Cincinnati Reds

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.

Closer Updates: Nats, Padres, Dodgers, Reds

As with last week, there's no shortage of bullpen shakeups to cover this week. Before we get down and dirty, your weekly friendly reminder to follow @closernews on Twitter, especially if you find it hard to respect me for not telling you the truth or not telling you face to face.

Tyler Clippard's respectable season numbers (3.67 ERA, 1.11 WHIP) are a testament to how well he pitched prior to this month, because he has suffered through a nightmarish September: 9.64 ERA, three losses, one blown save. Clippard's tough stretch has culminated in a demotion, with Drew Storen being named Washington's primary full-time closer by manager Davey Johnson. Obviously, Storen, now owned in 61% of Yahoo! leagues, is a must-add if he has somehow slipped through the cracks in your league. Johnson said he'll still mix in Ty-Clipp, so he's worth holding onto if you're desperate, but I'd be surprised if he earned more than one save the rest of the way.

Finally, Huston Street has made his long-awaited return from an August calf strain. The right-hander earned a save in his first outing back on Sunday, although he coughed up a run along the way. Even still, the guess here is that Street will be the Friars' sole closer the rest of the way. The team was very cautious in monitoring his comeback, presumably because they wanted to minimize the chance of a possible re-injury. With that in mind, I have to think Street is essentially 100% healthy. Luke Gregerson owners might want to hold on to see how San Diego's next save chance shapes up, but I'm also not averse to cutting LG before then if someone better is sitting on the wire.

Kenley Jansen has looked sharp in three outings since returning from the irregular heartbeat that sidelined him for a few weeks. The only problem is, none of those outings has been a save situation. I predicted last week that the Dodgers would shoehorn Jansen back into the ninth after only an outing or so, but clearly they are taking a more conservative approach, allowing Brandon League to soak up a couple more save opps. The Dodgers are close enough in the wild card race that they can't just put up the white flag, but will that result in Don Mattingly erring toward preserving the status quo? It seems that way to me.

Aroldis Chapman returned to the hill in a non-save situation on Saturday after missing nearly two weeks due to shoulder fatigue. The question now is whether Chapman is now available for regular closing duty. My guess is no. The Reds have already clinched their postseason berth and have little reason to push the fireballer other than to tune up for the playoffs -- but that goal can be accomplished in any number of situations. I think Chapman might see another save chance just because the Reds might want to see how he responds in that setting, but Jonathan Broxton owners should hold on.

Frank Francisco hasn't pitched since Sept. 16 due to elbow tendinitis, but the Mets insist they're not ready to shut down the right-hander for the season's balance. Francisco's poor season had already stifled his ownership rates, but he's now rostered in just 58% of Yahoo! leagues, and I don't blame owners for having little patience. Hold onto Double-F if you have the room and need saves, but don't torture yourself over your decision on this one. Jon Rauch is the guy you want to snap up if you're scrounging for Mets saves.

Closer Updates: Dodgers, Rangers, Padres

Now that I'm back from my weekend dead-arm sabbatical, please remember to follow @closernews on Twitter for breaking updates on all the bullpen situations. That being said, three's a lot to address this week, so I'll try to keep 'em short and sweet.

Kenley Jansen has apparently gotten a clean bill of health and is expected to return to Los Angeles' bullpen tonight. Despite a several-week layoff, I'd expect him to return to closing after one outing, if not sooner, so Brandon League owners should be ready to cut away. In fact, at this point of the season, depending on where you are in the standings, I don't mind making that move even before KJ is back on the hill, which I typically don't advise. End of the season calls for bold flavors moves, eh?

Joe Nathan's surgically repaired 37-year-old right arm has generally held up surprisingly well this season (surprising to me, at least), but he was unavailable over the weekend due to a so-called dead arm period, his second such hiatus. He's supposed to be ready to return on Tuesday, but it's one worth watching. Meanwhile, Mike Adams and Alexi Ogando are both dinged, so if you want to foray into this mess, Koji Uehara is your guy.

