Toronto Blue Jays

September Schedules Part 1: AL East

Mark has the day off today, and I can’t do what he does…so I’ll just get a head start on what I do. September is approaching faster than it looks. Seriously, I was walking on brown leaves all the way to the coffee shop where I’m writing this, and that means it’s time to start planning for the Most Important Month of the Year.*

*Tied with all the others in roto-style fantasy leagues and in real baseball, technically.

Your roto league has split into the haves and the have-nots and you’ve just got to keep it together for one more month if you’re on top (like I am), or make one last push for semi-respectability (also like me).  Of course, you might be playing in a head-to-head league, in which case we’re rolling into the playoffs and forgetting all that went on before for a last-month roll of the dice 

It’s time to load those dice in your favor.

The league I’ve played in longest is a highly non-standard head-to-head, multiple-opponents, points-counting, weekly-changes, one-free-agent-per-week type of league. It’s intense and it involves a lot of planning ahead. For years, it seemed like my uncle was killing us all with good luck in September, and then we figured out his trick: he was loading up on pitchers with extra two-start weeks in September by trading for them and picking them up off the waiver wire weeks in advance. Well played, Uncle Steve.

Of course, now that everyone has the Internet (seriously, the league is that old), that trick is a little harder to pull. But you know what? It’s still worth doing and now is the time to get started. Since most of us aren’t in weekly-change points leagues, two-start pitchers aren’t quite our targets. Who can we target instead for 5x5 purposes (or points purposes, those will work too)? Players with favorable schedules.

Over the next few articles on RotoAuthority Unscripted, we’ll be, well, working with a script. Team-by-team, we’ll see who has favorable schedules throughout September, for hitters and for pitchers, looking into opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as home and away park factors. Over the course of the whole season these issues don’t matter all that much, and when they do matter, they’re factored into draft slot or auction value. But over the course of a single month, things can be very skewed. This is your shot to skew them in your favor. 

To keep my evaluations more uniform and less subjective, I’ll be using Fangraphs WAR to grade team pitching and wOBA for hitting, and ESPN’s 2014 Park Factors. If I make a suggestion based on something else—like the fact that a team has changed their players significantly during the season, a la the Oakland pitching staff--I’ll let you know where I’m coming from. 

So that’s more than enough introduction for one article…which is why I’ll be trying to post this in relatively bite-sized chunks. But here’s the first installment anyway. And don’t forget: these figures are all for the month of September—you’re on your own for the last two weeks of August.

Let’s get rolling with the AL East.

Baltimore Orioles
Home: 14 (0.863 park factor—30th—very pitching favorable) | Road: 13
Opponents: Yankees (8), Blue Jays (6), Red Sox (6), Reds (3), Rays (3), Twins (1) 

First of all, I wouldn’t get too excited over the fact that Camden Yards has been the most pitcher-friendly in baseball this year, as it played as a hitters’ haven in ’13, ’12, an ’10, and neutral in ’11. They also get four games at Yankee Stadium, which has played as the second-best pitchers’ park this year—but again, I suspect that to be a bit of an outlier. With other away games in Tampa Bay, Toronto, and Boston, the park factors combine to be pretty neutral.

The O’s have six games against the heavy-hitting (third in baseball) Blue Jays and the rest are from mid-pack teams when it comes to hitting. If you believe the park factors for Baltimore and New York are sustainable, then you might want to target Orioles pitchers.

At bat, the O’s play three of the top pitching clubs in baseball: the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays...but all three of those teams have lost significant pitchers to trades and injuries. Unfortunately, their hitters don’t get to exploit any true bottom feeders either.

Final Grade: Neutral for hitters and pitchers

Boston Red Sox
Home: 12 (1.034 park factor—10th—hitting favorable) | Road: 14
Opponents: Yankees (6), Orioles (6), Rays (4), Royals (4), Blue Jays (3), Pirates (3)

A lot depends on if you really believe that the Orioles and Yankees parks really deserve their slots as the best pitchers’ parks in baseball. If you do, that will partially even things out…but if you don’t, this could be a pretty hitter-friendly schedule as far as the parks go. I’d play it safe and not get too excited about the Sox’s waiver wire pitchers—especially since nearly half of Boston’s games (12) come against top-six offences (Baltimore, Toronto, and Pittsburgh). Yeah, I’d avoid Boston pitchers next month.

Hitters should have a medium-favorable schedule on the parks (again, unless you really buy the Yanks and O’s as the two hardest parks to hit in—which would make it closer to neutral). Sox hitters will face plenty of bottom-half opponents, but only the Pirates have truly weak pitching. 

Final Grade: Boston hitters should have a good month, but stay away from their pitchers.

