I didn’t do a 2010 version of the MR guide. I think it was because my main Thursday column over at Fanball was called “Middle Men” so I was writing about middle relievers every week. 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. 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. 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.)
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 2011.
We are seeing greater balance in workload among the relief corps. In 2009, eight non-closing relievers managed 80+ innings of relief work. In 2010, there were only five such non-closing relievers. Compare that with five years ago when there were 14 and 10 years ago when there were 19. Only two relievers topped 90 innings last year so you’re looking for 70+ innings at the high end.
Here are five young small-sample strikeout studs that you should keep on your radar:
1. Jordan Walden, 23 years old, Los Angeles Angels – He displayed blistering heat (avg. 99 MPH w/his fastball) in his 15-inning sample at the big league level last year striking out 23 batters. He’s a failed starter as a 2-pitch pitcher whose third just never developed, but he looks like he could be a dominant setup guy behind Fernando Rodney and might even get a shot at saves at some point this year.
2. Kenley Jansen, 23, Los Angeles Dodgers – He had a star turn in 27 innings similar to Walden’s where he struck out 41 batters. He’s actually a failed catcher that the Dodgers shifted to the pen with great success in limited samples thus far. Unlike Walden, there is legitimate competition for saves on the Dodgers with Jonathan Broxton and Hong-Chih Kuo so he’s almost certainly going to spend the year in the 6th through 8th innings.
3. Zach Braddock, 23, Milwaukee Brewers – Likely to be just a LOOGY as a southpaw who crushed lefties in his 34 innings of work. Even still, he has massive strikeout potential and could develop a larger role if veteran arms LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito succumb to injury.
4. Collin Balester, 25, Washington Nationals – Another failed starter, Balester shifted to the pen last year with great success in 21 innings striking out 28 batters. If the team places importance on Spring Training numbers, Balester should grab a spot in the bullpen as he’s excelled in his nine innings striking out 10 and walking just two. As a former starter, he could be stretched out for 2-inning stints and end up pushing the 100-inning mark which could make him especially valuable if he continues to strikeout a batter per inning or better.
5. Ernesto Frieri, 25, San Diego Padres – With Edward Mujica and Ryan Webb shipped out for Cameron Maybin, spots are open in the SD bullpen and Frieri had a great 32 inning audition during which he struck out 41 batters. This could be the next great unheralded middle reliever for the Padres. He’s no better than fifth on list for saves, so don’t speculate here if you want saves.
Here are three guys that have come up as starting pitchers, but may be forced to the bullpen due to filled rotations:
1. Kevin Slowey, Minnesota Twins – He’s carried a solid 6.9 K/9 in 473 innings as a starter and I could see that ticking up above eight as a reliever. How he will be utilized out of the bullpen is a bit of a mystery at this point, but I can’t imagine he would be much more than a 6th-7th inning guy and then a long relief guy for the 2nd through 5th innings every fifth day when Nick Blackburn pitches.
2. Hisanori Takahashi, Los Angeles Angels – The swingman pitched 122 innings for the Mets last year and was much better out of the bullpen. He struck out 9.4 batters per game in 57 relief innings posting a 2.04 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. Meanwhile he struck out 7.5 with a 5.01 ERA and 1.45 WHIP in 12 starts totaling 65 innings. He could have some sneaky value, especially if they use him more than an inning at a time.
3. Manny Parra, Milwaukee Brewers – Like Takahashi, Parra struggled when starting and excelled out of the ‘pen. His strikeouts were strong regardless of role (9.4 as SP, 9.8 as RP), but in 16 starts he posted a 6.19 ERA and 1.74 WHIP in 84 innings. Meanwhile his ERA was 2.39 with a 1.35 WHIP in 38 relief innings. The WHIP was still high, but I’m really not concerned with a reliever’s WHIP in terms of impact on a team’s bottom line by the end of the season. As I mentioned in the Closer Tier’s piece, Carlos Marmol’s crazy awful WHIP from 2009 (1.46) would impact a standard 12-team staff by 0.01-0.02 depending on the final innings count. There’s an impact, but not nearly to the degree many analysts suggest.
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 pump their costs, jump at the chance to get them at a discount. Also, I’m not saying you can’t pay more than a dollar on them, but some of them might creep as high as $8-10 which is a price I’m not willing to pay. In fact, anything above $5 would likely push me out. Here are the favorites:
1. Luke Gregerson, San Diego Padres – Back-to-back 75+ inning seasons averaging 10.7 K/9 combined with the ever-looming threat of a Heath Bell trade make him the most sought after middle man these days. He doesn’t give an elite ERA (3.24 and 3.22), but it doesn’t hurt, either. You are drafting him for the major strikeouts and potential emergence into the closer’s role.
2. Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds – He’s one of the hottest prospects in the game so his value is likely to be through the roof relative to middle relievers. He could be a 100-inning, 100+ strikeout guy if Dusty Baker doesn’t lean veteran heavy and realizes the gem he has with Chapman. Eventually he should be tried as a starter, so he should get some 2-inning stints to keep him at least somewhat stretched out.
