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April 22, 2007

Fantasy Focus

Bullpen Speculating

by Jeff Erickson

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It pays to speculate on bullpen situations, even when the team in question has a stable closer. Witness the events of last weekend--one day B.J. Ryan is blowing the save, and he's off to the DL the next. Jason Frasor and Shaun Marcum weren't commonly sought after set-up men, but if you were tracking them beforehand, you could see that they had some potential to be valuable if given the right role. The problem is, once Frasor was named the closer, he might have already been gone, at least in AL-only leagues and some of the deeper mixed leagues. That's because in virtually every league, there are owners out there actively going after the relievers showing the best skills, even if those pitchers don't even have the speculative "closer-in-waiting" job. I lucked into Frasor a week before Ryan's injury in my two AL-only leagues, when the FAAB (Free Agent Acquisition Budget) cost was much lower.

That's the goal here--your should be going out and bidding on these relievers with good skills before they get the valuable role. Not only does the possibility of acquiring saves cheaply exist, but also the pitchers that you end up with playing for these stakes rarely hurt you when they aren't in the closer's role. The pitchers you're chasing here have high strikeout rates, so they can even give you a little bonus in that category. Even if you don't need saves currently, getting that extra closer can help you trade for what you really need at some point during the season. If you're in an AL- or NL-only league, you already know how thin the waiver wire is for finding hitting talent. For example, in the NL LABR experts' league, a 13-team NL only league, there's a grand total of one homer (Brayan Pena) and one stolen base (Rob Bowen) accumulated so far by the existing hitter free agents. You have a much better chance of stumbling upon a closer and trading for a bat than to add that extra hitter through free-agent bidding.

One note of caution--this process works much better the deeper you get. In a 10-team mixed league, you won't need to dig too deep to find some of these players, and you shouldn't use up more than one roster spot on a speculative reliever. This is because the replacement value of the next-best starter or reliever on the waiver wire is much higher. So again, this approach works much better the deeper into the player pool that you get.

Because this article is going to try to address those deeper leagues more directly, we're also going to avoid some of the more obvious closers-in-waiting. Pitchers like Joel Zumaya, Akinori Otsuka, Scott Linebrink, and Rafael Soriano are undoubtedly owned already in most leagues. Instead, I'd like to address the next level down, although even here there's a risk that some of these pitchers, like Frasor, have been snagged already. Because we're trying to get the jump on the competition in getting some of these pitchers, we run the risk of relying upon a way too small sample to have certainty, but hopefully data from previous seasons will indicate that this sort of success was possible.

AL Players

Brian Bruney: Bruney has actually closed before--in 2005 he had 12 saves with the Diamondbacks. Granted, he lost the job there; like Jorge Julio, he's had issues with his control. Even last year with the Yankees, when he posted a 0.87 ERA in 20.2 innings, he had a whopping 15 walks. Still, his 11 strikeouts in 8.1 innings this year aren't a fluke--he's struck out 110 batters over 98 career major league innings. He's a better closer-in-waiting candidate than Luis Vizcaino, who just took the eighth-inning role over the faltering Kyle Farnsworth.

Fernando Cabrera: Cabrera was a trendy relief prospect heading into 2006, but it unraveled for him quickly. He got hit hard on Opening Day, and went on the DL with a heel problem in April. His participation in the World Baseball Classic, and the resulting disruption in his spring training routine was cited a cause of his problems--there's no way to prove that assertion, but he certainly wasn't the only WBC participant to follow that exhibition up with a poor season in the games that counted in the MLB standings. He's off to a much better start in 2007, already throwing 6.2 scoreless innings and striking out eight batters in the process. One note of caution--he gave up 12 homers last year, and he's still a flyball pitcher, so that might dissuade Eric Wedge from using him as a closer in the event that Joe Borowski gets hurt.

David Aardsma: Aardsma's hot start (and apparently, his hot sister) spurred a mini bidding war in the AL Tout Wars league, and that was before his outstanding two-inning performance against Cleveland on Sunday. Aardsma is interesting because he was among a class of college closers a few years ago that were drafted early and promoted quickly by their major league teams. Some, like Huston Street and Chad Cordero, worked out, whereas Aardsma and Ryan Wagner struggled badly once they hit the major leagues. Like Bruney, Aardsma's control problems and flyball tendencies have hurt him badly in previous seasons. This year he's already whiffed 15 batters in 10 innings while walking four. Aardsma's biggest problem might be that even if Bobby Jenks needs to go on the DL, he's not next in line--Mike MacDougal is, and MacDougal has pitched well in all but one outing so far this year.

