Pittsburgh Pirates

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.

Transaction Analysis: Pirates Acquire A.J. Burnett

After what seemed like years of waiting, the Yankees and Pirates finally pulled the trigger on the A.J. Burnett deal. Whether the move makes sense for either team, it is a move that could help your fantasy team, and not just by increasing Burnett's fantasy value.

A.J. Burnett

It isn't often that leaving the Yankees increases your fantasy value, but Burnett was in an unusual situation. A decent pitcher with a bloated contract -- and coming off two straight years of ERAs north of 5.00 -- Burnett was in the mix for the fifth-starter's spot with Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia and not necessarily the front-runner. Even if he'd won the job out of camp, he would have been on such a short leash that he probably wouldn't have been worth a roster spot. While the Yankees will win more games than the Pirates this year, Burnett has a much better chance of netting his own wins with the Bucs.

Wins are hard to come by in Pittsburgh -- Kevin Correia's 12 last season are the most by a Buc in the last three years -- but something in the 9-13 range seems possible given Burnett's durability (four straight years of at least 180 IP) and the potential development of the Pirates' young offensive core. At the least, it should be better than yo-yoing from the rotation to the bullpen.

But wins aren't the reason to draft Burnett; instead it's the change of scenery and competition--and his 8.22 career K/9. Despite Burnett's bad ERAs, his SIERAs have been better at 4.37 and 3.89. It looks like there's a pretty good pitcher in Burnett, just trying to get out, and Pittsburgh may be the place to do it. His otherworldly 17% HR/FB rate in 2011 should regress a bit on its own (his career rate is 11.3%) and the PNC park should do its part to help. While Yankee Stadium boasts a 1.267 park factor for homers, PNC Park's is just 0.799. The park also reduces walks, which Burnett will appreciate.

So, his ERA and WHIP should go down, and his strikeouts ought to remain good (he racked up 173 last year) and may well improve with the chance to face the Astros and Cubs instead of the Red Sox and Blue Jays -- where does that leave us? A pitcher with an ERA in the mid-4.00s, perhaps lower, with wins in the low double-digits and about 170 strikeouts. That won't anchor a staff, by any means, but it's solid production. Burnett's penchant for variance means that he might be quite a bit worse, of course, but it also means he could be better. I mean, he got that monster contract in the first place for a reason, right?

Burnett's ADP is currently sitting at 240.92, with a 6% draft rate. Expect those numbers to go up as his ADP begins to reflect his new situation, but he could still bring a lot of value towards the end of the draft, especially as casual players write him off for all the bad press he got in New York. Don't let your league be one of the 94%.

The Burnett trade isn't good news for the rest of Pittsburgh's rotation, though, as one of Kevin Correia, Jeff Karstens, or Charlie Morton will probably open the season in the bullpen or the minor leagues. The silver lining to that cloud is that whoever loses his spot should be getting it back as soon as Erik Bedard gets hurt.

Freddy Garcia or Phil Hughes

The trade is good news for one of these two pitchers, and early indicators suggest Freddy Garcia is likely to be the beneficiary. He's not the pitcher he was 10 years ago, but a 4.12 FIP and a 2.13 K/BB rate mark him as pretty close to average, and an average-ish pitcher in line for Yankee wins can be useful as a streamer. A word of caution, though: with the 41.3 FB% he posted last year, a small change in his ability to keep the ball in the park could mean a big drop in his value. Expect the leash to be short on Garcia if Hughes is waiting in the bullpen, but there are a lot of worse options for the last couple rounds of the draft.

Phil Hughes may still have a chance to beat out Garcia for the fifth starter's job, and Ivan Nova could always fall on his face and let both in. The great first half Hughes had (and the prospect-promise he'd showed before that) will keep him from being written off for years to come, but Hughes has been flat-out horrible for the last year and a half. If the Yankees give him a chance, it might be wishful thinking, but it might be that they can see that his old magic has returned. If the Yanks sound confident in him at the end of Spring Training, Hughes might be worth a flier. If he makes it into the rotation as an injury or performance replacement, I'd stay away.


Players To Watch: Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates are always a good source of fantasy sleepers.  Here are the players you'll want to keep an eye on for 2011.

