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May 26, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks in the Bullpen

by Mike Petriello

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Since I’m constantly suggesting that you can always find saves throughout the season and therefore shouldn’t spend too much in the draft to secure them, I thought I’d put my convictions to the test. In one of my main leagues, I’m leading the group in saves by a wide margin. Only one of my current relievers was acquired in the draft, Pittsburgh’s Joel Hanrahan, and though I’ve always been high on him, even he was a pretty late pick. Otherwise, I’ve been able to pick and choose with the names that have popped up in this column throughout the season, and it’s served me pretty well. I hope you’ve found value in it as well, but as always, feel free to speak up in the comments if there’s something we can do to serve you better.

On to the Value Picks, reliever style…

Joining the party:

Grant Balfour, Athletics (9.5 percent ESPN / 25 percent Yahoo)
Balfour was featured as a deep value a few weeks ago, and that turned out to be a pretty good choice now that he’s replaced Brian Fuentes as the new Oakland closer–at least until Andrew Bailey returns. That last part is a pretty big caveat, as Bailey has made it through his first rehab outings and might be back in the majors as soon as this weekend.

Still, that means Balfour has at least a few days in the sun, and even if you could count on Bailey’s arm to hold up on the farm (hint: you can’t), it’s likely that he’ll still need something of a caddy until he’s back to full strength. As for Balfour, his debut season in Oakland has gone well—he’s struck out two-and-a-half times as many as he’s walked and allowed earned runs in just two of his first 21 appearances. He allowed his first home run over the weekend against San Francisco (ignore the blown save, it was in the eighth inning), which was poor timing but not something that worries me.

Balfour is missing bats, he’s never had much of a platoon split, and he’s having a good season. It’s the perfect profile for a pitcher who is missing only the opportunity to become a successful closer. That opportunity probably won’t last all that long for Balfour no matter what he does, because this is Bailey’s job, but a good impression in the next week could go a long way toward shaping the situation for the next time Bailey is injured.  

Aaron Crow, Royals (0.8 percent ESPN / 11 percent Yahoo)
I’m still not ready to proclaim Joakim Soria as being in real danger of losing his job, but it’s impossible to ignore the struggles he’s having this year in Kansas City. He’s on pace to set career lows in every category you can think of, and his issues bubbled to the surface once again when he allowed Baltimore to score three in the ninth on Tuesday, ending with an Adam Jones walk-off.  With Tim Collins struggling to find the plate and Jeremy Jeffress sent back to the minors, Crow would likely be the next man up should the Royals find themselves needing to make a change.

The unexpected contribution of the two-time top-15 pick has been an underrated factor in the Royals’ success this season, since he’s coming off a 2010 in which he gave up more than a hit per inning at two levels of the Kansas City system. Despite being something of a surprise addition to the Opening Day roster, Crow has increased his strikeout levels while in the bigs, and the only runs he has allowed all season came on one swing of Cliff Pennington’s bat several weeks ago. Since then, he’s been all but untouchable, recording eight strikeouts in 7 1/3 scoreless innings.

Soria is going to get quite a lengthy leash here, and deservedly so in light of his history with the club. But what we’ve seen in recent weeks is the situation behind him clearing up a bit, so it now seems evident that there’s a viable alternative should he need some time off. Besides, the Royals didn’t draft Crow with such a high pick to be a setup man, did they?

Sticking around:

Kenley Jansen (17.5 percent ESPN / 12 percent Yahoo), Matt Guerrier  (11.1 percent ESPN / 15  percent Yahoo), and the rest of the traveling nightmare Dodger bullpen roadshow
The Dodger bullpen situation couldn’t possibly get more muddled even if they let James Loney come in to finish out games, and with the way he’s hitting, maybe that’s not too far off. When rookie Javy Guerra picked up the save in Houston on Tuesday night, he became the sixth different Dodger to pick up a save in the last month alone. Despite the save, Guerra is unlikely to figure prominently in the ninth inning for the Dodgers, and not just because he had a 6.8 BB/9 in 30 minor-league games last year. With the top three closers all injured, Kenley Jansen and Matt Guerrier are the presumptive fill-ins, and they were unavailable after having thrown 38 and 25 pitches, respectively, the night before.

Of course, it’s still not even as simple as choosing between those two, because they each blew games in the ninth inning this week, helping the Dodgers lose two of three in Houston. (Only Jansen’s game was a blown save, as Guerrier entered in a tie game). They’re now joined by hot prospect Rubby de la Rosa, who after dominating the Astros in his eighth inning debut on Tuesday, probably would have received Guerra’s save opportunity had his spot in the order not come up in the ninth. He likely won’t be rushed into the role, but also in the mix is former All-Star closer Mike MacDougal and his sparkly but completely undeserved 1.50 ERA.

