Chicago Cubs


Closer Updates: Tigers, Blue Jays, Cubs, Angels, Mets, Brewers

Well, the good news is that you no longer need to worry about drafting a shaky closer. The bad news is that you may already own a shaky closer. Take me, for instance, I own John Axford and his 21.60 ERA in a couple leagues.

Speaking of shaky closers, Jose Valverde has signed a minor league contract with the Tigers, so you've got to wonder if he'll be in their bullpen mix in the future. For more up-to-the-minute updates, check out @CloserNews on the Twitternet. You better believe that's the first website I opened up to work on this article.

Brewers
Axford is the elephant in the room, with that 21.60 ERA, a WHIP of 3.60, and reports of lowered velocity. It's important to frame these things in their early-season context, though: he's allowed four runs on six hits in 1.2 IP. Of course, three of those six hits were home runs, but he's also struck out three in that time. Hiccups like these happen, and at times they are enough to scare a manager into making a change, but not on this team, or at this time. The Brew Crew isn't confident in Jim Henderson, and, really, if they demote Axford now, they're just admitting that they don't have a good bullpen. I don't expect them to do that just yet. 

Of course, Axford owners like me might want to stash Henderson just in case....

Mets
The Mets' situation thus far is one of rather happier news, as Bobby Parnell successfully put out a fire in the ninth inning of a four-run game. Fantasy owners don't care much about the results (he just recorded one out and didn't earn a save), but the fact that he was successful (and that other relievers struggled) strengthens Parnell's grip on the job just a little more. I really think Frank Francisco will have a hard time worming into save situations when he returns. Parnell is owned in just 68% of Yahoo! leagues, and 81% of ESPN leagues, so snap him up if you can.

Angels
Ryan Madson seems to be experiencing a setback (surprise!), while Ernesto Frieri locked down a save in the 13th inning of the Angels' opener. Neither fact is big news, or unexpected, but I'd say that Frieri's job security inched up just a little more over the week. He's owned in just 79% of Yahoo! leagues, so pick him up if you're among the 21%. No such luck for ESPN leagues, as he's owned in over 99% of leagues.

Cubs
You know what's worse than having your closer blow the lead in spectacular fashion? Having the lead rescued by his setup man. That's exactly what happened to Carlos Marmol on Monday, who threw just nine of nineteen pitches for strikes, getting one out before James Russell and Kyuji Fujikawa. It was Fujikawa (51% owned in Y!/40% in ESPN) who got the save, and the writing is on the wall for him to take over the job. The Cubbies really want to ship Marmol out for something, but it sounds like won't have any patience with him at all.

The above--unadulterated--is what I wrote before the results of Thursday's game. I leave it this way for instructive purposes, because Fujikawa came on in the eighth yesterday and earned the hold. Maybe that's why Marmol was allowed to give up two runs in the ninth before hanging on for the save. He got some trust--which is good news, of course--but he didn't inspire any real confidence. I'd say Marmol's closing days don't last long at this rate. Maybe the Cubs should have taken their chances with Dan Haren....

Blue Jays
At some point in the middle of the spring, I was sure that Sergio Santos was going to close for Toronto. Fortunately, I didn't have any drafts until late spring, when it seemed like Casey Janssen would be closing. I think he'll be great value for owners that got him with a late pick, and that thought has been reinforced in the last week. Janssen pitched a scoreless 10th on Wednesday, while Santos blew the game the very next inning. The situation was the opposite of the Cubs', as Janssen was leading the closer race, and Santos managed to widen the gap. Making things better for Janssen and his owners, he nailed down a clean save with two strikeouts on Thursday. Owned in most ESPN leagues, but in only 76% of Yahoo! leagues, Janssen is a great add if he's actually available.

Tigers
Just when you think things are starting to clear up, they get muddier. Valverde is back in the fold, though it remains to be seen how long it will take him to be MLB ready; Bruce Rondon is in the minors; and Phil Coke has pitched twice in the ninth inning. He saved a game he entered with one out, and he blew the save for a loss after that. Al Alburquerque has pitched in the seventh and eighth, and Joaquin Benoit has started the eighth twice. Is Coke (41%Y!/24%ESPN) the closer? I don't know. You'd think so, based on usage, but his split success and handedness don't suggest it. The way I figure, if they run him out to start the ninth, in a save situation, against a righty, then add him. But really, the Tigers don't have a lot of need to avoid a closer committee here.

