Relief Pitchers with Starting Pitcher Eligibility (2019 Fantasy Baseball)
Entering the 2019 season, the pool of relief pitchers who carry starting pitcher eligibility isn’t particularly exciting. In past seasons, projected closers such as Raisel Iglesias and — if I really want to date myself — Dustin Hermanson have entered the season with starting pitcher eligibility. In leagues with standard scoring that distinguish between starters and relievers, it can be extremely valuable to roster an “extra” closer and stick him in an SP slot. It’s likely the group of highlighted relievers below collectively finish 2019 with fewer than 10 saves. Hell, there’s a decent chance they’ll finish with fewer than five saves between them.
Having said that, in deeper leagues or leagues that include holds, there could be an edge to gain by rostering or at least keeping the following players on your radar. There are no pitchers from the Braves included in this piece, but youngsters such as Touki Toussaint, Luiz Gohara, and/or Max Fried could potentially help out of the bullpen this year. It’s also possible any of them could start in the rotation or open the year getting more seasoning as starters in Triple-A. They weren’t included because of role uncertainty as opposed to a lack of intriguing upside. While most of the following pitchers ough, are essentially locks to work out of the bullpen, I did add a couple of speculative hurlers to round out the piece.
Diego Castillo, Ryne Stanek, and Ryan Yarbrough (TB)
The Rays frequently utilized the “opener” last year, and they’re the only club with multiple SP-eligible relievers included here. There were others on the Rays who missed the cut, too. Castillo is my favorite pitcher included in the entire article. He recorded 10 holds last year, and after dominating the upper minors in 2017 and the beginning of last year, was electric in The Show as well. In 43 games pitching 56.2 innings, he tallied a 3.18 ERA (3.30 FIP, 3.38 xFIP, and 3.15 SIERA, according to FanGraphs, as well as a 3.70 DRA, per Baseball Prospectus), 0.95 WHIP, 8.1 BB%, 29.3 K%, and 13.2% swinging-strike rate (10.7 SwStr% was league average last year, per FanGraphs). Castillo’s average four-seam fastball velocity of 97.7 mph was the ninth-highest of pitchers who pitched a minimum of 50 innings in 2018, according to FanGraphs. He’s a two-pitch pitcher who backs his blistering cheddar with a slider. Despite being only a two-pitch hurler, he was death on lefties (.236 wOBA) and righties (.256 wOBA) alike.
Placing a couple of spots ahead of Castillo on the velo leaderboard, Stanek’s average four-seam fastball of 98.0 mph was the seventh-highest of pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched last season. In addition to his heater, he throws a slider and splitter. Pitching 66.1 innings in 59 appearances, Stanek tallied a 2.98 ERA (3.55 FIP, 3.98 xFIP, 3.49 SIERA, and 3.34 DRA), 1.09 WHIP, 10.3 BB%, 30.8 K%, and 15.4 SwStr%. The primary reason I like Stanek a bit less than Castillo this year is usage. Castillo “opened” only 11 games, and Stanek opened a whopping 29. Stanek’s usage resulted in only two wins, zero saves, and eight holds.
Yarbrough rounds out this trio, and he’s not a threat of high-leverage usage (i.e. holds and saves). However, he’s akin to a touchdown vulture in football as a “piggybacker.” Yarbrough opened six games last year and pitched five innings or more (qualifying him for the win) in only four of them. He pitched in 32 more games (38 games in all, including his six starts) following the opener. Working as the second member of an opening tandem allowed him to pick up 16 wins last year, tying Justin Verlander and David Price for 12th among all pitchers. Only two of them came in starts. He backed his wins with a palatable 3.91 ERA (4.19 FIP, 4.41 xFIP, 4.12 SIERA, and 4.82 DRA), 1.29 WHIP, 8.0 BB%, and 20.4 K%. Color me skeptical of him duplicating his win total, but he’s a deep-league option who can be used when expected to piggyback an opener or simply slotted in when your other starters aren’t toeing the rubber.
