In most cases, relievers are collection of pitchers who had flaws that prevented them from starting. Perhaps they struggled to effectively work through lineups multiple times, or they lacked a deep enough arsenal to get both right-handed and left-handed hitters out. What this means is that the relief pitching prospect landscape is ever changing, and prospects that are starters now could join this group in the future. For now, this is the cream of the crop of relief pitching prospects in the American League.
Dan Klein, Baltimore Orioles, 23 years old
Klein is recovering from surgery last summer to repair a SLAP tear in his right labrum (throwing shoulder). He has a history of shoulder injury dating back to his time as a college closer at UCLA. Shoulders are trickier than elbows, so it remains to be seen how he recovers. Most reports I’ve read are optimistic he can return to the mound by June.
When healthy, Klein has been outstanding. He throws a low-90s fastball that he locates well. He also throws a change-up, curveball, and slider. His change-up and curveball are both above average pitches, and the slider gives him another pitch to keep hitters on their toes. It’s hard to envision him reaching the majors this year, but if he returns to pre-injury for in short order, it isn’t completely out of the question. The back end of the Orioles bullpen is lacking impact arms, leaving open the door to a few September vulture saves for Klein this year, or a possible closer role opening for him as soon as next year.
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox, 23 years old
Reed is the standout reliever of the bunch. The former San Diego State Aztec was a monster in the minors last year. The White Sox nabbed him in the third round of the 2010 amateur draft, and he reached the majors September of last year. In 108.1 innings in the minors he has a 1.41 ERA, 0.74 WHIP and a 12.9 K/9. Those numbers are absurd. They also aren’t the product of simply feasting on low minors competition, as 42 of those innings were pitched in Double-A and Triple-A. He continued to miss bats in the majors, striking out 12 in 7.1 innings (14.7 K/9).
Reed features three pitches, a fastball, slider, and change-up. His change-up is just average, but his fastball and slider are plus weapons. His fastball sits in the mid-90s, and routinely hits the high-90s. His slider is a wipeout pitch that generated a 21.62 percent whiff rate in his limited big league time according to his Brooks Baseball player card. The White Sox dealt Sergio Santos this offseason, clearing the way for Reed to lay claim to the closer role long term. Matt Thornton is expected to get the first crack at holding down the job, but look for Reed to make a case for taking over sometime during the summer.
Nick Hagadone, Cleveland Indians, 26 years old
The Boston Red Sox selected Hagadone in the supplemental first round of the 2007 amateur draft out of the University of Washington. Injuries have slowed his ascent to the majors, but he got his first taste in the bigs last year with the Indians, who acquired him as part of a package for Victor Martinez back in 2009. Hagadone has never had a problem striking batters out, but last year proved to be a breakout of sorts for him due to his ability to limit walks. Once developed as a starter, Hagadone is now a full-time reliever, and flourishing in that role.
This big southpaw, 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, packs heat, 93-98 MPH fastball (averaged just over 94 MPH in the majors per Brooks Baseball). The other pitch he turns to is a plus slider. He throws a change-up but is essentially considered a two-pitch pitcher. He was decent in spring training but will open the year in Triple-A. Expect to see him during the season. Should Chris Perez pitch like he did in 2011, as opposed to like he did previously, expect him to have greater struggles in 2012. If that’s the case, saves could be there for the taking.
Chen Lee, Cleveland Indians, 25 years old
Lee has been outstanding in three professional seasons with the Indians. The team signed Lee out of Taiwan in 2008. He has a career strikeout rate of 11.0 K/9, and has been even better in Double-A and Triple-A, pushing that mark up over 12.0 K/9. He pounds the strike zone with a career walk rate of 2.89 BB/9. As if his strikeout rates and walk rates weren’t impressive enough, he also induces boat loads of groundball outs (1.70 groundball out-to-flyball out ratio in 2011).
