The search for a top-shelf long-relief prospect can feel like spending your Saturdays at estate sales. You spend hours upon hours looking through piles of once-cherished possessions that have since been discarded in hopes of finding a treasure. Like most things you’ll find at an estate sale, most long relievers are not worth rostering. Either they are too old, too broken or simply represent another time that doesn’t have a use today.
Every once in a while, however, somebody will stumble on the jackpot. After picking through five boxes full of Garbage Pale Kids cards, you stumble across a Mickey Mantle rookie card. Most of the time finding a pot of gold is not as obvious as that. Most of the time that pot of gold looks like garbage. That’s good, though, if it did look like gold, you probably wouldn’t be able to get it first — and it wouldn’t be cheap.
So many of the game’s best relievers were estate sale finds: Edwin Diaz, Josh Hader, Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, Archie Bradley. Even Aroldis Chapman had mixed results as a starter in the minors before becoming the best closer of the last six years. Middle relievers are even more devalued than their more glamorous counterparts: the setup men and closers. In most cases, that is rightfully so, but the most dominant middle reliever can still be just as effective as the most dominant closer. Why? Because they generally pitch more often. While they do not get nearly as many saves as closers, middle relievers are more likely to get wins and they can significantly lower your non-counting stats while jacking up your strikeouts.
They are also cheaper. Despite what Hader did in 2018 and what Betances has done for the past five years, all middle relievers still look like garbage. Nobody wants them. You’ll never see middle relievers on top 100 prospect lists, so we’re going to look at two of them who will be promoted this year and might just make the difference in your staff in August and September this year.
I don’t know how long you need to be utterly dominant at every level before you finally get your shot, but we’re going to find out when Colin Poche finally gets the call. Exhibits A-Z:
Why isn’t this guy in the majors? Simply put, there is no way he should be as good as he is. His fastball sits in the low 90s and his curveball is solid—and that’s it! Sounds dubious, I know, until you see the jaw-dropping results. He also has a great walk rate for a reliever, roughly three per nine innings pitched. Poche has led the minors in K/9 for two straight seasons.
He’s done it by being able to hide the ball maybe better than anyone in the minors. If you watch the video below, he’s so quick with releasing the ball after it comes out from behind his head that hitters say his fastball jumps out to them and they can’t pick up any of his pitches until it’s often too late.
Now, here’s the rub. Poche has had a rough start to 2019, He was hit hard multiple times in the spring and despite only giving up five home runs in almost 150 minor league innings, he already gave up one this season. Something is off with his delivery, and he’s going to need to iron that out before he gets called up. When he does, however, Poche is also on the perfect team to utilize his ability. Tampa Bay relied on “opener” pitchers more than any other team in 2018. These relievers would start the game with the plan of only seeing the lineup once. Poche is the perfect pitcher for this—a deceptive lefty who can pitch significant innings at the beginning of games some days, in the middle some days and near the end other days.
If you don’t follow the Detroit Tigers farm system, you probably don’t know who Zac Houston is. Allow me to enlighten you. Like Poche, Houston is a reliever with non-elite stuff who is producing elite numbers. Houston is ready for the big leagues, having thoroughly manhandled the International League to the tune of a 1.73 ERA in 38 innings while striking out 55. Those numbers pretty much encapsulate Houston’s entire minor league career:
Once again, how is this guy not in the majors? Unlike Poche, Houston does have near elite velocity. He is consistently around 95 with the fastball, but he also is aided by deception. While it’s more difficult to see what makes Poche’s delivery unique, Houston’s is eccentric from any angle (courtesy of Fangraphs and Eric Longenhagen):
It almost looks like he’s a throwback, with a high leg kick and moving his arms up with it. You are almost waiting for him to swing his arms back and forth before the windup. Still the results are hard to ignore. What he could work on is being more consistent with his slider, which can look like a curve from time to time. Either way, he will be on the Tigers roster at some point this year, and I’d keep him in mind for a source of Ks.
I don’t recommend drafting relievers in prospect drafts. They are simply too volatile. For as dominant as Poche and Houston have been, their ceilings simply don’t justify using a draft pick. Also, as I noted above, nobody else is looking for these guys so you can wait until they get called up to pick them up. Depending on how much attention your league pays to non-closers, you might even get to wait a month and watch to see how well they do in the majors before picking them up. Use this to your advantage. Keep an eye on both of these guys and be the first one to get them when the time is right.