Undervalued Relievers and Dart Throw Save Options

Jorge Montanez takes a look at some undervalued relievers and late-round dart throws for saves in draft and hold leagues.

One of the burning questions we face every season is how to attack saves in drafts. With the evolving landscape of relief pitchers and bullpens, securing those lock-down closers with assured roles has become as crucial as ever. And with that, the price of closers continues to rise. Looking at historical NFBC ADP over the last few years, we saw four closers going inside the top 100 picks in 2020. In 2021, that number rose to six, with Liam Hendriks and Josh Hader going at picks 57 and 58. So far this season, Hendriks and Hader are going inside the first three rounds at picks 34 and 37, while nine relievers are featured in the top 100. Despite the need to secure these closers early, the price they come with might just present the best opportunity to those who hit on late-round saves. This year, finding those late closers may just be as advantageous as ever. Let’s look at potential values along with some dart throws for saves in draft-and-hold leagues.

*NFBC ADP from 12/15 – 1/15

Blake Treinen, Los Angeles Dodgers – ADP: 179.61

2021: 72 1/3 IP, 1.99 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 85 K, 7 SV, 6 W

Treinen was absolutely dominant for the Dodgers last season. As is, he’s already a relatively safe pick in drafts despite the ADP inside the top 200. After recording seven saves, six wins, and elite ratios over 72 1/3 innings, he was the 71st most valuable pitcher, according to the Fangraphs Auction Calculator. At pick 179, Treinen is going as the 68th pitcher off the board in NFBC drafts. While it might seem improbable that he’ll repeat those outstanding numbers, last season wasn’t even his best. The 33-year-old right-hander was the top reliever in baseball just a few seasons ago after posting an 0.78 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and 38 saves over 80 1/3 innings for the A’s in 2018. Treinen got back to dominating on the mound by cutting his sinker usage in half and going with a cutter to feature with his excellent slider. That slider induced a 20.3% swinging-strike rate, helping him achieve a 29.7% strikeout rate while maintaining a healthy 52.6% ground ball rate. 

While it’s assumed the Dodgers will be interested in bringing back veteran Kenley Jansen after the lockout, let’s take a closer look at the situation. Last season, Los Angeles led baseball with a $285 million payroll, getting hit with a $32.65 million competitive tax penalty. They’re currently projected to enter the 2022 season with a payroll of $232.9 million, still above the current $210 million CBT (competitive balance tax). After losing Corey Seager in free agency and the uncertainty surrounding Max Muncy, the team could very well target an everyday regular in free agency. There’s been speculation that the Dodgers could make a push for Carlos Correa or Freddie Freeman. Then there’s the rotation. Clayton Kershaw is a free agent, and Trevor Bauer looks unlikely to pitch for the team again. There’s no way they go into the season with just Tony Gonsolin, Andrew Heaney, and David Price behind Walker Buehler and Julio Urias.

With Tommy Kahnle and Caleb Ferguson returning from injury and the addition of Daniel Hudson, the bullpen seems to be the least of the Dodgers’ concerns once transactions open back up. If and when it becomes clear that Treinen is entering the season as the team’s closer, no one in the draft will see a higher jump in value. He’ll be going at least 100 picks earlier than his current ADP, if not more.

Lucas Sims, Cincinnati Reds – ADP: 260.48

2021: 47 IP, 4.40 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 76 K, 7 SV, 5 W

What a mess the Cincinnati bullpen was in 2021. The departure of Raisel Iglesias left the closer role open. Many were speculating Sims could be the one to take over. Though Amir Garrett made a case for himself as the self-anointed closer. And Tejay Antone was a popular sleeper. Manager David Bell left the role open, refusing to commit to one pitcher in the ninth inning. Injury and ineffectiveness forced his hand throughout the season, but he stayed true to his word. No reliever recorded more than eight saves for the Reds. Three of their top six save leaders are no longer with the club. The sixth, Tejay Antone, will spend most of the year rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, leaving just Sims and Garrett. And Garrett finished the season with a 6.04 ERA.

