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April 14, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks in the Bullpen

by Mike Petriello

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Here at Value Picks HQ, we’re back in the swing of things with identifying undervalued assets who are available in 80 percent (or more) of leagues for you to pick up. Of course, if I do my job well, the list here will constantly be shuffling as ownership levels and player performances rise and fall. To that end, our list is split into three sections: guys from the previous week that we’ll be moving on from, guys who are staying with us, and brand new additions. Let’s get started.

Saying Goodbye

Sean Burnett, Washington Nationals

In the week since I noted that he had taken control of the ninth inning from Drew Storen, Burnett picked up two saves in three effective outings, despite being unavailable for a day or two while battling a case of the flu. Burnett’s ownership has jumped by about 25 percent in ESPN leagues, and while that’s enough to knock him off our list, the fact that a full-time closer is owned in less than 40 percent of leagues still makes him a steal if he is available.

Brian Fuentes, Oakland Athletics

Last week, I noted that Fuentes–a guy with the “proven closer” label suddenly given the opportunity to close due to Andrew Bailey’s injury–was freely available in just about every league. At the time, I wondered if it was simply due to his poor season debut performance, because Fuentes’ history and unexpected opportunity made him seem like a great choice for April saves. He has done exactly that, putting up save number five on Wednesday while hardly allowing any baserunners. That has shot up his owned percentage by about 30 percent in the last week alone, and that is likely to rise until Bailey returns.

Joel Peralta, Tampa Bay Rays

We say goodbye to Peralta not because he is suddenly a hot commodity or because he has underperformed, but simply because the circumstances in Tampa have changed. Peralta has been effective to start the season, striking out five without a walk in six appearances entering Wednesday. It’s just that while entering the season Joe Maddon claimed that his ninth inning would be a committee; it has becoming increasingly clear that Kyle Farnsworth is going to be first in line, with Peralta setting up. I’ll have more on Farnsworth in a minute, but for now, Peralta is an effective setup man who doesn’t have a ton of fantasy relevance.

Hanging On

Matt Capps, Minnesota Twins

As expected, Joe Nathan has taken back his job in the ninth inning, where he has been effective but not exactly his dominating self just yet. Capps is also off to a pretty solid start, having allowed just three baserunners in his first 6 1/3 frames. So, the situation here is largely unchanged: Nathan is “the man”, but has not yet been tested with consecutive nights and may not be early on, and Capps is the setup man with closing experience who is the obvious next-in-line on nights Nathan can’t go. Capps is hovering around 10 percent ownership, but could easily vulture saves here and there until Nathan is back to full speed.

Welcome to the Jungle

Kyle Farnsworth, Tampa Bay Rays

On the list of “things I never thought I would do in my life,” touting Kyle Farnsworth as any type of fantasy option was pretty high up on the list. Yet here we are pointing out that the good professor has collected both of Tampa Bay’s saves this year, including an impressive shutdown of the Red Sox in Boston on Tuesday night. Though I still like Jake McGee long-term here, Farnsworth appears to have come out of the odd collection of Tampa’s bullpen assemblage as the short-term option, thus dealing yet another death blow to the idea that any manager will ever really use more than one closer if they don’t have to. (Yes, I’m also looking at you, Fredi Gonzalez.)

In all seriousness, there were signs heading into the season that Farnsworth might be better than we thought, as I noted in January when he was signed:

Back to Farnsworth, who, despite his hilariously shoddy reputation, has managed to make positive strides over the last two seasons with the Royals and Braves. He's managed to limit his walks and homers allowed while keeping his strikeouts high. The volatility of relievers, especially one like Farnsworth, might lead us to believe that there's regression coming, hard and fast. That may still be the case, though BP's own Mike Fast claimsthat Farnsworth has made mechanical adjustments in his mound positioning over the last few seasons that has led him to a more consistent release point. That doesn't make Farnsworth an All-Star, of course, though it's within the realm of believability that a pitcher with his velocity could see quick results if he truly has corrected a flaw.

So far, so good: Farnsworth has struck out four without allowing a walk over his first five appearances, setting down Jacoby Ellsbury, J.D. Drew, and David Ortiz to finish off the Sox on Tuesday. Let’s not pretend that Farnsworth is suddenly a top-flight closer option, but it’s hard to ignore his availability (owned in less than 10 percent of ESPN leagues), his opportunity (seemingly becoming the main ninth inning option), and his recent productivity.

Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox

You probably remember that we went the entire winter going back and forth on whether Sale or Matt Thornton would get the Chicago closing gig, with Thornton finally winning the job near the end of camp. It has now taken all of four appearances for Thornton to seemingly be on the verge of losing that claim, as Ozzie Guillen has publicly stated that Sale, Sergio Santos, and Jesse Crain could all get opportunities, though Thornton will continue to see time as well.

Thornton, no doubt, has not gotten off to the best of starts–though it should be noted that he’s been victimized by some atrocious defense, particularly Juan Pierre’s drop of an easy fly ball earlier this week, so six of the runs against him have been unearned. That doesn’t excuse the fact that he has allowed eleven hits in 4 2/3 innings, of course.  With Thornton’s long history of effectiveness and the extenuating circumstances here, I do expect him to right the ship and reclaim the job long-term.

That being said, Guillen is basically the only manager who might actually use a variety of options in the ninth, at least short-term, and Sale did pick up his first save of the season this week. Of course, Crain, Sale, and Thornton all contributed to the ninth inning collapse on Wednesday afternoon. Sale–in for the save–allowed three consecutive hits to start the inning, Crain followed with a walk and a strikeout, and then Thornton allowed the tying runs to score on a bloop single. He then allowed three more runs to score in the 10th on two walks and two hits, before being relieved himself by Tony Pena.

Bottom line, the entire bullpen is in disarray at the moment, and Wednesday’s disaster particularly hurts Sale, because he had been off to a great start, striking out nine against just one walk. Still, while Wednesday was bad, that alone shouldn’t be enough to torpedo Sale, and there’s definitely opportunity here. Sale is owned in about 15 percent of ESPN leagues at the moment, and his strikeout rate makes him a decent choice to help even aside from the possible save chances.

Mitchell Boggs /Jason Motte / Miguel Batista, St. Louis Cardinals

What a mess. Ryan Franklin has been known in fantasy circles over the last few years as “the guy who’s really not all that good but still gets the job done,” but this year he’s not even that, blowing three of his first four save opportunities. It’s not like he was facing the 1927 Yankees either, since those four games came against the Padres, Pirates, and Giants (twice).  At 38 and without a dominating track record, it’s fair to ask how much leash a guy like that would get, though, to continue to be fair, he has had issues with the defense behind him just as Thornton has.

The problem for fantasy players is that there is no clear alternative to turn to in St. Louis, and a generally infuriating manager when it comes to these things in Tony La Russa. The Cardinal brain trust claims that Franklin’s role is safe for now, which is to be expected and is the right thing to say publicly; however, further in the article, La Russa claims that neither Boggs nor Motte are ready and that he might turn to Miguel Batista as the first replacement. Yes, that Miguel Batista, the one who made his major-league debut in a 1992 game that had three other participants who have already been managers or general managers by now. (Go on, name them without looking.) Batista does have one outlier 31-save season on his resume for the 2005 Blue Jays, but has just ten other saves in the other sixteen years of his career.

For what it’s worth, Roger Hensley of StlToday.com polled five other St. Louis media members on who should take the job if Franklin can’t cut it, and four said Boggs, who is off to a good start with nine strikeouts in six innings, with one pointing to Batista. Fantasy players should hold tight for now, because Franklin will get a little more rope, and then closely watch whether La Russa goes off the deep end with Batista or not.

David Aardsma, Seattle Mariners

I’m cheating here slightly, because Aardsma is just above our 20 percent threshold after falling 18 percent in the last week, but it’s worth noting here that he is making good progress in his return from hip surgery, throwing 27 pitches in a simulated inning on Tuesday. He’ll throw two more innings on Friday and, if there’s no setback, he’ll head out on a rehab stint and could join the team by the end of the month. Brandon League is off to a solid enough start as the replacement, but manager Eric Wedge has been clear that Aardsma gets his job back when he’s healthy. If you’ve got a spare DL spot, you could do worse than to stash Aardsma there rather than let it sit empty.

Mike Petriello is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Span and Sain and Pray... (04/14)
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