Last week, we named our tiers after buy-low hitters, which was fun. Buy Low King Giancarlo Stanton might have rewarded a new owner or two with that massive home run right into that hideous structure in center field in Miami. Maybe this week's Buy Low King will throw a no hitter. You never know.
Of course, buying a pitcher low is fairly difficult right now. Either something is really wrong, which is why they've been bad all year, or they've already started to right the ship from earlier in the season. In which case his owner knows that his player is not so bad off, and isn't really going to give you a good price. Consider Cole Hamels, who had an ERA well over four at the end of June, but was showing the same peripherals he always had. Now his ERA is respectable and his owner has enjoyed two straight months of a sub-three ERA. If you can get Hamels for less than ace prices, have at it. It's harder today than July first, though.
In any case, these pitchers should give you varying degrees of opportunity to buy at a sale price. And that trade, my overpriced for your underpriced, is at the heart of fantasy baseball.
Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The "Stephen Strasburg" Tier.)
Any ranking that factors in wins will under-rate Stephen Strasburg. Because Stephen Strasburg is in the top ten in strikeouts per nine, in the top twelve in ground ball percentage among qualified starters, and is comfortably above average in walks per nine. He's dominating all the phases of the game, really, and it's not his fault that his team hasn't scored runs for him. But perhaps you can use that to your advantage if you're doing well in the wins category. Trade away a guy like Justin Masterson or Chris Tillman -- in the top ten for wins -- plus another piece, and you might be able to get the WHIP, ERA, and strikeout rate of an ace.
Maybe you scoff at the idea that Strasburg is available at less than market prices, but I've seen plenty of trade ideas in my twitter feed that make him attainable. You might say the same about Kenley Jansen. In terms of statistics and ability, he should be untouchable. He has 89 strikeouts to 10 walks. No closer with more than two saves even comes close to that -- even Aroldis Chapman has 21 walks to pair with his 86 strikeouts -- and that should make him bullet proof. But it took him some time to gain the role, and he doesn't have the velocity or saves totals of some of the players in this tier, and he is attainable. It's the problem with using counting stats in your to-date rankings: someone like Jansen who has been elite in the role but wasn't in the role all year won't have the saves of someone who's been in the role all year.
Joe Nathan got a Kimbrel! Let's note that. Three strikeouts, no base runners -- with the recent rash of walks, it was a welcome sight.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The "Matt Cain" Tier.)
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Matt Cain creates more doubt than Strasburg. There's the chance he was never as good as we thought he was, since he doesn't have an elite strikeout rate. And maybe some of his regression was earned -- after years of better-than-average home run rates, he suddenly is showing an average one, and maybe that's what he 'deserves.' But the maddening thing is that Cain has been the same as he always was, all year. His strikeout, walk, and ground-ball rates and even his velocity -- all are virtually unchanged from his career rates. But, in the first half, he gave up 16 home runs in 112 innings for some reason. He didn't even really have an answer for me when we talked in June. In the second half? Cain's given up three home runs in 41 innings, has a 2.41 ERA and a 0.95 WHIP. If you can get him, then he's cheaper than he should be.
Should we appreciate Koji Uehara for a minute? Since his manager didn't bring him in to the ninth inning of a tie game in San Francisco last night, perhaps we should do the appreciating for him. He's only pitched three times in the last two weeks, too. Ah well. Uehara's the only pitcher that can rival Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman when it comes to strikeout-to-walk rates: his 77 strikeouts against nine walks sits just fine in that lineup. Maybe the 88 mph fastball turned some possible suitors off -- and everything Uehara throws is in the eighties, and he's had some homer issues in the past. But not now. Not now!
Tier 3: Okay options (6) (AKA: The "R.A. Dickey" Tier.)
A third-tier buy-low option isn't going to knock your socks off like the top two tiers. And so it goes with our favorite super hero, a brother named RAD and his diving darting knuckler. Even if you focus solely on his last four years of excellence, it's not clear that he's going to strike many more batters out. His swinging strike rate is a little more like the Cy Young 2012 than the more average 2010 and 2011, so he could be showing his true-talent strikeout rate right now. But it's clear, from his velocity chart, that he's getting healthier. Well, let's not say clear. But he's throwing his hard knuckler more often, and he told me that his back was keeping him from throwing that pitch early in the season. And before a game against the Athletics two weeks ago, he said the back was all good. Home runs may be a problem in that park, in that league, but he won't cost much and he obviously has upside. If you're willing to look past some declining velocity, Jeff Samardzija offers good upside at a lower cost, too. Even if his flaws are more about his inconsistent control paired with a split finger, which doesn't get good strike rates, he can get strikeouts and still throws 94.
