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Fantasy Baseball: Ten tips to a successful draft: #3 and #4
by: Jamey Codding
Pg 1 of 2

Opening Day is Sunday, March 30, meaning it's time to get ready for your fantasy baseball drafts. Hopefully, Jamey Codding's 10 draft-day tips will help kick-start your preparation.

Tip #3: Finding relief with middle relievers

Everybody wants a slugging outfielder who'll hit .300 with 40 homers and 120 RBI. Everybody wants a middle infielder who'll steal 30 bases and score 100 runs. Everybody wants a lights-out starting pitcher who'll win 20 games with a 3.00 ERA and 200 strikeouts. Everybody wants a closer who'll save 40 games with a WHIP under 1.00 and more strikeouts than innings pitched. 

Everybody wants these guys and on draft day, everybody goes after these guys. In fact, the majority of your pre-draft strategy will undoubtedly center on how you can get players like Lance Berkman, Luis Castillo, Curt Schilling and Eric Gagne, and for good reason. But don't be blinded by the big names and their bloated numbers, because you'll end up overlooking one of the best-kept secrets to fantasy baseball success: middle relievers.

That's right, middle relievers have plenty of fantasy value, especially in leagues that count strikeouts. Now, I'm not saying you should start snapping up relievers in the second and third rounds of your draft, but the right set-up men certainly can give your fantasy squad a boost in ERA and WHIP while also adding some strikeouts and even a few spare saves, all for a relatively low-risk investment.

Take a look at the numbers below. These are the 2002 stats posted by some of baseball's supposed top relievers -- both set-up men and closers -- but I've taken one category out of the equation: saves. Judging by the numbers below, which six of the following 15 pitchers would you most want on your roster?

Player A: 6 wins, 2.13 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 63 K in 80.1 IP
Player B: 9 wins, 1.89 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 76 K in 81 IP
Player C: 2 wins, 2.93 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 43 K in 61.1 IP
Player D: 7 wins, 1.99 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 69 K in 68 IP
Player E: 4 wins, 2.52 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 73 K in 60.2 IP
Player F: 11 wins, 3.27 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 93 K in 93.2 IP
Player G: 7 wins, 0.95 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 63 K in 76 IP
Player H: 2 wins, 3.56 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 47 K in 73.1 IP
Player I: 10 wins, 2.33 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 81 K in 69.2 IP
Player J: 1 win, 3.00 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 71 K in 60 IP
Player K: 2 wins, 4.00 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 61 K in 74.1 IP
Player L: 6 wins, 1.85 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 118 K in 97.1 IP
Player M: 5 wins, 4.27 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, 85 K in 78 IP
Player N: 1 win, 4.33 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 39 K in 52 IP
Player O: 4 wins, 2.97 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 64 K in 75.2 IP

Who are the most attractive pitchers on the list? Anybody with a WHIP under 1.00 plus more Ks than innings pitched can be on my team, so players I and L are in. An ERA under 2.00 with a sub-1.20 WHIP and better than a strikeout per inning? I'll take player D along with player B, who nearly reached the 1:1 strikeouts/inning ratio. Give me player E, too -- strong across the board.

One more spot. Hmm…. Well, in this group an ERA above 3.00 just doesn't cut it, so eliminate players F, H, K, M and N, and anybody who doesn't even approach the 1:1 K/inning ratio is axed too, meaning I'll pass on players A and C despite their miniscule ERAs and WHIPs. Player O's gaudy WHIP kinda scares me, so he's gone too. That leaves G and J to battle it out for the final slot. Both guys were impressive last season, but player G had more vulture wins and a spectacular ERA while player J had a lower WHIP and a much higher strikeout ratio. In other words, it's a tossup -- I'd be happy with either one, though if you twisted my arm I'd probably go with J if only because of the whiffs.

