The evolution of bullpen usage has led to fewer and fewer clear-cut closers, forcing fantasy drafters to draw names out of a hat after the top-tier names are gone.
As soon as the outright closers and the relievers with the best skillsets are taken, it’s all about throwing darts and hoping you hit something promising. This is the case for all positions once you get past a certain point in drafts, but it’s more prevalent among relievers and feels like more of a
The final few rounds of drafts are the perfect time to take a chance on high-upside arms, relievers with experience in thin bullpens, or guys that are in a Spring Training competition for the closer role. To aid fantasy managers in their spin of the roulette wheel, I have identified five relievers worthy of your precious darts.
If you’d like to hear more in-depth analysis of these names or uncover 15 more sleeper relievers, listen to Episode #27 of the In The Pen Podcast where Rick Graham, Callen Elslager, and I broke down our favorite post-250 relievers.
Only arms being drafted outside of the top 300 since Valentine’s Day in Draft Champions drafts on the NFBC platform were considered. All projections via ATC.
2022 Stats: 25 IP, 5.04 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 27% K%, 1 SV, 6 HLD
2023 Projections: 60 IP, 3.91 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 26.9% K%, 10 SV, 11 HLD
When you picture the most expensive player on a Major League Baseball team, who comes to your mind? I’m sure many of you are thinking of names like Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, or Mookie Betts. For the A’s, the answer to that question is none other than Trevor May. His status as the team leader in 2023 salary ($7M) is more of a testament to the lack of Oakland’s spending than it is to May’s stature. However, it can be helpful when attempting to sus out the team’s preference’s when it comes to the ninth inning.
It would seem counterintuitive to not use the highest-paid player on the roster in the most forward-facing of bullpen roles. Common sense would tell us that the A’s plan to use May as the closer not only because they view him as the most valuable member of the team dollar-wise, but also because they’ll likely want to ship him to a contender at the deadline to get some prospects with which to stock the farm system. The best way to market May’s skills and pump up his trade value would be to allow him to rack up a bunch of saves and show off his skills on the mound.
Trevor May's 2Ks. 😷 pic.twitter.com/Y736Lm7xIu
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 14, 2022
Taking a look at May’s 2022 stats may have you second-guessing how closer-worthy his skills really are, but the injury-riddled campaign is not what we should be using to evaluate the veteran reliever. Since undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing the entirety of the 2017 season, May has been one of the most reliable relievers in baseball. From 2018 through 2021, the right-hander amassed a 3.33 ERA (175.2 IP), a 1.14 WHIP, and a 32.3% strikeout rate. That strikeout rate was in the top 15 among all qualified relievers during that timeframe. If you’re convinced that 2022 was a sign of things to come and that, at 33 years old, his decline phase has begun, take a look at his underlying metrics.
Despite that poor performance and the decline in his strikeout skills, all of the ERA estimators suggest he was right in line with his career rates. May’s xFIP during his four-year peak was 3.60 and the 3.75 xFIP he posted in 2022 was actually better than the 3.81 mark he pitched to in his successful 2021 campaign. Additionally, his fastball velocity (95.8 mph) was right in line with his career mark (95 mph), and his ability to earn swings and misses didn’t disappear. His 30.8% CSW% from 2022 was almost identical to the 30.9% he had in 2021 and was better than the rate he reached in 2019.
The only downside I see in taking May in fantasy drafts is that he has some competition. Both Dany Jiménez and Domingo Acevedo closed games for the A’s in 2022 and could be in the mix for save opportunities. Luckily for May, A.J. Puk was traded, lightening the competition considerably. There’s also the consideration that the A’s won’t be providing May with too many shots at saves because of their poor expected performance. I can’t argue with that, but I will say that bad teams usually play a lot of close games, and when they do win, it isn’t by much, which could lead to plenty of shots for May. With an ADP late enough in drafts to take a risk on the slight uncertainty of his role, the possible lack of wins, and the chance that he’s declining, it’s worth it to draft May for some sneaky late saves, at least for the first few months of the season.
2022 Stats: 64.1 IP, 4.76 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 30.7% K%, 31 SV, 4 HLD
2023 Projections: 63 IP, 3.57 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 29.1% K%, 9 SV, 13 HLD
Joining his twin brother in The City by the Bay, Rogers is looking to bounce back after a rollercoaster of a season. Through May 27th, the lanky left-hander was sporting a pristine 0.44 ERA and was close to the Major League lead with 17 saves. It felt like he was pitching over his head, but no one could have seen the landslide that was about to ensue. From May 28th until he was traded to the Brewers on July 27th, Rogers struggled to an 8.14 ERA with just 11 more saves. It was a disastrous stretch that didn’t improve much with the change of scenery, as he failed to get on track, posting a 5.48 ERA and three saves in a setup role in Milwaukee.
