It’s time for 2009 Guide to the Middle Reliever Methodology. A quick refresher on the idea of MRM for the uninitiated—the goal is to acquire three dirt-cheap middle relievers who in turn will net you the stats of an elite starting pitcher. From my experiences, it is best employed in single league auctions. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be done in mixed league drafts and auctions, especially deep ones, just that I find it most effective in SLAs. This strategy seems to gain traction yearly with more and more fantasy magazines and online draft kits dedicating a portion to middle relievers. Of course they often identify the elite middle relievers. The idea is to find the next elite reliever since the whole goal is to save money in the budget for more hitting*.
(*I’m saving it for hitting, you may choose to invest it in a higher priced ace starter or closer.)
I won’t gloss over the elite of middle relievers in my list, but I hope to highlight the up & comers so that you have a deep list in case other owners choose to utilize the MRM for their teams as well. Not only that, but some of us will invariably end up in leagues where the bulk of middle relievers are ignored or severely undervalued. I’d hate to assume that every league was going to bid up the top ones and leave you empty-handed when they finally do come available on the cheap.
When you’re constructing your three-pack of relievers, you need to keep an eye on their innings totals from the past couple of seasons. Some guys have very appetizing strikeout and walk rates, but are used in a very limited capacity (30-40 IP) and thus should be counted only as your third guy, if at all, unless you are predicting an increased role for 2009. This year has greater balance in workload among the relief corps. In 2007, three non-closing relievers that managed 90+ innings of relief work while nobody reached that threshold in 2008. There were, however, nine that topped 80 and 31 more that topped 70.
I took the top 200 relievers based on innings pitched and began paring it down through a series of filters. First, obviously, was eliminating closers. From there, I applied a strikeouts-per-nine filter of 6.5. Last year the figure was 7.0, but I let a couple of special cases in at the 6.5 because I believe they will be valuable in 2009. Finally, a strikeout-to-walk ratio filter was applied to determine who made the next level before final cuts. I took the generally accepted 2.0 mark because the only ones treading that fine line had big K rates. The two 6.5 K rates both topped 3.0 in their K:BB rate. I settled upon the final list after a cutting a handful of players that met the filters due to injury, age, role and fluke factor. When dealing with such small samples, flukey seasons will come about rather regularly in the reliever ranks. That volatility is another reason why you don’t want to have too much money locked up into these guys so you can cut bait if things aren’t working out as the season progresses. And so here it is, the 2009 Middle Reliever Methodology List:
Here are three small-sample strikeout studs that you should keep on your radar:
1. Mitch Stetter, 27 years old, Milwaukee Brewers – He made the most of his 25 innings last year as he struck out 31 batters, good for an 11.0 K/9. Unfortunately, he also walked 19 (6.8 BB/9). In his 312 minor league innings, he has a 9.1 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9. He could easily earn a big league spot in camp.
2. Garrett Mock, 25, Washington Nationals – Their depth charts lists like 817 pitchers, which calls to mind the old adage, “If you have 817 pitchers, you don’t have any…” I may’ve paraphrased a bit, but the point stands that the bullpen is wide open in D.C. Mock struck out 26 in 29 relief innings and 46 total batters in 41 innings that includes his three starts. On the surface, his 2.0 K:BB meets the baseline we’re looking for, but when it comes on a 10.1 K/9 rate, it’s a bit less impressive. His walk rate was half that over 569 minor league innings though his K rate was decidedly less at 7.7, too. Either way, he’s got a live arm and real shot at coming north in April.
3. David Robertson, 23, New York Yankees – The Yankees might have settled their pen enough with some emerging talent from the minors and the use of extra starting pitchers leaving no spot for Robertson out of the gate in 2009. However, there is no doubt that his 36 strikeouts in 30 innings (10.7 K/9) caught the eye of the Yankee brass. Though still quite green, he hasn’t posted a K rate below 10 at any stop in the minors posting a very impressive 12.4 K/9 over 138 innings spanning 2007 and 2008. Despite the impressive K total in his cup of coffee, he was knocked around to the tune of a 1.45 WHIP which yielded a 5.34 ERA. He made need more seasoning in AAA, but a midseason call up when reinforcements are needed in the pen should be in his future.
Here are three guys that have come up as starting pitchers, but may be forced to the bullpen due to filled rotations:
1. Justin Masterson, 23 years old, Boston Red Sox – Though he managed a sub-4.00 ERA in nine starts, it wasn’t until he moved to the pen that he began posting a respectable K:BB ratio. He gained an extra strikeout per nine up 7.6 while shaving over a full walk down to 3.1. Mixing that newfound success with a killer groundball rate netted him a 2.36 ERA in 34 innings of relief. By my count, Masterson needs at least four failures before entering the rotation.
