When we convened last Wednesday, our focus was upon closers and setup men in The All Bullpen Audit. Mostly, these are names with which you are already familiar. For the next six weeks, we’re going to conduct a division-by-division inspection. The goal is to uncover opportunities and turn up predictable dark horses to stash in deeper leagues.
There are certain things we can’t accomplish with this approach. By necessity, this is a backwards-looking process. For example, last season Mike Mayers (who we’ll discuss more in a moment) added an effective new pitch. It transformed him from generic reliever into a valuable closer. None of that was predictable based on his previous performances. The moral of the story is that we can never stop looking for breakouts – pitchers who have added a new pitch, gained velocity, or taken other steps to unlock latent talent.
Caveats aside, let’s begin with the AL West. Despite a couple top 10 closers, the division is decidedly light on relief talent. Enterprising fantasy managers will have plenty of opportunities to raid this particular pantry for bonus saves and holds.
American League West
Los Angeles Angels
The acquisition of Iglesias is intended to resolve a longstanding issue with Angels rosters – the closer. Manager Joe Maddon now has a reliable choice to call upon in the ninth inning. The 31-year-old is arguably coming off his best season. He posted a luck neutral 2.74 ERA with 12.13 K/9 and 1.96 BB/9. In the past, he’s been prickly about being used in non-save situations which might account for why his 2019 campaign was such a bumpy ride (4.16 ERA). Aside from that one homer-fueled blemish, he’s a consistent source ERA, WHIP, and saves for fantasy managers. Moving from Great American Ball Park to Angels Stadium is a boost too. Iglesias is one of the safest closers in the league.
And it’s a shame because Mayers emerged as a truly valuable reliever last season. The fly ball pitcher developed a new cutter. The fresh offering complements his repertoire. He delivered an out-of-nowhere 12.90 K/9, a rate which should be expected to regress. There’s also risk his 2.70 BB/9 will rise towards his career walk rate. Still, Mayers profiles as one of the best setup men in the league and could even out-pitch Iglesias. He’s also a favorite of Maddon – only two pitchers appeared in more games last season.
Buttrey was also frequently-used in 2020. He wasn’t nearly as effective as Mayers. In fact, it’s reasonable to call his performance a disaster. His fastball lost a tick and his swinging strike rate cratered for a second consecutive season. The 5.81 ERA and 6.15 K/9 he posted won’t cut it in any fantasy format. He doesn’t use pitch tunnels or spin mirroring to improve his deceptiveness. In the past, especially in 2019, Buttrey was frequently pointed at as an heir apparent for Angels saves. Now it’s fair to wonder if he even belongs in a Major League bullpen.
We have no such concerns with Claudio, a workhorse lefty reliever who is frequently among the league leaders in appearances. As the only southpaw in the Angels bullpen with a guaranteed contract, Claudio is liable to quickly become another Maddon favorite. He’s a ground ball pitcher who induces consistently weak contact. Don’t count on a gaudy strikeout rate or better than average ERA. If your league counts holds independently of saves, Claudio is on the shortlist to lead the category.
Pena mainly provides bulk relief. He was used in a single-inning role last season and responded with a three-mph uptick to his velocity. His results didn’t react accordingly. All of his rates were comparable to 2018 and 2019. One important area where he did improve was home run rate – perhaps because he doubled the usage of his changeup. At times, he was viewed as an emergency closer candidate last season. He’ll probably mostly work the early and middle innings, limiting his fantasy potential.
In addition to the recognizable names, the Angels have a deep stable of pitchers with some degree of talent. Gerardo Reyes, a former Padres farmhand, has a history of high strikeout rates and a 97-mph fastball. His only Major League experience came in 2019 when he threw far too many heaters. Opposing batters torched him for a 7.62 ERA in 26 innings.
Jose Alberto Rivera, a Rule 5 pick, is jumping from Low-A straight to the Majors – if he makes the club! He sits around 97-mph and has reportedly touched triple-digits. He’ll also flash a plus breaking ball and changeup. The Astros were developing him as a starter so there could be more to unlock here in a relief role. He would have spent 2020 in High- and Double-A. Command is reportedly a shortcoming for the soon-to-be 24-year-old.
Several starting pitchers could appear in the Los Angeles bullpen. Jaime Barria is the most recognizable. He’s never shown any benefits from pitching in relief. Junior Guerra is on hand as a non-roster invitee. Jake Faria will ostensibly receive an invitation to Spring Training too. Keep an eye on lefties Patrick Sandoval, Jose Suarez, Dillon Peters, Hector Yan, and Jose Quijada. The club will probably want a second southpaw to pair with Claudio. Quijada, a wild reliever with swing-and-miss stuff and poor results to date, probably has the best chance to claim the second lefty gig.
