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Closing Time: Jimmy Nelson's breakout season

Get ready for the Full Nelson (AP)

For a number of reasons, it hasn’t been a fun year for pitching. MLB is on pace for a new record in aggregate home runs. A bunch of big-name aces are hurt, and several are stumbling. And consider the path of ERA over the last few years:

  • 2014: 3.74
  • 2015: 3.96
  • 2016: 4.18
  • 2017: 4.24

With all that in mind, we have to be more open-minded with the arms that fill the middle and back of our fantasy staffs. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man can be king.

That’s my soft sell on Jimmy Nelson and Mike Foltynewicz. Maybe they would have been borderline plays in a previous time. Now, they’re players to target.

Nelson wasn’t dominant in his Wednesday victory over San Francisco (6 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 1 BB, 6 K), but it was enough to get a win. The quality start came on the heels of two big-strikeout games; 11 punchouts versus the Dodgers, 10 versus the Snakes. A 3.45 ERA and 1.27 WHIP are playable in any format, and he’s validated by a 3.15 FIP.

Nelson’s case doesn’t check every box, but he gets to a lot of them. He just turned 28, and while he wasn’t a glittering prospect, he did have some juice a few years back. Nelson’s made significant gains with his strikeout and walk rates this year, and he’s bumped his swinging-strike rate by 29 percent. He’s also made notable improvements in the platoon disadvantage; he’s finally learned how to get lefties out. This is a bet I’m comfortable making.

Nelson was owned in a mere 31 percent of Yahoo leagues just a few days ago. He’s chased over 50 percent now, but should go higher. This is what a breakout looks like.

The Foltynewicz file requires a deeper leap of faith. His strikeout rate has dipped this year, and his 3.48 ERA at the front door doesn’t match the 4.19 FIP or 4.21 SIERA on the side. At times it’s been a struggle in the new Atlanta park — Folty has a 4.03 ERA at home (with a horrible K/BB ratio), but a tidy 3.30 mark on the road (with 38 Ks, 8 BB).

We can get behind Folty’s recent work, though. He threw seven bagels at the Phillies on Wednesday, and last week dominated a Cincinnati offense (7 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 10 K) that’s been crushing everyone else. Five of the last six starts have been useful.

Foltynewicz is a former first-round pick, just 25. The upcoming schedule could be a little dodgy — at Washington, versus Miami, versus Milwaukee — but in the great pitching shortage of 2017, we can’t be too picky. When we see plausible upside, we need to be open minded. He’s still available in 79 percent of Yahoo leagues.

• It’s hard to feel sorry for Tony Watson owners, because they’ve cobbled together a fair amount of fantasy value from what’s truly been a lousy season. Watson has a 4.44 ERA and 1.52 WHIP and he’s already served six homers, but his investors also have 10 saves and four wins.

Those handshakes are probably on the way out. Watson has fed the gopher twice in the Baltimore series, leading to a pair of losses. Looking at his recent game logs is like staring at the sun: 9.2 IP, 13 H, 11 R, 10 ER, 4 HR, 1 BB, 7 K. Pittsburgh can’t wait on this guy forever.

There’s no rule that says a team’s best reliever has to inherit the closing gig, but Felipe Rivero, another lefty, has been ridiculous this year. He’s allowed two runs — two runs — over 31 innings, with six walks and 34 strikeouts. That’s a 0.58 ERA and 0.74 WHIP. Rivero is a recommended fantasy add, no matter what you’re looking for. He’s still waiting in about 57 percent of Yahoo leagues.

Veteran RHP Juan Nicasio is another possibility for saves here (1.35 ERA, 1.05 WHIP), perhaps the favorite. Nicasio is also more gettable, owned in just six percent of Yahoo leagues.

• The Phillies are another rebuilding team; thinking long-term, not short-term. They don’t have to obsess about what will win the most games today; they’re trying to build something for the future. That established, Pat Neshek has been their best reliever this year, and maybe it’s going to mean something fun for fantasy owners.

Neshek has a win and a save this week, taking his ERA down to 0.82 and his WHIP down to 0.77. The sidewinder misses more bats than you might suspect — he’s just under a strikeout per inning over the last four years — and he’s only walked four batters in 22 innings. Like Rivero above, Neshek is approved for whatever you need, be it possible wins and saves, or just some good-old quality innings. Neshek is free to add in 85 percent of Yahoo leagues.

To be fair, it’s not like nominal closer Hector Neris has been awful. But a 3.42 ERA and 1.25 WHIP is worse than we’ve expected, and he’s had some trouble keeping the ball in the park (four homers allowed).