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May 6, 2005

Fantasy Focus

Factoring in Defense

by Jeff Erickson

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As fantasy players, when we analyze position players, we first look at their offensive numbers, then look at their playing time projection, and finally consider the team's long-term plans for that player. Most often the analysis stops there, without a look at the player's defensive skills. From a fantasy perspective, that's usually appropriate. After all, unlike in Strat-o-Matic, Scoresheet or other simulation games, defense isn't factored into the scoring.

What's lost in all of this is how defense can affect a position player's playing time, particularly when that player is young and the team's manager is of the "old school" variety. The premise here is that the manager in question won't make a personnel move that has the potential to embarrass him, even if that move is technically correct. A young player who is shaky defensively or strikes out a lot at the plate tends to be considered less "professional" and doesn't look the part. Even if he has the potential to out-produce the proven veteran, the youngster will lose out. Rotowire's Chris Liss wrote an article about this concept back in 2001. [Subscription required]

Applying the concept to the current landscape, two franchises fit this profile. Dusty Baker has shown a reluctance to play young players or players he's unfamiliar with, even when the alternatives include the likes of Lenny Harris and Jose Macias. Two years ago he buried Mark Bellhorn when Bellhorn got off to a slow start, one that included a lot of strikeouts due to his patient approach at the plate. He instead played Harris far more than is reasonable. Last year, Baker didn't give either David Kelton or Jason Dubois much of an opportunity in right field during Sammy Sosa's absence, instead opting to use Macias.

Fast-forward to 2005, where we see Dubois getting benched more often than not in favor of Todd Hollandsworth. Despite Dubois outhitting Hollandsworth, Baker has resisted playing the younger man more often, latching onto two misplays in the outfield by Dubois as justification. Don't be surprised if Baker is slow to change his mind on the current playing time allocation among his left fielders.

At least the Cubs have the excuse of trying to compete right now and the expectation that they will be in the playoff hunt. That situation doesn't apply in Tampa Bay, where despite a three-game winning streak the Devil Rays are tied for last place in the AL East. Manager Lou Piniella has never been one to tolerate mistakes lightly, and he has to be tired of the losing climate in the Trop. By most accounts, neither B.J. Upton nor Joey Gathright are steady defensive players. Upton has already committed 15 errors at Triple-A Durham after struggling in the field upon his call-up last season. In his short tenure with the Rays in April, Gathright made a couple of awful plays in the outfield, spurring his demotion. The decision to keep Upton in the minors makes a little bit more sense when you factor in the financial ramifications of delaying his service time, and that the Rays currently have the adequate Julio Lugo manning shortstop. However, keeping Gathright in the minors while playing Alex Sanchez is the mark of a losing franchise. It's not as if there's a potential upside of Sanchez to discover, or that Sanchez is even a good defensive outfielder. His paths to fly balls have been described as "creative," at best. At worst, he's elicited comparisons to Lonnie Smith. (This critique of Sanchez is ill-timed coming on the heels of his performance on Thursday night.) Nonetheless, while Gathright really should be trying his wares at the major-league level, it's unlikely we'll see him soon, barring an injury, because of his defense.

Fantasy Production on Losing Teams

When the Pirates beat the Diamondbacks 6-2 on Thursday night, it ended a remarkable streak. In the Pirates' first 10 wins of the season, Jose Mesa had gotten the save in each. So far, my prediction that Mesa would lose his job has been grievously, tragically wrong, as he's pitched well beyond expectation. Still, his success serves to illustrate the point that you can find fantasy value, and even bargains, on losing teams. This is especially true with closers, even on the worst teams. Look at it this way: unless a team is historically bad it's going to win at least 60 games. It's not a logical leap to suggest that they won't be blowing out their opponents when they do win, so a greater percentage of their wins will offer save chances. Even the worst teams will give their closers 35 to 40 save opportunities.

The converse can also be true. As good as the Red Sox were in 2004, Keith Foulke got just 39 save chances, converting 32 of them. The problem wasn't with Foulke, but rather how the Red Sox used him, and more importantly, how often the Red Sox beat their opponents by more than three runs because of the strength of their offense.

Closing Time

Armando Benitez's torn hamstring will keep him out for a minimum of four months, and in his wake the Giants are left with a committee to close. So far, Jim Brower appears to be Felipe Alou's first choice, but he has already blown one save and allowed a run in his other save opportunity.

Who should be the Giants' closer? Looking at the current choices, nobody stands out as being particularly closer-worthy. What's particularly striking was that according to BP's Reliever Run Expectation Report, Benitez had been the Giants' worst reliever so far this season (all caveats about sample size still apply).


Pitcher               IP    ERA   K/BB   2005 ARP   2004 ARP
Jason Christiansen   9.1   2.89    3/1     4.1       -3.0
Jim Brower          13.1   5.40    7/7     3.3       19.6
Scott Eyre          11.0   3.27   10/7     0.7        6.0
Matt Herges         11.0   4.09    4/4     0.1      -13.8
Jeff Fassero        11.2   2.31    6/5    -0.1        2.3
Tyler Walker        12.0   3.75   9/10    -1.8        4.5
What stands out here? Brower was clearly the best reliever among this bunch (and also more reliable than Dustin Hermanson, now with the White Sox) last year, and among the top 25 relievers overall last season. He hasn't been as effective this year, but still not as bad as his ERA might indicate. There's not a good strikeout to walk rate among the bunch. It's not surprising to see that Matt Herges lost the closing job last season on merit.

The Giants have already said that their solution will come from within, rather than via the trade market. If none of the current options in the bullpen are that appealing, and if the Giants eventually settle on one guy (by no means a given), what are their other options? David Aardsma was their first-round pick in 2003 and is projected to eventually close, but his quick transition from college to the majors hasn't gone as smoothly as that of some of his peers (Chad Cordero, Ryan Wagner, Huston Street). He doesn't appear to be ready to come back up anytime soon. The Giants recently recalled Jeremy Accardo from Double-A Norwich, where he was pitching well as the Navigators' closer and had closed at high-A San Jose the year before. He'll need to gain the confidence of manager Felipe Alou before he's inserted into high-leverage situations, but for now he's worth adding to your watchlist.

Finally, I'd be curious to see if either Jerome Williams or Jesse Foppert could successfully handle the role. Both have stalled as starters, either for performance or for injury reasons. Could they make the transition to closing like Eric Gagne did with the Dodgers? That potential exists, although it's going to be a while before we see that happen. The Giants are committed to developing both as starters, and Foppert has the added complication of a blister problem that's forced him to miss his last two starts for Triple-A Fresno.

Jeff Erickson is the senior editor at Rotowire, and the host of XM Radio's "Fantasy Focus," heard every weekday at 2 p.m. ET on XM Channel 175. He can be reached here.

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