New York Yankees
Home: 17 (0.877—29th—very pitching favorable) | Road: 10
Opponents: Orioles (8), Red Sox (6), Rays (6), Blue Jays (4), Royals (3)

With all those Yankee Stadium and Camden Yards games—a huge majority—the entire park factor grade comes down to what you think of those teams’ yearly park factors. It’s worth keeping in mind that New York has played neutral once in the last four years and as a hitters’ park in the other three. So no, I do not think those factors are sustainable. But that's how the parks have played so far and you can't just write it off either. I wouldn’t bet heavily either way on Yankees players based on park factors. 

Their opponents, however, are a different story. The Orioles, Blue Jays, and Rays can all hit; while the Red Sox and Royals aren’t intimidating, that’s not enough for me to recommend Yankee pitchers.

The hitters will get to face weaker Baltimore and Toronto pitchers—as well as the depleted Boston and Rays staffs, leaving the Royals as the top pitching opponents. (Though the Rays might still be better even without David Price). I’d still go ahead and snag Yankee hitters off the waiver wire or put them in your lineup.

Final Grade: Yankee hitters are neutral to favorable, but their pitchers look risky.

Tampa Bay Rays
Home: 13 (1.049—7th—hitting favorable) | Road: 12
Opponents: Yankees (6), Blue Jays (6), Red Sox (4), Indians (3), Orioles (3), White Sox (3)

Most of Tampa Bay’s games are in hitters’ parks this year, at home and in Toronto, Boston, and Chicago. For pitchers, that’s exacerbated by the fact that most of their opponents are decent or better at the plate: only the Red Sox are below average. Of course, Tampa Bay has pretty good pitchers, but this will cut into their numbers.

Hitters get better news though: the Orioles, White Sox, and Blue Jays are bottom-third pitching staffs, while the Yankees and Red Sox are (as mentioned above) pretty significantly depleted. I’d feel comfortable picking up Rays hitters that are on the fringe.

Final Grade: Rays pitchers are good enough not to avoid, but their schedule won’t do them any favors. Rays hitters make good waiver wire targets and should be picked up.

Toronto Blue Jays
Home: 13 (1.092—5th—very hitting favorable) | Road: 13
Opponents: Orioles (6), Rays (6), Yankees (4), Mariners (4), Red Sox (3), Cubs (3)

Toronto’s home games aren’t quite balanced out by playing in pitchers’ parks on the road, but Seattle, Chicago, and whatever is happening in Baltimore and New York could take some of the shine off Blue Jay hitters and save their pitchers from a couple beatings. Actually, the Orioles are the only top-third offense that Toronto hurlers have to face, giving their pitchers a pretty neutral schedule altogether. 

The Blue Jays hitters should be a little better off: their opponents look mostly mid-pack in pitching quality, but remember the pitchers dealt away by (or injured on) the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, and Cubs. These aren’t the pitching staffs who put up those numbers. And the Orioles are still pretty marginal. Sit your hitters for those four games in Seattle, though. 

Final Grade: Toronto looks pretty neutral on both sides of the ball: maybe a little unfavorable for their pitchers, but a little helpful for their hitters.

Draft Round Battles: Machado Vs. Lawrie

Let's get this out of the way right now --- if you play in one of the rare fantasy leagues that includes defensive statistics, then Manny Machado is your guy, end of story.  Brett Lawrie was a pretty strong defender himself in 2011-12 before posting a -0.1 UZR/150 in 2013, but yeah, Machado ran streets ahead with the glove last season thanks to a whopping 31.8 UZR/150 and a record 35 runs saved, earning himself both a Gold Glove and a Fielding Bible Award.

But, that's fielding.  Odds are your league won't be decided by runs saved or RZR but rather by the standard 5x5 stats.  That makes this matchup of AL East third basemen all the more interesting.

Lawrie has the early lead in average draft position, according to the good folks at Mock Draft Central.  Lawrie's 151.71 ADP tops Machado's 167.67 ADP, which is perhaps surprising given how much hype Machado received for both his bat and his glove last season, while Lawrie was alternately injured, in the minors or terrible for almost the entire season.  I'd suspect that some early drafters are worried about Machado's offseason knee surgery, which could keep him sidelined until late April.  I'm not counting Machado's knee as a major factor in this draft battle, as while he is likely to miss at least a bit of time, Lawrie has been prone to injury himself over his first two full Major League seasons.  Call the health question a wash for now, at least until we know more about Machado's rehab process.

Durability obviously wasn't a question for Machado in 2013, when he made 710 plate appearances (and a league-high 667 at-bats) and finished the campaign with 14 homers, 71 RBI, 88 runs and a league-best 51 doubles.  Good counting stats to be sure, except for the fact that almost all of Machado's damage came in the first two months.  Machado had an .892 OPS going into May 31, but over the Orioles' final 102 games, he managed just a .666 OPS (yikes, there's a bad omen).  He hit .283/.314/.432 overall, a line that his 99 OPS+ would indicate as slightly below even league average at the plate.

