Putting aside any labels which make fantasy managers uncomfortable, the goal of this column will be identifying end-game relievers who could benefit their team’s build in any format. Although the title focuses on one dollar relievers capable of paying big dividends, think of these as upside plays when rounding out a roster.
There’s two types of relievers who can reward the risk averse: relievers with a chance at a primary save share in a shared leverage approach or a highest-leveraged reliever (HLR) on a good team accruing wins and ancillary saves with ratio protection. With this template in place, the 12 relievers profiled here do not represent the only ones within these prototypes, but represent ones with pathways towards success, and more importantly, opportunity.
Since Reynaldo López and A.J. Puk appeared in the preferred relievers after pick 100 in average draft position (ADP), they will not be highlighted again, but both qualify as relievers with a skill-set providing them a shot as their team’s primary save share as the season progresses.
$1 RPs with a shot at the primary save share
Before delving into these six relievers, cast aside the term “closer” from your vernacular. With fewer teams using a set leverage ladder, defined by innings, a majority of Major League teams deploy a match-ups based approach, maximizing high-leverage situations. These relief pitchers could emerge with a majority of save chances during the season, meaning enhancing their appeal at their present price points. As a point of reference, using minimum bids from the NFBC, all of the relievers referenced in this column went for one dollar over the last 30 days in their open bidding contests.
Michael Fulmer, CHC
Gaining momentum as one of the preferred leverage options for the Cubs, Fulmer’s added a new pitch to his arsenal:
Interesting byproduct of Michael Fulmer adding a sweeper–the slider he threw 64% in ’22 has changed.
Fulmer phrased it as adding depth (not as much backspin). Stuff+ goes from 98➡️112.
One way to visualize the change below.
I think he’ll be the #Cubs saves leader this year. pic.twitter.com/wb3piMazSP
— Lance Brozdowski (@LanceBroz) March 8, 2023
Noting a reliever added a shiny new toy into his repertoire sounds nice, but there’s been actionable results during his spring appearances, courtesy of Statcast:
As The Athletic’s Patrick Mooney highlighted in his column about how the Cubs courted Fulmer, adding the sweeper may increase his productivity in high-leverage moments, and it’s already paying off. Many will dismiss the 30 year-old reliever, but if he does break out this season, there’s a chance he collects 15-plus saves, even if he gets traded before this summer’s deadline. This buy-low window may expire soon though.
Seranthony Domínguez, PHI
No matter how one discerns what a “floating” closer approach will entail by manager Rob Thomson, cream usually rises to the top. This lands our next dart on Domínguez. Although the talented reliever may profile better as the HLR with a shot at two lanes towards value, he tied for sixth among NL relievers with six wins last year, recorded nine saves and finished with an 18.8 K-BB percentage. He also registered a swinging strike rate of 20 percent or better with all three of his pitches last year, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:
His four-seam fastball produced a 20 percent swinging strike rate, his slider a 35.7 swinging strike percentage and his change-up a robust 42.9 swing and miss rate.
After a slow start, he was scoreless in 37 of his last 44 contests from May 8 on. He registered a 50:20 K: BB with a 2.81 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in those outings while posting a Stuff+ of 126, using Eno Sarris’ model. Projections forecast about 75 strikeouts over 62 innings, but there’s a higher ceiling based on his arsenal, which means 85-ish strikeouts with at least 10 saves provides a nice return while taking a chance on the best right-handed reliever in a muddled leverage situation.
Will Smith, TEX
Opportunity by association? Although it’s been hinted by the Rangers organization that the closer role will be José Leclerc’s to lose, bringing in free agent Will Smith could pose a threat for save chances if he struggles at the onset of the season. Smith racked up 48 saves during his time with Bruce Bochy in San Francisco, and he is one of eight relievers with at least 30 saves in two seasons since 2019.
Smith went through a transformation after being traded to Houston last year, increasing his slider usage:
This resulted in a swinging strike rate of 29.1 with the slider. He made 24 appearances with the Astros, producing a 24:4 K:BB (22.3 K-BB percentage) with a 1.23 WHIP and 2.66 FIP in 22 IP. He’s not a perfect reliever, and can yield too much contact, but Bochy trusts him in high-leverage situations, which may translate into ancillary saves or an eventual primary save share since Brock Burke can fill a left-handed set-up role.
Daniel Hudson; Alex Reyes, LAD
If one prefers playing save whack-a-mole, then the Dodgers may be an appealing option — and good news, it could be a baton passing situation. Hudson may not be ready for opening day after undergoing ACL surgery last year, but at least it was not an upper body injury. He’s recorded 32 career saves, including anchoring a bullpen for the Nationals during their World Championship run.
