It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2018 or even drafting now. The hot stove league is just taking shape, but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2018 fantasy baseball season.
For the fourth year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. The first five articles in the series were batting average, WHIP, home run, strikeout, and ERA sleepers. This week, we’ll be looking at stolen base sleepers. Over 10 weeks, I will be providing a list of sleepers for each 5x5 roto category (BA, HR, RBI, R, SB, W, ERA, WHIP, K, SV). After looking at categories that were more based on player skill over the first five weeks, we shift to categories that are more dependent on opportunity, supporting cast, and batting order spot.
Before reading any further, it’s important to note the definition of a sleeper. In this case, it’s a player who will exceed draft day ADP AND projections in a particular category. The players are broken down by mixed league sleepers and single league sleepers.
Saves are one of the most frustrating categories for fantasy owners because we are at the mercy of major league managers. Much of the fun in fantasy preparation is forecasting based on indicators, talent, and predictable skill, yet saves are just as much about opportunity and being in the right place at the right time.
Below is a rundown of the obvious saves sleepers heading into 2018 – mostly pitchers with a history of closing and at least a fair probability of getting a significant opportunity to close at some point this season. Also, there are a few less obvious picks to keep an eye on. Despite our best efforts to predict, there will surely be a few new closers crowned in 2018 that no one expected. That makes the strategy of dumping saves seem that much more attractive.
The Obvious (Mixed League Worthy)
Archie Bradley, Diamondbacks
Bradley emerged as an elite setup man behind Fernando Rodney last season, who somehow kept Bradley out of closer duties despite finishing with an ERA above 4.00. Following the season, Arizona GM Mike Hazen said Bradley would likely remain a reliever in 2018 and “we haven’t ruled out closing.” That statement came after Bradley recorded 25 holds, a 1.73 ERA, and 1.04 WHIP in 73 innings in his first full year in the pen.
The hope of closing was tentative, based on what Arizona did this offseason. Their offseason has been relatively slow, with two notable relief additions in Brad Boxberger and Yoshihisa Hirano. Boxberger has significant closing experience, closing 41 games for the Rays in 2015, but over the last two seasons he’s made only 57 total appearances with a cumulative ERA above 4.00. Meanwhile, Hirano was signed to a two-year, $6 million contract in December after accumulating 156 saves in Japan. That experience gives Arizona even more insurance, but Hirano doesn’t bring great velocity and had just a 7.4 K/9 last season at age 33. If we’re judging by recent success, Bradley has to be the frontrunner for closer duties heading into spring training, yet his NFBC ADP near 190 makes him cheaper than risky closers like Arodys Vizcaino, Jeurys Familia, and Mark Melancon.
Mychal Givens, Orioles
Givens has been a dynamite reliever for the Orioles since he was promoted in 2015. The submarine right-hander is 18-3 with a 2.75 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and 10.9 K/9 in 157 career appearances, showing significantly improved control compared to his minor league days. He’s held fantasy value as a result of eight vulture wins in consecutive seasons and has shown consistency as a setup man for Buck Showalter.
Of course, Givens has yet to net a save in the majors as a result of Baltimore’s bullpen depth, but the herd is starting to thin out. Zach Britton is set to miss the first half of the season due to a torn Achilles and was a trade candidate even before the injury. Brad Brach gained experience as a closer last season when Britton was injured, converting 18 saves, but he had a 3.18 ERA and so-so 3.58 FIP with his control struggles returning (3.4 BB/9). It’s expected that Brach will get the first crack at closer duties heading into the season, but Givens steps up again on the closer hierarchy with Britton sidelined. It will clearly be tough for the O’s to compete this season in an AL East that includes two top contenders in the Yankees and Red Sox, and Britton and Brach are both pending free agents after this season. At worst, Givens is a closer stash for 2019, and could get his shot at closing much earlier.
Blake Parker, Angels
The Angels made waves this offseason with the additions of Shohei Ohtani, Ian Kinsler, Zack Cozart, as well as re-signing Justin Upton. What’s missing is the addition of a clear-cut closer. That certainly helps Parker’s opportunity to win the role after converting eight saves last season, seven coming August 26 or later. At age 32, Parker had a breakout season with a dominant 11.5 K/9 and 5.38 K/BB ratio, resulting in a 2.54 ERA over 71 appearances.
The competition is Cam Bedrosian, who spent part of the last two seasons with the closer role and former Braves closer Jim Johnson. Parker would seem to be the leader in the clubhouse after Bedrosian posted a 4.43 ERA last season and Johnson reverted back to mediocrity in Atlanta, with a 5.56 ERA. For all the success we saw from Parker late last season, his ADP in NFBC hovers around 210, making him a strong value.
Addison Reed, Twins
Reed makes the list for the second straight year but in a very different situation. Last season he was the fallback for Jeurys Familia in Queens, who had a pending suspension. This year he’s signed in Minnesota to setup the erratic Fernando Rodney. By almost any measure, Reed was a more effective pitcher than Rodney in 2017, and was also given a significantly larger contract (two years, $16.75 million) compared to Rodney (one year, $4.5 million). Numbers in the 2017 Reed/Rodney comparison that were clearly in Reed’s favor include ERA (2.84/4.23 Reed/Rodney), WHIP (1.05/1.19), and K/BB (5.07/2.50).
