By R.J. Anderson
The Nationals’ acquisition of Brian Bruney wasn’t the most glamorous transaction of the off-season. But it could pay some serious dividends.
Former Pittsburgh Pirates’ closer Matt Capps figures to start the season with the 9th-inning job for the Nats. But Capps ranks among the shakiest closers in the game, following his ugly 5.80 ERA last year with more struggles in spring training. That could leave the door ajar just enough for Bruney to land some save opportunities. Bloomberg Sports projects Capps to finish with 23 saves and Bruney with 11. The realty is Bruney, who B-Rank suggests is the 33rd most valuable fantasy reliever in baseball, could find himself in the position of being the 2010 version of David Aardsma.
Last spring, Aardsma entered Mariners camp alongside a number of other relief pitching options, competing for the closer’s job. He won the job, stormed through the season, and posted a 2.52 ERA and 38 saves. Like Aardsma, Bruney has a blazing fastball that sits in the mid-90s, and a history of control problems. For his career, Bruney has averaging nearly a strikeout per inning, but with a sky-high walk rate of 6.2 batters per 9 IP. Compare those numbers to Aardsma’s career averages of 9.1 and 5.2, factor in their reliance upon flyball outs, and you can see the similarities.
Last season, Bruney struggled under the weight of a tough division, tougher park, and even tougher string of performances before the All-Star break, as his ERA ballooned to 4.86. After the break, Bruney’s luck improved and he posted a 3.22 ERA. A move from the American League East to the National League East would help anyone; Bruney is no exception.
Eight different pitchers recorded saves for the Nationals last year, including Mike MacDougal and Joel Hanrahan – two similar-profiled pitchers. All told, there were 33 saves to be had. The common concern when drafting closers on bad teams is whether they’ll receive enough opportunities to be worth the slot. This logic is sound, and seemingly supported by research. The majority of those eight relievers have moved on, leaving Bruney and also-ranks like Tyler Walker and Sean Burnett around to scrap over extra opportunities.
What you do with Bruney depends on the depth of your league. In a 10-team mixed league, even drafting the Nationals’ actual closer is iffy, let alone drafting a potential backup. But in deeper leagues, Bruney’s upside and surrounding situation in D.C. sets him apart from most others closers-in-waiting. At the very least, get him on your watch list, and be ready to pounce.