We continue our fantasy baseball rankings today with a look at some relief pitchers who may not be in a position to close out the majority of their team’s games this season, but can help in other categories such as holds. Seriously, if you aren’t in any leagues where holds are counted, I highly suggest you try to find one (or convince your commissioner to add them) as they are a whole lot of fun. The league is rapidly adapting to more of a closer-by-committee approach, making these leagues more relevant than ever before.
My personal strategy when it comes to holds, especially this early on, is to put a priority on the high-upside relievers over the safer, floor types. In reality, “safe” and “reliever” don’t really mesh anyway. You may notice some names missing, but anyone who is competing for a rotation spot or expected to miss the start of the year due to injury was left off the preliminary list. With that being said, let’s get to the rankings.
- Ryan Pressly picked up where he left off this past season, as the reliever has turned into one of the most dominant late-inning bullpen weapons in all of baseball since moving to Houston. Armed with two plus breaking balls, Pressly led all relievers in xFIP and O-Swing last year with impressive 2.21 and 40.6% marks respectively. His 2.55 SIERA and 17.7% SwStr rate were top 10 among relievers as well, while his 28.4% K-BB ranked 11th. He returns as the top set-up option in Houston and should be the top non-closer reliever off the board.
- In what at the time seemed like a somewhat trivial move, the Brewers acquisition of Drew Pomeranz may well have been the most impactful deadline deal last summer. Pomeranz was virtually unhittable as a reliever for the Brewers, as he was able to add 2+ mph to his fastball while focusing only on his fastball/curveball combo. Just how ridiculous were his 28.1 IP last year as a reliever? If qualified, he would have ranked first in K% (47.2%), K-BB% (39.6%), xFIP (1.67), and SIERA (1.86) while also placing in the top 10 in numerous other categories. The Padres gave him a 4 year, $34 million dollar deal this offseason, showing just how much they believe in him as a reliever. You should too.
- Given a 3 year, $40 million contract by the Braves to be Mark Melancon’s top handcuff, Will Smith leads off tier 2 as the top near-elite set-up man. Smith led all relievers with a 5.55 WPA last season, while also finishing with a top 5 K-BB rate (29.2%). He should see some save chances occasionally as well, and should return similar value in SV+HLD formats as he did last season.
- I was super high on Emilio Pagan as a closer target prior to the surprising trade that sent him to the Padres for Manuel Margot. Now that he’s working in a set-up role in the best bullpen in baseball, his stock takes a tiny tumble in holds leagues. He’ll still remain valuable though, as he did lead the league in xWOBA (.221) last year and his SIERA (.254) was the lowest among all non-closer relievers. The 17.6% SwStr and 31.1% K-BB rate ain’t too shabby either.
- He may not be one of the team’s two set-up options right now, but Tommy Kahnle, in my opinion, is currently the second best reliever in that Yankees bullpen. While Adam Ottavino struggled with his command (again) and Zack Britton’s K-BB rate continues to limit his upside, Kahnle quietly finished with a 2.69 xFIP, 2.79 SIERA, 35.5% K%, 74.3% Z-Contact, and 17.9% SwStr rate. As long as his changeups on, Kahnle is one of the hardest pitchers in baseball to hit against.
- Similar to Kahnle, Tyler Duffey may not be one of the top two set-up men in Minnesota, but he wound up with 14 holds during his breakout second half of 2019. What else makes Duffey more exciting than Sergio Romo and Trevor May? His 2.94 xFIP, 2.74 SIERA, and 28.6% K-BB rate for starters. In most bullpens, there is typically room for three evenly productive holds options. So don’t be too concerned with Kahnle and Duffey not having the set-up label.
- Will Harris moves to the Nationals where he should instantly step in and be the 8th inning option in front of Sean Doolittle. Even at 35, Harris still continues to be one of the most effective relievers in baseball and while the K rate may be on the decline, the ground-ball specialist should provide you with a low ratio boost and plenty of holds.
- After missing all of 2019 (0.2 IP doesn’t count) and joining a new team for the first time in his seven year career, it was hard knowing where to place Dellin Betances here. Assuming he’s healthy, we all know the kind of upside Betances possesses, as he’s one of only a few players listed to have been at the top of this list before. Now working back from a torn Achilles, Betances expects to be ready by opening day. Monitor his progress throughout spring training, but as long as there are no setbacks, he should be owned in all holds leagues a month from now.