Luke Gregerson owners who have been dreading the impending return of Huston Street may get a reprieve after all. Details have been sketchy, but Street is apparently fit to return ... yet he hasn't. Perhaps the Friars are shelving Street because they know he's rickety and he's under contract for a couple more years. Not to mention, Gregerson has done a fine job in Street's absence (with an odd assist or two from Tom Layne et al). LG is well worth holding onto until Street is on the mound again in a Major League game.

Aroldis Chapman says his fatigued shoulder is feeling better, but neither he nor the Reds have provided a firm timetable as to when a potential return could happen. The guess here is that both pitcher and team will want him to see some game action before the playoffs get underway, but he could take off another week or 10 days and still make that happen. Till then, Jonathan Broxton is the optimal add, but since he's not allowed to pitch on more than two consecutive days, Sean Marshall is worth a look if you're scrounging for every last save you can find.

Ernesto Frieri owners were dealt a double-punch to the gut this weekend, when the previously immortal right-hander blew a save in very un-Nasty-like fashion and then saw Kevin Jepsen convert one the next night. The former isn't a huge concern, per se; even the best closers blow saves. But no one would blame Frieri owners if the timing of Jepsen's unexpected save had them a little uneasy. Not to fear, apparently, as Frieri was just getting a breather. He should be good to go now, having rested on Sunday and Monday.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Ryan Madson Out For Season

Prior to last season, Ryan Madson teased fantasy owners as one of those relievers. He was clearly good enough to close, yet a couple ill-timed flareups in his limited save opps over the preceeding few years left him regrettably labled as incapable of "handling" the ninth, relegating him to seventh- and eighth-inning duties.

Though he was actually the Phils' third choice to close last season, Mad Dog got his chance to earn some saves when both Brad Lidge and Jose Contreras were injured, and he handled the gig with aplomb, setting himself up nicely for a foray into free agency.

After signing with the Reds this offseason, Madson was supposed to have been Cincinnati's undisputed full-time closer, but both parties have been dealt a cruel blow, as the right-hander will undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery. It's unclear whether his $11MM mutual option for 2013 will be exercised, so Madson could find himself in a new uniform by the time he's ready to return, potentially concluding his Reds tenure without having thrown a pitch.

Left-hander Sean Marshall, also imported to Cincy's bullpen in the offseason, should now assume closing duties, and there's a lot to like about him from a fantasy perspective. Marshall is coming off two consecutive years of excellent work out of the Cubs' bullpen as a primary setup man to Carlos Marmol, posting sub-2.50 SIERAs in both. He boasts strong strikeout rates, induces lots of grounders and has solid control, a perfect cocktail for success.

Aroldis Chapman is nearly impossible to hit when he's not issuing free passes, so he can't be entirely ruled out as a closing candidate until the Reds confirm their plans, but considering he put up an ugly 7.38 BB/9 rate in 2011, I think it's safe to say he still has some work to do, and it's only fair to assume the Reds will afford him that opportunity somewhere other than the ninth inning. As well, the Reds had been tinkering with the idea of making Chapmania a starter this season, and although that now appears to be off, they might prefer to keep him in a role where he can more easily be stretched out for more than one inning if the situation calls for it.

So, if your league has already conducted its draft, nab Marshall from the wire yesterday if he's still there. He projects to be an excellent value as someone who could finish in the top half or even top third among closers by season's end. If you haven't yet drafted, stash Marshall away in the back end of your queue, and nab him toward the mid- or late-teen rounds. He'll likely go under the radar, as the default draft rankings will under rate him, and many of your leaguemates will either not know about his new promotion or will have forgotten during the drafting frenzy.

Whether you nab Marshall off your league's wire or buy him cheaply on draft day, he should be a relative bargain. It's a shame that it had to come at Madson's expense, but fantasy is a dirty business, and Mad Dog's injury has created a value opportunity for those who are hip on Marshall. Hopefully, Madson will be back in 2013, good as new.

