If you read my relief pitcher rankings and 30-team bullpen analysis post last week, you know I teased you with some secret deep sleepers that I promised I would reveal in a week. I am here to fulfill that promise. Behold: my nine relief pitcher sleepers for 2015!
I revealed this sleeper last week, but it bears repeating here. Addison Reed is entering the season with injury issues and may miss the opener. He is also a very homer-prone pitcher playing in a very homer-friendly park. Brad Ziegler is listed as the setup man on the depth chart, but his extreme groundball, low strikeout ways are best suited to putting out fires and not to closing duties. That's why I really like Evan Marshall's chances at getting significant saves this year. His K%-BB% was over 17% last year and his FIP and xFIP were both in the 2.8 range. Couple his good strikeout skills with decent control and great groundball rates (>60%) and you've got a very good reliever who could be a top-15 closer with full time save opportunities.
The first of my two Padres sleepers, Maurer was acquired from Seattle this winter. Seattle used him a lot as a starter, but he struggled in that role. He has shown great promise as a reliever though. As a reliever last season (37 innings), he had a 1.85 FIP, a 2.99 xFIP, a 22% K%-BB%, and an absurd 1.21 BB/9. Those are excellent numbers and show the promise he has in this role. Right now, the Friars pen is pretty full with Joaquin Benoit as the closer, and Kevin Quackenbush still around, along with Nick Vincent. However, Maurer's skills are probably greater than everyone but Benoit, so he could get emerge as the closer to fill in for the often-injured, 38-year-old Benoit.
My other favorite Padre reliever is Kelley, who came over from the Yankees in the offseason. He showed great promise last year too as he put up a great 11.7 K/9 and 3.1 xFIP, which both look much better than his unlucky 4.53 ERA. He's projected by both Steamer and ZiPS to have an ERA and FIP around 3.0 this year. His 14.7% swinging strike percentage last year was 10th best in baseball. He and Maurer will be neck-and-neck competing for holds and setup duty. I feel pretty confident that one of these two would be the closer if Benoit goes down and they both have the skills to excel in that role. So, keep both these guys in mind if you are looking for elite future closers.
Frieri is stuck behind at least two guys in the Rays pen. Brad Boxberger and his sweet, sweet 14.5 K/9 and the experienced Kevin Jepsen are the two healthy guys in front of Frieri. Jake McGee is the incumbent closer recovering from injury that will miss the first month or so. Throw in Grant "Ball four" Balfour, since Tampa Bay seems to believe he can get it together. That's even more crowded than San Diego. I think Frieri is worth keeping an eye on for two reasons. One, his 7.34 ERA hides his underlying skills: 10.37 K/9, 3.67 xFIP, and a career-low 7.6% walk rate. He was very unlucky with a trifecta of bad luck: a .330 BABIP, 19% HR/FB ratio, and a 61% strand rate. Those are all far away from league averages of .300, 10%, and 74%. Two, the Rays like to keep costs down and both McGee and Boxberger are pre-arbitration players that the Rays might want to keep from getting saves to keep them cheap. That would mean Frieri just needs to beat out Jepsen and Balfour, which I think he can do. This is just speculation, but Frieri could be interesting.
Barrett is probably two guys away from saves right now, behind both Drew Storen and newly-acquired Casey Janssen. Both of those two have shaky skills, especially Janssen, so Barrett could work his way into saves. Storen was very lucky last year, like the opposite of Frieri. His 1.12!!! ERA is not supported by his 3.39 xFIP, his 90% strand rate, 3.8% HR/FB ratio, or .259 BABIP. With regression, he could end up with a low-3s ERA and not many strikeouts. Janssen really struggled last season in Toronto and may never get back to his good days of two or three years ago. Barrett, on the other hand, has the best strikeout upside of the trio with 10.84 K/9 and a good 3.15 xFIP (2.59 FIP) last year. He also had a 12.6% swinging strike rate. He needs to bring down his walk rate, but even with a below average rate, he still put up those good numbers last year.
