Fantasy Baseball Middle Reliever Targets: Week 3

by Andrew Gould | @andrewgould4 | Featured Writer
Apr 20, 2017

Zach Putnam could take on a higher-leverage role sooner than later

Let’s hope fantasy managers who added Michael Lorenzen last week also remembered the disclaimer about small sample sizes. In his first outing since gracing this column as a recommended add in holds league, his pristine ERA quickly ballooned with a four-spot.

There lies the danger of playing hot hands out of the bullpen. Any player can go cold without warning, but one bad day from a reliever sticks out. A bad sitcom sequence in a 23-episode season is forgivable, but a shortened mini-series can’t afford many major missteps.

Lorenzen isn’t a cautionary tale just yet. Although his ERA now resides at 4.00, he still sports a 1.46 FIP and 65.2 ground-ball rate which should spawn patience from spurned owners. Yet for those seeking other hot hands in holds leagues, let’s look at five names whose fast starts have drawn attention.

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Corey Knebel (MIL)

A popular pick to assume the Milwaukee Brewers’ closing role last season, Corey Knebel instead levied a 4.68 ERA and 4.41 BB/9. Although Neftali Feliz now owns the ninth inning, Knebel is shining a smidgen earlier in games.

The 26-year-old has compiled 12 strikeouts over 8.1 frames, over which he has yielded one run on four hits and walks apiece. He has netted nine of his 14 batted-ball outs on the ground while repairing last year’s troubling 7.7 swinging-strike percentage to 10.1, as of Wednesday.

Knebel will of course eventually yield some runs. He also has some competition for the primary setup role in Jacob Barnes, who has made the case for future inclusion with 9.1 scoreless innings. Yet both are intriguing holds options who could ascend into a closing gig if the Brewers—who traded closer Jeremy Jeffress last summer—sell Feliz before the deadline.

Like with closers, managers shouldn’t stray from middle relievers on mediocre teams. With help from the red-hot Eric Thames, Knebel has already notched five holds and should be rostered in all leagues counting the category.

Jose Leclerc (TEX)

Per’s T.R. Sullivan, Matt Bush will get the first crack at saves after the Texas Rangers yanked a disastrous Sam Dyson (4.1 IP, 14 H, 13 ER) from the role. Jeffress is presumably next in line, but Jose Leclerc is Texas’ most interesting middle reliever for those not directly chasing saves.

The rookie recorded 15 strikeouts in as many innings last September, but 13 walks dampened any sleeper appeal. He surrendered eight of those free passes, however, in a brief July promotion before brandishing better command during a September call-up.

This season he has yet to allow a base on balls in 7.1 innings. He has also stockpiled a dozen strikeouts with a 22.6 swinging-strike percentage and elevated velocity from last year’s brief foray. He’s one of eight relievers with a FIP (-0.37) better than zero.

If he can continue to limit walks—an iffy proposition given his career 5.0 BB/9 in the minors—he has the potential to keep posting elite numbers, possibly as Texas’ closer if Bush falters. The upside warrants an investment.

Zach Putnam (CWS)

Nate Jones was supposed to serve as the Chicago White Sox’s setup extraordinaire. Sensing a possible David Robertson trade producing future saves, drafters pursued the top middle reliever in five-by-five leagues.

He has fizzled in April, allowing six hits and five walks over 5.1 uneven innings. While Zach Putnam has not surpassed Jones in the bullpen pecking order, he has made a far bigger impact with eight scoreless frames.

Having thrown a first-pitch strike to 19 of 25 batters faced, Putnam has yet to relinquish a walk. By generating whiffs on 21.3 percent of his offerings and getting batters to chase outside the strike zone at a 46.7-percent clip, his nine strikeouts might sell his ceiling short.

This isn’t quite an out-of-nowhere breakout either. Since joining the White Sox in 2014, he has registered a 2.66 ERA and 9.67 K/9. The 29-year-old has logged just 25 career holds—Jones had 28 last year—but continued success should earn him more high-leverage opportunities. Although a Robertson trade is still unlikely to put Putnam in the saves discussion, it would bump him one step up the ladder.

Matt Barnes (BOS)

Matt Barnes holds an 8-percent Yahoo ownership rate, a high mark for a middle reliever who hasn’t recorded a save and isn’t a credible candidate to soon do so. Unless gamers thought they were adding the NBA player, his two wins and a Boston Red Sox bias have likely driven interest.

This is also a case study in one bad outing ruining a remarkable start. Barnes submitted seven scoreless appearances before surrendering three runs to the Toronto Blue Jays Tuesday night. The hot hand burned new investors, and suddenly his ERA expanded to 3.12. His 4.17 FIP, inflated by six walks out of 35 faced batters, suggests further regression from the 26-year-old with a 4.45 career ERA.

While he should keep striking out batters, a high walk (3.82 BB/9) and high homer (1.20 HR/9) rate is a terrible combination for any reliever. Another bad day will send him back to the waiver wire in nearly all mixed leagues, so don’t fall for those fluky wins. Now, let’s hope he never encounters Houston Astros outfielder prospect Derek Fisher down the road.

Adam Warren (NYY)

The New York Yankees don’t need to worry about the final two innings. Make it three for Tyler Clippard fans, which are more common than one might think considering his 9-percent Yahoo ownership rate. Making the rich even richer, Adam Warren has masterfully handled earlier assignments.

Before coughing up three hits, a walk, and a run Monday, the 29-year-old righty had tossed 6.2 perfect innings over four appearances. Following the recent hiccup, he still boasts a 1.24 FIP and 0.44 WHIP. His 14.2 swinging-strike rate and 38.0 outside-swing percentage both represent career highs for a hurler currently no longer in limbo between the rotation and bullpen.

Given New York’s uncertain starting staff, manager Joe Girardi relishes Warren’s flexibility as a multi-inning option to use whenever needed.

“He’s a bridge. He’s a fill-in, in a sense,” Girardi told Pete Caldera of The Record. “The seventh, the eighth, ninth inning, whatever I need. He just (provides) a lot of diversity to our bullpen. And it’s a really important guy who can handle a number of different roles.’’

For now, he’s someone to add in deeper formats and monitor in shallower leagues. If a long season doesn’t propel Warren back into starting duty, he’s a potential difference-maker as a relief fireman.

Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

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Andrew Gould is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Andrew, check out his archive and follow him @andrewgould4.

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