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February 17, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks in the Bullpen

by Mike Petriello

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Congratulations, friends: we’ve made it through yet another cold, dark offseason. Camps open this week across Florida and Arizona, and while that alone generally means that life is worth living again, it also has a deeper meaning in the fantasy world. It means that players are back on the field, and that allows us to do a little less speculating and a little more analyzing. In the weeks to come, teams will start making decisions based on performance and injuries as they prepare for the season, and that helps us all as we try to prepare for your fantasy season as well.

I haven’t been this excited for a baseball season in a long time (though to be fair, I’ve probably said that in each of the last ten springs) and this column is a big part of that. As always, your comments are welcome–now let’s get down to business.

Far be it from Ozzie Guillen to make anything easy for anybody, but fantasy players waiting on not one but two decisions from the White Sox would certainly appreciate some decision-making sooner rather than later. First, Ozzie's going to need to figure out if Chris Sale's joining the rotation, and, if not, whether he'll then displace Matt Thornton for 9th-inning duties.

We don't know for sure and may not for a while, but there are hints to be found if you look in the right places. Taking the rotation question first, Guillen let it be known this week that he may not be adverse to the idea of a four-man rotation in April, both to take advantage of early season days off and to allow Jake Peavy to slowly work his way back from injury. For his part, Guillen seems to prefer Sale in relief, even going so far to say, "I think for him, he has to be in the bullpen." It's debatable whether that's really the right course of action for the White Sox, but it's certainly good news for those of us looking for additional relief options.

So let's assume for the moment that will be the case, and try to figure out question number two—would Sale or Thornton close? Guillen wouldn't say, but it's worth looking into their respective usage over the last month of 2010 after Bobby Jenks was unavailable. Sale had four saves to Thornton's three, yet that alone isn't what's really important. Two of Thornton's three saves came via appearances of more than one inning; the only one in which he actually entered in the ninth inning with a lead was on September 5, the day after Sale had thrown nearly 30 pitches in the second game of a doubleheader. That game was the only game all month that Thornton entered in the 9th—conversely, Sale was brought in for the final inning five times.

I'm aware that most outlets seem to be predicting Thornton as the closer, but I'm not afraid to go against the current: my feeling here is that Sale's going to end up being the man with the job. Guillen seems to like him, and the usage last September pointed in that direction anyway. They're certainly both worth owning, though.

I'm probably jinxing the Sale prediction already by pointing out that several weeks ago, despite the Pirates being extremely tight-lipped about their closer choice, I backed Joel Hanrahan over "All-Star" Evan Meek. Yesterday, the Pirates wasted no time by confirming Hanrahan would get the job on the first day of camp.

The last time we looked at Hanrahan, it was more in relation to a comparison versus Meek, but now that we know he's going to be the man, the question is: how good of a closer can he be? Potentially, very good. 207 pitchers threw at least 69 innings last year, and only two had a higher strikeout rate than Hanrahan—and one of those, Billy Wagner, won't be pitching in 2011. In fact, four of the top six on that list notched at least 37 saves, with Hanrahan's former Washington teammate Tyler Clippard being the only other holdout.

Hanrahan actually snuck into the top 30 in WXRL last year, and all of indicators are pointing in the right direction as he enters his age-29 year. His fastball velocity came in at an average of 96 MPH in 2010, a career high, but he also threw it less than he'd ever done before, 61 percent of the time. That's because he threw his slider more than ever, an improving pitch which helped him get more batters than ever to swing at offerings out of the strike zone.

Hanrahan has much to prove, of course, and is hardly a top-10 closer. Just remember that he's likely to be an incredibly undervalued one come draft day, because everything's working in his favor right now—and he could very well outperform more heralded closers selected well ahead of him.

There's no job controversy in Houston now that Matt Lindstrom is off to Colorado, though it does seem that Lyon has flown completely under the radar in closer discussions this offseason. I suppose that's what will happen when you're a relatively nondescript pitcher playing for a mediocre team, right?

The surprising thing is, Lyon actually did pretty well last year in filling in for the injured Lindstrom, somehow coming in at fifth on the WXRL leaderboard while converting 19 of 20 saves over the last two months after claiming the job. Be sure to take that with the grain of salt it deserves, of course, because Lyon is unlikely to keep up the 502 OPS against and .213 BABIP that he posted during that stretch. Nor is he exceedingly likely to get through another year with a homer rate of just 0.2 per nine innings, especially when that number was at 0.80 or above in six of the previous seven seasons.

That's in large part why PECOTA is expecting some regression to a 3.68 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP, and I can't say I disagree. Still, he's the all-but-unquestioned closer in Houston and that alone gives him some value. Just don't expect a repeat of his surprising finish to 2010.

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

6 comments have been left for this article.

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