Future Closers With Present Value
Sometimes certain MLB lineup strategies bleed into fantasy. Positional flexibility is nice, and platoon splits have worked their way into the lexicon for fantasy owners in lineup construction. After the success of the Royals, many big league teams have devoted considerable resources to building “super bullpens” with the idea that these dominant closers can shorten games and lead to extended success. This idea, however, has not necessarily translated to fantasy. Owners treat saves by punting more frequently than an uber conservative Jeff Fisher offense. While this seems to be a trend, it also could create market inefficiency.
By deep diving on the next standout relief pitcher, not only can you boost current pitching ratios at a reasonable price, but you can also lock down the next Wade Davis before he becomes WADE DAVIS. When researching relievers, it’s important to look at underlying skills and situations, as many up and comers don’t have a large enough sample to draw conclusive opinions. But the gamble is what makes it fun. Scouting relief pitchers is like eating your vegetables, you don’t really want to do it, but it really helps for a balanced diet. Luckily for you, I happen to enjoy vegetables.
Mychal Givens, Orioles
Givens enjoyed a breakout 2015, tossing 57.1 dominant innings in Double-A before joining the big club for 30 innings filled with strikeouts and promise. A former position player prospect, a la Kenley Jansen, Givens touches 98 mph with his fastball and possesses three above average pitches for getting the swing and miss, all from a sidearm angle. His change, which averages 10 mph less than his fastball, drew whiffs nearly 21 percent of the time, six percent above league average.
After his promotion in late June, Givens ranked among the top 20 relievers in baseball, averaging 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings. He also added a 1.80 ERA and 0.94 WHIP, numbers sure to help bolster ratio stats in any fantasy league. Givens’ cFIP of 71 suggests that his stuff is nasty enough to continue to give hitters fits for the foreseeable future.
The only drawback to Givens’ situation from a fantasy landscape is opportunity. Givens is clearly good enough to have a featured spot in the Oriole bullpen, but with Britton and O’Day ahead of him in the pecking order, Givens doesn’t have a clear path to saves. That’s probably ok for now. Givens is 25 years old and will strikeout enough hitters to remain fantasy relevant. In dynasty leagues, now could be the time to get in on the ground floor, as Givens definitely profiles as someone that could be a dominant stopper in the near future.
Keone Kela, Rangers
Kela is another electric young arm in a bullpen full of solid, if not spectacular options. Kela emerged on the radar in 2014, striking out 68 in 49 innings between High-A and Double-A. He was promoted almost immediately to bolster the bullpen in Arlington in 2015, and responded by tossing 60.1 innings in his first big league season, striking out 68 batters while walking only 18. His cFIP of 76 ranked 37th in all of baseball, for any pitcher, and matched that of Jose Fernandez and Jacob deGrom (sure in way fewer innings, but still).
Kela’s heater consistently sits at 97 mph, but his real weapon as a near unhittable 12 to 6 curve. In 2015, his Uncle Charlie got whiffs a 26.5 percent rate, over double the league average. Thus far in 2016, he has increased that number to nearly 56 percent. Ok, fine it’s spring training and only 18 pitches…but 56 percent! Kela’s curveball probably isn’t a historically good pitch, but it is great, and it’s a weapon that will help him maintain his status as a dominant option from the pen.
Like Givens, Kela is part of a deep and solid bullpen in Texas. That said, his path might clear up sooner rather than later. Last year’s closer, Shawn Tollenson, is already banged up. If he’s forced to miss time, Kela would be competing with Tom Wilhelmsen, Sam Dyson and Jake Diekman for saves, which is a battle that Kela could very well win. Either way, Kela is entering his age-23 season, making him an exciting option, closer or not, for years to come.
Kelvin Herrera, Royals
It feels like Herrera has been around forever. Since debuting as a 21-year-old for the Royals in 2011, Herrera has been a rock in their vaunted bullpen, tossing well over 80 innings per year (including playoffs). His numbers were down slightly last year, with a 2.71 ERA and 1.12 WHIP, but he more than made up for it in the Royals’ march to a World Series title. Seen by some as “just” the third option in the team’s triple headed bullpen monster, he stepped into the spotlight and made his presence known in the postseason after long time closer Greg Holland went down. Herrera dominated, giving up one run in 13.2 high leverage innings. He also struck out 22 batters to only 3 walks.
Now time for expert analysis: Herrera throws hard (there, I did it!). He averaged 98 mph with BOTH his fastball and sinker in 2015, also adding a slider and cutter to his six pitch arsenal. After relying on the curve as his primary breaking pitch for his career, Herrera leaned more on the newly developed slider in 2015, getting whiffs 22 percent of the time. The vast array of pitches is paramount in keeping hitters from squaring up on his offerings, as Herrera gave up ZERO homers in 2014 and followed with merely five long balls in 84.1 innings last season.
At this point, Herrera (who is somehow still only 26 years old) can probably be considered one of the best relief pitchers in baseball. The problem, from a fantasy perspective, is that he sets up for arguably the best closer in the game. Wade Davis saw his fastball velocity dip slightly this spring, but if the regular season to this point is any indication, he’ll be just fine. Until the day Davis turns over the reins, Herrera remains a top option for ratios and holds, with the possibility for an uptick in strikeouts. Still a young player, he’s also a great dynasty stash for future saves.
Tony Zych, Mariners
Zych has been a spring training darling thus far in 2016, with many clamoring for him to be inserted into the closer role ASAP. At 25-years-old, he’s an interesting guy to keep an eye on, as he struck out 11.78 per nine innings in his first taste of the big leagues in September 2015. While Zych shows promise, most of his numbers did come at the expense of vastly expaneded September and spring rosters. Further, his 3.69 DRA doesn’t really match up too well with the 2.45 ERA he posted in his first big league stint, meaning it’s possible that he’s not as good as he might have shown to this point. Zych remains an interesting option, but one that likely will require a longer look.
Kevin Jepsen, Twins
Twins fans clamored for a splashy move last July to strengthen their surprisingly contending roster. What they got was Jepsen, accompanied by a sad trombone. While Jepsen didn’t represent a splashy move to put the Twins over the top, he was really, really good down the stretch. He gave the Twins 28 innings with an elite 1.61 ERA and 0.89 WHIP. While those numbers are good, his DRA was 0.47, suggesting that he was even better. Jepsen is 31 years old, but his path to saves could be the easiest. Stalwart Glen Perkins has been injury prone for the last few years, and one tweak or bump could find Jepsen in a plum closing spot for 2016.