The great thing about studying relievers is you only have to focus a half-inning at a time, if you’re watching the games as you go. The bad thing about studying relievers is you can only do so half-inning at a time, if you’re watching the games as you go.
This year’s relief article involved more legwork than any before for a number of reasons, one being the void where pro baseball used to be. But it’s more than just the lockout, of course. My processes in general have evolved over time, and now I’m fast enough clicking in and out of the game logs, finding the right inning to jump toward on the time scroll. I’m better at eyeballing what inning looks like it might be the sixth, just given the size of that time-scroll along the bottom. I feel like Dr. Who. Time and space are limitations of the past. I watched three weeks of Indigo Diaz’s career the other day, just in between and alongside doing other stuff: making bacon for my daughter, jotting down the bones of a lesson plan, writing a relief pitcher article in a separate window, doom-scrolling the socials on my phone, flipping the eggs, clicking back in as Diaz encounters some early wildness, digging for the next game, three days later in a different city, finding where he entered the game, and zooming to that moment in my tardis (laptop).
Yes, dear reader, it’s a brave new world out there. Some of these MILB.tv feeds are terrible, mind you. Blimp view. My 2D video game brain is okay with it, like playing an RBI Baseball match-up on Nintendo: Clemens v. Tudor, but that’s so much more than I could’ve seen 25 years ago when I was 13 and burrowing deep into the baseball universe for the first time. Really seeing it from the ground up for the first time. My dad took us to see the Clinton Lumberkings when we were very young. Got some cards signed. And I guess the dig actually began in 1989, when my brother and I traded the Upper Deck Rookie Cards of Ken Griffey Jr. and a Gary Sheffield for the Upper Deck Rookie Card of . . . drumroll . . . Jerome Walton. I was six. I would, obviously, remember it forever. 33 years later, here we are. Sorry for the old-guy anecdote. It’s just, I couldn’t believe the breadth of my powers this week, compared to my powers then. I am defeated by time in so many other, very real ways, and yet, here I am, farting in its general direction as I prepare what has become my favorite article to create every year.
*Note: a good portion of these guys have graduated by MLB’s definition of prospectdom on service time, but I’m setting that aside for the purposes of our list, where I’ll use 50 innings as the barrier between relief prospect and relief veteran.
Format = Player | Team | Age on 4/1/22 | Highest Level Played | ETA
These guys have saves and/or holds in their immediate future and the elite skills needed to nail down a ninth-inning gig for the long haul. Doval, especially, strikes me as a ten-year closer and would get his own tier if I were cutting this a little finer. Here’s a link to his blurb in my Top Ten San Francisco Giants Prospects for 2022 Fantasy Baseball.
Warren might join him as a long-term back-end reliever, but he’ll be 29 this season, and his success depends on command. He’s just fastball/slider now, at a ratio of roughly 40/60, and it remains to be seen if he can maintain long-term command of his slider while throwing it so much.
5. RHP Robert Suarez | Padres | 31 | NPB | 2022
6. RHP Andres Muñoz | Mariners | 23 | MLB | 2019
Pearson just needs to stay healthy. If he settles into the role, his upside is top ten reliever in the game.
Barlow’s success comes down to his off-speed command. In 2021, he threw 46.6 percent fastballs, 40.7 percent sliders, and 12.7 percent curveballs. I like how they work in tandem. The slider is tough for hitters to pick up. His fastball was just 94.5 mph on average according to statcast, and while it has some interesting traits, he’ll have to be pretty fine with it.
Suarez could tumble down this list in a hurry if he gets knocked around early. I’d pick him up or trade for him at that point because I think he has the fastball/changeup combination to make it work, especially if his command is double-plus here the way it was in Japan.
Muñoz is coming back from Tommy John surgery. Good chance you know his story, as he pitched 23 major league innings in 2019 then got traded in the Austin Nola deal. Good chance to leap up the list if he’s right.
7. RHP RJ Dabovich | Giants | 23 | AA | 2022
8. RHP Colby White | Rays | 23 | AAA | 2022
9. RHP Brooks Wilson | Atlanta | 26 | AAA | 2022
10. RHP Indigo Diaz | Atlanta | 23 | AA | 2022
11. RHP Ben Leeper | Cubs | 24 | AAA | 2022
These guys were firing on all cylinders when 2021 ended, and if they pick up where they left off, they’ll quickly make themselves a late-inning option for the big league club, even if they open their seasons in AAA.
Stuff alone, Dabovich should be higher. He led the minors in strikeout percentage last year. The gambler in me wants to put him above Barlow, but a reliever’s role is a huge portion of what we’re buying in fantasy, even in dynasty leagues, so here we are.
White traversed four levels last season, posting a 0.658 WHIP with 104 strikeouts across 62.1 innings. Could be the closer at some point in Tampa this season, but then again, who couldn’t?
Wilson wields a wicked splitter that has put him on the fast-track since switching from the rotation to the pen. Bullpen. Arm barn? I can’t remember where we left this.
His name is Indigo Diaz. You killed his father. Prepare to face this plus-fastball archetype big man closer. Bit thank you to Orioles.Sean and the Razz 30 for the reference when I selected Diaz at 10.255 in that FYPD on Feb 12.
