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Top 10 Relief Pitchers to Target - LIMA Plan

You need saves but you don't want to burn an early pick or spend up just to invest in a closer that joins the 50% club. That is, the 50% or more of relief pitchers who start the year as closers but will lose their job due to poor performance or injury at some point during the season. Then there are the teams who employ a closer-by-committee where you don't know who to trust. The LIMA (Low Investment Mound Aces) Plan, developed two decades ago by fantasy guru Ron Shandler, advises you to avoid the headache and build your roster with offense in mind first.

There has long been a misperception that LIMA means to punt saves altogether or to stock up on middle relievers. This is patently false. The strategy simply dictates that you don't need to draft multiple closers early on or spend too much of your budget in that area. Investing in a closer before you've shored up your infield or gotten more than two starting pitchers isn't a sound strategy.

If you haven't read the starting pitcher recommendations for a LIMA Plan draft strategy, you can do that here. Now, let's see how this strategy applies to relievers.

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Basic Tenets of the LIMA Plan

  • Use the majority of your budget or early draft picks on offense, limiting exposure to overvalued pitching.
  • Spend $30 or less on saves in auction leagues.
  • Target setup men with the opportunity to earn saves during the season.
  • Focus on underlying skills rather than ratios.
  • Aim for relievers with a high K-rate, ideally 25% or higher.
  • Look for a K-BB of 2.5 or better.
  • Avoid pitchers with high HR rates.

As Ron Shandler puts it, "invest in skill and let the roles fall where they may. In the long run, better skills should translate into more innings, wins, and saves." Rather than picking a guy that you hope can hold onto the role all year or fighting for the new closer du jour on waivers during the year, target valuable relief pitchers that can boost your K rate and ratios while potentially inheriting saves along the way. These late-round picks can and should be paired with one top-tier closer (Josh Hader, Aroldis Chapman, Liam Hendriks) or two solid, mid-tier closers (Raisel Iglesias, Taylor Rogers, Ryan Pressly, etc.)

Now, let's look at the top relievers to target on draft day in the later rounds.

 

Jordan Romano, Toronto Blue Jays

I wondered if the Kirby Yates signing would make for a significant gap in ADP between him and Romano, both of whom will compete for the closing gig. Here's the answer: 200. As in, Yates is 200 spots higher over the past week in NFBC drafts. In the past week, Yates zoomed all the way up to 111 whereas Romano is down to 313 overall.

If we are to throw 2020 completely out of the window, this makes a ton of sense. But we have to at least entertain the idea that Yates' elbow starts barking again or that he doesn't find the same level of success in the AL East as he did in the NL West. Romano is the obvious high-end handcuff here but has stand-alone value in holds or SV+HLD leagues as well. In just under 15 IP, he struck out 38.6% of batters and didn't flinch when handed the closing role over the past week of the season. If you hate paying for saves, skip Yates and bet on Romano earning the job at some point.

 

Trevor May, New York Mets

You'd be excused for forgetting all about the Trevor May signing after all the major moves that new former Mets GM Jared Porter made. He won't be in the mix for saves as of now but May is flying under the radar as a skilled middle reliever. This staff now features six other relievers with closing experience and Edwin Diaz should start the year with a firm grasp on the job. May won't get any attention in fantasy leagues but he should be on watch lists at the very least.

First of all, let's acknowledge that few baseballers have been as legitimately excited to be a Met in recent years.


Whether the Metropolitans are building a winner in 2021 remains to be seen but that doesn't matter for our purposes. What does matter is that May struck out 38.6% of batters last year and has maintained a WHIP of 1.16 or less and an xBA under .210 for three straight years. He is also most likely to get the call over former firemen like Jeurys Familia or Dellin Betances if Diaz hits the IL or reverts to 2019 form.

 

Freddy Peralta, Milwaukee Brewers

Peralta is slated to start the year in the bullpen again as a long reliever but there is some speculation he could rejoin the rotation. If so, he could wind up being an even better value pick and possibly even a breakout performer. Then again, given how effective he was in the pen last year compared to his previous struggles, it may best to keep him where he is based on career splits.

Splits IP ERA WHIP wOBA K-BB% HR/9 Hard% xFIP
Starter 112.1 5.45 1.32 0.318 18% 1.36 43.9% 4.38
Reliever 80.1 3.59 1.23 0.282 23.8% 0.9 32.2% 3.68

For now, we'll assume that he delivers similarly to last season, which was pretty damn good. Per Statcast, Peralta ranked in the 85th percentile or higher in xwOBA, xBA, xERA, Whiff%, and K%. His most ineffective appearances were his very first and very last of the season; he posted a 2.22 ERA with a 41:9 K:BB on everything in between. That may be cherry-picking but most fantasy managers weren't playing him the first week of the season and possibly not the last week either, if it mattered. Peralta has made the necessary adjustments by adding in an effective slider to complement his fastball and is still growing. There are many more non-starters with this type of strikeout upside.