Of course, I note these stats with the giant caveat that Machado only turned 21 last July, so even slightly below-average offensive numbers are pretty impressive for a guy that young.  We may not have even scratched the surface of what Machado can do at the plate, so I expect an improved performance in 2014.  The question is, how much improvement will we see, given that even in his (albeit brief) minor league career, Machado only hit .263/.344/.432 with 23 homers and 114 RBI over 928 PA.  Those numbers are perfectly fine for a shortstop and they're not even bad for a third baseman, though they pale next to some of the big boppers available at the hot corner. 

While much of Machado's prospect hype came from his glove, his offensive prowess in early 2013 (especially in hitting doubles) showed a new dimension to his game.  Ironically, Lawrie's career has begun in the opposite way --- he was a ballyhooed minor league hitter who has instead drawn notice for his glove in the bigs.  After bursting onto the scene with a .953 OPS over 171 PA in 2011, Lawrie has hit a much more modest .265/.320/.401 over 978 PA in 2012-13.  Injuries certainly played a part, as did some maturity issues that Lawrie reportedly put behind him after his terrible first half forced him to overhaul his swing.  Those swing changes led to an .892 OPS in August but another fade in September.

Lawrie finished his year with 11 homers and a .254/.315/.397 slash line, one of many disappointing campaigns amidst the epic fail that was the 2013 Blue Jays season.  Still, as bad as Lawrie's season was perceived to be, he still finished only 34 OPS points and three homers behind Machado, despite the Baltimore phenom's 268 extra PA.  Lawrie also had a higher walk rate and lower strikeout rate, so if you factor in the BABIP gap (Lawrie had a .280 BABIP, Machado had a .322), you can make the case that Lawrie was actually the better hitter last season.

The age question also factors in Lawrie's evaluation, as he's only entering his age-24 season.  There's still plenty of time for him to display the prodigious hitting stroke he showed in his minor league career.  A healthy and focused Lawrie should, on paper, dwarf Machado at the plate.  Provided both men play roughly the same number of games, I'd expect Lawrie to comfortably top Machado in homers and steals, probably top him in RBIs and the runs/average categories are up in the air.

Assuming that Lawrie can avoid the injury bug and general malaise that has plagued the Jays franchise over the last two seasons, he stands as a strong fantasy breakout candidate for 2014.  While I hope Machado returns from his surgery at 100 percent and we get to fully enjoy his eye-popping talent, I tend to agree with my RA colleague Andrew Gephardt that even a fully fit Machado might still not be due for his proper breakout.  Let's take Lawrie in this draft round battle and let's hope that both guys reach their potential so we can revisit this matchup for several years down the road.

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.

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....

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.

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.

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.

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.


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: AL East Closer Roundup

Welcome back to Shutdown Corner, folks. We're rolling through closer roundups for every division in baseball, this week focusing on the five teams in the AL East. We've previously reviewed the AL West and NL East, if you're interested in that sort of thing.

And, 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.

Baltimore Orioles: Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson was the major-league leader in saves for 2012, racking up 51 for the surprising Baltimore Orioles during their playoff run. But despite the gaudy save numbers and 2.49 ERA, Johnson's a nice candidate to turn into a pumpkin next season. Johnson doesn't strike out nearly the amount of hitters that a closer needs to in order to be effective. Johnson had just a 15.3% strikeout rate, not an exciting number, and the fourth-worst of all qualified relievers. He was almost the worst strikeout reliever in baseball. Don't draft him for Ks.

Fortunately for Johnson and the folks who draft him, Pedro Strop isn't exactly banging down the door to take Johnson's job. Buck Showalter is probably locked into Johnson, so he'll get all the rope in the world with which to hang himself. If you want saves, and care less about strikeouts and rate stats, Jim Johnson's your man.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (low strikeout rate, settled into role)

Next in line: Pedro Strop

New York Yankees: Mariano Rivera

I know, I know, he's the greatest closer in baseball history. His peripheral stats are phenomenal, and he's racked up nearly 40 wins above replacement despite only throwing 1219 and 2/3 innings over his career. Then you can toss in about 15 more RA9-Wins because the guy gets weak contact and can bear down with runners on.

This year, Mo is coming off a missed season, thanks to a brutal knee injury. Word is that he's about ready to return, and he's likely to be elite when he comes back. He's basically always been elite. However, if there's any chance that Rivera is still dealing with injury, or if the knee trouble causes an injury cascade, then Mo may not be as effective as we're used to ... or he may be out and David Robertson will be owning the ninth.

That having been said, Mariano is still an elite closer, based on prior body of work. Actually, I'm only giving out one Tier 1 grade this pre-season, and it's going to Craig Kimbrel. But, if anyone else was close, it was Mo. He is a monster, and while his K-rate dipped in 2010, it rebounded nicely in 2011 and what little 2012 he pitched.

