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January 27, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Hot Spots: Relief Pitchers

by Mike Petriello

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Welcome to this week’s “Value Picks”, in which we cease to pretend we’re going to talk about other teams and just acknowledge that now and forever, we’re just going to bring you the latest and greatest in Toronto Blue Jay news. We’ve had six articles since we returned from postseason hiatus, and in that time we’ve already looked at five relievers who have either just arrived in Toronto or just left. That doesn’t even include Frank Francisco, who was originally discussed on December 2nd as a Ranger, and who features prominently today.

Frank Francisco, Blue Jays

As you’ve no doubt heard, the “Vernon Wells lol-fest” kept on rolling with a secondary ripple this week as the Jays flipped catcher Mike Napoli to Texas in exchange for Francisco, immediately invalidating post-trade fantasy articles everywhere. So while in previous weeks I put down thoughts about Jason Frasor, Octavio Dotel, and Jon Rauch possibly collecting saves in Toronto, now we add Francisco to the mix.

I believe I’ve said this before, but Francisco ended up being somewhat underrated in Texas due to the ascension of Neftali Feliz, as we’ll see in a moment. Yes, Francisco had a few rough outings in April, losing his closer gig to Feliz, who never gave it back. Yet overall, Francisco was basically the same pitcher he’s been for the last several years, as his WHIP, ERA, K/9, & BB/9 were all within the same ranges he’d posted in 2008 and 2009. Just because he had 23 fewer saves in 2010 doesn’t mean he was any less of a pitcher.

While it’s hard to fault anyone for not being as good as Feliz, when you put Francisco up against Dotel and Rauch, he starts to look pretty good. His K/9 rates are about the same as Dotel’s, yet his BB/9 rate in recent years is lower. He walks more than Rauch, yet his strikeouts are enough that his K/BB over the last two years is superior. His average velocity is the highest of the three, and he’s younger than both. But what’s perhaps the most in Francisco’s favor is that unlike Dotel and Rauch, he doesn’t have a deadly platoon split against lefty hitters.

We’ve already discussed how badly Dotel got lit up against lefty batters (.993 OPS) in 2010. Rauch wasn’t hit by them nearly as hard (.739), though it was 130 points higher than his mark against righties. Francisco, meanwhile, has actually always put up a reverse split, with an OPS mark 70 points lower against lefties in his career and over 200 points lower in 2010.

So what does that all mean for the 9th inning in Toronto? It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see something of a job share, where Dotel faces righty-heavy lineups and Francisco faces down the lefties. That may sound like Dotel gets the bulk of opportunities, but I don’t think it’s that cut-and-dry. Dotel is all but unusable against lefties, while Francisco can still be put out there against fellow righties, and Toronto GM Alex Anthopolous admitted in a press conference following the trade that Francisco was someone he’d tried to acquire for some time.

All of the confusion here means you may end up with some good buy-low candidates. I’d place Francisco first on the list, followed by Dotel, and I’d probably discount Rauch and Frasor entirely for now until further notice.

Of course, that’s all going to change next week when the Jays bring back Tom Henke and Duane Ward out of retirement, right?

Neftali Feliz (& Alexi Ogando), Rangers

Francisco’s move north of the border also affects the team he’s left behind in Texas. All winter, we’ve heard that young Neftali Feliz would be stretched out as a starter in the spring in hopes that he might be placed back into the rotation. That chance alone made Francisco valuable, as he would have likely been returned to the closing duties he lost to Feliz last season.

With Francisco gone, many are predicting that this spells an end to the “Feliz as starter” experiment. I’m not so sure. We all know that starting pitchers provide more value than relievers, and Feliz, who started 53 games in the minors, is far too young to be thought of only as a reliever. Texas GM Jon Daniels is no fool, and has done a good job of hedging his bets here. If Felix beats out the likes of Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Tommy Hunter, and the rehabbing Brandon Webb for the fifth starter role, all the better. If not, then having stretched him out to be a starter is in no way an impediment to returning him to the bullpen.

If Feliz does return to the rotation, then whomever the new Texas closer might be immediately becomes fantasy relevant. While you might see ageless veterans like Arthur Rhodes & Darren Oliver or younger types like Mark Lowe or Darren O’Day get a shot here and there, the name to watch is clearly Alexi Ogando, who impressed by posting a 1.30 ERA and 8.4 K/9 over 44 games in his rookie season last year.

Ogando is also reportedly going to get work as a starter in camp, though he has just three minor league starts under his belt (all in AA) and would seem to be less likely to be converted than Feliz. There’s an interesting story here, as Ogando was originally signed as an outfielder by Oakland in 2002 before being banned from the country for five years due to his part in a visa fraud scam. Finally allowed to report to camp in early 2010, he dominated AA & AAA (42/11 K/BB) with 96 MPH fastballs before being recalled and finding success in Texas. He may have less than one year of service time under his belt, but he’s also 27, so his time is now.

The feeling here is that despite all of the ink spilled over this, Feliz probably isn’t going to head back to the rotation unless all of the other 5th starter candidates fail. Even still, Ogando is worth a look, because high strikeout relievers in line for closing roles are always valuable.

Aroldis Chapman, Reds

No, still no news out of Cincinnati about Aroldis Chapman being moved back to the rotation or taking over Francisco Cordero’s closer role. He’s here because I got a request in last week’s comments asking about him, so he’s on the list to look into for today. If there’s anyone else who interests you, feel free to note them in the comments and I can add them to the queue.

Let’s get this out of the way first: is Chapman more valuable as a starter than a reliever? Of course he is. But the Reds are one of the few teams that actually have substantial rotation depth, with Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, & Edinson Volquez the unquestioned top four and Travis Wood & Mike Leake competing for the fifth spot. Is Chapman more talented than all of those guys? Yeah, probably, but on a team that’s counting on a declining Francisco Cordero and lost Arthur Rhodes from an already weak bullpen, the decision to keep Chapman in relief is defensible.

From a fantasy point of view, Chapman is a no-doubter in keeper leagues, but he’s obviously worthwhile in redraft leagues as well. Remember, we’re talking about a guy who averaged – averaged! – 99.6 MPH on his fastball last year, striking out 19 in his first 13.1 MLB innings despite being only 22. Now if you think Cordero, who’s about to be 36 and just watched his K/BB rate decline for the fourth year in a row,  is hanging on by a thread, then Chapman’s quite valuable as closer-in-waiting. Even if you’re not pessimistic about Cordero, an arm that live which can pile up strikeouts for you is always worth having. Always.

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

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Prospectus Q&A: John A... (01/27)
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Fantasy Article Fantasy Beat: Hot Spot... (01/26)
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Fantasy Beat: Reviewin... (01/28)
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Ahead in the Count: Te... (01/27)

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