- After Betances is a group of eight “young guns”, with most fitting the risk/reward label. Ty Buttrey and Seranthony Dominguez have been around a little longer than the rest so I’ll focus on what makes the others so interesting… A lot of people criticized the Indians for not getting enough back in the Corey Kluber trade, but I think Emmanuel Clase will prove otherwise. Armed with a 100 mph sinker, Clase gets plenty of weak ground balls while also showing impressive command of the strike zone for someone his age. He’s not getting a ton of swings and misses yet, but that should come as he continues to work on a second pitch (similar to Jordan Hicks).
- Colin Poche is a left-handed reliever in the Josh Hader/Sean Doolittle mold, as he’s able to be effective throwing a low-mid 90’s fastball basically 90% of the time. Coming off a season that saw him post a 34.8% K%, 71.2% Z-Contact, and 17.2% SwStr rate, he’s just a few tweaks away from breaking out in a big way.
- Scott Barlow, Aaron Bummer, and Kevin Ginkel could all be closing for their respective teams sooner rather than later. Barlow had a rough first half to the season but made some changes and was fantastic in the second half. He needs to bring his walk rate down, but the swing and miss stuff is there (16.1% SwStr in the second half).
- Aaron Bummer just signed an interesting extension, making me think the White Sox may see him as their closer moving forward. A ground ball machine in the Zach (not Zack) Britton mold, Bummer should be a safe source of low ratios and saves/holds.
- Kevin Ginkel doesn’t really stick out as a special talent, but he has been very effective at every level so he must be doing something right. His slider did have a 6.7 pVAL and 21.4% SwStr rate last year and he does have kind of a funky delivery so there’s that.
- Andres Munoz could still remain in the mix for holds even after the Pagan trade, but that bullpen is just so insanely deep that he may fall out of the picture. That’s ridiculous to think of considering his talent, and I wouldn’t worry about it just yet, but that’s the reason he is below the rest of the “young guns” in this group.
- Blake Treinen will be looking to return to his 2018 form working as Kenley Jansen’s set-up man in Los Angeles, but I’m not exactly optimistic. We’ve all seen how good his stuff is, but to this point, 2018 is the clear outlier in Treinen’s career. I’m sure the Dodgers would be happy just to get the 2014-2017 Treinen for a season, but right now it’s just not that exciting to chase in holds formats.
- Robert Stephenson and Luke Jackson’s roles are up in the air, but if one or both can lock up a set-up role in their respective (deep) bullpens, they could provide massive value. Both dealt with some bad luck last year, even as they both had semi-breakout years, but with their swing and miss ability, there’s still plenty of room to get even better.
- A bloated walk rate is maybe the only legitimate concern I have with the supremely talented James Karinchak. While staying on the field is also a big hurdle for him, his walk rate in the minors gives me some pause and it’s ultimately why he isn’t in that third tier yet. Still, there aren’t many, if any, other options on here that have the kind of potential he does.
- The Athletics relievers here should probably both be higher, but both are kind of just boring, to be honest. In a good way though, because if you are looking for a safe holds option, Yusmeiro Petit is one of the best as he doesn’t walk anyone while working plenty of innings. Joakim Soria is a bit more volatile these days, but he still finished last year with a 28.4% K rate and 21 holds.
- Rafael Montero is the clear cut handcuff to Jose Leclerc, but it’ll be interesting to see if his walk rate from last year can be sustained. After having walk rates of 11% or higher in every season prior, he brought the number down to 4.4% last year. I think he ultimately finds himself somewhere in between that range.
- Keynan Middleton is back (not counting last year’s short stint) and should be at full health to start the year. He isn’t in the closer role anymore, but when healthy has been a quality reliever over his short career. He’ll be worth watching in Spring Training to see where his velocity and more importantly, command, are at.
- I think Chris Martin gets lost in the shuffle despite being an absolute rock last year. It’s tough to tell how many holds he will get in that stocked Braves bullpen, but his 2.3% BB rate and career-high 30.1% K rate from last year provide safety as well as a bit of upside.