Add-vice

Technically, the week isn't over, but I think I might be able to say comfortably that none of my closers has lost his job yet. This time last year, I think two of them had. So, I guess Marmol might have an even longer leash than he did last April. 

If Janssen, Frieri, Parnell, or Fujikawa are available in your league, add 'em, in that order. If you can, get all four and thank yourself for not drafting closers, I guess. Coke is the next best add, while Henderson might make sense for Axford owners with space on their bench.



Shutdown Corner: NL Central Closer Roundup

It's another week closer to Opening Day, so that means that it's time for another edition of Shutdown Corner. As you know, I'm grinding out closer roundups for every division in baseball. This week, it's the National League Central that gets the spotlight. And, of course, if you're interested ... here's our previous roundups: AL West, NL East, and AL East

If you haven't been following along at home, here's our closer tiering system for the pre-season:

  • Tier 1: World-class reliever, capable of putting up a season for the ages.
  • Tier 2: Very good closer, both stable and effective.
  • Tier 3: Average closer, may be lacking either stability or effectiveness.
  • Tier 4: Poor closer, either completely ineffective but stable, or very unstable.

Chicago Cubs: Carlos Marmol

I'm not sure any reliever combines high highs and low lows as much as Carlos Marmol does. Marmol, the long-time Cub closer, struck out 29.2% of batters faced last season, but walked a ridiculous 18.2% of batters faced. That's a huge amount of walks, more than just about any prospective closer in baseball. Marmol's dealing with challenges from other pitchers on his team (notably Japanese import Kyuji Fujikawa), a likelihood that he could be traded (he was almost traded to the Angels this offseason), and an imminent meltdown that's only a few walks away. Stay away from the guy unless you're brave.

Carlos Marmol is beyond all expectations. Marmol could strike out every batter he faces for three full weeks. Carlos Marmol could walk every batter he faces for two full weeks. Carlos Marmol could throw a pitch that hits his left fielder in the face. Everything is in play.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (all the strikeouts, ALL the walks, trade or demotion imminent)

Next in line: Kyuji Fujikawa

Cincinnati Reds: Jonathan Broxton

Broxton is a very interesting case, as he's almost definitely no better than the third-best reliever on his team, yet he still got a three-year, $21 million contract in this offseason to close for Cincinnati. And while Brox used to leverage his massive frame to get huge strikeout numbers, since 2011, he's been posting K numbers more like a #4 starter than a high-leverage reliever. In addition, pitching in homer-happy Cincy makes Broxton very risky from a performance standpoint.

Sean Marshall has a much better track record as a reliever than Brox, and as such, is likely to take over when and if Broxton struggles. Regardless, I wouldn't want Broxton as a bullpen option on my fantasy squad unless I was very desperate for a few saves.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (low strikeout totals, presence of Sean Marshall / Aroldis Chapman)

Next in line: Sean Marshall

Milwaukee Brewers: John Axford

While Broxton is a good example of a pitcher who got good results despite middling peripherals in 2012, Axford might be viewed as an opposite case. Despite being one of the better closers in baseball during 2010 and 2011, Axford fell apart (along with the rest of his bullpen) in 2012, posting a 4.67 ERA and 1.44 WHIP. But the underlying peripherals tell the story of a guy who struggled a little, sure, but could be expected to bounce back in 2013.

