April 22, 2010
Hot Spots: Relief Pitchers
As you may have seen from the other Hot Spots pieces this week, our Value Picks list is going to be somewhat of a living document, with players added (in green) and dropped (in yellow) as circumstances require. So for this week, we start by waving goodbye to Fernando Rodney and Ramon Troncoso, though for very different reasons. Rodney's actually been very effective for the Angels, ranking second in the AL in saves while filling in for Brian Fuentes. That said, Rodney is no longer a secret (a full quarter of ESPN teams picked him up in the last week alone) and Fuentes is now back to reclaim his closer duties. Fuentes is hardly the most reliable guy around (he blew a lead in his first game back), so Rodney will probably still get his chances, but he no longer fits on this list. Staying in Los Angeles, Ramon Troncoso merited notice last week since the tattered Dodger bullpen and Joe Torre's misuse of Jonathan Broxton put him into position to steal some save opportunities. With George Sherrill seemingly turning it around and Hong-Chih Kuo & Ronald Belisario each returning to the active roster this week, the small fantasy value Troncoso may have had is gone.
As for who's joining us this week, well, I guess I can't get as lucky as I did last week, when we had two closer injuries and two closer demotions, can I? So today we're looking deeper, and by "deeper", I mean "two guys who are owned in less than 1% of ESPN leagues." Let's start with Juan Gutierrez of Arizona, where the drumbeats started pounding when Chad Qualls allowed runs in 4 of his first 6 games, including back-to-back blown saves against the Dodgers. Remember, this isn't just a fickle fanbase reacting to a bad week, because we have some history here: Qualls is coming back from a dislocated kneecap which ended his 2009 and required surgery, and we've already seen Gutierrez succeed in the role. Tapped as the Arizona closer for the final month after Qualls went down, Gutierrez sparkled in accumulating 8 saves and a win in 12 games through the end of the season - allowing just a .528 OPS in that time. So when you've got a veteran coming off a serious injury who gets off to a bad start, and there's a 26-year-old behind him with a nice track record and heat that averages 95 mph, it doesn't take much to get the controversy growing.
It quieted briefly as Qualls finally put together his first clean inning of the season on Tuesday, while Gutierrez had his season ERA trashed by one bad outing. That said, Qualls entered a tie game last night and promptly allowed a homer and 3 runs in just 0.1 IP, pushing his ERA over 10 and his WHIP to 2.400. There's no indication that he's not healthy, though it is disconcerting to see that his fastball velocity is down 1.5 mph from last year. Even if he's not injured, his time looks like it's growing short, and Gutierrez is still available in 99.8% of ESPN.com leagues. You want a deep sleeper? This is a power arm who showed he can do the job last year, with a tenuous incumbent in front of him, and almost no one knows about him. In the meantime, he's tied for third in baseball in holds, so there's some value while you wait.
Qualls and Gutierrez came to Arizona together in the trade that brought Jose Valverde to Houston. Valverde's now in Detroit, and there's where we're headed as well to discuss his setup man, Ryan Perry. Still just 23, Perry brings the heat as well - averaging 96.1 mph on the fastball this year - and Heater expert Lee Panas notes that he's likely first in line for saves when Valverde is unavailable. Valverde's off to a fine start, and with his big contract he's not going anywhere unless he gets injured. Still, it's worth noting that his strikeout rate has fallen for 5 years in a row, and his walk rate has risen 3 years in a row. While Perry waits his turn, he'll be racking up holds (he has 4 already), the odd save here and there (1 so far), and he's owned by just 0.5% of ESPN players.
As for our returnees this week, Kevin Gregg quickly took the official closer label from Jason Frasor, and he's been excellent so far - adding a 1.42 ERA and 0.63 WHIP to his 4 saves. This is probably his last week on the list, but the fact is that he's still available in nearly 40% of both ESPN and Yahoo leagues, and the man has yet to walk a batter. In Baltimore, Jim Johnson hasn't been nearly as successful as Gregg, though of course the 2-14 Orioles are putrid all around. Johnson has just 1 save and a 6.75 ERA, but he does have two things in his favor. First, he has opportunity, since Mike Gonzalez is headed to visit Dr. James Andrews and will be out for several more weeks at the least, and secondly his peripherals are all pointing in the right direction, since he's put up a 6/1 K/BB mark and allowed no homers in 5.1 innings. He's not worth a roster spot right now, but worth keeping an eye on. Finally, I've always liked Jeremy Affeldt as somewhat of a fantasy utility man, if such a thing exists for pitchers. He led baseball in holds last year, and this year he's already grabbed two wins and a save out of the Giants bullpen.