New York Mets


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 East Closer Roundup

Last week, we started rolling out closer roundups for every division in baseball. This week, we're heading to the National League East, to look over the projected closer situations for all five teams. If you missed last week's review of the American League West, here's a link.

We're rating each closer on a tier, and here's the 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.

Washington Nationals: Rafael Soriano

The big closer news from the past week is Rafael Soriano (finally) signing a two-year, $28 million deal with the Washington Nationals, ostensibly to be their new closer. Soriano had been linked to the Tigers and a few other teams, but the Nationals ponied up the big bucks to bring him on. It's very likely that he displaces former closers Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard ... in fact GM Mike Rizzo said as much when introducing Soriano in a press conference.

Soriano brings closer experience and, best of all, real skill to the Nationals, who now have a pretty scary bullpen. After a dismal 2011 with the Yankees, one that included DL time, Soriano did well as the only non-Mariano Rivera full-time closer for the Bombers since about 1996. He saved 42 games, and did so posting a 2.26 ERA and 24.7% strikeout rate. Not too bad.

The minor problem here is that Soriano probably wasn't as effective as he looked in 2012. FIP (or Fielding Independent Pitching) says that Soriano didn't do the strikeout-walk-homer thing quite as well as his ERA indicated, giving him a 3.32 FIP for the season -- a big difference. Soriano benefitted from a great LOB% (88%), which helped him limit runs despite a high walk rate.

Still, Soriano was paid a lot of money to be the last line of defense for the Nationals, and we should expect him to thrive in the ninth. He's not a top-tier closer at this point, but he is likely to have a good season, especially outside of the tough environment of Yankee Stadium and the AL East.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (moderate-to-high effectiveness, high cost to bring in / stability)

Next in line: Tyler Clippard or Drew Storen

Atlanta Braves: Craig Kimbrel

I wrote quite a bit about Craig Kimbrel in an earlier edition of Shutdown Corner, and the news hasn't changed in the past two weeks.

He's the best closer in baseball.

He's coming off what may have been the best season by a closer in modern history.

He strikes out everybody.

The only question with Kimbrel is whether he'll look like a "normal" closer in 2013, or if he's got another season of sheer dominance left in his right arm. I'm guessing that it will be something in between 2012 and a regular elite closer season. But it's unlikely, especially with Aroldis Chapman moving to the starting rotation, that any closer is as good a bet as Kimbrel.

Projected Tier: Tier 1 (coming off an world-class season, no sign of slowing down)

Next in line: Jonny Venters

Philadelphia Phillies: Jonathan Papelbon

Again, I waxed poetic about the power of Papelbon two weeks ago, and precious little has changed since then. Jon was very consistent (for the most part) in his time with Boston, and little changed in a move to Philly. He threw 70 high-quality innings, striking out a beastly 32.4% of batters faced and racking up just a 2.44 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. While a higher percentage of his fly balls left the park, he's dealt with pitching in hitters' parks before, and this didn't seem to slow him down much in terms of FIP (2.89).

Papelbon already has 257 saves in just seven years closing, which is remarkable. It speaks to his consistency and durability in a position not known for either. Homers and age threaten to bring down this bastion of beatdowns, but I think there's at least another high-end season waiting in the wings for Paps.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (high reliability, high performance, age could be an issue)

Next in line: Antonio Bastardo

New York Mets: Frank Francisco

Last season, the New York Mets bullpen was pretty ugly. Frank Francisco, who suffered through injuries and ineffectiveness, was pretty ugly too. Frank^2 did score 23 saves in just 48 games, which isn't too shabby, but his ERA of 5.53 and WHIP of 1.61 made things pretty scary. Worst of all, Francisco had surgery in December to remove a bone spur from his pitching elbow, so he may need time to recover from the surgery.

Dan Syzmborski's ZiPS projection system sees Francisco as a reasonable option, posting a 3.78 ERA with a 25.6% strikeout rate, which would be a nice improvement from his 2012. Me, I'm not quite so bullish. Bobby Parnell is probably the better reliever at this point, and he isn't dealing with elbow surgery issues. Much like Ryan Madson in Anaheim, I think that Francisco will get the manager's benefit of the doubt if he starts the season healthy, but by the end of the season the younger arm (in this case Parnell) will own the ninth.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (low reliability, low-to-medium performance, stiff competition)

Next in line: Bobby Parnell

Miami Marlins: Steve Cishek

Though the Marlins are projected to be one of the worst teams in baseball history next season, they actually are pretty set at the closer position. Steve Cishek inherited the job last season, and acquitted himself fairly well. He only notched 15 saves in his 68 appearances, but he posted a 2.69 ERA and a career-high 24.7% strikeout rate.