Before his injury last year, he posted five saves, nine holds and one blown save with a 30:5 K:BB (25.8 K-BB percentage) and 0.90 WHIP over 24.1 IP. As a Dodger, he owns a 74:23 K:BB (17.4 K-BB percentage) with a 1.11 WHIP. His familiarity with being a ninth-inning reliever makes him a candidate for saves upon his return. Patience will be required.
Speaking of which, in Reyes’ only season as a closer (2021), he converted all 20 saves chances in the first half for St. Louis. He logged 38 appearances, spanning 41.1 innings, with a 54:32 K:BB (12.5 K-BB percentage), 1.52 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and 4.42 xFIP. However, his strike percentage of 57 percent, underlying ratio regression and traffic on the bases made his hold on the ninth inning tenuous. However, the Dodgers remain one of the most savvy front offices, taking flawed pitchers and making them better. If he’s healthy by late-June, and tweaks his arsenal with improved command, he may lead the team in save chances in the second half.
Miguel Castro; Scott McGough, ARI
Suggesting spending two dollars on a potential closer for Arizona, and not referencing Better Off Dead, would be criminal. If the team gives early save chances to Mark Melancon, it would also be a crime. At the present, if one of these relievers emerges, the other one becomes a drop, allowing for a fantasy manager to fill a different need, which will present itself as injuries accumulate.
Starting with Castro, his fastball ranked in the 96th percentile per Statcast last season. He used two pitches with a swinging strike rate greater than 17 percent. His slider produced a .193 expected batting average (xBA) and 17.9 swinging strike percentage. Castro’s change-up generated a .223 xBA and 18.2 swinging strike rate.
Many forget Ryan Pressly arrived in Houston with some command issues, but improved his results under the tutelage of Brent Strom. Pressly changed his pitch usage patterns, attacked hitters in the strike zone and became an elite closer. This may not repeat itself in Arizona, but monitor how Castro adapts his approach with Strom. If he’s using more sliders and change-ups, while throwing fewer fastballs, his strikeout rate will improve. Plus, there’s bonus incentives in his contract for games-finished between 25-to-40, which motivated his move to the desert.
If Castro cannot make the leap in high-leverage situations, there’s a back-up plan. McGough accrued 69 saves the past two years in Japan with a 135:36 K:BB in 118 combined innings. In that span, he owned a 28.5 strikeout percentage, 7.6 walk rate and 20.9 K-BB percentage with a 1.00 WHIP. He’s hoping he can follow the path blazed by Robert Suárez last year into high-leverage events. With a 95 mph fastball and a nasty splitter, it’s possible.
Currently this bullpen projects as a match-ups based approach, but how these two perform over the remaining spring contests may determine who gets first chance at the primary save share.
$1 RPs with multiple paths towards ROI
Before sharing the relievers of interest in this grouping, let me give you a perspective on why. In 2021, Chad Green finished as the 11th player in fantasy value, using Fangraphs’ auction calculator for 12-team leagues. He recorded 10 wins, six saves, a 99:17 K:BB (26 K-BB percentage) with a 0.88 WHIP for the Yankees as their highest-leverage reliever. He logged 83.2 innings during 67 appearances, providing a tremendous return on investment.
Andrew Kittredge finished 10th in the same season, finishing with a 9-3 record while recording eight saves with a 77:15 K:BB (22 K-BB percentage) and a 0.98 WHIP. As for the theme, these relievers protected a fantasy roster’s ratios while accumulating wins and saves. Last year’s closest example, Evan Phillips, also leads the way of recommended one dollar relievers in the end-game. He went 7-3 last year with two saves, 19 holds and two blown saves. His minuscule 0.76 WHIP highlighted a breakout season. He posted a 77:15 K:BB (20.6 K-BB percentage) over 63 innings with a 2.18 xERA and 2.34 SIERA.
His slider produced a 20.2 swinging strike rate, fueling his 12.2 swinging strike percentage in 2022. He finished the season as the HLR and may reprise this role for 2023, which caps his saves potential, but not fantasy relevance.
Targeting wins can be risky, even for elite starting pitchers, because of team usage patterns, and how successful the winning environment plays a part in assessing the category. With this in mind, here’s some interesting trends:
Over 40 percent of wins are accrued by relief pitchers, especially early in the season when pitch counts are lower, or for teams who limit exposure of their starters two times through the lineup. This keeps Phillips insulated for wins this year, along with ancillary saves. Plus, here’s some other HLR-plus options worthy of one dollar bids.
