2020 Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep Strategies: How to make the relief pitcher position work for you


Do I really have to break down this position like all the others? Ugh, fine …

Relief pitcher isn’t even so much a position in Fantasy Baseball as it is a vehicle for saves. Oh, but what about in Head-to-Head points leagues? There, it’s an opportunity to game the system with relief pitcher-eligible starting pitchers. So honorable, I know.

Other formats have tried to broaden the impact of relief pitchers with the introduction of holds, possibly even combining them with saves for one supersized category, but what good is that? The one thing that keeps the relief pitcher position interesting is the scarcity of players who can make a worthwhile contribution to it.

Recently, with the league-wide home run explosion rendering the starting pitcher position a veritable wasteland beyond the top 60, a trend has emerged in Head-to-Head categories leagues wherein teams fill out their pitching staff with ratio-bolstering middle relievers, giving them an easy win in ERA and WHIP every week. But this is the fault of lenient rules — such as the lack of a weekly innings limit — rather than some great awakening to a second-rate position’s true worth. Whenever a league setup promotes dumping a player of actual real-life value for one of minimal real-life value, I dare say it’s doing it wrong.

But these are the kinds of things people think do with the relief pitcher position. Nobody respects it. It’s just an instrument for exploitation — one for sniffing out workarounds and exposing loopholes. And I’m not going to stand for it.

My focus here is mostly on saves since that’s what relief pitcher mostly exists to provide, and as usual, my stance is that I’m not paying up for them.

You know who were the top two closers drafted a year ago? Edwin Diaz and Blake Treinen. Sean Doolittle was top 10. Also, Wade Davis … Felipe Vazquez. Remember Cody Allen in Anaheim? David Robertson in Philadelphia? Yeah, me neither.

I could keep listing names to drive home the point, but I think you get it. There’s some major volatility here. Chances are half the relievers we expect to fill the closer role today won’t be filling it for the whole season, and many of the ones who’ll fall by the wayside we won’t even see coming.

Why, then, would you pay up for relievers? I can virtually guarantee you’ll be chasing saves all year, so just lean into it. Sure, grab a few who we expect to close from the get-go and see how long they’ll keep you afloat, but understand that you’re probably going to move on at some point. It’s just the nature of the role.

Here are the relievers with the best chance of sticking in it, though:

Josh Hader deserves special distinction because he’s such an outlier in terms of strikeouts, finishing a distant first among relievers in his two full big-league seasons — and with the sort of total that would compete with contact-oriented starting pitchers like Kyle Hendricks. It makes him a clear choice to go No. 1 at the position as long as manager Craig Counsell doesn’t flake out about his role again. It’s always something, right?

Kirby Yates I think is a clear-cut No. 2 with the way his splitter has revolutionized his game the past couple years, though given what you’d be forfeiting to draft him 77th overall, I’m not able to stomach it. Roberto Osuna can’t compare to those first two in terms of strikeouts, but he’s as secure in the closer role as anyone could be and is still in a position to pile up saves for what should again be an excellent Astros team.

Aroldis Chapman is the most concerning of this group with his velocity dropping little by little and his innings routinely lagging behind the typical closer, but he’s the last holdover from what had been a historically reliable elite tier that also included Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen. In fact, that trio was so bankable at the top for so long that it may have instilled Fantasy players with a false sense of confidence regarding high-end relievers that came crashing down with the Diaz and Treinen disasters of a year ago.

OK, so Hader, Yates, Chapman and Osuna seem like the most bankable of the closers, for whatever that’s worth, but there are several others who are strong favorites to have and keep the role:

Anybody else concerned Liam Hendriks could be Treinen 2.0? You know, a career-long middle reliever of little renown suddenly taking a stud turn — and for the same team, no less? It’s a reasonable worry, but then again, it’s not like the guys going after him are totally bankable either.

Brad Hand would have been — and, in fact, might have ranked among the elites — if not for the early buzz Emmanuel Clase could overtake him in Cleveland. A bout with arm fatigue pretty much wrecked Hand’s entire second half, which raises suspicions even if no structural damage has been found. If you need a reminder of his upside, he had a 2.17 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 13.3 K/9 in 39 first-half appearances.

