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January 20, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Hot Spots: Relief Pitchers

by Mike Petriello

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It almost doesn't seem real (particularly if, like me, you live in the Northeast and have been suffering through something of a brutal winter), but pitchers and catchers are reporting in about a month. We've almost made it! Today, I'm going to focus on a few more relievers who've found new homes recently, but like my fellow Value Picks authors, I'd like to open it up to the readers for the next few weeks until camp starts. Is there a particular job battle that interests you? Wondering if that hot prospect is finally going to make his mark? Feel free to hit me up in the comments or via Twitter (@MikeSciosciasTI) and I'll be happy to accommodate as many requests as I can.

Before we start, last week I briefly touched upon the Tampa closer situation, as Kyle Farnsworth had signed with the Rays just before my article was complete. For a more complete look, be sure to check out BP newcomer Jason Collette's piece from yesterday, where he goes more in-depth at the various Tampa options.

For at least the third time this offseason and probably the tenth time since Value Picks began, we're headed north of the border to look at yet another Toronto bullpen move, this time signing Jon Rauch to a one-year, $3.5m deal, with an option for 2012. It's actually a return to Canada for Rauch, who joined the dwindling number of former Expos by pitching in 9 games on the 2004 Montreal farewell tour.

Rauch has built up a reputation as a reliable and durable setup man since, mostly in Washington, though he was forced into the 9th inning with Minnesota last year after Joe Nathan blew out his arm before the season started. He was eventually replaced in that role when the Twins imported Matt Capps from the Nationals, though that wasn't an indictment of Rauch; he converted 21 of 25 saves with peripherals that were close to his career norms. That was good enough for 36th place in WXRL, ahead of "real" closers like Capps, Jonathan Papelbon, and David Aardsma.

In Toronto, Rauch will join Octavio Dotel and Jason Frasor in the back of the bullpen. Frasor actually won a similar three-way competition last year, beating Kevin Gregg and Scott Downs, though he of course lost the job before April was out. I'm unoffiically counting out Frasor; he's never managed to nail down the 9th, and GM Alex Anthopoulos indicated that Dotel and Rauch will head into camp as co-headliners.

So who will it be? As we've discussed previously, Dotel has a massive platoon split in that he's effective against RHB, yet gets destroyed by LHB. It might have made more sense here to sign someone with the reverse effect, but Rauch shows the same splits, though hardly to such extremes. That's somewhat concerning in a division with lefty batters like Adrian Gonzalez, Mark Teixeira, Carl Crawford, etc., though clearly the Jays weren't going to be spending huge money on a closer - correctly, in my opinion. My money's on Dotel to start the season, just based on his more extensive closing experience, though don't be surprised in the least if Rauch (or even Frasor) gets opportunities as well. Both players are candidates to be flipped at the deadline, so if you end up with either, you might want to make that your plan as well.

If you're a keeper league owner of Rafael Soriano, your jaw probably dropped when you saw that he'd signed with the Yankees to become Mariano Rivera's setup man. You' d probably envisioned Soriano taking his 45 saves and glittering peripherals to the Rangers, or perhaps the Angels, or even back to the Rays. Instead, you get to watch his fantasy value plummet as he heads to the Bronx to fill an 8th-inning role ahead of the best closer ever. In most leagues, Soriano was a top-5 reliever last year. Without throwing a pitch, his ranking is probably somewhere in the 30s now.

That's not to say that Soriano has no value, of course. He's still a reliver who struck out four times as many as he walked last year with a WHIP just a tick north of 0.800, so saves or not, that's useful. If you're in a holds league, that regains a lot of his lost value, and while Yankee fans probably don't want to hear it, Rivera is 41 years old. It's not unreasonable to think that even if he can avoid the injuries that generally hamper players that old, that Joe Girardi may choose to slightly dial back Rivera's usage this year now that he has a solid alternative.

So sure, Soriano's worth a roster spot if only for the strikeouts and WHIP alone. Just don't be the inevitable guy on draft day who goes, "ooh, 45 saves, shiny!" and picks him far too high.

Speaking of former closers who ought to start warming up an inning or two earlier than usual, Brian Fuentes is joining what may be the deepest bullpen in baseball by signing with the Athletics. The Oakland relief crew already boasted Andrew Bailey, Michael Wuertz, Brad Ziegler, and Craig Breslow, among others, and now they've added both Fuentes and Grant Balfour, who signed just before Fuentes did.

Assuming Bailey is healthy - he's working his way back from elbow surgery, but is supposedly on track to be ready for Opening Day - he's the unquestioned closer, leaving Fuentes and Balfour as highly paid setup men. Fuentes in particular has an extreme platoon split, and while he's probably going to be used as a bit more than a traditional LOOGY, that's certainly a large part of his new role. This kind of depth is great for the A's, but much less so for fantasy players. Barring any setbacks for Bailey, Fuentes' fantasy value has probably dropped even further than Soriano's, just due to his weaker peripherals and the overall depth of the Oakland bullpen.

Mike Petriello is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Peripherals,  Jon Rauch

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