual SP/RP eligibility in 2020. If you draft him near the end, and he is lousy, you can simply cut him and move on with low risk.
Will Smith, Atlanta Braves
The Braves continue to say that Mark Melancon is their closer, but this seems like an iffy proposition. Smith would be the next in line for saves. For the San Francisco Giants in 2019, Smith had six wins and 34 saves before a trade to the Atlanta Braves. Smith featured a 13.22 K/9 rate in 2019, and a 2.76 ERA, which was likely higher due to a career-high 1.38 HR/9 rate. With the normalization of that number, I expect a better year in the ratios department.
Look for Smith to rise as the closer if and when Melancon falters; he could overtake Melancon early on in the season after he blows a couple of saves. The season is far too short to tolerate high-risk at the back end of a bullpen for a contending team like the Braves. Smith has the potential to be a draft-day bargain.
Yoshihisa Hirano, Seattle Mariners
Do you know him? He pitches in relief for the Seattle Mariners. Pause here and see if you can tell me who their closer is? I don’t know either.
Let’s make the case: one save last year, with an unsightly 4.75 ERA and 1.38 WHIP. Egads! But Hirano had a K% of 26.2%, and features a four-seam fastball and a tough splitter. He had a rough stretch in midsummer where he gave up several home runs and then went on the injured list with elbow inflammation.
Hirano is literally free right now, and grabbing him with your last dart could get you double-digit saves at low cost. Using the splitter more could result in more strikeouts and success in 2020. This is another guy where if he is bad, you cut him and move on quickly. This is more about the opportunity as opposed to an elite skill set.
James Karinchak, Cleveland Indians
With the questionable health of closer Brad Hand and the suspension of closer-in-waiting Emmanuel Clase, Karinchak is a deep sleeper. He had a quick five-game stint with the Cleveland Indians last year and did well in a brief audition. Granted, we do not want to put stock in small sample sizes.
But an opportunity awaits for Karinchak. He climbed three levels in the minor leagues and had astounding strikeout numbers: 82 in 35.2 innings. Karinchak might get an opportunity to close should Hand falter or be traded; at the least, Karinchak may provide bunches of strikeouts and holds. He’s definitely a good dart throw at the end of your draft.