  • Andrew McCutchen, OF.  Drafted in the eighth round before the 2010 season, McCutchen performed very close to his projection.  Perhaps the added reliability and the fact that he's only 24 make him go a round or two earlier in 2011.
  • Ronny Cedeno, SS.  If you squint you can see a shortstop capable of 10 homers and 10 steals, which is worth something.
  • Neil Walker, 2B.  Despite down-ballot ROY buzz he'll be a sleeper for next year.  Read more on him here.
  • Ryan Doumit, C.  I could see him traded to another club and having some use as a second catcher.
  • Chris Snyder, C.  He'll get the lion's share of the catching duties, and should be good for 15 homers and an ugly batting average.  With 450 ABs he could actually push 20 homers.
  • Jose Tabata, OF.  He could steal 30 bags with 600 plate appearances.  He's only 22, and the power has yet to arrive.  Even so, he could supply runs batting in the #1-2 spots along with a nice average.  A sneaky three-category player who will likely be had late.
  • Pedro Alvarez, 3B.  He's already capable of 30 homers and 100 RBIs.  Probably won't help in average or steals, but he could provide good value in the eighth round or so.
  • John Bowker, OF.  The Pirates gave 654 PAs to Quad-A guy Garrett Jones, and maybe Bowker could get that chance next year.  He hit .313/.382/.587 with 18 homers in 322 Triple A PAs this year and was even better last year.
  • Evan Meek and Joel Hanrahan, RP.  These two righties will compete for the closer job in spring training.  My money's on Hanrahan, but it's too early to call.  If you draft one, try to snag the other later.  Chris Resop is a deeper sleeper to get into the saves mix.
  • James McDonald, SP.  An 8.6 K/9 in 11 starts catches the eye.  A .330 BABIP helped push his WHIP to 1.38, as did a just-OK 3.64 BB/9.  On the flip side he can't sustain a 4.3% home run per flyball rate and he does allow a lot of flies.  SIERA had him at 3.74 in his 64 Pirates innings, and he throws pretty hard, so there's enough here for a speculative 20th round-type pick.
  • Brad Lincoln, SP.  He failed in the bigs but had solid peripherals at Triple A.  Someone to watch, but not to draft in mixed leagues.  Another note on the Pirates' rotation: they're likely to add a veteran free agent starter.

2011 Sleepers: Neil Walker

Longtime Pirates prospect Neil Walker finally broke through this year.  The 25-year-old had his third extended shot at Triple-A, switching to second base.  There he hit .321/.392/.560 in 189 plate appearances with six home runs and ten stolen bases in 189 plate appearances.  Astute fantasy owners were all over Walker's May 25th call-up, and were sure to pounce a week later when he became the starter at second base.

Walker rewarded the Pirates and fantasy owners with a .296/.349/.462 performance in 469 plate appearances, which should earn Rookie of the Year consideration.  Fantasy-wise he had a .296-12-66-57-2 line.  His defense didn't draw rave reviews, but that's not a fantasy concern.  Walker mostly batted second or third in the lineup, allowing him to average 4.26 plate appearances per game.  That could mean 639 PAs over 150 games in 2011.

If Walker can keep up this level of offense, we're looking at .296-16-90-78-3 on the season.  I expect different numbers though.  Intuitively I'd look for something like .280-15-70-90-10 from Walker as he lets up on the RBIs, scores more runs, and attempts more steals.  At Triple-A he attempted to steal about 23% of the time, and he'll probably have a better success rate than his big league 40% mark.

We don't know yet where Walker will be drafted in fantasy leagues, but since he's a Pirate and his counting stats were limited by his late May call-up, I'm betting he'll be a bargain.  I'll guess 10th round or later, depending on how hot the sleeper buzz gets by March.

Who Closes In Pittsburgh If Dotel Is Traded?

As the closer on the last-place Pirates, Octavio Dotel appears a prime candidate to be traded in July.  Evan Meek has closer-worthy numbers, but Joel Hanrahan has experience in the role.  Who would get the nod if Dotel is dealt?  We posed the question to beat writer Dejan Kovacevic, who covers the team for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  His answer:

Meek is very much in line to be the closer, even though Hanrahan, too, has been good. Better than the numbers would suggest in the case of the latter. That said, Dotel's club option for 2011 is just $4.5 million, which isn't a bad price even for the Pirates given how good he has been. Assuming Dotel is not traded, there is a strong chance the team will seriously consider exercising the option.