Axford and his mustache still struck out a tidy 30% of batters faced. And he certainly had more trouble with walks, walking a worrying 12.6% over the past season. But Axford suffered the most thanks to the long ball, as he gave up a homer on nearly 20% of all of his fly balls. This number is pretty unsustainable, and I wouldn't expect this poor luck to continue. Axford may not be an elite-level closer in 2013, but I wouldn't be surprised if he reverts back to his solid self, with strikeouts and 30-40 saves.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (huge strikeout rates, no serious competition in the 'pen)

Next in line: Jim Henderson

Pittsburgh Pirates: Jason Grilli

The Pittsburgh Pirates were comfortable dealing Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox this offseason due to the emergence of veteran Jason Grilli as a frightening late-inning option. Grilli, who was out of the bigs in 2010, re-emerged with stronger-than-ever strikeout totals in 2011. His Ks rose even further in 2012, where he struck out an astonishing 36.9% of batters faced.

The main concern with Grilli is his advanced age. At 36, he's not exactly a spring chicken. When you combine that with the fact that he's actually peaking in terms of performance at this point in his career, that's a major red flag. Instead of looking at a new normal, perhaps 2012 was the dramatic outlier before his production drops back off. But even if that is the case, and Grilli's strikeout rate falls off, it's high enough at this point to shoulder a drop back to earth. He could still be effective if he's only striking out 25% of hitters.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (big strikeouts, not a lot of history + age issue, good competition)

Next in line: Mark Melancon

St. Louis Cardinals: Jason Motte

To me, Jason Motte is one of the more sure things in late-inning relievers this season. A fixture in the Cardinal 'pen since 2009, Motte finally became the team's full-time closer for a full season in 2012, and responded with 42 saves and a 30.8% strikeout rate. Despite the emergence of Trevor Rosenthal and a host of live arms in the St. Louis bullpen, Motte owns the ninth, and should be consistent force in 2013 as well.

While Motte's home run rate jumped up in 2012, it probably sat higher than it will in 2013. Motte has a history of giving up long balls, but the strikeout rate and his uncanny ability to strand runners and limit walks will help him keep things at an even keel.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (solid strikeout rate, "proven closer")

Next in line: Trevor Rosenthal

As always, check out @CloserNews on Twitter for up-to-the-minute closer updates, and find me at@bgrosnick for everything baseball. Shutdown Corner will return next week with a look at the AL Central.

All data from FanGraphs.



Cubs Turn The Reigns Over To Jackson & Vitters

The Chicago Cubs started a new era in franchise history when the Theo Epstein-led regime took over this past offseason, and they've systematically started a rebuilding process by trading veterans and acquiring young talent. Players like Sean Marshall, Carlos Zambrano, and Ryan Dempster were traded for prospects and/or salary relief in recent months, and youngsters like Anthony Rizzo and Darwin Barney were eased into the starting lineup. Following the trade deadline, the Cubs recalled two of their highest profile prospects and have handed them regular playing time. Let's look at their fantasy value.

Brett Jackson | OF

Jackson, 24, was the 31st overall pick in the 2009 draft and steadily climbed the minor league ladder before making his debut. He's only hit .188/.257/.281 in 35 big league plate appearances so far, but he's a .282/.379/.488 career hitter in the minors with 10+ homers and 20+ steals in each of the last three seasons. Jackson also provides a lot of value with his center field defense, but that's irrelevant in fantasy.

The biggest problem with the outfielder is, by far, his knack for the swing and miss. Jackson has whiffed on 24 of the 159 pitches he's seen in the big leagues, a tidy 15.1%. The league average is slightly more than half that at 9.0%. He's struck out 18 times with the Cubs already, and in the minor leagues more than one-quarter (26.4%, to be exact) of his plate appearances ended with strike three. That's astromical for a top prospect and a massive hole in his game that could be his ultimate downfall. Jackson will get a chance to play for the rest of the season, but outside of a handful of steals and maybe a few homers, his fantasy value is nil until he can put the ball in play consistently.

Josh Vitters | 3B

The third overall pick in the 2007 draft, the 22-year-old Vitters took a little longer to get to the show than first overall pick David Price and second overall pick Mike Moustakas. The third baseman has produced just a .103/.100/.138 batting line in 30 plate appearances since being recalled, though he put together a .304/.356/.513 performance in Triple-A earlier this year. He's a .283/.327/.455 career hitter in over 2,100 minor league plate appearances.

