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Wednesday 24th May 2017

Don't invest heavily in closers on draft day. Don't pay for saves. Closers can be found on the waiver wire throughout the season. That last statement is true, but in all my years playing fantasy baseball, I've never followed the part about not paying for saves because, well, you're not paying for only the saves. You're paying for peace of mind. My general approach has been to draft one elite-level closer in addition to a mid-tier stopper with a high degree of job security. This approach has generally worked out nicely, as I've never really found myself in a situation where I'm forced to dedicate a large portion of my FAAB budget on speculative closer acquisitions, many of which never pan out. Barring an injury, 65-plus saves were in the bank to go along with solid ratios.

However, things are beginning to fall apart this season, as I am indeed a Francisco Rodriguez owner in two leagues, including Mixed Auction Tout Wars. Now look, I didn't expect K-Rod to be dominant this year, as it became especially clear towards the latter part of last season that he was way past his prime. However, I did expect him to pitch well enough to hold onto the closer job with the Tigers bullpen lacking an obvious fallback option. So much for that. We have yet to reach the one-quarter mark of the season and Rodriguez is already out, replaced by Justin Wilson, who has been nearly automatic as Detroit's setup man. Whether or not K-Rod eventually reclaims the closing gig remains to be seen, but the bottom line is that I'm now in the exact situation that I hoped to avoid, in dire need of a second closer and scanning a waiver wire that doesn't even include most of the primary setup guys.

But enough about my own predicament. All of this closer thinking got me thinking about the overall relief pitcher landscape, more specifically relief pitcher FAAB additions. Saves hunting has always been a popular theme when it comes to Tout Wars FAAB pickups, and this year is no different. Of the 137 players purchased so far this season in the Mixed Auction league, 30 (21.9%) are relief pitchers. Some of these relievers were already declared their team's new closer at the time of the purchase while others fell under the speculative pickup category. Some of these moves have worked out while others have not. Here's a sampling.

THE GOOD

Justin Wilson ($42) - An alert move by Jeff Zimmerman a couple weeks before the K-Rod demotion, and one that as a Rodriguez owner, I should have made. I guess I just didn't think that things would get bad enough to warrant a ninth inning change in Detroit. But they did.

Bud Norris ($73) - Norris' closing stint was supposed to be brief, only until Cam Bedrosian returned from the DL. But Bedrosian's groin strain will keep him sidelined for longer than originally expected, and Norris has done a fine job as the Angels stopper, converting six of his seven save chances while whiffing well over a batter per inning. Could the Halos decide to keep Norris in the closer role even after Bedrosian comes back? Sure they could.

Santiago Casilla ($184) - Who knows how Oakland's closer situation will play out long-term, but Casilla does lead the team with six saves and he does boast a strong big league track record, including several stints in the closer role. His blown save in Texas on Friday will test his job security, however.

Addison Reed ($0) - Perfect timing, as Reed was added just a few days prior to the Jeurys Familia blood clot news. Reed, a former closer, has been a dominant setup man since the start of last season and carries top-10 stopper upside from here on out.

THE BAD

Joaquin Benoit ($40 and $53) - Interestingly enough, Benoit currently resides on my roster (thankfully my bench). The two-time FAAB buy was the Phillies closer for a few days in April until he blew a save in Washington, and thanks to the struggles of Hector Neris, Benoit seemed to be on the verge of returning to the ninth inning. But that was before Wednesday's outing against the Mariners when he allowed five earned runs, raising his ERA from 2.63 to 5.79. 

Jeremy Jeffress ($26) - The purchase of Jeffress on April 10 looked good at the time, as he was considered the slight favorite over Matt Bush to replace Sam Dyson as the Rangers stopper. And he was a fairly safe bet to do well in the role considering his strong 2016 campaign during which he posted a 2.33 ERA and saved 27 games for the Brewers before getting traded to Texas at the deadline. But we're now in mid-May and Jeffress sports a disappointing 4.70 ERA and 1.89 WHIP through 19 games and has yet to record a save while Bush has tallied two of the team's four total saves. Bush is clearly the guy for the time being, but don't rule out Jeffress eventually returning to the ninth inning picture if he can rediscover his 2016 form.