Sleepers & Busts: Jhonny Peralta, Johnny Cueto

We soldier on with the latest installment of Sleepers & Busts, looking at a couple of fellas whose names are prounced the same but spelled differently. For the sake of keeping things simple, let's keep the Jonny Gomes references to a minimum. See what I did there?

Jhonny Peralta, Tigers, ADP: 175.5

You may have noticed the state of affairs over at shortstop is not what it once was -- and it was never all too hot to begin with.

After Troy Tulowitzki, things get hairy. Hanley Ramirez is coming off a miserable season. Jose Reyes is coming off a good (but not entirely injury-free) one, which means as soon as you spend a second-round pick on him, his hammy'll pop like the high-E string you overtuned on your first axe.

Then, it's a mixed bag of vets and newbs who'll contribute in some cats but leave you wanting much more in others.

It'll take some guts on your part, but rather than reaching for an overvalued Asdrubal Cabrera, aging Derek Jeter or unproven Dee Gordon, how about nabbing Peralta? His current ADP puts him squarely in the mid-14th, which isn't a bad price to pay for a guy who could easily finish in the top 10 or 12 among fantasy shortstops.

Jhonny Got His Gun clubbed 21 homers and posted a cool .299 average in the Motor City in 2K11, making him a sneaky value for those who drafted him late or plucked him off the waiver wire. The right-handed hitter, 30 in May, enjoyed a rebound campaign after consecutive underwhelming seasons in 2009-10 that saw him slip out of fantasy relevance in all but very deep leagues.

And therein lies the rub: It's been tough to count on Peralta for consistent, year-after-year production throughout his career. The good news, though, is that nothing in his profile suggests last year was necessarily a fluke. He's actually had better power years in terms of ISO, and his .325 BABIP wasn't far off from his career .315 mark. So, this is hardly a case of a player far exceeding previously established career norms.

Peralta doesn't come without risk, but he could be a surplus value at a position that's notably thin. Considering many fantasy owners are overreaching for shortstops, Peralta presents a rare opportunity to buy a decent one at below-market cost.

Johnny Cueto, Reds, ADP: 116.4

There was a glorious but fleeting time when Johnny Cueto appeared to be a fantasy stud in the making. As a rookie in 2008, the right-hander struck out more than eight batters per nine innings, teasing us with the promise of what could be if he were to round out his game in the coming years. While Cueto improved his control in both 20o9 and 2010, it seemingly came at the expense of his strikeout rate.

So, by the time 2011 rolled around, Cueto's name was recognizable but his fantasy contributions were rather underwhelming. Last season, though, Cueto vaulted himself back into relevance on the strength of very sharp ratios: 2.31 ERA and 1.09 WHIP.

Just a cursory glance at the peripherals, however, reveals that those ratios -- the ERA, in particular -- are unsustainable. Chiefly, Cueto's strikeout rate dipped for the third consecutive year in 2011, down to 6.00, while his control remained competent at 2.71 BB/9 for the second year in a row. As well, his BABIP was stifled at .249, a notable departure from his previous career average in the .290s. All told, SIERA was no fan of Cueto's in 2011 based on these periphs, churning out a 3.93 figure for what his ERA "should" have been.

Now, it's worth mentioning that Cueto actually became something of a different pitcher last season, inducing a ton of ground balls (53.7%), whereas he'd previously been a moderate flyball pitcher. He seems to have added a two-seam fastball to his repertoire over the past couple years, which he threw often and effectively in 2011, and he may have it to thank for the sudden spike in grounders.

Nonetheless, a new (i.e. strikeout-shy) Cueto is not necessarily a better one for fantasy purposes, so if you find yourself infatuated by his fortuitous 2011 ratios, resist the urge to buy him anywhere near his current going rate -- mid-ninth round! There are a handful of pitchers being drafted long after him who will offer more strikeouts, or a sturdier groundball profile, or both.