Respect Mariano, everyone. Ignore him at your own risk.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (phenomenal skill, injury risk)

Next in line: David Robertson

Toronto Blue Jays: Casey Janssen

Important news: Casey Janssen is probably better than you think. More than a few roto heads got a nice boost in the middle of the season thanks to Casey's solid performance and 22 saves as the closer after Sergio Santos flamed out before the season even started. Janssen checked all the boxes for solid closer performance, with only a few blown saves (three all season), high strikeout totals (27.7% k-rate), and a sparkly 0.86 WHIP.

So why aren't I rating Janssen higher?

The important thing about Janssen's status as closer is that the Jays have other options in the 'pen. Esmil Rogers, Brad Lincoln, Sergio Santos, all these guys could have strong seasons, and the Jays may be looking to make a quick change if the team isn't getting good closer production. If Janssen were on a different team, he'd probably be up a tier, maybe even two. But on the win-now Jays, the team may look to add another reliever, or move Janssen out of the ninth if he hits a rough patch. Plus, it's not like he has the track record that would give his skipper irrational confidence in his abilities going forward. There's always the possibility of performance decline, especially on the wrong side of 30.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (small room for error, doesn't have "proven closer" title, only two years of above-average performance)

Next in line: Sergio Santos

Boston Red Sox: Joel Hanrahan

Do you want to know a secret? Joel Hanrahan was actually pretty terrible in 2012. I know, the guy had a 2.72 ERA and stacked up 36 saves for the Pirates. But when you dig a little deeper, a few very concerning peripherals speak to a poor season. Hanrahan walked 14.2% of the batters he faced, which is a HUGE number. That's more than five walks per nine innings, and completely unacceptable.

Hanrahan also gave up a host of homers (1.21 HR/9), and that works out to a 4.45 FIP. By FanGraphs' WAR metric, Hanrahan was actually worse than a replacement-level reliever. That's not what anyone wants from a closer.

Now, I don't think Hanrahan will be quite as bad as he was last season, his BB% and HR/FB numbers should regress closer to his true talent level. At the same time, Fenway isn't exactly the best place to try and 

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (big strikeouts, high walks and home runs, huge potential for performance variance)

Next in line: Andrew Bailey

Tampa Bay Rays: Fernando Rodney

Probably no player -- and definitely no closer -- was as much of a surprise last season as Fernando Rodney. Rodney really hadn't been a good reliever since the '06 and '07 seasons, but in his first season in Tampa, Rodney was the best reliever in the AL. The strikeouts jumped up (27% strikeout rate), the walks dropped down (5.3% walk rate), and he stranded almost every runner who hit the bases. The result: an otherworldly 0.60 ERA.

But let's be real, this had to be somewhat of a mirage.

First of all, Rodney is entering his age-34 season, and has literally no history of performance at this level before this big season. Second, his peripherals led to a 2.13 FIP, which is still great, but doesn't reflect 48-save, under-one-ERA performance for next season. I just can't imagine he'll have another elite season, and the Rays have a whole host of solid relief options surrounding him (Jake McGee, Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta), so don't draft him too early.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (lots of competition, 2012 performance doesn't appear to reflect prior performance)

Next in line: Jake McGee and Kyle Farnsworth

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 NL Central.

All data from FanGraphs.

Squeezing Steals Out Of Anthony Gose

Injuries have defined the Blue Jays' season so far, with the pitching staff feeling the brunt of the impact. The injury bug leaked over to the position player side of things on Monday night, when Jose Bautista came up holding his left wrist after pulling a ball foul down the line in a game against the Yankees. He left the game and x-rays were negative, but an MRI revealed what is either inflammation or a strain depending on who you ask. It's probably a little of both, the two can be related. Either way, Bautista has been placed on the DL and will miss at least two weeks.

To take his spot, Toronto recalled top outfield prospect Anthony Gose from Triple-A. He was hitting .292/.375/.432 with 18 doubles, ten triples, five homers, and 29 steals in 436 plate appearances for Las Vegas at the time of the recall. The left-handed hitting Gose sat on Tuesday night - understandable against CC Sabathia -  before making his first start and going 0-for-3 with two strikeouts yesterday. He is expected to be the everyday right fielder during Bautista's absence with the occasional game on the bench against tough lefties.

The 21-year-old Gose is well traveled already, going from the Phillies to the Astros in the Roy Oswalt trade before being flipped to the Jays for Brett Wallace. ESPN's Keith Law ranked him as the 59th best prospect in baseball before the season, noting that Gose now "stays back better and repeats his swing in a way he couldn't before, resulting in higher-quality contact and the chance for average power." His outfield defense - he's a true center fielder playing right in deference to the incumbent Colby Rasmus - is excellent and enough to keep him in the lineup even when he's struggling at the plate, and playing time is always a concern for fantasy rookies.