Cishek has a career 2.57 ERA and 2.85 FIP, and does two things very, very well. Cishek gets strikeouts at a serious clip (24.3% over his career), and he keeps the ball in the park (0.29 HR/9 over his career). Walks can be an issue -- I know, stop me if you've heard this before about a closer -- but if his walk rate is closer to his 2011 performance than his 2012 performance, he'll be a very solid option in the ninth.

He, along with Giancarlo Stanton, might be the only solid pieces on this Marlins team.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (moderate performance, little competition, awful team)

Next in line: Ryan Webb (?)

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 East.

All data from FanGraphs.



The Next Big Thing: Waiting On Top Prospects

The 2012 season was the year of immediate impact. All across the league we saw rookie players come up and contribute more than expected, and it started right in April with reigning Rookies of the Year Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. It extended far beyond those two, of course. Wade Miley was an All-Star for the Diamondbacks, Rob Brantly hit .290 with a .372 OBP in a month's worth of games for the Marlins, Manny Machado hit two homers in his second game with the Orioles, the division-winning Athletics had an all-rookie rotation at one point, the list goes on and on. Todd Frazier, Yoenis Cespedes, Will Middlebrooks, Anthony Rizzo ... there were impact rookies everywhere.

Fantasy owners are looking for that next big thing every season, and that search figures to be a little more intense in 2012 after the banner rookie class of a year ago. Top prospects are always a great place to start, but some are blocked or simply two far away from the majors to have real fantasy value. Some are the victims of their own success as clubs will keep them in the minors in April and May to ensure an extra year of team control down the line. Here's a look at some of the game's best up-and-coming big leaguers who could be this season's Trout or Harper.

Arizona Diamondbacks: LHP Tyler Skaggs
The D'Backs have a strong rotation fronted by Miley, Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, and Brandon McCarthy, but that fifth spot is up for grabs. Patrick Corbin handled himself well enough last year (4.54 ERA in 107 IP) and Josh Collmenter is lurking, but the 21-year-old Skaggs will get a chance to make the team out of Spring Training as well. He got hit pretty hard in six late-season starts (5.83 ERA and 1.50 WHIP) but that's not the end of the world. His minor league performance is dynamite (2.87 ERA and 8.5 K/9 in 2012) and his curveball is a true out-pitch. The trade that sent Trevor Bauer to the Indians removed one fifth starter candidate from Arizona's equation, but my guess is Corbin will get the first shot with Skaggs waiting in Triple-A for someone to get hurt or underperform.

Baltimore Orioles: RHP Dylan Bundy
The Orioles made a bold move late last season by calling up baseball's best pitching prospect for the stretch run in September even though he was still a teenager at the time. Bundy, who has since turned 20, made two short relief appearances and is slated for more time in the minors in 2013. He has just 103 2/3 total minor league innings under his belt, only 16 2/3 have come above the Single-A level. Baltimore has already shown a willingness to use Bundy in the big leagues, but I highly doubt using him as a starter right out of Spring Training is in the cards. If anything, the young right-hander is a second half call-up.

Houston Astros: 1B Jonathan Singleton
No team is rebuilding quite like the Astros, though they recently signed Carlos Pena to caddy with Brett Wallace at the first base and DH spots. The first base seat is just being kept warm for the 21-year-old Singleton, who hit .284/.396/.497 with 21 homers in Double-A last season. He followed up the season with an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League. Houston has every reason to play the service time game with Singleton, who they acquired from the Phillies in the Hunter Pence trade two years ago. After a few hundred Triple-A at-bats to start the season, expect to see he young left-handed hitter in the middle of the big league lineup.

