Carl Edwards, Justin Wilson are the types of relievers who will jolt your fantasy teams
What if I told you that, with two simple moves, you could add a top-30 fantasy starting pitcher to your team, and that all it would cost you is the two worst players currently on your roster. Nope, that’s not the teaser for the first ESPN 30-for-30 based on fantasy baseball transactions, but maybe one day it will be. For now, however, it’s nothing more than a savvy way to game the system in most typical fantasy leagues.
Right this moment, there are two pitchers with ownership rates below 25% who have combined for a 1.05 ERA, 0.58 WHIP and 37 strikeouts in 25 2/3 innings. You could add either or both without anyone in your league standing in your way. This despite the fact that, assuming they maintain their current appearance-per-team-game pace, they’ll combine to throw somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 innings. Even if they both slack off their current ERA and WHIP pace, the math is still striking. Getting 150 innings worth of rates near what this duo has produced with about 1.5 strikeouts per inning would result in an elite fantasy starter.
So who is this magical duo? That would be Cubs reliever Carl Edwards and Tigers reliever Justin Wilson. Edwards turned into one of Joe Maddon’s favorite relievers late last season, and he’ll likely be closing games for the Cubs in future seasons when Wade Davis is no longer in Chicago. This year, though, Edwards is Maddon’s go-to guy in a number of high-leverage situations. He gave up his first run of the season last Thursday, in what was his 13th appearance of the year. In 13 innings, he has allowed one run and four hits, striking out 16 while walking four.
Wilson is doing mostly the same thing in Detroit. He, too, doesn’t close games, with Francisco Rodriguez owning the ninth (for now). Still, he has turned into one of the best setup men in the game. Wilson, a lefty, is untouchable for left-handed hitters, holding them to a .000/.083/.000 slash line in 12 plate appearances. But he’s not just a lefty specialist. Wilson has limited righties to a .097/.176/.258 slash line in 34 plate appearances. All told, he has thrown 12 2/3 innings across 14 appearances, surrendering two runs on three hits and four walks, with 21 strikeouts.
Here’s the thing about Edwards and Wilson. They aren’t the only two doing this. You may already know about Chris Devenski and Brad Brach, both of whom have caught on in about 60% of fantasy leagues. They’re the next pitchers in the mold of Dellin Betances, non-closer relievers (notwithstanding Brach’s short stint as Baltimore’s closer when Zach Britton was on the DL) who offer a ton of fantasy value. You may have missed out on Devenski and Brach, but there are plenty of others with ownership rates similar to Edwards and Wilson. To wit…
Anthony Swarzak has yet to allow a run in 14 2/3 innings for the White Sox. He has fanned 17 batters and owns a 0.27 WHIP. He’s available in 93% of Yahoo leagues.
Corey Knebel has a 1.17 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and 22 strikeouts in 15 1/3 innings for the Brewers this season. He’s available in 89% of Yahoo leagues.
Archie Bradley may soon move into Arizona’s rotation, but he has remade himself as a reliever. He sports a 1.56 ERA and 0.92 WHIP with 22 strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings. He can be scooped up right now in 81% of Yahoo leagues.
Kyle Barraclough, who’s available in four out of every five Yahoo leagues, has posted a 1.23 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 16 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings. Plus, he comes with the track record of striking out 143 batters in the first 97 innings of his career in the previous two seasons.
David Phelps, Barraclough’s bullpen-mate in Miami, was exemplary in this role last season. He has struggled a bit this year, but still has 16 strikeouts in 16 innings, to go along with two wins. Don Mattingly trusts him, and will likely run him out there for 80 or more innings this season.
And on and on it goes. I could keep on listing relievers here, but you get the point. Pairing two of these relievers is almost certainly a better strategy than rostering a seventh starting pitcher, roughly equal to Trevor Bauer, Mike Foltynewicz or Andrew Triggs in standard leagues. It might be easier said than done, depending on your roster size, but if you can afford to add two of these high-inning, high-strikeout, low-rate setup men, you will not be disappointed.
Jacob deGrom, Mets
Fantasy owners have received a mixed bag from deGrom of late. He had at least 10 strikeouts in three straight starts, but he has also walked at least five in two of his last three trips to the mound. In those two starts, he allowed twice as many baserunners as he had innings pitched, which isn’t the sort of trouble you expect a pitcher like deGrom to get into with regularity. His velocity is up and he has racked up a 16.6% whiff rate this season, so there’s no reason to think last year’s injury is having any lingering effects. Hopefully, we’ll be able to chalk this up as small-sample size noise in the near future. He’ll take the ball twice this week, facing the Giants on Monday and Brewers on Sunday.
