Already scraping the bottom of the barrel for pitchers in deep leagues? Time to consider grabbing some high-volume, non-closer relief pitchers, SI’s fantasy baseball expert recommends.

By Michael Beller
May 17, 2016

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In deep fantasy baseball leagues, it can be easier and more beneficial to look outside a real-life starting rotation to fill out a fantasy one. After all, the fantasy game differs from the actual one in many crucial ways, one of which is instructive in this instance: you don’t need someone to go out and give you at least six innings every day. If your entire staff can give you, say, at least 40 to 45 good innings per week, it really doesn’t matter where they come from. That makes the concept of the starter-replacing relief pitcher makes a lot of sense.

The issue is easy to diagnose. In a league with 12 teams, starting pitchers can run thin awfully quickly. If everyone rosters six starters, and if those starting pitcher resources are spread equally across your league, that can mean guys like No. 72 and 73-ranked starters Dan Straily and Mike Foltynewicz check in at replacement level. Neither of them would be identified as anything more than spot starters in deep leagues, and yet, six weeks into the season, they technically grade as backend starters in 12-team leagues.

• WAIVER WIRE: Nathan Karns an underrated starting pitcher option

Owners know pitchers like Straily and Foltynewicz shouldn’t be part of fantasy rotations. Still, you need to find your consistent innings somewhere, and the best place to find them is often in the bullpen. High-volume, non-closer relief pitchers are the most overlooked assets in fantasy baseball.

Take, for instance, Miami’s David Phelps. If he isn’t already owned in your league, no one is fighting you to get him. Phelps is available in about eight of every 10 leagues. That might seem off when you learn that Phelps has amassed a 1.64 ERA, 2.26 FIP, 0.96 WHIP and 24 strikeouts in 22 innings. That puts Phelps on course to post elite rates over approximately 80 innings, which makes him more valuable than any No. 6 or 7 starter.

Or, consider the case of Erasmo Ramirez. He has made one start for the Rays, but 14 appearances out of the bullpen, totaling a 1.57 ERA, 3.12 FIP, 0.80 WHIP and 20 strikeouts against four walks in 28 2/3 innings. He may not have Phelps’s upside, but his rates and role provide a near guarantee that he’ll be a useful pitcher in leagues of all shapes and sizes. Yet he’s available in every other fantasy league.

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Finally, Adam Warren has pitched his way into a meaningful role with the Cubs. He was actually a key acquisition for the team during the off-season, not just a meaningless return from the Yankees for Starlin Castro. Warren is Joe Maddon’s most trusted middle reliever, and he has turned that into 14 1/3 innings of responsibility over the first six weeks of the season. During that time, he has a 1.88 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 13 strikeouts, though his 4.55 FIP suggests he has been a bit fortunate. His significant role on the best team in baseball, however, gives more cause for optimism over the rest of the season.

It’s a real challenge for owners in 12-team leagues to find six or seven reliable starters, let alone those in leagues that run deeper. If you’re having trouble filling out your rotation, peer into the middle of bullpens. You just might be able to find a gem hiding amidst the faceless rabble.

Pitchers to watch this week

Max Scherzer, Nationals

When you strike out 20 batters in one start, chances are a lot of eyes will be on you the next time you take the mound. Kerry Wood fanned 13 batters in his immediate start after joining the 20-strikeout club, giving him a major league record 33 in consecutive starts. Scherzer has the stuff to threaten that record when he takes the mound against the Mets on Tuesday.

• ​TAYLER: Scherzer etches place in history with 20-strikeout performance

Lance McCullers, Astros

McCullers made his 2016 debut on Friday after spending the first five-plus weeks of the season the DL with a shoulder injury. The 2015 revelation got off to a predictably rocky start, allowing five runs on seven hits to the hot-hitting Red Sox. The good news for McCullers is that he was able to use his full repertoire, and his velocity matched up with where it was a year ago. So long as he’s healthy, the positive results should come sooner rather than later. McCullers will next take the mound Friday against the Rangers.