New York Mets: RHP Zack Wheeler & C Travis d'Arnaud
Matt Harvey deserved a mention in my quick list of impact rookies in the intro, and he figures to have some running mates in 2013. Like the Astros and Singleton, the Mets have every reason to manipulate Wheeler's and d'Arnaud's service time next season. Wheeler, 22, is arguably the second best pitching prospect in the game but I do not think the team will want to keep him in Triple-A Las Vegas very long. It might the best hitter's environment in professional baseball and could wreck a pitcher's confidence over the full season. Since he needs a challenge after overwhelming the Double-A level this past season (3.27 ERA with 8.5 K/9), expect to see the right-hander in New York's rotation come June.

D'Arnaud, 23, was the centerpiece of the R.A. Dickey trade. He hit a stout .333/.380/.595 with 16 homers in Last Vegas last season (the Mets and Blue Jays swapped Triple-A affiliates this offseason) but did not play after late-June due to a knee injury. After another few hundred at-bats in Triple-A, expect to see d'Arnaud replace John Buck behind the plate at the big league level. He, Wheeler, and Harvey are the team's high-end battery of the future.

Seattle Mariners: RHP Taijuan Walker, LHP James Paxton & LHP Danny Hultzen
Perhaps no club has as many high-end pitching prospects as Seattle, especially if you want to factor in closeness to the majors. Walker, 20, is the best of the bench despite some hiccups at Double-A in 2012 (4.69 ERA). He did skip right over High-A High Desert to avoid the hitter friendly California League, so we'll cut him some slack. There is true ace potential in the young righty, but he's unlikely to see a meaningful amount of big league innings this coming season.

Paxton, 24, is probably first in line of the big three after pitching to a 3.04 ERA (9.3 K/9) at Triple-A last season. He'll get a long look in Spring Training and at the moment, his main competition for a rotation spot is the right-handed trio of Blake Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez, and Hector Noesi. I would expect to see Paxton sooner rather than later in 2013, perhaps even as a member of the Opening Day rotation. Hultzen, 23, has quite a bit of work ahead of him after walking 43 batters in 48 2/3 Triple-A innings last season, including 14 walks in his final 7 1/3 innings of the year. I wouldn't count on him for fantasy purposes next season.

St. Louis Cardinals: OF Oscar Taveras, RHP Shelby Miller & RHP Trevor Rosenthal
The Cardinals have arguably the best farm system in baseball, and they seem to produce productive players at an extraordinary rate. Jaime Garcia got hurt? Here's Joe Kelly (3.53 ERA in 107 IP). Need a versatile bench player? There's Matt Carpenter (.828 OPS while playing five positions). Rafael Furcal blew out his elbow? Don't worry, Pete Kozma will save the day (.952 OPS late in the season). I wouldn't count on Kozma ever doing that again, but the point stands. The Cardinals are an exceptional player development club.

Taveras, 20, is arguably the best pure hitting prospect in the minors. He managed a .321/.380/.572 line in Double-A a year ago and following up with a dominant winter ball showing. He's slated to open the season back in Triple-A and although St. Louis has a superb big league outfield, Taveras figures to make his debut in the second half either as an injury replacement or by simply forcing his way into the lineup a la Allen Craig. Miller and Rosenthal, both 22, made their MLB debuts late last year and pitched well enough to earn at least a real shot at making the team out of camp. Rosenthal in particular dazzled in relief, especially during the postseason (15 strikeouts and four baserunners in 8 2/3 innings). The Cardinals have rotation depth with Garcia, Kelly, Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and Lance Lynn, but Garcia and Carpenter are injury concerns at this point. I believe Rosenthal will open the year in the bullpen (and be a force) while Miller bides his time as a starter in Triple-A.

Tampa Bay Rays: OF Wil Myers, RHP Jake Odorizzi & RHP Chris Archer
The Rays play the service time game as much as anyone, though they didn't play it well enough with David Price. He qualified for Super Two status by approximately two weeks. Desmond Jennings, Matt Moore, and Jeremy Hellickson all had to wait their turn in recent years. The most notable exception is Evan Longoria, who was recalled a handful of days into the 2008 season only to be given a long-term contract extension (giving the team cost certainty) a few days later.