While Jackson is prone to swings and misses, Vitters is the polar opposite. His problem is that he makes contact a little too easily, and often puts pitches in play that he shouldn't be swinging at in the first place. The ability to get the bat on the ball is why he was drafted so high, but the lack of plate discipline has kept Vitters from realizing his full potential during his climb up the minor league ladder. That doesn't mean things won't click in the future, but for 2012 we have another guy with little to no fantasy value. The Cubs are headed in the right direction and have done a smart thing by giving Jackson and Vitters an extended look at the end of the season, but unfortunately neither player is worth a fantasy roster spot at this point of their careers.



Closer Updates: Reds, Cubs, Nats, Mets

Chris Perez may not enjoy playing in front of 5,000 fans, but there are roughly 12,000 followers over at @closernews who are at the ready for updates on him and all the other stoppers in MLB. You should, too, if you don't already.

Reds
Aroldis Chapman is one of the fascinating stories of the season. He has ditched the control problems that ailed him intermittently in 2010-11 and become an overwhelmingly dominant relief pitcher. Now, aided by Sean Marshall's less-than-impressive start, he's forced the Reds' hand in promoting him to the closer's role.

If you drafted Ar-Chap with this momentous ocassion in mind -- and absorbed his terrific stats in the meanwhile -- good for you. For what it's worth, I was skeptical of his control issues coming into the season and thought Marshall would be able to hold the job without trouble. Sometimes, the right circumstances and a little fervor can make things happen. Lesson learned here, though I wonder whether we'll see another reliever with similar circumstances to Chapman's anytime soon.

Anyway, Chapman has top-closer upside, but there's reason to think he could fall short of it. For one, the Reds are playing it conservatively with respect to his workload. They don't like him pitching on consecutive days (let alone three in a row), although the two occasions he's done it this season were both last week. So, maybe those were test runs. Still, it indicates a concern about how to best use and protect his arm. There's also the issue of whether he'll be converted to starting at some point. The Reds had him in the starting rotation in Spring Training but got cold feet, perhaps because the 'pen didn't look quite as deep without Ryan Madson. I doubt they'll move him now, in-season, because that can be dicey, but you never know.

So, if you own the left-hander and want to hedge against either of those factors eating into his value (particularly the workload quirks), flip him now for dollars on the dollar while Chapmania is running wild. Otherwise, feel free to sit back and enjoy his contributions to your ledger. Marshall can safely be dropped in non-holds leagues, but bear in mind he might still vulture the odd save if the Reds keep the bubble wrap on Chapman.

Cubs
This season will go down as a forgettable one for the Cubs, and their bullpen is no exception to that theme. Between Jeff Samardzija's transition to starting and an offseason trade that sent Marshall to the Reds, the "stalwarts" of the relief corps were Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood. Marmol did little to shake off his bipolar 2011, struggling badly out of the gate before being demoted from closing and then DL'd earlier this month. Wood looked every bit his age (including an umpteenth career DL stint) before suddenly and dramatically hanging 'em up last week.

Meanwhile, accidental Rafael Dolis has picked up the slack competently, but don't be fooled: His true talent is closer to his 4.82 SIERA than his 3.75 ERA.

Now, Marmol is set to begin a Minor League rehab assignment, a stint probably designed to massage all of his strained hamstring, eternally wonky mechanics and bruised ego back into form. There's little to suggest that'll actually happen, but it seems to come as quickly as it goes for Car-Mar, so you never know. The early reports indicate that a setup role is his likely first destination, but the guess here is that if Marmol can string together a few decent outings, the Cubs will shoehorn him back into the ninth. After all, he's an overpaid reliever on a bad, rebuilding team, which usually make for strong trade candidates when that time rolls around. A healthy, solid stretch as closer will boost his value, and the Cubs would be wise to facillitate that.

His ownership is down to 39% in Yahoo! leagues, so there's a chance you could recoup strong value if you stash him on your bench.

