Eno Sarris

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The Bullpen Handcuff

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


If you play fantasy football, you know the term.

The handcuff.

You pick man-beast Brandon Jacobs from the Giants, then you better try to get your hands on Ahmad Bradshaw too. Handcuff the two together and you'll get all of the production from the New York running back position.

The position most like the running back in fantasy baseball is the closer. If the running back is not getting the carries, he's useless. If the closer isn't getting the ball in the ninth inning, he's useless. And, like their football counterparts that go into the season with three or four good backs and hope to find a feature workhorse, many baseball teams go into the season with three or four good arms at the back end of their rotation.

But not all handcuff opportunities are made equally. The ideal bullpen handcuff situation has two pitchers at the forefront of a shaky pen. If the job is open to too many pitchers, then you'll have to burn too many roster spots to lock up that closer role. If the lead pitcher is too good, there's no need for a handcuff. Also, the lead pitcher can't cost too much of a draft pick, or that negates the whole reason to employ the strategy -- getting two cheap pitchers that will produce one cheap closer.

Let's take a look at some of the more unsettled pens in baseball and identify how great a fit they are for this strategy.

Houston
Brandon Lyon might be healthy, as mediocre as he is. Wilton Lopez could be the closer with all his ground balls and excellent control. We've touted David Carpenter, a fireballing youngster with a 94 MPH heater and a strong slider, as a possible dark horse -- especially if he shows the good control he had in the minor leagues. There's a chance that there are too many pitchers here to make for a good handcuff -- you really don't want to have to lock up three rosters spots to make sure you have the Astros closer. But read the tea leaves regarding the organization and its future, and you might actually have an ideal cheap handcuff here. The team hired a statistics guru in Jeff Luhnow to be the GM, and are obviously looking to the future. Lyon is a remnant of the past, and Lopez and Carpenter are under control for longer. In a deeper league with a decent bench, pick up those two guys and you'll have yourself a closer, most likely.

Los Angeles
This might be the ideal situation for the bullpen handcuff. With Jonathan Broxton out of the picture, and the rest of the bullpen mired in mediocrity, there are two candidates for closer in Los Angeles: Javy Guerra and Kenley Jansen. Sure, Guerra is probably in the first seat as the season approaches, but he's not going to cost much. Most people can see that he had control problems in the minors and that last year was the first time he put up a walk rate that was better than his league's average. Jansen is the fireballing former catcher that's going ahead of Guerra in some drafts. Pair the two and you'll get a late-inning closer with potential for a Jordan Walden-esque season.

Chicago
If Los Angeles is the ideal situation for a handcuff, Chicago's American League team provides just as much opportunity. The White Sox might be building to the future, and Addison Reed is the future at the position. The college closer blew through the minor leagues with great strikeout rates and impeccable control, and showed the same at the Major League level last season. The only problem is that the team still owns Matt Thornton. The excellent lefty has been talked about as a possible closer by new manager Robin Ventura, too. From an organizational standpoint, the team could pump up Thornton's value by having him close. A mid-season trade could give Reed the opportunity he deserves. In the meantime, Reed would have value as a ratios and strikeouts reliever, at the very worst.

New York
Frank Francisco is a great late-round value. And he'll probably get hurt this year -- he averages about 50 innings a season. But it's unclear what will happen when he does get hurt. Ramon Ramirez was excellent last year but wasn't as interesting in the years that came before. Jon Rauch has closed before, but is generally mediocre and has seen his stuff and results diminish over the last two years. Bobby Parnell has a triple-digit gas and a pretty good slider, but results haven't matched his process recently. So that's too many to really settle on one guy. Also, Francisco -- struggles in Toronto aside -- probably will take to the National League and Citi Field in particular, so he might not need a handcuff. Instead, just take him, and look for his replacement when he hits the DL.

Oakland
Who's the front runner in Oakland? Grant Balfour? Maybe. Brian Fuentes? Seems like his stuff is falling off, and he angered management with some of his comments last year. Joey Devine? Is his arm still attached? Fautino De Los Santos? Who? The nebulous nature of this pen makes it hard to identify a handcuff situation. If you just pick up Balfour and Devine, you might have the closer, you might not. Spend a late pick on the guy you like best, and you'll probably be better off than devoting two rosters spots to this situation.

Cleveland
Chris Perez, on ERA alone, seems to have had himself a good year in his second go-around at being the Cleveland closer. But if you look at his peripherals, it was a terrible year. He was near last among closers in strikeout rate, walk rate, and ground-ball rate. His team shopped him, so they know about his flaws, too. There's risk there, and a clear frontrunner to replace him: Vinnie Pestano and his amazing fastball. Pestano got whiffs like Kimbrel last year -- check out his double-digit strikeout rate if you want to see his qualifications. The only problem here is that some are paying retail for Perez, making this an iffy handcuff situation. Should Perez fall in your draft, though, you could hedge your bets by picking up both Indian relievers.



Eno Sarris is an editor and writer at FanGraphs.com. You can find his work gathered in one place at and enosarris.com. Follow his misadventures in writing on Twitter as well.
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