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Finding the Next Josh Hader - Undervalued Relievers with Legit Upside

As the reliever game in the Majors has changed over the past few years, so must the fantasy community. With the growth of players like Josh Hader, Andrew Miller, and Ryan Pressly, the number of fastball-slider relievers, who can pitch multiple-innings, offer new chances to rack up Ks and holds.

While not off to a great year, Seth Lugo offers another good comparison. With the length to pitch 100 innings over the year, with 120 punch-outs, Lugo looks like a starting pitcher at the end of the year. Instead of 20 5-inning starts with the need to pace for stamina, the reliever is throwing gas for 50, 2-inning performances. All in all, they look the same on paper and can play in all roles on a fantasy pitching staff.

The downside is that these arms cost a bunch, as the fantasy community is starting to pay for this value. For that reason, we take a look at the next wave of elite relievers. Target these players in leagues with deep benches, or dynasty formats. At the very least, track these arms over 2019, and move them up your draft boards in 2020.

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J.B. Wendelken (RP, OAK)

Currently slotted into the long relief role according to Roster Resource, Wendelken has all the pieces to break out this year and will be critical to an Athletics pennant challenge. After a move from the White Sox as part of the Bret Lawrie deal, Wendelken has steadily moved up the organization charts, with only 25 total appearances under his belt for Oakland. While it has taken him a bit to get to the Bigs, Wendelken has all the staying power on this team, and is a good option as an opener as well.

In 16.2 innings last year he posted a 0.54 ERA with a 0.78 WHIP. Small sample size alert, but he also upped his curveball usage to 25.5% after only 9.6% during his first cup of coffee with the team. Add in that the K rate jumped six points to 22.6%, and there are some gains to be had. The other piece that makes him a good sell for fantasy owners is the length, with an average of 1.3 innings per appearance over the past two years in Triple-A. While he might not be next in line as of now, it would not be shocking to see Wendelken take the closer role with an injury, or a deal this winter. Of all the names to learn, this is the one that no one else in your league will be in on.


Adam Cimber (RP, CLE)

To be fair, Cimber was on my list of targets before he was dealt to Cleveland along with Brad Hand. And yet, the second half disappointment after the trade has caused him to slip off many fantasy radars, including my own. Cimber’s value comes mostly from his role in the pen and looks to be either the match-up righty or a firm set-up option for Tito. In what looks to be a sleeper bullpen, Cimber seems to have the inside track to play that crucial role, and on a team that will play in tight games, this is the type of profile to add. Without even looking to the statistics, the fact that he has an unusual delivery allows him to deal with hitters who have never seen him before. All of this comes down to match-ups, and Cimber is winning those this year.

Throwing out the start to 2018 due to park factors at Petco, and its predictability for this year, Cimber saw an increased ground ball rate with the move to Cleveland, but also a surging ERA. With San Deigo, he was at 3.17, but in the second half, this grew to 4.05. If he can mix in the increased movement on the breaking pitchers, and somehow find a way to keep hitters off his sub-par fastball, Cimber can return to being a top 25 receiver for fantasy teams. If Brad Hand moves to a fireman role based on need, right now, Cimber is the next in line to add some saves.


Branden Kline (RP, BAL)

After missing all of 2016 and 2017 due to injury, Kline posted a strong return campaign with 45 innings over three levels in the minors last year. The control is still a work in progress, but he did strike out 25% of opposing hitters that he faced. Even more, Kline kept the ball in the park, with a career HR/9 under one over his time in the organization. If he can stay healthy, Kline looks like he should be on course to make the Oriole pen this year after being added to the 40-man in November.

Mixing in three pitches, Kline will mainly offer fastball-slider as the main mix but has a changeup that scouts grade at 50 with the potential to improve. The other good news is that the fastball has returned to its pre-injury velocity, with Kline sitting 92-94, and he can touch 97/98 on occasion. Another former starter, Kline will offer a key bridge role in the pen, and on a team that is looking to see what it has for the future, the opportunity to prove his worth. Kline will take a year to prove his value but is a critical target in dynasty leagues.  