Triple-A Las Vegas is one of the most extreme hitters' environments in baseball, inflating offense by almost ten percent according to the park factors at StatCorner. It would be easy to write off Gose as a product of that ballpark if he had a huge home/road split, but this year it was actually a reserve split. He hit .259/.351/.395 in 46 home games compared to .313/.397/.469 in 46 road games before the call-up. Besides, we're not looking at Gose as someone who can come up and mash, adding homers and RBI to our counting stats. He's a steals candidate.

Gose has swiped at least 45 bases in each of the last three seasons - including two 70+ steal seasons - and is likely to get there again this year. He's efficient (74% success rate) but not insanely successful in his stolen base attempts, so keep that in mind if you use net steals. Bautista isn't expected to miss too much time but Gose could still force his way into the regular lineup with an assist from Rajai Davis' recent slump. If he proves useful over the next two weeks, the at-bats will be there for him in left field. You might take a hit in batting average and almost certainly will get no help in the power or run production departments, but steals can be hard to come by this late in the season and few players offer as much stolen base potential as the guy Toronto just called up.

Closer Updates: Blue Jays, Red Sox, Nats

I would have published this sooner, but with three lefties coming up, my editor pulled me in favor of a LOOGY ...

Blue Jays
I said last week I wasn't all that concerned about Sergio Santos' sluggish start -- unless it was on account of an injury, which we would have had no way of knowing. Sure enough, the flame-throwing right-hander hit the DL late on Saturday due to right shoulder inflammation.

Am I worried now? I'd be lying if I said I wasn't. I don't own Santos in either of my leagues, but that wasn't by design; I like him quite a lot and expected him to have a strong season. Now, however, things are murky. The Jays say the ailment is not serious, and I suppose there's no reason not to take them at face value, but ... it's still an arm injury.

Meanwhile, Francisco Cordero has been named closer in Santos' absence. I'm no fan of Cordero's, but I was able to snatch him up when news broke of Santos' injury, and I suggest you do the same if you still can. I'll be gritting my teeth through his save opps (including Sunday's underwhelming performance), but saves are saves, and I need 'em in my primary league.

I fully expect Cordero to cede the job back to Santos when the latter is ready to to return, but I'm not assuming Santos will necessarily be back right away, either. Santos owners are frustrated, I'm sure, but your only option is to sit tight for now and stash him on your DL.

Red Sox
Smart money had reliever-turned-starter Daniel Bard returning to Boston's bullpen at some point this season, but I'm not sure anyone thought it would happen this soon. Then again, who could have foreseen things going as poorly as they have so far?

The trouble, for our purposes, is that the Red Sox are calling this a temporary move; Bard will only be available in relief while one of his turns in the starting rotation is skipped. Further complicating matters, they've also been cagey as to exactly what role he will fill during this cameo. If it all sounds unusual to you, that's because it is.

I was able to read the tea leaves and nabbed Bard before the announcement was made, but now I'm feeling like I may be stuck with Louis Friend. Will he remain in the bullpen for the long-term? Will he close if so? Well, now that I've completely revealed my bias, I don't mind saying that I hope so, but Bobby Valentine said Monday he doesn't think there's a strong temptation to move Bard back to the 'pen permanently. Why he phrased it in such a creepy way, I can't say, but the point comes across.

This situation is a mess. I'm going to hold onto Bard because I'm needy for saves, and Bard's upside as a closer is pretty big, but if you're in any better standing, you can safely pass.

In case you missed it last week, Drew Storen is out for an undefined period of time after undergoing surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. Washington hopes to have Storen back before the All-Star break, but in the meanwhile, Henry Rodriguez and Brad Lidge will share closing duties.

That's a double helping of ugh.

H-Rod's surface numbers look great right now, while Lidge's do not, but don't be fooled: both options are underwhelming. The right-handers should be owned, because saves are saves, but neither of these guys is going to provide long-term surplus value, and the fact that they're cast in a platoon only further diminishes their already dubious contributions. These remains are better left for the saves bottomfeeders in your league.

Storen, obviously, is a strong undisputed DL stash. You can take a risk on dropping him outright -- and there's a decent enough chance that he washes out completely that it wouldn't be insane from the perspective of lost stats -- but someone will snatch him off your wire with the quickness.

Closer Updates: Giants, Blue Jays, Rangers

We've got the latest on all the @closernews closer news, so unless you want to walk off the mound a loser, read on ...

The headliner since we last spoke came this weekend, when news broke that Giants closer Brian Wilson sustained a serious injury, one that San Francisco skipper Bruce Bochy ham-handedly phrased as "structural issues." Yes, that's one way of putting it, Boch. The short of it is, The Beard is very likely headed for a second Tommy John surgery, in which case he would be sidelined for the year and perhaps into next.

Of course, we wish Wilson the best and hope to see him back at full strength as soon as possible. Apropos of nothing, may I suggest this excellent piece by Andrew Baggarly of for an interesting look at Wilson, which somehow manages to both strip away and prop up Wilson's "Beard" persona.