John Parrish: Parrish has been outstanding so far, striking out 13 while walking two in 7.2 innings, and not yet allowing a run. His success illustrates why it's so silly that the Orioles felt the need to carry both Brian Burres and Kurt Binkins among their 13 pitchers on the roster to begin the season. Like Aardsma, Parrish has other, more expensive alternatives in front of him should Chris Ray falter, but it's hard to ignore what he's done so far.

Joaquin Benoit: Like the others on this list, Benoit isn't the first option to close if the incumbent, Eric Gagne, goes down (again)--Akinori Otsuka is that man. But that's why Benoit might be available in the first place, and Benoit's skills are what makes him roster-able in the first place. He struck out 85 batters in 79.2 innings last year and he's off to a good start this year.

Pat Neshek: The Twins have a wealth of usable arms in their bullpen, but besides Joe Nathan, Neshek might be the most intimidating of them, particularly against right-handed hitters that step in against him. Neshek was death on righties last year, allowing only a 311 OPS against them. Lefties had less trouble with his delivery, so he has some vulnerability there, and he's also flyball-prone, giving up six homers in 37 innings last year. Jesse Crain has had shoulder problems and Juan Rincon has had back troubles this year, so if something happens to Nathan, it might be Neshek that gets the call.

NL Players

Jon Rauch: The Nationals aren't going to win this year, they're not going to win next year, and even winning in 2009 might be a dicey proposition. There's nothing wrong with Chad Cordero as a closer, but he's starting to get more expensive ($4.15 million in salary this year) and has two more arbitration years remaining ahead of him. By the time the Nats are ready to win, Cordero is going to be eligible for free agency. There's a pretty strong argument that they'd be a lot better off trying to trade Cordero now, while his value might be at his peak, and get more building blocks for the future in return. Meanwhile, Rauch has really settled in as a reliever with the Nats after a bumpy start to his major league career. He has a slight gopherball tendency, but his strikeout and walk rates are closer-worthy, and he's had plenty of experience pitching late in games. Also working in his favor is the lack of other viable options in the Nats' bullpen.

Brandon Lyon: Jose Valverde is flying high right now, and I'm on record as being a big believer in him, but the truth is that he's lost the job before, both through injury and by his performance. Lyon doesn't have the strikeout rate of some of the other pitchers on this list, but he makes up for that with a decent groundball rate and late-inning experience. I probably like him less than most of the others I've listed, but he'd likely be the next option for the Snakes should the opportunity arise. For a different perspective, check out how well he ranks so far this year on BP's Relievers Expected Wins Added chart.

Michael Wuertz: I've touted Bobby Howry in this space earlier, or at the very least expressed a lack of confidence in Ryan Dempster. In many leagues, however, Howry has already been rostered. Wuertz, on the other hand, is available in nearly all but the deepest of leagues. He's been electric so far, striking out 10 in 7.1 innings, including a Houdini-like escape from a no-outs, bases-loaded jam against the Reds last week. Under the new managerial regime in place, he should have earned more confidence from his new manager, Lou Piniella, than he did under the old one, Dusty Baker. Wuertz has the skills to close, and his outing last week might indicate he has the makeup for it as well.

Heath Bell: Bell has not one but two relievers ahead of him on the Padres' totem pole should anything happen to Trevor Hoffman, as Scott Linebrink and Cla Meredith stand higher up. There's nothing wrong with either pitcher, but Bell has gone far to put himself in that class. He hasn't given up a run over 8.2 innings so far, striking out nine, walking none and allowing only four hits. His minor league numbers with the Mets indicated that he could do this, even though he had failed with them at the major league level in a couple of stints. The one perplexing stat with Bell last year was that he allowed six homers in 37 innings last year, and that despite having a 2.7/1 groundball/flyball ratio. It's rare to see so many homers hit off of a groundball pitcher, and I would lean towards classifying that as a fluke. Bell got picked up in a number of the NL leagues that I play in last week, so if you want him, you'll probably have to act quickly.

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Jeff Erickson is the Senior Editor at RotoWire, and the host of XM Radio's "Fantasy Focus." He can be reached here.

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Prospectus Q&A: Ted Ku... (04/22)
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