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Fantasy Fever: Closer Catastrophe

Fantasy Fever Week 2

By Joel Beall - WhatIfSports.com
April 12, 2011

What the Fuentes is up with the incompetence of relief pitching in 2011? Baseball jargon designates closers as "firemen" due to their propensity of extinguishing infernos in the later innings of ballgames. Yet pyromania has engulfed the Major League landscape, dominating the early season headlines.

No arms are safe from the torching, as respected relievers like Joakim Soria, Matt Thornton and Francisco Rodriguez have fallen prey to this epidemic. Opening Day box scores doubled as bone yards for bullpens, as John Axford, Ryan Franklin and Brandon Lyon failed to slam the door on victories.

For some, the fireworks have already been fatal. Fernando Rodney, notorious for the angst his appearances produce amongst the hometown crowd, was demoted after a blowing a two-run lead against Kansas City on April 3. Jonathan Broxton is tied for the league lead in saves, yet resides in the Dodgerland doghouse for yielding two runs in his first three appearances of 2011, outings which summoned memories of Ox's dreadful second-half performance last season.

What's the impetus for this ineptitude? In the book Moneyball, Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane expresses his belief that closers are overvalued, citing pedestrian pitchers can be transformed into serviceable bullpen arms. This sentiment wasn't a total shock to the baseball community, as failed starters had been converted into closers for years. However, it did give a clearer illustration on the glorification of the role, mostly thanks to the "save" statistic.

Although the masses agree that the save is the most fabricated indicator of performance in baseball, most leagues include the figure in fantasy. Keeping this postulate in mind, you can capitalize on this stat in two ways. The first is to stockpile set-up men or closers who are currently in part-time positions. Since there is a shortage of first-class finishers, many search the waiver wire for those who accumulate an early-season save or two. Owners who start to worry about falling to the wayside in this category will occasionally overpay for a relief arm.

Subsequently, you can buck conventional wisdom by disregarding the save category altogether in favor of enhancing other areas of your team. For every Mariano Rivera, there are three Francisco Corderos. But while Rivera is exponentially better at his job than Cordero, the variance in fantasy productivity is minimal. True, someone like Cordero won't assist in WHIP or ERA, but the lack of innings from closers mean their contribution (or lack thereof) is negligible.

Capitalizing on the current closer hysteria provides an easy way to better the overall talent of your team. Just keep the big picture in mind if, and when, one of your relievers blows the occasional game.

Start 'em:

C: Alex Avila, Tigers. Offensive output was expected in Comerica Park from the catching position in 2011 with the acquisition of Victor Martinez. However, it's been Avila who has stolen the backstop spotlight, as Martinez has spent most of his time in the DH role. Avila has three jacks and eight RBI in seven games this season, with a .280 average and .357 OBP. Monitor his status daily, but it appears Avila will be suiting up more times than not.

1B: Brett Wallace, Astros. A transfer up the lineup has correlated to improvement for Houston's first baseman. Since batting behind cleanup, Wallace is 6-for-15 with a homer and three RBI. Although he's only hitting .242 on the season, an upcoming schedule featuring the putrid pitching staffs of the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets should present Wallace a stage to showcase his talent. While he doesn't possess the normal power one would expect from the position, Wallace will provide a high batting average and on-base percentage while knocking in runs.

2B: Chris Getz, Royals. Getz is off to a sizzling start with 10 hits in his first 29 at-bats. It's hard to fathom the KC second baseman keeping up the hitting barrage, but if Get continues to bat near the top of the Royals' order, he could prove to be a suitable source of runs and stolen bases (Getz snagged 25 bases in just 107 games in 2009).

SS: Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians. Cabrera was somewhat of a forgotten man in fantasy drafts, with preseason rankings slating the shortstop in the mid-to-late teens at the position. Yet Cleveland's Cabrera is raking, holding a .316 batting average with nine RBI and seven runs. Historically, Cabrera rarely challenged the warning track, as his career-high in homers is a whopping total of six. However, the Indians shortstop has three round-trippers in the first nine games of 2011. The unforeseen bombardment of bleacher shots aside, a healthy Cabrera will produce runs in the two-hole in the Cleveland lineup.