Sergio Romo (MIA)
After spending last season in fluctuating roles with Tampa Bay, Romo will bring SP eligibility to another Florida club as a member of the Marlins. He saved 25 games last year and has 109 in his career. The Marlins are in the midst of a rebuild, and it’s possible they could deal projected closer Drew Steckenrider if a team calls with a package of prospects. Romo’s closing experience makes him a candidate to earn some saves if Steckenrider is dealt or not available during a save situation. Of course, Romo could also be flipped to a contender in need of reliever reinforcements. Until that happens, though, Romo’s a decent speculative relief option in holds leagues.
Michael Lorenzen (CIN)
Lorenzen’s 3.11 ERA in 81.0 innings last season looks nifty enough, but the numbers under the hood aren’t nearly as flattering. His 6.8 SwStr% was the lowest of his career and well below his 10.4% in 2017. The cratering swinging- strike rate resulted in his K rate tumbling from 22.2% in 2017 to 15.7% last season. The righty’s walk rate also rose from 9.4% in 2017 to 9.9% last year. If his bat-missing ability resurfaces, he could stave off some of the projected regression this season and claim a high-leverage bullpen position. I’ll need to see it first, though. However, it’s worth noting that a high-leverage bullpen role for any reliever in Cincinnati’s pen could yield some saves, as the team isn’t going to limit Raisel Iglesias to a traditional closer role. I suspect Jared Hughes and David Hernandez are both in front of Lorenzen in the saves pecking order behind Iglesias, but the Reds’ willingness to use their best reliever in the highest-leverage situations could mean they’ll do the same with all of their bullpen options, opening up save chances to any late-inning reliever.
Seth Lugo (NYM)
Lugo made five starts spanning 23.0 innings last year for the Mets, and the results were solid. However, he absolutely flourished in the bullpen. In 49 relief appearances totaling 78.1 innings, he recorded a 2.30 ERA (2.97 FIP, 3.55 xFIP, and 3.35 SIERA), 1.01 WHIP, 7.1 BB%, and 24.7 K%. He saved three games and recorded 11 holds. Perhaps he can pick up a three-inning save in games where the Mets expand a lead late, but he’s a poor speculative saves option with Edwin Diaz now closing and Jeurys Familia back in the bullpen. Regardless, Lugo is rosterable as a potential ratios helper and source of some holds.
Caleb Ferguson (LAD)
Ferguson made 10 starts in the upper minors (eight in Double-A and two in Triple-A) before getting called up to the parent club last season. He started his first three games for the Dodgers before settling into the bullpen and making 26 relief appearances. In 38.1 relief innings, the southpaw rattled off a 2.35 ERA (3.29 FIP, 2.55 xFIP, and 2.40 SIERA), 1.04 WHIP, 3.9 BB%, 30.5 K%, and 10.9 SwStr%. Those are outstanding numbers in relief, and if he starts the year in the Dodgers bullpen, he could be a ratio helper with some holds potential. However, it’s possible — if not probable — the organization could prefer sending him to the minors to get more seasoning as a starter. Gamers in deep leagues will want to monitor spring reports.
Brandon Woodruff (MIL)
Milwaukee doesn’t have the same starting pitching depth the Dodgers boast, but Woodruff’s 2019 outlook is murky in the same way as Ferguson. Milwaukee’s young righty was up and down last year, literally. He opened the year on the Brewers but was sent down and recalled a few times during the season. All 17 of Woodruff’s Triple-A appearances were starts, but he started just four of his 19 major league outings. Woodruff was knocked around as a starter to the tune of a 6.32 ERA with the advanced measures all sitting above five. He was dynamite out of the bullpen, though. In 15 relief appearances spanning 26.2 innings, he recorded a 2.03 ERA (2.26 FIP, 2.34 xFIP, and 2.16 SIERA), 0.98 WHIP, 4.8 BB%, 32.7 K%, and 11.9 SwStr%. According to Tom Haudricourt of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Woodruff will be stretched out as a starter this spring.
If Woodruff wins a rotation spot, he could have NL-only and deep mixed-league value. If he fails to win a rotation spot and remains on the parent club in a relief role, he’s already demonstrated the ability to dominate and help deep-league gamers and those who count holds. Also of note in the linked tweet, Junior Guerra will get a look in relief in the spring. He’s also starting pitcher eligible, but his sample of bullpen work last year was tiny (six innings). Although a tiny sample, it was impressive. Guerra held opponents scoreless in five relief appearances, yielding no walks and three hits with eight strikeouts and a 15.3 SwStr%.