Now back in California fresh off signing a three-year, $33 million deal, it sort of seems like we should just expect Rogers to return to normal. 2022 was a year in which he pitched for three teams, being traded from the Twins to the Padres right before Opening Day, and again at the deadline from the Padres to the Brewers. That much change can be tough to deal with, especially for a pitcher that had only ever known one organization. Besides the human emotion aspect, Rogers was also just really unlucky.
Not only was his xFIP a full run and a half lower than his full-season ERA, it actually improved upon his move to the NL Central where the gap between his ERA and xFIP was nearly two and a half runs. His strikeout rate was right in line with his numbers from 2018 to 2021 (31.2%) and his pitches on an individual level didn’t decline in any noticeable fashion. If you remove the ERA from his 2022 stat line, he was elite in WHIP, strikeout rate, and saves, and ultimately was a boon to most fantasy teams. Those underlying metrics should be enough to convince fantasy managers of a 2023 resurgence, but if they’re not, don’t forget about the San Francisco pitching factory that has produced numerous breakouts and improvements from pitchers going through their system in the past few years. Rogers returning to normalcy should be enough to resuscitate him, but the Giants could also take him to another level with their magic pitching dust. If it’s so obvious that a full recovery is in store, why is he being drafted so late?
Taylor Rogers, Wipeout Sliders 🌊 pic.twitter.com/MIj6QDeuz3
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 29, 2022
The clear answer is Camilo Doval. The 25-year-old is the closer of the future in SF and led the team with 27 saves last year. Why would the team want to bring in a veteran to block him and possibly stall his development? It could be a situation in which the Giants are hoping to reduce his future earnings in arbitration, but it also could be that they want to preserve the young pitcher’s arm. He throws a million miles per hour and the Giants have constantly been reluctant to hand him the role without restraints. It’s unlikely that Doval is completely removed from the ninth, and that leaves a lingering doubt that Rogers would be able to take over the role full-time.
Still, as a pitcher with great strikeout numbers and a track record of ratio dominance, Rogers would be a wonderful addition to any fantasy team even if he’s just getting 40%-50% of save chances in San Francisco. It’s not out of the question that the Giants use him as the left-handed counterpart to their right-handed flamethrower. Going off the board in the 28th round of 12 teamers affords drafters leeway to take the chance on him without risking too much. If he does continue to struggle and is immune to the magic pitching dust, he’s an easy cut. If he gets only a fraction of the save opportunities, he’ll be worth the hold in most circumstances. If he becomes the full-time closer and fully bounces back, you’ve found yourself a diamond in the rough.
2022 Stats: 65.1 IP, 2.76 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 24.8% K%, 0 SV, 9 HLD
2023 Projections: 59 IP, 3.74 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 24.4% K%, 7 SV, 10 HLD
This might be my favorite relief pitcher sleeper to draft in 2023. Unfortunate circumstances have positioned López to swipe the closer role on the South Side of Chicago, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of the industry lagging on evaluating him as the prime ninth-inning replacement. Many analysts are announcing Kendall Graveman as the man to draft out of the White Sox arm barn, but I’m convinced López is the correct choice.
Starting with the obvious, López is being drafted much later, affording drafters the opportunity to shop elsewhere before locking down what could be a major asset. Graveman is going off the board with an ADP of 266.6, nearly 100 picks before our third reliever sleeper. It’s my belief that this is the case because Graveman has the most experience closing out games and is getting paid more in 2023. I disregard that sentiment because we have both a new manager in Chicago and because López is a more effective reliever, opening the possibility that any status Graveman once held could be out the window.
It was a breakout season for the former top prospect as he set career bests across the board. Most noticeably, he continued to hone his control, leading to a top-10 walk rate (4.3%) among qualified relievers. The rest of his success can be contributed to a four-seamer that jumped 1.3 mph to 97.1 mph, going from a below-average pitch in 2021 (4.96) to well above average in 2022 (5.21 PLV). His overall CSW% was the main benefactor (outside of his surface stats), peaking at a career-high 30.1%. It’s possible 2022 was López’s best season, but after seeing the work he put in at Driveline to improve the efficiency of his slider, I’m convinced he’ll take his game to another level in 2023.
