3 Undervalued Fantasy Baseball Relievers to Target
A common theme in the season-long fantasy baseball world is not to pay for saves.
In other words, the thinking is that you’d be wise to spend an early-round pick on someone other than a reliever. Whether you choose to deploy this practice or not, there are still relievers going very late who could prove to be valuable to your fantasy roster.
In most rotisserie fantasy leagues, there are five categories in which pitchers can earn points: wins, saves, strikeouts, earned run average (ERA), and walks plus hits per inning pitched (WHIP).
Besides saves, the relievers below all offer the potential for value in at least two other categories -- and sometimes three.
Roberto Osuna, Toronto Blue Jays
Roberto Osuna entered last season having never pitched above High-A, yet he made Toronto’s Opening Day roster and never looked back. He ended up posting a 2.58 ERA across 69 2/3 innings on his way to 20 saves. Osuna also had an impressive strikeout-rate-to-walk-rate differential (K%-BB%) of 21.8 percent, which ranked 26th best among qualified relievers.
Despite this impressive season, Osuna is being drafted 222nd overall and as the 28th reliever off of the board, according to FantasyPros. The reason for his low draft position is likely due to an unclear role for the 2016 season.
Toronto traded for Drew Storen in the offseason, and he’s expected to be given the first crack at earning saves. However, Osuna’s ability to strike out hitters at a high rate and prevent runs from scoring and hitters from reaching base means he can provide fantasy value even in a setup role. This, combined with the mindset that talent usually wins out, means Osuna could find himself back in the closer's role.
We project him to post a 28.1% strikeout rate with a 2.93 ERA and a minuscule 0.93 WHIP in 2016, all of which are better than Storen’s projections.
Drafting Osuna might not pay off immediately, but he could prove to be Toronto’s best bullpen arm, which means he could be racking up the saves before long.
Will Smith, Milwaukee Brewers
Will Smith had an impressive 2015 season, recording a 2.70 ERA, 2.75 xFIP (14th-best), and a 34.5 K% (7th-best) over 63 1/3 innings pitched. His success could partly be attributed to throwing his fastball about five percent less and his slider roughly seven percent more. This helped lead to a 15.2 Swinging Strike percentage, which was 13th-best.
Smith finds himself in a similar situation to Osuna in that his role entering the 2016 season isn’t clear. Brewers’ manager Craig Counsell has said that he doesn't plan on naming a closer before the season starts -- it’s between Smith and Jeremy Jeffress. However, Smith has two things going for him. One, he’s dominated the competition with Jeffress this spring. Smith has yet to give up a run in seven innings pitched, while allowing just two hits and striking out five. Jeffress has not allowed a run either, but he’s managed to pitch only two innings while battling a hamstring injury.
The second point in Smith’s favor is his 2016 projection compared to Jeffress’. We project Smith to post a 28.9% strikeout rate, a 3.11 ERA, and a 1.28 WHIP, all of which are superior to Jeffress’ projections, especially K%, which is more than a 7-point difference in Smith’s favor.
Smith is currently being selected 225th overall and as the 33rd reliever off of the board. However, our projections see him as the 11th-best reliever, for a difference of 22 spots. Even if Counsell decides to use a closer-by-committee approach to begin the season, Smith’s high strikeout rate will offer value in the meantime, and his superior projection suggests that he could have the closer job to himself.
Joaquin Benoit, Seattle Mariners
Joaquin Benoit was acquired by the Mariners in the offseason after pitching well for the San Diego Padres in 2015. He recorded a 2.34 ERA and a 24.8% strikeout rate in 65 1/3 innings last season, while posting the seventh-best WHIP at just 0.90. Despite these impressive numbers, the Mariners also acquired reliever Steve Cishek last winter, and he’ll open the 2016 season as Seattle’s closer.
Benoit’s setup role has helped lead to an ADP of 348, which means he’s going undrafted in 12-team leagues with standard roster sizes. However, because Cishek's poor 2015 season (4.33 xFIP and just a 19.8% strikeout rate) shows signs of another down year coming for him, Benoit needs to be owned. Our 2016 projections for Cishek are uninspiring, despite a bounce back, and they pale in comparison to Benoit’s projections.
We forecast Benoit to post a 2.67 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP, and a 24.9% strikeout rate in 2016, which makes him our 30th-best reliever, compared to 53rd on FantasyPros, good for a difference of 23 spots. This projection includes only seven saves, which means his value could skyrocket if he takes over the closer role.
There are some warning signs with Benoit, however. Although he’s shown the ability to pitch well over the past six seasons, he’ll be 39 years-old in July, and his 3.69 xFIP in 2015 was his highest since 2008. He’s also recorded only 50 total saves in his 14 seasons, and this is something that managers who think players need to stay in pre-determined roles may potentially consider. (It’s yet to be seen how new Mariners’ manager Scott Servais will act.) That said, Benoit has managed to keep runners off the bases consistently, which in turn, helps limits runs allowed.
Osuna, Smith, and Benoit may all open the season in setup roles, yet each of them offers upside that drafters should be searching for in late rounds.
You should be able to wait on all three of them, Benoit especially -- who you can likely grab with your last pick -- so instead of choosing a backup second baseman with your 18th-round pick, consider one of these relievers.