Monday, November 3, 2003
FLB Spin: Saving Houston by Graham Hays ESPN Fantasy Games
Nothing separates fantasy baseball from reality quite like closers. Where else would adults fall over themselves trying to secure the services of Jose Mesa or Mike Williams? Oops. Well, at least the Phillies learned their lesson. Securing the services of Billy Wagner should make the ninth inning far less interesting in Philadelphia.
But as awful as Jose Mesa was last season -- 6.52 ERA and 71 hits allowed in 58 innings -- he saved 24 games, making him a more valuable fantasy player than even the most dominant middle relievers. Saves are gold in fantasy baseball, making any pitcher who stumbles into save opportunities an instant star -- just ask Rocky Biddle.
Which brings us back to the Houston Astros. Because while Wagner's value remains essentially unchanged in Philadelphia -- although he'll miss having Octavio Dotel and Brad Lidge handing him so many one-inning save opportunities -- someone is going to close games for the Astros who wasn't closing games for them last season. And based on the numbers posted in middle relief by Octavio Dotel and Brad Lidge, that someone is going to be a new face in the closing mix. But who gets the nod?
Dotel is the most obvious choice, having served with distinction as the primary set-up guy in front of Wagner. Dotel's numbers dwarf those of all but a handful of established closers. He posted a 2.48 ERA with 97 strikeouts in 87 innings, limiting opponents to a .179 batting average. And at 29, Dotel should be firmly ensconced in the prime of his career. Sounds like a top-10 fantasy closer, right? Two problems.
Dotel wasn't at his best in a previous closing stint. He saved 16 games for the Astros in 2000 when Wagner was on the shelf, but he did it without an impressive ERA and during a season in which he allowed 26 home runs in 126 innings. Some pitchers -- and prospective buyers will be weighing this heavily with free agent LaTroy Hawkins -- just perform better in the eighth inning than the ninth inning. Granted, that was just Dotel's second season in the majors and he was making the conversion from starter to full-time reliever, but it's a record that has to worry the Astros.
Brad Lidge. The other thing working against Dotel is his competition. A rookie last season, Lidge would have finished the year closing for a number of teams. He actually topped Dotel's strikeout rate, fanning 97 in 85 innings, while posting a 3.60 ERA and allowing 60 hits. A starter in the minors, Lidge appears to be following Wagner's career path in the majors. On the negative side for Lidge, he posted a 5.46 ERA after the break, walking hitters more frequently than in the first half.
The Astros have two tremendous closing options, pitchers who managed to make a difference in fantasy leagues last season despite middle-relief roles. But neither comes without baggage, and that's bad news for fantasy owners. Odds are the Astros are going to come out of spring training with a flame-throwing horse capable of saving 40-plus games for a competitive Astros team. The problem is fantasy owners aren't likely to know which guy wins the job until late in the spring. For draft purposes, Dotel gets a slight edge but barring a statement of support from manager Jimy Williams, it's tough to take him earlier than the 11th or 12th round.
Two seasons ago, Brandon Duckworth was a bad pitcher with a lot of strikeouts. Last season, Duckworth was just a bad pitcher. The 27-year-old hurler's strikeout rate tumbled and he finished the season in the bullpen. Duckworth's minor league numbers suggest he can still be an effective starter -- with decent strikeout numbers -- but he hasn't shown much since a solid run in 2001. Perhaps the proverbial fresh start will turn things around, but he'll have to battle Jeriome Robertson for a spot behind Roy Oswalt, Wade Miller and Tim Redding.
One of several promising pitchers in Philadelphia's system, Taylor Buchholz doesn't have much immediate fantasy potential for 2004. He pitched far better for Double-A Reading than a 9-11 record suggests -- posting a 3.55 ERA and striking out 114 in 144 innings -- but it's tough to envision him cracking Houston's starting rotation out of spring training. But as they've shown with all of their young pitchers, the Astros have few qualms promoting starters from Double-A to the majors, should Buchholz begin the season with Double-A Round Rock.