Closing with the Tigers

So, it seems to be happening, the situation every Tigers fan dreaded.  Let’s start at the beginning.

After an incredible playoff implosion (I noted to my wife during the playoffs last year that I’d never actually watched someone’s career go up in flames, and it was kind of saddening) last year, the Tigers didn’t re-sign tarnished closer Jose Valverde.  No one else did, either.  The Tigers went into the 2013 season without a set closer, but with a relatively reliable bullpen of arms.  Manager Jim Leyland had used a closer-by-committee in the past when he was in Pittsburgh, so I figured he’d simply play matchups this year, something the Tigers’ bullpen seemed suited to do, with Benoit and Coke as the obvious RHP and LHP closers, respectively.  They could move Al Alburquerque into a set-up role with someone like Drew Smyly and use Octavio Dotel as needed.  It’s not a weak bullpen.  Rookie Bruce Rondon, the heir apparent to close, had control issues in the spring and had to wait.

Instead, the Tigers struggled in the 9th, and with no clear option, they signed Valverde to a minor league contract.  To be fair, this was reasonable.  A minimum salary contract for a guy who was a couple years removed from an excellent season was reasonable.  It’s low-risk if it fails.  What’s more frightening, to me, is that Leyland seems to need the security blanket of a “proven closer.”  Valverde entered the picture in early May and struggled immediately; I won’t post stats for this one, but the short of it was that his peripheral stats (fastball velocity, walk rates, etc) were awful and his luck stats (HR-to-flyball, some favorable umps, etc) were sky-high.  Anyone watching a Tigers game when he enters can also see – this is a guy who’s confidence is lost.  He’s not 2011 Valverde, in command on the mound; he’s holding his breath like every fan is, hoping nothing goes wrong.

Over the past week, Valverde blew a save.  It happens.  What hurt was that he almost blew the one the day before, also.  In fact, if not for a terrible called third strike by the umpire in the 6/11 game, a call which Billy Butler got himself thrown out over, I think Valverde has two blown saves in two days.  The Tigers do not have a good record in close games, but they’re a team that wins big often enough to weather that.  But they won’t go far without a shutdown closer, someone who has some confidence.

The rumor mill buzzes that the Tigers need to make a trade; maybe.  Milwaukee might part with a guy like Francisco Rodriguez or Arizona might part with Heath Bell, but the question is always what they’d want in return.  The Tigers’ biggest area of wealth is an excess of outfielders; in fact, it wouldn’t hurt to try to move a guy like Andy Dirks or Avisail Garcia if it means getting Nick Castellanos in left field this year, since he’s raking in Triple-A.  But more likely, the Tigers should mine their wealth of bullpen arms and endure the struggles of a younger, new closer than endure the struggles of a one-year retread of Valverde.  The honest truth is that both Al Alburquerque and Bruce Rondon have closer-type stuff, if they can command their pitches better; but I’d rather watch them learn on the fly than watch Valverde have similar issues.  More interesting would be putting a guy like Drew Smyly into the role; he’s a strikeout pitcher with a starter’s arsenal of pitches.  In fact, Drew Smyly should be a starter – but with no rotation spot to put him in and him not stretched out to spot start if necessary, his talents are wasted in long relief; he has a potent skill set and may be the perfect in-house candidate to hold down the closer role this year.

Ultimately, the Tigers are the best team in a weak division and can weather blown saves here and there.  But the reality is starting to set in – Valverde’s a shell of himself, much as we saw last year in the playoffs.  The longer they stick with him, the more harm they inflict on themselves.  It says a lot about a team that they can endure some self-inflicted losses, but as the season grows shorter and summer heats up, they’re going to have to nail down some stability in that role, start making sure they don’t let wins slip away, and find the guy who’ll be able to get the job done in September and October – because that guy is not Jose Valverde anymore.

The Matt Harvey Conundrum

My keeper league has a keeper format that I absolutely adore:

Each team has to keep 6 players.  The draft is broken down into tiers; A-tier is rounds 1-4, B-tier is 5-8, C-tier is 9-12, D-tier is 13-16, E-tier is 17-20, F-tier is 21-25.  Players retain their value in trades, and any free agents you pick up replace the value of the person you dropped; any DL replacements are automatically given an F-25 value.  The catch is this – each team has to keep a player from each tier.  This is brilliant; not only does it spread keeper value out, it also results in constant maintenance – you have you be careful of who you drop, lest you get stuck with your mediocre closer from E-tier being your only guy left because you were too aggressive with free agents.  Not only that, but your keepers get “contracts” with varying length; each year, 3 keepers are signed to 1-year contracts, 2 guys to 2-year contracts, and 1 guy to a 3-year contract.  After contracts expire, keepers are released to the draft pool; contracts cannot be re-upped or extended.  Keepers cannot be dropped, even if they’re demoted.  Sign contracts carefully.

