Unlike the first two subjects of this series, the Marlins and Orioles, the Diamondbacks were contenders in 2018, at least until they went 8-19 in September. Now with Paul Goldschmidt and Patrick Corbin gone — and with A.J. Pollock presumably signing with another team — it’s hard to see them keeping pace with the Dodgers and Rockies.
That means the Diamondbacks could look to deal relievers at some point in 2019, making them one of those annoying teams with persistently fluid bullpen situations. Torey Lovullo has indicated that he is inclined to give Archie Bradley the first shot at being the team’s closer, though he also hinted that he may be quicker to make a change in roles if his closer struggles. Bradley had a difficult second half of 2018, compiling a 6.58 ERA and 1.54 WHIP, so even if the Diamondbacks are surprise contenders, there is no reason to think that he would be immune to losing the closer’s job if he actually won it coming out of spring training.
If we did assume that Bradley opens the season as Arizona’s closer, it could still be a wild ride trying to chase saves in their bullpen, whether he is good enough to be a trade chip or bad enough to get demoted. Here are the relievers we need to monitor as potential fantasy contributors as the season unwinds.
The good: For the bulk of his two years as a reliever, Bradley has been highly effective. From the beginning of the 2017 season through last season’s All-Star break, he had a 1.82 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and .246 wOBA allowed over 118.2 innings. Bradley has consistently shown solid control, and he has been one of the best pitchers over the last two seasons at avoiding pulled flyballs.
The bad: It’s an exaggeration to say that Bradley has been a bad strikeout pitcher, but his 26.3 percent strikeout rate as a reliever is merely decent by closer standards. His 9.5 percent SwStr% is definitely atypical for a closer. Bradley has been above-average at getting called strikes and foul balls, but we know SwStr% to be a strong correlate of strikeout rate. We shouldn’t take Bradley’s poor stats from the second half of 2018 at face value, since he apparently had some bad luck with BABIP (.386) and LOB% (65.1 percent), but he also induced fewer grounders. We probably can trust the 1.38 HR/9 and 3.90 xFIP he put up.
The outlook: As of now, Bradley is clearly the reliever to target from the Diamondbacks’ bullpen, but his second-half struggles showed the risk of relying on a closer who doesn’t get many whiffs. His current NFBC ADP of 233.70 looks just about right.
The good: Hirano got a little bit of closing experience late in 2018 when Lovullo finally had enough of Brad Boxberger. In his first season after coming over from Japan, he had an even lower strikeout rate (22.5 percent) than Bradley, but Hirano was actually far superior in terms of getting swings and misses (12.2 percent SwStr%).
The bad: While Hirano’s whiff rate suggests he may have some strikeout potential, his K-rate in Japan fell notably in 2016, and it did not rebound. He may also have a hard time getting more called strikes without eroding his whiff rate. Hirano was far better at freezing batters with his four-seamer than with his splitter, but the splitter was a far better swing-and-miss pitch. Finally, it’s hard to put much trust in the 2.44 ERA he posted in 2018, since he is unlikely to hold opponents to a .250 BABIP again. His 3.76 SIERA may be a better indication of what to expect going forward.
The outlook: Since Hirano was next-in-line behind Boxberger last year, it would seem he would hold a similar status behind Bradley now. I’m not averse to giving pitchers with mediocre strikeout rates a chance to be successful closers, but there has to be some other standout skill to compensate for fewer Ks. In Hirano’s case, I’m just not seeing it.
The good: Ever since Lovullo started using Chafin as a “pre-closer” late last season, bringing him in to begin the ninth inning to face a lefty, it occurred to me that he could make a good closer. Over the last three seasons, has been better than either Bradley or Hirano at getting swinging strikes, and he has been perfectly good against righties (.310 wOBA). Between his own ground ball tendencies (career 55.0 percent rate) and the apparent moderating influence of Chase Field’s humidor on home runs, Chafin can continue to be stingy with the long ball (career 0.38 HR/9).
The bad: Chafin draws a lot of swings when locating his slider in the strike zone, but he does the vast majority of his bat-missing on out-of-zone pitches. The lack of called strikes means that his strikeout rate may always be disappointing compared to his SwStr%. Also, Chafin’s control the last two seasons has been shaky (37.5 percent Zone%), so he is at risk of a high walk rate and WHIP.
The outlook: While I’d like to see Chafin get a chance to close, I’m not sure he will get an opportunity. He does not need to be drafted, but he is worth keeping an eye on.
The good: Over the final week of the 2018, Lopez got a look as an eighth-inning setup reliever. He fared well in the brief audition, allowing only a double and a single in three scoreless innings. His September callup came on the heels of a strong season at Double-A Jackson, where he finished with a 2.92 ERA, a 34.4% strikeout rate and 12 saves.
The bad: Lopez’s nine innings with the Diamondbacks are his only innings above Double-A, so it’s hard to know how he will hold up with a more extended exposure to major league hitters. While his performance in the minors last season was encouraging, we also cannot put too much weight on the performance of a 25-year-old in Double-A.
The outlook: Lopez is the youngest of the quartet featured here and also the hardest thrower. He just may have the greatest upside, but first he has to claim a spot on the major league roster.
Do you disagree with this short list? Did I leave out any potentially valuable relievers? Let me know about it in the comments!
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.