Myers, 22, was the centerpiece of the James Shields trade and could easily be in line for a Longoria-esque quick promotion and extension, but a return trip to the minors to start the season after striking out 140 times in 2012 seems like a safe bet. Tampa has enough outfield depth with Jennings, Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist, Brandon Guyer, and Sam Fuld to cover. The 24-year-old Archer and 22-year-old Odorizzi are at the mercy of the team's rotation depth. Even after moving Shields and Wade Davis, they still boast a starting staff that includes Price, Hellickson, Moore, Alex Cobb, Jeff Niemann, and possibly even the recently-signed Roberto Hernandez. Archer made six big league appearances last season (4.60 ERA) and is a) first in line for a promotion, and b) more fantasy useful given his elite strikeout rate (11.0 K/9 in MLB and 9.8 K/9 in the minors).

Texas Rangers: 3B Mike Olt & SS Jurickson Profar
Baseball isn't fair some times. Quality players at shortstop and third base are in short supply these days, yet Texas boasts an elite left side of the infield both at the big league level (Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre) and in the upper minors (Profar and Olt). I'm convinced the 24-year-old Olt will be traded before the season (Justin Upton?), especially since Lance Berkman will take most, if not all of the DH at-bats. Depends on where he ends up, Olt could either open the season in the show or back in Triple-A. That's a situation worth monitoring given all of the current injury-prone and unreliable fantasy third base options.

Profar, 19, is baseball's top prospect, and GM Jon Daniels recently told Richard Durrett of ESPN Dallas that he doesn't envision using him as a bench player. "It doesn't necessarily make sense ... I don't see (Olt and Profar) as bench players. It doesn't make sense," said the GM. There had been some rumblings Profar could open the season with the MLB club as a second baseman with Ian Kinsler sliding over to first (or the outfield). Either way, he's the only prospect in the minors with a chance to have a Troutian level of impact, meaning power and speed and run-production. That's impossible and unfair to expect from any prospect however, especially someone so young. Profar will definitely play in the big leagues next season after receiving a September call-up last year, but the "when" part is a total wildcard right now.



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.

Nationals
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.

Padres
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.

Dodgers
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.

Reds
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.

Mets
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.



Closers: Giants, Mets, Athletics

For all the latest breaking news on closer shakeups, be sure to follow @closernews, where temporary closer demotions quietly morph into permanent ones. 

Giants
We've seen a few shrewdly handled closer committees over the past couple years, two of which now belong to the Giants and manager Bruce Bochy, who deserves plenty of real-life credit for playing matchups toward the end of getting outs and winning games -- rather than being a slave to flimsily defined niche roles such as setup man and closer.

Real-life credit is fine and all, but Bochy's saber bullpen is not going to win him any friends in fantasy circles, as we fake gamers are sick of playing Whac-A-Mole with potential Giants closers. But unfortunately for those who are speculating for saves as the season's final month approaches, they'll have to look beyond San Francisco (unless willing to sacrifice any semblance of roster efficiency), as there looks to be no end in sight to the Giants' mix-and-match philosophy.

Here's the confusing "pattern" with which we have to work: Since July 31, Jeremy Affeldt has two saves, while Clay Hensley and Javier Lopez each have one. Both of Affeldt's saves spanned longer than one inning (1 1/3 and two). Hensley's and Lopez's saves were both of the one-out variety. Lethal setup man Sergio Romo, meanwhile, has none; ditto for ex-closer Santiago Casilla. Nothing is jumping out at me here from which I can confidently infer anything. While Affeldt looks to have had an early edge in the committee, Bochy's willingness to lift him from a save chance on Saturday night in favor of Hensley kind of tells us all that we need to know. No one is promised anything here.

My sense is that any yearly leaguer who is willing to dip his or her toes into these waters must be in contention and desperate to add saves or prevent a close competitor from accruing more of them. In which case, Affeldt is probably the place to start, but short of adding Lopez and Romo -- and perhaps even Hensley and Casilla -- there's bound to be plenty of frustration for owners who are out to mine saves from this bullpen. It's hard to fathom a scenario in which owning three relievers from the same 'pen is a net win for a fantasy roster (even two is pushing it), so perhaps it's best to leave this piecemeal arrangement alone.

Mets
In truth, the 2012 Mets could have had a weekly slot as one of the three featured bullpens in this column. Between Frank Francisco's perpetual mediocrity, Bobby Parnell's inability to seize a closing opportunity when one is presented to him, and Jon Rauch's Jon Rauchness, the Amazin's have plenty of options, but all are flawed in some way such that job security is always a concern, regardless of who's filling in or bailing out at a given moment.

