2018 Fantasy Baseball Relief Pitcher Preview: The Quagmire

by Dennis Sosic
2018 Fantasy Baseball Relief Pitcher Preview: The Quagmire

Welcome to the final segment of the Fantasy Six Pack position previews, and the most volatile, the relief pitcher.

Only one category/stat (saves) is directly impacted by relief pitchers, most often closers. How many innings per week is a reliever going to contribute to a match-up? And since the sample size is so small, how big of an impact will that pitcher have on ERA or WHIP? Saves are everywhere, and if you don't get them on draft day, you can find them later on the waiver wire. The role of a big league closer is one of the most turbulent job markets around, with players always being demoted and promoted due to individual and team struggles. There will always be a surprise here (think Greg Holland) and there (think Corey Knebel), but you can't depend on that.

These components make getting one of the elite options helpful, but those are few and far between. Although not getting one does not mean you are out of luck in terms of finding another pitcher that is in line to get saves later in the draft. Fantasy owners can decide to go all-in or wait until the first run of closers and load up on guys further down your draft cheat sheet. No one wants to overdraft a reliever and ends up the first person to select one, but if you're on the wrong side of the first "closer run", you will likely miss out on the elite options.

Fantasy owners are in a quagmire regarding the Relief Pitcher position. While it is is very difficult to win a competitive roto league without grinding out saves, saves and holds are the most sporadic counting stats in baseball.My draft strategy regarding relievers is to practice patience. While other owners are drafting the elite closers early in your draft, they are passing up more valuable players, such as starting pitchers or everyday players. Saves can be found later in the draft at a more reasonable price.

Since I mentioned practice. Astute Fantasy owners always practice different strategies. What if I wait to draft my relief pitchers? Who still might be available?  Do I draft two stud closers? If so, which players do I end up passing on? Each of these questions and more can be answered by participating in mock drafts. I highly recommend you use our mock draft tool, powered by FantasyPros. It is a great way to practice drafting against some of the best in the business in just minutes.

2018 Fantasy Baseball Relief Pitcher Preview

After the 'Big Three' are off the board, who is the best option at number four?

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There is a consensus at the RP position consisting of an Elite Tier of three relief pitchers: Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel, and Aroldis Chapman.

Your draft strategy consists of grabbing one stud closer and the Elite Tier is off the board, which RP should you select?

Let's review the cases for the next best three options:

  • Cody Allen:  Cody Allen has never made fewer than 69 appearances, had an ERA over 2.99 or struck out fewer than 88 batters in a season in his last five seasons. He returns this year after logging 67.1 innings and recording 30 saves. His 21 walks allowed is a career-best and is the Indians "go-to man."
  • Ken Giles:  Giles was tremendous in 2017, with only four blown saves while posting a 2.30 ERA with 1.04 WHIP along with 83 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings. In 7 2/3 playoff innings, Giles gave up five walks and 12 hits, including three home runs. He did not pitch after game four of the Series. The question remains about his postseason disappearing act and if the confidence level by the Astros exists.
  • Corey Knebel:   Knebel became one of the best closers in baseball last season.The right-hander struck out 126 batters, which tied with Craig Kimbrel for most by a reliever in 2017. He posted a 1.78 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and was successful on 39 of 45 save chances and recorded a hold in 11 others. Look for Corey Knebel to build upon his phenomenal season as the Brewers improved throughout their roster.

Verdict:  RP Corey Knebel. A Fantasy monster who has emerged as one of the best relievers in the game. Look for him to have increased save chances with the Brewers upgrading their roster and looking to contend in the National League Central.

Which RP is this season's Corey Knebel?

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Corey Knebel exploded on the Relief Pitcher scene last season and emerged to become one of the most dominant closers in the game. Which RP will blast off in the 2018 season?

Hector Neris was the team's most effective reliever in 2016, so it would have made the most sense for Neris to be the closer in 2017. Inexplicably, the Phillies decided to go in a different direction and after a lot of trial and error, the right-hander took over the closer role around the All-Star Break.

Overall, Neris recorded 26 saves in 29 opportunities in 2017. He finished 4-5 on the season with a 3.01 ERA. He struck out 86 and walked 26 in 74 2/3 innings pitched. Neris was dominant to close out the season, registering 16 saves, two wins and just one loss in 28 appearances from July 29 to September 30. Additionally, he struck out 44 in his last 36 innings.

