Whether we like it or not, relievers are a very real part of fantasy baseball.
I'm in one points-based league in which one of the members recently let loose with a tirade bemoaning the fact that we have three starting slots for relievers (mainly because he's tired of getting saddled with negative-point performances). This puts a big premium on owning consistent relievers.
I'm in another head-to-head league in which it's somewhat common to use at least one of the two mandated reliever slots on starters who are reliever eligible. Relievers are far less important in this league, obviously, yet no team in the league's 10 years has won the title without using two relievers on a regular basis.
While the impact of relievers certainly varies in each league, it never hurts to know which relievers are capable of having the most impact—both positive and negative.
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Almost all of the relievers I reference here will be owned in at least 75 percent of ESPN leagues—and many of them will essentially be universally owned—but I've found that no matter what kind of league I'm in, relievers are among the easiest players to acquire via trade. Almost any owner is willing to swap a startable position player or starting pitcher in exchange for a solid reliever.
As usual, I'll be running Oliver's "Rest of Season" projections through Tom Tango's system when referencing ranking. For pitchers, it's calculated as (2*W)+ Sv + (K/5) + IP - (H + BB + ER)/2. The rankings are raw and not corrected for position scarcity.
Relievers you really need to get
These two guys will probably cost you too much, but if you can wrangle them away, they'll probably be worth the price.
Jonathan Broxton (Pitcher ranking: 28; Overall ranking: 111): He's the only reliever in the top 30 among pitchers and the only one in the top 125 among all players. Unfortunately, he was also, on average, the second reliever taken in drafts (ADP of 61.9 in ESPN leagues) behind only Mariano Rivera (who's the fourth highest-rated reliever). Broxton projects to pick up 31 more saves (tied for 10th) and 80 more strikeouts (second only to Carlos Marmol's 90), according to Oliver.
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Carlos Marmol (PR: 40; OR: 140): The Cubs reliever has been absolutely electric this year, posting a 16.97 K/9 and and ERA of 0.77 while going 3-for-4 in save opportunities through Saturday's games. That may hinder your ability to acquire him, but there is hope: Marmol was, on average, the 17th reliever taken in ESPN drafts. In fact, he's one of the few closers whose projected overall ranking is actually better than his ADP (175.8). Even if you have to give up a little more than you'd prefer, there's probably not a better value out there in terms of closers.
Relievers worth chasing
This group is full of guys who are probably attainable, and worth a reasonable gamble.
Heath Bell (PR: 39; OR: 138): On average, the Padres closer was the sixth closer off the board in ESPN drafts, with an ADP of 107.7. No one is going to give him away. Still, if he can be acquired, he projects to be the second-best reliever for the rest of the season. His projected 3.01 ERA is the third best among relievers; the 1.15 WHIP is the fifth lowest among relievers; the 64 projected Ks is fourth best among relievers; and the 32 saves is tied for first. Unlike some of the other pitchers on this list, his numbers come with a very attainable projection of 62 IP the rest of the way.
Billy Wagner (PR: 45; OR: 152): We know all about the Braves closer and his deficiencies—basically that he's a big gamble in terms of health. Oliver's raw system (meaning it's not getting inputs from the humans who project playing time) projected just about 40 IP from Wagner. Right now, the "Rest of Year" system is projecting 63 more innings from him. It's going to be tough for him to reach that number, even if he stays healthy, so consider these numbers in that context. With all those caveats, he's another one of the rare pitchers whose overall ranking is better than his ADP (154.7). I don't think he's worth breaking the bank over, but we're projecting 32 more saves (tied for first) and 69 strikeouts (fourth). Those are strong numbers and if Wagner manages to stay healthy all year, he could be a bargain.
Rafael Soriano (PR: 51; OR: 167): The Rays closer suffers from some of the same perceptions as Wagner, in that he's dealt with his fair share of injuries. Oliver's raw projections were much more kind, though, in terms of innings, projecting about 53 IP. With that in mind, our "Rest of Season" projection of 58 IP doesn't seem so outlandish, although I have to admit it's a little high. We project 32 saves (tied for first), 62 strikeouts (10th among relievers), a 3.47 ERA (10th among relievers) and a 1.19 WHIP (10th among relievers). He projects as the sixth-best reliever from here on out. He's already got five saves, which may drive up his price.
The newly minted
This group of relievers only recently took over the job. Since some of these players only got their jobs recently, I figured their rankings wouldn't tell us much so I didn't include them in this group.
