In late February, the Astros shocked the baseball world by announcing they’d be converting longtime starter Brett Myers into the bullpen to serve as closer. Considering that the Houston rotation looked incredibly thin beyond Wandy Rodriguez & Bud Norris, many questioned the logic beyond trading ~200 innings of Myers as a starter for ~60 innings of him as a reliever. A third of the way through the season, the move has worked out reasonably well for the surprisingly competitive Astros, as Lucas Harrell & J.A. Happ have capability bolstered the rotation and Myers entered play on Tuesday tied for fourth in the NL with 14 saves, making him one of the few to survive the unending turnover and volatility in the ninth inning so far this year. Though I hardly need to remind you that saves don’t exactly equate to quality and that Myers’ sparkling 2.25 ERA isn’t backed up by his 4.08 FIP, saves are still a mainstay category in nearly every fantasy league, and that alone makes Myers valuable.
Yet it’s also that value which comes from saves that’s exactly why he’s one of the best sell-high players of the first half of the season.
No, this isn’t about regression, though no one should expect a .200 BABIP to last forever. It’s about opportunity, as it always is. Though the Astros have been able to stay out of the cellar this year in no small part due to the continued existence of the Chicago Cubs, new general manager Jeff Luhnow is early in the stages of reshaping his downtrodden franchise. That means that there’s not a single player on the Houston roster who isn’t expected to be available come trading season – you could argue for Jose Altuve, I suppose – and the soon-to-be 32-year-old closer who is likely to be a free agent following the season* is probably high on the list to go. With the second wild card creating an expected paucity of declared sellers this summer, the Astros can benefit from being one of the few teams actively soliciting multiple offers from interested bidders.
*I say “likely” here because when Myers was transitioned to the bullpen, the $10m vesting clause in his contract for 2013 was rewritten so it was based on “games finished” rather than “starts”. We don’t know yet how many games finished he needs to vest that option – reports estimate between 40 and 50 – but as you’ll see, it’s increasingly unlikely he’ll hit that mark.
As we’ve seen, there’s certainly not going to be a shortage of clubs looking for relief help. Contenders like the Reds, Giants, Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, & Nationals, among others, have already lost their original closers for either an extended period of time or even for the entire season in some cases. While most have found ways to get by – and for some, like the Reds & Dodgers, their replacements are better than what they had in the first place – it creates a domino effect in the bullpen. Shifting your setup man into the ninth may solve the closer problem, but now you’ve got weaker pitchers in the seventh and eighth innings.
That’s where Myers is likely to come in. Saves or not, he’s not really an elite reliever, striking out only 6.75/9 with his usual home run issues and that FIP that’s still above four. If and when some team acquires him, it’s unlikely that he’s going to suddenly become a closer for a contender. He’ll most likely be used as a setup man or reinforcement, a way to bolster a relief corps that needs a solid veteran arm. All of a sudden, Myers’ save chances could dry up, and unless your league counts holds, his fantasy value will disappear right along with those opportunities. A mediocre-to-decent reliever with the opportunity to soak up saves is still a decent fantasy play – I mean, even Matt Capps is owned in nearly every league despite being something like the fourth-best reliever on a bad Twins team – but that same reliever pitching in a setup role is barely worth a roster spot.
So for a few more weeks, even a month or more, the Astros will ride Myers in the ninth inning, letting him get up to 20 saves and above while increasing his worth. Then they’ll trade him while his value is at its highest. It’s a solid strategy, and fantasy owners would do well to follow their lead – preferably pulling the trigger while he’s still an Astro.