Tanner Scott (RP, BAL)

Currently sitting at Triple-A, Scott might have the highest ceiling on this list if it all works out. The most natural comparison would be Zach Britton, as Scott has flash plus-plus stuff, but also needs to grow out of some control issues. Over 53.1 innings with the Orioles, Scott posted an ERA of 5.40 but also had an xFIP of 2.96, so regression should be coming. The 31.7 K% is elite and shows the value that he offers outside of a match-up option for lefties.

Not only is Scott the next heir to the closer role in Baltimore, but should flash Britton-like upside given the home run suppression line. In 2018, he did post a 1.01 HR/9 line, but in the minors never had a year above 0.26. While the Majors are a different animal, the track record is there to mix the stuff with a wide range of usage. Scott is a must add in both keeper and redraft leagues, or, at the very least, should be a FAAB target when he gets the call.


Wes Parsons (RP, ATL)

At 26, Parsons is one of the elder statesmen in the Atlanta pitching staff. And yet, he only has 8.1 innings to his name with the Braves, with some mixed results to begin his career. Over one, five-inning showing on his debut, Parsons allowed four earned runs on six hits and three walks. This year the line a is a bit better, with two earned over 3.1 innings. Why then, with the limited sample, and lack of real success should owners be targetting Parsons? This first point is that he mixes in four pitches, making him unique out of the pen. Add in that he has the length to offer multi-inning showings, and the stage is set for the fireman role, saving the youngsters in the Brave’s rotation in the fifth or sixth innings.

Second, at Triple-A last year, Parsons posted a 14.1 K-BB%, to add to a .230 opponent’s batting average, and 1.16 WHIP. All of this came in 14 starts, with only two appearances out of the pen. While an ordinary SP5 profile is he stays in the rotation, the pitch mix and 90.7 MPH sinker compliment the low 90s fastball that allows him to flash more upside in the pen. Expect the K% to tick up, as he has out pitches on both sides of the plate. For example, he throws a changeup exclusively to lefties and the slider to righties. All the pieces are there for an elite arm out of the pen, and he can break out in a new role.


Robert Stock (RP, SD)

The closer role is set in San Diego with Kirby Yates looking to be the option long term. And yet, the Padres also have Stock who can touch 100 with the fastball out of the pen to help connect their young starters to the strong back of the bullpen. After jumping around in the minors with the Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds, Stock finally got the chance last year, and pitched 39.2 innings, posting an ERA of 2.50 and 1.26 WHIP. With two main offerings, Stock throws 60% fastballs and 40% of his pitches are sliders. This seems to be the trend on the list, with upside arms offering their breaking option off of the fastball, while also working on a changeup.

With Craig Stammen, and Trey Wingenter looking to the main set-up arms, there is room for Stock to bounce and play where needed for this team. At his best be offers a 27 K% which will allow him to play up in that role, or at the very least, provide value for counting stats over shorter outings. Unlike others on this list, Stock is not expected to pitch more than an inning at a time, but with two lefties in the pen, also can finish off innings when given a chance. Long term, Stock looks to have the arsenal and approach to close, but with the current blockers, will provide fantasy value in all the other spots. If there is a pitcher on the list, who already shows a good floor, but can shoot fast the ceiling, it is Stock.


Jeffrey Springs (RP, TEX)

Springs does not meet all the standards for an ace reliever, with a heavy changeup approach, and a sinker that sits at 92. When looking to his pitch-mix last year, the fastball was not thrown in the Majors. While drafted and developed as a starter, Springs has moved to a match-up lefty role for the Rangers. And yet, with the background, Springs is one of the options to grow into a role on a rebuilding club. What makes Springs unique is the cross-arm delivery, which allows the fade on the changeup to baffle hitters even more.

While not the best comparison, Springs reminds me a lot of Shane Bieber. While they offer different approaches, they both rely on pounding the zone to make up for lack of elite velocity and stuff. This also means that, like Bieber, Springs is going to give up hard contact when hitters do figure him out. So perhaps the better comparison is a late-career Cliff Lee, but with fewer pitches. In 2018, Springs allowed 1.13 HR/9 off of only 5.4% barrels, showing the downside to the approach. While Springs will not be the top fantasy grosser on this list, he does offer the most growth potential. For deep dynasty leagues that count holds, Springs will be one to target in 2020.  

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