SleepersMarch 31, 2006

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Sleeper Watch

By Andy Chen

Each year, established closers bust and new ones appear on the waiver wires. Fantasy baseball owners keep a close eye on the wire in preparation of these changes, as obtaining a stable of closers is clearly integral to success and victory in leagues. On top of new closers that emerge, however, there are closers that are underrated headed into the season and poised for a breakout year. Oftentimes, these closers are newly appointed and thus, in the eyes of the foolish, “unproven and volatile.” However, the increased pressure of pitching in the ninth inning is overblown, and as long as they are armed with good stuff, these new closers tend to do well. The cover boy for this idea is BJ Ryan of 2005. Drafted in the mid-rounds, Ryan was able to crack the top ten relief pitchers, striking out 100 in 70.1 innings, with a 2.43 ERA, a WHIP of 1.14, and 36 saves. Smart fantasy owners last year recognized his breakout 2004 season (2.28/1.14 with 122 K in 87 IP), when he was able to pick up three saves at the end of the season.

This year, the bargain at closer is Mike Gonzalez of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Gonzalez burst onto the fantasy scene in 2004 as a set-up man, boasting sensational numbers of a 1.25 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in 43.1 IP, with 55 Ks. After that, he was considered Pittsburgh’s closer of the future. Last season, however, Gonzalez was hampered by a knee injury, but still held opposing hitters to a .197 average. That took some of the luster from his future, but the smart fantasy owner will recognize the cause of his slip and capitalize on that mistake. He has always been regarded as a pitcher with tremendous potential, with a fastball that sits in the mid-90s. His slider is equally difficult for lefties and righties, giving him the ability to be much more than a left-handed specialist. Over his career, Gonzalez has held left-handed hitters to a .184 average, while right-handed batters also scuffle at a meager .212 clip. Clearly, Gonzalez has the abilities to be a dominant closer.

Gonzalez had injury concerns last year that prevented him from pitching up to his potential. He had a lingering left knee issue that landed him on the DL briefly, but bothered him throughout the season. Clearly, his control was affected by the injury, as he walked 31 in 50 innings. Amazingly, he was actually harder to hit in 2005 than in 2004. Despite his bad knee, Gonzalez was still able to strike out more than one batter per inning and despite his 1.32 WHIP, limited hitters to a 2.70 ERA. Looking into the future, it’s very encouraging that Gonzalez ended the season with a 2.57 ERA/1.21 WHIP in September, with 21 strikeouts in 14 innings pitched. His knee is not a concern for the future and he has not had any major arm problems recently.

Gonzalez is currently going at the tail end of closers in fantasy drafts (often in the early teen rounds), near pitchers such as Todd Jones and Mike MacDougal, closers with extreme question marks. While there is some risk involved with taking Gonzalez, his upside far exceeds that of the closers taken around him. Gonzalez has the ability to post numbers similar to those of 2004. He strikes out well over one batter per inning, giving him another dimension to help fantasy owners. A BJ Ryan-type breakout season is a very reasonable expectation for Gonzalez, which would put him in the echelon of closers such as Jason Isringhausen and Trevor Hoffman.

Some people look at the team Gonzalez plays for and, based on that, ignore him. However, the idea that bad teams do not produce saves is a severe fallacy. As someone who frequents the Fantasy Baseball Cafe, I hope you have long abandoned that logic. Last year, the top ten leaders in saves included Chad Cordero of the Nationals, Danys Baez of the Devil Rays, and Derrick Turnbow of the Brewers. In 2004, Jose Mesa saved 43 games for the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, who only won 72 games total. Saves on a whole are very hard to predict and depend on more than the record of a team. The team also has to play close games, and that is not a guarantee any given game.

New manager Jim Tracy has already announced his desire for Mike Gonzalez to close. In November of 2005, Tracy stated, “Gonzalez has really great stuff. I think [Salomon] Torres is a very good pitcher. I could be wrong, but he seems to be more of the guy who gets the ball, does the job and then hands it off for the ninth inning.” Managerial confidence is important for a closer’s success and as of now, it does appear that Gonzalez does have the support of Tracy. As of spring training, he seems to have Gonzalez penciled in to close. The rumors that Gonzalez will be part of a closer-by-committee are nothing but speculation because Gonzalez is a lefty. The Pirates went out and traded for Damaso Marte from the Chicago White Sox, making Gonzalez’s left-handedness a non-issue. With Marte to pitch to lefties, Gonzalez is freed to close.

At the age of 27, Mike Gonzalez is ready to become the next great lefty closer and make a huge impact in fantasy leagues. While other teams pick closers early in drafts, keep an eye on Gonzalez in later rounds. He has the potential to be among the top NL closers at a fraction of the price.

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