Position/Role Battles: The Reds' Left Fielder

Dusty Baker never met a veteran player he didn't want to entrust with a bit of extra playing time, but that doesn't mean Ryan Ludwick should automatically be on your fantasy short list this season. Ludwick agreed to sign with the Reds last month and is targeted to share time in left field alongside Chris Heisey and Todd Frazier. It was a logical depth signing given that the Reds' 40-man roster was short on outfielders, but it also creates a battle for playing time between some flawed players.

Ludwick hit .299/.375/.591 in a breakout 2008 campaign, smacking 37 homers and looking like a very nice complement to Albert Pujols in the Cardinals' lineup.  Since then, however, Ludwick has struggled.  His OPS has steadily declined in each of the past three seasons, with an overall battling line of .251/.321/.409 over that stretch.  You can attiribute part of that decline to 659 plate appearances at PETCO Park as a member of the Padres, but the fact is Ludwick turns 34 in July and simply looks like a player on the downhill slope of his career.

Could he rediscover his power at the hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park?  It's possible, but what will really hurt Ludwick's fantasy value is the fact that the Reds have a younger, homegrown, right-handed-hitting outfield option in Heisey who also carries some serious power potential.

In 534 career plate appearances (essentially a full season), Heisey has hit 26 homers with a .465 slugging percentage. This pop has helped make up for a lack of overall hitting polish, as Heisey only has a .254 career batting average and a troubling .316 on-bae percentage.  Heisey's minor league OBP was .365, however, which gives hopes that his batting eye has simply yet to develop on the Major League level.  Heisey is theoretically entering his prime as he begins his age-27 season, but with the Reds going all-in on contending in 2012, the team doesn't have much margin for error in letting a young but flawed player find himself. If Heisey struggles, he'll lose playing time to Ludwick.

A straight platoon between Ludwick and Heisey isn't practical since both are right-handed hitters and (unusually) both are reverse-splits guys.  Ludwick has a .272/.339/.464 career line against righties and a .237/.316/.435 line against lefties, while Heisey has an .885 OPS against right-handers in his short career and only a .548 OPS against southpaws. You would think Heisey's splits would normalize with more at-bats, but for now he looks like the better option against righties, while using Ludwick exclusively against lefties doesn't make sense given his middling career numbers against southpaws.

The wild card in the mix is Frazier, who was rated as the 43rd-best prospect in the game by Baseball America heading into the 2010 season.  Frazier posted a .727 OPS in 121 PAs in his Major League debut last season, largely playing third base in place of the injured Scott Rolen. Frazier has played all over the infield and in left throughout his minor league career, so if he has a big Spring Training, the Reds could give him a crack at the left-field job, as well.  He's another right-handed hitter, but one with traditional splits, so Frazier could see time in left when a southpaw is on the mound.  This all being said, I'm not sure Frazier has any significant fantasy value unless Rolen is injured again, which would make Frazier a nice short-term pickup at the hot corner.  

Fantasy outlook: My inclination would be to draft Heisey since he possesses the most upside. He, Ludwick and even Frazier can all provide some solid power numbers in a standard 5x5 league, but you shouldn't expect much outside of the HRs and maybe the RBI category (though Frazier has shown decent base-stealing ability in the minors). I doubt Ludwick would exceed this modest projection and Frazier is unlikely to get enough playing time to be a factor. With Heisey, however, the potential is there for him to break out and become a legitimate, everyday Major Leaguer.  It may take a couple of months for Cincinnati's LF situation to become clear, so I'd draft Heisey with a late-round pick and then cross your fingers that he emerges by midseason as the de facto starter.

Transaction Analysis: Pierre, Lidge, Francis

Other than that little matter with that big first baseman, it was a relatively quiet week for transactions. But quiet isn't silent, and when I saw that Juan Pierre signed with Philadelphia, Brad Lidge joined Washington, and Jeff Francis agreed to terms with Cincinnati, it occurred to me that this would have been a huge day back in 2007. Pierre was coming off a 64-steal season, Lidge had just resurrected his career (for the first time), and Francis won 17 games leading Colorado to the NL Pennant.

