Fast-Moving Relief Prospects are a Fraud
One of the weirdest positions to navigate in dynasty formats is reliever. Not only does a relief pitcher’s value swing wildly from season-to-season (and even from game-to-game), but successfully gambling on relief pitcher prospects is just about impossible. Many experts stand by the fact that there’s no such thing as a bullpen prospect, and there are few who disagree with that statement—for good reason. Yet it can be hard to resist the urge to take a flier on some of the most elite relief arms in the minor leagues. It seems like a low-risk/high-reward proposition: for a cheap price, acquire a fast moving relief pitching prospect. This isn’t a rare move in dynasty leagues due to the wealth of arms from the amateur draft that are deemed “relief aces that could move quickly’ by mainstream draft guides. Understandably, the idea of owning a cheap young pitcher that could be closing out major league games just a season or two after being drafted is an enticing proposal. But as nice as this idea sounds in theory, it almost never pans out.
Don’t just take my word for it, though. Look through recent drafts and try to find a reliever that was both taken high in the draft and eventually blossomed into a great, or even just good, pitcher. You might have some trouble, considering this almost never happens. To look closer at this unfortunate phenomenon, I sifted through Baseball America’s scouting reports for every player drafted in the top three rounds of the amateur draft from 2008 to 2012. I turned up a grand total of 61 pitchers over those six drafts who were projected to move quickly as a reliever. The results for these players were less than encouraging, to say the least.
Of those 61 players, just three have managed to record at least ten saves over their big league career: Addison Reed, Drew Storen, and Craig Kimbrel. It’s quite alarming to see that out of every potential reliever drafted in the first three rounds of a draft from 2008-2012, just three were “successes.” Even worse, only one of them is currently slotted in as their team’s closer next season. Of the other 58 players, 36 never made it to the big leagues and just 11 have recorded a single big league save.
There are also dynasty league formats that have holds as a category and therefore pitchers don’t need to close to have value. Owners aren’t necessarily looking for a closer, just a great young relief pitcher. Alas, the non-closers have generally struggled as well. The average ERA of pitchers not named Craig Kimbrel, Drew Storen, and Addison Reed sits at 6.49, and they have a 7.95 K/9. In addition, just three relievers have double digit holds: Bryan Shaw (78), Drew Storen (72), and Aaron Crow (57).
It’s worth keeping in mind that there is still time for some of these relievers to make an impact in the big leagues, and that high saves/holds totals aren’t required to be of value in a bullpen. But no matter how you look at it, 56 out of the 61 players who fit the above criteria have turned into major fantasy disappointments. If a fast moving reliever from the 2012 draft hasn’t made an impact in the big leagues yet, it’s unlikely you’re satisfied with your investment. Most people won’t hold onto a bullpen prospect that long, making the roster spot (and initial cost) a waste.
Another way to see how few highly drafted relievers turn into closers is by looking at the current projected ninth inning men for each major league team.
|Team||Current Closer||Round Drafted, Year||Minor League Starts|
|Astros||Ken Giles||7th, 2011||6|
|Cardinals||Trevor Rosenthal||21st, 2009||48|
|Orioles||Zach Britton||4th, 2006||137|
|Pirates||Mark Melancon||9th, 2006||0|
|Red Sox||Craig Kimbrel||3rd, 2008||0|
|Royals||Wade Davis||3rd, 2004||138|
|White Sox||David Robertson||17th, 2006||0|
|Angels||Huston Street||1st, 2004||6|
|Athletics||Sean Doolittle||1st, 2007||0|
|Diamondbacks||Brad Ziegler||20th, 2003||69|
|Indians||Cody Allen||23rd, 2011||0|
|Mariners||A.J. Ramos||21st, 2009||1|
|Nationals||Jonathan Papelbon||4th, 2003||48|
|Rangers||Shawn Tolleson||30th, 2010||0|
|Rays||Brad Boxberger||1st, 2009||15|
|Twins||Glen Perkins||1st, 2004||101|
|Blue Jays||Roberto Osuna||N/A||27|
|Braves||Jason Grilli||1st, 1997||154|
|Brewers||Jeremy Jeffress||1st, 2006||64|
|Mariners||Steve Cishek||5th, 2007||0|
|Phillies||David Hernandez||16th, 2005||103|
|Reds||J.J. Hoover||10th, 2008||61|
|Rockies||Jake McGee||5th, 2004||131|
Looking at this table reveals some interesting information. I’ve bolded all the pitchers who fit the criteria above, and by ‘all’…I mean Craig Kimbrel and Huston Street. Just two of the current 30 closers were high draft picks that could be considered successful fast-moving relieving prospects. There are a few other pitchers that seem to fit the criteria–Wade Davis, Sean Doolittle, Brad Boxberger, Glen Perkins, Jason Grilli, and Jeremy Jeffress–but they don’t count as they were either drafted as starters or as position players (I’m looking at you, Doolittle).
That isn’t to say this exact trend will continue going forward. But, five consecutive drafts tell us that you have about a 4% chance of drafting a relieving prospect that will save more than nine games in the major leagues. At the same time, there’s a 14% chance that you draft a pitcher that records double digit holds in his career. Even out of the select few that did get to ten holds, their average ERA is 3.77: far from the shutdown relievers they were projected to be. The fact is, players drafted as fast-moving relievers almost never pan out, making for an unwise fantasy investment. It’s better served to use those spots on other prospects, or stock pile young MLB relief pitchers who may one day have a shot at the closing role.