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Fantasy Baseball Closing Time: Miguel Cabrera in the snow, Byron Buxton everywhere

Scott Pianowski
·6 min read
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Opening Day, time for renewal. Opening Day, time for hope. Opening Day, time for optimism.

Let’s play a little Home Run Clue. Anyone else come up with Miguel Cabrera, in the snow, off Shane Bieber? If you did, please head to the Bonanza windows. Uncle Sam is your betting partner. 

Baseball 2021 kicked off Thursday and for the most part, it was glorious. Cabrera grabbed the first sharable highlight of the season, unfazed by some nasty spring weather. Bieber tried to sneak a pitch on the outside corner, and Cabrera deposited it into a right-field snowbank. Bieber was otherwise untouchable for most of his stint (6 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 BB, 12 K), but Matthew Boyd dodged a few baserunners and the Tigers bullpen protected the lead. Bless you, boys.

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Can Miggy have a fantasy renaissance in his age-38 season? Although his 2020 returns didn’t look like much, he was largely unlucky — he posted a juicy hard-hit rate, and Statcast data suggests he should have batted .285, 35 points higher than his actual average. Ten home runs in 57 games, that’s respectable. And perhaps Cabrera playing the field occasionally in 2021 — he started at first base Thursday — will help keep him engaged in the action. If you play in a deeper mixed league, at least take the case. Cabrera is rostered in a modest 11 percent of Yahoo leagues.

Robbie Grossman also deserves a look, parked at the top of Detroit’s lineup. Grossman is a switch-hitter and an on-base master — note the three walks Thursday, and the career .350 OBP. He gave the Athletics eight homers and eight steals in the partial season last year, and he swiped a base Thursday; this is the cheapest category juice on the mixed board right now. Grossman was ignored during draft season, settling in at three percent.

Pirates bullpen slams the door 

While the Tigers were surprising the Tribe, the Pirates were messing up the Cubs, about 280 miles away. Ke’Bryan Hayes conked a first-inning homer and seven Pittsburgh pitchers frustrated the hosts, limiting Chicago to three runs on two hits. Chad Kuhl was in and out of trouble during his three-inning open (four baserunners, two runs), but the Pittsburgh bullpen was dominant after that (1 H, 1 R, 11 K).

Richard Rodriguez had the final moment, working around a ninth-inning walk and striking out two. He’s the presumptive closer in Pittsburgh, off a tidy 2020, and this marked his territory nicely.

But I want you to also note what David Bednar has been doing this spring.

Bednar worked the seventh inning Thursday and it was a quick appearance — two strikeouts, 12 pitches, 1-2-3. The clean open comes in the heels of a dominant spring; Bednar pitched 8.2 scoreless innings last month, with one walk and 18 strikeouts. Obviously, exhibition baseball comes with a million caveats and disclaimers, but walks and strikeouts remain the most reliable foundation statistics in the game.

The goal for every pitcher is to be around the plate and miss bats; thus far, Bednar has done that.

Every year, we see middle-relief heroes coming out of nowhere. Nick Anderson was a surprise two years ago, and Devin Williams played wipeout last summer in Milwaukee. And these types of fresh stories make for appealing fantasy targets, because they’re easy to identify — follow the K/BB rates, which stabilize quickly — and they’re usually painless to acquire, stealthily flying under the radar. Bednar currently has a two-percent roster tag on Yahoo.

Even if you don’t go for Bednar, just appreciate the frame of why he might be good. We live in a world with countless metrics and measures; sometimes it feels like we’re flying to the moon. Knowledge is good; Blutarsky told us that in the 60s. But a lot of value-hunting comes back to the walks and the strikeouts, the simplest gauge in the toolbox.

Is timing right for Byron Buxton?

Byron Buxton was one of the most polarizing fantasy candidates this draft season, same as he always was. His backers pointed to last year’s home-run explosion (13 taters, 39 games), while critics wondered how he could play six weeks and manage just two walks and two stolen bases.

Opening Day in Milwaukee, Buxton found a way to make everyone happy. A home run was no surprise; he’s slugged .540 since the open of the 2019 season. But Buxton also walked twice and stole a base, quickly filling the two columns he couldn’t seem to address last year. A confident, maturing Buxton could be a league-winner, considering his reasonable March ADP. He opened the year slotted No. 6 in the Twins lineup, but that could quickly rise if Buxton looks ready to break out in his age-27 season.

Remember, Buxton was once the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball. Sure, that was partially for his angelic defense, but he was always seen as a potential offensive superstar, too.

Perhaps the timing is finally right on this perennial tease.

Kevin Gausman and Jake McGee — they might be Giants 

If you didn’t stay up for the Giants and Mariners, your eyes will thank you. Kevin Gausman was excellent in his opening start (6.2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 6 K), but a series of San Francisco relievers conspired to give the game away. Jose Alvarez had the final, ghastly scene to himself — he walked three straight batters (16 pitches, 12 balls) in the bottom of the tenth, gifting an 8-7 win to the Mariners and sprinkling Ambien to Baseball Twitter. Enter Sandman, indeed. This wasn’t a squeeze job, either; maybe one of the balls was a borderline call, but most of the Alvarez tosses were nowhere near the plate.

At least Jake McGee acquitted himself nicely. The assumed Giants closer worked a tidy ninth inning, in a tie game as it were. He only needed eight pitches, and six were strikes. No baserunners, one strikeout. Gabe Kapler is known as a serial tinkerer when it comes to bullpen management, but McGee is going to have a juicy role in this group, and perhaps he’s capable of owning the ninth inning all season. He’s still unclaimed in about 40 percent of Yahoo leagues.