Alex Gordon Gordon is finally arriving to the party.

3B: Willie Bloomquist, Diamondbacks. Bloomquist wasn't penciled into the Diamondbacks' everyday lineup in spring training, but the uber-utility man is making it tough for manager Kirk Gibson to take him out. An abdominal strain to SS Stephen Drew paved the way for an Opening Day start for Bloomquist, who promptly belted three hits in Arizona's 7-6 win over Colorado. Bloomquist has shown the day was no aberration, hitting safely in seven games, four of which were multi-hit contests. Drew has since returned but has cautioned that he's far from 100 percent. Even with Drew in the lineup, Bloomquist earned two starts in the outfield in a weekend series against Cincinnati. Bloomquist is worth the pickup in deep or NL-only leagues, especially those in need of stolen bases.

OF: Alex Gordon, Royals. Better late than never. The 2006 Minor League Player of the Year is, knock on wood, finally starting to come to fruition in Kansas City with a .357 average, five doubles and nine runs in 42 at-bats. Gordon is striking out at a fairly high rate (nine Ks in a nine games) but displayed patience at the plate in spring training with a .459 OBP. With Billy Butler providing protection at cleanup Gordon should see a fair shake from opposing hurlers, giving the former first-round pick opportunities to parade his power.

SP: Chris Narveson, Brewers. With a 4.99 ERA in 167.2 innings last season, no one forecasted Narveson to throw 13 scoreless innings to begin his 2011 campaign. Even more impressive is Narveson's strikeouts (14) outnumber his hits allowed (nine). An upcoming game in Pittsburgh will help Narveson continue his pitching brilliance.

RP: Jon Rauch, Blue Jays. Theoretically, this role is only temporary, with Rauch holding down the fort until Frank Francisco returns. However, Francisco is far from the undisputed closer, and his track record illustrates anything but consistency. For those in search of a bullpen boost, Rauch appears to be the closer for the foreseeable future. A Rauch pickup will have risk attached, as the 6'11 right-hander's stat sheet has more ups and downs than an episode of VH1's "Behind the Music." But for now, Rauch should augment your team's save total.

Sit 'em:

C: Ivan Rodriguez, Nationals. Originally projected to start the majority of games behind the plate, Pudge's sluggish start (three hits in 17 at-bats) has led to Wilson Ramos, a 23-year-old obtained last season when the Nats sent Matt Capps to Minnesota, to be named the new primary catcher.

1B: Justin Smoak, Mariners. His .381 OBP is respectable, but Smoak's lack of power production (zero homers, four RBI) leaves much to be desired at the first base position. Cavernous Safeco Field isn't helping the matter, as the ballpark ranked second last in runs and home runs in 2010. For the time being, employ Smoak in AL-only or deeper leagues.

2B: Aaron Hill, Blue Jays. Hill does have seven RBI in the early going, but a .186 average, .196 OBP and zero jacks are disconcerting. His 2009 campaign of 36 bombs, 108 RBI and 103 runs with a .286 average is starting to look like an anomaly, as this season's start seems to mirror last year's .205 AVG/26 HR/68 RBI output. Don't throw in the towel on Hill, as the Toronto second baseman should continue to see run opportunities with Jose Bautista and Adam Lind ahead of him in the order. But begin to hunt for possible replacements if Hill's average continues to hover around the Mendoza Line.

SS: Paul Janish, Reds. The Cincinnati shortstop has been riffling line drives the first two weeks of the season, with 12 hits in 30 at-bats (.400). Unfortunately, Janish's placement in the order (eighth) makes it difficult to drive in or score runs. And with Edgar Renteria serving as backup and producing (six hits in 10 at-bats for the 2010 World Series MVP), Janish is not quite an everyday starter at this juncture of the season. Keep him on your watch list, but Janish is not worthy of a spot in your lineup unless you are dealing with SS issues.

