StrategyApril 16, 2013

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Bottom of the 9th: Cubs-Cardinals Keep Competing

By R.J. White

The Cubs and Cardinals have one of the most storied rivalries in baseball. Both teams have over 10,000 wins in franchise history. Both have devoted fan bases. And both are spending the early days of 2013 competing over who can have the worst closer situation. In the ninth inning this season, the Cardinals have posted an 8.18 ERA, the second-worst mark in baseball. The Cubs come in with a 9.72 ERA. You win this round, Chicago. Despite the terrible totals, the Cardinals may actually have a few interesting names for fantasy purposes. The Cubs? Not so much.

St. Louis Cardinals

Mitchell Boggs hasn’t been the steady option in the ninth inning that the Cardinals need, giving up runs in four of his eight appearances this year and allowing two or more base runners in five of his eight trips to the mound. Trevor Rosenthal has been billed as the most talented pitcher in the bullpen, and you can listen to this week’s Cafe Pod to our take on him as a long-term closing option, but he hasn’t been the dominant reliever we were expecting, surrendering runs in three of his seven appearances (but managing to allow no hits or walk in three of the other four).

A sleeper? Edward Mujica. Manager Mike Matheny indicated he could get a shot closing, and of the three late-inning guys for the Cardinals, he’s been by far the most successful, giving up just one earned run in five innings while striking out five. I didn’t watch the game Monday, but I saw on Twitter that analysts pointed out Mujica was warming in the bullpen in the event Boggs created a save opportunity in the ninth inning.

I think Rosenthal is the guy to own for the long term if Jason Motte winds up being ruled out for the year, while Mujica is the better option for the short-term. Boggs is worth a spot on a fantasy bench to see if he can settle down and remain the team’s preferred option for saves. All three should probably be owned in most competitive leagues.

Chicago Cubs

First, Carlos Marmol pitched himself out of the closer job. Then new closer Kyuji Fujikawa hit the disabled list. Which option is better at that point for the Cubs: go back to Marmol, or go to another option? Neither is correct, because either one would obviously blow up in the team’s collective face. Shawn Camp received the first save opportunity and blew it, surrendering a game-tying home run to Hunter Pence before becoming further unglued in the 10th inning Sunday.

That leaves lefty James Russell as the likely option for the next save opportunity. But righties have hit him pretty hard over his career (.285/.341/.487 in 489 plate appearances), so I can’t really trust him as a long-term option at closer. Russell as closer would leave Hisanori Takahashi as the only other lefty for the middle innings, and he hasn’t been all that great in three appearances this year.

Could we actually be circling back around to Marmol in the closer chair? It looks like that could be the case — after giving up runs in each of his first three appearances, he’s posted scoreless innings in each of his last four. The pitching coach said shortly after Marmol’s removal that they wanted him as their closer. I still like Fujikawa to lead the team in saves if he comes back at the end of April after the minimum 15-day wait on the DL.

Boston Red Sox

Joel Hanrahan, who hadn’t exactly been lighting up the American League this season, has been deemed unavailable for a few days as he deals with hamstring soreness. Enter Andrew Bailey. Speculators watching Hanrahan work figured a change might be coming soon based solely on performance, so a strong abbreviated stint at closer for Bailey would have stirred up some controversy. Instead, Bailey surrendered a couple hits and blew the save Monday. Consider Hanrahan the closer moving forward, although I’m not expecting a huge leap in performance.

For what it’s worth, Koji Uehara pitched the eighth inning Monday, making me think he’d be third in line over Junichi Tazawa. Uehara has been a peripherals beast over the last few years and can help roto teams even when not closing. He’s pitched 5.1 scoreless innings this season, allowing just one hit and one walk while striking out five. Both the hit and the walk came in Uehara’s one appearance on no rest, and fantasy owners have been concerned Uehara can’t be trusted on back-to-back days, limiting his potential as a closer. In order, you should be targeting Hanrahan, Bailey, Uehara in this ‘pen.

Houston Astros

Jose Veras blew a save opportunity Saturday, leaving him save-less over the season’s first two weeks. He’s given up runs in three of his five appearances, saddling himself with a 9.64 ERA and 2.38 WHIP. If there were any obvious candidates to replace him as closer, I would have to believe he’d be out of a job. However, there’s not.

Rhiner Cruz has been the bullpen workhorse, appearing in eight of the team’s 12 games, but after being scored upon in his last two appearances, he has a 4.50 ERA and just two strikeouts in eight innings. Hector Ambriz has given up three or more hits in four of his first six appearances. Josh Fields, a potential sleeper as a Rule 5 pick, is on the disabled list with a strained forearm, but he may be the guy that leads this bullpen in saves. The most talented reliever in the bullpen looks like Wesley Wright, but he has to work against lefty bullpen bias as well as the absence of another lefty in the ‘pen able to get tough batters out. In 12-team and 14-team mixed leagues, I probably wouldn’t bother owning any Houston relievers. In deeper formats, I’d try and stash Fields on my DL.

R.J. White is the head editor at the Cafe and contributes to's MLB Rumors blog. He has previously written for FanHouse, Razzball and FanDuel. Catch up with him in the forums under the name daullaz. Follow him on Twitter; don't follow him in real life.
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