Hector Neris will enter the season as the team' closer and with some assistance. Pat Neshek and fellow right-hander Tommy Hunter were brought in to solidify the bullpen, which will likely have to pick up a decent number of innings from the Phillies' 2-5 starters. While the back end of the bullpen is secured, the Phillies need to get to them first. The starting staff is below-average at best but their offense is young and improving.

I forsee Hector Neris having a breakout season due to his current job security and the dominance he exhibited in the second half of last season. He is definitely one of the closers you wait for your draft and snag him very late. You will look like the smartest person in the draft room at the end of the season.

Can Fernando Rodney still be an effective closer?

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The Minnesota Twins made a surprising run to the American League wild-card game last season. They accomplished this feat despite being tied for 20th in the majors in relief ERA (4.40) last season. To remedy that situation, the Twins signed three relievers including closer Fernando Rodney.

Rodney bounced back with a solid campaign in 2017 with the Diamondbacks. He finished the season with a 5-4 record, 4.23 ERA and converted 39 of 45 save chances. He still has good stuff, as evidenced by his 65 strikeouts in 55 1/3 innings with Arizona last season. His fastball velocity has remained consistent, averaging 94-95 mph over the past four seasons. Furthermore, opposing hitters hit just .148 with one homer against his changeup, and it generated 86 swings and misses, per Statcast™.

He enters with 300 career saves, third among active relievers, and a reputation for eventful save conversions that has come to be known as the Fernando Rodney Experience. He will have his ups and downs throughout the season. Also, he will cause heartache for all of the Twins' fans as they watch in agony as he prolongs innings and keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Just in case that the turmoil is too much, the Twins also signed veteran Addison Reed (125 career saves) and lefty Zach Duke. Both of these veterans were brought in to solidify the bullpen and condense Rodney's outings into one inning affairs. While Rodney can place you on a roller-coaster ride, it's hard to dispute his production. The bullpen is now solidified in front of him. He has a young improving ballclub backing him up. I project Rodney to at least match last season's numbers and would NOT be surprised if he surpassed them.

Player(s) on the rise

Felipe Rivero, RP, Pittsburgh Pirates

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Felipe Rivero was the Pirates' best pitcher last season, recording a 1.67 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 21 saves and 88 strikeouts in 73 games. Acquired from the Washington Nationals in 2016 in the Mark Melancon trade, Rivero started closing games for the Pirates in June 2017 and became of the game's best. He converted 21 of 23 save chances and struck out an impressive 10.5 batters per nine innings.

The Pirates accelerated their rebuilding phase this offseason by trading star center fielder Andrew McCutchen and ace pitcher Gerrit Cole. The Pirates will still have to cheer about as they locked in Rivero on a new contract--a four-year, $22 million deal that established him as one of the cornerstones of the franchise.

Rivero has become of one of the better relief pitchers in baseball with his 100 miles per hour fastball, wipeout slider, and a devastating change-up. It's the fastball-change-up relationship that really makes him strong as evidenced by getting a whiff of 51.60 percent of his change-ups, which is the most among pitchers who threw at least 100. It’s that pitch that got Pirates Pitching Coach Ray Searage to tell the Washington Post it was the best change-up he has ever seen.

He has all the makings of an elite reliever who’s continuing to grow and improve at an unbelievable pace. The only caveat for Rivero is getting the ball in his hands with a lead. The Pirates are rebuilding and they need to replace setup men Tony Watson and Juan Nicasio. Another season of the progress he has shown and his name will fit in there with the elite relievers. Don't sleep on his massive potential. If last year was any type of indication of his continued growth and breakthrough, please sign me up!

Player(s) on the decline

Brad Ziegler, RP, Miami Marlins

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During the 2017 season, Brad Ziegler appeared in 53 games, posting a 4.79 ERA -- but just a 3.77 FIP -- and 1.55 WHIP. He converted 10 saves in 16 opportunities. The 38-year-old posted career highs in ERA and WHIP and a career low in innings pitched totaling 47.

There are very few numbers that suggest Brad Ziegler had a good season in 2017. All the traditional numbers and most of the advanced stats suggest he was pretty awful. The soft-tossers 4.79 ERA isn’t indicative of a high-leverage reliever. His 4.98 K/9 was the fourth-lowest among MLB relievers with at least 30 innings pitched. His save-to-blown save percentage isn’t great: 10 saved/five blown last season, 95 saved/35 blown in his career.