Hernandez is probably the best pitcher in this relief corps, but Leclerc will reportedly be the one to receive early save opportunities. That’s because the Rangers want Hernandez available for a multi-inning role. The good news is he’ll probably still sponge a few save opportunities. Leclerc is a familiar face around these parts. A splitter specialist with a high strikeout rate and painful walk rate, he can be downright lethal when he’s on. He’ll also occasionally lose feel for his signature pitch and completely fall apart. Keep an eye on his velocity in Spring Training. If it’s not trending towards his usual 96-mph, then his balky shoulder might not be healed.
As for Hernandez, the thing to watch for is his command. More than anything, an improved ability to hit spots accounted for his 2020 breakout. Hernandez was the talk of the camp during the initial Spring Training. It’s somewhat encouraging that he maintained his spring success when play resumed later in the summer. That’s a sign he made a lasting improvement rather than gaining a temporary edge. He has three weapons at his disposal: a sinker, changeup, and slider.
Rodriguez returned from the Korean Baseball Organization last season and proceeded to throw 12 excellent innings. A hamstring injury cost him the second half of the shortened campaign. The lefty has developed into a ground ball pitcher with well over a strikeout per inning and an adequate walk rate. He could close in a pinch, but it’s more likely he’ll work in a setup role. Since the Rangers aren’t an especially competitive team, he’s probably won’t be among the league leaders in holds.
Hearn, 26, is a former prospect who has struggled with injuries in recent seasons. The southpaw is an imposing presence on the mound but has yet to really capture success in the Majors. Last season, he tossed 17.1 decent innings with a 3.63 ERA, 11.94 K/9, and 5.71 BB/9. The strikeout rate was not supported by his peripherals (including a meager 8.8% SwStr%). His penchant for fly ball contact could be rewarded at Globe Life Field.
The Opening Day rotation could include three very bland pitchers – Jimmy Herget, Brett Martin, and Wes Benjamin. These are players who will need to improve dramatically before they become fantasy relevant. The Rangers rotation is such that they’ll need frequent bulk relief. A generous coterie of non-roster invitees will compete for these roles including Jharel Cotton, Drew Anderson, Hunter Wood, Matt Bush, Edubray Ramos, Justin Anderson, and Sam Gaviglio among others. Most of these have big league experience. Bush, Ramos, and Anderson have even been in the mix for saves in the past. Prospects Kyle Cody, A.J. Alexy, and Demarcus Evans could also play their way into relevance. Evans in particular has long been viewed as a closer candidate – he just needs to sharpen his command.
One final name to track is Bret de Geus. The Rule 5 pick has a three-pitch repertoire. His mid-90s fastball is complemented by a slider and curve. Scouting reports indicate he could stick as a middle reliever.
After a brief hiccup early in 2020, Pressly recovered to reassert his claim as a viable relief ace. He’s safely among the top 10 closers. Part of that safety has to do with the Astros supporting cast. It’s a mess of fading veterans and unestablished prospects. Pressly projects to deliver around 12.00 K/9, 2.50 BB/9, and a 3.00 ERA. He’s a spin-rate king with three above average pitches.
Three vets and a rookie are among the candidates to set up for Pressly. Paredes is an under-sized righty with a 96-mph heater and a sharp slider. He induced plenty of whiffs but struggled to put away hitters in his 2020 debut. A 3.05 ERA, 8.71 K/9, and 4.79 BB/9 are passable first results, but he’ll need to build upon those if he’s to become a true fantasy target. He does seem to have the raw talent necessary to find another gear.
Baez, Smith, and Stanek are less likely to unlock unexpected success, but perhaps that’s not necessary. Smith skipped the 2020 season. He’s a deceptive, soft-tossing righty with a high ground ball rate. In parts of 13 seasons, he’s never posted worse than a 3.83 ERA, usually accompanied by a low WHIP and uninspiring strikeout rate.
Baez too has a lengthy history of consistent success. His career-worst 3.35 ERA came all the way back in 2015. His peripherals collapsed in 2020, but that could be a function of the bizarre season. He lost several ticks of velocity, and his swinging strike and strikeout rates also plummeted. He’s a fly ball pitcher which isn’t an ideal fit for Minute Maid Park.
Stanek, the original Opener in Tampa Bay, wasn’t able to take advantage of a potential opportunity to close games for the Marlins last season. They non-tendered him after being unimpressed by his lack of command. Like Baez, he lost a couple mph on his fastball last season.