Meek seems the superior reliever to stash.  Cleveland's Chris Perez might be another to tuck away, in the event Kerry Wood is traded.  For all the latest closer developments, follow @closernews on Twitter.

Andrew McCutchen Gets The Call

Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen made his big league debut today, as a direct result of the Nate McLouth trade.  McCutchen figures to get every chance to stick as a regular.  In his debut today, he went 2 for 4 with a walk, an RBI, three runs scored, and a stolen base.  A fantasy baseball bonanza.  Let's take a closer look.

McCutchen, 22, hit .303/.361/.493 in 201 Triple A at-bats this year with 4 HR and 10 SB.  He's a right-handed hitter, and this year he's raked against lefties while holding his own against righties.  The Major League Equivalent of McCutchen's work this year is .259/.306/.405.  McCutchen spent all of last year in Triple A, as well as a short stint in '07.  He didn't show a ton of power in 2007-08.  Even if McCutchen isn't amazing as a rookie hitter, he could post a decent run total atop the Pirates' lineup.

Sometimes with stud prospects you have to look past the stats to see the breakout potential.  Hanley Ramirez didn't impress in Double A, but he had a huge fantasy rookie season the following year.  McCutchen's been young for his levels.  But using the information we have available, he isn't a power hitter yet.  He's also not a high-percentage basestealer.  I'm keeping my mixed league expectations low for 2009.

Pirates Have Best Rotation In Baseball

The title for the best rotation in baseball right now goes to the Pirates, with a 3.02 ERA in 113.3 innings and 18 starts.  Not coincidentally, the Bucs have the lowest team BABIP at .259.  Previous BABIP leaders: .290 for the Rays in '08, .295 for the Cubs in '07, and .287 for the Padres in '06.

Let's take a closer look at the pitchers and see what's sustainable.

  • Paul Maholm - 2.03 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 26.6 innings.  Maholm also had an excellent spring.  But his K rate is dangerously low (3.38 per nine), and his .256 BABIP and 0.0% HR per flyball rates are unsustainable.  His control has improved, but his groundball rate has slipped from 53.6% to 46.5%.  Mahom's xFIP: 5.16.  He is a sell candidate.
  • Zach Duke - 2.43 ERA, 1.11 WHIP.  Another guy with a worrisome K rate at just 4.85 per nine.  Still, that's better than last year and his control is excellent at 1.82 per nine.  Duke sports a .289 BABIP and 8.19 hits per nine innings, which I think will increase.  Still, with that kind of control his WHIP may remain helpful once the hits come back.  The 3.8% HR per flyball rate is not sustainable.  Groundballs are down from last year.  Duke has a 4.69 xFIP. 
  • Ross Ohlendorf - 3.24 ERA, 1.12 WHIP.  Since he has good stuff,  I figured Ohlendorf might be for real before I looked more closely.  It doesn't appear that way though - he's rocking a .267 BABIP and a 3.6 K/9.  On the plus side, I'm digging the control and the 51.9% groundball rate.  Ohlendorf has a 4.72 xFIP.  The Pirates should be happy with the progress on control and groundballs, but for fantasy baseball it's hard to predict a sub-4.00 ERA from here on out.
  • Ian Snell - 4.50 ERA, 1.73 WHIP.  The one guy without BABIP help needs it the most, given a 5.73 BB/9.  The .313 BABIP might come down and the 17.2% HR per flyball should.  But his Ks are down and the ugly control has been a problem for a while now.  His xFIP is 5.45.
  • Jeff Karstens - 3.60 ERA, 1.40 WHIP.  The team's fifth starter only has two starts, so we'll hold off on the analysis.

Bottom line: enjoy it while it lasts.  The numbers don't reveal any fantasy studs in the Pirates' rotation.

McLouth Not A Lock To Start Yet

For some silly reason, Nate McLouth and Nyjer Morgan are said to be in a "dead heat" for Pittsburgh's center field job.

This is a situation I'll be monitoring on RotoAuthority, as McLouth is a favorite power/speed sleeper of mine.  I have him at .263-15-48-74-22 in 450 ABs, a $4.42 value.  But if McLouth gets 550 ABs, he could approach 20 HR and 30 swipes, helping him outrank bigger outfield names like Jason Bay and Vernon Wells.  Hell, I have Manny Ramirez at just $10.11, a function of a 479 AB projection.  It just shows you how large of a factor playing time is in preseason projections.