THE UGLY

Blake Treinen ($359) - Treinen belongs in his own category simply due to the price tag. On April 3, Jeff Zimmerman forked over more than one-third of his season FAAB budget to add the newly anointed Nationals closer. In exchange, he got three saves, a 6.43 ERA and a 2.29 WHIP across seven innings. Heading into Saturday, the 28-year-old righty has allowed at least one run in ten of his 17 appearances this season. The chances of him returning to the closer role anytime soon are slim to none.

Kind of like the chances of me deviating from my longstanding draft day approach to closers, despite this season's K-Rod experience. 

This is crazy. A little over a month into the season, a good fantasy starting rotation can be assembled from the pool of players presently on the DL. It seems like every day, another prominent starting pitcher is getting hurt. Out of the top-40 starting pitchers according to NFBC ADP, ten reside on the DL (Madison Bumgarner, Noah Syndergaard, Corey Kluber, Cole Hamels, David Price, Aaron Sanchez, Rich Hill, Felix Hernandez, Jameson Taillon, James Paxton). I tend to avoid drafting any starting pitchers who carry health risk, so fortunately, the only one I own in any league among that group is Hamels, who throws 200-plus innings every season but might not even reach the 125 IP mark this year. 

The starting pitching injury trend has a more wide-ranging fantasy effect, especially in deeper leagues, where every owner has been affected by the utter lack of viable waiver wire options. As a Hamels owner in Mixed Auction Tout Wars, I almost wish he joined the DL group a week or two earlier, when the waiver wire field was slightly more appealing. Right now, the list of available starters is headed by names like Adleman, Koehler, Nelson, Bauer, Fiers and Garza, who would have been a must-add around six years ago. If only Hamels landed on the DL a little earlier, I would have been able to grab one of the following guys, all of whom are liable to fade at any moment, but they surely beat the current choices.   

Hector Santiago - Coming off a highly disappointing 2016 campaign that included a career-worst 4.70 ERA, Santiago has bounced back nicely this year, opening the season by allowing three runs or fewer in each of his first six starts. Keep in mind that the Twins southpaw sports a solid 3.79 ERA for his career, so despite his strikeout rate not being what it used to be, I wouldn't be surprised if he pitches well enough to remain on deep mixed league rosters through the end of the season. As an added bonus, two of his divisional opponents, the Royals and White Sox, rank in the bottom third of the Majors in runs, homers, batting average and OPS. 

Jason Vargas - After missing the majority of the 2015 season and nearly the entire 2016 campaign as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, Vargas has resurfaced on the fantasy radar thanks to a 1.42 ERA and 0.98 WHIP through five starts in 2017. His 8.2 K/9 is likely an aberration considering that his career K/9 is 6.0. But the veteran lefty has proven to be an effective back-end of the rotation starter over the years and could at the very least serve as a fine matchup-based option in deeper mixed leagues going forward.

Jesse Hahn - Despite posting an ugly 6.02 ERA and 1.64 WHIP across nine starts last season, Hahn's big league career numbers (3.66 ERA, 1.25 WHIP) prove that he has the ability to thrive if given the opportunity. Well, the A's are giving him that opportunity this year, and he's thriving, with a 2.53 ERA and 1.03 WHIP through five appearances (four starts). Don't expect consistent strikeouts, but Hahn's improved control coupled with a favorable home ballpark are definite positives. Also note that even during his rough 2016 season, he excelled at home (3.03 ERA in five starts).

