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Dear Mr. Fantasy: The art of drafting closers

by | Senior Fantasy Writer
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Mr. Fantasy has turned over a new leaf for 2012.

E-mail is the new snail mail. So private. So antiquated.

These are the days of reality TV and YouTube, of broadcasting your life to the masses and worrying about the repercussions later. If you have something to say about Fantasy Baseball, enough with the one-on-one, under-the-table-type stuff. Say it loud and say it proud: My first baseman is Kila Ka'aihue!

OK, some things you should still keep to yourself, but whatever is available for public consumption is more likely to get through to Mr. Fantasy these days. The outlets at your disposal are Facebook (www.facebook.com/CBSSportsFantasyBaseball) and Twitter (@CBSFantasyBB). You may have heard about them on the Nickelodeon. If you're able to master them, you'll want to send your Fantasy Baseball questions to them. This column aims to answer as many as possible each week.

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On the other hand, if you're an old codger forever stuck in your e-mailing ways, well, we'll still accept those, too. Just understand that it's no longer the preferred medium. And it's so very uncool.

For realz.

Every year, closers tend to be some of the riskiest investments. Who are some closers I should be cautious of taking this year? -- Tom Broderick (via Twitter)

SW: The reason closers are so risky -- Joakim Soria's and Ryan Madson's injuries aside -- is because their value depends almost entirely on their role. For a hitter, you wouldn't so much care where his team positioned him in the lineup. As long as he produced, he'd be meeting your needs in Fantasy. But if a closer drops to setup man at some point during the season, he stops getting saves. And without saves, he's useless -- at least in standard mixed leagues.

So clearly, the closers to avoid are the ones most at risk of forfeiting the role to someone else. Usually, it doesn't happen unless the closer has some kind of misstep -- and even then, he'd need to have a clear successor behind him. The most common causes of a misstep are age, injury risk or inexperience, and the most likely successors are hard-throwing setup men.

Based on those criteria, Andrew Bailey is a candidate to fall flat. He has missed significant time with injuries over the last two years, and the Red Sox could turn to Mark Melancon (or even rotation candidate Daniel Bard) instead. Jason Motte has limited experience in the role and Fernando Salas (or even fill-in starting pitcher Lance Lynn) backing him up. Joe Nathan is looking more hittable at age 37 and has Mike Adams, Alexi Ogando or even Neftali Feliz (provided the rotation gig doesn't work out) behind him. Rafael Betancourt is both old and inexperienced, and many have described his setup man, Rex Brothers, as a closer-in-waiting.

Of course, not every closer who meets those criteria is a risky selection in Fantasy. It all depends on how the rest of your league approaches him. Javy Guerra has less than a full year closing and the Craig Kimbrel-like Kenley Jansen behind him, but if Fantasy owners continue to treat him like he's already lost the job, what's the harm in taking him in the last round or two? Sean Marshall isn't guaranteed anything in Cincinnati, especially with Aroldis Chapman around, but Fantasy owners seem to know what they're getting into with him. Likewise, Grant Balfour, Matt Capps and Frank Francisco probably don't have the greatest job security, but that's why they're going so late. You get what you pay for.

Generally speaking, I like to avoid the Baileys, Mottes, Nathans and Betancourts of the world, but a point comes in every draft when the risky options are all that remain. I'm not so scared of them that I'm willing to be that guy taking Kimbrel in Round 5.

I have Zack Greinke and Adam Wainwright, who are currently scheduled to face each other on Saturday. Should I bench Wainwright for Johan Santana or Neftali Feliz? -- Max Almodovar (via Twitter)

SW: I wouldn't bench him for either. You drafted Wainwright to be, what, your No. 2 or 3 starting pitcher, and you're going to bench him right away for late-round filler? Please.

Wainwright is a legitimate ace capable of beating anyone on any day. Perhaps you've forgotten during his time out with injury, but when we last saw him in 2010, he was finishing second in NL Cy Young voting.

True, the year-long layoff does make him an inherent risk, but Tommy John surgery is reliable enough that, given the reports coming out of Cardinals camp this spring, you can trust he's back. And if you were really that worried, you wouldn't have been the one drafting him in the first place, right?

The only other reason you'd have for sitting Wainwright is because you're Mr. Greedypants looking for a win from each and every one of your starting pitchers, but that's just unrealistic. At least with this matchup, you can feel pretty confident you'll get a win from one of them. And chances are the other will pitch so well, accumulating so many innings and strikeouts, that you won't mind going without a win from him.

What if Wainwright is the one who gets the win instead of Greinke? And what if it's an easy win, with Wainwright pitching like an ace and Greinke taking an uncharacteristic beating? Really shot yourself in the foot then, didn't you?

I don't like to overthink my pitching decisions. Sometimes two-start options cloud my judgment, but that's obviously not a consideration here. If a guy is good, he's good against anyone. Sleeper candidates like Santana and Feliz need to get a few seven-inning starts under their belts before they're even in the discussion with a pitcher like Wainwright.

