- FanGraphs Fantasy Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/fantasy -

Handcuffing Relievers: Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez

Blame Mike Shanahan.

Thanks to the former Broncos coach, fantasy football players have had to come to grips with the reality that just because you draft a team’s presumptive starter, it doesn’t mean you’ll get the team’s production. Fantasy baseball players have had to work around platoon situations, but the idea of a handcuff is relatively new to this branch of the fantasy tree. For position players, traditional platoons are still a more likely issue that owners have to navigate, but especially for relievers, it’s time to learn how to use a handcuff and which players are the most likely to need one.

For those unfamiliar with the term, handcuffs are players who may not have the name recognition of another player on their team, but who may share a role and split the available stats. For football, they are typically running backs who will share carries with a more well-known back, but in baseball, they’re going to manifest themselves in a slightly different way. Rather than a job-sharing situation, handcuffs are going to be most useful for relievers who aren’t secure in their role at the end of games.

Jeff Zimmerman covered Chris Perez’s oblique issues on Monday, and while the Indians expect Perez to be back for the start of the season, some oblique strains can linger. Even if Perez is healthy in a month, there’s a decent chance he won’t be ready for high-leverage appearances until after the real games have started. In the meantime, Vinnie Pestano should grab whatever save chances are available as the team waits for Perez to get back into form. If this were a simple issue of Perez missing a little time, then coming back as the no-doubt closer, relegating the clearly inferior Pestano to a setup role, I’d actually advise against picking up Pestano for the short time he’d be valuable. That is not the current case. While Perez may believe the spot will be waiting for him when he returns, Pestano could yet render him a modern Wally Pipp.

Perez gave owners a solid 36 saves last year, ably doing the job he was drafted for, but providing little in the way of secondary value. Perez’s 1.21 WHIP gave him the 10th highest WHIP of any pitcher with 20 or more saves and his ERA of 3.32 was the 7th worst. He’s a flyball-heavy pitcher, who walks a fairly high number of hitters — just a hair under 4.0 BB/9 — and doesn’t mitigate that with a lot of strikeouts, just 5.88 K/9 last season. Perez isn’t bad, at least not Kevin Gregg bad, but he does allow a lot of balls in play and that isn’t always the best trait for a high-leverage reliever to have.

Pestano, on the other hand, allows much less contact. He struck out more than a third of the hitters he faced last year and while he shares some of the same walk issues that Perez has, he allows opponents to hit a paltry .184 against him. His WHIP was a strong 1.05 and his ERA a solid 2.32 over the course of 68 appearances last year. In leagues were Holds are a category, Pestano is already must-draft and deeper leagues with specified RP slots may want to look his way as a solid source of strikeouts without too much risk in the WHIP and ERA categories. The question is whether he’ll be able to grab a season or even half-season’s worth of saves by unseating Perez.

I see two things working in Perez’s favor as far as his ability to keep the closer’s job. First, while he wasn’t a strict closer in college, he has been used almost exclusively at the end of games when he’s been at an age-appropriate level in the minors. He sat behind Kerry Wood in the majors in 2010, but when he was in the minors, he was the frequent choice at the end of games. History isn’t fate, but when a player gets the “proven closer” label, it does make him harder to unseat. Second, 2011 was a remarkably worse year for Perez than 2010 was, and the Indians may be willing to see if he can regain that form, knowing Pestano will still be there in 2013 if Perez stumbles again in 2012. It’s worth noting that 2011 Pestano was still better than 2010 Perez, but Manny Acta and his staff may see value in knowing which version of Perez is closer to reality.

Even knowing that Pestano faces an uphill battle, I still see him being draftable in all but the shallowest leagues, especially as a handcuff for Perez. If Perez’s oblique keeps him out for more than the current 4-6 week timetable, owners will be glad they have Pestano to fill in the gap. If Perez gets his job back and then pitches his way out of it with another middling season, Pestano will again be the one who steps into the ninth inning. While holding on to Pestano in a traditional 5X5 set-up isn’t ideal since he won’t win or save many games, he’ll still be an asset in three categories, which makes him a risk worth having on the roster.

He’s being drafted in just 6 percent of mixed 5X5 leagues according to Mock Draft Central, which makes some sense, but he is certainly the type of late-round gamble that will almost certainly pay off whether or not he’s getting saves in May and beyond. Yahoo! has him getting drafted 22 percent of the time, but with an ADP of about 221. Anyone planning to take Perez should be grabbing Pestano 100 percent of the time, but at that ADP, anyone with an open P or RP slot should be looking hard at Pestano. He’s a safer pick than Joba Chamberlain and is going to generate more value — even in 5X5 — than teammate Grady Sizemore, both of whom have ADPs close to Pestano’s.

The Bullpen Mafia is fertile ground for good relievers, so good in fact, that the best play on draft day is to break out the handcuffs and grab a pair of them.