How times change. Pierre and Francis have signed minor league contracts, while Lidge will earn just $1MM. All three entered the offseason with the potential (however slight) at being fantasy contributors, but all three find themselves in situations that significantly diminish their values but bear at least some attention.

Juan Pierre

Pierre joins a crowded left-field picture for the Phillies, and he will vie with John Mayberry, Laynce Nix, and Domonic Brown for playing time. It's possible that he won't make the team, or that he will be relegated to pinch -unning duty, both of which obviously kill whatever fantasy value the 34-year-old speedster had left after stealing just 27 bases for Ozzie Guillen's White Sox in 2011. Those desperate for steals (in leagues that don't count CS, at least) should keep an eye on Pierre, though, as he has a knack for worming his way into Major League lineups. Pay extra attention if Ryan Howard's injury lingers.

Pierre isn't the only player whose potential value takes a downturn with this move, as Brown just got another roadblock to playing time. This doesn't end his chances at winning a starting job, but it certainly doesn't make it any easier.

Brad Lidge

 Say what you want about Lidge, the guy doesn't stay down. Or up. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a higher-variance ballplayer than Lidge, who can be the worst reliever in baseball or the best. Though it seems safe to say his best years are behind him, the upside that seems to follow him led to speculation that he might land a closing gig somewhere. That speculation ends with his deal with the Nationals. Though he earned the prestige of a Major League deal, it doesn't look like he'll be pitching in the ninth inning, or even the eighth with Drew Storen closing and All-Star Tyler Clippard setting up. Though trade rumors swirled about Storen over the summer, it seems unlikely that a Washington team with dreams of contention would trade both at once.  

Lidge's best chance at fantasy-relevance may hinge on pitching well enough to get traded into another team's stopper job. Deep leagues can at least note that his strikeout rate has never dipped below a batter per inning.

Jeff Francis

Though teams like the Mets and Mariners were thought to have interest -- and room in their rotations -- for Francis, he signed a minor league deal with a Reds team that doesn't have room for the starters they already had. Coming off a mediocre 2011 in which his 4.10 FIP wasn't good but was better than his 4.82 ERA and 16 losses suggested, Francis might have been worth a late-round flier in deep leagues. If he manages to crack the Reds' rotation (he's probably seventh in line if Aroldis Chapman is under real consideration) he'd be worth a look, as Cincinnati looks to compete and Francis's 47% GB rate ought to play decently in cozy Great American Ball Park.

It would probably take a trade or injury to get Francis into the Cincinnati rotation, but if it happens he could be a useful two-start pitcher or streamer, though that's probably where the upside is.

Five years ago, all three of these guys looked like (or even were) fantasy mainstays. At the beginning of the offseason they looked like they could still help your team if they found the right situation. None of them did.

Position Battles: Reds #5 Starter

In what might be the most evenly matched competition in this series, I'll take a look at the last spot in the Reds' rotation. I can probably expand the list of candidates by two or three but it's unnecessary at this point. Realistically, it's a two-man race between two of the better young pitchers in the game. If you like position battles, take a look at over 50 that I've identified over at and will be keeping a close eye on throughout Spring Training.

Travis Wood vs Mike Leake

Tale of the Tape

Wood: 23 years old, est. $425K salary 2010 stats: 5-4, 3.51 ERA, 10 quality starts, 102.2 IP, 85 H, 26 BB, 86 K in 17 starts 2011 Outlook: Equal chance as Leake to be #5 starter

While Leake made big news early in the season, it was Wood who was a fixture in the rotation from July 1st through the end of the regular season. The 5'11" left-hander allowed three earned runs or less in 15 of 17 starts after joining the rotation while allowing a measly .222 BA to opposing hitters. He even contributed with 3 1/3 scoreless innings in a playoff loss to the Phillies. He could have a slight edge on Leake if the team prefers having a lefty to balance the first four starters, who are all right-handed. A case can also be made for Wood based on his overall numbers compared to Leake, who hitters were obviously more comfortable against (.292 opponent BA).