- Like with Treinen, 2019 was a season to forget for Jose Alvarado as he entered the season with such high expectations. Not known for his control of the strike zone, Alvarado’s walk rate of 18.5% was still shocking and clearly the main reason behind his terrible season. His stuff was still there—his slider still got plenty of swings and misses—but his fastball/sinker saw a 10% dip in zone rate. Still only 24, Alvarado is still an interesting reliever to keep an eye on, but he must make big improvements to his fastball command to return to fantasy relevance.
- Always the forgotten guy in the Yankees bullpen it seems, Chad Green was still really good last year following a terrible start. Over 31.1 IP in the first half, Green had an ERA of 5.86 and WHIP of 1.55, while in his 37.1 second-half innings his ERA was 2.89 with a 0.96 WHIP. We’ve seen enough of Green at this point in his career to believe his second half was the real deal. The big question that remains, as it does with a lot of the talent in this tier: Can he be a consistent source of holds?
- With all the talk of a potential timeshare between Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey is my bold prediction to lead the Nationals in saves this season. Doolittle can’t stay healthy and Hudson’s 2019 looks pretty flukey (5.08 xFIP), so I’ll take a chance on the young gun in the bullpen with big-time stuff. Like so many other relievers, command and control will make or break Raineys career, as his 17.8% walk rate just won’t cut it. If he can bring that number down to around 10% though, the sky’s the limit as his 34.6% K and 16.7% SwStr rate show.
- Darwinzon Hernandez is in a similar situation, where all he needs to do is harness his command/control to breakout. In his first 30 MLB innings, Darwinzon was a strikeout machine with a 38.8% K rate, but his 17.7% BB rate leaves a lot to be desired. Ignore the high ERA as his .433 BABIP was the highest among all relievers with 30 or more innings pitched and is obviously not repeatable. I don’t think he’ll be a sub 3 ERA guy as his 2.75 FIP suggests, but Darwinzon is a nice sleeper reliever to monitor this year.
- Matt Strahm’s time as a starting pitcher may have been disappointing, but let’s not forget what he’s done as a reliever over his career. Strahm had 33 IP out of the bullpen last season, posting a 2.72 FIP and 23.9% K-BB rate. The 11.7% SwStr rate isn’t exciting, but owners are more looking forward to those low ratios as he held a 2.49 ERA and 1.02 WHIP over the past two seasons as a reliever (94.1 IP). Will he be able to get holds in that stacked bullpen though remains to be seen.
- Jimmy Cordero does have a chance to earn a set-up role to start the year, and could be the first player in this tier to move up into the top 40 if things break right. He only had a 21.2% K rate last season, but his insane 41.2% O-Swing and 14.6% SwStr rate insist there’s more K potential in that arm.
- Oliver Drake in a set-up role for another team would probably shoot way up this list, but he’s likely to be buried down the depth chart in what remains a deep Rays bullpen. He finished last year with a 3.18 SIERA, 32% K, and 16.8% SwStr rate but only 10 holds over 56 innings. He’s one to watch for now.
- Sam Tuivailala may be on the outside looking in for the closer role, but there’s a case to be made that he’s the team’s best reliever. Coming off a season with a 3.13 FIP and 28.7% K rate, he should still remain in a set-up role at worse, where he had 7 holds in 23 games last year.
- Brad Wieck is a mammoth lefty the size of Tyson Fury with just as massive upside. Kyle Ryan provides the safer floor among the lefties in that bullpen, but at this point, I’ll take my chances on Wieck’s potential. It’s a small sample size, but Wieck impressed in his 10 IP after being traded to Chicago (47.4% K rate). In a Cubs bullpen full of question marks, there’s an opportunity here for Wieck to step up and grab a high leverage role out of camp.
- Perhaps the deepest bullpen outside of San Diego, the Twins bullpen No. 1-8 is just loaded with talent. Cody Stashak may be seventh or eighth on the depth chart, but he looks ready to pitch in a high-leverage role. Last year in 25 innings he held a 25/1 K/BB rate with an impressive 38.6% O-Swing and 17.1% SwStr rate despite only topping out around 92 mph.
Photo by Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)