Anyway, what do we make of this unfortunate situation from a fantasy perspective? Well, Bochy wasted no time in announcing that he'd be deploying a closer-by-committee of Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla and Javier Lopez, much to frustration of owners everywhere. It's my experience that fantasy types tend not to appreciate ambiguity in these kinds of situations.

The way it plays out may be simpler than it appears at first glance, though. Lopez can probably be discounted as a seriouus closing candidate on account of his LOOGY profile, unless it should work out that he's brought in to face a tough lefty for the final out of a game. That leaves us Romo and Casilla, and though Romo would be the rightful successor as one of the dominant relievers in baseball, he must be handled gently on account of his propensity for injuries, as Baggarly notes in the above-mentioned article. We can debate it from an old school-new school perspective all we want, but frailty is not a virtue for ballplayers -- especially not for closers, who are supposed to get their Dale Earnhardt on on the mound.

In fact, Casilla is the trendy own, and I think it has merit. Recall that the Giants faced life without Wilson for a substantial chunk of the second half last season on account of an elbow strain (ominously enough). During that time, the bulk of save opportunities went to the right-hander Casilla, a strong-armed reliever whose shiny surface stats have seemed to belie rather pedestrian peripherals for a couple years running now (3.66 SIERA vs. 1.74 ERA in 2011, for example). Casilla will likely get first crack, and although I worry about whether he can run with the job, he's the better pickup.

Blue Jays
Sergio Santos got off to a slow start as a Blue Jay, allowing four earned runs in his first three innings of work. Then, he had the indecency to tend to the birth of his child, which left his ugly small-sample-size numbers to linger on his owners' stats sheets like two-week-old Easter candy.

The good followers at @closernews pinged us with a few questions regarding Santos before he bounced for paternity leave. Though we've seen even the most entrenched closers receive ye olde demotion over the years, I'm not yet worried about Santos' job security. For one, the Jays made a point of trading for him and his team-friendly contract this offseason, so you know he's Their Guy for the foreseeable future. For two, Francisco Cordero ain't much of an alternative at this juncture of his career. I mean, what would be the point?

Unless Santos is injured -- and I have absolutely no reason to believe that -- bet on him bouncing back now that Mary's dropped his baby girl. I hesitate to ignore that whole correlation-causation rule, but would it shock you if Santos' poor early production had something to do with an impending addition to his family? We can't say that for sure, but don't do anything crazy like dropping or selling low on Santos. Sit him down for an outing or two, if you're really concerned.

Like the Blue Jays and Santos, Texas has seen newly acquired closer Joe Nathan scuffle in his first few outings as a Ranger. Ron Washington quelled any concerns with an unequivocal declaration as to the identity of his closer (hint: it's Nathan), but this is a situation I'm watching a little more closely.

Nathan is old and two years removed from Tommy John surgery. The latter concern may not be worth mentioning considering the usual time frame for pitchers to fully recover from the procedure, but at Nathan's advanced age, it may be fair to wonder whether he's looking at a different time table. After all my 29-year-old legs tire when I hike up more than two sets of subway steps at a time, so I can't even imagine whipping a baseball at 93 mph eight years from now coming off TJ.

That being said, the Rangers lavished two guaranteed years and $14.75MM on Nathan this offseason, so the last thing they want at the one-percent mark of the deal is a closer controversy. Nathan will receive every chance to get right. It took Neftali Feliz till August-ish to hit his groove last season, and though he presented the Rangers several opportunities to look elsewhere, they never did.

But what if Nathan doesn't get right? Could it finally be the year for Mike Adams? This is one to keep tabs on.

Heath Bell's first few outings in Florida Miami haven't gone, um, swimmingly, either. The chubby stopper has allowed two runs in two of his four outings this season, and in one of the others, he issued three free passes. Ugh.

Bell's peripherals took a pretty drastic downturn last season, so this is not an altogether shocking development. Is he hurt? That's hard to say. His velocity is down about one mph, but that's in a very small sample, and ... it's one mph. That being said, let's wait a few more outings till we write off Bell as another free-agent flop (joining Ryan Madson). The Marlins -- perhaps even moreso than the Rangers -- have every incentive in the world to stick with their closer till his arm falls off because of the roundly criticized contract they signed him to during their offseason feeding signing frenzy.

Ironically, Bell was one of the beneficiaries of the Marlins' awkward hey-look-at-us-we-have-money campaign. Now, we'll get to see how serious they are  in handling him if it comes down to wins and losses.

Edward Mujica is my pick to succeed the Heater in the event something should go down (although Steve Cishek would be a candidate too, I spose), and while I have my cursor on the add-drop button, I'm not acting until Bell turns in another clunker.

Position/Role Battles: The Blue Jays' Left Fielder

As with any Blue Jays-related speculation, there is a threat that Alex Anthopoulos will pull off another of his signature out-of-nowhere blockbuster trades five minutes after this piece is posted, making the whole thing moot.  However, the Jays have seemingly enough outfield depth that (knock on wood) it's safe to presume that the club will choose from its present crop of outfielders to fill its left field gap.  Jose Bautista and Colby Rasmus are safely locked into the right and center field jobs in 2012, so the Jays are left with at least four outfielders battling for playing time next season.  Let's break down the candidates...