Leake: 23 years old, est. $425K salary 2010 stats: 8-4, 4.23 ERA, 13 quality starts, 138.1 IP, 158 H, 49 BB, 91 K in 22 starts, 2 relief appearances 2011 Outlook: Equal chance as Wood to be #5 starter

As would be expected from a rookie making the jump directly from college to the big leagues, Leake wore down in the second half of the season and was eventually shut down. But it wasn't before he posted a 7-1 record and 3.45 ERA in his first 18 starts. The right-hander's peripherals weren't overly impressive (1.496 WHIP, 10.3 H/9, 5.9 K/9) and he doesn't project as a top-of-the-rotation starter, but he has the command and repertoire of pitches to be a big league starter for a long time.  

Final Word

It's hard to believe that one of these two pitchers could start the season in the minors. Both deserve to be in a major league rotation. That says a lot about Cincinnati's pitching depth. Having six or more capable starters is almost necessary to be a contending team. In fact, nine different pitchers started games for the NL Central Champs in 2010. Sam LeCure and Matt Maloney didn't pitch terribly in eight combined starts but the team combined to go 2-6 in those games. Having Leake or Wood ready to go in Triple-A when the team needs another starter could be an important factor in the pennant race. If I had to take a guess, I'd say that Wood will beat out Leake, who could finally throw his first minor league pitch after 138 1/3 big league innings and nearly two years after being drafted. 

The Potential Of Jay Bruce

Heading into the season Reds right fielder Jay Bruce was being drafted in the 11th round on average.  We had him down for .269-32-91-85-8 in 560 ABs.  His actual line: .281-25-70-80-5 in 509 ABs.  He missed some time in September with an abdomen injury, and also was benched against tough lefties earlier in the season.  Projected to 560 ABs he would've hit .281-28-77-88-6, pretty close to our projection aside from RBIs.

Bruce fell a bit short of the breakout some fantasy touts predicted or hoped for, but his age 23 season was definitely his best yet.  He provided excellent 11th-round value.  In 2011 I think people will be salivating on draft day, given Bruce's obvious talent.  He could be drafted as early as the fifth round.  Will he be worth that level of speculation?

The first thing to note is that Bruce probably won't be benched much next year, having proven his ability to hit lefties.  Hit AB totals in May, June, and July suggest he'd be around 590 in a healthy, full season.  Right there you're looking at 30 home runs without any growth.

Bruce's .281 batting average may not be sustainable; Baseball HQ's xBA stat had him at .260.  His 26.7% strikeout rate was on the high side, 25th in baseball among those with 400+ PAs.

We mentioned the 30 home run potential.  This year 15 of Bruce's home runs came in his final 133 ABs.  That's a ridiculous rate, but it was only two months.  It's enough to hint that Bruce could be a 40 home run player in 2011 though.

In the RBI department keep in mind he spent 48% of his plate appearances in the #6 spot in the lineup and 40% in the #5 spot.  Assuming the Reds don't bring in a big name to play left field, I could see Bruce find more of a permanent home at #5 behind Joey Votto and Scott Rolen.  That means more RBIs.

Bruce attempted nine steals and found success on only five.  Compared to how many times he was on first base, he really didn't attempt many steals.  He may get a few extra swipes by improving his success rate, but he's not a 10 steal guy unless something changes.  Sometimes a player just decides to run more, but don't count on steals from Bruce.

Entirely using gut feel, I'd put Bruce down for something like .270-35-100-90-5 next year.  Not too many players hit 35 homers these days, and the steals help.  Even without a massive breakout type campaign, Bruce's power numbers should make him a top 10 fantasy outfielder in the vein of Vladimir Guerrero or Corey Hart this year.  I'm intrigued enough to say a fifth or sixth round selection is justified.

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