Jake Arrieta, Cubs
Arrieta hasn’t been sharp this season, allowing at least three earned runs in five straight starts. He has surrendered six homers in 35 innings, resulting in a HR/9 that is nearly double his career mark. It’s not hard to find a silver lining, though. Walks haven’t been nearly the issue they were for him last year, with his walk rate down to 6.1% from 9.6%. The 6.1% walk rate is higher, but not dramatically so, than what he posted in his NL Cy Young campaign in 2015. His strikeout rate is up to 27.9%, which is slightly better than it was in the ’15 season. If he can figure out the homer issue, he could get back to being a true fantasy ace. Arrieta is scheduled for two starts this week, opposing the Rockies at Coors Field on Monday and the Cardinals on Sunday.
Alex Wood, Dodgers
The Dodgers are still figuring out what to do with the backend of their rotation, but it seems that Wood is here to stay. Rich Hill will be back from the DL soon, though he may be returning to the bullpen, thanks, in part, to Wood’s success. He did allow four earned runs in five innings in his last start, but also struck out eight in a win over the Giants. What’s more, he has walked just three batters in his last 19 innings. At this point, it’s hard to see Wood as the odd man out in the Dodgers rotation. He can further his cause in this two-start week. Wood draws the Pirates on Monday and, assuming he sticks in the rotation, the Rockies at Coors Field over the weekend.
Carlos Carrasco, Indians
I’ve wanted to write something with depth on Carrasco for the better part of the season, but every time I go to look for something interesting enough to carry a full column, I come up empty. It has been nothing more than your standard, run-of-the-mill dominance from the Indians righty. He has a 2.18 ERA, 3.38 FIP, 0.82 WHIP and 39 strikeouts against eight walks in 41 1/3 innings this season, striking out at least a batter per inning in four of his six outings. If he can stay healthy for the entire year, he’s going to be a top-10 starting pitcher. Carrasco should get two starts this week, beginning with the Blue Jays on Monday. Assuming he takes the mound again, it would be against the Twins on Sunday.
Justin Verlander, Tigers
Verlander has bounced back nicely in his last two trips to the bump after allowing 13 runs in nine innings across a pair of ugly starts. He threw seven in both of his last two outings, allowing a total of two runs on nine hits, striking out 13 batters. The big issue for Verlander this season has been the free pass, with his walk rate spiking up to 11%. In raw numbers, he has walked 17 of the 155 batters he has faced. Even when Verlander has been at his best in his career, he walked more than his fair share, but high-level success is unsustainable at a walk rate that even approaches 11%. That’s where his best, most immediate work needs to be done. Verlander is set for two starts this week, taking on the Diamondbacks on Tuesday and Angels on Sunday.
Francis Martes, Astros
The Astros were expected to be one of the best teams in the league, and they’ve shown why over the first five weeks of the season. They’re 21–11 and the proud owners of a 5.5-game lead in the AL West. Outside of Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers, though, their rotation hasn’t been great. Their starters rank 24th in ERA and 19th in FIP, and only Keuchel and McCullers have averaged more than six innings per start. It’s possible, and might even be likely, for them to address the rotation at some point this season. No matter if they find a trade partner, though, they’ll have the option of reaching down to the minors and building from within.
Martes entered the season as a top-30 prospect, according to all three of the major prospect evaluators, topping out at No. 15 on Baseball America’s list. Martes, a 21-year-old righty, is getting his first taste of Triple-A ball, and it has been a mixed bag thus far. He has a 2.92 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings, but has also walked 12 batters. He has largely avoided hard contact, keeping the ball entirely in the park, but he needs to figure out a way to get in the strike zone with more regularity if he’s going to be a factor for the Astros this season.
If and when Martes arrives in the majors, fantasy owners will see a pitcher with a power fastball-curveball pairing. Those are the two pitches that are at the center of his repertoire, and that’s unlikely to change at any point during his career. His fastball sits comfortably in the mid-90s, and that gives him a great foundation to go to his curve, as well as a changeup and slider. He’s certainly worth monitoring, and would be a notable addition in deeper fantasy leagues, but, again, his control has to improve significantly before it gets to that point.
Max Scherzer struck out 11 in a win over the Diamondbacks earlier this week. One of the 11 came on a filthy 0–2 changeup to Paul Goldschmidt. It isn’t often you see a righty-on-righty changeup work at all, let alone well enough to get a silly-looking swing out of one of the best hitters in the league. When your changeup moves like this, though, the rules don’t really apply. Don’t miss the look on Goldschmidt’s face and subtle nod as he heads back to the dugout.