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May 19, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks in the Bullpen

by Mike Petriello

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I’m sure I’ve said this before, but every week in this space I search for hidden saves to help fantasy players win their leagues, all the while knowing that in the real world, the save is a basically meaningless stat that has often caused managers to improperly use their best relievers. There’s no better example of this than the fact that the two teams with the highest save percentage as of Wednesday are the Phillies and the Dodgers, despite each team being on at least their third closer due to injuries and ineffectiveness. Still, this was a good week for

Joining the Party

Nick Masset, Reds (0.1 percent ESPN / 2 percent Yahoo)
I have to admit that I was pretty down on Cincinnati closer Francisco Cordero before the season, expecting for sure that at 36, he’d continue the downward trend we’ve seen in recent years and abdicate the throne to Aroldis Chapman and his cartoon fastballs. Yet here we are in mid-May and Cordero has been excellent, having blown just one save, while Chapman finds himself back in the minors after completely losing the ability to throw strikes.

Chapman may or may not find himself in Louisville, but I’m still worried that Cordero is in for a major fall, because his peripherals just do not support a 1.86 ERA. For the fourth year in a row, his strikeout rate per nine innings has fallen, down fifty percent from 12.2 in 2007 to 6.1 this year. His fastball velocity, which once topped out around 96 MPH, is now averaging just above 92 MPH.  He has  been saved this year by an exceptionally low .204 BABIP, which is even more of an outlier when you realize that this is a guy who had a consistent BABIP between .294 and .316 in each of the last seven seasons.  He has also been helped by a lower walk rate, just 2.8 per nine this year after years over four, but it’s hard to believe he has suddenly found a new skill there when his career rate is 4.2 per nine. Whenever you see a 36-year-old who isn’t throwing as hard, is striking out fewer while allowing the highest contact rate of his career, and is getting by mostly on unsustainable balls in play, you have to worry that regression could come quickly and loudly.

That is why Masset comes into play, and not just because he scored his first save of the season on Tuesday night. Cordero has been ridden hard by Dusty Baker, leading the league in games finished and appearing in four straight games over the weekend–which is why Masset was getting the call in the ninth–and with Chapman no longer in the picture, the Reds may need an alternative sooner than they think.

Masset would still probably be a lower-tier option who isn’t much more than a placeholder for Chapman, but there’s reason for optimism. His 2011 numbers are a bit skewed by his horrible start, in which he allowed runs in four of his first five games.  In the 17 games since, he has held the opposition scoreless in 15 of them, with a 22/6 strikeout to walk ratio. Since all signs point against Cordero keeping this run up, Masset would gain immediate value and could be expected to provide adequate performance.

Matt Guerrier, Dodgers (1.4 percent ESPN / 8 percent Yahoo)
Here’s how much of a mess the Dodger bullpen is: I’m a diehard Dodger fan, and even I’m sick of thinking about it. Once Jonathan Broxton faltered and was injured, and Hong-Chih Kuo was injured, ineffective, and then disabled, the thought was that longtime starter Vicente Padilla could step into the role and provide some relief.  That worked for about two weeks, until Guerrier was called upon to finish out Tuesday’s game because Padilla was unavailable with stiffness in his right forearm. That is worrisome for any pitcher, but especially so for one who missed most of the spring and the early part of the season due to surgery on, you guessed it, his right forearm.

That save allowed Guerrier to keep alive his long-running streak of collecting exactly one save per year, but it remains to be seen if it will be his last. The Dodgers claim that Padilla will be available this week, though he has been neither dominant nor dependable this year so take that with a hefty grain of salt. If Padilla can’t go, then Guerrier and/or Kenley Jansen likely are next in line. We’ll have more on Jansen below; for Guerrier, he has been basically as expected since signing his much-too-generous offseason deal. The main concern with him is that he is not the type to miss bats, and the Dodger gloves behind him rank among the lower third of clubs in Defensive Efficiency.  We’ll know more in a few days as we see if Padilla is healthy, but for now, Guerrier is squarely in the mix.

Scott Downs, Angels (1.3 percent ESPN / 8 percent Yahoo)
I was fully on board the Jordan Walden train all winter and was very pleased when Mike Scioscia quickly gave him the ninth inning once Fernando Rodney predictably failed early in the season. I still think Walden will be fine, but I also can’t ignore that in his last six games, he has allowed runs to cross in four while collecting three blown saves.  It’s not that he has been bad, exactly, not while striking out eight in those four games against two walks, but the end results haven’t been there.

While I do think Walden will receive several more changes to get the job done, we can’t also forget that the Angels have Scott Downs, with closing experience and a large contract, waiting in the wings. Downs missed much of April due to injury yet has been excellent since returning, allowing just four singles in 8 1/3 scoreless innings through Wednesday. As I said, Walden will almost certainly get some more rope, but if he struggles, it’s not going to be Rodney who comes in. It’ll be Downs, and that alone makes him valuable.