The Favorites

Travis Snider: The Blue Jays have kept the former first-round draft pick on a pretty short leash since his debut late in the 2008 campaign.  Snider has been Toronto's Opening Day left fielder in each of the last three seasons, but was sent down in 2009 after a batting slump, suffered a wrist injury in 2010 that sidelined him for two months and was sent down again in 2011 after another slow start, not to mention a late-season bout with wrist tendinitis. 

There have been whispers that the Jays are becoming frustrated with Snider, who reportedly retooled his swing during his 2011 demotion but still struggled (a .682 OPS in 103 plate appearances) after being recalled in July.  Snider's defenders have countered that the constant yo-yoing between Toronto and Triple-A isn't doing Snider any favors for getting himself adjusted to Major League pitching.  

While the Jays are no doubt a little worried that Snider is no closer to proving himself as a legitimate everyday player today than he was when he debuted in 2008, it's unlikely the team is anywhere close to giving up on him.  Snider will celebrate his 24th birthday next month, so he's far from the age where you could attach the 'bust' label to him.        

Snider is an intriguing late-round pickup for your fantasy draft.  You can stash him on your team's bench through Snider's seemingly traditional April slump, then perhaps reap the benefits if he turns things on in May.  Or, perhaps 2012 will be the season when Snider breaks out, giving both the Blue Jays (and your fantasy team) a nice offensive boost.  Be warned, however -- Snider still has an option remaining, so another stint in Triple-A wouldn't be a surprise.  If you've had Snider in a keeper league for years and are losing patience, wait at least a couple of months into 2012 before exploring a trade or a sell-off.

Eric Thames: After four paragraphs discusing Snider, let's focus on the player who, according to Anthopoulos during a recent interview on TheFan590 radio, "right now...would have the leg up" on the starting left field job.  Thames hit .262/.313/.456 in 394 plate appearances last year and established himself as Toronto's everyday left fielder over the last two months of the season.  It was a nice first impression for Thames, a rather unheralded seventh-round pick in the 2008 draft who quickly rose through the Jays' minor league system, including a 1.033 OPS at Triple-A Las Vegas in 2011 that earned him his call-up.

So is this a case where the hyped prospect (Snider) is overtaken by the underdog rookie (Thames)?  Not exactly.  Thames struggled in September as pitchers began to adjust to him.  While the rule of thumb for defensive stats is you need three years of data to make a firm judgement, Thames looked overmatched in the field last year and posted an overall -15.9 UZR/150 in left and right field.  There's certainly no reason Thames can't improve to "below-average" than his current "butcher" status, but it seems as if Thames' future as Major Leaguer might be as a DH.  Snider's superior fielding (a career 3.1 UZR/150 as an outfielder, though admittedly this is another small sample size) could end up being the factor that ultimately sends Thames to the bench.

If you're a Thames owner, you're not out of luck.  Thames could very well find himself some at-bats at DH after all, occasionally spelling the right-handed hitting Edwin Encarnacion when the Jays face a tough righty starter.  Thames' fortunes could also be tied to those of Adam Lind.  The Jays will give Lind a lot of rope in 2012 but if he posts another sub-.300 OBP, you could see Thames get some time at DH and Encarnacion would get a lot of playing time at first base.   

The Backup Options

Snider and Thames are both left-handed batters, leaving room for the right-handed Rajai Davis and Ben Francisco to snatch a few starts when a lefty starter is on the mound.  It seems likely that only one player will be needed for the backup outfield job, so let's look at what Davis and Francisco bring to the table.

Davis: Speed and lots of it.  Davis has 177 career steals (out of respectable 226 attempts) and is a valuable pinch-running asset on a Toronto club that doesn't have many viable base-running threats.  Davis has played all three outfield positions in his career and while he's not a great defender, he is at least capable of filling it anywhere in the outfield if needed.  Davis's career splits reveal an .829 OPS against lefties and a .551 OPS against righties.

Francisco: Acquired by the Jays in December from a trade with the Phillies, Francisco's career splits are quite even, though he's had far more plate appearances against righty pitching --- a .759 OPS in 1034 PAs against right-handers and a .768 OPS in 480 PAs against southpaws.  By this measure, Francisco is a more balanced pinch-hit threat, able to come off the bench no matter who is on the mound.  Like Davis, Francisco has experience everywhere in the outfield and provides little defensive value.

Davis' speed gives him both the edge over Francisco for a roster spot and also his fantasy value.  If Snider/Thames are injured or struggle enough that a platoon is required, Davis will get the call against lefties and provide your fantasy squad with some cheap steals and (in Toronto's solid lineup) some runs.  Davis' fantasy value could actually increase if he loses the battle with Francisco; the Jays might be inclined to trade or DFA Davis, and the speedster could become a regular elsewhere.  Keep on eye on Davis' status since he is worth a bench spot in an AL-only league. 