Lee features a low three-quarters arm slot delivery. That delivery could lead to a platoon split in the bigs. He does throw relatively hard, 90-95 MPH fastball. He backs the fastball with a slider that should be good enough to get big leaguers out. He’ll join Hagadone in the Triple-A Columbus bullpen but should be in line for an in-season promotion to the majors.
Kelvin Herrera, Kansas City Royals, 22 years old
News of Joakim Soria requiring Tommy John surgery has sent ripples through redraft fantasy leagues. Flying under the radar is the impact it could have in large keeper and dynasty leagues. The Royals gave up on developing Herrera as a starter after years of arm problems. As a full-time reliever for the first time last year, Herrera was filthy. He began the year in High-A, and finished it in the majors. He overpowered minor leaguers, striking out 70 batters in 67.2 innings (9.31 K/9). He also had little problem finding the strike zone with just 14 walks (1.86 BB/9). For the cherry on top, he had better than a two-to-one groundball out-to-flyball out ratio in the minors last year.
Herrera lights up radar guns with a fastball that sits in the high-90s and regularly hits 100 MPH. He throws two secondary pitches, a useable curveball, and a devastating change-up. He was excellent in spring training, striking out 12 batters in 11 innings. He remains in major league camp, and could start the year in a very talented Royals bullpen. Greg Holland and Jonathan Broxton should be the favorites to save games for the Royals this year, but Herrera is a dark horse to emerge as a saves source.
Deolis Guerra, Minnesota Twins, 22 years old
The crop of young talent the Twins received in return for Johan Santana hasn’t exactly panned out like they’d have hoped. Guerra is their last hope at salvaging anything out of the deal. Things weren’t looking bright until he was transitioned to the bullpen. As a reliever, he sported a 2.77 ERA and 0.94 WHIP with a 2.25 BB/9 and 11.25 K/9 in 52 innings.
He throws a fastball that sits in the low-90s, a curveball that is nothing special, and a change-up that is a strikeout pitch. He pitched in three spring training games for the Twins before being re-assigned to minor league camp. He should get a look in the majors over the summer if he continues to pitch with his new found level of success in the bullpen. Incumbent closer Matt Capps struggled last year, leaving open the possibility Guerra could notch a few saves this year if everything breaks perfectly for him.
Daniel Tillman, Los Angeles Angels, 23 years old
Tillman was selected by the Angels in the second round of the 2010 amateur draft out of Florida Southern. He has appeared in 65 minor league games, and 60 of those appearances have come from the bullpen. He has succeeded in a closer role and figures to continue to be developed in that capacity. His walk rate was on the high side in 66.1 Low-A innings (4.34 BB/9), but he made up for it with a very good strikeout rate of 9.50 K/9. His walk rate improved in limited exposure at the High-A level. He carried over his control gains moving up a level to the Arizona Fall League. There, he pitched in nine games, totaling 10.1 innings. His 5.23 ERA was rough, but his 3.39 FIP was more indicative of his component stats.
Tillman pitches from a three-quarters arm slot, mixing a fastball, slider, and change-up. His fastball and slider are a cut above his change-up. The fastball sits in the 92-95 MPH range, and the slider is a swing-and-miss pitch. He has handled himself well in eight spring training relief appearances but figures to head back to the minors, likely Double-A, for more seasoning. Given the rapid ascent of minor league relievers in certain instances, it’s not out of the question he could be in the show this season. It’s unclear whether his relieving ceiling is that of a closer or as that of an eighth inning setup man.
Chance Ruffin, Seattle Mariners, 23 years old
Ruffin was one of the pieces the Mariners received in return for Doug Fister. The Tigers selected him in the supplemental first round of the 2010 amateur draft after he closed games for the University of Texas Longhorns. He didn’t throw a pitch in the minors in 2010 but didn’t need long to blow through the minors in 2011. He opened the year in Double-A and reached the majors before season’s end.