Leeper really jumps out at you on the page. Hyuk hyuk. But really, he does, and his slider is an easy plus pitch and plays up because he commands it well. Fastball command comes and goes, but it works even when he misses. Has an inside lane on a late-inning gig this year.
13. RHP Dylan Coleman | Royals | 25 | MLB | 2021
15. RHP Dauri Moreta | Reds | 25 | MLB | 2021
17. RHP Chase Lee | Rangers | 23 | AA | 2022
Vesia bumped his fastball velocity from 91.7 to 93.8 mph from 2020 to 2021, so that’s very acquired-by-the-Dodgers of him. He throws it 72.4 percent of the time, but nobody hits it anyway. Its 38.6 percent whiff rate is obscene for a pitch thrown that frequently.
Moreta is more side to side than up and down, but he can sneak his fastball by hitters thanks to the low three-quarters approach angle and horizontal movement. Fascinating guy. Has always been a reliever going back to 2015. Has almost always been good/elite. I like him.
Ridings fits his name like a custom-made leather seat. His fastball’s cruises atop the zone and jumps barrels with ease thanks in part to 10.5 inches of horizontal break. He’s 6’8” 220 lbs and a former starter (as a Royal in 2019) who induced an 18.9 percent swinging strike rate in his five MLB innings as a Yankee in 2021. Paul Bunyan effect in play here.
Chase Lee was a dominant closer at Alabama, earning his nickname “The Viper” thanks to his quick-fire, sidearm delivery. Texas took him in the sixth round last year and quickly sent him to AA, where the Viper sunk his teeth in, striking out 41.5 percent of his opponents across 17 innings and generating an 0.82 WHIP. Looks a little low here. I’m not sure how his stuff plays against big league left-handed hitters.
21. RHP Kevin Kopps | Padres | 25 | MLB | 2022
23. LHP Dylan Lee | Atlanta | 27 | MLB | 2021
Little bit more finesse in this tier. Little more deception.
Pretty easy to relate to Cousins, who started out hot but quickly tired.
Whitley went wild down the stretch with the rest of the Redbirds, ending the season on a 15-inning scoreless streak during which he allowed a 0.87 WHIP and carried a 25.5% K-BB rate.
Head got traded from Tampa to Miami in November after compiling a 0.86 WHIP in 35 innings as a Ray in 2021. Cash considerations, is what he cost. He’s just fastball/slider, and neither pops to the eyeball or velocity test, but both have unique traits that work well paired with plus command. Might wind up covering the closer role in spurts.
Kopps won the 2021 Golden Spikes Award and landed in the third round (99th overall). He’s six-foot, 200 pounds and doesn’t dominate with his fastball, but he can command that plus breaking ball, can cut and spot the heater up in the zone, can pitch multiple innings in any situation, and he’s headed to a pitching staff that needs all the help it can get. No small chance his velo bumps up a little in a pro environment, given how heavily he was used in college.
Hernandez is an odd case here, as he could go in a bucket I’ve labeled “Role in Question,” which I’ll fold into a future piece. He threw five-innings of no-hit baseball against Seattle’s High-A squad in June, but that came in relief. 27 of his 29 outings did. He threw more than one innings in 23 of those games, covering three levels in the process and culminating in a 0.70 WHIP and 2.30 ERA across 15.2 innings in AA, where he closed out four games for a save. He’s listed at 5’10” 168 lbs and looks it. May have a little more muscle than that now is all. In one of the games I watched from August, he threw four wild pitches in the ninth but still picked up the save. Big league catcher blocks maybe three of those four sliders in the dirt, if not all four. Guy behind the plate in this game calls a slider then reacts in surprise when it moves like a slider, just smacking it aside with this glove on the last one. Kind of incredible to watch Hernandez power through and finish the game by striking out everyone. Smooth delivery. Deceptive with a solid-hop heater at 93-95 and dominant changeup around 84. Tight little slider at 82. Great pace between pitches. I suspect his present will be a lot like his future, mostly a multi-inning piece if the fastball misses enough bats to keep hitters honest, some stretch opportunities in either direction at times early or late in games. But a 0.70 WHIP will catch your eyes every time. Hernandez did that for 28.2 innings at High-A before replicating the feat for those 15.2 at AA. I like him.
Dylan Lee has sort of the opposite path-to-value from Chase Lee. Dylan’s a lefty who figures to stack holds in bunches getting key outs for good Atlanta teams but shouldn’t find himself in the ninth inning anytime soon.
Merryweather and Evans still bring closer upside, I guess, but that dream is shading dimmer as time gathers. Something’s clearly off with Evans, who lost a full four miles per hour on his average big league fastball from 2020. Merryweather returned late in 2021 after missing most of the season, but he was a shadow of his early-season self, allowing a 7.27 ERA in 8.2 innings. As I write this I’m thinking I should keep bumping them down, but I like closing this group with them. They probably have to be owned in relief-centric leagues to see how they look whenever baseball happens, but I could easily see myself dropping or trading them for the guys coming up on Wednesday when I round out the top 50.
Thanks for reading!
I’m @theprospectitch on Twitter and Reddit.