Most recently, a red-hot Rauch was called upon to bail Francisco out of a couple of hairy situations, earning saves in both cases. Fantasy owners are all too familiar with Rauch, and the Mets too were apparently wary of looking too much into his recent run of success, as his unexpected saves didn't translate into any kind of role change. Parnell, similarly, ceded closing chores back to Francisco after being awarded the gig when Frank-Frank was on the DL in June and July.

With little to play for, uninspiring alternatives, and Francisco on the books for 2013, perhaps the Mets are simply disinclined to rock the boat now. Certainly, they would have been within their rights to make a full-hearted change at several junctures this season. With Francisco's ownership down to 62% in Yahoo! leagues, there's roughly one-third of you who have the opportunity to snap up a free closer off the wire right now. It seems woefully naive to point out the discrepancy between Francisco's 6.06 ERA and 3.76 SIERA, but I just did, so if you want to hang your hat on anything -- however glass-half-full it may be -- in hopes that there's some chance of improvement, there it is.

In the meanwhile, Rauch and Parnell are not worth stashing until I see something out of the Mets to suggest otherwise. With so few bats missed, Rauch's nice run may soon end -- and with it, his chances of vulturing some saves. And while I think Parnell has the chops to close, the Mets might not even consider him next in line.

Athletics
I have to admit: When the A's switched back from Ryan Cook to Grant Balfour as their closer for what they said would only be a couple of save chances, I didn't know what the heck to think in terms of laying out a sensible fantasy strategy. Cook had been so good before settling into a nasty post-break slump, and Balfour's career was seemingly on life support when he relinquished closing duties earlier in the season.

So far, it has paid off for the A's. While Cook's sabbatical has extended well beyond the original two save chances that were prescribed, Balfour has banked each of his first four save chances since reclaiming closing duties -- and Cook is showing modest signs of progress, going unscored upon in each of his past three outings.

Whether the A's will once again flip-flop when convenient remains to be seen, but my guess is they'll keep things as is. Age and experience aside, Balfour and Cook are strikingly similar pitchers. Balfour's peripheral line: 7.67 K/9, 3.51 BB/9, 36% GB rate, 3.76 SIERA. Cook's peripheral line: 8.94 K/9, 4.03 BB/9, 42% GB rate, 3.56 SIERA. If anything, Cook looks like a slightly better pitcher, but not by much, and unless Balfour slumps the way he did earlier in the season, the A's will probably look for (finally) some continuity.



Mets (Finally) Turn To Matt Harvey

There was only so much Miguel Batista the Mets could take. After allowing eight baserunners and four runs in three innings to the Dodgers last weekend, the Amazin's cut ties with the 41-year-old right-hander and decided to finally turn the reigns over to 23-year-old top prospect Matt Harvey. He'll make his big league debut against the Diamondbacks in Arizona tonight, the Mets went so far as to recall catcher Rob Johnson from Triple-A with him just to make sure he's comfortable.

Harvey, the seventh overall pick in the 2010 draft, was ranked the second best prospect in the Mets farm system and the 54th best prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America before the season. "Harvey holds his velocity deep into starts but has below-average command and presently lacks a reliable changeup, so evaluators project him as anywhere from a No. 2 starter to a high-leverage reliever," wrote the publication in their subscriber-only scouting report. He regularly runs his fastball into the mid-90s and will use both a slider and curveball when ahead in the count.

After splitting last season between High-A St. Lucie and Double-A Binghamton, Harvey opened this year with Triple-A Buffalo. He's pitched to a 3.68 ERA in 110 innings across 20 starts, striking out 112 (9.2 K/9 and 23.7% of batters faced) while walking 48 (3.9 BB/9 and 10.1%). Data at First Inning shows that he gets a decent amount of ground balls (46%), but any pitching prospect worth a damn with have a solid ground ball rate in the minors. Harvey did allow nine homers in Triple-A this season (0.7 HR/9), a bit higher than you'd expect from a top prospect.

Harvey has a little Max Scherzer in him in the sense that it's overpowering raw stuff with less than stellar command. It remains to be seen if he'll have the same homer issues as the Tigers' right-hander, but the high-strikeout potential is there as well as the potential for frustratingly high ERAs. The Mets do not have a great defense - though it's better with Lucas Duda in Triple-A and not right field - and of course you can't really expect their bullpen to hold many of the leads given to them. It's a great young arm thrust into an undesirable situation, unfortunately.

