In our ceaseless pursuit of Fantasy bargains, we now consider the Cincinnati Reds—or, as one of us will go to his grave calling them, the Cincinnati Redlegs. (This was actually the team’s name from 1954 through 1959, presumably in order to avoid confusion with the crosstown Cincinnati Communists of the Internationale League.)
But we divagate. The Reds in 2014 lost 38 one-run games, the most in a single season by any team in this century. Their record in such games was 22-38, which is likewise abysmal. You’d figure that such a team would have a weak bullpen, and the Reds sure did. They had the fourth worst bullpen ERA in the majors, and no other team was even close to the bullpen’s 11-31 won-lost record. You might also expect that such a team would have a weak closer, but the Reds didn’t. In fact, as you no doubt know, Aroldis Chapman is perhaps the best closer in baseball, and finished second last season in percentage of saves converted. Moreover, Jonathan Broxton, his replacement for the first month or so of the season, converted five out of his six save opportunities.
No, it was the rest of the bullpen—including Broxton, once he became the set-up guy after Chapman returned—that sank the Reds. Chapman, you see, was used almost exclusively (1) in the 9th inning with (2) either the score tied or the Reds holding a narrow lead. If the Reds, courtesy of the bullpen, couldn’t get to the 9th, Chapman wasn’t a factor. Likewise Broxton, in his capacity as closer.
This helps us put Cincy’s bullpen’s achievement in perspective. Chapman saved 36 of 38; Broxton-as-closer saved 5 of 6. This means that the rest of the team blew 16 of 19 saves, to go with their 11-28 (subtracting Chapman’s three losses) won-lost record. By way of comparison, consider last year’s model of the Atlanta Braves, home of Craig Kimbrel, who is Chapman’s main rival for preeminence among closers. The Braves’ record was only three games better than the Reds’ (79 wins vs. 76), and their non-Kimbrel relievers weren’t wonderful, but still, they managed a won-lost record of 21-20, and blew 16 of 23 saves.
So it won’t take a lot for the Reds to improve. Because Fantasy Baseball scoring tends to undervalue non-closer relievers, Fantasyland has the impression that good ones are a dime a dozen in Reality Baseball. They’re not, but they’re easier to find than most other role-players. The Reds signed a good one during the winter in Burke Badenhop. Then there are Anthony DeSclafani, obtained from the Marlins in a trade, and Raisel Iglesias, a 24-year-old Cuban import who just signed a 7-year contract and was unhittable in the Arizona Fall League as a reliever. Both are being looked at as starters, but Iglesias has heretofore worked exclusively as a reliever, and DeSclafani, at least according to Jeff Zimmerman of Fangraphs, has more promise as a reliever than as a starter. And finally, there’s Jumbo Diaz, who didn’t do too badly in the bullpen last year as a 30-year-old rookie, gets strikeouts in wholesale lots, and saved a lot of games in triple-A.
All of this comes as rare and refreshing fruit to you if you’re a Reds fan, but does any of it translate into Fantasy success? If the bullpen can get to the 9th inning with a lead a bit more frequently, that should mean a few more saves for Chapman, so maybe he’s a third-rounder in the unlikely event you don’t already have him there. We’re watching spring training closely to see who winds up as the set-up guy/closer-in-waiting; whoever it is will be worth a reserve-round pick in deep leagues, especially if you’ve already got Chapman. But the guys we’re looking hardest at are the Reds’ starters, past and present. Those guys averaged more innings per start than any other team’s starters, presumably because of the bullpen’s toxicity. A more reliable bullpen in the 6th to 8th inning should enable the starters to pitch more effectively for fewer innings and to get more wins.
Even there, though, value is hard to find. Johnny Cueto will go for full value. Homer Bailey has Cy Young talent but is a huge health risk—facts that will be fully captured in his price on draft day. Mat Latos went to the Marlins in the DeSclafani trade. He lost time to two separate injuries last year, and made only 16 starts. Latos was nonetheless outstanding in 2014, and was arguably the non-Chapman bullpen’s biggest victim: four blown saves, plus a tie game that the bullpen eventually lost. And the Marlins have a rather good bullpen. But Latos’s virtues are widely recognized, and, as others have noted, his strikeout/walk rate and pitch velocity have been declining steadily. His NFBC Average Draft Position of 188 (in drafts since March 1st) still seems to us a bit of a bargain. Alfredo Simon (NFBC Average Draft Position 334), on the other hand, was traded to Detroit, whose bullpen is almost as problematic as the Reds’.
Meanwhile, strange things are going on at the back end of the Reds’ starting rotation. DeSclafani’s been good in Spring Training, Iglesias even better. DeSclafani has started every game he’s pitched; Iglesias has started only once. We ourselves took Iglesias late in our NFBC slow draft on the theory that he’d be the lights-out setup guy the Reds need. Is he a starting pitcher? Who knows? The Reds think so, though, because Tony Cingrani (NFBC Average Draft Position 315) who had a great 2013 as a starter but was plagued all last year by shoulder problems, has just been demoted to the bullpen, evidently to make room in the rotation for Iglesias. It also appears that one, and possibly both, of Jason Marquis (Age: 36; Last Season Above Replacement Level: 2009) and Paul Maholm (Age: 32; Last Season Above Replacement Level: 2012) will be in the rotation. If you’re in a really deep league and you want to go with one of them as a reserve pick, try Marquis, who’s having a superb spring, is two years off Tommy John surgery, and should get a few more strikeouts than Maholm.
The guy we really like is Mike Leake (ADP 335). He pitched more than an inning deeper into games than he had on average in his previous four seasons, and his ERA went up (3.37 to 3.70) and his wins down (14 to 11) from 2013 to 2014, even though he’s striking out a lot more batters than ever before. Leake is durable; his groundball rate is elite; his swinging-strike rate is improved. We like him to pitch fewer innings, lower his ERA, get more wins, and keep his strikeout rate up–we envision that the increase in wins and the improvement in his other Fantasy stats will offset the decline in strikeouts attributable to the fewer innings per start. Mike Podhorzer of Fangraphs deems this view unwise. We’re with Baseball Prospectus on this one, though: he’s “Brandon McCarthy with health,” and Brandon M.’s ADP is 237, so late in the draft, or for a dollar or three, we’ll be buying Leake.
The Birchwood Brothers are two guys with the improbable surname of Smirlock. Michael, the younger brother, brings his skills as a former Professor of Economics to bear on baseball statistics. Dan, the older brother, brings his skills as a former college English professor and recently-retired lawyer to bear on his brother's delphic mutterings. They seek to delight and instruct. They tweet when the spirit moves them @birchwoodbroth2.