Nationals
After withstanding a few weeks of up-and-down performance from interim closer Henry Rodriguez, Nats skipper Davey Johnson seems ready to look elsewhere, perhaps even a committee. I can't say I'm terribly surprised, as H-Rod's control has always worried me, but I don't want to gloat about it (even though I'm gloating about it). #humblebrag

Thumbing through the list of candidates who might see a lion's share of save opps, Tyler Clippard jumps out. We've grown accustomed to him being passed over the past few years, as the Nats have preferred to reserve him for the occasional two-inning stint, but a quick glance at his game logs from this year reveals that he's yet to pitch more than one inning in any outing this season. If he's now a one-inning reliever, why not make that one inning be the ninth?

The other candidates include Craig Stammen, a former starter who seems to have assumed Clipp's old role as a long-ish man who can also throw in high-leverage situations. Left-hander Sean Burnett is still kicking around the back of the 'pen, too, and although his peripherals are strikingly similar to Clipp's, he's been used more like a LOOGY this season.

Clippard is the add from where I sit. Note that anointed closer Drew Storen isn't due back until sometime around the All-Star break.

Mets
Frank Francisco is carrying on the fine tradition of bad Mets closers, making seemingly every save chance a rollercoaster ride. At 3.79, his SIERA says he's not pitching nearly as poorly as his 7.56 ERA and 2.04(!) WHIP suggest, but boy, it's hard to believe that if you've seen his past few outings, as I have. (Full disclosure: I actually liked Francisco as something of a sleeper based on his league change and somewhat unfair rep as someone who had no business closing.)

Anyway, if the gap closes between his SIERA and ERA -- as it "should" -- then there will be better days ahead. Maybe the Mets know this, because they've stuck with Double-F despite having a couple chances to look elsewhere, particularly at Bobby Parnell, who appears to be coming into his own (finally).

So between the Mets' relative "faith" in Fran-Fran and the hope that he'll continue to chip away at his ugly numbers, he could be someone you might consider acquiring for a song. He's only owned in 70% of leagues, so that could be an option. And if he's owned in your league, and you're so inclined to try the trade route, you could probably get him in exchange for roster filler. There's a strong chance you'll get what you pay for, but there's also a non-zero chance you'll recoup some sweet correction-phase stats.



Closer Updates: Yankees, White Sox, Marlins

Has anyone seen my ACL? I seem to have left it on the warning track at The K. If found, please ping us on Twitter at @closernews, where you'll find all the latest updates on closers. On with the updates ...

Yankees
Bullpens are inherently volatile, this year seemingly more than ever. But the Yanks are the last team I expected to be writing about in this space based on Mariano Rivera's stubborn refusal to age or decline, kind of like Mickey Rourke except the exact opposite. Unfortunately, Mo finally proved mortal last week, going down as if he'd be been hit from the Texas School Book Depository while shagging batting-practice flies.

Rivera, of course, is (almost) definitely out for the season after undergoing surgery. We wish him a speedy recovery.

Luckily for the Yankees, they have two strong candidates to take the reins in Mo's stead: David Robertson and Rafael Soriano. Unluckily for fantasy owners, the Bombers have played it cool in naming one of them the undisputed closer, with manager Joe Girardi suggesting both will see save opps.

The Yankees haven't yet encountered a save chance since Mo went down, so there's little evidence from which we might infer anything, but I'm siding with popular opinion here in guessing that D-Rob will emerge as the go-to guy. He's the Closer Of The Future (COTF), and frankly, he's damn good -- one of the best relievers in MLB right now. Soriano's ERA is tidy at the moment, and his bloated contract might have a say in the matter, but his strikeout and walk rates continue to trend in the wrong direction.

Bottom line: Robertson is the guy you want. You can add Sori, too, but I wouldn't break my neck if I were in a roster squeeze.

Dodgers
I'd finished this piece by the time the news broke Monday evening that Kenley Jansen had officially been named Dodgers closer. But I have to say, after touting Jansen for the past year or so, I didn't mind updating the piece.

For Jansen to finally claim the throne, incumbent Javy Guerra had to stumble, and at first glance, Guerra does in fact appear to have slumped badly after a hot start. But looking a little closer, Guerra seems to merely be the victim of some poor luck -- not to mention his manager's inability to recognize said misfortune. There's a huge disparity between Guerra's 5.84 ERA and his 2.35 SIERA, mostly fueled by an insanely high .485 BABIP and very low 61.9% strand rate. Those numbers won't last.

