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March 3, 2014

Fantasy Players to Target

Relief Pitchers

by BP Fantasy Staff

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We asked Bret Sayre if we could just say "Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal," and leave it at that. But he said “no.” So here are some stupid, unpredictable relief pitchers who we find to be comparatively less stupid and unpredictable than their peers.

Cody Allen, Cleveland Indians
After posting a 1.74 ERA and 128 strikeouts to just 23 walks over 98 minor-league innings, Allen pitched respectably in a 29-inning major-league debut in 2012. In 2013 he looked an awful lot like the minor-league version over his first full season. On the strength of a 95-mph fastball and plus curve, he whiffed almost 30 percent of the batters he faced last year (11.8 K/9) en route to a 1.4 WARP season. He'll enter this season behind the second tour stop of the John Axford Reclamation Experience, and it's very much an open question as to whether the mechanical changes St. Louis made with Axford last year will hold away from the mountains of Busch. As obstacles to saves go, Axford will enter the season as one of the softer targets for vultures. Maybe Allen never does overtake Axford, but even if he doesn't, he’ll be a fine bet to be one of the elite middle-relief sources of strikeouts in your league—not exactly the worst of worst-case scenarios. And if he does usurp the job, there's top -ier closer potential here. If you're like me and you prefer to pay a discount for potential closers rather than a premium for currently anointed ones in the middle and lower tiers, then Allen makes for an excellent target on draft day. —Wilson Karaman

Steve Cishek, Florida Marlins
Somewhere in the land of the lost (Miami), there lives a closer who can walk the streets with full anonymity. Cishek has always been known as a dominator of right-handed batters, and while that is correct, this isn't exactly a Tommy Hunter or Bud Norris situation; he has allowed a career line of .244/.339/.360 to left-handed batters. And that line against right-handed hitters? Well, it's a nifty .194/.259/.255. To top it off, he was one of the best closers during the last four months of the season in 2013, locking down 29 saves in that stretch with a 1.33 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and 52 strikeouts versus only 11 walks in 47 1/3 innings. And importantly, with the myth that closers can't rack up high save totals from poor teams almost entirely debunked, the fact that the Marlins are a bad baseball team should not preclude Cishek from being comfortably in the top half of closers drafted. Right now, he's no. 18 per the latest NFBC ADP data, so take advantage while you still can. —Bret Sayre

Netfali Feliz, Texas Rangers
There are plenty of valid reasons to shy away from Feliz in 2014. He's coming off of what have essentially been two lost years thanks to Tommy John surgery. He faces stiff competition when it comes to earning saves, thanks to the likes of Tanner Scheppers and Joakim Soria. And he pitches in a hitter-friendly environment in Texas. But let's not forget just how good Feliz was when healthy. From 2009-2011, Feliz struck out 164 batters in 162.2 innings with a 2.55 ERA and 0.95 WHIP. He only turns 26 in May, and while he's not the safest proposition in the world, he also has top-five closer upside should health and playing time break his way. Feliz is currently sporting an ADP of 199 overall (courtesy fantasypros.com), going behind the likes of Huston Street and Bobby Parnell. While there's an argument to be made for taking those pitchers ahead of Feliz due to their probability of starting the season as closers, they also lack Feliz' elite upside. With the volatility that surrounds all relievers, you might as well aim high, and Feliz could provide a ton of bang for the buck in 2014. —Ben Carsley

Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers
Henderson isn’t going to be an elite reliever, but that’s kind of the point: He’s flying under the radar, getting drafted behind less appealing options like Jonathan Papelbon and Steve Cishek, and just ahead of Huston Street. What differentiates Henderson from these other arms is the strikeout potential. Among closers, Henderson had the ninth-best strikeout rate in the majors in 2013. His overall numbers last year were kept down by a non-arm injury (hamstring). While Henderson won’t rack up as many whiffs as an elite arm like Craig Kimbrel or Kenley Jansen, a 90-strikeout season isn’t out of the realm of possibility if Henderson stays healthy in 2014. He’s being priced/drafted as a no. 2 reliever in mixed but could easily be a top-10-15 guy. —Mike Gianella

Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
If we’re being honest, I hate valuing relievers. I try not to put any stock into them unless I know my team is going to compete, and I’m fairly willing to deal them for non-relief value at the drop of the proverbial hat because they are so fungible. With that in mind, you won’t find me reaching for any of the elite options, of which there are four (Kimbrel, Chapman, Jansen, Holland), or five if you count Rosenthal.

If you want impact without the associated cost of the elite closers though, Janssen is a fine option. He’ll reliably strike out between 24-27 percent of the batters he faces and issue walks below the league-average rate. He allowed fly balls on fewer than 30 percent of the balls put in play against him in 2013, an important rate for a closer looking to limit the long ball. Janssen has posted sub-3.00 ERAs for three consecutive seasons, and there’s nothing in his peripherals to indicate that will change. Toronto might be toward the bottom of the AL East once again, but we know that closers on bad teams are still able to rack up big save totals, so don’t let that serve as a deterrent. —Craig Goldstein

David Robertson, New York Yankees
With Mariano Rivera calling it a career, the Yankees are down one Hall of Famer. Luckily for New York, they have a pretty good relief pitcher ready to step in and fill the shoes of Rivera, who retires with an all-time record of 652 career saves. Robertson, 28, owns a 2.76 ERA and 1.25 WHIP with 428 strikeouts across 329 innings of work. Since 2011, the right-hander’s 1.91 ERA is fifth-best among qualified relievers, and his 11.99 K/9 is the ninth-highest rate in that bunch. He’s cut down his walk rate dramatically in recent seasons, from 12.9 percent in 2011 to 6.9 percent in 2013. With little-to-no competition for the ninth, Robertson should settle in and record 35-plus saves with a sub-3.00 ERA, on top of 10.0-plus K/9. Some will avoid him because he has more blown saves (10) than saves (eight) in his career, but the opportunity is finally there for Robertson to finish the season as a top-five closer. —Alex Kantecki

Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals
I was targeting Rosenthal before the groin issue in spring, but hopefully that only helps by bumping his value down a bit. He was in the 100-strikeout RP club last year, one of just five to do so, and there's no reason to believe he can't do it again. He hasn't closed for a full season yet, but there's no reason to believe he can't handle the role. He did so with aplomb in the most pressure-packed situation last year: the playoffs. He's a stud. —Paul Sporer

Jose Veras, Chicago Cubs
Veras falls into the middle blob of relievers whose skill sets are fairly similar. He breaks from the norm by featuring a curve instead of a slider, but he's a two-pitch pitcher with a 20-plus percent strikeout rate and a low opponents’ average. Veras has always had the stuff: The curve is legitimate and works well off a low-to-mid-90s fastball. Command was an issue in the past, but he improved it on his fastball last year, which in turn led to a career best walk rate and K:BB ratio. He's being drafted beyond the 16th round, which is where a closer on a bad team should go, but I think he out-pitches his ADP and provides good value and stability on most fantasy staffs. —Mauricio Rubio

BP Fantasy Staff is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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