3B: Casey McGehee, Brewers. McGehee was batting .206 with four RBI and zero long balls until coming through with a pinch-hit blast on Sunday. Hopefully the homer serves as a catalyst for the Brewers third baseman, who posted 23 home runs, 104 RBI and a .285 average in 2010.

OF: Delmon Young, Twins. His OBP has never been anything to write home about (career .323) but Young historically hits around .290 and delivered 112 RBI and 77 runs last season. But in the early going, Young hasn't discovered a groove, batting a pathetic .188 with just one extra-base knock. The OF position offers depth, meaning Young should find a seat on your bench until snapping out of his funk.

SP: Tommy Hanson, Braves. Two rough outings have begun to worry Hanson owners, who were banking on a bounce-back year from the Braves starter. After going 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA and 116 Ks in 2009, Hanson slightly regressed with a 3.33 ERA and 10-11 record last season, although his WHIP (1.17) improved. Allowing six runs in just nine innings in 2011 have not alleviated these concerns. A start against Florida will give Hanson an opportunity to get back on track. But if another falter occurs, Hanson may better serve your squad on the pine.

RP: Brian Wilson, Giants. It's only been two outings, but Wilson's ERA is a laughable 33.75 thanks to five earned runs in 1.1 innings of work. Maybe he should scale back on those media interviews and appearances until he collects a save or two. In a related note, has anyone noticed the parallels between Wilson and Ricky Vaughn in Major League II? Two eccentric pitchers armed with mohawks and heat parlay last season's success into mainstream fame and endorsement deals, only to forget their roots and lose their invincibility on the mound. Granted, Wilson has kept his beard while Vaughn went the clean-cut route, but the similarities are jarring. At least Giant fans can take solace that Vaughn regained his swagger by the end of the film.

Josh Beckett For one day in Red Sox Nation, the sky was not falling.

Waiver Wire Watch: Aaron Harang, Padres. After finishing fourth in Cy Young voting in 2007, Harang turned into a train wreck, going 18-38 from 2008 to 2010. Yet departing from the launching pad known as Great American Ballpark to the pitching-friendly confines of Petco Park have paid early dividends for Harang, going 12 innings with just two earned runs and a WHIP of 1.08. Although he won't return to his 2006-07 form (combined 434 Ks in those two years), Harang can contribute a decent amount of strikeouts and lower your team's ERA.

Rookie Review: Freddie Freeman, Braves. After tumbling out of the gate with a .105 average in his first six games, Freeman has hit safely in four straight contests. More importantly, the Braves have no contingency plan behind the 21-year-old at first, meaning Freeman will get time to develop without feeling pressure. Freeman hit .319 with 18 homers and 87 RBI in 124 games in Triple-A Gwinnett in 2010, and should start to replicate some of those power numbers in Atlanta.

Trade Talk: Some of you may have already been inundated with trade offers. While it's certainly too early to initiate transactions with other teams, you can benefit off of other owners' frustrations with their roster to get a player on a discount. For example, Kevin Youkilis' shockingly slow start may compel one to jettison the Sox slugger. If such a proposition falls in your lap, use this anger to your advantage to obtain a struggling star.

Big League Chew Player of the Week: Josh Beckett, Red Sox. A recent gem against the Yankees helped soothe the soul of Red Sox Nation that had not-so-quietly questioned the former All-Star's focus. Beckett went eight innings, surrendering just two hits while whiffing 10 in a 4-0 Boston victory.

Spit Your Tobacco At: Manny Ramirez. Rather than face the music of a second steroid suspension, Ramirez retired. You stay classy, Man-Ram.

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Joel Beall is the Assistant Content Manager for Whatifsports.com. He can be reached at jbeall@whatifsports.com.

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