How would you recommend drafting in Head-to-Head points league? Get all stud starting pitchers or go hitting? I have the second pick and don't know which direction to go. -- J. Grey (via Twitter)

SW: Then I'll give you the direction to go: Take Miguel Cabrera. And if he's not available, take Albert Pujols.

I wouldn't even mind so much if you went the Jose Bautista, Matt Kemp or Troy Tulowitzki route instead, but you have to take a hitter. And regardless of what everyone else is doing, I'd plan on taking a hitter in each of the next three or four rounds.

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I go into greater detail in my Head-to-Head strategies piece, but the gist of the hitters-first philosophy is that pitchers are generally more susceptible to injuries than hitters, which is a big deal among the players drafted to be the nucleus of your team. Plus, with offensive numbers down across the league over the last couple years, high-end pitchers are simply more plentiful than they used to be.

Guys like Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Ricky Romero and Mat Latos are all just a half step away from becoming legitimate aces in Fantasy and are typically available in the sixth round or later. Meanwhile, the hitters available at that same point in the draft, such as Lance Berkman and Nelson Cruz, are clearly a step behind the Curtis Grandersons and Andrew McCutchens you could have had in the second and third rounds.

In Head-to-Head leagues, the emphasis on pitching should be a little higher than in Rotisserie for no other reason than because you have to start so many more hitters in Rotisserie, but hitting should still be the foundation of your team. It may not win championships, but it wins Fantasy championships.

And if for some reason the worst happens and you find yourself short on reliable arms during the regular season, you can at least compensate by mixing in two-start options off the waiver wire. Hitters don't have the same workaround.

Would you take Chris Carpenter over Jeff Niemann, Brandon McCarthy, or Tim Stauffer? -- Kevin Root (via Facebook)

SW: It partially depends on the circumstances. If I played in a deeper league where I'd have to rely on any of these guys on an every-week basis, Carpenter would rank last for me. If I played in a shallower league where I'd have the luxury of stashing him for weeks at a time, I might be willing to invest a little more in his upside.

That said, the more I hear about his injury, the more pessimistic I get. The Cardinals can throw around timetables all they want, but the fact of the matter is he doesn't have an injury that's guaranteed to heal in time. The bulging disc in his neck -- something that isn't going away without surgery -- causes irritation in a nerve that limits the strength in his shoulder. No one can pitch effectively with his shoulder in a weakened state -- I don't care how many top-three Cy Young finishes he has.

Look, the medical people handling Carpenter's rehabilitation know much more about the human body and how it works than I do, but his injury isn't straightforward enough for me to trust I'll get any kind of return on my investment. Even in shallower formats, I think I'd be inclined to go with McCarthy and Niemann over Carpenter.

McCarthy pretty much is Carpenter after his breakthrough 2011. He has his own injury concerns, sure, but he's healthy now and capable of pitching deep into games with a stellar walk rate. He may not get many strikeouts, but Carpenter isn't exactly a strikeout guy either.

Niemann battled through some aches and pains of his own last year, but when he was healthy, he showed frontline potential, going 7-1 with a 2.26 ERA and 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings during a 10-start stretch in July and August. Now that he has overcome Wade Davis for the fifth spot in the Rays rotation, I have no reservations about adding him to a mixed-league team.

Stauffer isn't in quite the same category for me. Yeah, he had his moments last year, but his success was mostly a result of pitching half his games at PETCO Park. He won't hurt you in ERA and WHIP, but he'll offer minimal strikeouts and likely won't even record double-digit victories for the low-scoring Padres. I'd be more likely to gamble on Carpenter than resort to a low-end option like him.

In a deep 20-team league, would you deal Josh Reddick, Ben Revere, Anibal Sanchez and Greg Holland for Carlos Quentin, James Loney, Ryan Madson and Ian Kennedy? -- Mike Rager (via Twitter)

SW: In deeper leagues, players who get full-time at-bats are at a premium. You won't find any on the waiver wire, generally speaking, which means your only ways of getting them are through the draft or through trades such as this one.

Reddick will likely sit against tougher left-handers and, therefore, isn't a full-time player. Revere is in a fight for at-bats with Chris Parmelee and Trevor Plouffe, among others, and, therefore, isn't a full-time player. Loney, despite his lackluster numbers for a first baseman, is a full-time player, and Quentin will be the best of any of the hitters in this deal when he comes back from knee surgery.

Loney and Quentin are both on the same side of this deal, as is the No. 1 most valuable player of the eight, Ian Kennedy. They're joined by the useless Madson, who's out for the season because of Tommy John surgery. I don't know if he's part of this deal for keeper purposes or what, but for the sake of argument, let's just eliminate him from the equation.

What would that package of three infinitely usable players in a 20-team league cost you? In addition to the two part-timers, you'd be giving up Sanchez, who's doesn't measure up to Kennedy, and Holland, who right now is probably the backup option for saves in Kansas City, behind Jonathan Broxton.

