This week in the relief pitcher edition of Value Picks, we’re going to get into three situations where the ninth inning duties may be in doubt thanks to either injury or uncertainty. Since Alex Anthopolous seems to be laying low this week, I suppose we’ll have to acknowledge that there are actually other teams in the league besides the Blue Jays, who had served this column so well for content in recent weeks. Foiled again!
As a reminder, I'm always happy to take requests for players or situations that interest you in the comments. Last week, that generated a good discussion about Aroldis Chapman's future in Cincinnati, so please keep them coming.
Our first stop is in the Pacific Northwest, where closer David Aardsma is coming off not only what was seen as a relatively disappointing season, but also late December surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip. The fact that he didn't go under the knife until nearly three months into the offseason impacted his return date significantly, and late last week Mariners trainer Rick Griffin confirmed that Aardsma won't be ready to pitch in games until at least the second week of the season. Assuming that he'll then need a few weeks for rehab on the farm, he's probably not going to rejoin the big club until at least early May.
In the interim, that means Brandon League, the only Mariner reliever other than Aardsma with a WXRL over 0.434 last year, is likely in line for some early save opportunities. League briefly became a hot name last summer when the Mariners made it clear that Aardsma was on the trading block, only to see his fantasy value plummet when no deal was made. He managed to vulture a few saves while Aardsma was unavailable with minor injuries and family concerns, and his nine wins counted as a fluky plus, but on the whole he had a perfectly unremarkable season. His WXRL ranked 67th in MLB, and the various wins above replacement systems placed him at just slightly above replacement, which makes him a decent but hardly noteworthy reliever. It's not exactly the kind of record that makes the deal to give up Brandon Morrow to acquire him from the Jays look like a great investment. (I knew I could figure out a way to talk about Toronto somehow.)
Yet, look at the other names from last year's Seattle bullpen. Shawn Kelley is recovering from arm surgery. Mark Lowe went to Texas with Cliff Lee. Sean White signed in Colorado. Jamey Wright's back on a minor-league deal, but suffers from the debilitating flaw of being Jamey Wright. In fact, the only other reliever listed on Seattle's 40-man roster with more than a cup of coffee in the bigs is failed starter Garrett Olson, who gave up more than a hit per inning last year with a terrifying home run rate. So unless you're an immediate family member of Chris Ray (33 saves with Baltimore in 2006, but non-tendered by the Giants this offseason before signing with Seattle), League is the best option of a poor lot. That alone gains him fantasy value, though you'd do well to plan ahead by trading him early if he gets off to a good start.
Don't sleep on Aardsma when he returns, though. At first glance, his 2010 doesn't seem to compare to his productive 2009, but those feelings have been generated by stats which we know don't really apply to relievers, by which I mean his ugly win-loss record (0-6), and an ERA jump of nearly a run over 2009. Beyond that, the Mariners went from 2009 darlings to 2010 disasters, which didn't do much to raise his public profile.
Yet Aardsma was more or less the same pitcher he'd been the year before. His WHIP (1.164 vs. 1.168) was basically identical, he allowed the same hits per nine, and while his strikeouts per nine dropped, it wasn't by an alarming amount. The main problem was that a few rough outings in the early going (two of the five homers he allowed came in one April game), including one in which the Mariners were already behind, caused his ERA to stay artificially high. Since it took until July for the graphics on the television broadcasts to stop showing an ERA over five, his reputation unfairly suffered. From July 1 through the end of the season, Aardsma was excellent (.540 OPS, 2.13 ERA), though with the Mariners out of the race few noticed. Missing the start of 2011 is probably going to allow you to get him on the cheap, which could pay off later in the season.
Before blowing out his elbow and undergoing Tommy John surgery last spring, Joe Nathan was regularly one of the top three or four closers in baseball, dating back to his Twins debut in 2004. Without him, the Twins were forced to patch with guys like Matt Capps, Jon Rauch, and Brian Fuentes, though they generally performed pretty well.
Now, Nathan's on the comeback trail, and we're hearing all of the right reports about his health, with the fact that he got hurt so early last year aiding in his 2011 timeline. He was cleared to begin throwing off a mound back in December, and that went so well that he was recently allowed to start throwing breaking balls. Nathan's apparently feeling so good that he threw a bullpen session for Twins coaches recently and had no qualms about coming inside to Twins manager Ron Gardenhire.
Because of the early date of the injury, Nathan will have had nearly a full year to recover before Opening Day, and it's not unheard of for even an older reliever to come back within that timefame; as Nathan himself notes, Billy Wagner came back eleven months after his own procedure and continued his dominating ways. That doesn't guarantee anything for Nathan, of course, but it does mean he wouldn’t be the first, and all signs are pointing in the right direction here.
So no, we're not breaking out any fancy stats to back up the fact that while Capps was fine last year, Nathan—if healthy—is better. If he's available, he's going to be the closer. This doesn't put Capps' value completely down to zero—there is no guarantee Nathan holds together, and regardless he'll probably be on a limited workload at first—but you know someone in your league is going to see Capps' gaudy 42 saves from last year and jump on him far too early. Don't let it be you, because unless something changes with his comeback, an undervalued Nathan is probably the better play here.
One of the longest running fantasy subplots last year was, "who takes over the Pirates closer job once Octavio Dotel inevitably gets traded at the deadline?" Dotel did indeed end up being traded to the Dodgers on July 31, yet six months later, we still don't know the answer to that question. Neither Joel Hanrahan or Evan Meek claimed the job for himself after Dotel's departure, and even as recently as late last week GM Neil Huntington refused to provide any clues on who the winner might be.
So we're left with the stats, and here it's ever more important to filter out the pieces which we know are completely irrelevant. Once again, that would be ERA (where Meek's 2.14 is a lot shinier than Hanrahan's 3.62) and particularly Meek's All-Star appearance, which not only should have gone to Andrew McCutchen but was the result of a totally flawed system. The more advanced statistics generally preferred Hanrahan, including WXRL (2.553 to 2.030) and fWAR (1.4 to 0.8). It's not hard to see why: while Meek and Hanrahan each walked roughly 3.5/9, Hanrahan's strikeout rate was far superior, as he whiffed 12.9/9 to Meek's 7.9/9.
Throwing another wrench into the mix, however, is that the Pirates are starting their first season under new manager Clint Hurdle. Hanrahan seemed to slowly be moving into the role late in the season—10 of his 14 September appearances were to finish games, compared to just four of Meek's 12—but it's difficult to know how much carryover there would be under new leadership.
With the facts on the table, it's probably no surprise that I recommend Hanrahan as the superior pitcher to Meek. One would hope that the Pirates make the same call.