At this point of his career, as a rookie set to make his big league debut, Harvey shouldn't be considered more than a strikeouts guy for fantasy owners in traditional 5x5 scoring formats. The walks and spotty defense will likely lead to higher than usual WHIPs and that tends to results in runs. Wins figure to be hard to come by as well. Following tonight's start in Arizona, Harvey is lined up to start in San Francisco against the Giants then in San Diego against the Padres. Those are some pretty fine matchups in terms of the lineups he'll be facing, but keep his limitations in mind. Different doesn't always mean better, but it almost certainly will be in the case of Harvey vs. Batista. In terms of fantasy output, be careful not to fall in love with the hype.



Four Prospects To Watch In The Second Half

As we come out of the All-Star break, we're going to see a number of top prospects join their big league club down the stretch as they push for a playoff spot. Some may have a huge impact like Mike Trout has already had for the Angels while others may just be complementary pieces shoring up the bench or bullpen. Here's a look at four high-end prospects who could assume important roles in the second half and have real fantasy value. I've including their ranking among Baseball America's Top 50 Prospects midseason update for reference.

Matt Harvey | SP | Mets | Baseball America: #34

The Mets got some unfortunate news earlier this week when right-hander Dillon Gee had to be placed on the disabled list after feeling numbness in his fingers. He was diagnosed with a blood clot in his shoulder and may still need surgery. The team has yet to announce his rotation replacement, but right now it seems like the immortal Miguel Batista will be a temporary solution. With Harvey tearing up Triple-A, he becomes the prohibitve favorite to fill Gee's spot if he misses an extended period of time.

Harvey, 23, has pitched to a 3.39 ERA in 18 starts and 98.1 innings for the club's Triple-A affiliate this season. His strikeout (9.3 K/9) and walk (3.8 BB/9) rates are very good, though they're better measured in terms of percent of batters faced -- he's struck out 24.2% while walking 10.0% of the hitters to step in the box against him this year. The walks are a bit of a concern because they will boost his WHIP, but Harvey can miss bats and that will cure a lot of ills. Throw in a pitcher friendly ballpark and you're looking at a potential fantasy weapon down the stretch.

Wil Myers | OF | Royals | Baseball America: #3

The 21-year-old Myers has had a busy week, first starring in the Futures Game before winning the Triple-A All-Star Game MVP Award last night. He's hit a combined .327/.403/.676 with 27 homers in 363 plate appearances split between Double and Triple-A this season, and in reality he probably should have been up a few weeks ago. Lorenzo Cain is just coming back from a groin strain and Jeff Francoeur has been unable to replicate last season's success, so the Royals can make room for Myers if they really want to get him in the lineup. Either way, expect him to rake and become an instant fantasy starter as soon as he's recalled and given an everyday job.

Mike Olt | 3B | Rangers | Baseball America: #11

Olt, 23, has had a huge year - .292/.403/.574 with 22 homers in 348 Double-A plate appearances this summer - and he doesn't figure to need much Triple-A time before being big league ready. The problem is that there's no obvious opening for him in Texas with Adrian Beltre manning the hot corner, though they've had him work out at both first base and right field this season. Of course that also makes Olt one of the very best pieces of trade bait in the game. The Rangers could go big game hunting - Zack Greinke? Cole Hamels? Justin Upton? - with their top third base prospect going the other way. That could land Olt in the big leagues down the stretch and third base is a sneaky shallow position. Keep an eye on Texas and their trade deadline dealings, because they could have big fantasy implications for more than the obvious reasons.

Tyler Skaggs | SP | Diamondbacks | Baseball America: #7

The arrival of Trevor Bauer has been a little underwhelming so far, but he's not the only high-end pitching prospect the D'Backs have on the cusp of the show. Skaggs, a 21-year-old southpaw, pitching to a 2.84 ERA in 13 Double-A starts before jumping to Triple-A and making two starts. His strikeout (8.7 K/9 and 23.2% of batters faced) and walk (2.6 BB/9 and 7.0%) rates are excellent, it's just a matter of making room for him in the rotation. Daniel Hudson's injured elbow opens a starting job that will likely be filled when Joe Saunders comes off the DL (Josh Collmenter is filling in for the time being), but the veteran southpaw always seems to be involved in trade rumors. Skaggs probably has the most to overcome to reach the show in the second half, but he has fantasy impact potential once he does arrive.



