KEEPERS: 2020 Building Blocks—RP

We wrap up our annual off-season series focused on helping keeper league and dynasty owners identify useful targets that may be available in the current offseason. Each week we examine a different position, looking for players (“pieces”) that have potential to be solid parts in the construction of a winning fantasy franchise. We group them under three general designations:

CORNERSTONES – Premium quality franchise difference-makers, essential to the foundation of a true dynasty juggernaut. These pieces are top priority acquisitions, either by draft or trade.

BUILDING BLOCKS – High quality players with potential to be solid elements of a winning core. Desirable pieces that should be targeted as part of the ongoing championship franchise-building process.

SUPPORT PIECES – More interchangeable lower-grade parts that may provide help in a specific category or offer a lower ceiling than more desirable foundation pieces.

Players are listed with 2020 season age and major league organization.

We will attempt to identify top building targets who may be available by using the following criteria:

  • Will play majority of 2020 season at 25 years old or younger (25 as of July 1, 2020)
  • Earned less than $10 in standard 5x5 roto in 2019
  • Reasonably projected to be MLB-ready at some point during 2020 season (may extend time horizon for Cornerstones)

Please see the Organization Reports in our Scouting section for more detailed, team-by-team analysis on prospects discussed here. Also, from time to time there may be slight differences between evaluations offered in this series and in our Organization Reports. Use that as your reminder that evaluations can differ. For each individual roster decision, you must factor in your specific team needs and goals.

Previous articles in this series:  C  |  1B  |  2B  |  3B  |  SS  |  OF (NL)   |  OF (AL)   |  SP (NL)    |  SP (AL)

 

After beginning this series by working our way through hitters at every position, we are now wrapping it up with a focus on the mound. While we looked at starting pitchers in each league worth consideration in the two prior articles, this one completes our 2020 Building Blocks series with an examination of potential impact bullpen arms.

As pointed out in this space last year, if investing in young pitching is risky business, then trying to build a dynasty foundation on the back of young relievers is downright crazy. The biggest reason is because many future closers evolve from starters with big arms who are unable to develop suitable secondary stuff to make it as a starter. With the innings and pitch counts of starters becoming increasingly restricted, teams are carrying more relievers (a trend which is sure to grow in 2020 with the expansion to 26-man active rosters), many of which are being employed in short-burst, max-effort type situations. These pitchers may profile for back-end work if performing well in higher leverage opportunities when/if the chance to close arises.

As we also pointed out last year, the best strategy for fantasy competitors in all formats is to closely follow the great work by Doug Dennis in our Bullpen Buyers Guide located in the extremely beneficial Skills section. Closer opportunities and back-end bullpen transitions happen fast, and Doug does a fantastic job of isolating relievers with top skills who are primed to rise to the occasion when opportunity knocks.

Against that backdrop, I am told that my contract still requires me to provide a glowing list of relief pitcher “Building Blocks,” so here goes…

 

CORNERSTONES

Please read above. The high-risk factor of trying to identify a young relief pitcher as a sure-fire bet makes granting Cornerstone status to such a player almost impossible.

 

BUILDING BLOCKS

Andres Munoz (21, RHP, SD) – The flame-throwing youngster ascended from Double-A to the big leagues in 2019, turning heads with an overpowering fastball that averaged 100 mph. He posted a 1.69 ERA over his first 20 major league outings before stumbling in his last two appearances, and then was hidden away for winter. Munoz complements his heater with a sharp slider that generates plenty of swing-and-miss action by hitters who are cheating to keep up with the fastball. While his command and control could still use a bit of refinement, this is a closer-type profile if ever there was one. In fact, if it was allowed (by yours truly), I’d even be inclined to bump Munoz up to the Cornerstone category. He projects to open 2020 as one of the top setup men for San Diego in what may be MLB’s strongest and deepest relief corps.

Emmanuel Clase (22, RHP, CLE) – A prime example of the difficulty fishing for long-range upside in the unpredictable waters of relief pitchers, Clase rose from Rookie ball in 2018 to finishing 2019 with a scintillating performance in the big leagues. He gets both whiffs and ground balls with a dominating cutter that approaches 100 mph, complemented by a power slider, while showing excellent command and control of both. Though the Ks are not at an elite level just yet, the young flame-thrower offers exciting upside. He was acquired by Cleveland this winter in the Corey Kluber trade, and will have a chance to both setup and complement left-handed incumbent closer Brad Hand.

James Karinchak (24, RHP, CLE) – Karinchak recorded 91 minor league outs in 2019. 74 of them were via the whiff. Let that sink in. Karinchak posted an otherworldly 22.0 Dom in the minor leagues in 2019. A starter in college at Bryant University, a small private school in Rhode Island, Karinchak was an unheralded ninth round selection in the 2017 draft. After posting poor numbers but showing an ability to miss bats during six starts in the New York-Penn League that summer, Karinchak was converted to relief. Though he struggled with control (6.7 Ctl) across three levels in 2018, Karinchak showed progress as he climbed to the big leagues last summer. If you want to know more about Karinchak’s amazing rise, check out this great PT Tomorrrow breakdown from last summer or this fantastic Call-Ups piece written a month later. The control may still be an issue, leaving Karinchak slightly behind new teammate Emmanuel Clase, above. Either way, they project to be a potentially dominant 1-2 punch at the back end of the Cleveland pen.