Four of the Marlins' top players have already been traded. On a team not expected to compete, there is really no need to be paying any reliever over two million dollars, let alone $16 million. Ziegler is merely a placeholder at the back end of the bullpen and all but certain to be traded at some point in 2018.

Brad Ziegler is potentially a valuable trade chip at the trade deadline. This will allow the speed-up of the Marlins' rebuild process. He could be a fit as a ground-ball specialist for a contender. The presence of Ziegler is preventing strike-out artists Kyle Barraclough and Drew Steckenrider from obtaining saves. Although there time will come this season. At best, Ziegler is a fringe fantasy asset. His days as a full-time closer are numbered. When he gets traded, he will likely garner the setup role, and basically eliminate any fantasy value.

Player(s) on the horizon

 Kyle Barraclough, RP, Miami Marlins

Kyle Barraclough, in his first full season, became one of the most dominant set-up men in the game in 2016. He put up a very impressive 14.00 K/9 rate and a 2.85 ERA/2.11 FIP in 72.2 strong innings. Last season, he posted a 2.85 ERA through 72.2 innings pitched and a 6-3 win/loss record.  The part of Barraclough’s game that had some fans interested last season was his strikeouts.

Barraclough led all National League relievers last season with 113 punchouts. He has quickly become one of the more intriguing players worth watching within the Marlins’ organization. He threw the first-pitch strike 56.8% of the time last year, and more importantly struck out 49 batters down 0-2 in the count. Another integral part of Barraclough’s game is his unbelievably low home run rate. Throughout the minors he allowed only two home runs, and so far through two seasons in the majors, Barraclough has managed to replicate those numbers.

Kyle Barraclough has the kind of swing-and-miss stuff to eventually handle the closer's job. The main question is whether he can throw strikes. Walks remain the primary issue for Barraclough as his 13.3% walk rate. It was the sixth highest in baseball among qualified relievers. He also has the dubious distinction of having the highest walk rate (14.4%) among relievers since his debut back in 2015.

The net result is a sort of effectively-wild production that's headlined by a career 2.87 ERA. Please highlight Kyle Barraclough on your cheat sheet. The question is not if Kyle Barraclough will take over as the closer. It is a matter of when the Marlins can dump Brad Ziegler's salary. He will be a great selection late in drafts and will boost your K and ERA categories.

Player(s) to avoid

Mark Melancon, RP, San Francisco Giants

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Mark Melancon was supposed to be the solution when he signed with the Giants. Melancon had a great track record before last season. From 2013-16, the right-hander saved at least 30 games three times. He never threw fewer than 71 innings in a season and posted a sub-2.00 ERA on three occasions.

However, Melancon did not live up to expectations for the 2017 season. He dealt with injuries for much of the season. This included his first trips to the DL in his nine seasons in the big leagues. He ended up pitching just 30 innings and recorded 11 saves along with a 1-2 record, 4.50 ERA, 1.43 WHIP and 29 strikeouts. Finally, he did not pitch after Sept. 5 before undergoing season-ending surgery to repair the pronator muscle in his right forearm.

Of course, the biggest concern is can Mark Melancon regain that form after offseason injury? Currently, he is on a throwing program and is looking to resume his role as the Giants' closer. If he is unable to stay healthy, the Giants will have to turn back to Sam Dyson. Dyson was decent enough to fall into 14 saves, but he finished with a staggering 6.09 ERA.

Probably more than any other reliever, Fantasy owners will need to keep an eye on his status through spring training, and see how his recovery is progressing. The uncertainty of his recovery is enough for me to stay away. Furthermore, he is currently being drafted as the 19th RP according to Fantasy Pros and being taken ahead of Archie Bradley (great opportunity), Kelvin Herrera (26 saves last season), and Brad Brach (start season as Orioles' closer). Each of the just mentioned relievers is more of a certainty than the returning Mark Melancon.

2018 Fantasy Baseball Position Previews
CatcherFirst BaseSecond BaseThird BaseShortstopOutfieldStarting PitcherRelief PItcher

Check out the rest of our great Fantasy Baseball content as the 2018 season approaches.

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1 comment

Wednesday February 14, 2018 - Fantasy Baseball Links - FantasyRundown.com February 14, 2018 - 2:10 pm

[…] FantasySixPack.net continues their positional previews with a look at relief pitchers. […]


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