But Guerra's loss is Jansen's gain, and with all due respect to Jav-Guer, it should be a lot of fun to watch Jansen in his new role, as he's capable of reeling off a season not unlike what Craig Kimbrel did a year ago. Guerra can be safely cut; hopefully, his owners didn't spend too much for him on Draft Day.

White Sox
We could probably break the Pale Hose's week-to-week closer dealings into a separate column, but alas, here were are, discussing a pretty surprising twist.

Chris Sale was a sometimes closer in 2011 before being moved to the rotation this season. He got off to a terrific start pitching every fifth day, so I assumed he'd be there for a good while, but he was apparently experiencing elbow tenderness. The South Siders responded by moving him back to 'pen, the dubious logic being that the barking elbow would subside with more appearances that require greater exertion but fewer pitches. I'm not sure it adds up, but we shall see.

Anyway, Sale becomes Chicago's closer, quite the sweet consolation prize for owners like myself who were enjoying his starting contributions. He should fare well as a closer, and perhaps his (re)appointment will finally furnish the White Sox with some ninth-inning stability. If everything breaks right for them, they might not be appearing here for a while.

I'm fine with cutting Matt Thornton (though I'll be holding onto him in my holds league), and Hector Santiago can be safely dropped. Consider keeping a close eye on fireballer Addison Reed, though, especially if Sale doesn't get off to a fast start (or is injured). Reed has come out strong, and he might be next up in this little carousel.

Marlins
Mercifully, the inevitable came to pass with Heath Bell's demotion from the closer's role this weekend. The Fish stuck with their big-money stopper as long as they could before finally conceding that he needed to get himself straightened out in some low-leverage sitches.

Ozzie Guillen tabbed Steve Cishek as Bell's temporary replacement, although that was put on hold by Hi-Ci's three-inning appearance on Friday night. So when a save opp cropped up on Sunday, and Cishek was unavailable, Oz called on Vinia Edward Mujica, who converted without much trouble. I like both pitchers, but since Guillen said Cishek would be his first choice, I'd prioritize them accordingly if either right-hander is still on your league's wire.

Meanwhile, Bell owners shouldn't cut bait. The Marlins will want to shoehorn him back into the role as soon as they can, if only to save face on their big offseason investment. I'm not especially optimistic he'll reclaim past glory, but stranger things have happened.

Quick-ish Hits
The Cubs' bullpen has dissolved so that the body can't even be properly identified with dentals. Kerry Wood is fresh off the DL and pitched poorly in his first outing back. Rafael Dolis and James Russell are not closer types, and Carlos Marmol may have gone completely off the rails. Shawn Camp is a darkhorse but isn't an ideal choice considering he was scooped up by the Cubs in early April after he was cut by the Mariners, a team whose bullpen isn't exactly the second coming of The Nasty Boys. This one could be frustrating all season.

Andrew Cashner flopped in his first outing since Huston Street was placed on the disabled list (albeit in a non-save situation). Cash Money's output has never seemed to catch up with his ridiculous raw stuff, so I'm not especially high on him. Luke Gregerson is not the same pitcher he was a couple years back and needs to be handled carefully, as he's injury prone. Brad Brach has a strong minor league track record, but that has not yet translated in his limited Major League experience. With Street sounding confident about a quick return, this might not be worth the trouble, either.



Position/Role Battles: The Cubs' First Baseman

Bryan LaHair took an unlikely path to a Major League first-base job.  An unheralded 39th-round draft pick of the Mariners in 2002, LaHair plugged away in the minors for years, putting up solid numbers at the lower levels but stubbing his toe (a .661 OPS in 150 plate appearances) when he got his chance with Seattle in 2008.   The M's let LaHair go, he signed with the Cubs, and proceeded to put up whopping numbers at Triple-A Iowa in both 2010 and 2011. He was called back up to the Majors last September and made the most of his second chance, hitting .288/.377/.508 in 69 plate appearances, a performance that made him Chicago's incumbent first baseman going into the 2012 season.

