Hard as it is to find useful hitters on the waiver wire in genuinely deep leagues, it’s even harder to find useful pitchers. We emphasize the “genuinely.” Just yesterday, America’s Leading Fantasy Sports Aggregator favored us, unbidden, with a list of “Early Waiver Wire Pickups” that included, as a “Deep League Target,” Merrill Kelly. With Kelly, as with other American players who have revived their careers in East Asia, we are agnostic. But if you’re in a “deep” league in which Kelly—who was universally recognized as a probable early reserve-round pick even before he had a superb start against the Red Sox last week—is available, we want in.
No, the problem with pitchers is that, in fantasy leagues that use standard categories, about half of them are useless at best and a liability at worst. Between starters who will kill you with their rate stats unless they’re in the 90th percentile of their performance range and unreliable non-closer relievers, there’s not much left but the bones after the deep league vultures have picked over the post-draft remains for an FAAB session or two. Even in most deep leagues, it’s true, there are one or two worthwhile and widely-owned survivors among the free agents. In our 15-team league in The Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational, if we want Jordan Zimmermann (we don’t) or Felix Pena (we might), we can have him if we’re willing to pay. But no one above what let’s call the LeBlanc Line—the level at and below which a free agent starting pitcher won’t be worth the risk—is reliably available.
And relievers? Sure, there are plenty who might not hurt you. But they all might. As we discovered last season, there’s no such thing as a consistently Fantasy-useful non-closer. If they’re that good, they wind up getting saves after a while. And if you get someone like Richard Rodriguez—a non-closer who was indeed rather valuable last season—how do you know you’re going to get the 2018 model? In his first two appearances this season, Rodriguez pitched one inning and gave up three earned runs, three hits, and a walk. It will take a bunch of good outings (which, to be fair, he’s started to have) for him to reach break-even.
We will nonetheless stride fearlessly into this carcass-littered minefield and seek some under-owned pitchers who might actually have a pulse and be worth picking up as free agents if you’re desperate to color in some blank roster canvas. Two of them (one of whom may strain your credulity past the breaking point) have a shot at being useful starters. And one of them, hand to God, actually has a shot at becoming his team’s closer, even though he’s gotten no attention that we’re aware of from the Fantasy punditocracy.
Adam Warren, San Diego. Warren’s virtues are not a secret, and were fully discussed by Rian Watt of Fangraphs last month. We’d add or emphasize that (1) Warren isn’t just some fungible journeyman, but a good major league pitcher who almost always does right by his Fantasy owners; (2) he has a starting pitcher’s profile: no platoon split, throws hard when he needs to, has four okay-to-good pitches, and is quite effective third time through the order; (3) he has a record of success as a starter; In 21 Major League starts, he has a 3.88 ERA, a 1.25 WHIP, and an opponent slash line of .245/.315/.371; and (4) he came pretty close to being in the Padres rotation to start the season. A not-great spring and the success of the Padres’ kiddie corps kept him out of it, but Padres manager Andy Green was not only considering but half-planning on it. All of which is to say that it looks like Warren is next in line for the rotation if anything happens to the kiddies, he should do well once he’s there, and he shouldn’t hurt you in the meanwhile.
Francisco Liriano, Pittsburgh. This is the credulity-strainer. Liriano is 35; his ERA over the last three seasons approaches 5; he gave up 9 walks in 10 2/3 innings during spring training; he just barely made the Pirates’ Opening Day roster, largely because he’s left-handed. But there are some counterpoints. First of all, Liriano has spent the best years of his long career as a starter in Pittsburgh, working with Pirates’ pitching coach Ray Searage. We don’t know what it is that Searage does with his pitchers, or why they don’t take it with them when they go somewhere else, but he definitely does something. Second, those spring training numbers are deceptive. He had one game where he just couldn’t find the plate—four batters, four walks—and was otherwise outstanding. Third, he’s once again doing what he did when he was effective, which is keeping his pitches low and inducing ground balls in great profusion. As you no doubt know, Liriano is off to a terrific start, and the Pirates’ rotation, while solid overall, includes the frequently-hapless Jordan Lyles (career ERA 5.25), so it may have room before long. If there’s a rotation vacancy, maybe the Pirates fill it with top prospect Mitch Keller rather than Liriano. But even then it seems to us there’s a good chance that Liriano keeps doing what he’s been doing in the bullpen, which will still help you.
Nick Anderson, Miami. We’d never heard of this guy until his appearance on the Marlins’ Opening Day roster caught our eye. He’s 28, and he’s got an interesting history: 32nd round draft choice by the Brewers in 2012; doesn’t sign, spends two awful years in an Independent League instead; signs with the Twins, spends four years in their system, gets traded to the Marlins last November for a non-prospect you’ve never heard of. He’s got an ugly history with alcohol, and we haven’t seen any of the back-from-the-depths articles you usually see in this situation, which we hope just means that his recovery is old news. None of which would matter for present purposes if he weren’t also the answer to the question “who had the highest strikeouts-per-nine and strikeouts/walks ratio in the high minors last season?” Take a look at that amazing season, and then realize that it’s even more amazing if you toss out the four games he started (as an opener, we surmise).
And then realize that, all unknown to anyone but Marlins fans and people who spend an unhealthy amount of time doing what we do, Anderson’s kept it up in the majors so far: 4 1/3 innings, 5 hits, one (intentional) walk, ten strikeouts. And there he is in Miami, where the three pitchers who were supposed to compete for or share—we’re not sure which—the closer’s job have a combined ERA of 7.94. We wouldn’t say Anderson’s path to closerhood is clear. If Tayron Guerrero’s control is just a bit better than it’s been, he’s a good candidate, too, and possibly even worth immediate Fantasy attention. But as a guy that was taken in none of 337 NFBC drafts, Anderson’s a find, isn’t he?
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.