April 15, 2010
Hot Spots: Relief
This week, Hot Spots turns to finding underappreciated value in the bullpen. You certainly don't need us to tell you that grabbing Mariano Rivera or Jonathan Broxton in your draft might have been a good idea, but there's plenty of other lesser-known arms who—by virtue of situation, talent, or both—can help you fill out your roster at the mere cost of a waiver claim. Some weeks, that's going to require us to dig pretty deep, but some weeks—like this week—the fantasy gods smile upon us by providing several injured or ineffective incumbents and sparsely-owned replacements.
Let's start in Toronto, where Kevin Gregg has never exactly been a favorite of the stats community. While many fans saw save totals of 32 and 29 in 2007 and 2008 and viewed him as a quality closer, a closer look beyond the basically meaningless saves stat showed mediocre peripherals (BB/9 between 3.9-4.9 over the last three seasons) and the xFIP numbers which would of course go along with them: 4.74, 4.59, and 4.16. We all cringed when the Cubs chose Gregg to start 2009 as the closer over the superior Carlos Marmol, and Gregg was lousy—losing the job in no small part to a 1.7 HR/9 rate.
Yet it's exactly this disdain—in addition to a favorable job situation—which makes Gregg such a nice value play. His high HR/9 rate last year was an aberration for him (it was 0.8 and 0.4 the previous two years, and never above 1.1), and partially due to that reputation, he's owned in just 15.8 percent of ESPN.com leagues. Yet despite ostensibly being named as a set-up man to Jason Frasor coming out of camp, Gregg already has three saves and a hold. Frasor blew two saves in the first week, and what looked like a possible job-share situation at best has quickly turned into Toronto manager Cito Gaston naming Gregg his new closer. Even if Gregg doesn't keep the job all year, he'll get his share of the chances and be in position for holds otherwise. Gregg hasn't magically turned into an elite closer, of course. He's merely a decent reliever who got off to a good start with a less-than-solid incumbent in front of him. For a value pick, that's pretty good.
Moving on from Toronto, we have two closers headed to the DL: Baltimore's Mike Gonzalez and Los Angeles' Brian Fuentes. Gonzalez had all but lost his job anyway thanks to blowing two saves in his first three games of the season, and now he's shelved with a strained left shoulder. Jim Johnson looks to be the most likely to step in to pick up the slack, should the Orioles actually get any leads to him. Don't forget the ripple effect here: Johnson had been an effective reliever over the last two seasons, lowering his walk rate while increasing his strikeouts from 2008 to 2009, and if he has to now step up to the 9th inning, that leaves a hole in the 8th where he'd been. Don't let the 6.00 ERA this year fool you, though; not only are his three innings pitched an unbelievably small sample size, he's allowed just three baserunners with a 3/0 K/BB ratio in that time.
In Anaheim, Fernando Rodney is defining the word undervalued. How is it that a guy who saved 37 of 38 chances in 2009 and just lucked his way into the closer role for a good team thanks to Fuentes' injury owned in only 4.6 percent of ESPN leagues? Sure, we all know that saves are in no way an indicator of pitching skill, and a guy with a career walk rate of 4.6/9 isn't exactly enticing. Remember, though, this is fantasy baseball, and like we saw with Gregg, that means the rules are a little different. For all his flaws, Rodney did show he was able to shut the door in the 9th last year—and he's now on a team notorious for playing enough close games that they were able to get the overrated Fuentes 48 saves in 2009 and Francisco Rodriguez a record 62 in 2008. Rodney notched his first save last night by shutting down the Yankees with a perfect 9th, and since he's basically freely available in over 95 percent of ESPN leagues, this is a situation which is well worth investing a waiver claim in.
Finally, you're probably seeing the inclusion of Frank Francisco on the list, and you've stopped to ponder why. "How," you're probably saying, "can a guy who just lost his job to the #1 prospect in the Texas system be considered an undervalued asset?" That's because this is a perfect buy-low situation—and in some cases, you won't even need to buy, as 13.6 percent of ESPN teams have simply dumped Francisco in the last few days. Rangers manager Ron Washington was very clear in saying that Feliz was the "temporary" closer and that Francisco would return. Though Feliz did pick up the save against Cleveland on Monday, it was Francisco who was brought into the tied 9th inning of that game—which he converted flawlessly while notching a win. While Feliz is undoubtedly talented, he's also just 21. Texas won't be likely to put the full load of the 9th inning on his shoulders, so now may be a good time to pick up Francisco cheaply before he gets his old job back. Don't forget, he did strike out 11.8 and 10.4 per 9 over the last two seasons.