For players in deeper leagues that find it useful to have a reliever with 70+ K upside or a real outside shot at saves, the below represent some of the best options out there.
A.J. Ramos, Miami Marlins: Steve Cishek is a fine pitcher, one capable of holding down a closing job on most any team. That said, if the Marlins are truly committed to building through the minors and Cishek proves to be an above average reliever, he should be on the trading block. Without Cishek, the Marlins pen gets incredibly thin – Mike Dunn and Ryan Webb are flawed (at best) relievers and then you’re down to Chad Qualls, Jose Ceda and Scott Maine. The one glimmer of hope is Ramos.
Ramos is the first player in Marlins history to strike out the side in his MLB debut—which clearly counts for something. Last year, at AA, Ramos posted a 34.1 K% and 8.1 BB%. In very limited MLB duty, he, at least, showed the same ability to get ahead of hitters and miss bats. Ramos should be given every opportunity to make the club at the start of the season, although the signing of Qualls makes that a tad bit tougher. Still, typically, cream rises to the top. Ramos should be a dynamo from day one in rates leagues and could return a pretty penny in most deep leagues. If things break the right way: 80+ K’s, 3.60 ERA and 1.25 WHIP.
Fernando Salas, St. Louis Cardinals: There is no doubting Jason Motte is the reliever to own in St. Louis. However, while people will likely jump on Mitchell Boggs next, they should rather be tapping Salas. Salas had an amazing, albeit lucky (.226 BABIP, 83.9% strand rate), 2011: 25.4 K%, 7.1 BB%, 11.2% swinging strike rate and 60% first strikes. He actually improved on the first-strike and swinging strike marks in 2012, yet took a step back in the K% and BB% and ERA (4.30) and FIP (3.59).
Since 2010, of relievers with at least 150 innings, Salas is tied for the 24th best K% and has a top 50 BB%. If you’re looking for who will hold the eighth for the majority of 2013, Salas should be your man. He’ll be good for a 3.15 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 65 K’s—with a bit of upside depending on how close he can come to the 75 innings he threw in 2011.
Josh Edgin, New York Mets: If Frank Francisco could just stay healthy, life would be a lot easier. Still, even if Francisco remains healthy and effective, the Mets would probably do their best to deal him. That would seemingly move Bobby Parnell back into the closer’s seat. But after Parnell, there’s not much “there there” when it comes to the Mets pen—no LaTroy Hawkins doesn’t count. This provides Edgin with the opportunity to step into a high leverage role and rack up some holds.
Last season, he threw almost 70 innings across AA, AAA and the majors. While he struggled at the advanced levels (11 BB% at AAA and 4.69 FIP in the majors), he showed a nice K-rate (28% for the Mets). That said, he, unfortunately, didn’t get ahead of hitters and had a really tough time with righties (.365 wOBA against)—which could put the dreaded LOOGY stench on him. Still, at worst, he could end up one of the more valuable LOOGYs in the game, with his ability to strike out a batter per inning. Keep an eye on him and don’t be surprised if he ends up with a 3.70 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 65 K’s.
Nick Vincent, San Diego Padres: After trading Ernesto Frieri, the Padres got a bit thin at the top of the pen, relying on Dale Thayer for parts of 2012. Huston Street and Luke Gregerson are still in the fold – but both have had health problems and could be trade bait this summer. With that possibility and Thayer not very good, someone or two will emerge.
Aside from a 21.2 inning hiccup at AAA last season (it was the PCL), Vincent has shown incredible command throughout his career. He also has shown the ability to fool minor league hitters. In his major league debut (26.1 IPs), Vincent posted a 26.7 K%, 6.7 BB% and 12.5% swinging strike rate. Unfortunately, he had a hard time getting ahead of hitters (56.2% first-strike rate) which could hurt his ratios and BB% rate in 2013 if major league hitters are patient against him. Still, Vincent will be right around a K-per-inning next season with solid ratios. He should be able to accumulate a decent amount of holds and double digit saves wouldn’t be shocking.
Brad Brach, San Diego Padres: It’s odd that there are two Padres relievers and neither of them is Brad Boxberger. What Brach has that Boxberger doesn’t: awesome BB% throughout the minors. For some reason, Brach hasn’t been able to bring that to the major league level, yet—he routinely pitches behind in the count and has a 12.6 BB% over 73.2 MLB innings. Brach also has a real problem with lefties. Still, He has a great K% and generates a good amount of swinging strikes.