More On Chris Duffy

I last wrote about Chris Duffy on February 12th, mentioning that he could steal 30 bags if he gets 550 ABs.  After reading the praise heaped on him in this article, my confidence in his ability and playing time has improved.

Jim Tracy loves the guy.  It really looks like a foregone conclusion that the center field/leadoff job is Duffy's to lose.  This is his age 26 season, and he's spent plenty of time in the minors.  Despite his blazing speed, Duffy stole only 17 bases in 308 Triple A at-bats last year.  He's not quite  a high percentage basestealer, and he didn't do much in 39 games for the Pirates.

At this point Duffy looks like a .280-.290 hitter who would have a hard time not stealing 20 bases in a full season.  But it seems that he's expected to be aggressive and utilize his speed, so 30 is entirely possible.  Regardless, Duffy has little value to mixed leaguers except perhaps as a short-term injury replacement.   NL-only folks should view him top 25 outfielder worthy of a double digit bid.  In the best case scenario, Duffy becomes Randy Winn in a few years. 

Fantasy Baseball Advice: Duke Nukes 'Em

Three weeks later, it's time to revisit Pittsburgh prospect Zach Duke.  On the heels of yet another dominant victory, we'll look at just how sustainable the 22 year-old's success will be.

When we last spoke of Zach Duke, we implored you to pick him up immediately.   The Roto Authority was singing his praises after two excellent starts to begin his major league career.  We did caution that his ERA would certainly not remain near  1.93.  In a way, we were right:  Duke's ERA now stands at a miniscule 0.92 after 39.1 innings pitched.  Duke struck out just two in today's annihilation of the red-hot Braves, but his performance was still excellent. 

We expected the strikeouts to come back down to Earth, but we also expected the ERA to ascend to the 3.50 range.   Duke has been stingy with the hits and walks, and it's paid off so far.  Throwing out his rain delay game, Duke is averaging 107 pitches per game.  Despite Duke's age, Lloyd McClendon is not giving him the quick hook.  Expect Felix Hernandez's debut this Thursday in Seattle to be much the opposite - he will be limited to 80 pitches and is no lock to stay in the rotation. 

So what to do with Duke from a fantasy baseball perspective?  What can we expect from him in the future? 

Let's turn to Baseball Prospectus's forecasting system, PECOTA, for some estimates.  PECOTA foresaw a 3.28 ERA in 133 innings from Duke as a best case scenario, that is, his 90th percentile projection.   He can do that while maintaining pretty much the same strikeout and walk rates.   An ERA in the 3 range is a reasonable projection for 2005.

What about a long-term projection?  PECOTA sees Duke's top comparables as Mark Buehrle, Rick Wise, and Tommy John.   Duke should be happy to be mentioned in the same breath as these guys at the tender age of 22.  So you're looking at a durable pitcher with an ERA below 3.50 for at least the next five years.  Wins may be hard to come by on a team like the Pirates. 

Should you "sell high" on Zach Duke?  It depends.  Duke's 0.92 ERA and perfect record are obviously over his head.  Still, he's yet to have a bad start and many teams will still be facing him for the first time.  He could easily finish the year 10-2 with a 2.40 ERA.  Even if the success is fleeting, what pitcher could give you better numbers?  Not very many.

Don't deal Duke for a pitcher unless you receive a bona fide young ace, such as Rich Harden, Mark Prior, or Johan Santana.  Since these deals are unlikely, consider an up-and-coming can't miss position player.  David Wright and Miguel Cabrera come to mind.  Position players are more reliable and less susceptible to injury, so if you consider yourself a shrewd pitching evaluator, deal Duke for one of these types.  Names like Jeff Francoeur might seem tempting, but you need top-line proven talent to pull the trigger.

Rock N' Roto: Today we are recommending an obscure, rocking album from the band Ozma.  Ozma's 2001 album Rock and Roll Part Three features eleven power-pop tracks reminiscent of Weezer, back when Weezer rocked.  The album features the best baseball song ever recorded, the aptly titled, "Baseball."  Expect plenty of keyboards and vocal harmonies.  This blogger is right - "Baseball" may well be one of the best ten songs you've never heard. 

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