Great story notwithstanding, Cubs fans were no doubt hoping their new GM would bring Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder or another superstar first sacker to town this offseason.  The Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer management team, however, eschewed adding (another) big contract to the Cubs' payroll and instead made a long-term move by acquiring star prospect Anthony Rizzo from the Padres. 

Rizzo is clearly "their guy," as Epstein originally drafted Rizzo in Boston and Hoyer traded for him last year when he was San Diego's GM, but that doesn't mean the Cubs are in any rush to immediately put Rizzo in the everyday lineup.  Hoyer has already stated that Rizzo will begin this year in Triple-A for more seasoning in the wake of his disappointing .181/.281/.242 line in 153 PAs with the Padres last season.

For fantasy purposes, then, we have a clear handcuff situation.  If you're able to draft both LaHair and Rizzo, great.  If not, then the LaHair owner will be nervously checking the Triple-A boxscores to see if Rizzo is on the verge of a callup and the Rizzo owner will be hoping that he doesn't have to stash Rizzo on his bench for too long.  While the situation seems clear on paper, however, judging which player has the more fantasy value in 2012 itself is a bit harder to gauge.

LaHair, 29, is still very much a wild card heading into next year, as one doesn't want to make too much of a September cup of coffee.  Roto Authority's Mike Axisa didn't even give LaHair as much as an honorable mention in his recent first base position rankings.  This said, LaHair's recent minor league success can't be ignored, and Wrigley Field is a great place to play if you're a slugging first baseman.  I'd expect LaHair to at least be able to hit right-handed pitching, with right-handed utilityman Jeff Baker getting some starts against southpaws.

Rizzo is coming off his biggest minor league season yet (a 1.056 OPS 413 PAs for Triple-A Tucson) but those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.  In fact, Rizzo was in a way too successful, as his stint in the PCL gave him some bad swing habits.  Since Hoyer admitted that calling Rizzo up last year "was a mistake," he could take the opposite tack now and give Rizzo an entire season in Triple-A.  It's quite possible that Rizzo might not get the call up to Wrigley until the rosters expand in September, though Cubs fans and media will certainly pressure Hoyer to do if Rizzo is raking in Iowa and LaHair is struggling.

The good news for LaHair is that if he plays well, he won't entirely lose his job in the case of a Rizzo call-up.  LaHair can play both corner outfield spots --- he could split time in left with Alfonso Soriano if Soriano struggles or is injured again, and he could play right field against right-handers, with David DeJesus moving to center to spell Marlon Byrd against a tough righty.  Byrd and DeJesus could also both be midseason trade candidates, opening up a spot for LaHair or possibly prospect Brett Jackson

Fantasy outlook: I'd forecast LaHair for at least 350 plate appearances in 2012.  Given his minor league numbers and his positional versatility, LaHair is not just a placeholder; he carries some quality sleeper potential as a late- or final-round pick in your draft.  You can try to handcuff him with Rizzo if you have the bench space and are willing to wait a potentially long time for Rizzo to arrive in the Majors.  Otherwise, Rizzo could go undrafted and you'll have to brave a waiver-wire frenzy later in the season if he's called up.

Keep an eye on Rizzo's spring numbers, however, since that could set you up for a nice little sell-high tactic.  If Rizzo has a big Spring Training but the Cubs are adamant that he'll start the season in the minors, draft him anyway in your fantasy league.  Then, use the hype and a "oh, the Cubs will call him up soon" line of reasoning to try and deal Rizzo to another fantasy owner for a player who will have a clearer Major League impact right away.  Best-case scenario is that you'll ride the hype to acquire a player who can contribute now, while your opponent wastes a roster spot on a player who's in the minors for months.  The worst-case scenario if, of course, that Rizzo is called up early and starts annihilating Major League pitching...but hey, when are the Cubs ever that lucky?



Gregg Removed From Closer Role

Cubs manager Lou Piniella announced early this morning that he plans to make late innings changes, according to Paul Sullivan of the Chicago TribuneKevin Gregg's West Coast implosion is the perfect fantasy opportunity - it's time to add Carlos Marmol, Angel Guzman, or both if you can.

