Foreshadowed by my rather impotent title, this isn’t a strategy likely to bring you home the gold. This isn’t about who to take in the first round, or building your rotation, or sleeper picks. Or even post-hype sleeper picks, to be thorough. Rather, I spend probably far too much time thinking about that last pick, or last few to be precise. When half of your league has checked out from the stress of the draft, or the number of adult beverages they’ve consumed during that span, this is your chance to stockpile opportunity.
There are position players and starting pitchers that are probably worth talking about relative to these last fleeting flier picks, but for our purposes today, let’s lay out a few relievers. I don’t have any whiz-bang statistic or multivariate regression model to substantiate my theory, but I’ve found a good deal of value in taking the proverbial closer-in-waiting in two fairly obvious instances. One, your guy assumes the closer role, and poof — you have another closer. This may give you an excess of stoppers and now you have more trade leverage, or maybe you just enjoy stockpiling closers to the dismay of the remainder of the league. Two, and somewhat related, is the irritation of your fellow managers. Because you know the guy with Jason Grilli looks at your Mark Melancon at least twice a day.
Huston Street is probably a medical staff dream player. Every time he takes the mound, you never know what part you’ll be working on next. Since 2010, Street has lost time due to his shoulder, groin, abdomen, “trunk,” triceps, oblique, calf, biceps, and thigh. They should make an Android app for every place the trainer has been on Street’s body. Sure, he was relatively healthy in 2013, but that convinces me very little. It’s a question of when, not if, Benoit is closing games for the San Diego Padres, and there’s a darn good chance it will be for long enough duration to be worth taking a flier on him. Benoit isn’t a world beater, but he performed admirably enough in the stopper role for the Detroit Tigers, and given his healthy contract with the Padres this offseason, there’s little doubt he’s the next in line behind Street’s fragility.
Bastardo ought to be the main guy behind Jonathan Papelbon, who you have probably read a thing or two about in the recent past. The recap: Paps’ velocity is down, way way down. He’s allowing far more contact. He induces far fewer swings and misses. His 2013 strikeout rate was a career low. Now, this doesn’t mean that he’s going to lose his job, because he’s paid handsomely, and it doesn’t mean he’ll be ineffective because, well, he was still pretty effective last year. But it could point to some underlying injury or issue that might lay him up for a bit. Add to that the strong likelihood that the Phillies want to move him despite his contract issues, and Bastardo becomes a strong candidate to close at some point in 2014. Bastardo, for his part, isn’t completely infallible, but he has a tasty strikeout rate and the other logical late inning guy, Mike Adams, is coming off shoulder surgery and who knows what his status might be by April.
Jason Grilli is on the wrong side of the aging curve, and he’s coming off a season derailed by a forearm injury that resulted in a pretty significant loss of velocity upon return. It’s not that I think Grilli won’t be effective as a reliever in 2014, it’s just that I find him to be a very likely candidate to be hurt at some point in the season — and there are few situations quite as ironclad relative to the replacement closer as Mark Melancon. Melancon posted a 1.39 ERA (1.64 FIP), 0.96 WHIP, and a 25% strikeout rate last season, and in high leverage situations, he was filthy — allowing only a .198/.245/.211 slash line. Frankly, if Grilli doesn’t look like his old self this Spring, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Melancon actually enters the season as the Pirates closer.
John Axford will probably get used to the smell of Cody Allen’s cologne during Spring. While Axford performed admirably as a member of the Cardinals, let’s not forget so did Joel Pineiro. Over 2012 and 2013 and almost 140 innings pitched, Axford has a 4.06 FIP and 4.34 FIP, respectively. In 2013, his strikeout rate dipped to 22.5%, the lowest in his career. Axford still throws hard, and he’s certainly a good change-of-scenery guy who ought to be reliable enough. But Axford is also volatile, and when you’re volatile in short spurts, managers tend to get itchy. Think of how Kansans City treated Greg Holland in April last year. Cody Allen posted a near 30% strikeout rate in 2013 on his way to a 2.43 ERA (2.99 FIP) and he’ll no doubt be breathing down Axford’s neck until Axford either nails down the job or gives way.
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