Koji Uehara, Orioles (2.6 percent ESPN / 20 percent Yahoo)
Oh, Koji. I can never quit you. Long-time readers will know that we rarely go more than a few weeks without talking about Uehara, a condition that is partly due to his inability to stay healthy and partly due to the propensity of his Baltimore bullpen comrades to implode around him. Kevin Gregg has had a very up-and-down season, righting the ship after some early struggles to save five games in seven scoreless outings in a stretch from April 20 to May 7. But he has blown two of his last three chances, walking four in his last two innings, and on the season has an equal amount of strikeouts and walks: twelve. Monday’s loss against Boston was particularly painful, as Gregg entered up 7-6 and after retiring Jason Varitek, issued two walks and a game-ending double to Adrian Gonzalez. Uehara had run off five consecutive nearly perfect outings through Wednesday and has a far superior 19/5 K/BB ratio.

Sticking Around

Kenley Jansen, Dodgers (6.8 percent ESPN / 9 percent Yahoo)
See:  everything I said about Matt Guerrier just above. The main difference here is that while Guerrier is a pitch-to-contact type, Jansen is more in the Carlos Marmol mold, matching incredible strikeout totals with high walk rates. Jansen’s career strikeout rate of 14.21 is actually the second highest in historyamong pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched, behind only Craig Kimbrel of Atlanta, and he has actually increased it to 15.1 this season. He also missed the zone on each of his first seven pitches in the 8th inning on Tuesday night, so the reluctance of the Dodgers to completely hand him the ninth inning is understandable.

Saying Goodbye

David Robertson, Yankees (0.1 percent ESPN / 4 percent Yahoo)
Part of the reason Robertson made this list last week, aside from his excellent strikeout numbers, was because there looked to be a hole in the 8th inning in the Bronx with Rafael Soriano suffering through elbow pain. Soriano has since been placed on the disabled list, but Robertson has had such control issues in the days since that it’s hard to think he’ll see many high-leverage chances ahead of Joba Chamberlain for the time being. Despite getting eight of his last eleven outs via the strikeout, he has also walked five in his last two appearances. It’s a disturbing trend for Robertson, who had walked only two in his first ten games, as he has now walked thirteen in the ensuing nine. If he can’t harness that wildness, he is not going to be seeing important innings.

Antonio Bastardo, Phillies (2.4 percent ESPN / 6 percent Yahoo)

Bastardo has been quietly effective out of the Philadelphia bullpen, striking out 23 in 15 1/3 innings through Wednesday, but nearly as quietly, Ryan Madson has done well as the latest closer. Since Madson hasn’t given management any reason to doubt him, the opportunities haven’t been there for Bastardo, and that is unlikely to change soon with Jose Contreras expected to return by the end of the month.

Jose Veras, Pirates (0.3 percent ESPN / 2 percent Yahoo)
Veras was fun to discuss last time around in what was a pretty slow week for relievers, and he has done nothing to change that by throwing out a few more scoreless innings over the last week and keeping his strikeout rate high. He is in no danger of usurping Joel Hanrahan for saves, however, and Evan Meek is expected back from the disabled list soon, so Veras will get bumped even further down the pecking order. We may not have heard the last of him, though.

******

AL Deep Value Pick

Jamey Wright, Mariners (2.9 percent ESPN / 6 percent Yahoo)
I hesitate to include the 36-year-old Wright even down here in the deep value picks, as he has been mediocre for fifteen years, yet somehow continues to kick around the big leagues without even being left-handed. If you’re fooled by his 1.89 ERA, well, then you might need more help than I’m able to offer in this column. Now all that being said, it’s difficult to ignore just how atrocious Brandon League was last week, when he picked up four losses in just five games.  League had been doing just fine before that stretch and bounced back with a scoreless inning in a non-save situation on Tuesday, but with David Aardsma’s sprained elbow ligament postponing his return indefinitely, the question must be asked: who is next up in Seattle if League is ineffective or unavailable? The Mariners don’t have any obvious solutions, and manager Eric Wedge noted that Wright would be his man if the opportunity came up when League received a short breather after that stretch. Wright has been acting as the team’s primary setup man, so we’ll go with that answer for now, though expect League to get a very long leash here.

NL Deep Value Pick

Mike Adams, Padres (5.3 percent ESPN / 26 percent Yahoo)
Adams isn’t here just because he got a save on Monday, though that did grab my attention. He is here because he, along with teammate Luke Gregerson, have reached the rarified air of being non-closing relievers who are so good that they’re still worth considering for a roster spot. (If you’re in a league that counts holds, he is nearly a must-have).  Adams has been outstanding, if somewhat under the radar, since arriving in San Diego in 2008, and this year he has turned it up a notch by allowing just ten baserunners in 20 2/3 innings through Wednesday.  Even the one mistake he has made this year, a Matt Holliday homer, came way back on Opening Day in March–and besides, being beaten by Matt Holliday is hardly shameful. Adams’ strikeouts are slightly down from years past, but when you’re striking out nine-and-a-half times as many as you’re walking, that tends to matter less. Adams isn’t going to usurp Heath Bell in the ninth, of course, but we’re not all that far away from the trade market heating up, and everyone expects Bell to be on the move. This might be a situation worth planning ahead for.

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

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