Hold the phone.
You're telling me more people are incorporating holds into their fantasy leagues? It sure seems that way, whether it's as a standalone category or as saves-plus-holds, rather than just saves. I've come around to the stat myself.
Counting holds adds another wrinkle and element of strategy to fantasy baseball. Holds make monitoring back-end bullpen battles a lot of fun, and in saves-plus-holds leagues especially, auctions and drafts play out much differently. Owners are typically hesitant to spend much on closers in that format, and rightfully so, meaning there is more being spent elsewhere. While closers generally rack up more saves than the top setup guys, holds are far more plentiful around the league and rather easy to find on the waiver wire. That said, pinpointing the premiere holds contributors can separate you from the pack.
Looking at the RotoWire projections for 2015, we have 35 pitchers projected for 20 or more holds. Here they are:
Meanwhile, there are an even 100 pitchers projected to earn 10 or more holds. Check them all out for yourself. If you don't have a RotoWire subscription, you can get 10 free days with no strings attached by clicking here.
By comparison, only 35 pitchers are estimated for 10 or more saves.
The 10-20 holds guys are nice, but hitting on a pitcher that exceeds expectations and racks up 20-plus holds can save you some work scouring the waiver wire in-season and put you in great position to dominate the category. Here are nine pitchers I think have a realistic chance to reach 20 holds this season:
Jordan Walden, STL (RotoWire projection: 18 holds) - Now, I expect Walden will get a chance to close at some point this season, but Trevor Rosenthal had a very long leash last year and has done little to loosen his grip on the job this spring. Rosenthal has issued just one free pass while striking out seven in seven Grapefruit League innings to this point, while holding opponents to a .192 average. Walden, on the other hand, has walked five in seven innings, resulting in a 5.14 spring ERA. If Walden gets things together and remains in a setup role for much of the season, he should reach 20 holds for a second straight year.
Kevin Jepsen, TB (RotoWire projection: 18 holds) - Jepsen is another player who could get a chance to close with his new team, but if not, he too should exceed our holds projection for him. The 30-year-old right-hander racked up 22 holds while with the Angels last year, and has gotten as high as 27 holds in a season (2010). Scrapping his cutter and instead using a new changeup to complement his curveball and mid-90s heater, Jepsen struck batters out a career-best 28.9% clip last season. I expect the Rays to be more competitive than most people, meaning there will plenty of opportunities to protect leads for the likes of Jepsen, Grant Balfour, Brad Boxberger and eventually Jake McGee (elbow).
Brandon Maurer, SD (RotoWire projection: 15 holds) - The 24-year-old Maurer found find his niche in the bullpen last season, posting a 2.17 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 38:5 K:BB in 31 relief appearances with Seattle. In seven starts spanning 32.1 innings, Maurer allowed 27 earned runs (7.52 ERA) with a 1.76 WHIP and a dismal 17:14 K:BB. He was also able to cut down significantly on the longballs, giving up just one homer in relief after giving up five in five fewer innings as a starter. Arguably new GM A.J. Preller's most underrated offseason acquisition, Maurer will work exclusively out of the bullpen moving forward and the move to another spacious home park bodes well for his chances of maintaining last year's success. Kevin Quackenbush, Shawn Kelley and Dale Thayer are all capable options, but Maurer's stuff may be the best of the bunch and is the one to target in holds leagues as far as I'm concerned.
Jason Grilli, ATL (RotoWire projection: 15 holds) - With fellow former closer Jim Johnson preparing for a multi-inning bullpen role, the door is open for Grilli to handle right-handed setup duties exclusively for Atlanta. Lefty James Russell will likely steal some holds as a specialist in the sixth and seventh innings, but the eighth inning should belong mostly to Grilli. After flaming out with Pittsburgh, Grilli regained his confidence while with the Angels and that has carried over to spring ball. He has allowed just one run on three hits, with five strikeouts and no walks, in five Grapefruit League appearances to this point (five innings). The Braves may be one of the worst teams in the NL this year, but Grilli should still see plenty of hold chances.
Dan Otero, OAK (RotoWire projection: 13 holds) - Tyler Clippard will serve as the A's closer to start the year, manager Bob Melvin confirmed Friday, and Ryan Cook was recently sent down to iron out some mechanical issues. That leaves Otero to handle the primary setup role, at least to begin the season. Once Sean Doolittle (shoulder) returns, Otero will be bumped back down the pecking order, though he should still be able to hold onto at least a semi-high-leverage role all year after proving capable in those situations last season (12 holds). Otero doesn't miss many bats at all (just 4.7 K/9 last season), but he has outstanding control (career 1.5 BB/9) and even with regression – his FIP was a full run higher than his ERA last year – Otero will make for a nice holds option early on. Doolittle is set to play catch Friday for the first time since his diagnosis.
Jeurys Familia, NYM (RotoWire projection: 13 holds) - Jenrry Mejia is slated to be the Mets' closer to start the year, and manager Robin Ventura seems intent on eventually giving Bobby Parnell (elbow) another chance in the ninth-inning role. While we have Familia projected for 14 saves, I simply have a hard time seeing him getting that opportunity. Don't get me wrong, I think Familia is the best pitcher in the Mets' bullpen, but I think Familia sticks in the setup role and breezes past 20 holds again, perhaps finishing among the top five in the statistic.
Kevin Siegrist, STL (RotoWire projection: 12 holds) - When Siegrist went down with a forearm injury last May, he was sitting with 12 holds, most in baseball. Six weeks later, when he began a rehab assignment, he was still tied for second on the team in holds. The lefty racked up 10 holds over the final three months of 2013, and has shown no lingering effects from the injury this spring, allowing one runs on six hits and one walk, with seven strikeouts in six innings. He's held opposing lefties to a .550 OPS so far in his young career.
Fernando Salas, LAA (RotoWire projection: 10 holds) - Teammate Joe Smith is an obvious target in holds leagues, but Salas is a candidate to take on more high-leverage work with Jepsen gone. Granted, Salas hasn't been particularly sharp this spring (five earned runs on 12 hits and three walks over seven innings), but he took a massive step forward against lefties last season. Opposing lefties combined for a .180/.254/.243 batting line against Salas last year, down from .293/.341/.488 in 2013. Look for Salas' platoon splits to stabilize, but if he's able to maintain a certain level of success against lefties, he could become a really nice option on a team that figures to have plenty of leads to protect again this season.
Tony Cingrani, CIN (RotoWire projection: 7 holds) - It seems the Reds have finally settled on Cingrani's long-term role, formally moving him to the bullpen last week after ruling him out for a rotation spot. Given Cingrani's extreme reliance on the fastball (79.1% for career), it's not a surprise. The 25-year-old stuff should play up better in shorter spurts, and given the Reds' lack of quality lefty relievers – Manny Parra and Paul Maholm are the only other healthy options – it seems Cingrani is destined to serve as the top lefty setup man to start the year. He has looked utterly dominant out of the bullpen this spring, giving up one run on three hits and one walk, with seven strikeouts over seven innings, in his last three Cactus League outings.
Another note: Andrew Miller and Chad Qualls will also be elite holds options, if they do not close for their respective clubs.
What do you think? Feel free to contact me on Twitter @claywlink.