Lost in all the Ken Giles hype in Philly as Jonathon Papelbon's replacement (he is expected to be traded this season), is another fireballer in the pen. Diekman has the 12.68 K/9 and 2.83 xFIP you like to see. His fastball averages 96.8 MPH and he has a nice 13.4% swinging strike rate. Both his slider and fastball are way above average at getting swings and misses. Don't get me wrong, Giles beats Diekman in FIP, xFIP, K/9, swinging strike %, walk rate, and velocity, which is pretty incredible considering Diekman is very good. So I'm not saying Diekman is better than Giles. What I am saying is that he is good in his own right and should something happen to Giles (assuming Papelbon is gone), Diekman would be an excellent closer. Pitchers go down to injuries all the time, so you never know. This is definitely a deeper sleeper, but a name to remember.
Another deeper sleeper, McAllister will not show up on most rankings list. He was on mine, but it's my list and I like McAllister more than most. Why? I'm glad you asked. As a starter, he has been mediocre to just bad (5.67 ERA, 7.4 K/9, 4.1 xFIP, 10.8% K%-BB% in 73 innings in 2014). As a reliever last year (small sample alert!) in 13 innings, he had a 2.77 ERA, 9.69 K/9, 2.39 xFIP, 23.1% K%-BB%, and cut his walk rate in half to 3.9%. His velocity jumped from 91-92 to sitting 95-96 comfortably. If this sounds familiar, it should. Wade Davis followed this same path to incredible success last year. Do I think McAllister will be as good as Davis? Probably not because Davis was the second best reliever in baseball last year by WAR. However, McAllister could still be in the setup mix and then if something happens to Cody Allen, he could be racking up saves with excellent peripherals too. I like his upside as a reliever and hope he stays in the pen and they don't try to use him in the rotation.
Here's a sleeper that's on a lot of lists. He is a smart player who studies his advanced metrics carefully and had promising results last year as the setup man to LaTroy Hawkins in Colorado. Hawkins is in the very shaky old closers club with Joe Nathan and is a couple bad outings away from losing his job, so Ottavino is very much in the saves mix. He could very easily end up as their closer. His 3.06 xFIP, 19.9% K%-BB%, 11.3% swinging strike rate, and excellent control show he has the kind of skills we like to see. To put a blanket on the enthusiasm a little bit, the Rockies added John Axford to the roster this offseason and he is a proven closer (for what that's worth, which I don't think should be much). They seem to like Axford and he could end up replacing Hawkins instead of Ottavino. That would be unfortunate, since I'm not sure Axford is any good anymore and I would rather have Ottavino as my closer. Because Hawkins is so bad and so old (I can't emphasize this enough), you have to keep Ottavino on your radar, but don't be shocked if Axford gets the first shot at saves. This is going to be an interesting bullpen. As a side note, I don't think the Rockies are going to win many games, so there won't be a ton of saves here for anyone.
non-Brett Cecil Toronto guy
Ok, so I don't have a good sleeper here, just a bunch of guys that could become closers maybe. I don't really like anyone in the Toronto pen after Cecil, but since Cecil is nursing a sore shoulder right now and Aaron Sanchez will be in the rotation (at least to start), someone will get a shot at closing games. Aaron Loup, Marco Estrada, and Steve Delabar are three names near the top of the list. None of those three have the skills of any of the guys I mentioned above, but they might have more opportunity for saves than any of the above guys. Delabar gets the most strikeouts of the group and the other two are really below average in strikeouts. Loup has the best projected ERA due to his groundball rate, Estrada has decent pitches but is way too homer prone for the Skydome and Delabar has walk issues. I think it comes down to Loup or Delabar, with Delabar having the lower floor and higher ceiling and Loup being in-between. If Sanchez doesn't work out as a starter, he would be an excellent closer and better than any of the other guys in this pen.
Thanks for reading and good luck with those fantasy bullpens! Tschus!