This brings us to 2022, where the Reds appear intent on continuing to cut payroll as they transition into a rebuild. By attrition, Sims will undoubtedly be back in the mix for saves. And the underlying numbers suggest things could go much better this time around. The 27-year-old right-hander’s 4.40 ERA came with a 3.00 FIP, 3.03 xFIP, 2.51 xERA, and a career-high 39% strikeout rate. This one is probably more of a dart throw than I’d like to admit, but Sims has the best chance to run away with the job given the alternatives on the roster. 

Jake McGee, San Francisco Giants – ADP: 296.57

2021: 59.2 IP, 2.72 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 58 K, 31 SV, 3 W

You know what they say, recency bias is a hell of a drug. McGee is coming off a tremendous season after posting a 2.72 ERA with 31 saves for the Giants in 2021. Yet he’s being drafted roughly 140 picks after Camilo Doval. Now, Doval was absolutely terrific in September and carried that over into the postseason, where he became the first rookie to record a two-inning save without allowing a baserunner. So it’s easy to overlook the 24-year-old right-hander’s struggles in the first half when he surrendered nine runs in just 10 2/3 innings of work with a 12% walk rate. And he didn’t fare too much better in Triple-A, where he posted a 4.99 ERA and 16.7% walk rate. While the future looks bright for Doval, I’m not so sure he’s ready to be anointed the team’s full-time closer. 

When Gabe Kapler was brought in to manage the Giants, he went on record to state he was waiting for someone to grab hold of the closer role and run with it. The hopes in 2020 were that Reyes Moranta would be that guy. That didn’t happen, and the bullpen struggled mightily to hold leads late in games. Things turned around with the addition of McGee last season, and aside from a rough stint in May following a trip to the COVID-IL, he was the main man for the Giants. An oblique strain on September 17 landed McGee back on the injured list, and he didn’t make his return until the postseason. With the 35-year-old left-hander easing back into action and Doval dealing on the mound, there was no reason to rush McGee back into the ninth-inning role. 

Heading into the 2022 season, he has one year left on his contract. It’s easy to envision the analytically-driven Giants going with McGee as the closer and Doval as the fireman. And this may very well be a situation where the fantasy community is projecting the best reliever to be the closer, but that is often not the case. At pick 298, there’s little risk in taking McGee and all the upside of a full-time closer on a team with a knack for generating plenty of saves. 

Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers – ADP: 363.98

2021: 69.2 IP, 2.97 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 73 K, 14 SV, 5 W

Fulmer might just be my favorite target on this list. The 28-year-old right-hander was excellent in his transition to the bullpen. As a starter, he posted a 4.97 ERA over 12 2/3 innings. From May 5 on, he pitched exclusively in relief, recording a 2.25 ERA with 53 strikeouts and 14 saves over 48 frames. We often see pitchers move away from the fastball to feature their secondary offerings as they transition to the pen. Fulmer did just that, increasing his slider usage from 33.2% to 43% following his permanent move to relief. His slider velocity increased from 89.5 miles per hour to 92 miles per hour in the shorter outings. With the added ticks, the chase rate and wOBA on the pitch improved, and Fulmer saw his strikeout rate jump to 27.4% as a reliever. 

Gregory Soto appears to be the current closer but never truly gained the full confidence of manager AJ Hinch, recording 18 saves to Fulmer’s 14. After a 3.00 ERA earned him an All-Star nod in the first half, Soto posted a 3.90 ERA with an alarming 4.83 FIP, 4.68 xFIP, and 15.8% walk rate. The .206 BABIP in that stretch was the only thing keeping that ERA down. He made his final appearance on September 18, finishing the season on the injured list with a fractured finger. And while Hinch reluctantly named him the closer for 2022 after the season, he also stated Soto would pitch in the 6th, 7th, and 8th. 

Fulmer ended on a strong note, allowing just one run over 14 innings with six saves in September. Not a bad showcase. He’s likely already slated to get his share of save chances next season, making him an underrated pick at 363. Soto’s numbers regressing closer to his underlying metrics could make it just a matter of time before Fulmer takes over the ninth-inning role. 

Jonathan Loaisiga, New York Yankees – ADP: 410.22

2021: 70.2 IP, 2.17 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 69 K, 5 SV, 9 W

First, let’s just take a moment to admire this Baseball Savant profile. 