Franklin Morales: Of all the the relievers I researched (basically anyone who is likely to get saves this year), he was the worst. He's already blown two saves as Huston Street's replacement and Oliver doesn't see any reason to suggest this is out of the ordinary. He projects to have a 5.12 ERA the rest of the way to go along with a 1.61 WHIP. Run as far away as you can.
Alfredo Simon: Although he hasn't registered a save yet, it appears as if he's going to take over for the recently demoted Jim Johnson. This is probably somewhat pointless since the Orioles are bad enough that there won't be many save opportunities, but just in case you were considering adding Simon—DON'T! Oliver projects a 6.14 ERA and a K:BB ratio of 5.6:3.6.
Evan Meek: I don't know that he's officially been named closer yet, but it seems only a matter of time with Octavio Dotel's constant struggles. If he gets the job, he's probably worth a look. That 4.17 ERA doesn't look too bad, although probably his best number. He projects less than a 41:27 K:BB ratio and a 1.44 WHIP.
Neftali Feliz: Unlike these others guys, there was actually a decent chance he was already owned in your league before he was named closer. Oddly, he's kind of struggled in the role, allowing six earned runs in his past five appearances. Still, he projects as a solid reliever with a 3.78 ERA (24th among relievers); 57 Ks (20th) and a 1.31 WHIP (37th). Not numbers that will blow anyone away, but they should be solid enough to nail down the vast majority of his save opportunities. Keep in mind, though, that Frank Francisco has been pitching better since being demoted and it wouldn't be at all strange for him to regain his old job.
Relievers worth a look
As you might have guessed, a significant amount of relievers' values comes from their ability to get saves. This, obviously, is very much a product of opportunity and not necessarily indicative of any particular skill. For the next group of pitchers, I ran the Tango formula without saves. My goal was to come up with a ranking system for relievers that attempts to assess value regardless of opportunity. The rankings reflect only their rank among relievers minus saves. Most of these guys are stuck behind solid closers, but in case of injury they become almost instant must-adds.
Matt Thornton (Rank: 6): The man blocking the White Sox setup man, Bobby Jenks, is ranked 30th on this list. Thornton projects to have better a better ERA (3.21 to 3.74), more strikeouts (64-49) and a better WHIP (1.14 to 1.25) than man who's getting all the glory. Luckily, Jenks is currently sporting a 5.00 ERA and unless he gets his walks under control (currently 6.00 per 9), he's going to end up blowing some leads and probably lose his role. If that happens, add Thornton as soon as possible.
Luke Gregerson (Rank: 11): Unfortunately, the chances of the Padres middle reliever are almost entirely predicated on Bell getting hurt, and possibly even Mike Adams being unable to do the job (Gregerson is supposedly third on the closer's depth chart). Still, his non-save numbers project nicely a 3.24 ERA (eighth among relievers); 58 Ks (17th); and a 1.23 WHIP (14th). If your league counts holds, he's definitely worth owning.
Takashi Saito (Rank: 12): One of the best things the former closer has going for him is the fragility of the man pitching the ninth on his team (Wagner). Saito is going to get some saves, and probably more than the one we're currently projecting. The 40-year-old projects a 3.64 ERA (18th among relievers); 1.24 WHIP (17th) and 62 strikeouts (eighth). If you have room, he's probably worth stashing on your bench.
Sergio Romo (Rank: 13): The Giants' young setup man quietly had a pretty decent year in 2009. In just 34 innings after getting promoted from Triple-A, he post a 10.85 K/9 and 2.91 BB/9, while giving up just one homer. It's unclear how serious the recent groin injury Brian Wilson suffered is and equally unclear who will fill in for him, but Romo projects at having the skill set to take over. The 3.25 ERA is ninth among relievers; the 1.14 WHIP is fourth and the 53 strikeouts are 28th. Jeremy Affeldt, the other obvious candidate, also projects reasonably well, with a 3.84 ERA, 7.7 K/9 ratio and 1.30 WHIP. I'd say either player is worth picking up if it ever becomes clear which will assume closer duties.
Mike Adams (Rank: 15): Whatever I wrote about Gregerson, it goes doubly for Adams (who is supposedly the next in line for the closer's job). If that happens, though, Adams projects to recover nicely from his unlucky start (4.50 ERA, despite a 1.20 WHIP and nearly 4:1 K:BB ratio). Oliver projects a 3.07 ERA (fourth best among relievers), 1.15 WHIP (eighth) and 49 strikeouts (33rd).
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