TDG 2023 PLAYERS TO AVOID: RELIEF PITCHER
This is a companion piece to our 2023 Dynasty League Rankings. The opinions below are my own and do not reflect the TDG consensus.
Ryan Helsley, St. Louis Cardinals (AGE: 28, RANK: 5)
Ryan Helsley may have been the 2022 relief pitcher fantasy MVP. 19 saves a shocking nine wins from an RP, insane ratios with a 1.25 ERA and 0.74 WHIP, and the 4th most strikeouts among relievers with 94. All of that from a player who was being drafted outside the top 600 picks last year, in the few instances in which he was even selected. After a year like that, and with the closer job in hand, Helsley has skyrocketed to #5 on our relief pitcher ranks. If he comes anywhere close to those numbers, then not only will this recommendation to avoid look silly, but we will be wondering why we didn’t rank him higher.
There are so many ways this could go wrong for Helsley, though. For starters, since his debut in 2019, he has not gone an entire year without an injury. He made it through the regular season last year, only to suffer a hand/finger injury entering the postseason and having his worst outing of the year when it mattered the most. He experienced numbness in his fingers and was unable to be a productive pitcher in October. Prior to that, he had elbow issues, knee surgery, and shoulder impingement. Call me crazy, but someone throwing 104 MPH regularly with a history of injuries could easily have his arm follow the ball to home plate.
At the end of 2021, Giovanny Gallegos took over the closer role in St. Louis and saved 12 games in the final 5 weeks. He entered 2022 as a top-tier closer option in fantasy. To begin the year, he had just two bad games and one poorly timed home run in the first two months. A 3.86 ERA across 18.2 innings was enough to cause the Cardinals to remove him from that role. Helsley was dominant in 2022; there’s no question there. But if he or the team falters at all in their pursuit of a division title, they will have a short rope.
Helsley proved he can be one of the best relief pitchers in baseball. But that doesn’t mean we should forget the elevated risk that comes along with it.
José Leclerc, Texas Rangers (AGE: 29, RANK: 20)
“I didn’t leave” by Rupi Kaur
I didn’t leave because
I stopped loving you
I left because the longer
I stayed the less
I loved myself
Oh, José. How I have loved you. I believed. I was hurt. I believed again. You were hurt. Last season, you tried to convince me to believe once more. Let’s stop hurting each other. I can’t bring myself to keep clawing back to you. I don’t want to love myself any less.
Leclerc’s strikeouts have tantalized me for years, but his walks have broken my spirit. Sure, he did a better job of staying under control in 2022, but he also posted his lowest strikeout rate since his debut in 2016. Of the 35 pitchers with double-digit saves last season, only two exceeded Leclerc’s 14.1% career walk rate. Coming back from Tommy John surgery, and with a history of relative erraticness, it would have been easy to expect that character flaw to be prominent, but he managed to cut his walks upon his return. And he did so by throwing fewer pitches in the zone. Seems weird, right? Not when you dig in to see that his slider became elite and his changeup was greatly improved. He had his best performance yet at inducing swings outside the zone. When someone shows you who they are, you should believe them. And this is not who Leclerc has been his whole career. Smart money would be on some regression in those pitches, and those walks to creep back up.
In addition to the likelihood of performance-based risk in his assumed closer role, a recent interview with Rangers GM Chris Young left plenty of room for variance in their bullpen. He said that Leclerc “could easily be the closer,” but he then went on to list the closing merits of four other players, and also suggested that he’s most excited for the contributions they will get from their relief pitcher that had the best 2022, Brock Burke. With the team spending big money each of the last two off-seasons, they won’t tolerate anything other than being competitive, and a recently injured, perpetually erratic closer is a bad bet to stay in the role all year.