Joaquin Benoit deserves some love. Really, the only thing separating him from four straight excellent years was a freaky home run rate last year. Twice as many fly balls left the park as home runs last year as the league rate, and now that he's calmed down in that area -- and that area alone -- he's back to being the excellent high strikeout rate, low walk rate, high leverage reliever he's been for a while now. In fact, he's in the top half of the top 30 closers in strikeout-to-walk ratio, which shows how far he's come from the days when he broke into the league with poor control. You could say he's doing a better job staying out of the zone of danger. There is still the risk that he can't perform on back-to-back-to-back nights, but he'll still do enough with his chances to belong in this tier.
Jim Johnson drops to the bottom of the tier. It's another bad stretch for him. In his last four outings, he's given up four earned runs, two home runs, eight hits and two walks… and struck out four. Decent strikeout rate for him, but he hadn't struck a batter out in the four innings running up to those four. In any case, he's blown three straight saves and his team has a former record-breaking closer in the fold. Tommy Hunter got the save when Jim Johnson blew a game in San Francisco, though, and he might be the guy -- he's shown way more gas in the pen. Francisco Rodriguez has also not been used in a hold situation since the 14th. Johnson has survived these scrapes before, most importantly. if he can get the next save, the bet is, he finishes the year as the closer in Baltimore.
Read about the more volatile closer situations on the next page.
Tier 4: Question marks (7) (AKA: The "Matt Moore" Tier.)
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Danny Farquhar, Seattle Mariners
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Mark Melancon, Pittsburgh Pirates
For one, Matt Moore is currently hurt, and depending on a hurt pitcher seems like a bad idea. And for the other, there were plenty of signs that Moore was a sell-high before he got hurt. He hasn't solved any of his walk rate woes from last year, and the only difference between this year and last is what might be considered an unsustainably low home run rate. He also lost a mile and a half of velocity since last year and this year. Well, he still gets strikeouts, and he might be gettable, and at least he throws almost 93 mph -- so he's a better buy low than Jered Weaver, whose velocity loss just took him under 87 mph this year. Right at 87 mph and below, home runs per fastball start to spike. Plus, Weaver doesn't have the strikeouts of an elite pitcher and comes with an injury asterisk of his own.
Speaking of injury asterisks, Rafael Soriano just needed to drop into this tier. Sure, he successfully shut the door Tuesday night, but he allowed a home run, making that three straight outings with a homer allowed. Reduced and erratic velocity, lower whiff rates, terrible strikeout rates -- plus the fact that he's using his slider about half as much as he has in the past -- all of these things are big whopping warning signs. And they came before the homers ever left the yard.
If Yoervis Medina wasn't also pitching better in the ninth inning, I might rather have Danny Farquhar over the Nationals' closer. Farq survived a blown save of his own, and he's showing the skills that put him in the role in the first place. The batting average on balls in play is ironing out, The 95 mph velocity is blowing batters away, and the cutter/curveball combo is keeping platoon splits at bay. No reason not to love being Farquhared.
Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (6) (AKA: The "Yovani Gallardo" Tier.)
Rafael Betancourt (first chair), Rex Brothers (second chair), Colorado Rockies
LaTroy Hawkins (first chair), Gonzalez Germen (second chair), New York Mets
Dane De La Rosa (first chair), Ernesto Frieri (second chair), Anaheim Angels
Brad Ziegler (first chair), J.J. Putz (second chair), Arizona Diamondbacks
Kevin Gregg (first chair), Pedro Strop (second chair), Blake Parker (third chair), Chicago Cubs
Chia-Jen Lo (first chair), Josh Fields (second chair), Kevin Chapman (third chair), Houston Astros
Yovani Gallardo lost velocity -- down more than a mile per hour from last season -- but it might be his switch towards throwing the two-seamer more that's hurting him the most. The two seamer doesn't get many whiffs, and it's the whiffs that are missing from Gallardo's line. Since he doesn't have good control, or a great defense behind him, Gallardo has never been an asset in WHIP, and if he's not getting strikeouts… stay away. Like most of the contenders did, choosing not to trade for him. Oh and I don't have much hope for Roy Halladay. Pitchers his age with DL stints for shoulder issues average 51 innings… over the rest of their career.
