A couple of weeks ago I wrote this piece about RP eligible starters. In the comment section, a reader inquired about their opposite number (SP eligible relievers). You might be asking yourself why that might be important knowledge. In some formats, the ability to slide an extra RP into your line-up could give you an advantage over the rest of the competition. Two such examples would be any league that counts both saves and holds separately and daily change roto leagues with innings limits.
It is easy to see a possible advantage to starting an extra reliever in leagues that count holds. If your league’s starting requirements allow for 4 SPs, 2 RPs and 2 Ps that would give you a maximum of 4 opportunities at either a save or a hold. If you are able to find an SP eligible player to help in the holds category, however, you will now have five possible chances since you can start relievers in your RP and P slots along with one extra who can be used in the SP position. Using this many relievers is likely to be more practical in a daily change league, but there might be situations where even weekly league owners could benefit.
I will not go into detail here about the value of using non-closing relievers in daily roto leagues to bolster ratios. There have been many articles written about the topic over the past couple years and quite frankly, that would make for a completely separate piece. Many roto players have found success using non-closing relievers and an extra roster spot to do so can be very beneficial.
Now that we have covered a couple of basics, it is time to look at some common traits that successful converted relievers often share.
Where Can We Find These Pitchers?
Most often, SP eligible relievers come from two places. They are either former starters who get bumped from the rotation (like Tommy Hunter) or they are up and coming youngsters who are ready to help the big league club but there may not be a rotation spot available (Tony Cingrani). Most fifth starter roles are up in the air at this time and can fluctuate throughout the season, but owners need to keep a close eye on rotation battles during spring training. In this case, we are interested in some of the losers.
I look for the following four factors in trying to figure whether a converted SP could make a valuable fantasy reliever:
1. Swing and miss stuff: The pitcher needs to be able to generate K’s in order to help your ratios and to be successful in late inning relief. Many pitchers are able to generate significantly more K’s in relief roles than they did while starting since they can often throw harder and rely exclusively on their best pitches during shorter outings.
2. Crowded rotation: This one speaks for itself, but teams like the Cardinals who have seven or eight quality rotation options are more likely to produce a quality SP eligible reliever than teams like the Rangers who are having trouble fielding a healthy five.
3. Reason why they would be suited to bullpen work: Some pitchers are best suited for relief roles because their secondary offerings are not good enough to take them through the batting order a second time. Others have injury histories that make it difficult to count on them for starter innings.
4. Unsettled bullpen: This one is even more important in holds leagues, but you want your guy to have an opportunity to earn high leverage innings. If the bullpen hierarchy is well established like the Nationals’ pen, then it is very difficult for a converted reliever to work his way into a 7th, 8th (or 9th?) inning role.
A Few Pitchers to Watch this Spring
It is a lot harder to predict which of these pitchers might emerge than it is to find RP eligible starters, but in this section I will discuss a couple of pitchers who could turn into relief studs. As always, eligibility will vary from league to league depending on requirements.
Kevin Gausman (BAL)
Wait a minute, wasn’t this guy in the RP eligible starter section too? Yes he was.
It is more likely that Gausman enters the season in the Orioles rotation and he absolutely has the talent to excel there. The O’s do have some other viable options to win the fourth and fifth starter jobs, however. Given Gausman’s struggles in the rotation last season, his subsequent success in the bullpen and the Orioles lack of established late game bullpen options, Gausman could find himself pitching in either hold or save situations at some point in 2014.
From the pen last year, Gausman delivered the following line in 23 IP:
ERA 3.52, WHIP 1.04, Ks 29
Carlos Martinez (STL)
Martinez is an elite prospect with quality swing and miss stuff (21.8% K rate as a starter in AAA last year). Martinez is capable of touching triple digits with his fastball and some scouts believe he is better suited for a relief role. They worry that his slight frame will not be able to handle 150+ innings per year. Since the Cardinals rotation is already over-crowded, Martinez could find himself with a big league relief role come April.
The downside here is that the Cardinals already have some pretty good 7th, 8th and 9th inning guys. Martinez will likely have to earn trust by performing in low-leverage and long relief situations early on.
Burch Smith (SD)
Smith was not really an elite prospect, but he tore through the minors in impressive fashion. When he arrived in San Diego, he suddenly began to have command problems that were not an issue in the minors. Smith was able to generate a lot of Ks at every level he pitched, (his lowest K% was 25.7% in high A ball) so he has the ability to help ratios as long as he can keep the BBs in check.
Smith only really has two reliable pitches (fastball/change) and some question whether or not he has the stuff to make it in the rotation long-term. Should the Padres decide to give him a try in the bullpen, he could quickly earn his way into a late inning role. Padres closer Huston Street is injury prone and on his last legs. Benoit would surely step into the 9th if Street falters, but an 8th inning role could be up for grabs at some point.
Drew Pomeranz (OAK)
Pomeranz is a former elite prospect who was dealt to Colorado as part of the package for Ubaldo Jimenez. He then proceeded to flop in epic fashion after the Rockies rushed him to the bigs and then put him in that awkward four man rotation. Pomeranz has struggled to develop secondary pitches, so a move away from Coors Field coupled with a move to the bullpen could be his ticket to revitalizing his major league career.
The A’s rotation is pretty crowded, so he would likely need an injury or two to get a shot there. He is most likely to either open the year in the AAA or the A’s pen. Pomeranz would clearly need to earn his way into high leverage situations, but he has the arm talent to succeed if given the chance.
Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez (PHI)
Nobody really knows what to expect from the 27-year-old Cuban import, but the Phillies believe that Gonzalez can help them in some capacity in 2014. Gonzalez has had elbow issues in the past and some scouts question whether or not he would be durable enough to provide value in a starter’s role.
Whether or not Gonzalez will be successful in whatever role he is given is anybody’s guess. Given the lackluster options available for the 7th and 8th innings in the Phillies’ pen, there could be some upward mobility potential if Gonzalez is able to thrive in a relief role.
Dellin Betances (NYY)
This one could be a reach from an eligibility standpoint, but Betances definitely has the talent and the opportunity to carve out a meaningful role in the Yankees’ bullpen. Betances made six AAA starts last season before being converted to the bullpen so he could qualify as an SP in leagues with liberal eligibility requirements.
Bottom line, this guy can miss bats with the best of them and his progress needs to be monitored whether he is SP eligible or not. The former elite SP prospect turned reliever (31.3% K rate in AAA last year) could quickly earn his way into high leverage situations if he can limit the BBs and suppress the HRs.