2. Scott Elbert, 23, Los Angeles Dodgers – Making the jump from AA, Elbert brings a live arm to the majors. Unfortunately, it has yet to show any sustained control and thus if he expects to stick with the club in April, it’ll have to be out of the bullpen where his 5.0 BB/9 will do less damage. If the Dodgers do decide to hold him for their bullpen, a good comparison would be Seattle’s Brandon Morrow. He posted 9.9 K/9 and 5.1 BB/9 rates in the minors before joining the M’s and posting nearly the exact same figures (he actually raised the BB/9 to 5.9). Morrow has flourished though with a 3.73 ERA in his 128 innings.
3. James McDonald, 24, Los Angeles Dodgers – I’d be willing to bet that the Dodgers are only interested in keeping one of their youngsters up and in the bullpen. If that’s the case, I’d have to give the nod to the more polished McDonald. He has experience at AAA and he hasn’t displayed any of the same huge control woes that plague Elbert. Another potential scenario is that McDonald wins the 5th spot and Elbert stays on in the bullpen. After all, how tough could it be to oust Jason Schmidt, Shawn Estes and Eric Stults?
This is the cream of the middle reliever crop as I see it. These are the guys that will likely cost you the most to acquire as just about everyone recognizes their value. In the cases where your league fails to, jump at the chance to get them at a discount:
1. Carlos Marmol, 26 years old, Chicago Cubs – We already have some controversy as Marmol could very well end up as the Cubs’ fulltime closer with Kevin Gregg setting him up, but a better than 4.0 walk rate and massive flyball ratio fuel doubt about 9th inning potential.
2. J.J. Putz, 32, New York Mets – A former ace closer, his ugly 5.5 BB/9 is skewed by an odd, injury-riddled first half. He now joins the Mets to set up Francisco Rodriguez and will likely draw the attention of many K-Rod owners in a handcuff situation. If he’s left alone, pounce.
3. Jon Rauch, 30, Arizona Diamondbacks – Chad Qualls seems to have a lock on the closer spot leaving Rauch to slink back into his role as stud middle reliever. He has excelled there now for three years and there is little to indicate that 2009 can’t become his fourth. The second half meltdown didn’t result in an overwhelming shift of skills. He walked 3.1, but that was merely a correction on his first half 1.3 rate; he was bit by dastardly hit and strand rates.
4. Rafael Perez, 27, Cleveland Indians – He ranked fourth on my list last year that used a formula based on ERA, K:BB and K/9. He also ranked first on my Diamonds in the Rough and he didn’t disappoint. He traded half of a walk (up to 2.7) for almost a full strikeout per nine (up to 10.1) on his way to a 3.54 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. This elite groundballer isn’t pigeonholed into a lefty specialist because righties struggle against him, too. If Wood falters, Perez should become the closer.
5. J.P. Howell, 26, Tampa Bay Rays – Enjoyed his first of what could be many Shieldsian seasons as he logged a boatload of innings (89) with great rates (2.22 ERA/1.13 WHIP), a ton of strikeouts (92) and a handful of both wins (6) and saves (3). A walk rate approaching 4.0 could yield a boost in ERA, but even a low-3.00s ERA keeps Howell in studsville. No closer in TB leaves a 15+ save upside.
6. Hong-Chih Kuo, 27, Los Angeles Dodgers – In 80 innings of work, 69 of which were from the bullpen, Kuo toyed with the competition to the tune of a 10.8 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9—both of which were better when you look at just the relief work. Concerns around health and the fact that 2008 was an “out of nowhere” season for his control create some risk when predicting a repeat.
7. Joey Devine, 25, Oakland A’s – Speaking of health concerns, Devine’s biggest inning total as a pro is a whopping 57 back in 2007! As a reliever, that’s not the worst thing ever, but it goes along with seasons of 26 and 29 innings in 2005 and 2006. Though he impressed in his 46 innings in 2008, he missed all of June and July. Simply put, it’s very tough to rely on him. That unreliability factor might make the A’s think twice about penciling him in as the closer. It should also give you pause when penciling him in as one of your three MRs in 2009. He’s certainly got the elite talent for either job, but can he last?
8. Scot Shields, 33, Los Angeles Angels – I put him here because he might be the most famous middle reliever in the last five or so years, however be careful getting caught up in a bidding war. Though the strikeout rate has moved incrementally year over year since 2006, the walk rate has too, at a faster clip. The once rubber arm has dropped his inning count yearly since 2004 as well. That said, a better than one-per-inning strikeout rate and amazing groundball rate should keep him valuable for at least a few more years.