Despite all of those favorable signs for Reed, manager Paul Molitor has said Rodney will open the year as the Twins closer. Just how long that arrangement lasts remains to be seen, especially considering Rodney’s age at Opening Day (41) and BB/9 above 4.0 in four of the last five seasons. Reed is a necessary stash for all Rodney owners, and a solid saves stash with an NFBC ADP of 250.
The Less Obvious (Single League Worthy)
Joe Jimenez, Tigers
Newsflash: The Tigers roster is going through a rebuild in 2018. The team already traded Justin Upton and Justin Verlander last season, and the bullpen finished the season with Shane Greene leading the way. To Greene’s credit, he did emerge as a solid reliever during his first full season in the role, posting a 2.66 ERA and 1.24 WHIP, along with nine saves. However, he also struggled with walks (4.5 BB/9), so he’s far from what can be called a safe option despite posting a sub-2.00 ERA during the second half.
Closer experience is lacking from the remaining bullpen options after Bruce Rondon was non-tendered, as the Tigers have basically failed to address the bullpen at all this offseason. One name that should provide intrigue is Jimenez, a former minor league closer. There’s no escaping the fact that Jimenez was atrocious in his major league debut last season, posting a 12.32 ERA in 24 appearances, but the 23-year-old has been lights out in the minors. Over the last three seasons, he’s posted a sub-2.00 ERA in every minor league season with a total of 51 saves. He’s also had a K/9 of at least 12.0 in every season, with an outstanding mid-90’s fastball and nasty slider. Detroit’s pen finished last season with a league-worst 5.63 ERA, so they’ll be desperate for helpful arms. Jimenez’s upside is clearly as great as anyone in their pen at the time of this writing.
Emilio Pagan, Athletics
Among the closer longshots listed, Pagan has more polish than anyone. Acquired this offseason in the Ryon Healy trade from Seattle, Pagan had an excellent rookie debut for the M’s with a 3.23 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, and 7.00 K/BB ratio in 50.1 innings. The extreme flyball pitcher’s ERA was slightly inflated due to the resulting inability to keep the ball in the park, but his 56/8 K/BB was beyond impressive for a major league debut.
Now moving to an Oakland bullpen with less depth, Pagan could have a shot at high leverage innings early in the year. He’s certainly dominant enough for the closer role with a 10.0 K/9 and fastball that averaged 94 mph with Seattle. Pagan will likely begin the season at least behind Blake Treinen and Santiago Casilla for saves opportunities, but there is potential opportunity with a couple of late-inning pitchers who have shown inconsistency as closers recently.
Jaime Schultz, Rays
Tampa Bay’s short term direction is somewhat unclear. They’ve moved Evan Longoria but have otherwise remained quiet this offseason, retaining all of their elite starting pitchers under contract, along with incumbent closer Alex Colome. There’s still plenty of time to move Colome if the team chooses to do so, but it’s likely opposing teams are hesitant to go crazy after he posted a sub-8.0 K/9 last season.
Behind Colome, the major league experience in Tampa Bay’s bullpen is very limited. That could change quickly if the Rays make more trades or signings, but the lack of depth does open the door for minor league pitchers like Schultz. He missed much of last season due to injury, but had a 14.6 K/9 and 3.66 ERA in 19.2 innings between three levels in the pen. Before that time, he served as a starter in the minors, most recently posting a 3.58 ERA and 11.2 K/9 at Triple-A Durham in 2016. The move to the pen was clearly to help Schultz’s control, with a career BB/9 above 5.0, and the move did show improvement in the small sample size (2.7 BB/9). Schultz shows closer-like stuff and dominance, so he could be worth stashing with a strong spring.
Drew Steckenrider, Marlins
It’s well known that the Marlins are undergoing a firesale, moving their entire 2017 starting outfield thus far. They still have plenty of other players who could be moved before Opening Day, most notably J.T. Realmuto, Martin Prado, Justin Bour, and Brad Ziegler. 2018 will be a chance to see their youngsters perform, and Steckenrider is in position to benefit.
At age 26, he was arguably the organization’s most valuable rookie in 2017. Steckenrider had a 2.34 ERA and gaudy 14.0 K/9 in 34.2 innings out of the bullpen, also converting one save. Averaging 96 mph on his fastball, Steckenrider was used in the seventh inning or later in all of his September appearances and finished the year with 10 holds. At this time, he’s likely behind Ziegler and hard-thrower Kyle Barraclough in the pen depth chart, but neither pitcher should be considered an insurmountable obstacle. Ziegler is aged and coming off one of his worst seasons, while Barraclough has only one career save and a 5.5 BB/9. At worst, Steckenrider is a pitcher to stash given his high strikeout rate.