StrategyApril 4, 2012

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Future Rookies: Relief Pitchers (National League)

By Josh Shepardson

The Senior Circuit doesn’t appear to have any prospects threatening to close games immediately, but many of the arms featured in the article will open the year, or finish it in the majors. Some of the arms featured below may have a chance to close games in future seasons, while others have a chance to impact the fantasy game with gaudy strikeout rates regardless of their bullpen role.

Previous Entries: Catchers, First Basemen, Second Basemen, Shortstops,Third Basemen, Outfielders (AL), Outfielders (NL), Starting Pitchers (AL), Starting Pitchers (NL), Relief Pitchers (AL)

Jose Ceda, Miami Marlins, 25 years old


Yet another injury sidelines the big fella. Ceda underwent Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire 2012 season.

Phillippe Aumont, Philadelphia Phillies, 23 years old


The four-year deal (with an additional one year option) Jonathan Papelbon signed this offseason with the Phillies caps Aumont’s ceiling as an eighth inning set-up guy so long as he remains in Philadelphia and Pap continues to pitch at a high level. Aumont was acquired by the Phillies via the Cliff Lee trade. The club attempted to develop him as a starter in his first year with the organization, but his lack of success prompted a move back to being developed as a reliever. He missed bats in bunches last year with a 13.1 K/9, but played with fire with free passes, posting a 4.2 BB/9. His control was at its worst in Triple-A, with a 5.56 BB/9 in 22.2 innings. His ability to strikeout batters will always give him a little bit of extra leeway in the walk department.

Aumont is a tall, 6-foot-7 righty that throws a hard, 93-96 MPH fastball that can hit a couple ticks higher. He backs the fastball with a sick curveball. He throws a change-up, but it lags behind his fastball and curveball, and he reportedly rarely throws it in relief. He has a violent delivery that leads to questions about his ability to stay healthy and helps explain his poor control. His potential for huge strikeout totals out of the pen makes him an intriguing option in leagues that roster non-closing relievers and leagues that count holds. It looks like he’ll open the year in Triple-A, but he should get the call sometime this summer.

Justin De Fratus, Philadelphia Phillies, 24 years old


Like Aumont, De Fratus finds his ceiling as that of a set-up man with Papelbon in the fold. Unlike Aumont, he got his first taste of the majors last year. He was able to put up impressive strikeout numbers in the high minors, but did so with stellar control as well (2.97 BB/9). De Fratus has pitched superbly the last two seasons in the minors as a reliever and is ready for more major league work.

He is primarily a fastball/slider pitcher, but he also throws a low-80s change-up. His fastball has some giddy-up, sitting in the low-to-mid-90s and hitting the upper-90s when he needs a little extra oomph. His strikeout pitch is his slider, a pitch he throws often. Being that he throws the slider frequently, it should be a bit disconcerting to know he complained of elbow pain in the spring and is just now throwing long toss without discomfort. If rest and rehab are the answer, he could be a contributor in holds leagues and a sneaky ratios and strikeout play in large mixed leagues and NL-only formats.

Rafael Dolis, Chicago Cubs, 24 years old


Dolis is a good example of why a prospect shouldn’t simply be judged by numbers. His 5.94 K/9 in over 70 Double-A innings looks ugly and paints the picture of a guy with lackluster stuff, which isn’t the case at all. Dolis was originally signed as a shortstop, but made the switch to the hill when he arrived in the United States in 2006. He has spent most of his time in the minors being developed as a starter, but was moved to the bullpen full-time last year. Dolis was rather successful in the closer role for Tennessee, though a 4.33 BB/9 shows he still needs to make further gains to his control and command.

As I alluded to above, Dolis isn’t a soft-tosser. He operates in the mid-90s with his fastball and can dial it up to 100 MPH. It isn’t a straight fastball either; it’s a sinker that has helped him pile up groundballs in bunches. The other pitch he’ll turn to is a plus slider. It’s surprising that a guy with his power arsenal hasn’t struck more batters out. If he’s able to turn the corner in that regard and add punch outs to his groundball profile, he may have a chance to develop into a closer.

Lance Lynn, St. Louis Cardinals, 24 years old


Since being drafted in the supplemental first round of the 2008 amateur draft, Lynn has spent much of his professional career being developed as a starter. In fact, 60 of 65 games he appeared in as a minor leaguer, including last year, were starts. His last relief appearance came in 2009 at the High-A level. He was developing just fine as a potential middle-to-back of the rotation option for the Cardinals, but a need for reinforcements in the bullpen prompted the team to give Lynn a look there.