Derek Holland - No one really knew what to expect from Holland when he signed a free agent deal with the White Sox over the winter. However, we did know that there was a time when he was pretty good, before injuries became a major problem. And he's been more than pretty good through six starts this season (2.02 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 7.6 K/9). Holland's dominant run is bound to hit a speed bump at some point (.222 BABIP), but fantasy owners might as well ride this out while it lasts. And who knows, maybe the speed bump won't be such a drastic one after all.   

Brandon McCarthy - Like Holland, McCarthy has dealt with his fair share of injuries throughout his big league career, and he hasn't enjoyed much success since registering a 2.89 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 14 starts with the Yankees back in 2014. But it's been smooth sailing for the veteran righty so far in 2017, as he's gone 3-0 with a 3.10 ERA and 1.21 WHIP through five starts. Still, I'm not so sure I trust McCarthy long-term, from both a health and performance standpoint, but he's certainly better than anyone currently available on the Mixed Auction Tout Wars waiver wire. 

Fantasy owners of Madison Bumgarner are understandably depressed with their ace sidelined for at least two months following his dirt bike accident. Cheer up. What, cheer up? That's easy for me to say, not owning Bumgarner in any of my fantasy leagues.

These sorts of "extra-curricular" injuries are the worst, as most are avoidable. I mean, why exactly did San Francisco's star lefty choose to ride a dirt bike in-season, a decision that led to a Grade 1-2 strain of his left shoulder AC joint in addition to bruised ribs? The January 2004 Aaron Boone pickup basketball injury immediately comes to mind, but at least that was during the off-season. I don't quite recall what Boone's fantasy ownership percentage was at the end of the 2003 season, but at least that injury didn't leave his owners in a bind.

As for my advice to cheer up, let's just say that it could have been worse. Even worse than an extra-curricular injury sustained due to a poor decision is an extra-curricular injury sustained for no reason at all, other than poor luck. It could have been worse. You could have owned these players.    

Jonathan Lucroy (2012): It was late-May of 2012 and Lucroy was enjoying a strong season, batting .345 with five homers and 30 RBI. But everything changed when he lost his sock in his hotel room and proceeded to reach under the bed to look for it. At that same instant, his wife moved a suitcase, which fell on his hand, fracturing it and causing Lucroy to miss two months. He would finish the season with an impressive .320-12-58 line over 96 games, but it could have been so much better. The true breakout would come the following year, and Lucroy is now firmly entrenched in the elite backstop class, in both real life and fantasy, so it all worked out fine.

Mariano Rivera (2012): In what some believed would be his final big league season, Rivera tore the ACL in his right knee while doing something he had done throughout his career, shagging fly balls in the outfield during batting practice. He would miss the remainder of the 2012 season, nearly five months in all. But the rehab went well, and perhaps motivated by a refusal to end his career on such a sour note, Rivera returned for one more year in 2013. And he put together another typical Rivera season (44 saves, 2.11 ERA, 1.05 WHIP).

Kendrys Morales (2010): Who can forget this one? Morales was coming off a breakout year in 2009 in which he slugged 34 homers while knocking in 108, and he was well on his way towards duplicating and even surpassing those totals in 2010. Then came May 29, the afternoon when he became the victim of his own success, breaking his leg during a walk-off grand slam celebration and missing the remainder of the season. Sure, one could argue that Morales was partly to blame for this, as he could have calmly rounded the bases and not jumped on home plate, but come on, what fun is that?

Clint Barmes (2005): Boasting a .329 batting average to go along with eight homers, 34 RBI and 40 runs scored through 54 games, Barmes was making a strong case for NL Rookie of the Year honors. That was before he suffered a broken left clavicle when he tripped going up the stairs to his apartment carrying a package of deer meat given to him by teammate Todd Helton. Barmes missed three months in total and would end his career a decade later, sporting an underwhelming career slash line of .245/.294/.379. No word on whether or not he actually got a chance to eat the tasty fare. I truly hope he did. If not, this whole episode would have been a real waste.