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: Red Sox, Mets, Nats, Royals

I suppose it's true what they say about closers being such a dicey fantasy investment. We've just flipped our calendars to April and there are already a handful of situations in flux -- with more certain to follow over the course of a long season.

I'll be weighing in weekly with a closers piece now that the season is under way, but for more timely updates, be sure to check in with @closernews. It'll be the feel-good follow of the summer for you on Twitter. You can also refer to our Closer Depth Chart if you're looking to handcuff setup men for standard leagues or seeking holds in leagues that count that stat.

Anyway, on with the latest in the closersphere ...

Andrew Bailey, Red Sox
Well, I think it's high time we officially labelled Bailey as injury-prone (unless he already was and I missed the memo). In his first season with the Sox after being acquired from the A's via trade this winter, the right-hander will likely see the DL before he throws a pitch for Boston, as he's reportedly been told he needs right thumb surgery (no word yet on timetable for missed time, but it sounds like it could be substantial). If true, that makes three straight seasons in which Bailey has been shelved, which is a shame for his owners (past and present) because he's pretty dang good when he's on the hill.

Now, being the good reader that you are, I'm sure you've already tabbed over to the aforementioned Depth Chart, saw Mark Melancon listed as Boston's probable next-in-line, and dashed over to your local waiver wire to nab a closer on the five-finger discount before your leaguemates even knew what happened. Unfortunately, as these things tend to go, the Sox have already mucked it up (for fantasy purposes), with reports surfacing that Alfredo Aceves will be in the mix for saves, too.

Argh.

If you're wondering which guy you should grab, my answer is yes. If you have four good closers, you can probably abstain. If  you have three, maybe throw a dart at one. If you have two or fewer, give serious consideration to adding both.

Yes, chasing closers is a dirty biz.

Frank Francisco, Mets
Well, this didn't take long, either. The annually injured Fran-Fran was headed for an MRI on his bothersome knee Monday, although he's apparently not worried about a DL stint. So, I suppose his outlook appears far rosier than Bailey's, but this doesn't sit well with me nonetheless. I mean, one doesn't undergo an MRI no reason, right?

As with the Red Sox, the Mets' bullpen situation could get hairy if Francisco is out for any substantial period of time. Ramon Ramirez and Jon Rauch would be candidates to take the ninth-inning reins, but Bobby Parnell apparently wouldn't be, as the Mets prefer to keep him available for some kind of swing role. You'll recall that Parnell was given a stab at closing last year and didn't perform especially well, although he's apparently tweaked his repertoire to strong results this spring.

The bottom line is, I wouldn't bother moving on this right now unless I were absolutely desperate -- and even then I'd wonder whether I could put that roster spot to better use. Remember, none of those guys is exactly a Kenley Jansen type, and the latest report is that Francisco will be ready for Opening Day.

Drew Storen, Nationals
Things got a little sketchy for Storen a couple weeks ago, as the young right-hander of 43 saves in 2011 was shelved due to elbow problems. Fortunately, it doesn't appear to be too serious, as he threw a bullpen session without problem on Sunday. That's a really good thing because I was dreading the prospect of adding Brad Lidge or Henry Rodriguez (OK, confession: I did add Lidge in one league). 

Storen hasn't yet been officially added to the DL. That's probably a formality, but perhaps Washington is holding out hope that he can be ready by Opening Day or a few days thereafter? In any event, don't count on him missing a substantial chunk of time.

Tellingly, though, Tyler Clippard would not be The Guy, contrary to what was long ago presumed. Nats manager Davey Johnson made it a point to share that he prefers to have the option of deploying Clipp in two-inning stints in the seventh and eighth innings.

If you can figure out a way to shoehorn H-Rod or Lidge onto your roster, more power to you, but if not, I wouldn't sweat it. Storen should be back shortly, and neither of his replacements is especially good.

Jonathan Broxton, Royals

Contrary to this genius' prediction, a report surfaced last week that the Royals are learning toward giving Brox the ninth-inning nod over Greg Holland. We'll see how that goes, but I guess when it comes down to it, you've got a 50-50 chance of calling these things accurately. I still think Holland should get the call, as he was excellent last year while Broxton hasn't been the same pitcher in a year and a half.

