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May 16, 2012

Value Picks

Relievers for 5/16/12

by Dan Mennella

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The debate between the old and new schools as to the usefulness of defined bullpen roles is as strong as ever, and with such a high turnover rate in the early going of this season, both sides have had plenty of fodder to build their arguments. For those of us who partake in fantasy leagues, however, such philosophical pedantry is a mere luxury. Chasing saves, after all, is a dirty game, so let’s have a look at some relievers of interest.

The Angels never saw a save chance during interim closer Scott Downs’ brief hiatus due to a left knee bruise, so the window for a “closer controversy” between him and Ernesto Frieri (Yahoo! 17%, ESPN 12.1%, CBS 16%) was shut before it ever really opened. Frieri continues to pitch well since joining the Halos, but manager Mike Scioscia has made it pretty clear that Downs is his go-to guy for now. Remember, too, that Jordan Walden is looming, so while Frieri might be worth a quick add if an injury or ineffectiveness should befall Downs, it’s hard to justify owning him in anything but extremely deep leagues.

Although ERA-FIP discrepancies are far from uncommon, especially among relievers, Francisco Cordero’s 2011 (2.45 ERA, 3.98 FIP) looked especially dubious. Sure enough, his control issues and long-declining ability to miss bats have finally caught up to him this year, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time: during his ill-fated stint as Blue Jays interim closer. Enter Casey Janssen (Yahoo! 30%, ESPN 30%, CBS 34%), who really ought to consider removing an “s” from his last name so as to make things easier on me. The right-hander has rounded into a legitimate late-inning reliever over the past couple seasons, and I expect him to pitch well in place of Cordero. Sergio Santos’ return from the disabled list will probably push Janssen back into the seventh or eighth, but that remains a couple weeks off, assuming Santos suffers no setbacks from an inflamed pitching (right) shoulder, which isn’t a given. It’s always a good rule of thumb to hold onto a replacement stopper until his successor is back and pitching well.

As with Cordero, Athletics right-hander Grant Balfour has lost his mojo without his once-strong strikeout rate (just 6.88 K/9 so far in 2012). The struggle to find punch-outs has led Balfour to a handful of meltdowns and an eventual demotion in favor of old friend Brian Fuentes (Yahoo! 39%, ESPN 28.8%, CBS 38%). The left-hander no doubt inspires fury among fantasy owners who’ve learned the hard way not to play with fire in years past. However, Fuentes is showing improved control (1.29 BB/9) through the season’s first month-plus, and while the obligatory sample-size warning is necessary here, it’s interesting nonetheless. There are worse owns out there than an average-ish closer who pitches in a huge home ballpark, and if you’re desperately chasing saves, you can hang your hat on the hope that maybe the significant cut in free passes is real.

My apologies to journeyman Dale Thayer (Yahoo! 31%, ESPN 36.6%, CBS 29%), whom I relegated to NL-only VP status last week. Thayer has emerged from the Padres’ closing quagmire as the quintessential darkhorse success story, pulling rank on the younger and more talented Andrew Cashner and Luke Gregerson to nab three saves in Huston Street’s absence. I’m not entirely convinced that the 31-year-old, who had 26 big league innings on his ledger prior to this season, won’t hit a rough patch, but small sample sizes have a funny way of helping some relievers and hurting others… oh, and Petco Park doesn’t hurt either. Thayer is unowned in roughly two-thirds of leagues, so nab him if you can and ride him out until Street is back.

No one seems to want to close for the White Sox, including Chris Sale, the one guy who was good enough to run with the job. The South Siders moved Sale out of the rotation and into the bullpen last week, an experiment that lasted exactly one relief outing before Sale sat down with his employers and explained to them the difference in value between 160-plus innings and 60-plus innings. So once again Sale is a starter, leaving things to the good-on-paper trio of Matt Thornton (Yahoo! 31%, ESPN 9.3%, CBS 16%), Addison Reed (Yahoo! 37%, ESPN 27.4%, CBS 46%), and Hector Santiago (Yahoo! 17%, ESPN 11.2%, CBS 17%).

Each has struggled at times this season, and Robin Ventura called it a three-man closing committee, so expect some frustration along the way if you pick up one or more of these guys. Reed, a rookie, is the trendiest pick of the bunch, boasting knockout stuff (12.71 K/9) and a neat resume that included stops at five professional levels last season after being drafted in 2010. The right-hander was bombed for six earned against the Royals in just one-third of an inning on Sunday, but Ventura showed guts by going right back to him for a save opportunity on Monday, which Reed converted with only a little drama.

The Marlins are six weeks into their three-year, $27 million pact with Heath Bell, and they already seem to have a huge albacore albatross on their hands. Heater’s well-documented struggles led to a one-outing demotion from closing, after which he was reinstalled as the stopper. In his first appearance after reclaiming the title, he turned in a clunker against the Mets in a non-save situation, and now we don’t know where things stand. The Fish obviously want to make the most of their investment in Bell, but how long can they tolerate his poor pitching? Steve Cishek (Yahoo! 25%, ESPN 15.6%, CBS 46%) and Edward Mujica (Yahoo! 7%, ESPN 3.6%, CBS 12%) remain decent owns while Bell “figures it out.”

AL-Only VP
While Fuentes takes the handoff from Balfour, 25-year-old Ryan Cook (Yahoo! 12%, ESPN 1.3%, CBS 10%) looms in Oakland’s bullpen. The right-hander has struck out nearly a batter per inning, and while his 0.00 ERA is a total mirage (2.34 FIP), he’s still a better option than either of the aforementioned veterans, in all likelihood.

NL-Only VP
Frank Francisco continues to struggle in his first year with the Mets, and though manager Terry Collins has showed a lot of faith in him, you have to wonder if the good will has its limits. There are a few alternatives the Mets could turn to, but Bobby Parnell (Yahoo! 3%, ESPN 0.6%, CBS 5%) is clearly the best among them. He’s discovered control this season (1.62 BB/9) to go along with his previously strong strikeout and groundball rates.

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