I drafted Matt Harvey in round 11.  This is wonderful value, and I pegged him as a keeper right away.  A few weeks into the season, I realized he has massive trade value, but immediately deemed him untouchable.  But there’s this guy I drafted in the 9th round named Chris Davis, and per my most recent post about the value of pitching in fantasy baseball, I have to start to seriously consider if I might end up keeping Davis over Harvey.  If I do decide to do that, I need to do it sooner than later, and capitalize on Harvey’s value, trading him to upgrade my team overall, but also to upgrade my keeper options in other tiers.

But do I really want to trade away a guy who might be a stud pitcher, a safe guy to put a 3-year contract on, because bats are more highly valued?  I doubt I’d commit more than 2 years on Davis, since he’s older and hasn’t demonstrated this kind of production in the past, so I’d be getting a short-term boost to a more critical position over a long-term boost to a somewhat more flexible position.  But at the same time, if I can flip that into additional value in another rank, I might do it.  As one friend warned me, if I’m going to trade Harvey, make sure the return is well worth it.

Probably best to give this time, but as we head into June, the likelihood of serious regression on Davis’s part starts to taper off.  If Miguel Cabrera didn’t exist, Davis would be getting Triple Crown talk, amazingly.  So take the Triple Crown or the potential Cy candidate?  Sometimes, I suppose, it’s good to appreciate a problem like this.

Starting pitching in fantasy baseball

I’m an avid fantasy sports enthusiast; I’ve been playing fantasy football for almost a decade and fantasy baseball for about three years now.  I go overboard on fantasy football; since it requires once-a-week upkeep and the draft is highly relevant with fewer free agent options as the season rolls along, I usually carry 3-5 teams per year.  I often end up with mixed success, usually with all of my teams making the playoffs and usually losing at various steps; I probably average a championship every other year.  Fantasy baseball is a different beast; over three years, I’ve managed three teams.  I managed a single team in a 9-man roto league in 2010, skipped 2011, then ran two teams in 2012, one in a 12-man league (scoring HR, SB, BB, TB, AVG / QS, K, ERA, BB/9, SV) and one in a 12-man keeper league (scoring HR, R, RBI, SB, AVG / QS, ERA, WHIP, K/9, HD, SV).  In the 9-man league in 2010, I squeaked into the playoffs and lost in the championship round.  In 2012, I lost in the championship of the 12-man non-keeper league (in a tightly contested week that ran all the way to the final day) and I won the 12-man keeper league.

I don’t say that to toot my horn, just to establish some credentials here.  In the 12-man keeper league, I inherited an awful team (21-27 after 4 weeks when I took over) from an absent manager and ultimately won because of an ambitious trade, a trade which taught me an important lesson in fantasy baseball.  The team I inherited was relatively well-off in pitching and relatively screwed at hitting.  I worked the wire for awhile to fill holes, but the biggest problem I had was that Dustin Ackley was my 2B and there simply wasn’t another option out there.  I had to make a move.  I surveyed the landscape and found someone with a bit of an excess at middle infield and dangled my best trade chip – Clayton Kershaw.  Nothing against Kershaw, but I already had David Price, Zack Greinke, and Max Scherzer.  So a trade was made, the meat of which was Kershaw for Aaron Hill (there was some garbage exchanged, as well which we both ended up dropping).  This happened about this time a year ago.  Without that trade, I likely would not have won the league, as Hill provided instant production at a position where I had none prior.  Kershaw for Hill!  On paper, immediately, that seems like a huge win for the guy who got Kershaw, but I ended up winning the league.