The Cubs have tried to maintain Marmol as the setup man all year long, despite a maddening 52 walks in 56.3 innings.  Guzman has far better control, though his strikeout rate has been mediocre in recent months.  Here's how I see it: Piniella will probably soon announce an inclination toward Marmol, even though Guzman makes more sense.  This may not be a fantasy dilemma for you, as Marmol is already owned in many leagues.  So just add Guzman and see what happens.



What The Hell Is Wrong With...Geovany Soto?

First up in our What The Hell Is Wrong With...series, Cubs catcher Geovany Soto.  The 25 year-old catcher has two hits in 24 plate appearances on the young season.  Granted, the Cubs' season is less than 7% over.  But, Soto has been a complete non-factor in fantasy baseball so far.

First off, Soto's WBC appearance threw off his preparation.  He fell behind in his hitting prep and put on some pounds, according to Bruce Miles of the Daily Herald in March.  On April 7th, Soto left the Cubs' game against the Astros due to shoulder soreness/discomfort.  He said it wasn't the first time he's had this type of discomfort.  The MRI came back clean, and Soto returned on the 12th as a pinch-hitter.

Soto set the bar pretty high with his Rookie of the Year numbers - .285-23-86-66-0 in 494 ABs last year.  That's an expectation of about 4 HR and 14 RBI per month.  His worst month last year was July; he posted a .740 OPS and still managed 4 HR and 11 RBI.  You hate to see a catcher get off to a slow start, since you expect to see their best numbers in the first half before they get worn down.

Soto typically was drafted in the sixth round this year, after Russell Martin and Brian McCann among catchers.  I sprung for him in the fifth round of the RotoAuthority league, with Martin, McCann, and Joe Mauer already off the board.  Victor Martinez went in the sixth round, and that pick is working out well for Philly Cheez so far.  (By the way, Cult of Personality snagged Yadier Molina in the 23rd and Brandon Inge was an April 1st free agent pickup by Volvo Wagon Dynasty). 

All of that might be interesting (at least to me) but the bottom line is that with Soto and other slow starters, draft position and the stats so far are sunk costs.  He's on your roster, there's nothing better out there, and you have to wait and hope he starts hitting in May.  At least we have an explanation for Soto's April.  Baseball Prospectus has his Collapse Rate at 16% - basically the chance that his offense decreases by 20%+ compared to his established performance.  I think Soto will be fine, and it's just a matter of catching up after the WBC.



Felix Pie Traded To Orioles

The Cubs traded Felix Pie to the Orioles on Saturday for Garrett Olson and a minor league pitcher.  The move may have fantasy impact.

The Orioles seem intent on giving Pie a good chunk of playing time as their left fielder, much as they handed a job to Adam Jones in 2008.  Like Jones, Pie is a power/speed threat for fantasy baseball.  If Pie gets 500 ABs, he could hit .270 with more than 10 HR and possibly 20 SBs.  You can grab him at the end of most mixed league drafts.

Olson is mildly intriguing, as he's moving to the NL.  The southpaw could be decent given a rotation spot.  Best case, he winds up in San Diego as part of a Jake Peavy deal.



Milton Bradley To The Cubs

Milton Bradley reached an agreement with the Cubs worth about three years and $30 million.  Bradley, like J.D. Drew, is a good player who doesn't translate well to fantasy baseball.  He's often out of the lineup with an injury, preventing him from racking up counting stats.  And his strong OBP gets ignored in many leagues.  He's being drafted in the 14th round, and Cubs hype could push him up another round.  Three outfielders you can draft later who should be more valuable: Nelson Cruz, Lastings Milledge, and Jayson Werth.

Which brings me to my next point, that the Rangers losing Bradley should lead to a regular job for Cruz.  Cruz is my favorite sleeper for 2009Troy Patterson says he's heading into overhyped territory, a fair point.  But that is more true in the insular world of hardcore fantasy baseball geeks than in the league with your buddies or even in the poorly written $8 magazine you'll surely buy.


Full Story |  Comments (5) | Categories: Chicago Cubs


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