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June 2, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks in the Bullpen

by Mike Petriello

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It’s Thursday morning, it’s blazingly hot here in the Northeast, and I’ve got the only cure: 1,800 words on the fantasy prospects of below-the-radar relief pitchers. This week, the focus is on three additions to the list who we’ve seen before and who just might be finding their way into more valuable playing time in the days ahead.

Joining the party

Matt Lindstrom, Rockies (Yahoo!:  12%, ESPN: 2.2%, CBS: 9%)

We’re talking about Lindstrom here less because of anything that he has done to warrant attention and more because Huston Street has just suffered through one of the most brutal stretches of his career, having allowed five homers in a stretch of eight games. Lest we think he’s suddenly developed an allergy to Coors Field, it must be pointed out that three of the five came away from the thin air of Colorado. It’s not just the long ball which has vexed him, though, as he allowed 14 total hits in the 9 2/3 innings he pitched in May. leading to two blown saves and a loss. (Somehow, he managed to perform that poorly despite an excellent 7/0 K/BB ratio). Entering Wednesday, Street hadn’t successfully converted a save in over two weeks, though the tumbling Rockies certainly haven’t offered him many opportunities to do so.

While Rockies manager Jim Tracy claims that Street isn’t in danger of losing his job just yet, his comments also contained more than a hint of doubt. That being the case, we turn to Lindstrom, who was briefly mentioned here in April when Street’s heavy usage looked like it could open up some chances. Lindstrom has been quietly effective in keeping the opposition scoreless in 23 of his 25 games so far, striking out nearly three times as many as he’s walked. He’s the clear second-in-command having saved two games in April when Street was unable to, and he carries the “Proven Closer™” label from his days in Houston and Florida that all managers seem to love.

Street will likely continue to get chances, and with his history and excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio, he deserves them. But if the Rockies continue to fade in what is a very winnable NL West, don’t expect Tracy to stick with him forever if the balls keep leaving the yard. If that happens, Lindstrom could become very valuable, very quickly.

Darren Oliver, Rangers (Yahoo!:  5%, ESPN: 1.4%, CBS: 4%)

Speaking of backups who might become interesting if their clearly-more-talented incumbents don’t turn it around, we have the case of Darren Oliver and Neftali Feliz in Texas. Since returning from the disabled list on May 7, Feliz has been a wreck, blowing three saves and walking three times as many as he’s struck out. Even after setting down the Rays without much trouble on Wednesday afternoon, he still has just nine strikeouts in 19 games. While his 1.37 ERA may be shiny to the uninitiated, whenever a manager has to actively tell the press that he’s not ready to replace his closer, you can take that as a pretty clear sign that the topic has at least come up.  Since returning from injury, Feliz has had difficulty with both command and pitch selection, and when you’re throwing mainly fastballs without being able to spot them exactly where you want, you can see why he’s run into trouble.

Conversely, the ageless Oliver has been effective for most of May, striking out ten against just two walks over his last ten outings. While Washington clearly does not want to remove Feliz from the role, he does have Oliver–who lucked into two saves when Feliz was disabled–at the ready. Keep a close eye on Feliz to see if he comes out of his funk.  He’s been particularly bad against right-handed batters with a–wait for it–0.09 K/BB ratio. That’s what striking out one while issuing eleven walks will do for you.

Vicente Padilla, Dodgers (Yahoo!: 9%, ESPN:7.2%, CBS: 16%)

According to Don Mattingly, Padilla is likely to be activated from his second stint on the disabled list for tomorrow’s series in Cincinnati. Padilla isn’t guaranteed to be the closer, but take one look around the rest of the Dodger bullpen and you’ll see that it’s not too hard to read the tea leaves. With Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo, and Kenley Jansen all on the disabled list with no return dates set, the Dodgers have been forced to go with a bullpen of misfit toys configuration as Mike MacDougal, Matt Guerrier, and Javy Guerra have each picked up saves over the last two weeks. There’s some thought that talented young Rubby de la Rosa may make some noise, but that’s a lot to put on a guy who has all of three major-league games under his belt. Prior to Padilla’s last game on May 13, in which he may have already been pitching injured, he was effective if not dominating as the closer. “Effective if not dominating” may not sound like a lot, but with the horrors we’ve seen in the late innings for the Dodgers this year (dig that .940 OPS against in the 9th!), it’s good enough for now. Besides, Padilla is still eligible as a starter, and that added value plus the possibility of saves for a team that is just starting to wake up makes him intriguing.