So what to make of all of this? The Dodgers likely would prefer Jansen to step up and take the role, thanks to his flamethrowing ways, and before Monday’s meltdown he had allowed just three hits with an 18/5 K/BB over 10 consecutive scoreless outings. He’s worth owning for the strikeouts alone, though with Guerrier and de la Rosa around, this is the definition of ‘closer by committee.’

Nick Masset, Reds (0.2 percent ESPN / 2 percent Yahoo)
“I’m not sure how long I’ll keep Masset on here while I wait for Francisco Cordero to tumble, but it’ll be at least one more week. Cordero converted his only save chance of the last week, but he’s also struck out just one of his last seventeen batters entering Tuesday. With the declining peripherals we’ve seen from him in recent years, it will be nearly impossible for him to keep up this sort of success. Masset pitched out of a tough jam in Philadelphia on Wednesday night, though he may still just be keeping the spot warm for Aroldis Chapman, who reportedly has looked excellent in the early stages of his rehab.”

Why was that paragraph in quotes, you might ask? Because I completed writing it, and this article, as Masset was getting out of that tough jam in the ninth last night. Then Jay Bruce hit a go-ahead homer in the top of the 10th, and I figured I’d hang off on sending this in to see if that would finally be the game where Cordero would start to show his cracks. One Ryan Howard blast to center field later, I am one very happy fantasy baseball writer. All kidding aside, one blown save isn’t going to cost Cordero his job, but it’s also not very likely to be the last problem he runs into.

Koji Uehara, Orioles (3.8 percent ESPN / 21 percent Yahoo)
I wrote last week that Kevin Gregg has been something less than impressive this season, and then in his next time out he immediately gave up four hits and two runs, including a homer, to the Nationals in a non-save situation. Gregg’s 15/13 K/BB ratio pales next to Uehara’s 23/5 mark, but even that’s not the entire truth: just one of Uehara’s walks has come in May. He’s heating up while Gregg is struggling, so this is a prime situation for at least a job share, if not more.

Saying goodbye:

Scott Downs, Angels (1.2 percent ESPN / 8 percent Yahoo)
Downs isn’t leaving because of any misdoing on his part, even though he did lose a game in the ninth inning last Thursday. I’m hardly going to kill a guy for entering a tie game and then permitting a man to get to third on an infield single and two sacrifices before allowing the game-winning single. That holds particularly true since he’s thrown three scoreless innings since then, and the soft run allowed to Seattle last week counts as his only earned run allowed all year long.

When healthy and available, Downs has been very good. Still, he was mainly on the list as a hedge against the struggles of young closer Jordan Walden, who had run into multiple issues the previous week. I was clear at the time that I thought Walden would be fine, and he’s faced just eleven hitters over his last three innings, collecting two saves. Walden’s grip on the job is secure, and while Downs is one of the better setup men in the league with the potential to be an above-average closer, that’s not a chance he is likely to receive any time soon.

******

AL Deep Value Pick

Octavio Dotel, Blue Jays (0.8 percent ESPN / 3 percent Yahoo)
It does seem odd to talk about such a well-known closer in this space, but here he is, owned in less than 1 percent of ESPN leagues. The Toronto bullpen would seem to be well-stocked, but Frank Francisco has been brutal lately, and Jon Rauch has had his own issues as well. Meanwhile Dotel lurks, pulling his customary trick of allowing too many homers and too many walks but striking out plenty. As usual, he’s been very tough on righties and completely unusable against lefties. Manager John Farrell surely knows this, and Dotel did manage to sneak in a save over the weekend. If Francisco continues to struggle, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Dotel in against heavily-righty lineups in the late innings.

NL Deep Value Pick

Henry Rodriguez, Nationals (0.0 percent ESPN / 0 percent Yahoo)
Remember, back at the end of spring training and the early part of the season, when the Nationals refused to commit to Drew Storen as their closer, and he paid back that trust by pitching horribly? Now that Storen has taken total control of the ninth and become one of the more reliable closers in the league, that all seems so long ago. With that as the backdrop (and Sean Burnett still ahead of him), Rodriguez isn’t going to challenge for saves any time soon.

That said, down here in the deep value section, we take notice of him for the same reason Nationals manager Jim Riggleman has: because he throws hard and strikes guys out. Riggleman noted earlier this week that Rodriguez has impressed him enough that he planned to use him as one of the team’s primary eighth-inning arms. Rodriguez has struck out at least two in seven of his nine appearances through Tuesday, all while averaging nearly 98 MPH. That’s an arm that’s freely available in nearly every fantasy league around, folks.

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

6 comments have been left for this article.

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