Gerrit Cole, Pirates

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Cole didn’t have just his best start of the season on Sunday. He likely had as strong a starter as any pitcher has had against the Cubs this season. Cole tossed eight shutout innings at Wrigley Field, striking out seven while walking none and allowing just three hits in a 2-1 Pittsburgh win. Cole has the stuff and moxie to dominate any lineup in the league, but after getting knocked around by the Cubs twice in a row, it was encouraging to see him go out and shut them down in their own yard. Cole’s next start is scheduled for Friday against the Rockies.

Jose Berrios, Twins

The 22-year-old Berrios hasn’t been able to pitch deep into any of his starts, going no further than 5 1/3 innings in three outings. It’s hard to ignore the fact, however, that he has struck out 19 batters in just 14 1/3 frames. Berrios has fanned more than a batter per inning in all of his three starts, reaching a high of eight whiffs in just 5 1/3 innings against the Astros during the first week of May. It’s clear that he’s a work in progress, but it’s just as clear that he has an innate ability to miss bats. That’s eventually going to help him to the top of Minnesota’s rotation. Berrios’s next start is Monday at Detriot.

John Lackey, Cubs

Lackey has been everything the Cubs hoped he would be when they pried him away from St. Louis during the offseason. He has totaled 48 1/3 innings in his seven starts, racking up a 3.54 ERA, 3.17 FIP, 0.97 WHIP and 47 strikeouts. He has been more than a capable No. 3 starter behind Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, giving the Cubs one of the deepest rotations in baseball. He took a tough luck loss against the Padres in his last start, going down despite allowing just one run on a solo homer to Christian Bethancourt in eight innings. Lackey was sure to let Bethancourt know just how much he appreciated the catcher admiring his homer as it sailed out of the park, which could set the stage for some unnecessary theatrics the next time he faces the Padres. That, however, won’t be until much later in the season. Lackey’s next start is slated for Wednesday against the Brewers.

Prospect watch

Julio Urias, Dodgers

It’s clear to anyone who has watched Urias that there’s really nothing more for him to do in the minors. It’s becoming so clear to the Dodgers that they might be forced to promote him, even if they have to stick him in the bullpen. The 19-year-old has been arguably the best pitcher in the minors this season, posting a 1.25 ERA, 0.81 WHP and 39 strikeouts in 31 innings with Triple A Oklahoma City. The fact that he’s at the highest level of the minors three months before his 20th birthday should tell you all you a lot about Urias. That he’s dominating his competition should tell you the rest. The Dodgers may initially put him in the bullpen when he gets the call, but he has the stuff to be the second-best pitcher in a rotation that includes Clayton Kershaw. If you believe yourself to be a fantasy owner with even the slightest degree of foresight, you’ll grab Urias for free off the waiver wire while you still can. He won’t be there, or in the minors, for much longer.

GIF of the Week

Whenever a guy strikes out 20 batters in one start, you basically just find one of his nastiest pitches, turn it into a GIF, and call it a day. All the better if it’s No. 20. Here’s to you, Max Scherzer.

Two-start pitchers

  1. Clayton Kershaw
  2. Max Scherzer
  3. Noah Syndergaard
  4. Madison Bumgarner
  5. David Price
  6. Danny Salazar
  7. Drew Smyly
  8. Jaime Garcia
  9. Kenta Maeda
  10. Marcus Stroman
  11. Jordan Zimmermann
  12. Francisco Liriano
  13. J.A. Happ
  14. Jerad Eickhoff
  15. Kyle Hendricks
  16. Rick Porcello
  17. Ian Kennedy
  18. Wei-yin Chen
  19. Carlos Rodon
  20. Nathan Eovaldi
  21. Jose Berrios
  22. Yordano Ventura
  23. John Lamb
  24. Michael Pineda
  25. Wade Miley
  26. Colin Rea
  27. Cody Anderson
  28. Robbie Ray
  29. Jon Niese
  30. Sean Manaea
  31. Phil Hughes
  32. Derek Holland
  33. Tyler Wilson
  34. Jered Weaver
  35. Aaron Blair
  36. Williams Perez
  37. Chris Rusin
  38. Chase Anderson
  39. Alfredo Simon

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