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February 10, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks in the Bullpen

by Mike Petriello

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Welcome back to another week of Value Picks: Extreme Bullpen Edition, where in light of recent events I contemplate trying to determine Ferris Bueller's ADP in a 5x5 money league. As always, I'm happy to look into any particular situations or teams that you bring up in the comments, and replying to such a question from last week is what will kick us off today.

One of our valued commenters raised the question of Jonathan Broxton and the Dodger bullpen last week, and as a Dodger blogger, it's a topic I'm far too familiar with. I've written about the topic so many times, for so many different outlets, that I feel like I barely even need to look up the stats anymore. It's best to break this into three pieces: what happened to Broxton last year, will he still be the closer, and who is if not him?

What happened to Broxton? You'll hear plenty of reasons, ranging from "I looked into his eyes and he doesn't have any heart," to "he crumbles on the big stage and/or against good teams," to "Matt Stairs crushed his soul". While it's probably a bit of an over-simplification despite Stairs' penchant for soul crushing, it's hard to ignore the drastic change in his performance after a midseason week of brutal usage by former manager Joe Torre. After finishing off a non-save situation against the Yankees on June 26, Broxton was almost unquestionably the best closer in the game, having allowed just three earned runs in 32.2 innings, with a fantastic 48/5 K/BB rate. His previous seven outings had come against quality competition in the Yankees, Angels, Red Sox, & Cardinals, none of whom scored against him.

Yet on Sunday Night Baseball on June 27, Broxton imploded in a non-save situation, allowing the Yankees to score four times and tie the game. (It should be noted that first baseman James Loney improperly played a groundball which could have ended the game and alleviated some of that suffering.) Torre left him out there for 48 pitches that night, running his five-day total to 99, not a single one of which had come in a save situation: 99 pitches over five days is essentially a starting pitcher's workload, and Broxton never recovered. Including that Yankee game, he had a 915 OPS against and a 7.15 ERA through the rest of the season, eventually losing his job.

It's perhaps not fair to blame the entire mess on Torre—some studies suggest that Broxton's fastball straightened out and lost some velocity—but it's also hard to ignore the immense difference in his performance before and after that five-day stretch.

Will he be the closer in 2011? New manager Don Mattingly has been adamant that Broxton will go into the season as the closer, and with good reason. If Broxton bounces back, then the Dodgers have a solid bullpen crew ahead of one of the best closers in baseball. If not, they're left with an unreliable and untradeable $7 million setup man. The hope is that a winter of rest and a season away from Torre will rejuvenate him. Specific to the Dodgers, they've seen a successful pitcher go through a rough second half (Chad Billingsley, 2009) only to rebound, and they believe that Broxton's track record of success has earned him the chance to try as well.

If he fails, what then? This is something of a "good news, bad news" situation. By that I mean, the Dodgers are well-prepared if Broxton falls apart, in that they have at least three potential options. Hong-Chih Kuo was absolutely dominant last year, finishing seventh in WXRL despite having the fewest appearances of any of the top 13 relievers. He picked up 12 saves filling in for Broxton, though his injury history (four arm surgeries, including two Tommy Johns) makes him hard to rely on, and the team generally avoids using him on consecutive days. There's also 23-year-old Kenley Jansen, who only converted from catcher to the mound in 2009, yet struck out 41 in his first 27 innings, despite walking five batters per nine innings. Finally, there's some thought that last year's Opening Day starter, Vicente Padilla, may have a say, since his role is something of a hybrid between "sixth starter" and "relief ace".

The bad news is that the multitude of options makes it difficult for fantasy players to know which backup to try and stash. Kuo's dominance makes him a must-own in all formats, and Jansen's high strikeout rate makes him appealing as well. If anything, Broxton's struggles last year probably make him a possibility for an undervalued comeback candidate.

After several years of going with veterans like Billy Wagner, Rafael Soriano, and Mike Gonzalez, the Braves are turning to two fresh faces in 2011: righty Craig Kimbrel and lefty Jonny Venters. The big news this week came from new manager Fredi Gonzalez, who indicated that he may not choose a set closer and could use both in a ninth inning platoon. That set hearts aflutter around the internet, as those who have spent years bemoaning the improper deployment of top relievers in deference to the all-important "save" thought they may have finally found their white knight of leveraged usage.

That's all well and good, but it's also pretty unlikely to happen. Gonzalez is in his first year with the Braves, and Kimbrel and Venters have barely more than 100 total MLB innings between them. He may call it an open competition in camp, but you have to think that sooner or later they're going to settle into their assigned roles and one will emerge. Besides, Gonzalez noted the Soriano/Gonzalez tandem in 2009. What happened that year? Nine of Gonzalez' 10 saves came in the first half, and 21 of Soriano's 27 came in the second. That seems like less of a lefty/righty platoon, and more of an outright replacement.

As for these two, well, let's just say that Venters struck out 93 in 83 IP last year, yet was still blown away by Kimbrel and his historic whiff total. There's no hyperbole there; no one in major league history who has pitched at least 20 innings in a season has ever struck out more per game than Kimbrel's 17.4 in 2010. The only thing holding him back has been his control, since his 5.7 BB/9 in 48 Triple-A games last year matched his career minor league average. That increased to 7.0 BB/9 in the bigs, though that's slightly misleading; he walked 10 in eight early-season games, yet managed to keep it down to five over 12 September outings.

A few September weeks aren't enough to prove that his control issues are behind him, but the outright domination he showed probably is enough to get him the first crack at the job (as David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution predicts), allowing Venters to continue his 2010 role as one of the better setup men in the game. Saves or not, Kimbrel is a must-own simply due to his strikeout potential, and Venters is likely worth a spot in deeper leagues as well.

A quick note on the Baltimore closing situation, since I touched on it more in-depth when Uehara was signed in December and when Kevin Gregg was imported in January. MLB.com's Brittany Ghiroli reports that Uehara enters camp as the closer. While it's hardly an official proclamation from Buck Showalter, I find this notable because I've long been saying that Uehara's the better option, and that as long as he's healthy he'll outperform Gregg. It's the "staying healthy" part that's always the trick with Uehara, of course, but I think this is a prime situation where the pitcher who's likely to go higher in drafts due to his save total—Gregg—probably doesn't end up being the most valuable performer. This is definitely an under-the-radar situation to watch.

Mike Petriello is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Jonathan Broxton

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