In head to head formats, it is always good to be aware of those starting pitchers who are eligible to play in your RP spot. If you are looking to punt saves in a category-based league you need to own a few of these pitchers to make the strategy viable. Owners in points leagues especially need to take note of options that may be available in the mid to late rounds. A good two-start pitcher can regularly outscore the top of the line closers.
Lets take a look at the top ten RP scorers in CBS points leagues from last season:
*Starting Pitchers are in bold
As you can see, Iwakuma was leaps and bounds better than Kimbrel who happens to be everybody’s top closer. There were two other SPs in the top ten (Medlen and Miller). Medlen was generally selected around the same time as the elite closer options in 2013 drafts, but owners of Iwakuma and Miller were able to turn substantial profits on their draft day investment.
While it is true that only three SPs finished in last season’s RP top ten, there were also many others who enjoyed stretches of above average RP production. Pitchers like Alex Wood, Tyson Ross and Tanner Roark all made strong RP options at different times even though none amassed enough innings to land in the top ten overall.
It is easy to see how shuffling SPs with favorable match-ups and two start weeks might net more points than an above average closer. By rostering 3 or 4 of these players, it is not a stretch to think you could do better than 17.2 fantasy points a week from your RPs. After all, Iwakuma averaged 18.2 points per start last season.
If you are employing this strategy, it is important not to lose sight of why these pitchers are reliever eligible. None of the high impact performers from 2013 will be RP eligible in 2014. RP eligible starters all have one thing in common: they all spent time pitching in the bull pen in 2013. Therefore, their collective track records as starters are fairly limited.
It is a good idea to have a diverse portfolio of RP eligible relievers who are available at a low-cost, but it is unwise to invest heavily in any of them. Fantasy owners who drafted Kris Medlen in the sixth round last year got a solid pitcher, but they failed to gain an advantage over owners drafting Kimbrel in the fifth or Chapman in the seventh. This strategy works very well if you are able to grab players like Shelby Miller late in drafts and if you can pluck guys like Roark off the waiver wire. If you plan to use an early draft pick, you might as well take an elite closer who will give you steadier week to week production.
If you are confident that you will be able to put together a few cheap options, you can essentially ignore the RP position early on, thereby focusing on offense and your starters. Since a quality two start reliever can usually outscore the elite closers, you are getting better than elite production at a reduced cost. The only significant downside to this strategy is that you will likely need to use three or four roster spots in order to maximize the match-up potential of your reliever corps.
Some Arms to Consider for 2014
This next section will highlight a few pitchers likely to be in the opening day rotation who could all emerge as top RP options in 2014. In discussing these players, the primary assumption is that we are dealing with a points based, head to head format. The pitchers highlighted here all had five or more appearances as a reliever. If your league requires more than five appearances, some of these pitchers may not be eligible.
Wacha’s cost may be too high after his playoff run last season, but since he made six relief appearances last season, he will be RP eligible in most leagues for 2014. Wacha brings high K potential along with excellent control and he is all but guaranteed a rotation spot for the mighty Cardinals. Wacha could easily exceed Shelby Miller’s production from last season, but buyer beware since he may have an innings restriction.
Wacha leans primarily on two pitches (fastball and change-up) so there is some risk that hitters may start to figure him out as they see him more often. Since both pitches are excellent complementary offerings, however, Wacha has a really good shot of landing in the upper half of the RP top ten for 2014. I would advise selecting him as early as round nine or ten.
Cashner may be the safest pick of this group. Since the Padres elected to bring him out of the bullpen to begin the season, he was able to accrue five relief appearances. He makes for a dependable starter because of his ability to induce ground balls and his pitcher friendly Petco home. Interestingly enough, in CBS standard points leagues Cashner was tied with Kenley Jansen as the 13th highest scoring RP in 2013, despite making just 26 starts.
Cashner’s fastball velocity last year was 3.4 MPH lower than it was from the pen in 2012, so he did not strike out as many batters as his owners were hoping. If he fails to get his swinging strike rate back above 10% he might get over-drafted somewhat, but there is still plenty of value here as long as owners can get the right price (rounds 12-14).
Cingrani will be a buzzy pick who might get drafted too soon. His K rate is outstanding (10.32 K/9) but he walks too many hitters and he relies almost exclusively on his fastball. Cingrani benefits from a low BABIP due to his flyball tendencies, but he also gives up a ton of HRs and has difficulty pitching deep into games.
Cingrani has a lot of upside, but until he is able to master a secondary pitch he is unlikely to fully live up to it. Since Cingrani was only able to make it through six innings in eight of his 18 starts, he can only be counted on during two start weeks in points leagues. He would make a good value after round 20, but he is being drafted much earlier in most places. I would let someone else fall for the hype unless he slips into the later rounds. Cingrani is potentially far more valuable in category leagues where his K’s and low WHIP can make more of an impact.
Smyly is an intriguing late round sleeper poised to enter the Tigers’ rotation. He could make for a valuable RP option and he will likely carry a low-cost on draft day. It is easy to look at Smyly’s outstanding ratios from last season and project big things, but there are some risk factors here too.
Smyly’s pitch mix relies heavily on his fastball variants. His secondary pitches are all fringe offerings. There is a good chance that Smyly will give up more hard contact the second time through the order once hitters have seen what he has. Smyly started 18 games in 2012 and gave up 1.09 HRs per 9. Like Cingrani, he may also have trouble pitching deep into games.
We are not likely to see an ERA under 3.00, but Smyly is still capable of getting nearly a strikeout per inning and winning plenty of games for the Tigers. He is well worth a late round pick as long as owners can keep their expectations in check.
Although it did not show in his record (3-8), Tyson Ross pitched exceptionally well in 2013. His K/9 of 8.57 along with a 3.17 ERA and 1.15 WHIP are good enough to play almost anywhere. He was not able to get much run support, but the primary factors in Ross’ success was that he was able to keep the ball on the ground and out of the cheap seats. Aided by a jump in fastball velocity from 92.4 to 94.0, the ERA indicators all seem to agree that the unexpected success was more due to Ross’ skill set than to luck.
Ross may not be able to average 94 on the radar gun or limit opposing batters to a miniscule 15.3% line drive rate in 2014, but he is absolutely worth drafting in case the skill improvements are real. Ross isn’t going to win 15 games, but I would gladly take him late in any draft format.
Wood seemed to wear down a little at the end of the season, but his numbers in August were nothing short of sensational. Over five August starts, he gave up just three earned runs against 28 Ks in 30 innings. He has the strikeout ability, the ground ball rate and the deceptive delivery to be a true fantasy ace in the future.
The news here isn’t all positive, however. Like many young pitchers, Wood may see his innings limited either by a shut-down or a possible late season move to the bullpen. Draft him in the late rounds, but prepare to be without his services in September.
Gausman’s K/BB has been really good at every level. The biggest issue that Gausman faced in 2013 was that he gave up a ton of hard contact. The 25.2% line drive rate coupled with an 18.6% HR/FB ratio indicates that major league hitters were not often fooled by his offerings. If Gausman can improve his pitch mix to keep hitters off-balance, he has the ability to miss bats, limit walks and eat through innings. He certainly has the raw stuff to succeed.
Because Gausman did not fare so well in 2013 he is more of an upside flier than a value pick, but he is worth keeping a close eye on during spring training. When he figures things out, he has the potential to be excellent. Gausman could make you look really good if you are willing to gamble with a late pick.