Houston has two types of depth beyond this top five – a trio of decent middle relievers and an excessive pool of quality starting pitcher prospects. Brooks Raley, Blake Taylor, and Andre Scrubb are best served working low leverage situations. Bryan Abreu is the most likely of their prospects to transition from starting to relief. The club has already used him that way a few times, although he fell apart in 2020. Some others who could appear include Luis Garcia, Brandon Bielak, Tyler Ivey, and Jairo Solis. Josh James is working his way back from a hip injury and could return not long after Opening Day.
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The wild card hanging over all of this is Andres Munoz. One of the best relief prospects to arise in recent years, he’s expected back from elbow surgery sometime around June. When healthy, he is an overpowering weapon who should quickly make his way into high leverage duty. In his brief 2019 debut with the Padres, he comfortably sat at 100-mph. Also lurking in the shadows is Sam Delaplane, a pitcher who features a slightly unusual delivery, a fastball that sits at the top of the zone, and a wipeout slider. He too should make his way to a high leverage role before the end of the season.
They’re both more interesting than presumed Opening Day closer Rafael Montero, to say nothing of the mediocrity that lurks deeper in this bullpen. Montero broke out for the Rangers in 2019 and carried his success into 2020. Sort of. While he retained a mid-90s fastball, his strikeout and walk rates regressed. Aside from his sizzling 2019, he’s never posted above average walk rates. What we saw in 2020 – a 4.08 ERA, 9.68 K/9, and 3.06 BB/9 might even overstate what we should expect this year. He’s more of a good middle reliever than an actual high leverage ace.
If Montero is unexceptional, the rest of this crew leaves even more to be desired. Misiewicz is the only one to post solid numbers in 2020. He profiles as a low leverage bulk reliever. Lefties with his command profile can sometimes vastly exceed the scouting report. With a 94-mph heater, 90-mph cutter, and a decent curve, he’s one to keep an eye on. There’s potential for him to pull something like a Ryan Yarbrough or Josh Fleming.
Middleton recovered his velocity after returning from Tommy John surgery but couldn’t figure out how to prevent runs from scoring. Once the heir apparent to Angels saves, there’s potential for the light bulb to click on. With just a $800K guarantee, he might also fail to make the club. Names like Graveman, Brandon Brennan, Casey Sadler, and Erik Swanson barely merit mention until they show some capacity for adequate performance. One to watch is Rule 5 pick Will Vest. He was reportedly up to 100-mph in Tigers camp last season with a plus breaking ball. Don’t count on instant gratification, but there is a decent chance he’ll stick.
It’s debatable if the Athletics actually have a worse bullpen than the Mariners. It’s also likely they’ll sign at least one free agent to reinforce this group. Budget flexibility is reportedly razor thin so they’re probably waiting to see which experienced closer(s) are left without a job.
If it does come down to some sort of Diekman and Trivino committee, the A’s are in trouble. Diekman is a decent enough southpaw, but he’s always been a partial-inning guy. His high strikeout and ground ball rates are offset by far too many free passes. Trivino, a righty, doesn’t have the same issues with walks, but he also lacks standout traits. The most interesting thing about him is his five-pitch repertoire – a rarity for relievers. He’s roughly the same caliber as Mariners closer Rafael Montero.
Wendelken, Weems, and Smith were revelations for the club last season. Wendelken has hung around the roster, mostly in low leverage roles, for a few years now. This might be his only opportunity to graduate to high leverage. Last season, he emphasized a new slider which helped his strikeout rate to surge. Weems turns to a slider and splitter for strikeouts. He’s long been plagued by high walk rates. Speaking of too many walks, that’s been the report on Smith since his debut all the way back in 2013. Last season, he added two-mph to his fastball and delivered an unusually excellent 0.75 BB/9. Note: it’s just 12 innings of success across six appearances. If he can retain the velocity and even just 3.00 BB/9, he could be an interesting source of holds or bulk innings. It’s more likely he’ll fail to make the club.
James Kaprielian, an oft-injured former Yankees farmhand, may have the stuff and disposition to step into a high leverage relief role. He was being groomed for multi-inning relief in 2019. His list of ailments includes a forearm strain, torn UCL, and multiple stints on the injured list for shoulder soreness. In two appearances last season, he averaged a 95-mph fastball and showed four pitches, signs that the worst of his health issues might be behind him.
In addition to lesser lights like Nik Turley and Paul Blackburn, a brace of non-roster invitees will attend camp with an opportunity to impress. The most recognizable of these are Deolis Guerra, Parker Dunshee, and Domingo Acevedo. Rule 5 pick Dany Jimenez has a high spin rate fastball and a difficult-to-read breaking ball. This is the second consecutive year he’s been selected in the Rule 5 draft.