You might see a few batters on the base paths for Brach, so a 1.25 WHIP +/- .05 seems right. He could take a small step forward in ERA to about 3.50 and should keep the K’s humming (easily eclipsing 70, with a chance to surpass 80). If he finds an out-pitch against lefties, watch out. Brach, like Vincent, is one of the true sleepers in the Padres pen with Brach, seemingly, having a much higher ceiling than Vincent–Vincent is safer.
Zach Stewart, Pittsburgh Pirates: The Pirates’ pen isn’t the deepest thing in the world—Jason Grilli is a journeyman who is suddenly superman and Mark Melancon should have a bounce back season but that’s about it.
Stewart was once a decent prospect but has been traded four times since 2009. He has just 33 major league appearances and 14 starts to his name for all his travels. He started 11 games in the minors for the Red Sox last season, but made 17 relief appearances for the White Sox before the trade. Stewart has shown damn good control throughout the majority of his career, however he doesn’t get ahead of hitters much nor does he miss a ton of Major League bats. Stewart is still relatively green but is already 26—it’s time to sink of swim. The Pirates are shallow in the rotation but it is pretty clear Stewart’s home is in the pen. He could blossom into one of the better control relievers, capable of challenging Wilton Lopez for the BB% crown (hyperbole alert). If you want a dark horse to save 30 games, Stewart is your man.
Chris Leroux, Pittsburgh Pirates: Leroux was plucked off waivers in 2010, but hasn’t pitched much since then (36 MLB innings, 130 minor league innings). While he has been good at AAA recently, he is old for the level (he is 28) and has been at AAA since 2010. That said, he has pitched quite well in minimal MLB duty: 13.9% swinging strike rate, 68.8% first strike rate, 2.22 K:BB rate—but he hasn’t topped 25 MLB innings in a season. Clearly it’s pretty hard to evaluate him on such a paltry amount of innings, but he could emerge as a K-per-inning reliever with surprisingly solid ratios (he is out of options so he should make the team). He’s a deeper name to file away for NL-only leagues that value a decent K/9 rate.
Raul Valdes, Philadelphia Phillies: Up until a few weeks ago, the Phillies had a stable of unproven (for one reason or another) relievers – but someone was likely to emerge. Since then, they’ve signed Mike Adams and Chad Durbin to somewhat supplant/supplement Antonio Bastardo and push Phillippe Aumont, Jeremy Horst and Raul Valdes to the periphery. Bastardo is a fine reliever and should still be a solid commodity. Of the remaining, Valdes has the opportunity to return the most value (but likely only in holds or rates leagues).
If you weren’t paying attention too closely, you may have missed how awesome Valdes was in 31 innings last year (small sample, true). He had a 31 K% and 4.4 BB%. Valdes was signed way back in 2004 after leaving Cuba, but is now a 35-year-old lefty reliever, who has only once topped 31 MLB innings. A healthy Valdes could be a K+-per-inning steal in the right league. Unfortunately, his being on the roster gives the Phils a luxurious lefty arsenal, which could pigeonhole Valdes as the LOOGY—oddly, for his career, lefties have a far higher wOBA (.345) than righties (.285).
Adam Ottavino, Colorado Rockies: Ottavino was a first round pick by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006 but has just over 100 MLB innings and found himself on waivers in April and claimed by the Rockies. The Rockies turned Ottavino into a full-time high-inning reliever immediately and Ottavino flashed some promise: 23.9 K% and 11.7% swinging strike rate. He did walk too many (10 BB%) and didn’t get ahead a lot (58.7% first-strike rate). Still both of those rates are workable for a pitcher who has a solid mix of pitches like Ottavino.
In Colorado, it helps to generate a good amount of ground balls and Ottavino appeared to throw a breaking pitch almost as often as he did his fastball—which should hopefully get his GB rate up. He throws pretty darn hard with a mid-90s fastball and just needs to get ahead and spot his pitches a bit more to take the next step as a reliever. If you squint, you can make a case that Ottavino is in position to have a breakout season (or whatever the equivalent is for a low-leverage reliever). He might not get many holds though (Matt Belisle, Wilton Lopez and Rafael Betancourt are excellent relievers) and really his entire value would be tied on him throwing 75+ innings with a decent K-rate. That said, he could be a relatively free 70+ K’s and has the ability not to destroy your ratios.