Joe Jimenez (25, RHP, DET) – Detroit’s “closer of the future” for quite a while now, Jimenez has given keeper league owners who have banked on that fact more than their share of heartburn. The hard-throwing righty has missed plenty of bats over two-and-a-half years in the majors (11.3 Dom), but when opposing batters have managed to make contact, they have been able to inflict damage. A fly ball pitcher, Jimenez was especially victimized during the 2019 season-long Manfred Home Run Derby, as he was tagged for a ridiculous 1.96 HR/9. Once resident closer Shane Greene was dealt away at the trade deadline, however, Jimenez kicked things into gear, finishing 2-1 with 9 saves and a 2.89 ERA over his last 20 games, even a he continued to be victimized by the long ball. He was especially strong over the final month, posting an ERA of 1.00 to go with a win and five saves in nine appearances. Jimenez should be coming into spring training full of confidence with the ignominious title of closer for the tanking Tigers.

 

SUPPORT PIECES

Hunter Harvey (25, RHP, BAL) – The son of former MLB closer Bryan Harvey, Hunter was a highly-regarded prospect who was selected in the first round out of high school back in 2013. Unfortunately, the youngster began to battle elbow problems the following summer, which ended up costing him the 2015 season. Going the non-surgical recovery route ended up being a disaster, as Harvey finally succumbed to Tommy John surgery in July of 2016. Finally back on the mound in 2018, it was shoulder soreness that marred his efforts. In 2019, Harvey’s perseverance paid off, as he made it to the big leagues with seven late-season relief appearances before being arbitrarily shut down by the going-nowhere-but-in-the-tank Orioles. Now a reliever exclusively, Harvey’s bulldog mentality fits just fine. Health permitting, he could quickly become a high-leverage factor.

Bryan Garcia (25, RHP, DET) – An outstanding closer at the University of Miami, Garcia was being fast-tracked to the big leagues before Tommy John surgery cost him the 2018 season. Our minors team provided a great breakdown on Garcia when he finally made it to the big leagues last September. While he struggled getting his first cup of coffee, not much stands in the way of Garcia getting a chance to make an impact. Definitely worth monitoring his progress this spring.

Jose Castillo (24, LHP, SD) – Two major injuries cost the impressive young lefty the bulk of his 2019 season, but he could quickly become a factor once again if he comes back healthy this year. Castillo missed most of the year with a left forearm flexor strain, only to suffer a torn tendon in his left middle finger in his first game back. It’s just the type of bad luck that creates a buying opportunity. In 2018, the lefty looked like a high-leverage reliever whose competence against both lefties and righties could enable him to work his way into closing games at some point. He enters 2020 competing for a role in arguably the deepest bullpen in the big leagues, so his short-term upside may well be limited, but he is certainly one to keep on the radar.

Joey Gerber (23, RHP, SEA) – Features an upper 90s fastball that has a high spin rate, complemented by a slider that flashes plus. Gerber has not started a game since high school, working as a closer throughout college at the University of Illinois, and continuing to finish games since being drafted in the 8th round in 2018. Gerber’s funky delivery, which leads to inconsistent command is his reason for being confined to short-stint relief, but also a part of his success. He posted a 1.59 ERA at Double-A during the second half of 2019, while striking out 30 batters in 22.2 innings (11.9 Dom) and walking only seven (for a reasonable 4.3 Cmd). A strong start to 2020 could quickly elevate Gerber to big league consideration.

Justus Sheffield (24, LHP, SEA) – Promoted as an up-and-coming starter, first for Cleveland and then Seattle, the 5-foot-10 Sheffield struggled badly in 2019, at both the big league and the Triple-A level. With a good low-90s fastball and a plus slider but subpar command, it would seem that it will only be a matter of time before Sheffield is given a chance to succeed in shorter stints out of the pen.

Adrian Morejon (21, LHP, SD) – Similar to Sheffield, above, Morejon is a rather diminutive lefty with a big arm and inconsistent command. Morejon has further been hampered by durability issues, including a shoulder impingement that cut short his 2019 season. He proved rather hittable during his five big league outings, so he will very likely begin 2020 in Triple-A, which he skipped over last year, probably continuing to work as a starter. Be watching for any news that Morejon gets moved to the pen, at which point his stock could receive a boost.

Joel Kuhnel (25, RHP, CIN) – A starter in college, Kuhnel has worked exclusively in relief as a professional, consistently being used as a closer as he has moved up the ranks. The 2016 eleventh-round pick made it all the way to the big leagues in 2019. He has power stuff and has displayed pretty good command, though his control has ebbed a bit as his effectiveness has increased, which could be an indication that he becoming more effectively wild. With all of his options still remaining, Kuhnel will likely have a hard time making the team out of spring training, but he is one to watch as the season progresses.