9. Juan Cruz, 30, Unsigned – A lot of warts can be covered up by a 12.4 K/9 rate, even Cruz’s ugly 5.4 BB/9 rate. He gained a modicum of control in the second half (3.3) and ended up dominating with a 1.64 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 22 innings. He would already be signed if he didn’t cost a 1st round pick, but I can’t imagine him sitting out there much longer. A team could call on him to be their closer so consider that potential if you draft before he’s signed.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Here is where you can find value. A few of these guys likely won’t be at the forefront of many radars in your league. Some are known, but still just don’t command a price tag commensurate with their value (which is of course great for us). And others have the name, but found themselves in this tier because I value them as next-level despite their elite tier price tag—you may want to pass on those that fit those criteria:
1. Carlos Villanueva, 25, Milwaukee Brewers – He actually got nine starts last year so his total body of work topped the 100-inning mark, but he shined as a reliever. In 59 innings, he posted a 9.4 K/9, 2.1 BB/9 and 2.12 ERA against his 7.7 K/9, 2.5 BB/9 and 4.07 ERA composite line. He may very well be tapped for spot starts again this season, but there is nothing wrong with that if he’s going to post these kinds of numbers. And the upside is 100+ innings of the numbers he had as a reliever. I love him for 2009.
2. Edwar Ramirez, 28, New York Yankees – Could he be the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera? If the Yankees decide that Joba Chamberlain will be a full-time starter, then he very well could fill that closer-in-waiting role. He is your prototypical high K/high BB reliever. His 10.2 K/9 last season in New York was his first stop of 10+ innings below 13.3 since 2003. He has a 2.8 BB/9 over 277 minor league innings so the potential for greatness is there. Buy, buy, buy!!!
3. Dan Wheeler, 31, Tampa Bay Rays – An odd season for Wheeler as weak supporting stats yielded a 1.88 ERA/0.91 WHIP in the 1st half thanks to a microscopic hit rate and inflated strand rate while brilliant supporting stats in the 2nd half brought a 4.82 ERA despite a 1.11 WHIP thanks to a massive correction in strand rate and significant correction in hit rate. Massive flyball rate increase seems like an outlier at this point. Like Howell, the save upside exists, but could also inflate price.
4. Ryan Madson, 28, Philadelphia Phillies – Veterans of the MRM may be all too familiar with Madson as I am. I was enticed by his 3.1 K:BB ratio and 8.0 K/9 from 2005, so I made him part of my trio in 2006. They started him in the rotation so I figured, this could be even better. It wasn’t better. He got destroyed for 90 innings in the rotation and then for 44 more less-awful innings in the bullpen.
5. Manny Delcarmen, 27, Boston Red Sox – A successful 2008 marks back-to-back great seasons for Delcarmen yet he still plays second fiddle to Hideki Okajima in terms of profile. That’s perfect for MRM’ers as you can pass on the higher priced Okajima for a much cheaper yet equally awesome Delcarmen.
6. Jose Arredondo, 25, Los Angeles Angels – The heir apparent to K-Rod until the Angels signed Brian Fuentes; Arredondo remains the younger Shields for at least another season. His miniscule 1.62 ERA was spurred by a lights-out strand rate and unsustainable hit rate. That said, his skills are very promising for the now and beyond. His numbers could from last year could overvalue him, but a correction is coming so don’t get sucked in when better, cheaper options exist.
7. Hideki Okajima, 33, Boston Red Sox – By no means was I downing him in the Delcarmen note, rather pointing out the discrepancy in price does not correlate with a discrepancy in performance. A 2nd half jump in walk rate was offset by a non-existent hit rate or his season ERA would’ve been well into the 3.00s. K rate remains strong, but be aware of age, huge drop in groundball rate and an escalating walk rate.
8. Grant Balfour, 31, Tampa Bay Rays – What didn’t go his way during Tampa Bay’s dream season? There is always a group of outliers when a team has an unexpectedly awesome season like that and Balfour is Exhibit A for Tampa Bay. The strikeout ability is absolutely legit but his hit and strand rates are entirely unsustainable meaning a correction in ERA is on the way. Control has, not surprisingly for some name Balfour, always been an issue, too. Tread cautiously.
9. Octavio Dotel, 35, Chicago White Sox – He might be old, but he can still blow it by guys. He only needed 67 innings to log 92 strikeouts—that’s amazing! His ERA hasn’t been elite for some time, but it’s also not bad enough to shy away. And if he’s healthy enough for 60+ innings, he’s worth rostering.