3. Daniel Bard, Boston Red Sox – The arrival of Bobby Jenks likely puts Bard third on the list for saves, but that doesn’t curb his value for me. He’s their best reliever for sure and they need him pitching the most important outs to get to the ninth with a lead. He was excellent in 2010 and I could see him getting even better and taking that strikeout rate back up over 11 as he did in 2009.
4. Mike Adams, San Diego Padres – The skill is not in question at all. It’s a matter of staying healthy for Adams. He has yet to put together back-to-back healthy seasons so 2011 would complete his first pair. He’s been the complete package at relief with gaudy strikeout totals and minuscule ERA and WHIP rates.
5. Joaquin Benoit, Detroit Tigers – Missed all of 2009, but came back with a career year that earned him a hefty contract. Like Adams, the skill is not in doubt at all, it’s all about staying healthy. He will be a major asset setting up Jose Valverde and could get some sneaky saves when Valverde needs a break.
6. Hong-Chih Kuo, Los Angeles Dodgers – Another guy similar to Adams whose skill is elite, but staying on the field has been problematic. A complete season in 2011 would be his first pair of back-to-back full seasons, too. He absolutely obliterates lefties (.095 last year), but crushes righties too, avoiding LOOGY status.
7. Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants – His value is ticking upward as Brian Wilson’s status for Opening Day remains in doubt. Romo isn’t guaranteed to get the saves if Wilson is absent, but he is the one most are speculating on thanks to back-to-back seasons with 10+ K/9 rates matched with a sub-3.0 BB/9.
8. Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics – Balfour is a good example of how a reliever’s ERA can vary wildly year-to-year even if the skills stay relatively steady. The samples are so small that it a bit of randomness can make a huge difference. He has maintained strong skills with strikeout per inning stuff for his entire career and the control is improving as he ages. In Oakland’s spacious park, he’ll be even better.
9. Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies – The home runs are always going to keep his ERA high for an elite reliever (3.50 or higher), but the ridiculous control (3 seasons below 2.0 BB/9 including 1.2 last year) and equally ridiculous strikeout rates make him a useful asset.
10. Rafael Soriano, New York Yankees – Speaking of home runs, I’m worried about how Soriano’s massive flyball rate (52% last year, 50% career) will play in Yankee Stadium. The skills are strong otherwise, but the ERA will likely be higher than the sub-3.00* totals he has posted since 2006. (*it was right at 3.00 in 2007)
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. Matt Belisle, Colorado Rockies – Came out of a nowhere with a brilliant season last year, but the lack of a legitimate track record is what keeps him out of the elite column. Can he maintain the strikeout per inning stuff and more importantly will Colorado allow him to throw 92 innings again or close to it at least? If so, he’s great and likely quite underrated.
2. Tyler Clippard, Washington Nationals – This is an example of what we’re trying to find the next example of in 2011. Clippard was taxed by the Nats throwing 91 innings in 78 appearances, but he delivered with 11.1 K/9, a 3.07 ERA and 11 wins. In fact, he had 17 decisions. I wouldn’t bet on anything close to that again as reliever wins are even flukier than starting pitcher ones. He will likely be overrated in 2011.
3. Bobby Jenks, Boston Red Sox – Don’t underestimate Jenks this year. He could be closing at some point if Papelbon is moved, but if not we could see his workload increase back into the high 60s for the first time since 2007 as he won’t be used solely according to save availability.
4. Takashi Saito, Milwaukee Brewers – Even at 41, he shows no signs of slowing down. He’s more a 55-inning pitcher these days as opposed to 65-70 he gave when came to the majors in 2006, but he can still offer 65+ strikeouts in that time.
5. David Robertson, New York Yankees – He’s been a favorite of mine since back in 2009 when he was an unknown. Now part of a deep bullpen, he’s still pumping out massive strikeout totals, but the lack of control leaves his ERA & WHIP elevated. The latter doesn’t bother me in the least.
6. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox – I love this kid, but there’s no way he deserved the closer’s role over Matt Thornton based on a 23 innings at the end of the season. Drafted as a starter, he could be the swingman for Chicago this year which could boost his innings total and add to his value.
7. Sergio Santos, Chicago White Sox – The converted infielder came out of nowhere to have a very good season out of the bullpen last year striking out nearly 10 batters per nine innings. His control was a bit erratic and he seemed to wear down late in the season. He should improve in 2011.
8. Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals – I know he’s done it for two and a half years, but I still don’t buy Ryan Franklin as a closer. Motte will get a chance sooner or later. In the meantime, he’s good for a strikeout an inning and improving control and rate stats.
9. Kevin Jepsen, Los Angeles Angels – Another guy I’ve liked for a while, he’s been up and down, but with Scott Downs on the DL to start the season, he could be first in line for saves behind an ever-shaky Fernando Rodney.
10. David Hernandez, Arizona Diamondbacks – After struggling as a starter despite some quality stuff, he transitioned nicely to the bullpen raising his strikeout rate from 5.7 K/9 in eight starts (42 IP) to 10.9 in 37 innings of relief. In fact, he improved across the board. I love JJ Putz this year, but back spasms are putting his Opening Day in doubt and Hernandez should be heir apparent.