The results speak for themselves. He pitched 24.1 innings in relief and earned a 2.22 ERA (which was supported by a 2.45 FIP and 2.21 xFIP) and 0.95 WHIP. After posting a career strikeout rate of 7.8 K/9 in over 400 minor league innings, that rate soared to 11.84 K/9 out of the Cardinals pen. His control was also very good, as he walked just under three batters per nine innings.

He sat in the upper-80s to low-90s with his sinker as a starter, but turned to his four-seamer more frequently as a reliever. His four-seam fastball, according to Brooks Baseball, had an average velocity of approximately 94 MPH. That pitch was the key to his success, as he missed bats with it at a rate well above his peers. He also needed to do so, as neither of the other pitches he turned to with any regularity (sinker and curveball) were all that effective at missing bats. Lynn will begin the year back in the majors, but will return to starting. An injury to Chris Carpenter that will put the veteran on the disabled list with no clear timetable for returning to action created a need for another starter, and Lynn will fill the void left by Carpenter’s absence. Unless he’s able to strike more batters out as a starter than he has in the past, the move will actually hurt Lynn’s value. When, or perhaps if, Lynn returns to the bullpen, his stock will rise.

Eduardo Sanchez, St. Louis Cardinals, 23 years old


Lynn wasn’t the only prospect to give the Cardinals 2011 bullpen a boost; Sanchez did so as well. Like Lynn, Sanchez barely qualifies as a prospect. However, since he didn’t reach the requisite number of innings pitched or relief appearances to shed his rookie status, he find himself featured here. Sanchez has long been groomed for a bullpen role, having appeared in 170 of 177 minor league games as a reliever in his six-year pro career. When Tony LaRussa was trotting out just about every able bodied reliever to close games, Sanchez managed to net five saves. Sanchez had no problem striking big league hitters out with a 10.5 K/9, but did walk quite a few batters, posting a 4.8 BB/9. He had an extreme flyball approach (53.1 percent flyball rate) but shouldn’t be hurt badly by that while pitching his home games in Busch Stadium.

Sanchez is mostly a fastball/curveball guy according to his PITCHf/x data, but Baseball America describes his breaking ball as a slider. Regardless of classification, the breaker netted many an empty swing. His mid-90s fastball was also tough for hitters to make contact with. The key to Sanchez’s success is throwing strikes. If he’s able to throw strikes, he has the ceiling of a top notch fantasy closer. It should be noted that Sanchez missed much of the summer with a shoulder injury he suffered in June. He did return to the field late in the season and has since pitched for the Cardinals in the spring as well. Sanchez was his bat-missing self in spring training, striking out 14 in eight innings, but was sent to minor league camp anyways. It’s likely he was demoted due to the fact he had options left. Expect his stay in Memphis to be short. Cardinals closer Jason Motte has an extremely short track record of success in the role. Should he falter, Sanchez could enter the mix to save games in 2012. In leagues that count holds, Sanchez should be added immediately upon promotion.

Josh Lindblom, Los Angeles Dodgers, 24 years old


In 29.2 innings in the majors last year, Lindblom allowed 38 flyballs. Eight of those flyballs didn’t get out of the infield, and of the other 30, none left the ballpark. It remains to be seen if his 21.1 percent infield flyball percentage is indicative of a skill to pop hitters out or small sample size luck, but it’s safe to say he won’t continue to be so lucky in preventing home runs on his non-infield flyballs. That said, the rest of Lindblom’s component stats were pretty good. He struck batters out at a decent rate (8.49 K/9), and he didn’t beat himself by allowing free passes (3.03 BB/9). If he’s able to turn some of his flyballs into groundballs, he shouldn’t feel the full effects of his home run-per-flyball rate regression in 2012 that is almost certain to take place.

Lindblom isn’t your typical reliever. He has an arsenal that is deep enough to suggest he should be capable of starting. Even with that being the case, he hasn’t ever had much success as a starter and has fared much better working in relief. He tends to consolidate his pitch mix in the pen, rarely throwing his curveball and change-up, which rate behind his fastball and slider. The two pitches combined made up just 11 percent of his pitch total in 2011. His slider isn’t a true wipe-out pitch, but it can generate an acceptable number of swings and misses. His fastball did a good job of reaching the catchers mitt unscathed, but his 2011 strikeout rate is probably about as good as it gets. It seems far more likely that his strikeout rate regresses slightly in 2012 than takes a step forward. Lindblom’s value is limited to leagues that count holds currently but could expand should Javy Guerra and Kenley Jansen prove incapable of protecting ninth inning leads. I don’t expect that to be the case, though, so don’t hold your breath waiting for Lindblom to save games for the Dodgers.