He is primarily a fastball/slider pitcher. Both pitches are plus offerings, with his fastball sitting in the low-to-mid-90s and his slider offering a solid velocity differential sitting in the low-80s. Brandon League was successful closing games for the Mariners last year. However, the Mariners aren’t a team that will compete for the playoffs this year, and they could decide that dealing League is more beneficial to them long term than holding onto him to close games for a non-contender. Should they deal League, saves will be on the table for someone to lay claim to, and Ruffin could be in the mix. He’ll open in the minors but should promoted during the year.
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners, 28 years old
Another pitcher that could be in the mix for saves should the Mariners deal League is Wilhelmsen. His career has been winding. He was drafted in the seventh round of the 2002 amateur draft by the Milwaukee Brewers. He was suspended for the entire 2004 season for a failed marijuana test, and walked away from the game for four years before resurfacing in the independent Golden League in 2009. He rejoined affiliated ball as a member of the Mariners in 2010 and reached the majors last year. He has already pitched in one game this year, entering a tie game in the ninth inning and twirling two scoreless innings to earn a win.
Wilhelmsen is a fastball and curveball pitcher that will infrequently toss in a change-up or slider. His fastball of choice is a four-seamer that has averaged just over 95 MPH in the bigs. His curveball features 12-to-6 break and sits in the upper-70s. He’s already pitching in high leverage late innings now and is a potential source of holds in leagues that count them. He’s also probably the favorite to vulture saves if League were to falter, get injured, or get traded.
Tanner Scheppers, Texas Rangers, 25 years old
Scheppers has thrown just over 120 innings in two minor league seasons since being selected in the supplemental first round of the 2009 amateur draft. Staying healthy has been a problem for Scheppers. At one point, the Rangers planned on developing him as a starter. Now, injuries have nixed those plans and relegated him to being developed as a late innings reliever.
He throws a plus velocity fastball that can reach triple digits and sits in the upper-90s. His other plus pitch is a curveball that is sharp when it is on. Unfortunately, it is an inconsistent offering. He’ll also throw a slider and change-up, though neither is considered anything more than a below average show me pitch. A healthy Scheppers could help an already talented Rangers bullpen as soon as this year. With Neftali Feliz now being developed as a starter, Scheppers could eventually emerge as a closing candidate. There are a host of pitchers in the handcuff pecking order behind Joe Nathan that are ahead of Scheppers. It’s unlikely Scheppers will save any games for the parent club this year, but bullpens are quite volatile, and stranger things have happened.
Matt West, Texas Rangers, 23 years old
West hopes to be the next failed position prospect to find success on the mound. He was drafted in the second round of the 2007 amateur draft as a third baseman but was converted to pitching last season. The results were astounding. He spent all but one inning of the season with Short-Season Spokane. He got 26 innings worth of work in 23 games, and successfully saved nine games. The most impressive stat on his player card is his 35-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate. He walked just one batter all year, wow. Unfortunately, 2012 hasn’t gotten off to as promising a start. West was diagnosed with a sprained UCL in early March, and hopes to avoid Tommy John surgery by resting and rehabbing the injury. It remains to be seen how that course of treatment works both short term, and long term.
West throws blistering mid-to-high-90s fastballs with the occasional triple digit heater from a three-quarters arm slot. His second plus-plus pitch is a wicked slider. He’s also working on a change-up that most scouting reports say he has a good feel for. Prior to the injury, Matt Forman of Baseball America suggested he’d open the year in High-A with the chance to get to the majors by September. That time table is much less clear now. Long tern, assuming he retains his premium stuff, West has a future closer profile.
Josh is a graduate of SUNY Cortland's Sport Management program, and an aspiring fantasy writer. You can catch up with Josh in the Cafe Forums where he posts as B-Chad. You can also follow his work at The Hardball Times and follow him on Twitter (BChad50).
Want to write for the Cafe? Check out the Cafe's Pencil & Paper section!