Rafael Betancourt got his job back. We speculated about this last week, wondering what the mutual option would mean, and it looks like the team either wants to shop him for one last week or see if he can come back next year on another four-plus million dollar contract. Either way, there's risk in dropping Rex Brothers, or depending on Betancourt. Even if he finally seems healthy, he was finally healthy right before he got appendicitis. It's what age does, if generally, not specifically.
LaTroy Hawkins doesn't strike batters out like he used to, but at least he seems a little less volatile this time around. One of his better ground-ball rates, paired with the best walk rate of his career, has him as a useful contributor in the bullpen. Of course, that wouldn't be closer material on almost any other team, but what can the Mets do. With Bobby Parnell out, it's just about getting to next year. He's even survived a blown save. If Gonzalez Germen can corral his stuff, he does have the fastball/changeup combo to close, and he's already pitching the eighth in close games.
It's not a vote of confidence that Arizona rookie Patrick Corbin, nudging up on a career high in innings soon, went the full nine to get the win against Cincinnati Tuesday night. On the other hand, Corbin was so efficient that he only threw 103 pitches. The bullpen seems up in the air. Brad Ziegler is still bad against lefties with that delivery, and J.J. Putz is still not quite vintage Putz. They each have split the two save chances the D-backs have seen in the last two weeks. Putz's save, though more recent, came in the 16th inning of a game in which Brad Ziegler had already pitched two scoreless. Ziegler's still in the first chair, but it's not as sure of a thing as his ERA suggests.
Dane De La Rosa was throwing heat Tuesday night -- up to 97 on the gun -- but he also walked two. Ernesto Frieri pitched the ninth in the same tied game, throwing a little less heat, but also only walking one. De La Rosa got the last save opportunity… on August ninth. Good luck figuring this one out. Both should be owned, and it's worth noting that most of the press box on Tuesday night seemed to think Frieri would get the job back eventually. But then the rest of the bullpen blew the game and out came Scioscia Face.
Kevin Gregg's strikeout to walk ratio since July first: 12-to-15. Number of distinct pitchers that have gotten the last three saves for the Houston Astros: three. There are a lot of leagues out there where these closers can safely be ignored as below replacement value. I doubt the Astros will turn to a lefty that had a walk rate over six in Triple-A, and I doubt the Cubs will continue to roll out Greggian ratios at the closer spot when he's a free agent next year. But stranger things have happened.
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Jason Motte (elbow), St. Louis Cardinals
Joel Hanrahan (forearm), Boston Red Sox
Kyuji Fujikawa (elbow), Chicago Cubs
Jason Grilli (forearm), Pittsburgh Pirates
Jason Grilli was bouncing around the Pittsburgh clubhouse this week. I asked the beat writers if he was that upbeat right after his injury, and the consensus was that he was a little more down than his usual self those days and that the old Grilled Cheese was back. Obviously none of this would ever come out of the mouth of a doctor, but hey, I'm not a doctor. Maybe Jason Grilli will make it back this year. Mark Melancon owners beware.
Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Mitchell Boggs, St. Louis Cardinals
Brandon League, Los Angeles Dodgers
Andrew Bailey, Boston Red Sox
Jose Veras, Detroit Tigers
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Heath Bell, Arizona Diamondbacks
Okay, no Brad Ziegler yet. Jim Johnson eyeing us over here though.
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The Steals Department
A pair of exciting young middle infielders were called up this week, but it's probably the less-heralded one that will make more of an immediate impact. Because though Xander Bogaerts has been tantalizing us for about a year now, he's coming into a more crowded situation than Kolten Wong in St. Louis. And Wong has more speed, stealing 40+ over the last two seasons. Bogaerts looks like he'll play some short against lefties and some third (but Wil Middlebrooks is also a righty), and that doesn't sound like much more than 1/4 of the playing time. Wong, on the other hand, is supposed to force Matt Carpenter to third against righties, ceding his lineup position to David Freese against lefties. That's more like 2/3 the playing time. And neither is probably as good a own as the veteran Eric Young, who's playing every day, has wheels, and is eligible at second base in some leagues. That's just how rookies work.
Emilio Bonifacio seemingly has a new lease on life in KC. He's been playing more between second and third in Kansas City then he did in Toronto… although the further Royals drop out of the race, the more likely they'll probably just let Chris Getz (or Johnny Giavotella) and Mike Moustakas swing it out to see what they've got. In any case, a short-term add of Bonifacio is fine in leagues of most depths, as long as you don't risk a real player for it. Once Moose Tacos starts playing more often again, watch second base to see what the Royals do there. it might be where you see the end of Dayton Moore's rein coming, a speck of light growing larger as two extremely flawed players battle it out.
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- Stephen Strasburg