Yeah, you love to see that. Loaisiga, another converted starter, was outstanding for the Yankees last season. His nine wins and five saves made him the 72nd most valuable pitcher on the Fangraphs Auction Calculator, one spot behind Treinen. The 27-year-old right-hander saw his velocity increase across the board in his first full season as a reliever. With that, his swinging-strike rate jumped to 13.7% while he produced a top-five chase rate at 41.1%, leading me to believe there’s plenty of room for growth in his 24.4% strikeout rate. Loaisiga also showcased excellent control with a 5.7% walk rate. And his 60.9% groundball rate ranked fifth among all qualified relievers. With swing-and-miss stuff, outstanding command, ability to induce weak contact, and a role that’ll put him in line for wins, there’s a whole lot to like here. We know Aroldis Chapman will get all the save chances as long as his arm is intact, but Loaisiga’s safety and upside as the next in line make him an underrated pick here.

Jorge Alcala, Minnesota Twins – ADP: 484.82

2021: 59.2 IP, 3.92 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 61 K, 1 SV, 3 W

Alcala was impressive in his first season with the Twins in 2020, posting a 2.63 ERA with 27 strikeouts over 24 innings. The 26-year-old right-hander struggled to carry that momentum into 2021, recording a 4.67 ERA in the first half. A significant change to his pitch mix turned his season around. Alcala moved away from the four-seam fastball in favor of a sinker and increased the usage of his slider and changeup. The results were incredible, and he was absolutely lights out in the second half. Take a look at those second-half numbers. 

He already showed excellent control, but the change in pitch mix generated more groundballs and strikeouts, just what you love to see. Taylor Rogers is entering his final year of team control before free agency, making him a prime trade candidate for a transitioning Twins team. Alcala ended the season with a four-out save that included three strikeouts against the Royals on October 3. A sign of things to come? 

Free Agents That Could Land a Closer Job

Alex Colome – ADP: 521.25

2021: 65 IP, 4.15 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 58 K, 17 SV

Colome seemed to be a perennial regression candidate as he always seemed to overachieve his underlying metrics. Well, things finally caught up to him in 2021 in what was his worst season as a pro. But with his track record, 155 career saves, and a 3.51 ERA in the second half, it’s easy to envision a team signing the veteran closer for another chance at a full-time ninth-inning role. Signing with a team like the Padres, for example, would likely bring Colome’s ADP into the top 300. 

San Diego did sign free-agent right-hander Luis Garcia, but are they prepared to make a 34-year-old reliever that popped 33 1/3 quality innings with eight career saves a full-time closer? Their recent track record suggests no. The Padres signed veteran closer Mark Melancon last winter and traded for Trevor Rosenthal the year before. So they could very well be in the mix for any of the free-agent relievers on this list. 

Trevor Rosenthal – ADP: 523.78

2021: Injured

Speaking of Rosenthal, who else got burned by taking the veteran everywhere in the top-100 after he signed with Oakland last season? I’m a little salty about this one, but you move on, and so will Rosenthal. Still just 31-years-old, he’s on track to be fully healthy entering the season after undergoing hip surgery. He’s another one of those veterans with a track record, logging 132 career saves. Rosenthal saved 11 games in 2020 to go with a 1.90 ERA and 41.8% strikeout rate. He’s a worthwhile dart throw at his price as he’s likely to be in the running for saves no matter where he signs outside of just a handful of situations. 

Brad Boxberger – ADP: 564.67

2021: 64 2/3 IP, 3.34 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 83 K, 4 SV

Noticing a trend here? Yeah, veterans with closing experience are exactly the type of dart throws you want to make in draft and hold leagues. Boxberger recorded 41 saves for the Rays in 2015 and 32 for the Diamondbacks in 2018. Coming off a good season with the Brewers, he might make some sense for a team like the A’s who could look to add a cheap, tradable piece to their bullpen once the lockout ends. 

Ryan Tepera – ADP: 656.88

2021: 61 1/3 IP, 2.79 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 74 K, 2 SV

A true dart throw here, Tepera put together his best season in the majors last year with the Cubs before heading to the White Sox at the trade deadline. The 34-year-old right-hander posted a career-best 22.9% K-BB rate and has really seen his strikeout stuff improve over the last two seasons with increased usage of his cutter. 

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