The Wild Cards

Edwin Encarnacion in left?  Kelly Johnson in left?  Either scenario could happen in 2012.  Encarnacion has been playing some outfield in the Dominican winter league, and if he can at least hold his own in left, his right-handed bat could play well in a platoon with Snider or Thames.  This said, Encarnacion is an infamously poor defender and teaching him to play the outfield for the first time in his Major League career seems counter-productive.  Encarnacion has a career .868 OPS as a designated hitter, which indicates that if freed from the burden of worrying about fielding, he is a much more valuable asset to a lineup. 

Johnson, likewise, hasn't played left since his rookie season with the Braves in 2005 and his bat plays much better at second base than it does in a corner outfield slot.  I see Johnson playing no more than a handful (if any) of appearances in left next season, and the Encarnacion experiment could be ended quickly before he ends up known as "E7."  For fantasy owners, though, a few games out-of-position wouldn't be a bad thing.  If your league only requires a few games for a player to qualify at a new position, you might find yourself with a bit more roster flexibility should either player get a few looks in left.

Fantasy Breakdown

The winner of the Snider/Thames battle is worth a bench spot in a standard mixed league.  The fluid situation at 1B/DH between Lind and Encarnacion also means that the loser of the battle could still find playing time, but probably not enough to justify keeping him on your fantasy roster.  Keep an eye to see how Snider and Thames perform in Spring Training and hope one player clearly steps up, as otherwise the secretive Jays might not name the starter until Opening Day itself, leaving you basically flipping a coin during your draft.

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A Look At Brandon Morrow

Brandon Morrow is one of the more intriguing starters for 2011 fantasy drafts.  Let's take an in-depth look at the 26-year-old righty.

The Pros

  • Among those with at least 100 innings pitched, Morrow ranked first in baseball by a longshot with a 10.95 K/9.  Tim Lincecum was next at 9.79.  Morrow struck out eight or more hitters in half his starts, including a 17-K gem.  If he reaches 200 innings, he could whiff 240.
  • Morrow is difficult to hit, with 7.8 per nine allowed in his career.  He posted a .348 BABIP this year (almost certain to come down) but still allowed only 8.4 hits per nine because batters put so few balls in play against him.
  • He's a former first-round pick who was jerked around before being traded to the Blue Jays, so he might now just be settling in.
  • His average fastball velocity was a solid 93.4 this year. 
  • Morrow's ERA was 4.49, but his SIERA was 3.15.  The casual fantasy player may not realize that he's in line for a much lower ERA even if his skills remain the same.

The Cons

  • Due to injuries and time spent as a reliever, Morrow has never topped this year's 146.3 innings in a pro season.
  • He's inefficient.  Morrow's 17.2 pitches per inning figure this year was the 10th-worst in baseball among those with 100 innings.  He averaged 5.63 innings per start, which could limit wins.
  • I expect his WHIP to come down from 1.38 because of even fewer hits allowed.  But his 4.1 BB/9 was a career-best, and that's still a WHIP-damaging control rate.  Silver lining using arbitrary endpoints: his BB/9 was 3.0 over 14 starts made in June, July, and August.
  • He pitches in the AL East.

In trying to predict where Morrow might be drafted, Clayton Kershaw is a decent comparable.  He too was coming off a low-inning, high walk campaign, and he was drafted in the eighth round before this season.  On the flip side he didn't come with injury or American League concerns and he's really tough to hit.  Jonathan Sanchez is also similar, and he was drafted in the 19th.  I'm thinking rounds 13-15 for Morrow in 2011.  It's a solid gamble.

Experts Predict Jose Bautista's 2011 Home Run Total

Yesterday Ben Nicholson-Smith of MLB Trade Rumors dove into Jose Bautista's impending raise with the help of an arbitration expert.  The article was fascinating, but fantasy baseball players are more concerned with how much of Bautista's 54 home run performance will carry over in 2011.  I assembled a panel of legendary journalists and asked them to predict his home run total for next year.  Their answers:

That comes to an average of 32.3 home runs for Bautista next year, with a range of nine between the highest and lowest predictions.  Fantasy players will likely view Bautista as a third baseman rather than an outfielder. 

I can't help but wonder if Bautista will be next year's Mark Reynolds.  Not because I expect him to follow up his huge year with a .198 average and 211 strikeouts, but because like Reynolds, Bautista may be drafted inside the first three rounds in March of 2011 and that's probably too early.  Reynolds was actually drafted 20th on average before the 2010 season.  Be sure to exercise caution on Bautista in fantasy drafts, with a panel of ten experts predicting a dropoff of more than 20 home runs.  His RBI total will come down as well.

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