The only player more invisible than a middle reliever in fantasy is a middle reliever who did not start the season in the majors. Not only does he lack those shiny saves, but he may not even qualify for the leaderboards you would use to uncover relievers who could help your ratios or possibly inherit a closer role down the line.
This season, there are quite a few relievers who have burst onto the scene with a lot of promise and, in many cases, a lot of strikeouts. What follows are some of those players who have caught my eye. Few are in play for saves, but these players are worth your consideration in holds leagues, deeper formats, and Ottoneu.
Ken Giles, Phillies
Like a later name on this list, Ken Giles earned some love from Marc Hulet in early May. Since then, Giles has jumped two levels to the bigs and has struck out 13 of the first 28 batters he’s faced. His 14.6 strikeouts per nine would rank him third behind David Robertson, Craig Kimbrel, and Andrew Miller (and just ahead of several other big-name relievers including Kenley Jansen, Dellin Betances, and Greg Holland). It’s not much of a sample to go on, but Giles did strike out north of 11 batters per nine at all but one of his minor league stops. Also, he routinely throws 100 mph and sports a wicked slider, which helps.
Unlike the rest of the players I’ll talk about, I think Giles does have a chance to close sooner than later. With Mike Adams on the DL, Giles has already been working in the eighth inning. His two major obstacles are his intermittent command and Jonathan Papelbon’s terrible contract. The Phillies are on the cusp of falling to double digits back of the Braves and Nationals in the East, but even if they commit to sell, Papelbon is still owed $13 million next season, which could limit the pool of suitors. Neither of those reasons should discourage from picking up Giles now, even in shallow leagues where you have the bench space to speculate on a potential closer-in-waiting as the trade deadline approaches.
Chris Hatcher, Marlins
Guys with stuff like Giles never come out of nowhere, but the same cannot be said for Marlins’ reliever Chris Hatcher. Hatcher was originally a catching prospect and is already 29 years old in this, his breakout season. Prior to this season, Hatcher did not show exceptional strikeout potential or command in the minors. However, in 19.1 innings for Miami this season, Hatcher has 23 strikeouts against two walks, a ratio reminiscent of that of another hitter-turned-reliever, Sean Doolittle.
Hatcher has a middling fastball, but both his changeup and slider have been very effective for him and helped him avoid platoon splits. With A.J. Ramos now on the DL, Hatcher may find his way into a higher leverage role. At the very least, Hatcher seems to have secured his spot on the Marlins’ bullpen.
Shae Simmons, Braves
Shae Simmons might be the No. 1 player on this list but for the small complication that is Craig Kimbrel in the same bullpen. So he would clearly need something bad to happen to Kimbrel to have a chance at saves, but he does have seven holds in 17 appearances this season. More importantly, his 1.23 ERA is supported by his insane 0.82 WHIP. That kind of ratio help shouldn’t be available in 97 percent of Yahoo leagues. He even earned his first career win after bailing out Mike Minor on Tuesday. Format will dictate your interest, but if saves weren’t a factor, Simmons would be one of the best relievers in fantasy.
Vic Black, Mets
With as much trouble as the Mets have had in their bullpen and specifically at closer, it says a lot that Vic Black never earned a shot at the job before Jenrry Mejia took control of the situation. No doubt the reason for that is Black’s command, which is also why he spent half of his season in AAA. Since returning to the majors on May 27, Black has walked 10 batters in just 16.2 innings. At least the strikeouts have been there. Black is more a player to watch than to own at this point. Should he ever harness his stuff in the zone, he could become an elite reliever. I expect the Mets to try Mejia in the rotation again in the future, so if Black can improve his command over the second half, he could join Jeurys Familia in a competition for Mets’ saves in 2015.
Kirby Yates, Rays
Since Grant Balfour has proven ineffective as the Rays’ closer, they have turned to a committee that has featured Jake McGee, Joel Peralta, Juan Oviedo, and even Balfour. Meanwhile, Brad Boxberger has struck out 13.8 batters per nine and has yet to record a save. That is all a long way of saying that Kirby Yates is a long way back in line. However, Yates does have extensive closer experience, albeit in the minors. Yates saved at least 16 games each of the last three seasons in either AA or AAA. He also struck out nearly 13 batters per nine across those seasons and has continued strikeout ways in limited time in the majors so far this season (11.2 strikeouts per nine).
The Rays may not quite be out of the race in the AL East, but if they decide to sell, several of their relievers may be attractive trade options for teams unwilling to pay the full closer price tag on someone like Huston Street. It would take a fire sale to land Yates in the late innings, but keep an eye on him if the Rays decide to sell.
Cam Bedrosian, Angels
When he came up at the start of June, Cam Bedrosian looked like he might jump straight to the back of the Angels’ disappointing bullpen. Bedrosian struck out 14.1 batters per nine in AA this season, but he blew his early save chance and did not earn another. Bedrosian actually walked more batters than he struck out in his six appearances in the majors and was subsequently sent back down to the minors. Since, Bedrosian has struck out five of 14 batters faced in AA. If he can right the ship, look for the Angels to recall Bedrosian as they are badly in need of arms to improve a bullpen that has produced a league-worst -0.5 WAR so far this season.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt