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October 1, 2012

Value Picks

Relievers Review

by Dan Mennella

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Analyzing fantasy relievers is a strange proposition. I’ve done it for a couple seasons now, and it’s been my experience that no matter how much I think I know, there’s always an interesting plot twist that makes me rethink my understanding of how relievers are handled and how save opportunities are divvied up. It’s an inexact science, to be sure, but that’s what makes it challenging and fun… and sometimes frustrating. In that spirit, here’s a look back at some of my good and bad touts and what we might be able to learn from them with an eye toward 2013.

Hits
When Joakim Soria was lost for the season in spring training, I liked Greg Holland to start the year as the Royals’ closer. Instead, the Royals went with Jonathan Broxton in what I thought was a mild upset. But with Broxton signed to a one-year deal, he was an obvious trade candidate leading up to the deadline, meaning the Royals would likely be naming a new closer no later than August 1.

The primary candidates for the vacancy were Holland and Aaron Crow. I was in Camp Holland, only because I know the Royals have vacillated on finding a role for Crow (a starter in college and in his year in an independent league) since they drafted him. Sure enough, Holland got the job when Brox was flipped to the Reds, and fantasy owners who scooped him up have turned a nice profit (15 saves, 2.05 ERA through Sunday). Holland has knockout stuff and has proven quite capable of closing, but he’ll probably return to a setup role next season unless Soria is no longer with the team or doesn’t rebound from his surgery.

I don’t mean to make light of an injury, but when Twins closer Matt Capps was sidelined for the bulk of the summer due to a bum shoulder, it spared his owners the agony of absorbing Capps’ inevitable slump after his surprisingly clean start to the season. Hopefully those owners nabbed his replacement, Glen Perkins… or should I say co-replacement. It took a little while for Perkins to wrestle away sole possession of the job; he and Jared Burton were initially mired in a platoon, but manager Ron Gardenhire eventually ended the madness and made things easier on us fantasy types.

A former starter, Perkins first elbowed his way into closer consideration in 2011 when Joe Nathan was still feeling the effects of 2010 Tommy John surgery and Capps was, well, Capps. Perkins pitched well then and did so again this year. After bringing stability to the ninth inning in back-to-back seasons, Perkins seems to have earned the right to own the job heading into 2013, although I’m not 100 percent confident the Twins will see it that way. Teams can be funny about using lefty closers, and of course an offseason of potential transactions sits between the end of another brutal campaign in Minnesota and the start of spring training. If the Twins are building shrewdly, however, they can pass on acquiring a new closer because they already have a good one in Perkins. There’s a good chance fantasy owners will be able to target Perkins as one of those under-the-radar, late-round value closers next spring.

Misses
Countless were the occasions that I predicted the long-coming demise of Tigers closer Jose Valverde this season, but to his credit and my chagrin, it never came to pass. Joaquin Benoit, therefore, remained a must-own in holds leagues only. Valverde actually settled down (somewhat) after a miserable start to the season, but his late-season struggles lend merit to the speculation that he’s nearing the end of the line as a closer in the major leagues. Some guys burn out and others rust, I suppose.

The lesson here? I’m not sure there is one, necessarily. Jim Leyland has plenty of detractors, but I don’t watch him manage on a day-to-day basis, so it’d be unfair for me to say definitively that Valverde held on by virtue of Leyland’s blind loyalty. More likely, I’d guess it was a matter of Leyland and the Tigers’ braintrust realizing that swapping Benoit into the ninth and Valverde into the seventh or eighth would have amounted to a glorified rearrangement of deck chairs. That is to say, Benoit would have been a better option in the ninth, but Valverde could blow a game just as easily in the seventh or eighth. Of course, the Kevin Gregg treatment wasn’t really an option either. Valverde didn’t pitch that poorly, his $9 million salary made such a move unpalatable, and frankly, the Tigers’ bullpen was too thin.

Hindsight being what it is, the Giants’ late-season closer committee makes perfect sense. After all, they used one last season when Brian Wilson missed a chunk of the summer due to various injuries. When The Beard again went down this season, San Fran first defaulted to Santiago Casilla, who pitched very well for several weeks before slumping badly. Who would be next? My guess was dependable veteran Jeremy Affeldt, and in fact, the Giants’ first couple of save chances after Casilla’s demotion went to Affeldt. The left-hander stumbled too, though, opening the door for the Giants and Bruce Bochy to once again show everyone how progressive they are with what some might call a saber bullpen.

Basically, the Giants played the matchups in the ninth inning throughout August and September, using Javier Lopez against lefties and Sergio Romo against righties—and leaving Affeldt on the outside looking in. Simple enough. Will the Giants stick with this arrangement for the long-term? To arrive at an answer is not as simple as looking at the results—in which case, you’d be inclined to say yes. Wilson is under team control through next season, and it’s fair to assume he’ll get his job back if he returns healthy.

I nothing else, it never hurts to keep tabs on which organizations are adopting (or are at least receptive to) alternative strategies that make things difficult on us as fantasy owners. The Giants have done it two years running now, as have the White Sox, and with progressive front offices becoming the norm rather than the exception, I have to think we’ll see more teams following suit.

On a personal note, I’d like to conclude by thanking the BP audience for the privilege of producing content for the sharpest and most discerning readers out there. This column was a labor of love, a body of work I’m proud of but that I look forward to refining and improving in the future.

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