If the last tier is where you find value, then this is where you get rich. Some of your leaguemates won’t even know who a handful of these guys are, but they have the skills and they just might become the next best thing. Even if they don’t become sometimes-closers or vulture five-plus wins, they could just rack up 65+innings of quality work anonymously for your team:
1. Jerry Blevins, 25, Oakland A’s – A darkhorse candidate for the Oakland job thanks to strong skills (8.4 K/9 in OAK, 10.8 K/9 in 259 minors IP) and experience closing in the minors (41 saves).
2. Jeremy Affeldt, 29, San Francisco Giants – Since 2006 he has a 7.81 ERA & 3.8 K/9 in 43 IP as a starter and 3.84 ERA & 7.3 K/9 in 192 IP as a reliever. Even splits keeps southpaw from LOOGY status.
3. Jared Burton, 27, Cincinnati Reds – Injuries stunted a very nice breakout that ate up almost all of July and August; he likely wasn’t 100% during a poor September either. Owns a better than 8.0 K/9 throughout his career including 8.9 last year. One of my favorites for ’09.
4. Tony Pena, 27, Arizona Diamondbacks – Third in line for saves or worse if Cruz is re-signed, this should curb his price amongst speculators. He hasn’t displayed the strikeout ability you look for when using the MRM.
5. Jose Veras, 28, New York Yankees – A slightly wilder clone of teammate Edwar Ramirez.
6. Matt Thornton, 32, Chicago White Sox – Skepticism sets in because he posted a never-before-seen K rate (10.3), BB rate (2.5) and groundball rate (53%). I’m quite bearish on a repeat, plus Dotel and Scott Linebrink would get a shot a closing if Bobby Jenks faltered.
7. Joe Nelson, 34, Tampa Bay Rays – As with the other TB penners, saves potential exists, but it’d take a lot of failures to get to him. The K & BB rates jive with his career numbers, but the correction due in strand rate will boost ERA into mid-3.00s.
8. Jesse Crain, 27, Minnesota Twins – Not bad in his return from surgery and 2006 suggest some room to grow during second full season back. Holds leaguers should see a big number here in 2009.
9. Justin Miller, 31, San Francisco Giants – Though treading the fine line near the 2.0 K:BB rate, he’s still above and with an 8.3 K/9 rate, too. As a REM-deep sleeper saves option, 2007 points to how good things can get with Miller.
10. Santiago Casilla, 28, Oakland A’s – Another hot start tanked by a terrible finish, though injury may’ve been the culprit in 2008. Skilled enough to thwart teammates for closer’s role, but can he maintain over a full season?
11. Boof Bonser, 27, Minnesota Twins – Excellent skills went wholly unrewarded thanks to a terrible strand rate. He managed 9.8 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9 in his 52 relief innings which could signal a permanent new role for him.
12. Cory Wade, 25, Los Angeles Dodgers – The other sub-7.0 K/9 to make the list thanks to a 3.8 K:BB rate. His 387 minor league innings back up the miniscule walk rate and point to potential in the K rate. One to watch.
13. Rafael Betancourt, 34, Cleveland Indians – A big fat bust last year thanks to some gopheritis mixed with extreme hit and strand rate corrections from 2007’s excellence. 50%+ flyball tendency keeps HR-allowed potential in play.
14. Bill Bray, 25, Cincinnati Reds – Nice potential with K rate gains since 2006, but consistent control and a clean bill of health have eluded him during that time period as well. Left-handedness buries saves opportunity.
A lot to prove to show value for 2009.
1. Boone Logan, 24, Chicago White Sox
2. Will Ohman, 31, Unsigned
3. David Aardsma, 27, Seattle Mariners
4. Jesse Carlson, 28, Toronto Blue Jays
5. Ramon Troncoso, 26, Los Angeles Dodgers
6. Scott Linebrink, 32, Chicago White Sox
7. Taylor Buchholz, 27, Colorado Rockies
8. Bob Howry, 35, Chicago Cubs
9. Mike Lincoln, 34, Cincinnati Reds
10. Neal Cotts, 29, Chicago Cubs
11. Kyle Farnsworthless, 33, Kansas City Royals
12. Damaso Marte, 34, New York Yankees
13. Blaine Boyer, 27, Atlanta Braves
14. Ramon Ramirez, 27, Boston Red Sox
15. Kyle McClellan, 24, St. Louis Cardinals
16. Alex Hinshaw, 26, San Francisco Giants
17. Tyler Walker, 33, Seattle Mariners
18. Buddy Carlyle, 31, Atlanta Braves
19. Robinson Tejada, 27, Kansas City Royals
20. Scott Proctor, 32, Florida Marlins