Jason Adam, TB
Noting my past hyping of Pete Fairbanks, one cannot ignore Adam notching four saves in the second half of 2022. Tampa Bay will manage its primary save share’s workload over a full season, meaning saves will not be recorded by only one reliever.
Last year, Adam only registered two wins, but notched eight saves with a 75:17 K:BB (24.5 K-BB percentage) and a 0.76 WHIP. Part of his breakout lies in trusting the Rays’ approach, tweaking his pitch mix:
As a result, here’s his results before joining Tampa Bay and after:
If one uses the second half, with Fairbanks representing the primary save share, he secured eight saves to Adam’s four. Even if this remains how the team approaches leverage situations in 2023, Adam should reach 10 saves, with a chance for more if any injury issues occur.
José Alvarado, PHI
Even though the team signed Craig Kimbrel and traded for Gregory Soto, it should not shroud the second half breakout by Alvarado. Among all qualified NL relievers, he finished third in strikeouts per nine innings (14.29), fourth in strikeout percentage (37.9), and tied for ninth in strikeouts (81).
Over his past 42 games, he owns a 1.66 ERA with a 0.95 WHIP and 64:14 K: BB in 38 innings. He ended the regular season on an active 13.2 scoreless innings streak and racked up multiple strikeouts in his final seven appearances of 2022, posting a robust 61.5 strikeout percentage (16 strikeouts of 26 batters faced). Repeating this level of performance will be difficult, but he could win five games and record 5-to-7 saves, with a chance at more if necessary. Sprinkle in 85-plus strikeouts and he’s a sneaky play in deeper formats.
Michael King, NYY
Perhaps my inspiration for the Green lead-in above, King had his 2022 season cut short by an elbow issue, but he’s on track for opening day. Before his injury, he went 6-3 with a save, 16 holds and two blown saves over 51 innings (34 appearances). He also posted a 66:16 K:BB (25.1 K-BB percentage) with a 1.00 WHIP and 2.83 expected ERA (xERA).
He also featured two pitches with a swinging strike percentage above 20 percent. His change-up produced a 28.6 swinging strike rate, a .122 expected batting average (xBA) and 59.5 whiff percentage. One would like seeing him use the pitch more, but it’s still worth noting. As for his slider (sweeper per Statcast), it generated a 21.4 swinging strike rate with a .161 xBA and 41.2 whiff rate. If the team uses Deivi García as a multiple-inning option and leaves King for high-leverage situations, he owns the best swing-and-miss stuff in the Yankees’ arm barn.
Matt Brash, SEA
Talk about a spoil of riches, the Mariners bullpen possesses tremendous match-up capabilities and relievers with high-octane stuff. Brash went 3-1 with a 2.35 ERA and 43:16 K: BB through 34 appearances as a reliever. In this time frame, he recorded a 22.5 swinging strike rate with his filthy slider. Check out his arsenal courtesy of this outing in the WBC, when he struck out the side for Team Canada:
Matt Brash’s Filthy Stuff 😷 pic.twitter.com/uhLkvOKjqk
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 13, 2023
Even if he’s working in a high-leverage set-up role, ancillary saves present themselves in Seattle’s bullpen. One cannot forget in 2021 when Drew Steckenrider led the team in the category. Although he’s best suited for a 15-team format, there’s a chance Brash reaches 90 strikeouts with enough relief wins and secondary saves for mixed league relevance.
Taylor Rogers, SF
Even though he may be Robin to Camilo Doval’s Batman in the Giants’ leverage ladder, Rogers will get the toughest pockets of opposing lineups’ left-handed hitters. If they line up for the ninth inning, he will receive save chances as a result.
Many forget he operated as the “closer” for San Diego in 2022, and turned in a terrific first 20-game sample. He converted 17 of 18 save chances while posting a 0.44 ERA, 23:4 K: BB, and 0.64 WHIP over his first 20.1 IP. However, he was used in back-to-back situations two times, including three days in a row between April 27-29 and then a fourth time in five days on May 1. Some batting average on balls in play regression combined with fatigue resulted in him losing the primary save share at the end of July before his eventual trade to Milwaukee.
However, he owns a career .196/.260/.276 slash line allowed by left-handed hitters with a .239 weighted on-base average (wOBA). He’s also posted a career 29.3 K-BB percentage against lefties with a 0.96 WHIP. Any early struggles by Doval can shift the roles in this bullpen. It’s more likely Rogers records something like five wins with 11 saves, but there’s value in these counting stats if his ratios rebound towards his career rates.
League-Only Sleepers (Bonus)
Statistical Credits: Fangraphs.com, Baseball-Reference.com, BaseballSavant.com, BrooksBaseball.net
(Top photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)