Bryan Abreu (23, RHP, HOU) – While the Astros continue to develop Abreu as a starter, both his stuff (two plus pitches with command issues) and his performance (fantastic out of the bullpen in seven big league 2019 relief appearances) suggest they should reconsider. Abreu has consistently struggled with his control since signing out of Dominican Republic in 2014. While he is not a particularly viable keeper league asset at this point, Abreu is the type to keep on the radar.

Jorge Guzman (24, RHP, MIA) – Similar to Abreu, above, Guzman is a hard-throwing right-hander being groomed as a starter, but struggling badly with his control. The heater is electric, but the lack of command is another story. Just like Abreu, Guzman is a non-factor until the powers that be pull the plug on the every-fifth-day project, at which point he could quickly become a thing. Keep him on the radar.

Brusdar Graterol (21, RHP, LAD) – Groomed as a starter since signing out of Venezuela in 2015, the big-bodied fire-baller has had more difficulty getting to the mound than dealing with opposing hitters. Since Tommy John surgery in 2016, Graterol has battled recurring back issues, which are of particular concern because of his size. On top of that, the Red Sox loudly backed out of a trade for Graterol after a closer look at the right-hander’s medical records. When the smoke finally cleared, Graterol ended up with the Dodgers, where he has a chance to work his way into a meaningful bullpen role. Considering his physical concerns plus the other more established talent ahead of him in LA, Graterol is more of a keeper league long shot at this point.

Nick Nelson (24, RHP, NYY) – Yet another starter who misses bats with a big fastball and gets plenty of ground balls, but lacks control. He needs more development time. Watch to see if/when the Yankees pull the plug on starting. He may move quickly if that helps to make things click.

Michel Baez (24, RHP, SD) – Just as we surmised in this space last year, the hulking 6-foot-8 Cuban import with a fastball to match his size was converted to relief in 2019. Despite marginal control, he jumped from Double-A to the big leagues in 2019, where he was impressive enough to elicit hope of making a future impact. Baez complements his high-octane heater with an elite change-up that makes up for the fact that the breaking ball(s) remains a work in progress. With more experienced arms in front of him and more developmental work to do, Baez figures to begin the season in Triple-A. He is worth keeping tabs on.

Durbin Feltman (23, RHP, BOS) – Considered the best reliever in the 2018 draft (talk about a backhanded compliment!), Feltman was snatched up in the third round by the Red Sox. After a solid pro debut across three lower minor league levels with his power fastball-slider combo, Feltman found Double-A to be tougher sledding. A 5.26 ERA with poor 5.3 Ctl and 1.8 Cmd rates while spending the entire year at that level suggests that he may be more of a project than Boston probably anticipated.

Zack Burdi (25, RHP, CWS) – Selected in the first round by the White Sox in the 2016 draft with the notion that the University of Louisville closer could quickly be doing the same thing for them, Burdi quickly got as high as Triple-A before his elbow gave way. One Tommy John surgery and a dislocated knee later, the right-hander reported to spring training healthy this year, but with only 67 combined innings under his belt during the last three years, including winter ball. While his pedigree makes him one to watch, Burdi has quite a ways to go in order to become a viable fantasy asset.

Richard Lovelady (24, LHP, KC) – Rode a funky delivery with a lively fastball and a sharp complementary slider all the way to the big leagues, but things fell apart quickly. Major league hitters found him much more hittable than their minor league counterparts, punching a ticket for the young southpaw on the Triple-A shuttle for much of the 2019 summer. Lovelady put a bow on his rookie campaign with October knee surgery, but is reportedly healthy and ready to get back on the horse in 2020. He will likely be looking at more Triple-A time before he gets another chance to prove he belongs in the big leagues. Make him prove he belongs on your keeper league squad.

Jorge Alcala (24, RHP, MIN) – A starter with a big arm who can miss bats, but struggles with control, as well as command of his secondary stuff. If we put that sentence to music, it would be the refrain sung throughout this column. Worth keeping an eye on, but nothing more at this point.

Lewis Thorpe (24, LHP, MIN) – Has been a starter throughout his minor league career, proving relatively hittable, but posting excellent strikeout numbers while managing the free passes. Thorpe made it to the big leagues in 2019 for a pair of starts and ten relief appearances. He performed better as a reliever and has posted fairly close lefty-righty splits, for what it’s worth, but his left-handedness likely limits any potential closer discussion, plus a full repertoire keep him on the SP track for the time being.

 

DON’T FORGET ABOUT…

Colin Poche (26, LHP, TB) – Has dominated in the minors to the tune of a 14.2 Dom as a professional, and finally brought his swing-and-miss stuff to the the big leagues in 2019, where he posted a still robust 12.5 Dom mark. Being forced to throw the MRB (Manfred Rabbit Ball) in 2019, however, exposed a chink in his fly-ball-oriented armor, as Poche was victimized by the long ball, both in Triple-A and the majors. After allowing only four home runs over his first 147 professional innings, Poche was tagged for 13 bombs in 79 innings last summer. If he can learn from his rookie season, his strikeout ability and handedness could easily put him in the mix for an impact role in the always-fluid Tampa Bay pen.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.