Using Athlon Sports' Big Board as the barometer, here are some potential relief pitcher sleepers who get the ball late in games to keep an eye on, as well some possible busts to potentially be wary of. Keep in mind that the "bust" tag doesn't necessarily mean that player won't produce, it's more an indication of concern that he won't do so in relation to his position on the Big Board.
Note: Relief pitcher includes players who have RP eligibility, according to Yahoo!. The player's ranking on the Big Board (200 players ranked) is listed, if applicable. UR means player was not ranked among the top 200. Player rankings from 2012 referenced are from a Yahoo! league that uses the following pitching statistics: W-SO-SV-HLD-ERA-WHIP.
2013 Fantasy Baseball Relief Pitcher (RP) Sleepers
Ryan Cook, OAK, RP (UR)
Part of the trade that sent Trevor Cahill to Arizona in December 2011, Cook was a key cog of the A’s bullpen last season. He made 71 appearances, posting a 6-2 record, 2.09 ERA and 0.94 WHIP. For fantasy leagues that use holds, Cook should certainly merit your attention, as he collected 21 of them in 2012. He also is a good source for strikeouts (80 in 73 1/3 innings) and he has to be considered the closer-in-waiting should something happen, health-wise or performance-related, to incumbent Grant Balfour. And speaking of Balfour’s health, he underwent knee surgery in February and is just now getting back on the mound in spring training. Besides being a valuable setup guy, the opportunity could be there for Cook to get some save chances early in the season.
Kyuji Fujikawa, CHC, RP (UR)
The Cubs signed the Japanese lefthander to a two-year, $9.5 million contract to bring him over to the states. The 32-year-old pitched in Japan from 1999-2012 where he posted a 1.77 ERA in 562 games with 914 strikeouts in 692 1/3 innings. Even though he will have to make the adjustment to pitching in the U.S. and against major-league hitters, it should be just a matter of time before Fujikawa, and not incumbent closer Carlos Marmol, is finishing games for the Cubs. Marmol most likely will be traded at some point as the team continues its rebuilding process, and Fujikawa has plenty of experience in the closer role, as evidenced by his 220 career saves in Japan.
David Hernandez, ARI, RP (UR)
All you really need to know about Hernandez is that he struck out 98 batters in 68 1/3 innings last season. He picked up 25 holds and also collected four saves as the Diamondbacks’ setup man, posting a 2.50 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in the process. Even though the team added veteran closer Heath Bell in the offseason, Hernandez figures to get the call should incumbent J.J. Putz, who blew five saves last season, stumble or simply need a day off.
Glen Perkins, MIN, RP (UR)
A starter for the Twins in 2006, Perkins has successfully made the transition to the bullpen. First used primarily as a lefty specialist, Perkins worked his way up the bullpen ladder to setup man in 2011 and the first part of ’12 and then shared the closer duties with Jared Burton from late June on last season. Whether the closer-by-committee continues this season remains to be seen, but don’t be surprised if Perkins ends up with the gig on a full-time basis. All he did in the second half of last season was go 12-for-13 in save chances with a 1.93 ERA, 0.58 WHIP, while posting an 11.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio. If Perkins does end up with the closer job all to himself, he could be good for 30 or more saves at a ridiculously cheap price.
Vinnie Pestano, CLE, RP (UR)
Pestano is one of the more under-appreciated relievers in fantasy baseball, but that could change this season. He finished last season second in the majors in holds with 36 and has a total of 59 for the Indians over his last two campaigns. He’s a reliable source of strikeouts (76 in 70 innings) and doesn’t hurt you in the ERA (2.57) and WHIP (1.10) categories either. Most importantly of all, however, is that Pestano has a good chance of starting the season as Cleveland’s closer since incumbent Chris Perez has been sidelined by a shoulder strain. Perez said he expects to be ready by Opening Day, but if he’s not new manager Terry Francona won’t hesitate to hand the ball over to Pestano. You shouldn’t either for your fantasy team, even if you play in a league that doesn’t use holds.
2013 Fantasy Baseball Relief Pitcher (RP) Busts
Joel Hanrahan, BOS, RP (No. 180 overall)
Hanrahan has been one of the most effective closers the past two seasons, racking up 76 saves in 84 chances for the Pirates. This season, however, he will be changing not only teams, but also leagues, as he takes over the closer role in Boston. Hanrahan’s fly ball rate jumped quite a bit last season, as evidenced by the eight home runs he allowed compared to just one in 2011, and his new home park is not exactly known as being a pitcher’s haven. Fenway ranked third last season in the majors in terms of runs scored, while Pittsburgh’s PNC Park came in at no. 28, according to ESPN.com’s Park Factors. Unless the wheels come completely off, there’s no reason to not expect Hanrahan to save 30 or more games for the Red Sox this season. Just be willing to pay a potentially high price, say in terms of ERA and WHIP, for those saves if you do end up drafting him.
Jim Johnson, BAL, RP (No. 146 overall)
Johnson came out of nowhere last season to lead the league in saves (51) for a surprising Orioles team. Understandably, Johnson went from someone drafted well outside of the top 200 (if at all) in 2012 to a guy who sits comfortably inside of that range for this season. My skepticism related to Johnson’s current Big Board standing as the No. 11 RP has to do with his skill set and the team he pitches for. For one, Johnson is not a strikeout guy (41 in 68 2/3 innings), as he relies on his stuff to produce ground balls. As effective as he is with this strategy, there’s always some concern with guys who pitch more to contact than missing bats. There’s also the matter that Baltimore went 29-9 in one-run games last season, a situation that a closer like Johnson no doubt benefited greatly from. The chances of the Orioles repeating such a performance seem highly unlikely, which in and of itself could be a difference of around 10 saves, if not more. Remember, for a pitcher like Johnson saves are what primarily drive his value since he’s not going to collect a lot of strikeouts.
Craig Kimbrel, ATL, RP (No. 45 overall)
Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way – I am not saying that Kimbrel is a bust, as his stats (3-1, 42 SV, 1.01 ERA, 0.65 WHIP, 116 SO in 62 2/3 innings) speak for themselves (and rather loudly at that). What I am saying is be careful to not overpay for saves, which I think you run the risk of based on his top-50 overall standing on the Big Board. Jonathan Papelbon is the next reliever on the Big Board, and he comes in at No. 83. The difference between taking Kimbrel in the fifth round and Papelbon in the ninth is pretty substantial, don’t you think? While Kimbrel may be one of the top RPs available, is he really so valuable that he’s worth taking so early? Don’t forget that Jim Johnson and Fernando Rodney both finished with more saves than Kimbrel last season, while Jason Motte and Rafael Soriano had just as many. Even with the high number of strikeouts and an outstanding ERA and WHIP, it’s not like Kimbrel lapped the rest of the RP field in 2012. Also, Atlanta made a concerted effort last season to lessen Kimbrel’s workload as his appearances dropped by 16 games and his innings went down by nearly 15. What’s not to say that this trend doesn’t continue in 2013? After all, the Braves did add former Angels closer Jordan Walden to a bullpen that already has reliable options in Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty. I have no problem whatsoever with Kimbrel being the first RP drafted. I would just caution you on pulling the trigger too soon.
2013 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Big Board
2013 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Infield
2013 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Outfield
2013 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Starting Pitcher
2013 Fantasy Baseball: Closer Grid
2013 Fantasy Baseball Deep Sleepers
Fantasy Baseball Studs to Avoid in 2013
Fantasy Baseball 2013: Which Injured Players are Worth Drafting?