“Upside” is also the operative word for Edwin Diaz, Craig Kimbrel and Nick Anderson, though the circumstances are different for each. Anderson lags behind the others in ADP, but he only recently emerged as the favorite for saves in Tampa Bay following the Emilio Pagan deal. He was arguably the best reliever in baseball after coming over from the Marlins in a midseason trade, compiling a 2.11 ERA, 0.66 WHIP and 17.3 K/9 in 23 appearances, but the Rays are a team that tends to eschew traditional bullpen roles.

Can Diaz find a more reliable grip for a slider that still piled up tons of strikeouts for him last year but also made him vulnerable to the long ball? Can Kimbrel bounce back from another injury-plagued season and prove his struggles were the result of signing late in the year? I don’t know, but both seem like better bang-for-buck gambles than, say, Kenley Jansen, who has seen his velocity and effectiveness decline the past couple years and may just barely be hanging on to the role for the Dodgers.

I usually like to grab a couple from this group of relievers — just whoever I can get at the right price, which often turns out to be Taylor Rogers or Ken Giles and then one of Diaz, Kimbrel and Anderson — but if I only land one, again, it’s not a great loss. This next group should provide saves for at least a time and may even surprise with a stable year-long role:

In particular, I like Giovanny Gallegos, who’ll belong with the previous group if and when he’s officially named closer for the Cardinals. It’s a competition right now that largely hinges on Carlos Martinez’s ability to re-acclimate to a starting role, but I like the chances for both and will happily pay the cost.

Jose Leclerc has big strikeout potential and was one of my favorites at this position a year ago. Since he enters as the uncontested closer again, I don’t see why I wouldn’t take another shot at him. Keone Kela may not project for a particularly high saves total closing for a rebuilding Pirates team, but the ratios are all what we like to see in a closer. I think he’s the perfect choice for a third reliever in a 5×5 categories league.

Will Smith is better than Mark Melancon, yes, but Melancon is better than people think, having recaptured his pre-surgery form down the stretch last year to re-emerge as an elite strike-thrower and ground-ball generator. He’s the appointed closer heading into spring training, and we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of him keeping the role. Again, it seems like a worthy gamble for a third saves source.

Seth Lugo is here just in case Diaz’s slider continues to falter. Lugo was the one getting saves down the stretch for the Mets and certainly seems capable in the role. The better gamble, though, would be Scott Oberg, who’s clearly the Rockies most effective reliever and got some closing experience last year. I wouldn’t count on Wade Davis holding him off for long.

I can probably mine whatever remaining saves I need from this group, but just in case I find myself in an even more desperate spot, there’s one more rung on the closer ladder:

Long story short, I don’t trust these pitchers to keep the closer role. For the most part, each is in it not because he deserves it but because his team hasn’t found anyone better yet. That assessment isn’t totally fair to Raisel Iglesias and Alex Colome, who have performed like high-end closers in the past, but Iglesias had major home run issues last year and has seen other relievers steal chances from him the past couple year. Colome is probably my favorite of these fallback options just because he has been a steady enough pitcher over the years, but his low K/9 generally isn’t what you want from a closer.

All right, time for some points-league fun. SPARP, of course, stands for “starting pitcher as relief pitcher” and refers to those starting pitchers who happen to have relief pitcher eligibility, giving them a higher ceiling in Head-to-Head points leagues. And what a deep and star-studded crop it is this year.

Carlos Carrasco, with his long history as an ace, is my No. 1 reliever in the Head-to-Head points format, and Jesus Luzardo, who would appear to have a rotation spot already secured for the Athletics, is in my top five. The upside they present in that lineup spot mitigates the risk for both and makes them worth the reach, at least to an extent. With Julio Urias, Carlos Martinez and Kenta Maeda right behind them, though, there’s no need to do anything crazy.

Those five are the ones I’m most confident will be productive enough to fill a relief pitcher spot week in and week out in a standard 12-team points league, but Dustin May and A.J. Puk have top prospect upside and a reasonable enough hope of winning a rotation spot to justify a late-round pick. One SPARP who I’m especially inclined to grab, though, given his going rate, is Adrian Houser, a ground-ball specialist who seemed to come into his own with a 3.28 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 9.8 K/9 in 12 starts down the stretch. To measure up, he’ll need to sustain that performance deeper into games, but since he won’t be bouncing between the starting rotation and bullpen this year, his leash should be longer.





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