I understand that Holland's potential for saves is better than no saves at all and that Revere could end up being a pretty good steals specialist even without full-time at-bats, but unless you have a desperate need in either of those categories, the potential they offer isn't worth sacrificing the assured production of Loney and Quentin and the upgrade from Sanchez to Kennedy.

If you played in a shallower league, where a middle-of-the-road player like Loney would be more likely to go undrafted than a prospective player like Holland or Revere, maybe I'd have more to say on the matter, but the premium on everyday players in your format puts this deal clearly in your favor.

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I recently dealt Elvis Andrus and Brandon Morrow for Starlin Castro in a keeper league. Who should I grab off the waiver wire to replace Morrow: John Danks, Justin Masterson or Phil Hughes? -- Adam Vannicola (via Twitter)

SW: It's official: Masterson doesn't get the respect he deserves in Fantasy.

How is he unowned in your league? I mean, I like Morrow more, but only three pitchers -- Max Scherzer, Jeremy Hellickson and Jaime Garcia -- separate the two in my own personal rankings.

I understand Masterson left a bad taste in people's mouths with his poor finish last year, but was it really so bad to make him unrosterable now? A 5.23 ERA during a seven-start stretch is hardly unprecedented. Zack Greinke had a stretch like that last year. Mat Latos had a stretch like that last year. You don't see anyone backing off them.

Maybe the difference is Masterson's happened at the end of last season while Grinke's and Latos' happened at the beginning. Maybe it's just too fresh. But if anything, it's the most explicable of the three.

After getting stuck in the bullpen early in his career, Masterson eclipsed the 200-inning mark for the first time last year -- an important milestone for all up-and-coming pitchers. Usually, the first time doesn't go so well. They're not used to extending themselves so deep into the season or so frequently throughout the season. But after experiencing it once, they're better prepared to handle the workload the next time around.

Before his late-season slump, Masterson had a 2.71 ERA. He didn't exhibit any control issues that would suddenly sidetrack his career, and though his strikeout rate was relatively low, his mid-90s fastball suggests he has the potential for more.

He's not far off from becoming a top-of-the-rotation-type in Fantasy -- even closer than Morrow, arguably. And though I think Danks is a good candidate for a bounce-back season, he has shown over his career the best he can do is about what Masterson did last year.

With Masterson, you're getting both the safe and upside play. It's an easy call.

Who do you think has a better future and better power potential? Freddie Freeman or Eric Hosmer? -- Chad Matejicka (via Twitter)

SW: Their draft averages pretty much tell the story here. Hosmer is about a sixth-rounder in standard Rotisserie leagues while Freeman is about an 11th-rounder. Considering both nearly won Rookie of the Year in their respective leagues a year ago, the main thing separating the two is upside.

Well ... and proximity to meeting that upside, which is the more important variable to Fantasy owners in seasonal formats. But by either measurement, I think Hosmer has Freeman beat. After he finished last year hitting .357 with nine homers and a .965 OPS over his final 143 at-bats, I see him breaking through as a .300-hitting, 30-homer guy as soon as this year.

Freeman might never be a 30-homer guy, and considering he had a startling 142 strikeouts compared to 53 walks last year, I have a feeling his batting average is more likely to fall than rise this year.

That's not to say Freeman won't become a .300 hitter himself one day -- his pedigree and minor-league track record suggest he has that kind of potential -- but for both the near and distant future, Hosmer is the safer bet for batting average, power and even speed, believe it or not. I'll take him 100 times out of 100.

I'm in a 10-team 11x11 Head-to-Head league. Is it better to punt certain categories or try to win the most categories possible? If punting categories is better, which categories are the most predictable and which are the best to punt? -- Ryan Evan (via Facebook)

SW: Generally, I'm against punting categories, but generally, I'm talking about a 5x5 league where someone wants to give up on saves or wins or some other manageable category that has one-tenth of the say in his team's ultimate fate. It's silly to handicap yourself in such a way before the season even starts.

But an 11x11 league is different. With that many categories, I assume your league counts complete games or shutouts or some other measurement that's both sparse and unpredictable.

I still don't know if punting is the answer, though. I mean, as long as you're still drafting starting pitchers, you might just happen into a complete game or shutout. And you'd take it, right?

But the key is you're happening into them, which is all anyone can ever do with complete games or shutouts. In such a format, I might be more inclined to draft a true ace like CC Sabathia or James Shields, but even with those types on your roster, you still run the risk of losing in those categories half the time. Shutouts are rare for anybody.

Other measurements like doubles or triples are still plentiful enough that I wouldn't want to limit myself in those areas. You'll never be so stacked in, say, 12 categories that you can trust your team to pull it out every time, so you need to give yourself options. But I wouldn't stress over the categories that you can't realistically predict.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Scott White at @CBSScottWhite . You can also check us out on Facebook or e-mail us at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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