December 2, 2010
Hot Spots: Relief Pitchers
As Mr. McQuown and Mr. Jong have so ably mentioned earlier this week, we're back with a fantasy focus on this winter's moves. Since this is fantasy-specific, I suppose it's time to take off the "saves and wins are pointless" sabremetrician hat that I wear every day and try to remember that they're life-and-death as far as our little game goes. Much as I'd love to discuss every rumor and proposed deal, this space is going to be focused on moves that have happened and the fantasy impact they'll have. That can mean more than just how a player on the move fits into his new surroundings, because there's also the team he's left behind and how they plan on filling the hole that's been left. Yet remember that so much more can (and will) happen this offseason, and future moves could change more than one situation in a heartbeat. For now, we can look at what's happened and get ahead of the curve in sniffing out good value for 2011.
There's only been one major reliever move so far this offseason, and that's ex-Ray Joaquin Benoit signing a market-busting three-year, $16.5m contract with the Tigers. Considering the 33-year-old didn't even pitch in 2009 after undergoing rotator cuff surgery (the latest in a career marked by arm injuries) and had to settle for a minor-league deal with Tampa in 2010, that's a pretty impressive turnaround. That's not to say that Benoit wasn't valuable in 2010, because he certainly was - a 75/11 K/BB ratio is phenomenal, as is a 0.680 WHIP.
I'd like to say that those numbers are unsustainable, and they almost certainly are, particularly because of the .201 BABIP and knowing what we know about the year-to-year volatility of all but the top relievers. But I'd like to think there's hope here. Benoit's fastball velocity actually shot up after the missed year, going from just under 92 MPH in 2008 to 94 MPH in 2010, and he's moving to one of the better pitching parks in the league. Besides, his 2010 was so good that even with expected regression there's still room for him to be successful, if he stays healthy.
Still, Benoit's not a top fantasy reliever if only because he's not headed to Detroit to be the 9th-inning guy, with Jose Valverde firmly in place. Valverde just saw his strikeout rate decline for the fourth season in a row, which dovetails with a walk rate that's increased in each year since 2008. He was still quite good for most of the year before faltering down the stretch (even being removed from the closer's role in September), and while he's certainly going to be the man headed into 2011, there's at least some level of uncertainty there. It's not as though the rest of the Tiger bullpen provides confidence right now, either; Joel Zumaya can never be relied on after yet another injury, and Phil Coke is headed to the rotation. It's precisely due to those absences and the failures of others that Detroit felt the need to spend big on Benoit in the first place. Benoit's worth spending a late-round pick on if only to see if he can keep up his 2010 strikeout rate and rack up some holds along the way, with a small but non-zero chance of getting some looks in the 9th inning if Valverde runs into trouble.
The public perception of Frank Francisco is that his year was subpar, as he lost his closing gig to rookie sensation Neftali Feliz in the season's first week before missing the end of the year with an injury, but that's not entirely accurate. Francisco's numbers were basically the same as they'd been in previous years, making him not much different from the pitcher who saved 25 games in 2009. Really, the drop in saves from 25 to 2 is the only stat that doesn't look the same in 2010 as it did in 2009. That doesn't mean Francisco was an elite closer, because he's not, but there's value there if he had the chance to close again.
This is all relevant right now because of two pieces of news from the past few days: first, that Francisco accepted Texas' offer of arbitration, meaning he'll be back with the club, and second, that Texas GM Jon Daniels admitted he's considering moving Feliz back to the rotation. If Feliz does get bumped onto the starting staff, Francisco is the obvious choice to slide in for 9th-inning duties among the current bullpen crew. Of course, it's still early in the winter, and this is a situation that likely doesn't get resolved until the spring. Keep an eye on the Cliff Lee situation, because there's a much better chance that Feliz makes it into the rotation if Lee doesn't return. Even if Feliz does get to start, it remains to be seen who else the Rangers may add to the bullpen. Watch this situation closely; it's very fluid.
The bullpen was a strength of an underrated Blue Jays team in 2010, but it's clear that we won't be seeing all of the same pieces return in 2011. Perpetually on-the-move Kevin Gregg and useful lefty Scott Downs each declined Toronto's offers of arbitration, and each are likely to land elsewhere. On the other hand, the third member of the triumvirate, Jason Frasor, did accept arbitration and immediately vaults to the head of the class.
Frasor actually started 2010 as the closer, but lost the job to Gregg in the midst of a lousy April (8.38 ERA, 1.006 OPS against). He was able to rebound and was quite good in the second half, allowing just 9 ER over 36 games from July 1 on, with a 32/10 K/BB ratio. By the end of the year, he'd actually bested Gregg in most of the important categories, including K/9, BB/9, and FIP. Yet ask the average fan who was better, and they'll most likely see "37 saves to 5", but based on the peripherals, Gregg wasn't really much better than Frasor, and may not have received his chance at all had Frasor not stumbled out of the gate.
There's rumors that the Jays are interested in former Twin Jesse Crain, but he doesn't have a lot of closing experience either, and with several million committed to Frasor it seems unlikely that Toronto would spend big on their bullpen. That being the case, Frasor would look to be in the lead, with Shawn Camp perhaps getting a look as well.