Sticking around

Koji Uehara, Orioles (Yahoo!: 21%, ESPN: 3.0%, CBS: 19%)

I do hate repeating myself, and I know I’ve written a thousand times now that Kevin Gregg is overrated and mediocre while Koji Uehara (when healthy) is superior. That said, if Gregg is going to keep up his recent trend of somehow skating by despite excessive walk totals, we’re going to need to be here to pick up the pieces when it all inevitably falls apart.  Gregg has now tilted the K/BB meter into the red on the season, a mark he ‘achieved’ by walking six (with just one strikeout) in his last three outings before Wednesday. While he somehow managed to get through all three without allowing a run, that’s hardly sustainable, and coming on the heels of allowing multiple runs twice in four days, it practically counts as a miracle. That he managed to grab a save yesterday without a walk is nice but hardly enough to make us overlook his atrocious seasonal line.  Uehara, meanwhile, keeps on humming; with a strikeout in yesterday’s scoreless inning, he’s got an excellent 29/5 mark and has walked just one in the last month. A change is coming. It has to be.

Nick Masset, Reds (Yahoo!: 2%, ESPN: 0.1%, CBS: 3%)

Not much has changed here for me since Francisco Cordero’s perfectly-timed meltdown last week helped serve the purposes of this column and forced the Phillies and Reds to play ten more innings. Cordero hasn’t had a save opportunity since, and Masset has contributed three scoreless outings. I still have little faith in Cordero, but if there’s anything that could change the outlook here, it’s that Aroldis Chapman will likely be back in the bigs by this time next week. They’ll work him back slowly, though, so Masset remains the next-in-line for now.

Saying goodbye

Aaron Crow, Royals (Yahoo!: 44%, ESPN: 59.8%, CBS: 44%)

I have to say, when Joakim Soria completely melted down yet again and was removed from his closer’s role a few days ago, part of me was pretty happy, if only because I had added Aaron Crow to this list last week. As JoshC noted in the comments, Crow is also eligible as a starting pitcher, thus making him even more valuable thanks to his positional flexibility. As of Wednesday afternoon, Crow had yet to see his first save opportunity, but he’s no longer relevant to this conversation anyway; as you can see above, as a newly-anointed closer, he’s now owned in enough leagues that bargain-hunters have long since snapped him up.

Kenley Jansen, Dodgers (Yahoo!: 6%, ESPN: 1.3%, CBS: 12%)

Mark my words, this won’t be the last you hear of Kenley Jansen in this column. His absurd strikeout rates and the turmoil in the Dodger bullpen automatically make him interesting, and manager Don Mattingly had seemingly grown to prefer Jansen in the 9th as time went on. However, that all got put on hold when Jansen became yet another injured Dodger pitcher, going on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation. Assuming his injury is not serious, he’ll be back in the mix soon.

Grant Balfour, Athletics (Yahoo!: 21%, ESPN: 13.7 %, CBS: 14%)

Let’s all thanks Bob Geren for declaring Balfour to be his new closer, and then still allowing Brian Fuentes to get two saves over the weekend anyway. We always knew that this would be extremely temporary, lasting only until Andrew Bailey returned, but apparently one poor 9th inning (in a non-save situation, at that) was all Geren needed to return his mortal enemy Fuentes back to the job. Regardless, Bailey is back now and has thrown two shutout innings. Devalue Balfour and Fuentes accordingly.

AL Deep Value Pick

Al Alburquerque, Tigers (Yahoo!: 1%, ESPN: 0.4%, CBS: 1%)

Just when I’d finally figured out how to spell “Albuquerque” in my usual Dodger-centric daily writings, here comes Al to throw an extra ‘r’ in the mix. Alburquerque, the pitcher, showed little of note other than some strikeout ability in Double-A for the Rockies over the last few seasons, and his signing by Detroit this winter generated little interest. Clearly the Tigers saw something, though, as he has turned into a dependable arm in a Detroit bullpen struggling to overcome the inconsistency of high-priced import Joaquin Benoit. Striking out 30 in his first 17 1/3 innings would be notable enough, but he’s also the only Tiger pitcher of note who is yet to allow a homer, continuing a skill he displayed on the farm where he allowed just five in 72 games over the last two years.

While the walk rate remains too high – 5.7/9 isn’t going to keep you out of, well, Albuquerque, Al – he’s shown marked improvement as the season has marched on. In his first ten games he walked nine, but over the last six he’s walked just two (including four walk-free outings in a row).  That is a positive trend, and it’s also one that brings value in the deeper AL-only leagues.

NL Deep Value Pick

Kameron Loe, Brewers (Yahoo!: 3%, ESPN: 0.3 %, CBS: 2%)

No, nothing wrong with John Axford, who has been just fine, but Loe has quietly become one of the more effective setup men in the league. Pitching almost exclusively in the 8th inning, he’s turned in nine consecutive scoreless outings, allowing just three baserunners in that time. While he’s not going to usurp Axford any time soon, he has already been able to grab a save when Axford was out, and continued performance like this may open up further such opportunities.

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:  Matt Lindstrom,  The Who,  Espn,  Al Oliver

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