The lesson here is that starting pitching is extremely over-valued in fantasy baseball compared to a bat that can produce.  My motto is that you can always find quality starts on the waiver wire; you can’t always find a guy who hits .280 and can offer speed or power.  Ask yourself, in the first round, would you rather have Kershaw or Verlander or someone like Fielder or Cano?  Baseball’s a fun fantasy sport because there’re usually quality call-ups every year throughout the season, but it’s safer to gamble on pitchers than hitters.  Using the ADP (average draft position) from ESPN’s fantasy baseball, here’s a list of six pitchers that were either free agents or available in the last couple rounds of the draft:

  • Justin Masterson (8 QS. 3.07 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 83 K)
  • Patrick Corbin (10 QS, 1.71 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 56 K)
  • Travis Wood (10 QS, 2.75 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 50 K)
  • Jeff Locke (6 QS, 2.25 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 42 K)
  • Ervin Santana (6 QS, 3.33 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 57 K)
  • Jose Fernandez (4 QS, 3.78 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 52 K)

Now, this isn’t a perfect fantasy rotation, but let’s compare to the six pitchers with the highest ADP:

  • Justin Verlander (7 QS, 3.68 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 82 K)
  • Clayton Kershaw (9 QS, 1.85 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 82 K)
  • Stephen Strasburg (8 QS, 2.54 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 73 K)
  • Felix Hernandez (9 QS, 2.38 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 87 K)
  • David Price (5 QS, 5.24 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 49 K) – currently injured
  • Matt Cain (6 QS, 5.00 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 62 K)

If you had to pick one of these two rotations, which would you pick?  What becomes immediately obvious is that when you draft a pitcher high, you’re drafting strikeouts.  But if you consider punting the entire category and focusing on the other stats, guys like Wood or Locke can carry a team to relevance, even if it’s just as a streaming option.  And streaming, really, is the key – if your league doesn’t have a cap on weekly transactions, there’s a lot to like about streaming reliable pitchers with favorable matchups.  If you draft a guy in the first few rounds, he’s your guy no matter what.  To be fair, a guy like Patrick Corbin or Jose Fernandez are rookies who come out of nowhere and are liabilities for quality starts due to managers trying to keep them from tiring as they get used to the heavier major league workload, but nonetheless – from a purely fantasy perspective, keeper league or not, would you rather be handcuffed to Justin Verlander’s first-round 3.68 ERA, or have the flexibility to drop a free agent pickup with a 3.68 ERA for a guy like Travis Wood or Kyle Kendrick for a week?  You can stream quality starts, but you can’t stream home runs.  That list above, also, doesn’t even consider recent call-ups like Michael Wacha or a guy like Tony Cingrani who may be in and out of the Reds’ rotation all season as they deal with injuries, and it doesn’t consider guys with an ADP above 200 but below 260; so Shelby Miller, Julio Teheran, A.J. Burnett, Clay Buchholz, and Hisashi Iwakuma could fit into a nice list of their own in that range.

If you’re in a keeper league and you want to find bargain pitching with keeper value, that’s where keeping an eye on call-ups comes in – guys like Shelby Miller or Michael Wacha are perfect examples.  Both have high upsides in that if they were drafted, they were drafted very low, and their minor league track record demonstrates that they’re strike-out pitchers.  Beyond that, Miller and Wacha play for St. Louis; if I’m going to bank on a rookie pitcher, let it be one with a competent defense behind him and a team with recent success.  In my keeper league, I made the mistake of keeping David Price for two years (this year and next) at the cost of my 4th-round pick.  But, I also kept Max Scherzer, who I picked up as a free agent last year, at the cost of my 25th pick.  This year, I targeted young players with high upsides, since I do like to keep a couple pitchers per year (I’ll get into the custom style of that keeper league in a future post); Ian Kennedy was my first pitcher drafted, in the 8th round, followed by Matt Harvey in the 11th.  With Scherzer and Price already keepers, I drafted Shelby Miller in the 22nd round, Felix Doubront in the 23rd, and Andrew Cashner in the 24th.  I banked on all three winning starting gigs out of spring camps and they showed high upsides with good strike-out numbers; Miller has panned out, and Cashner didn’t win a starting gig, and Doubront didn’t really return to 2012 form, but there’s no real sense of loss when you drop your 23rd and 24th picks for quality free agents later.  My plan all along was to hope that Harvey and Miller would turn out to be keepers; I figured if Kennedy bounced back into 2011 form, that’d be great, but he hasn’t so again, oh well.  But honestly, I reached for Kennedy – it’s fair to really consider not touching a pitcher until the 10th round or later, unless there’s a guy you really have your eye on in the 8th-10th range.  But if you’re going to draft high, get those strike-out guys, because whoever is treading the wire in the summer and fall might get you QS, might help your ratios, but probably isn’t generating elite Ks.  Otherwise, the best value in pitching is going to be found later, and those high draft picks are better spent on the hitters you can’t find later.