Shawn Tolleson, Los Angeles Dodgers, 24 years old


He doesn’t garner many headlines, but Tolleson has an eye-popping 1.01 ERA in two years as a pro, 97.2 innings into his career. In that same time span he has walked only 23 batters for a 2.12 BB/9, and struck out a staggering 144 batters for a 13.27 K/9. He isn’t just beating up on low minor league hitters as a college draftee either. In 44.1 innings at the Double-A level last year he posted a 1.62 ERA with a 1.20 WHIP and a blistering 11.17 K/9.

So how does he do it? He throws a low-to-mid-90s fastball with a bit of a deceptive delivery. He also adds a slider to the mix. And finally, he throws a cutter that gives right-handed batters fits. According to his splits at Minor League Central, right-handed batters may as well not have even stepped into the batter’s box. Across three levels, he held them to a total slash line of .162/.219/.228. While Adam Dunn probably would have signed up for that line in 2011 in retrospect (I kid of course), that’s complete domination of his same-handed counterparts. Not everyone is sold on him having a closer ceiling. John Sickels of Minor League Ball points out his struggles against left-handed batters while pitching in Double-A could prevent him from pitching later in games than in a setup capacity. Tolleson has little left to prove in the minors, and is nearly a slam dunk to get to the bigs this year barring injury.

Brad Boxberger, San Diego Padres, 23 years old


There are things to like about Boxberger, the first of which is his new home digs. No longer a member of the Reds, he can now call PETCO Park home as a member of the Padres organization. It’s also easy to fall in love with his strikeout rate which stands at 11.9 K/9 in more than 150 minor league innings, most of which have come in Double-A and Triple-A. He continued to strike out batters in the Arizona Fall League, with a 14.85 K/9 in 13.1 innings. All is not good with Boxberger, however, as he has had his share of control issues. His career walk rate is 4.10 BB/9, and was higher than that in 27.2 innings in Triple-A at 4.88 BB/9. As a reliever capable of striking out plenty of batters, he has some wiggle room with his control.

Boxberger mixed a fastball, slider, curveball and change-up as a starting pitching prospect in High-A. Since moving to the bullpen after an in-season promotion to Double-A in 2010, he has stopped throwing his curveball and change-up for the most part. He now leans on his fastball and slider primarily. His fastball has plenty of zip, reaching as high as 95 MPH, and good movement. The slider is also a good pitch, though, not as good as his heater. Prior to the Padres dealing Anthony Rizzo to the Cubs for Andrew Cashner, it looked as if Boxberger was the closer in waiting behind Huston Street (player option in 2013 that the club can decline for a $0.5 million buyout). Cashner will be in the Padres bullpen this year and, unless he is stretched back out to start in the future, is the better bet to take the baton from Street for closing duties. Without saves, Boxberger will have to post stellar ratios along with his high strikeout rate to be ownable in most standard scoring leagues. He’ll probably open the year in Triple-A but should get a look after a bit more minor league seasoning.

Heath Hembree, San Francisco, 23 years old


The Giants landed a gem in the fifth round of the 2010 amateur draft when they decided to nab Hembree out of the College of Charleston in spite of lackluster results. He turned heads in the Rookie Level Arizona League in 2010, and built upon his dynamic debut with an excellent full season league debut. He started the year in High-A, posting an obscene 0.73 ERA and 1.14 WHIP with a 16.1 K/9 in 24.2 innings. After thoroughly dismantling opposing lineups in the California League, he jumped to the Double-A Eastern League. He pitched well there, continuing to blow hitters away with a 10.7 K/9. His control is far from great, a 4.21 BB/9 in High-A and Double-A combined, but it’s good enough if he’s going to keep striking out better than a batter per inning.

Hembree fires his fastball in the mid-90s. The pitch has good movement, but he rarely induces ground balls, opting instead to throw it up in the strike zone. His repertoire also includes a plus slider, and a fringe change-up. While skills are most important, it is still promising to see Hembree has shown a “closer mentality.” He led minor league pitchers in saves, totaling 38 in all. The Giants don’t have any immediate openings in their bullpen, but that didn’t prevent Hembree from impressing in spring training. He’ll get a bit more tutelage in the minors, but should get promoted later this year.

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).
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