With New Year’s Day rapidly approaching and Pitchers-and-Catchers-Report Day less than eight weeks away, plenty of closer situations are still in flux. Potential contenders like the Cardinals, Phillies and Twins have reportedly been in the closer market and look like strong candidates to add to the back ends of their bullpens. Rebuilding teams are less likely to do so. If anything, they could be sellers in the coming weeks.
So while teams that are long shots to contend in 2019 may not have their bullpens completely set just yet, they are more likely to ultimately settle their closer situations by turning to in-house options. It is premature to speculate on the value of someone like Jordan Hicks, who could inherit the Cardinals’ closer role, but could also find himself setting up for a free agent signee like Zach Britton. It is not too early, though, to start scoping out the fantasy value of potential closers for non-contenders.
Over the next few weeks, I will do exactly that, going team-by-team until I have exhausted the list of rebuilding squads. Few teams, if any, are deeper into rebuild mode than the Marlins, so they seemed like an appropriate subject for the inaugural column in this series. As I will do with other teams in upcoming installments, I will dig into the profiles of those relievers who either have some chance to inherit a significant portion of the Marlins’ save opportunities or provide fantasy value even without getting more than a handful of saves.
The good: Steckenrider is the presumed frontrunner to close and, as such, should get the first crack at getting save chances. Like every Marlins pitcher, he gets the benefit of an extremely pitcher-friendly home park, but that may help Steckenrider more than most, given his career 36.4 percent ground ball rate. He should also help himself to avoid extra-base hits, as he compiled a svelte 26.8 percent hard contact rate on flyballs in 2018.
The bad: The first thing many fantasy owners look for in a prospective closer is a high SwStr%, and Steckenrider has been merely fair in that regard with an 11.8 percent career rate. Even if he improves that part of his game, his strikeout upside may be limited, as he tends to draw a high rate of swings at pitches in the strike zone. While swinging strikes are important, a low called strike rate can hurt his strikeout rate and his overall value.
The outlook: Steckenrider could pitch well enough to get the closer’s job and keep it, but his skill set does not stand out as especially strong among his cohorts. Not unexpectedly, his ERA, FIP, xFIP and SIERA were all above 3.50 last season. If the Marlins were to succeed in adding someone like Jake Diekman or Adam Warren, as they are trying to do, according to MLB.com’s Joe Frisaro, it would not be a tremendous upset if they leapfrogged Steckenrider in the bullpen pecking order, even though they have minimal closing experience.
The good: The converted starter’s changeup and slider are both quality pitches that are good for inducing whiffs. Though Conley is a lefty, and he was notably more effective against left-handed batters in 2018, his splits against righties were perfectly fine (.228/.291/.396). Particularly if the Marlins add a lefty reliever like Diekman, Conley’s handedness doesn’t have to be an impediment to him being used as a closer.
The bad: Like Steckenrider, Conley draws a lot of swings, so he is a candidate for a low called strike rate. In 2018, a minuscule 12.7 percent of his pitches were called strikes, so that’s how he wound up with a merely decent 24.8 percent K% while posting a 14.5 percent SwStr%. Last season, Conley put a lot of spin on his changeup (2041 rpm), and while a similar rate in 2019 could help to lower his BABIP, it puts him at potential risk of allowing extra-base hits at an elevated rate.
The outlook: As a starter, Conley was better at getting called strikes, so if he can increase that rate while maintaining a high SwStr%, he has real strikeout potential. He has also been better than Steckenrider at getting chases on out-of-zone pitches, so he has the potential to post a superior walk rate. Conley has a bit more upside than Steckenrider, so even if the latter reliever starts the season as the Marlins’ closer, it’s easy to imagine Conley taking the job from him at some point.
The good: Guerrero threw the hardest fastball of all the Marlins relievers in 2018, averaging 98.8 mph. In fact, of all qualified relievers in the majors, only Hicks and Aroldis Chapman threw harder. Early on, that translated into swings-and-misses, as Guerrero compiled a 17.7 percent SwStr% through May 1. Though his 11.2 percent walk rate didn’t show it, he didn’t have a control problem, locating 46.3 percent of his pitches in the strike zone.
The bad: Just because Guerrero throws strikes doesn’t mean he is not a threat to post a high walk rate or WHIP, as he induced very few out-of-zone chases last season (25.1 percent O-Swing%). After May 1, there was virtually no aspect of his game that went well. During that portion of the season, he registered a 5.91 ERA with subpar rates for SwStr% (8.7 percent), O-Swing% (22.8 percent) and Z-Swing% (72.8 percent).
The outlook: While his high fastball velocity and intriguing early start to 2018 put him on the fantasy radar, there is no reason to count on Guerrero for fantasy help — including strikeouts — in 2019.
The good: The Marlins’ Rule 5 pick from the Astros is viewed by the organization as a “back-end reliever,” so given the lack of an obvious option to close, maybe he could eventually make his way to very back of the bullpen. In his first go-around at Double-A Corpus Christi in 2017, Ferrell was well above the Texas League averages for strikes-thrown and swinging strike rates (according to StatCorner). In 23.2 innings there in 2018, Ferrell’s SwStr% fell just slightly from 16.6 to 15.8 percent, and he posted a 1.90 ERA.
The bad: The transition to Triple-A Fresno was not a smooth one, as he was barely above-average at getting swinging strikes, and he walked 5.1 batters per nine innings.
The outlook: Will Ferrell anchor the Marlins’ bullpen? They would probably opt for more of an old school option in any circumstance, but his chances to close seem particularly small, given his struggles at Triple-A. If other candidates fail to impress during the season, Ferrell will be a closer-in-waiting to watch.
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.