11. Joba Chamberlain, New York Yankees – We all know what he can do. The Yankees aren’t afraid to allow him to pitch more than an inning at a time (did so 15 times last year) so he could feasibly push the 80-inning mark, though the depth of the NY bullpen might eliminate the need.
12. Alexi Ogando, Texas Rangers – With Neftali Feliz officially taking back the closer’s role, Ogando is firmly entrenched as his setup man. He looked strong in his 41-inning debut and has looked even stronger in the minors with a 12.6 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9 in 112 innings (all but 31 came in Dominican Summer League, but he dominated AA and AAA for those 31, too).
13. Ryan Madson, Philadelphia Phillies – Another high dollar guy (again, relative to middle relievers) because Brad Lidge is so shaky in front of him and he has a long track record of quality middle relief. His strikeout rate has increased yearly since 2006 nearly touching 11 last year. A chair kicking incident cost him a lot of time last year as it resulted in a broken toe. Otherwise, he’s a high workload reliever when healthy.
14. Joel Peralta, Tampa Bay Rays – He enjoyed a breakout season at age 34 last year and color me a bit skeptical. He is in the mix for some saves as they vow to go closer by committee, but I want to see if the strikeouts are for real before investing.
15. Edward Mujica, Florida Marlins – He finally paired his elite control (0.8 in ’10, 1.4 career) with a big time strikeout rate (9.3) resulting in a sick 12.0 K/BB rate. His home run rate has been a problem for his entire career and leaving PETCO will be problematic even though Sun Life Stadium is still solid for pitchers.
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. Clay Hensley, Florida Marlins – He might be a bit more known as he is supposed to be the next in line behind Leo Nunez, but Nunez was much better than many are giving him credit for so I think he holds the job. Hensley had his best season yet last year after spending all of ’09 in the minors. I wouldn’t pay more than $2 to find out if he can repeat.
2. Santiago Casilla, San Francisco Giants – His career profile is a great example of how volatile a middle reliever’s skills can be as he has bounced from useful to scrub before finally notching his best season last year at age 30. Don’t go crazy for him.
3. Chris Resop, Pittsburgh Pirates – He has remade himself as a strikeout-heavy reliever and should finally get a chance to do it for a full season, especially since he’s out of options.
4. Sean Marshall, Chicago Cubs – In his first season as a full-time reliever, he took a nice step forward in the strikeout rate and pitched in a lot of high leverage situations allowing him to accumulate seven wins. Don’t bet on the wins, but this lefty can get right and left handers out.
5. Bobby Parnell, New York Mets – Looked sharp in 76 relief innings between AAA and the majors and I think he is a primed for 80+ inning season with quality stats. A great dollar value very late.
6. Jesse Crain, Chicago White Sox – If the spike in strikeout rate (8.2 last year, 5.8 career to date prior to ’10) is for real, he’s usually good for at least 65 innings making him plenty useful as a dollar guy in that deep bullpen.
7. Sean Burnett, Washington Nationals – Emerged with an outburst of strikeouts last year raising his rate more than two to 8.9 K/9 in 63 innings. The backend of Washington’s bullpen is uncertain so he could grab some saves, too.
8. Kerry Wood, Chicago Cubs – He’ll pump tons of strikeouts, but also tons of walks and he’s good for at least a DL stint or two so if you league counts injuries he is a first round pick.
9. Tim Collins, Kansas City Royals – The diminutive Collins (5’7) carries a strikeout rate that belies his stature (13.3 K/9 in 223 minor league IP). He should make the team out of camp and I see no reason he won’t continue to pile up the strikeouts.
10. Anthony Slama, Minnesota Twins – Nicked a little bit with an elbow issue this spring, but he should be back at some point this season and he can be a huge strikeout asset out of the Minnesota bullpen. Monitor his return and be ready to jump in.
11. Michael Wuertz, Oakland Athletics – He’s only had the one great season, 2009, so I’m a little skeptical, but he did maintain a strikeout per inning in an injury-riddled season last year. The home ballpark always helps, but don’t bet on 2009 numbers.
12. Bill Bray, Cincinnati Reds – Looked as good as ever after missing all of 2009, but he is a LOOGY so he doesn’t pile up many innings which limits his potential.
13. Dan Runzler, San Francisco Giants – He’s got an explosive strikeout rate in his 41 innings as a big leaguer, but a 5.5 BB/9 suggests caution. He could be a great sleeper if he tames the control and increases the workload.
14. Jeremy Jeffress, Kansas City Royals – Triple digit heat and a devastating breaking pitch scream future closer for this top prospect. He may not break camp with the team, but when he comes up, he will be a target. Don’t overpay, though.
15. Louis Coleman, Kansas City Royals – A big 2010 in the minors coupled with a big spring have earned him some sleeper buzz. Reliever spring stats might be the most worthless of all as they samples are insanely small. His 92 innings from last year are enough to know he can be a big strikeout guy out of KC’s pen.