I didn't watch much of the Dodgers and Padres on Friday night, though I would have liked to. Cory Luebke is a pitcher I want to keep tabs on, and I enjoy games at Petco Park. But for better or for worse, most of my viewing decisions these days are steered by the quality of the broadcast (on the screen and in the booth). With the Houston, Arizona and Anaheim openers coming to me in HD (everything else was in standard def), they made it to the top of my evening hit list. The Zapruder games stayed on the back burner.
Billingsley has been an up-and-down hurler for the Dodgers over the last few years, and he's coming off his worst season (4.21 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, declining strikeout rate, bloated walk rate). He wasn't touched in the 325-selection Friends & Family mixed draft a few weeks ago, and he went for just $3 in the Roto Arcade auction this week (14 teams, 378 players). Billingsley was a trendy commodity during his early seasons in Los Angeles, but no one's hot and bothered for him anymore. Move onto the next buzzy thing.
Alas, Billingsley can still look good if you catch him on the right night, and that was the case Friday. He mowed the Padres down over 108 brilliant pitches (3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 11 K, 70 strikes), cruising to an easy victory. The Dodgers had six runs on Luebke before the fifth inning was complete and this game was never in doubt.
Is Billingsley back into fantasy relevance? It's too early to have a strong opinion on that. He does have a home start against Pittsburgh next week, that looks appealing.
But let's shift to the stronger takeaway from the evening: it's always a good idea to attack weak offenses and big parks, whenever possible, with your discretionary pitching slots. Why run uphill in the tough divisions (hello, AL East) when you don't have to? The San Diego Padres remain an outstanding target for your streaming pleasure.
Petco Park isn't just a run-blunting park, it's the most extreme pitcher's park in the majors, by far. It doesn't help the pitchers, it carries them. Runs have taken a 19-percent hit there over the last three years, and homers have been taxed by 18 percent. And because pitchers generally aren't worried about their mistakes winding up in the seats, they tend to get better results in other areas. Strikeouts have spiked by 10 percent at Petco over the last three years. These are facts everyone strong roto player knows, but it's good to get the specific parameters out there now and then.
And let's consider the unthreatening lineup the Padres run onto the field: Chase Headley bats third (career slugging percentage of .390), and he's backed up by unproven Jesus Guzman and Yonder Alonso. Orlando Hudson, Jason Bartlett, there are dead spots all over this lineup. And like everyone else in the National League, the Friars also have a pitcher batting ninth.
So Petco is a big park and the Padres probably won't hit much. This doesn't qualify as ground-breaking news, I hear you. But sometimes I wonder why anyone tries to make do with pitching projects in more dangerous yards, when a "stream against weak teams in big parks" rent-a-player will probably work better, and be easy to execute.
Colleague Matt Romig saw the Billingsley start coming and hopped on board before Friday. Bully for him. Let's have a look at some of the other Petco streamables coming soon: Chris Capuano for Saturday (sounds good), Aaron Harang on Sunday (I'm not a fan, but you can do what you like), Trevor Cahill arriving Tuesday (despite a poor spring, I'm in). Be ready with points and clicks.
Over in the American League, the Athletics loom as a team you can pick on, especially in their home park. I know everyone's talking about Yoenis Cespedes and his two early homers (the moon shot from Friday hasn't landed yet), but let's see the bigger picture. Oakland's hitters have three walks against 22 strikeouts over three games (Brad Pitt is shaking his head).
Coco Crisp hit second for the A's on Friday (he batted third in the first week), with Josh Reddick slotted third. Anyone afraid of Jonny Gomes or Kurt Suzuki? Do pitchers shake in fear when they see Josh Donaldson or Kila Ka'aihue? This is a matchup to exploit, all the way.
And then there's the backdrop of the park, that abomination the Athletics call home. Home runs were taxed by 17 percent in Oakland over the last three years; that index measures both teams and compares to Oakland's road games, so it's not skewed by the mediocre Athletics offense. Lefty power takes a 27-percent hit in this stadium. Strikeouts receive a mild spike upward, and there's tons of foul territory. No reason for anyone to pitch scared in this place.
If you're in a deep league, maybe you can talk yourself into Luis Mendoza, Danny Duffy and Bruce Chen when they visit Oakland next week (Chen had a solid debut at Anaheim on Friday). I'm also curious to see what Athletics lefty Tom Milone has to offer; he's one of my favorite deep-league sleepers. Go where the bagels are. Hang out with the zeroes. Work the schedule. Line up with the Stream Police.
• I understand the genesis of "draft skills, not roles" and I grasp the importance of player scouting and profile examination. But sometimes I think some roto sources want to completely divorce themselves from reading organizational and managerial tea leaves, and that's a mistake. Our goal in this game is to figure out what's likely to happen before it happens, and part of that challenge — like it or not — is making intelligent guesses on the whims and preferences of the managers and GMs. I understand why some roto players want to wash their hands of this uncertain science (it's easier to spin and there's less uncertainty at play), but to play the game at its highest level, you need to be making some educated guesses against the dugout.
And my last point particularly applies to save chasing and bullpen watching. It's not that hard for any bona-fide MLB pitcher to turn into a fantasy-relevant ninth-inning option if he's coddled appropriately. There's a low barrier to relevance here. We're not asking for miracles.
With that preamble out of the way, let's consider what happened — and what didn't happen — in Chicago's 3-2 loss at Texas on Friday afternoon.
