Closers… just writing the word made my stomach do a bit of a hop. Perhaps no other players in Fantasy Baseball inspire the level of frenetic activity and outright panic as those fine gentlemen charged with inducing the final three outs of the game. The unstable nature of many teams’ late-inning hierarchy prompts a high volume of waiver-wire activity during the course of the season, and there’s no reason to believe that the carousel won’t be whirling madly again in 2015.
Since bullpen situations are often so nebulous in nature, there are several different reasons to slap the “sleeper” tag on any given reliever. I’ve identified those situations within the individual profiles. Vigilance is the key when hunting for saves; today’s sleeper may be tomorrow’s bust. Stay up to date, and don’t hesitate to pull the trigger when you think the time is right to grab a reliever off your league’s waiver wire. The players profiled in this article have favorable situations at this point, but a bumpy spring or a free-agent signing (Francisco Rodriguez, anyone?) could shift the playing field significantly.
Read on for a look at a few players who could outperform their current ranking; all should be available as your draft enters its latter stages, and each could provide a solid return on a modest draft-day investment.
5 Sleeper Relief Pitchers for 2015
These relief sleepers should come relatively cheap in your 2015 Fantasy Baseball drafts.
Joaquin Benoit, San Diego Padres
“Current closer who should perform better than his current Fantasy ranking,” should be the subcategory for Benoit’s sleeper status. The 37-year-old has been one of baseball’s top setup men for several years, and he has converted 35 of 38 save opportunities when pressed into a ninth-inning role over the past two seasons. He logged one of the finest campaigns of his career in 2014, holding opposing batters to a miniscule .151 batting average and .459 OPS. He missed almost a month due to shoulder inflammation, but he pitched three straight perfect innings – and collected two saves – after returning in late September.
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Benoit’s advancing years and heavy workload – he averaged 67 appearances between 2010 and 2013 – may cause Fantasy owners to shy away, but his stellar 2014 campaign should signal that he still has fuel in his tank. Benoit is ranked 19th among relievers in the Expert Consensus Rankings , but if he can remain healthy he has the upside to convert 35-40 save opportunities this season while pitching behind what should be a vastly improved offense in San Diego. If you’re concerned about Benoit’s health and have some extra roster space, consider adding Kevin Quackenbush, who recorded six saves while filling in as the Padres’ closer last season, as insurance.
Tyler Clippard, Oakland Athletics
Let’s call this one the “An injury opens the door, and he’s the guy who walks through and sets up shop” sub-category. Presumed Opening Day closer Sean Doolittle has a small tear in his rotator cuff, and while surgery is not anticipated, Doolittle is not expected to be ready for the start of the season. Enter Tyler Clippard, for whom the A’s traded less than two weeks before news of Doolittle’s shoulder woes hit the wire. Hmm….. . If Doolittle makes a full recovery and returns a few weeks into the season, chances are that Clippard will only receive an occasional save opportunity. While the Oakland lefty is on the shelf, though, the former Washington National figures to fill the A’s ninth-inning role. If Doolittle suffers a setback, or is ineffective upon his return, Clippard has the pedigree to hold the job all season long, and it’s that eventuality that should place him on your sleeper list.
Clippard has been a top setup man over the past few years, and he saved 32 games for the Nats back in 2012. The 29-year-old tends to run his low-90s fastball up in the zone, which should generate plenty of fly balls to be swallowed up by Oakland’s spacious home yard. Clippard owns a career 2.88 ERA and 1.08 WHIP, and he has fanned an average of 10.04 batters per nine innings; clearly, the tools for success are there. Even if Clippard does not maintain his hold on the closer’s job, he can be of Fantasy value in deeper leagues, as he should help with ERA, WHIP and strikeout rate. Grab him late in your draft, and of course he is valuable insurance if you also have Doolittle on your roster.
Brad Boxberger, Tampa Bay Rays
Continuing on the theme from above, Rays’ closer Jake McGee underwent surgery in December to remove a loose body from his left elbow, and could be sidelined until early May barring a setback. Of the three leading candidates to serve in McGee’s stead, Grant Balfour has the experience…but last season, too many of those experiences were unpleasant in nature. Kevin Jepsen logged a fine campaign with the Angels in 2014 , but his career 3.94 ERA and 1.36 WHIP is concerning. Brad Boxberger, however, owns an ERA of 2.52 and WHIP of 1.10 during his three-year career, and he was outstanding in a setup role for Tampa Bay last season. The 26-year-old posted a 2.37 ERA, .084 WHIP and fanned 104 batters in 64.2 innings of work, and was the Rays’ best bullpen arm apart from McGee. My thinking is that Boxberger will be the Rays’ ninth-inning man come Opening Day.