If you need one badly enough and are still deliberating, try the Guns of Broxton. If you get stuck holding the bag, you can blame Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com.



Sleepers & Busts: Frank Francisco, Alex Gordon

To see Frank Francisco on your fantasy squad every day isn't an especially pleasant experience. Somehow, he's been lumped in with the likes of the Kevin Gregg types, which is to say that when he pitches well, you feel like you need to take a shower, and when he doesn't, your self-loathing rages while you rationalize dropping him for Jack Cust's impending hot streak -- a hot streak, by the way, that'll never come.

Alex Gordon, meanwhile, is a guy with whom you might have proudly pulled into sixth place prior to 2011. He's a kid from the Heartland, a former top draft pick of the then-pitiable Royals who came too close to never even scratching at potential that was unfairly overestimated in the first place. He finally attained post-hype-breakout status last season, though, rounding out his career arc such that if it were scored, it'd go something like the "Running On Empty"-"Go Your Own Way"-"Against The Wind" trifecta from Forrest Gump's jogging-across-the-country sequence.

But these are prejudices, dear readers, narratives devised by an evil force (or perhaps me) -- one that is conspiring to trick you into making bad selections on Draft Day. Let's try to thwart these with some truth missiles.

Frank Francisco, Mets, ADP: 231

Do fantasy owners not realize Francisco will be the Mets' closer in 2012? The right-hander's current average draft position, per Mock Draft Central, is roughly 231, which is early in the 19th round of a 12-teamer. For context, he's currently being drafted after a handful of setup men, even a few pedestrian ones like Francisco Cordero.

Look, Francisco is a solid pitcher. He's struck out well over a batter per inning in his career, and though his 3.91 BB/9 ain't pretty, he's gotten his control, um, under control over the past three years: 2.74, 3.08, 3.20. As well, you might be surprised to learn that his highest SIERA over the past four seasons was a not-bad-at-all 3.04 in 2011. That'll play.

The news gets better from there, as Francisco has left baseball's toughest division for the National League and the pitcher-friendly confines of Citi Field. The outfield fences have been moved in in Queens, so it remains to be seen exactly how differently fly balls will play, but I can't see the ballpark being any worse than neutral for pitchers -- and even that seems a stretch.

The only red flag from where I sit is the matter of Francisco's durability: He's spent time on the DL in each of the past three years. The silver lining, at least, is that he's still managed to toss about 50 innings in each of those years, so it's not as if he's held together by Scotch Tape and chewing gum. Injury might seem inevitable now, but good luck trying to guess if and when that'll occur.

In the meanwhile, watch equivalent (or even less valuable) pitchers fly off your league's draft board, and keep Fran-Fran in your back pocket. And in the unlikely event someone snipes him right before you're about to pick, you can always throw a chair.

Alex Gordon, Royals, ADP: 62

Al-Gor's long-awaited arrival (23 HR, 101 R, 87 RBI, 17 SB, .303 AVG) was the feel-good hit of the summer last year in Kansas City and fantasyland alike. You'd have to be immune to narratives a hard-hearted man to think otherwise.

But with the newfound celebration of Gordon comes the inevitable backlash. In 2012, that's likely to arrive unceremoniously in the form of a healthy regression from 2011's .358 BABIP, which will in turn make it difficult for the left-handed hitter to replicate his .303 batting average.

The extent to which Gordon's average will slide back is tough to figure, even beyond BABIP's typical slipperiness. He almost certainly won't hit .300, but after that, it's sketchy, and much has been written on the subject, with varying conclusions. Will it be .260, .270, or .280? I'd split the baby, but even still, Gordon has the earmarks of a perceived five-cat contributor who may stretch the bounds of the label's definition with a little less luck. Plus, he'll no longer have the bonus of third-base eligibility that he had a year ago. Bummer.

Gordon, who'll turn 28 next month, will be worthy of a roster spot this season, for sure, but I'm not taking him in the fifth round. Carlos Beltran and Andre Ethier, for example, are roughly comparable offensive contributors who are going off the board about six rounds later. Neither of those veterans is likely to approach Gordon's projected 14 steals, but then again, they're both likely to hit for a higher batting average.

Gordon is here to stay as a worthwhile own, but don't pay full price for his 2011, because you'll be chasing a ghost.




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