When you’re a team that’s going absolutely nowhere in 2013 like the Houston Astros, this is exactly how it’s supposed to work. You pick up a decently effective reliever like Jose Veras on a reasonably-priced contract, you let him inflate his value by making him your Capital-C Closer, and then you trade him to a contender for a potentially useful prospect.
Yet while most of the baseball world will focus on what Veras can do to help the Detroit Tigers get to October, his departure creates a hole in the Houston bullpen. There’s suddenly a hole at closer for the Astros, and that means that fantasy owners have the rare opportunity to pick up free saves off the waiver wire. With apologies to Wesley Wright, who has pretty harsh platoon splits and might be on his way out the door as well, that man is likely to be Jose Cisnero. Who is he, and is he likely to be valuable in any way other than saves?
Cisnero is a 24-year-old Dominican righty who was signed as an international free agent in 2007, and he’s listed at 6’3″, 230 pounds. This is still his rookie season, and he hasn’t even been with the club all year, since he was recalled from the minors on April 22. It’s also his first season as a full-time reliever, since 101 of his 107 minor league appearances came as a starter.
Superficially, Cisnero has done well this year for Houston, striking out 40 in 41.1 innings (good) while walking 19 (less good). He’s managed to keep the ball in the yard for the most part, and so his 3.48 ERA closely resembles his 3.50 FIP. But that ERA includes a May 4 mop-up disaster in which he allowed six earned runs in 2.2 innings to Detroit, an outing which inflated his ERA by more than a run. Without that game, his ERA is a much shinier 2.36. Those peripherals largely mirror his minor league numbers, which showed an ability to miss bats (9.6 K/9) while pairing that with trouble finding the plate (4.6 BB/9).
Cisnero sticks largely with his fastball, which he uses nearly 70% of the time, and he’s increased velocity on it as the season has gone along:
While some scouting reports indicated love for his slider, he hasn’t seen much success with it so far, and the rest of his off-speed arsenal are rarely used and are mainly to keep hitters from sitting on that fastball.
As the season has progressed, Houston has begun to use Cisnero in higher-leverage situations. In his first 15 outings, he appeared after the seventh inning just three times, and one of those hardly counts because it was the 14th inning. Since then, nine of his ten appearances have come in the eighth or ninth, as manager Bo Porter told CBS Sports on June 22:
Astros manager Bo Porter said Sunday reliever Jose Cisnero has earned the opportunity to pitch in high-pressure situations after he tossed two scoreless innings and picked up the relief win Saturday against the Cubs.
“He’s proven us right many times already,” Porter said, per MLB.com. “There’s nothing that’s going to stop us from putting him into any situation because he’s responded quite well. You look at his demeanor on the mound, and it doesn’t change. He continues to make quality pitch after quality pitch, and we have all the trust in the world and belief that he can get the job done.”
As we can see by looking at the leverage charts, only three Houston relievers (minimum 10 innings) have been used in higher-leverage situations than Cisnero. One, Veras, is now gone, and the other two (Dallas Keuchel & Hector Ambriz) have each been lousy. Based on Porter’s comments and Cisnero’s at-least-decent performance, he looks like the obvious man for the job.
Unfortunately for Cisnero, he’s responded to that new pressure with a run of being awful. Over his last ten outings (8.1 innings), he’s allowed nine runs (eight earned) in no small part because he’s given away nine free passes to go with 12 strikeouts. While there’s a .400 BABIP in there to consider as well, that’s a pretty tough streak to be taking into (presumably) being named the team’s new closer.
Still, given the team’s apparent confidence in Cisnero, his ability to miss bats, and the lack of other internal options, it does seem more likely than not that he’ll get at least a few chances over guys like Travis Blackley or Josh Zeid or maybe even Chia-jen Lo. That being the case, a free waiver claim — and I do mean free, since he’s owned in 0% of ESPN leagues and just 8% of Yahoo! circuits — seems like a worthy endeavor to take a shot on a new source of saves at this point in the season. Just keep those expectations low, because not only does Cisnero need to turn around his recent slide, he’s on an awful squad that isn’t exactly known for taking leads into the ninth.