After having his best season since 2018-2019, Reynaldo Lopez spent his off-season training with us to prepare for 2023 👀 @DrivelineBB
Let's take a look at some of the improvements he made this off-season 🧵 pic.twitter.com/S1thIbhC35
— Juan C. Rodriguez (@jcrod22) February 22, 2023
If new manager Pedro Grifol is as enamored with López as I am, he should have no problems naming him the closer to start the season. The right-hander may need to establish himself once more to begin the season and earn or take the role from Graveman in the early going, but that shouldn’t be an obstacle when it comes to taking a shot on López extremely late in drafts. It’s just one hurdle for him to clear and it’s not a tall one. The upside is sky-high pitching for a team that should be competitive. If his skills don’t improve from his trip to Driveline, López will still be a worthwhile dart throw as long as he cements himself as the go-to guy in the ninth.
2022 Stats: 66.1 IP, 3.12 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 27% K%, 4 SV, 20 HLD
2023 Projections: 70 IP, 3.63 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 26.2% K%, 7 SV, 13 HLD
As an A’s fan, I’ve been hyped about Puk since the day he was drafted. I was sad to see him go when he was dealt to the Marlins during the offseason, but it’s for the best for the young southpaw. He leaves a crowded bullpen in Oakland, where he was being considered as a starter for 2023, and winds up in an uncertain bullpen situation in Miami. His main competitors are Dylan Floro, Matt Barnes, and Tanner Scott, each of whom has their flaws.
I’m bullish on Puk taking over the closer role in Miami because he has the highest upside and the team has other lefty relievers, affording them the luxury of not having to rely on him as the fireman. The upside comes from Puk’s status as the sixth pick in the 2016 Draft and the skills he exhibited in a breakout 2022 campaign – the first fully healthy season of his Major League career. There aren’t many lefty relievers that feature the fastball velocity that Puk pumps (96.7 mph), and there are fewer still that pair it with a devastating slider (37.3% CSW%, 5.24 PLV). He induces a fair amount of swings and misses, has the stamina to go multiple innings, and limits the walks that most relievers with his skillset do not.
A.J. Puk is electric when healthy.
-4-Seam: 50.6%, .465 SLG, .355 wOBA
-Slider: 33.8%, .333 SLG, .269 wOBA
-Slider: 45.9%, .375 SLG, .240 wOBA
-4-Seam: 43%, .103 SLG, .196 wOBA
-4-Seam: 10.3% SwK
-Slider: 18.6% SwK
-Sinker: 75% GB%+vMov & hMov pic.twitter.com/lbLsW42ZEh
— Corbin (@corbin_young21) February 14, 2023
Holding him back is a bullpen that features three relievers that saved at least eight games in 2022 and a new manager with habits we have yet to learn. I was pretty convinced that Puk would be the favored pitcher in Oakland, and I honestly believe the competition was stiffer there than it is in Miami. The biggest obstacle, in my opinion, is not his bullpen mates, but the notion that the team prefers him in a multi-inning role. While that can be valuable in a variety of leagues, it would likely mean he won’t be getting many save opportunities.
It has been common practice for fantasy managers to draft the reliever with the best skills and let the cream rise to the top. To me, Puk is, without a doubt, the most talented reliever in this bullpen. Given the lack of a clear ninth-inning identity, he should be the arm that rises to the task and is anointed the closer at some point during the season. It’s not likely to be on Opening Day, and like most murky situations, could end in a committee being utilized throughout the year, but I have faith that a selection of Puk after pick 350 is late enough to take on the risk associated with the uncertainty of his situation.
2022 Stats: 49.2 IP, 3.26 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 21.8% K%, 4 SV, 10 HLD
2023 Projections: 59 IP, 3.4o ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 22% K%, 7 SV, 14 HLD
We’re getting really late into fantasy drafts now, but that just means even less risk is associated with a selection of this sleeper reliever. This one should be apparent to anyone that has watched Graterol pitch. He is one of the premier flamethrowers and he pumps gas as effortlessly as I fill my Toyota. His bowling ball of a sinker was unleashed at 99.8 mph on average, putting the pitch in the 99th percentile in terms of velocity. That earned the sinker the highest PLV (5.06) among the pitch classification, making it the best one of its kind in the game. His secondaries don’t need to be as impressive when he’s got such an effective primary pitch, but his cutter (5.17 PLV) and slider (5.44 PLV) paired excellently as secondaries.
