Closing Time: The Michael Pineda problem

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Will Michael Pineda owners be smiling at the end?
Will Michael Pineda owners be smiling at the end?

It’s more random and more dangerous than the Wheel of Fortune. Do you have the nerve to spin the Wheel of Pineda? Can you get to the bonus round? Is there a tilde in the puzzle, Pat?

The joy and pain of Michael Pineda ownership was underscored over the last week. Pineda’s first start was a mess at Tampa Bay (3.2 IP, 8 H, 4 R). Then, as is his wont, he dominated the same Rays in the Yankee Stadium opener on Monday (7.2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 11 K), flirting with a no-hitter. He’s struck out 17 batters this year, hasn’t walked anyone.

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Any Pineda discussion is going to cover hot topics like expected ERA and home-run responsibility. Pineda has a 4.58 ERA since the beginning of 2015, despite a zesty 9.8 K/9 rate and a microscopic walk rate. His fielding-independent pitching ERA is an acceptable 3.53 — but, of course, that’s not the number fantasy leagues use. Pineda’s been bitten by 50 homers over his last 61 starts, which is why he crashes so often.

As we hit the fork in the Pineda road, you have to decide how you feel about the gopher-ball problem. Pineda’s allowed home runs on 14.7 and 17.0 of his fly balls the last two years, well over the league average. Are you comfortable calling for regression of that problem (Huey Lewis sings: do you believe in xFIP?), or do you firmly attach the homer-prone label to Pineda? Yankee Stadium is a notorious home-run haven, and his career ERA there is 3.97 — too high for mixed leaguers.

I didn’t draft any Pineda last month, and I do not want what I haven’t got. I’ve seen too many jagged starts, watched too many home runs sink the cause. If this turns into a growth season, an improvement season, I’ll have to watch from the sidelines. Pineda draws St. Louis later in the week, a deep lineup that can hurt you. If you view Pineda as a fantasy-worthy fantasy option, state your case in the comments.

Hector Neris probably has the best stuff in the Philadelphia bullpen. But when it comes to the handshake hunt, merely chasing skills is not good enough. Sometimes it comes down to contracts, or the logical objective of a team.

We all knew Phillies closer Jeanmar Gomez was in trouble — manager Pete Mackanin made that clear a week ago. The other cleat dropped Monday, with Gomez bounced from the ninth inning (put down that coffee, Jeanmar). Unfortunately for the skill-chasers, Neris didn’t get the appointment — instead it went to veteran Joaquin Benoit.

Perhaps Benoit got the job for his closing experience. Or maybe the Phillies are hoping to flip him later in the year — he’s on a one-year contract — and think a few cosmetic saves could boost the profile. The Phillies have no incentive to give Neris a role that could increase his cost down the line. Contending teams generally pick the best man for the ninth inning; non-contenders sometimes make this a business decision over a competition one.

The fantasy value of non-closing relievers is highly variable, league to league. In most of my pools, Neris still offers juice from the expected quality of his innings. And Benoit, of course, is probably good enough to handle a ninth-inning role, given how cushy that gig often is. I’ll sign off on both pitchers, it just depends on what you’re looking for. Both players are unowned in more than half of Yahoo leagues.

• Most big-league clubs don’t have the nerve to run a true bullpen by committee — blueprints are preferred, manage by the laws of Friendliest Loss — but the Athletics might be a refreshing exception. Santiago Casilla scored a save last week, Ryan Dull blew another one, and Monday’s bullpen usage at Kansas City was unorthodox — but logical.

After Jharel Cotton’s terrific start (7 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 6 K), the A’s used Casilla in the eighth and Sean Doolittle for the night. Doolittle closing made sense given that KC was lefty-heavy in that inning. Both pitchers struck out the side, though Doolittle allowed two baserunners.

Some fantasy owners aren’t going to like this, because a committee won’t produce a 30-save closer. But in deeper leagues, it gives us more names for potential value. Castilla and Doolittle are certainly worth rostering in the 15-team world, and Dull and Ryan Madson also figure to get some chances. A tip of the cap to Oakland for taking a progressive, proactive approach. The roto owner in me can’t get upset when the team in question is doing something smart.

Charge it, Mitch
Charge it, Mitch

Mitch Haniger hasn’t been a contact king through the opening week — he’s struck out 11 times, at least once in every game. But his fantasy contributions go past that .242 average, and he’s still somewhat underowned in Yahoo leagues (31 percent).

Let’s give notice to what Haniger is doing well. He’s walked four times — pushing his OBP to .343 — and he’s homered in three of his last five games. The Mariners clearly believe in the 26-year-old; Haniger slotted second on opening day and hasn’t moved. Good real estate if you can keep it. He’s already crossed home plate nine times in eight games.

If you’re still undecided, here are a few OF-eligible players (each rostered over 31 percent) that I would drop for Haniger: Byron Buxton (try to trade him first, I guess), Ender Inciarte, Josh Bell, Curtis Granderson. Plausible upside is here (look at the juicy minor-league profile), jump on board.

• If the Nationals can stay reasonably healthy, I don’t expect the NL East race to be competitive. You know about the pitching depth here, and the offense could be a monster. Washington piled 14 runs and 19 hits on the Cardinals on Monday. The Nats lead the majors in average, OBP and slugging through the opening week.

You have my permission to attack any other NL East club for streaming purposes, but leave the Nats alone. There are no weak links in this lineup.

The bullpen could be a little trickier, since we have Dusty Baker’s whims to deal with. Baker had no problem using closer Blake Treinen in four of five games last week, but after that, Treinen received three straight days to recover. Whatever you say, Bakes.

Shawn Kelley worked the ninth inning Monday — and was going to get that spot even if the save situation were still intact. Alas, Washington’s explosion in the eighth inning wiped that away. Kelley allowed two hits, including a Jedd Gyorko home run, in the ninth. Kelley hasn’t been sharp in the opening week, but if you need to handcuff Treinen, he’s the ticket.

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