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.
By Tommy Rancel //
Biggest Surprise: Jason Vargas
When the season started, many wondered who would step up behind Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez in the Mariners’ rotation. Despite his 9-12 record, Vargas has been a serviceable starter for Seattle this season. Although his strikeout rate was poor (5.42 K/9 IP), his walk (2.52 BB/9 IP) and home run rate (0.84 HR/9 IP) were excellent, fueling a 3.78 ERA. There was some luck involved: Vargas HR/FB rate was a low 6.1%, and his defense-independent numbers pointed to a pitcher whose true skill lay closer to a high-4s ERA than high 3s.
Still, if there’s such a thing as purposeful luck, Vargas is it. The Mariners have targeted left-handed pitchers with low walk rates and flyball tendencies to great success in the past couple years, as Jarrod Washburn and now Vargas have benefited from stellar outfield defense and a left-center field gap that makes homers nearly impossibly for right-handed hitters. In deeper leagues, you should be targeting Seattle pitchers with this skill set in the future.
Biggest Bust: Ian Snell
Not that the expectations for Snell were that high to begin with, but an 0-5 record and 6.41 ERA in 12 appearances fell below even the lowest of expectations. The former Pirates prospect registered just 26 strikeouts while walking 25 in 46.1 innings before being designated for assignment in mid-June.
2011 Keeper Alert: Felix Hernandez
Surprise! If you have one of the best – if not the best – young pitchers is all of baseball, you should keep him – even at a high price in a roto auction league. The man dubbed King Felix by the excellent Mariners website USSMariner.com when Felix was just a teenager put up a Cy Young-worthy season, win-loss record be damned. A strikeout-to-walk rate of better than 3-to-1, one of the top groundball rates in baseball on a perennial basis and tremendous durability yield one of the most reliable starting pitching commodities on the planet. Expect nothing less next year.
2011 Regression Alert: David Aardsma
One could say Aardsma experienced enough regression in 2010 after his monster breakout season of a year ago. Not only did his K/9 rate drop from 10.09 to 8.88, but his BB/9, as well as his HR/9, rose from 2009 levels. Yet somehow his batting average against dropped from .196 to .191. He can thank a friendlier than usual BABIP of .235 for that, despite just a 1% dip in line drives allowed. Walking a batter every other inning is a bad sign for a closer, and his BABIP is likely to creep up next season. As a result, expect Aardsma’s ERA to rise; the Mariners will also look to shop him this off-season, and a move to a less pitcher-friendly ballpark could further erode his fantasy value.
For more on Felix Hernandez and the Seattle Mariners’ pitching staff, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kits.
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.