Archive for Monday, May 15, 2006

Buyer beware of new closers

Stoppers struggling in fantasy and real-life baseball

May 15, 2006

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No, Virginia, there's no such thing as Santa Claus. But there is such a thing as a bad closer.

Like Santa, he doles out gift after gift. And unlike the alleged chubby North Pole dude, this guy doesn't much care if you're bad or good; he'll pretty much give ninth-inning gifts to anyone.

Those gifts are great for opponents, but terrible for fantasy owners. Save opportunities are rare enough in fantasy baseball; routinely watching ninth-inning train wrecks is enough to make most roto buffs swear off unproven closers.

At least until the next one shows up on the waiver wire.

Take the Devil Rays' closer. Please.

The situation is so horrid in Tampa Bay that the team handed its closer job to Giants castoff Tyler Walker, who had a 15.19 ERA before San Francisco dumped him. Predictably, this hasn't made a volatile bullpen situation any more stable; Devil Rays relievers lead the American League with nine losses and are the worst in baseball in opponent batting average at .306.

As bad as that situation has seemed, it's worse elsewhere as closers have struggled mightily all over.

Through Wednesday, four teams were converting fewer than 50 percent of their save opportunities, and that doesn't even include the team from Tampa.

The Braves (7 of 15), Marlins (4 of 9), Royals (5 of 13) and Nationals (3 of 8) have been more likely to blow a save opportunity than convert one so far this year.

The last time a team converted fewer than 50 percent of its save opportunities was 2002, when the Cubs blew 25 of 48 saves chances. That year, closer Antonio Alfonseca had more blown saves (7) than fingers on his throwing hand (6), and Jeff Fassero and Kyle Farnsworth routinely made Cubs fans groan.

With closers struggling throughout baseball, it's buyer beware with just about any new closer or closer-by-committee candidate. Keep in mind that one or two bad performances by relievers can kill your team ERA and WHIP for the week.

Is it really worth it?

Rising stars

Jose Valverde, Diamondbacks

Back in the preseason, many experts considered Valverde at best a second-tier closer. I assume none of those people ever watched Valverde throw. The Diamondbacks' closer is one of baseball's most dominating pitchers, and his 19 strikeouts in 13.1 innings are no fluke. Opponents are hitting .159 against Valverde. Last year they hit .211. If the Diamondbacks continue to win games, he will remain among baseball's elite closers.

Akinori Otsuka, Rangers

Francisco Cordero was terrible in April, and finally manager Buck Showalter gave the job to Otsuka, who was a successful closer in Japan and last year a great setup guy in San Diego. The man with the unusual stop-and-start delivery has handled the ninth inning nicely so far, and his walks to strikeouts ratio (2 to 14) is tremendous. Cordero is pitching well now as a setup guy and supposedly going to get a shot to win the job back, but if Otsuka continues to be lights out, what can the Rangers do? See Jonathan Papelbon/Keith Foulke in Boston.

J.J. Putz, Mariners

They may call it a closer-by-committee now that Eddie Guardado is out as sole stopper in Seattle, but Putz is getting the call most of the time. And why not? Since April 17, he's not allowed a run in 91â3 innings, striking out 11 and allowing four hits. Grab him if he's still available.

Falling fortunes

Tyler Walker, Devil Rays

This column nearly was called "10 reasons not to pick up Tyler Walker." Giants manager Felipe Alou said Walker was sent to the minors because his velocity was down. Whatever the case, he was getting torched in San Francisco (when he wasn't walking batters), and that's continued after the Devil Rays decided he was a good addition to their late-inning strategy. His combined ERA through 14 appearances is 11.57. He may have saved 22 games last year, but his WHIP was over 1.50 and he's not scaring anyone but scorekeepers and writers on deadline. He's not worth the heartburn.

Brad Lidge, Astros

Has he lost his job? No, but Lidge was taken out in the ninth inning in Denver on May 5, and after blowing that save had allowed at least one earned run in six of his last 10 appearances. He still can be dominant with the strikeout, and is likely to regain his touch, but it's now clear that Phil Garner will turn to Dan Wheeler when Lidge gets in trouble.

Quick hits

Astros OF Willy Taveras, coming off a 34 stolen-base season as a rookie, has three so far this year. Why? Manager Phil Garner has him batting second, and is hesitant to allow him to run with Lance Berkman batting in the No. 3 spot. ... Blue Jays OF Alexis Rios continues to put up MVP-type numbers and is a must-play in fantasy now. He leads the majors in hitting at .379, has seven homers and is hitting .458 with runners on base. ... If no one has grabbed him up yet, take a flyer on Brewers left-hander Dana Eveland, called up when Ben Sheets went on the disabled list. Eveland was 3-1 with a microscopic 0.75 ERA in six starts in Triple-A. Even if Sheets is ready to return soon, I like Eveland's chances to stick and make an impact in Milwaukee. ... Cleveland's Jake Westbrook is a terrific two-start pick for the coming week, as he'll face Kansas City and Pittsburgh at home.

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