-- Fireballing righty Addison Reed worked a clean seventh inning, working with a one-run deficit. Just nine pitches, one strikeout, nicely done, kid.
-- Veteran Matt Thornton was crisp in the eighth (still with a one-run deficit), retiring three straight men after Elvis Andrus reached on an error. You know how the White Sox are; they see Thornton enter a game, chuck their gloves into the trash. (We're not forgetting April 2011, Juan Pierre). Ten of Thornton's 13 pitches were strikes. Good job, lefty.
And that was it for the bullpen: Chicago didn't score off Joe Nathan during a 1-2-3 ninth and the game ended. You know Robin Ventura's bit by now — he's not telling us anything about his closer thoughts if he doesn't have to — but anyone who owns Reed or Thornton has to be annoyed that they were deployed when the White Sox were trailing.
With Friday's events in mind, Hector Santiago's stock rises — simply because he didn't pitch. You can logically assume that someone was being held in reserve if the White Sox ever had a save situation Friday. I'd guess it was Santiago, though perhaps it was Jesse Crain. Again, no one knows with Ventura: he's not talking, and this is his first managerial gig at any level. We're all flying blind on this one.
I know the seamheads dream of a bullpen where the save stat doesn't dictate the usage patterns (I'd love to see it, too), but it would be a shock if Ventura went down this path. Pitching coach Don Cooper, while a very respected mind and guru, isn't likely to suggest an unconventional setup. And managers usually like to put their pitchers in specific roles because it's easier to handle, in two ways: the players know what's expected of them, and the media doesn't have a hanging curve to attack on any night the bullpen struggles.
I'm not in the Chicago dugout and I can't give you anything definite to this situation. All I can tell you is that if I had to draft today and guess on the Chicago closer, I'd rank the options this way: Santiago, Crain, Thornton and Reed. Use the context clues where they show up. And when in doubt, make sure you have the Andy Behrens Twitter Feed (and latest closing column) close by. He's our man on the ground in the Second City, and he interpets uncertain bullpens as well as anyone.
And one final thought to consider on uncertain closing gigs: the success on the early chances is critical. Try to watch the ninth inning anytime a new closer is getting his chance (take advantage of the free broadcasting previews that are available in the early season). The managerial rule of thumb is just about universal in this regard: he who converts in the ninth (especially if it's in smooth fashion) gets rewarded with more chances. The skippers like to simplify things when they can.
Odds and Sods: Ordinary righty Jim Johnson was named Baltimore's closer before the opener and he came through in a cushy spot against Minnesota (he retired two of four men, then shook hands). With the spotty options behind him, Johnson will be given a fair shot to settle in. His best skill is simple: he isn't named Kevin Gregg or Matt Lindstrom. … Carl Pavano and Jake Arrieta don't look like opening day starters in the morning paper, though Arrieta posted seven bagels on the Twins. The more intriguing Francisco Liriano takes the hill Saturday. Will the Twins make the plays behind him? This was an atrocious defense last season. … New York and Tampa Bay played a wildly-entertaining opener, flush with homers and lead changes. The game ended in shocking fashion, with Mariano Rivera blowing the game in the bottom of the ninth. Nothing cheap, either; the Rays were hitting rockets off the best closer of all time. Rivera's leash isn't changed at all from one bad outing, but it was encouraging to see Carlos Pena locked in (five RBIs - the walk-off hit in the ninth, and a grand slam against lefty CC Sabathia in the first). Remember the Principle of Pena: his homers tend to come in clusters. … Scott Baker is headed for a second opinion on his elbow. … Michael Pineda (shoulder) won't be back with the Yankees until May at the earliest. Like my buddy Michael Salfino, I'm completely uninterested in Pineda right now. … There's probably going to be one more Pianow Arcade League; look for details early next week. … Adam Dunn's first three at-bats covered the Three True Outcomes: walk, strikeout, home run. I'm fully in on the comeback story, expecting 30 or more homers (along with an average around .240; acceptable if the power clicks).
The running Rockies trimmed Houston, 5-3, with Dexter Fowler, Michael Cuddyer and Eric Young (off the bench) swiping bases. Carlos Lee and Brian Bogusevic (I like him in deep leagues) clubbed solo homers for the Astros. Rafael Betancourt's fastball looked straight and hittable in the ninth, but he still retired three of five men en route to the handshake. … Chen and Jered Weaver matched zeroes in Anaheim before the Halos broke things open against Aaron Crow and Greg Holland. Recycling project Jonathan Broxton was already set as Kansas City's closer, but his owners won't mind seeing the competition get hit. … Tim Lincecum didn't have his best location or velocity at Arizona, which led to a couple of souvenirs (Chris Young, Paul Goldschmidt). Gold Rusher Brad Evans spent the night chasing Goldschmidt memorabilia on eBay. … The Cardinals took batting practice against Yovani Gallardo (four homers), and Rafael Furcal has his mojo working (three hits Friday, .600 season average, two steals). … For one night at least, it was a happy showing from battling and bunting Chone Figgins (4-1-3-2 line, stolen base). Roto Revolutionary Chris Liss is kicking the tires on Figgins in the F&F. … Michael Morse (pesky lat) homered in a rehab game and should be back with the Nationals next week, perhaps as soon as Tuesday. … We've tackled plenty of stories here but there are always things that fall through the cracks. Feel free to share your observations in the comments, and enjoy the packed Saturday slate: the first 15-game bonanza of the season. And heads up on Sunday: the A's and Mariners have a rare weekend day off tomorrow. Ah, that wacky 2012 schedule.