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May 6, 2006

Fantasy Focus

Speculating

by Jeff Erickson

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One of the quickest ways to earn a few free points or some valuable trade chits in most forms of fantasy baseball is to identify and acquire future closers before they get the job. If your timing is right, they come cheaply, which is especially important for those of you who use free agent acquisition budgets (FAAB) to get unowned players. If they end up not getting the job or are otherwise ineffective, the cost to release them is fairly small. Just two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to nab Akinori Otsuka for $2 of my $100 budget in the RotoWire Staff League.

Of course, it's not all luck; you need to know what signs to look for. Here are a few:

    This is the obvious one, but it's a good starting point. You should periodically take an inventory of each team's closing situation. At RotoWire we have our Closer's Grid, which is frequently updated with information about each team's closer(s) and set-up men. If you're looking for data on how those pitchers are performing, go to Baseball Prospectus' "Relievers Expected Runs" report.

  • Viable alternatives in the bullpen. Speculating on a closer situation only works if the replacements available can actually do the job. That's why the Devil Rays have been such a frustrating team. Dan Miceli has been awful, but the alternatives--Shawn Camp, Tyler Walker--aren't much better.

  • Pay attention to managerial tendencies. Does the manager have a history of swapping out closers when they struggle? Is he willing to give a young pitcher a chance, or does he, by default, go to the next available veteran? A manager like Bobby Cox, for instance, has used a wide variety of closers in the past, some with little experience in the role or even in the majors. Perhaps he'll be a little more willing to use an unconventional choice.

  • If all else fails, managers tend to go with fastball pitchers (regardless of their component stats) over others, and they tend to go with right-handers over left-handers. This isn't a sweeping generalization, obviously, but if you don't have a good read on a situation, this can be a good starting point.

Those are the basics, now let's name names. Here are a few shaky (and in one case, deposed) closers and their potential replacements.

  • Eddie Guardado, Mariners - After Guardado's latest blown save, coming on a homer against the White Sox on Wednesday, manager Mike Hargrove announced that Guardado had lost the closer's job. He's given up four homers in 9 2/3 innings, blowing three saves and walking seven batters in that span. Hargrove intends to use a committee of sorts to replace Guardado, one headed by Rafael Soriano and J.J. Putz, with George Sherrill occasionally factoring in when a lefty is called for. Often when a manager suggests that he'll use a committee, he's just avoiding naming one guy, and in practice one guy will emerge with that job. Both Soriano and Putz have pitched well this year, ranking in the top 10 in Adjusted Runs Prevented. Putz might be the leading candidate, merely because he closed in the past when Guardado was hurt, but he also has had a tendency to walk more batters in the past (albeit not this year). Watch the first couple of save situations closely here, but go out and get both pitchers if possible; even if they don't close, their strikeouts and good rate stats should help you.

  • Jason Isringhausen, Cardinals - Isringhausen has blown two saves and served up three homers while walking twice as many batters as he's struck out in this young season. He also has a troubling injury history. Izzy does have a track record of success with the Cardinals, so he'll likely get a long rope with manager Tony La Russa, but it's useful to look at the alternatives. Braden Looper signed a three-year deal in the offseason to be Isringhausen's set-up man; he's pitched well so far and is probably the top option, but outside of 2004 with the Mets he has a mediocre track record as a closer. It's worth your time to look at other options, one of whom is Brad Thompson. Prospect followers may remember him from his remarkable 49-inning shutout streak in Double-A in 2004, when he was a starter. He's since been converted to relief work, and he's handled the transition well. Like Looper, however, the one negative about Thompson is a fairly low strikeout rate. The final candidate in the Cardinals bullpen is another converted starting pitcher, Adam Wainwright, who actually scores highest so far among Cardinal relievers in Adjusted Runs Prevented.

  • Chris Reitsma, Braves - Reitsma has stabilized recently after a rocky start to the season, but he's had the job and lost it once before, and the Braves have expressed reservations about keeping him in that role. With heir apparent Joey Devine still battling control problems, it's time to think about another solution. Oscar Villarreal seems to be the first, but a poor strikeout-to-walk ratio (6/7) and groundball/flyball ratio may indicate that he's not the best. One darkhorse may be Ken Ray, a journeyman who's getting his first taste of the majors since 1999. His strikeout rate and fastball make him intriguing, although I'd like to see a lower walk rate. Don't let his lack of pedigree scare you away; this is an organization that has used the likes of Greg McMichael and Kerry Ligtenberg in this role.

  • David Weathers, Reds - The Reds opened the year paying lip service to the idea of closer by committee, a situation that has evolved into Weathers being the closer. He's actually pitched better than expected, converting eight of nine save chances so far, but his career stats indicate that he's better suited to a set-up role. Still, that's not what makes his job shaky; it's that for the first time in a year, there's actually a viable alternative in Todd Coffey. Last year, Coffey struck out just 26 batters in 58 innings, allowing 84 hits. This spring, Coffey added a split-finger fastball to his repertoire and has increased his strikeout rate to an acceptable level, cutting down on his hits allowed in the process. Weathers won't be replaced by Coffey without a few bad outings, but those type of outings are likely to come. It just might take a couple of months.

  • Danys Baez, Dodgers - After a great start to the season, Baez's last two outings against a formerly punchless Padres team have been rather inglorious, with a blown save on Sunday and a bad outing in a non-save situation on Wednesday. He's not necessarily a threat to lose his job now, and Eric Gagne is due back in another month. Still, there's another alternative that you should be paying attention to in Jonathan Broxton. Broxton got a taste of the majors last year, and while control was a problem (12 walks in 13 2/3 innings), his upside also was readily apparent (22 strikeouts). Broxton, who was converted to relief work last year, got off to a great start in Triple-A Las Vegas this season and could very well be closing by August or September, if Gagne can't return to form after his latest surgery.

Not all of these possibilities will come to fruition, but that's not the point. It's worth your time to speculate on these players now, before they get the job, when the acquisition cost is low.

Related Content:  Managers Of The Year

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