Boxberger relies primarily on a four-seam fastball, which sits at about 94 mph, and a deceptive 80-mph change-up. Left-handed hitters batted a mere .119 against that change in 2014, and lefties could only manage .107 overall against the Rays’ right-hander. This table from BrooksBaseball.net shows just how dominant Boxberger was against lefties in 2014:
Results and Averages – from 01/01/2014 to 01/01/2015
Perhaps the most notable improvement Boxberger showed last season, though, was in his ability to throw strikes, as his walk rate plummeted from 13.8 percent in 2013 to just 8.1 percent – or 2.78 walks per nine innings. His strikeout rate last season was not a mirage, as he has posted strong K/9 numbers throughout his professional career. If McGee stays on track, chances are that he reclaims the closer’s role upon his return; if not, Boxberger looks to have the tools to hold the ninth-inning gig all season if he’s called upon to do so. Boxberger makes a great late-round choice that should pay Fantasy dividends in terms of ratios and strikeouts; if he ends up holding onto the closer’s job, then that’s just more gravy on the potatoes.
— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) December 26, 2014
Ken Giles, Philadelphia Phillies
Let’s file Giles under the sub-category “Current setup man who should be rostered in every Fantasy league.” The 24-year-old came out of nowhere (note: a career 3.77 ERA, 1.39 WHIP and 5.4 BB/9 in four minor league seasons qualifies as “nowhere” for our purposes) to post some rather otherworldly numbers as a member of the Phillies’ bullpen in 2014. Giles’ fastball sits north of 97 mph, but it’s been the development of his wicked 87-mph slider that has turned him into a lights-out reliever. Brooks Baseball tells the tale:
Results and Averages – from 03/01/2014 to 02/02/2015
Seriously? Oh ninety-nine? While it’s unreasonable (even for Philly Fan) to expect Giles to sustain that level of performance, there’s no question that Giles’ amazing 2014 numbers have elevated him into closer-in-waiting status, and that wait could be a short one if the Phils decide to unload current ninth-inning man Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon has been rumored to be on his way out for some time now, and Giles figures to be first in line when the Phils finally cut ties. Even as a setup man, Giles’ impressive 1.18 ERA, 0.79 WHIP and K/9 rate of 12.61 last season should signal that he can aid your Fantasy cause without owning the ninth-inning role. Can he repeat those numbers? Almost certainly not, but Giles has served notice that he could be a Fantasy force to be reckoned with in 2015.
Aaron Sanchez, Toronto Blue Jays
Lastly, we have our “long shot to close but could be amazing if he wins the job” sleeper. The Toronto bullpen is a bit of a muddled mess, with veteran lefty Brett Cecil currently atop the depth chart, but Sanchez’s stuff makes him an intriguing option to close at some point. As this table from Brooks Baseball shows, Sanchez relied heavily on his sinkerball – which sits at 97 mph, by the way – during his brief time in the majors last season, and opposing batters simply did not have an answer.
Results and Averages – from 01/01/2014 to 02/02/2015
The 22-year-old allowed just one home run in 33 innings of work last season, and held opposing hitters to a microscopic .128/.202/.165/.367 slash line while racking up a trio of saves and seven holds. While the sample size is small, and he was primarily a starter in the minors, Sanchez’s outstanding work as a reliever in 2014 should prompt you to watch his status very closely this spring. Bear in mind that he does not profile as a high-strikeout pitcher, as he logged just 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings across two minor-league levels last season. He has also struggled with command, as his 5.1 BB9 rate in the minors last season should attest. The Blue Jays’ bullpen will be a very closely-watched competition in Fantasy circles this spring, as the team’s potent offense should produce plenty of save opportunities.
Whether you get one of these sleeper relief pitchers or if you grabbed a couple of them, you’ll no doubt have been able to stock your Fantasy Baseball team up with better early picks.
Tyler Clippard Photo Credit: Keith Allison
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