Sammy Sosa (2004): Call it "The Sneeze Heard Round Chicago", Sosa sprained a ligament in his lower back after a pair of violent sneezes, sidelining him for a month. As it turned out, 2004 would be his final All-Star season, so think of the sneezes as a sort of symbolic ending to his controversial career.

So, Bumgarner owners, take solace in knowing that over the years, there have been others who have felt your pain.

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars Champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB

They said that stolen base totals were down throughout the game, and they were right. In 2015, only seven players reached the 30-SB plateau. That number rose to 14 in 2016, but this was nowhere near the 23 players who swiped at least 30 bags back in 2012. But a large group of fantasy pundits also said that since stolen base totals were down throughout the game, shelling out the extra dollar for one of the elite speedsters would pay off. Grab Billy Hamilton and as long as you don't ignore steals entirely the rest of the way, you would be guaranteed to finish among the top few teams in the category with a very good chance to lead the pack. I've never been much of a fan of this strategy, as an injury to your designated elite speedster could be too devastating to overcome. I'd rather spread the risk, drafting perhaps one 30-plus SB guy but several other players in the 15-20 SB range. Maybe I wouldn't win the category, but I'd be competitive.

Still, my allegiance to the "spread the risk" approach to steals was tested this year, as the numbers were convincing. I wasn't about to draft Billy Hamilton, but I'd be more open to spending a mid-round or late-round pick or $5-10 in an auction on a speed specialist.

Anyway, with the 2017 season reaching the one-month mark, I figured that now was a good time to check in on some of the stolen base building blocks that were said to be well worth the investment.

Rajai Davis (1 SB in 15 games) - My newfound openness to drafting stolen base specialists led me to roster Davis in three of my five leagues, including Mixed Auction Tout Wars, where I purchased him for a reasonable $5. Well, things haven't gone as planned, and that was before Rajai landed on the DL earlier this week with a hamstring strain. It's tough to swipe a significant number of bags when you're getting on base at a .262 clip. But Davis isn't expected to be sidelined for long, so hopefully he can get into a groove upon his return and provide his owners with the 30-plus steals that were once thought to be a lock. 

Travis Jankowski (2 SB in 17 games) - Despite his 30-SB 2016 campaign, Jankowski carried risk heading into this season, but the risk was mostly related to playing time. We knew the AVG wouldn't be helpful, but he showed enough on-base ability last season (.332 OBP) to suggest that he would again serve as a reliable speed source. The problem is that although Jankowski is walking at around the same rate as last year, he's managed only eight hits through 50 at-bats (.160 AVG). And it gets worse, as he's now on the DL and out indefinitely with a foot injury that might be a hairline fracture. Although the draft day cost wasn't too steep, Jankowski owners who penciled him in for another 30 steals are surely hurting.

Manuel Margot (2 SB in 25 games) - Margot was all the rage in drafts this spring, a 22-year-old top prospect who posted a .350 OBP in the Minors with 162 steals in 466 games. He would be the everyday centerfielder for the Padres in 2017 and was a legitimate candidate to swipe 40 bags. The funny thing is that he has more homers (3) than stolen bases. There's still plenty of time for Margot to pick up the pace, but he's currently projected for 13 steals, so there's work to be done.  

Jonathan Villar (4 SB in 24 games) - I'm not too concerned about Villar, as his surprisingly low .259 OBP (career .330 OBP) is the biggest reason for his lack of stolen base attempts (4-for-5). That should change soon enough, and the three homers have been a pleasant surprise. Maybe last season's 19-HR outburst wasn't a fluke after all. The issue here is that Villar was a top-30 pick in the vast majority of leagues this year, so he will need to approach his 2016 stat line in order to earn his draft day price, and that's a tall order.