 

Tejay Antone, Cincinnati Reds

Much like Peralta, it's debatable whether Antone will be used in relief or put back in the rotation but it's clear what should happen. In 19 innings of relief, he posted a 1.89 ERA and held batters to an .097/.183/.194 slash line. As a starter for the 16 innings he lasted, he held a 3.86 ERA with a .237/.357/.441. The sample size is minute but it's all we have at the pro level for him. The difference with Antone is that he is also very much in the mix for a ninth-inning role with the trade of Raisel Iglesias. David Bell mentioning his name as a closing candidate and his 31.9% K-rate is encouraging enough to keep his name in mind.

 

J.B. Wendelken, Oakland Athletics

A.J. Puk is the tempting option out of Oakland's pen but his high-risk profile doesn't earn him a spot on this list, much less the Top 100 Prospects according to Baseball America. With Liam Hendriks moving on in free agency, Jake Diekman was named the frontrunner to be the new closer by A's GM David Forst. J.B. Wendelken and Lou Trivino will presumably back him up in the late innings. Diekman has the edge in terms of experience and had an impressive 2020, posting a 0.42 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, and 37% K%. That also came with a 14.3% BB% that's only slightly higher than his 12.6% career walk rate and he has all of seven saves in nine MLB seasons. Not to mention, a 97% strand rate is completely unsustainable.

I'm not necessarily kicking Diekman out the door already but in the vein of chasing skills as opposed to role. Wendelken has a solid 15.6% K-BB% in the majors with a strikeout rate that keeps rising each season, up to 29.2% last season. He's held batters to a .196 average, keeping that figure under .180 the past three seasons. Bottom line: this could be a closer-by-committee or any of several candidates could earn saves in Oakland, including an as-of-yet unsigned free agent. When drafting early, however, Wendelken is a much smarter investment at his nearly non-existent ADP of 395 compared to Diekman at 245.

 

Emmanuel Clase, Cleveland Indians

A suspension wiped out his 2020 season but it only serves to make him an even better value in 2021. With Brad Hand gone, there's a good chance Clase gets at least a handful of saves even if he doesn't win the job outright. The question is whether Terry Francona wants to install James Karinchak as the closer or keep him as a high-leverage fireman in the later innings.

Clase fits the bill as a flamethrowing fireman, which is quite a paradox. His cut fastball touches 99 MPH regularly and his slider clocks in at 90. Being a two-pitch pitcher is fine when you can blow both offerings by hitters. His reliance on the cutter relates him to Dodgers reliever Blake Treinen but his overall profile compares more favorably to Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen.

Clase is a bit of a wild card given his absence in 2020 but his ceiling is this year's version of Devin Williams or at the very least the 2019 version of Nick Anderson.

 

Pierce Johnson, San Diego Padres

The Fathers are all in on a pennant run in 2021, adding three high-profile starting pitchers to the rotation already. Surely they'll make a run on a closer too and won't rely on a collection of 30-somethings in their bullpen again after the Kirby Yates fiasco? Well, that seems to be the plan for now. Technically 29 right now, both Emilio Pagan and Pierce Johnson will turn 30 within a month of the season just three days apart. The Spiderman pointing meme seems appropriate here as there are plenty more similarities.

Both hard-throwing righties who rely on two pitches, the same-aged relievers had similar stats in 2020.

In terms of what we're targeting, Johnson has the edge with a higher strikeout rate and lower home run rate. While Pagan has more closing experience and could be first in line to succeed or supplant Pomeranz, he had a bumpy time in 2020 with five blown saves. As a result, he was only retained on a one-year deal worth $1.57 million. It doesn't necessarily mean that Johnson is ready to be a ninth-inning arm but he is a $1 bid that could produce equal if not better results than Pagan.

 

Tyler Matzek, Atlanta Braves

I recommended Drew Smyly as a starting option in my earlier piece on starting pitchers. Matzek is flying even further under the radar, however, and could be a game-changer as a last-round pick.

Firstly, his Statcast profile from last year is full of red. Therefore, must-draft!

All these appearances came in relief and we're looking at a 29-inning sample size, so it's best not to get carried away. Still, this is a former first-round pick with the talent to be a force in the rotation as well. Between Smyly's health risk and Kyle Wright's control issues, a starting gig could be in store at some point this season.

Matzek also carries some risk based on a limited track record but not for injury-related reasons. His four-year absence from the majors was due to anxiety issues which he was able to overcome. Since Matzek isn't in the closer conversation for Atlanta and profiles strictly as a middle reliever, he can't be depended on for save potential in traditional 5x5 leagues. He can bolster ratios and Ks quite a bit, though.



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