Brusdar Graterol, 99mph Two Seamer and 93mph Slider, Overlay pic.twitter.com/EIPVBTj0Yd
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 2, 2022
Graterol has been the closer of the future since he was traded to the Dodgers prior to 2020. He was blocked by franchise legend Kenley Jansen in 2020 and 2021, and by future Hall of Famer candidate Craig Kimbrel in 2022. With the ninth-inning job unfilled, now is the time for Graterol to live up to his billing. At the beginning of the offseason, his competition was stiff, but with Daniel Hudson succumbing to an injury and being ruled out for Opening Day, it has come to be that Evan Phillips is the only man standing in his way. Phillips was incredible last season, but Graterol is the one at whom I’m throwing a dart. It’s partially due to Phillips (227.5 ADP) going nearly 200 picks earlier in drafts and partially due to my belief that Graterol has another gear in him.
With the arsenal the big righty features, you’d expect a lot of strikeouts, however, he induces a lot of weak contact and is actually one of the best groundball pitchers (63.8% GB%). If he can find a path to improve his pitch mix to induce more whiffs, he could be on the short list of the most dominant relievers in baseball. Without changing anything, a higher rate of Ks should manifest in 2023. The career-high 12% swinging strike rate he posted in 2022 suggests a higher rate of punchouts than we saw last year. Even without any improvement in his results, he is still one of the most effective arms out there and would capitalize on the plethora of wins the Dodgers are likely to accrue in 2023.
I’m of the opinion that it’s smarter to take a shot on a reliever with a murkier path to the closer role pitching for a superior team than taking the chance on a reliever with a clearer path to the ninth pitching for a poor team. The upside is limitless for Graterol if he were to take over the role full-time and attain his strikeout potential. With little standing in his way, a clear path to improving his fantasy production, and a history of dominance, Graterol is a wonderful pick with your last selection in 15-teamers.
Bonus: Michael Fulmer
2022 Stats: 63.2 IP, 3.39 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 22.1% K%, 3 SV, 25 HLD
2023 Projections: 62 IP, 4.09 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 22% K%, 6 SV, 13 HLD
The Cubs signed Fulmer for a reason, and I’m under the impression it’s for him to be the closer. Let’s make this short and sweet.
The former Rookie of the Year Award winner arrived in Chicago with little competition. Brandon Hughes finished last year as the closer and was penciled into the role to begin 2023. The biggest flaw with relying on Hughes solely in the ninth is that the Cubs aren’t employing any other left-handers in the bullpen. That makes the ninth-inning situation on the North Side perfect for a righty, allowing Hughes to pitch as a fireman or face innings with multiple lefties due up. That’s indication number one why the addition of Fulmer suggests he’ll be used as the closer.
The second factor leading my investigation towards anointing the right-hander as the closer is that he has experience in the role and is one of the more veteran members of the arm barn. The right-hander saved 14 ball games for the Tigers in 2021, taking over the role full-time to close out the season. Brad Boxberger is the only other member of the bullpen with more saves in a season and more MLB service time. On top of that, he has a history of success in the bullpen, pitching to a 3.17 ERA (133.1 IP) across the last two seasons with a strikeout rate north of 23%.
I was expecting Fulmer to be the culprit in Chicago as soon as he signed, but since arriving, all he’s done is make his case more appealing. He’s been working on adding a sweeper this offseason. He added depth to his slider and has seen the metrics on it improve dramatically. A slider was his primary pitch in 2022, and I don’t think it’s being scrapped. It looks as if the new sweeper will be an addition to the arsenal, one he has sorely lacked. Outside of his mediocre fastball, the sinker and cutter he featured last year were very sub-par, so adding another option with which to attack hitters could help Fulmer reach an unforeseen level.
Really think Michael Fulmer will be the closer to start the season. pic.twitter.com/EyTviA5ThI
— Aldo Soto (@AldoSoto21) March 5, 2023
A right-hander with experience and past success and the prospect of future improvement is the culprit we are searching for and Fulmer fits the bill perfectly. He’s going so late in drafts that if I’m completely off base, you didn’t miss out on much of anything. The Cubs should be good enough in 2023 to make this shot in the dark worth it. If they wind up underperforming expectations, he’d be the perfect trade chip with a few saves on his ledger. Everything adds up to Fulmer being a relief pitcher sleeper in 2023 fantasy baseball drafts.