Starling Marte (2 SB in 13 games) - Not to make Marte owners feel any worse or anything (I happen to own him in my NFBC Draft Champions league, where no trades or free agent pickups are allowed), but two steals is all you will be getting from him until mid-July thanks to his decision to use a banned substance. Forget about those guaranteed 40 steals. Come to think of it, Marte is actually an interesting trade target if you can acquire him for 50 cents on the dollar, as unlike an injury situation, we know exactly when he will come back. But that probably wouldn't be a smart move for the Marte owner, selling low on an elite talent.

What a mess.

Yeah, it's only April 30th, but the early verdict is that even in 2017, investing in stolen base specialists may not be such a wise investment.  

Don't get too giddy but don't get too depressed. This is the most important advice I can give to fantasy baseball owners right now. But it's also important to pay attention to box scores. Although your league standings mean very little at this point, dismissing one-week-old player stats as meaningless would be a mistake. Even if they seem meaningless to you, some of your league mates might view them more seriously. Now is the time when the buy low/sell high approach can be most beneficial. So, forming opinions about players who are off to either very hot or very cold starts is well worth your time. Making panic trades in April can lead to disaster, but that's only if you are the panicked owner. If a panicked league mate approaches you in an attempt to unload an established star who is off to an ice cold start in exchange for a less proven fast starter, there's nothing wrong with taking advantage of the situation. If you're the owner of the fast starter, don't feel like you have to get rid of him simply because you will net a profit. Maybe this fast starter is on the verge of a career year. We won't know for sure until October.

On that note, let's take a look at some of the hot hitters who have caught my attention so far.

Brandon Belt - Belt has always been a quality hitter, and he's especially valuable in OBP leagues (career .359 OBP), but power has never been a big part of his game. Well, through five games, Belt already has three homers to go along with seven RBI and five runs scored. Belt's single-season high in home runs is 18, so will he easily surpass that mark in 2017? Possibly, but I have my doubts. Note that all of San Francisco's games have been on the road, where Belt slugged 34 of his 47 homers from 2014-2016. Will this early-season power breakout carry over to spacious AT&T Park? I'm going to say no, and those still waiting for Belt's first 30-HR campaign will need to wait longer, perhaps until he joins another team, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Yasiel Puig - He's back! Maybe. At one point last year, it seemed like the Dodgers were ready to cut ties with Puig. But the Cuban import is once again showing the baseball world what he's capable of accomplishing on the field, with three home runs, five RBIs and one steal through five games. Whereas he might have been overvalued in drafts over the past few years, Puig could prove to be one of the better value picks of 2017.

Nomar Mazara - I'm not so sure what to make of Mazara's two homers and nine RBIs through four games considering that he faded a bit down the stretch last season. Still, he hasn't even turned 22 yet and is thriving while hitting in the No. 3 spot in the Texas lineup. I'm really starting to believe in this guy, and while he won't continue to produce at this level, is .275-25-90 unreasonable? I think Mazara owners are better off hanging onto him unless they get blown away by a trade offer.

Adam Eaton - More than any other stat, Eaton's two steals through four games stand out, and Dusty Baker has always been known as an aggressive manager when it comes to stolen base attempts. Despite excellent speed, Eaton has never swiped more than 18 bags in a season. If the new Nationals centerfielder can reach the 30-SB plateau this year, in addition to being a major contributor in runs and AVG, he will be deserving of top-20 fantasy outfielder status. If you own Eaton, hold onto him. If you don't own Eaton, try to acquire him.

Eduardo Nunez - Speaking of steals, Nunez is coming off a breakout season in which he stole 40 bases while batting .288 and showing decent power with 16 home runs. I think it's now safe to say that 2016 wasn't an aberration, as Nunez has already collected three steals through five games and is batting .400 (8-for-20). Being that many of the dominant speedsters these days are merely one-category specialists, the Giants third baseman offers plenty of fantasy appeal as a high-end stolen base source who will not hurt you in any other category. Just a few weeks ago, I was a Nunez doubter. I'm a Nunez believer now.

That didn't take long. 

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars Champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB

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