It's interesting to note that there are nine closers on the above list and six set-up men, but I only chose two closers for my six-man bullpen, Kaz Sasaki and Ugueth Urbina -- players E and J. Players F, H, K, M and N, the only pitchers on the list with ERAs above 3.00, were all closers in 2002: Billy Koch (F), Jose Jimenez (H), Antonio Alfonseca (K), Kelvim Escobar (M) and Roberto Hernandez (N). Twins reliever LaTroy Hawkins, player A, had solid numbers but not enough strikeouts to make my team, and I had the same problem with Pirates closer Mike Williams, player C, who saved a stunning 46 games last year but didn't register enough Ks to make the cut. The numbers for player O look solid but that 1.37 WHIP is a bit discouraging. Sorry Jose Mesa.

So who, along with Sasaki and Urbina, were the four other players I selected? Player L, Houston's Octavio Dotel, is baseball's best set-up man. Check out those numbers: an ERA under 2.00, a sub-1.00 WHIP and 118 strikeouts in 97.1 innings, not to mention six vulture wins. That's an incredible season, and at just 29 years old Dotel should post equally impressive stats in 2003. Seattle's Arthur Rhodes, player I, was the most dominating middle reliever in the American League with that outstanding ERA, miniscule WHIP, impressive strikeout numbers and double-digit wins, a rare feat for any reliever. Meanwhile, players B and D, the other two sub-2.00 ERA guys in my 'pen, are Minnesota lefty J.C. Romero and new Cubs southpaw Mike Remlinger. At 26, Romero emerged as one of fantasy's biggest surprises in 2002 and should continue to contribute reliable stats for the Twins and his fantasy owners, while Remlinger has been an underrated fantasy commodity for a few years now. Chris Hammond, player G, was terrific for the Braves last season but at 37, a repeat with the Yankees in 2003 can't be expected.

Get the point? I know you're saying that, by taking saves out of the equation, I've eliminated most of the value guys like Escobar, Mesa and Hernandez carry into fantasy drafts every year…. So you do see my point, then. 

Saves are overvalued so much every year that relatively mediocre pitchers like Alfonseca and Jimenez are selected in the first 10-15 rounds, much earlier than their stat lines merit, while much better pitchers like Rhodes and Remlinger usually slip into the 20th round or later. I can almost guarantee that every closer on my list (aside from Roberto Hernandez, who will now set-up John Smoltz in Atlanta) will be drafted before the middle relievers on the list simply because of the almighty save. But it's obvious that the league's top set-up men will match baseball's best closers in nearly every category, making them a severely undervalued commodity on draft day.

What I'm getting at here is, while it's important to land a closer or two if you want to compete for the saves title, you can also stock your staff with guys who will help your strikeouts and ratios in the closing rounds. Rounding out your roster with Dotel, Romero and Anaheim's Francisco Rodriguez late in the draft can offset an otherwise suspect cast of starting pitchers. Plus, the best middle relievers usually manage to dig up a spare save or two throughout the year (Dotel had six), and whenever a closer succumbs to either injury or ineffectiveness, his best set-up man is normally standing first in line to take over. Cha-ching!

Consider this scenario: you have two starters pitching on the same day. One has a mediocre outing, giving up three earned runs in six innings with only three strikeouts and the other one gets pummeled, surrendering four earned in four innings with one punch out. That's a hefty 6.30 ERA, and that'll ruin your day. But say you also have Dotel, Remlinger, Hawkins and the Yankees Steve Karsay, and on that same day Dotel pitches 1.2 innings of scoreless relief with three strikeouts, Remlinger gives the Cubs a scoreless inning with a strikeout, Hawkins pitches 2.1 innings with three strikeouts and no runs, and Karsay works two scoreless innings with a strikeout. Suddenly, that 6.30 ERA becomes a 3.70 ERA, still not fantastic but it won't kill your league standing either. Plus, you've got an extra eight strikeouts in seven relief innings, and if you're lucky one of those relievers even stole a surprise win for you. Not bad, huh?

Hopefully you see just how valuable a carefully selected group of dominating middle relievers can be. There are plenty of guys out there who won't give you the wins or the saves but will pitch enough quality relief innings to have a positive effect on your ratios while also piling up a healthy amount of strikeouts.

Sure, a pitching staff filled with ace starters and the game's top closers would be ideal, but to do that you'd have to ignore your offense on draft day. Trust me, that's not the way to win your league. But complementing three or four solid starters and two decent closers with a handful of baseball's finest middle relievers will have you near the top of your league's pitching categories all season.

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