David Aardsma, Brandon League and the Bullpen Handcuff

By Eno Sarris //

Fantasy football players are used to the concept of the handcuff. Because the running back position is highly volatile, fantasy players in that sport will draft both a team’s starting running back, as well as his backup. The most volatile position in fantasy baseball is the closer. Fantasy baseball players should consider the handcuff when it comes to their bullpen options.

Up in Seattle, David Aardsma has found success the past two years. Over that span, he’s struck out more than a batter per inning and posted a 2.90 ERA, while racking up 69 saves. Even with his sub-optimal walk rate (over four batters per nine innings both years) and flyball tendencies (35.1% GB career – spacious Safeco Field and Seattle’s great outfield defense have helped him immensely), he’s been dependable, for the most part.

Except that he’s also spent some time in the trainer’s room. He didn’t officially hit the DL last season, but he did miss two weeks with an oblique strain. Then, this off-season, he had hip surgery. The most recent report has him available in mid-April, but that’s an early prognosis. The surgery was a little more extensive than the M’s had hoped, and hip surgeries can be difficult. Aardsma is a question mark going into the season.

Cue the handcuff. Brandon League doesn’t quite have the strikeout rate you’d like from your closer (6.72 K/9 career), but he’s one of the most extremely groundball pitchers in the game (62.2% GB career), meaning he’ll limit extra-base hits. He also shows pretty good control (3.20 BB/9 career). League has improved his strikeout rate lately (9.16 K/9 in 2009). He also filled in for Aardsma last year, accruing six saves. His splitter is a plus-pitch and his fastball averages more than 95 MPH. He’s a strong handcuff.

The best way to take advantage of this plan is to identify places where the backup is a solid pitcher and the bullpen won’t disintegrate into an open competition once the closer goes down. Other handcuff options around the league include Florida – pick Leo Nunez and Clay Hensley late – or Atlanta – Craig Kimbrel is the favorite, but Jonny Venters lurks. In a way, though, the Seattle pen is ideal. You can stash Aardsma on your DL if you’ve got a spot there, play League early on, and take your time making a decision as more information flows in.  

As many as one-third of baseball’s closers lose their job to injury or poor performance every year. Waiting until late in the game and picking an iffy closer and his handcuff will net you plenty of saves, at a reduced cost. Steal the strategy from fantasy football, and reap the benefits. 

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