Marking the first major move of the offseason, the Atlanta Braves are all set to acquire Billy Wagner if he passes their physical examination. The deal is for a reported $7 million this year, with a $6.5 million vesting option for 2011 if he finishes 50 games in 2010.
The Braves used Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez in the closers spot last year, but after offering arbitration to both players, it seems unlikely they will return. Signing Wagner would require Atlanta to forfeit their first round pick, but they would receive two others if Soriano and Gonzalez decline arbitration and sign elsewhere.
When I wrote about Wagner in my brief Free Agent Fantasy Impact Series, I said this about his value:
“If Wagner can find himself a closer’s job for a contender next year, he will be in the top half of fantasy closers, if not the top 10. His ability to strike batters out and experience in the ninth inning should allow you to draft him with confidence, but make sure to have a backup option ready in case his elbow explodes again.
If he’s not a closer, he is still draftable in deeper and AL/NL only leagues, as he will give you good strikeouts for the amount of your allotted innings he uses.”
Wagner’s role with the Braves remains clouded. While his contract suggests he would be the full time closer, his recent injuries suggest that the Braves will acquire another late inning option. I believe the Braves enjoyed having a legitimate lefty/righty combo capable of finish games, and would like to have that ability again. Kevin Gregg is a player who comes to mind for the Braves, as his experience finishing games for the Marlins could be attractive to Atlanta. Kiko Calero and Octavio Dotel would also be options for the Braves to acquire.
If the Braves sign another closer, they will likely give both an equal opportunity to win the primary closers job. If Wagner can win it, he is a top half closer as I projected before. The ability to give him plenty of rest by pitching another closer could keep him healthy and fresh, actually helping his value by doing everything possible to ensure his health.
Wagner will always be a source of strikeouts and a low ERA, with a career 11.79 K/9 and 2.39 ERA. His 14.94 K/9 from last year is unsustainable, but dropping the number down to his career average is reasonable. The problems with control (4.60 BB/9) likely stem from his extended time off the field, causing some rust. Like I said before, if he isn’t the official closer, he will still gather some saves and help your fantasy club. If he is the full time closer, 30 saves is well within the realm of possibility.
No one will blame you for being cautious and passing on Wagner on draft day, and I may end being one of those people. For the rest of you, keep an eye on this situation, it could get interesting.