Can both Sean Marshall and Aroldis Chapman help fantasy teams?
Leave it to the Cincinnati Reds to extend two of the most crucial position battles of spring training deep into the exhibition season's final days.
Don't they know we have fantasy drafts to prepare for?
With six days remaining before the Reds' first "pitch that counts" of 2012, we're left guessing. Oh, we think Sean Marshall will be the closer, Homer Bailey will be the fifth starter and Aroldis Chapman a setup man. But then came recent reports that manager Dusty Baker is considering a closer-by-committee approach, or that Chapman might, in fact, steal the fifth-starter role from Bailey.
It's Baker himself who throws our preparations so much into flux; he has a history of unpredictable roster decisions and reliance upon veteran players and "old-school" baseball thinking. He is the man responsible for driving up the pitch counts of young starters like Mark Prior and Kerry Wood when he was managing the Chicago Cubs; he is the man who, on 90 occasions as Cubs manager from 2003-06, batted Corey Patterson and his .290 lifetime on-base percentage leadoff; and he's also the man who granted 104 combined starts to Jonny Gomes and Fred Lewis, at the expense of Chris Heisey (54 starts), last season.
Baker could always do the unthinkable: He could roll out an Opening Day lineup including Ryan Hanigan at catcher, Paul Janish at shortstop, Ryan Ludwick both in left field and in the cleanup spot, he could have Chapman pitching the seventh inning and he could be as likely to give the ball to Jose Arredondo or Logan Ondrusek as Marshall once the ninth inning arrives.
But when it comes to fantasy baseball, our smartest plays are usually the ones founded upon skills and statistics, and while the Baker "wild card" looms large, there's every reason to believe the end result -- even if it's not the Opening Day arrangement -- will be the one in which skills and past statistics win out.
Let's discuss Marshall first, because among closer candidates, there is no clearer choice on the Reds' roster.
Among relief pitchers with 100 or more innings the past two seasons combined, these are Marshall's major league rankings: No. 1 in Wins Above Replacement (5.0), No. 1 in FIP (2.07), No. 4 in xFIP (2.50), No. 18 in strikeouts per nine innings (10.12), No. 20 in ERA (2.45), No. 24 in WHIP (1.10). After climbing the Chicago Cubs' minor league ranks as a starting pitcher, Marshall has established himself as one of the game's premier short relievers during that time. In fact, he even notched five saves last season, most of those filling in when Carlos Marmol was struggling.
Two particularly attractive traits of Marshall's are his balanced splits and his ability to generate ground balls: He has held both left- and right-handed hitters to a sub-.600 OPS in each of the past two seasons, while his 58.9 percent ground ball rate last season ranked 18th out of 211 qualified relievers. The former underscores his ability to be a one-plus-inning reliever rather than specialist, while the latter helps minimize the effects of pitching half his games at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park, one of the most hitter-friendly venues in baseball.
Remarkably, Baker's primary concerns about Marshall are the left-hander's experience in the role, and his ability to handle the workload.
"You just don't throw somebody in that role," Baker said. "A closer ideally can go three or four days in a row, then might not get work for a week. There aren't too many guys out there that have gone three or four days in a row. I've been told about Marshall [that] you try to stay away from him three days in a row."
It's a puzzling criticism, considering that Marshall not only worked on three consecutive days on three occasions in 2011, he didn't allow a run on the second or third days in the string once. And if you go back to 2010, he appeared on three consecutive days six times. Marshall also threw one inning or more on 108 of 158 occasions the past two seasons combined, and in his career as a reliever, he has a 1.79 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 66 appearances on zero days' rest. In other words, he has been outstanding when tasked with regular work.
Though Baker might initially opt for a closer-by-committee arrangement, Marshall's skill set looks like the eventual clear winner, and if that's Marshall's role initially, all it should do is deflate his draft-day price, creating a potential bargain. The case can be made that Marshall, as a closer, might be a top-20 option at the position, or better. But if he costs you the price of a top-30 reliever, he's well worth the risk even considering Baker's unpredictability with roster decisions.
As for Chapman, his draft-day value is more volatile.
There's no greater reason for that than the vastly different impact that a starting pitcher compared to middle reliever has upon a fantasy team. Starting pitchers, especially those with Chapman's strikeout ability, have the potential to impact four of the five major rotisserie categories. Middle relievers, meanwhile, have less influence; the two best fantasy middle relievers of 2011, Mike Adams and Tyler Clippard, failed to crack the top 50 pitchers on our Player Rater.
But Chapman's spring puts him in legitimate contention for a rotation spot, the Reds have long had designs of him starting for the bulk of his career, and his fantasy potential, if granted that particular goal, makes the risk well worth taking.
Through four starts, Chapman has a 2.12 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 18 strikeouts in 17 innings, continuing to generate swings and misses with the best of them. After averaging 97.8 mph with his fastball during the 2011 regular season, Chapman has again been clocked at 98 mph during his spring outings, ranking him among the hardest-throwing pitchers in all of baseball. He also has a filthy slider; he limited opponents to a .165 OPS with it, and got them to miss on 59 percent of their swings against it last season in the 55 plate appearances that ended on one.
Chapman is throwing with a cleaner delivery, and his 9.00 K/BB ratio this spring is a significant improvement upon the command numbers he posted previously in his career. If he has indeed made strides in that department, there's no reason the Reds shouldn't give him a look in their season-opening rotation.
One thing that helps: Bailey has posted a 7.98 ERA, 1.84 WHIP and .364 batting average allowed in his five starts so far this spring. That the right-hander is out of options might work against Chapman -- the Reds might prefer to keep both on the roster, and Chapman is the one with relief experience -- but there's no question that, on skill, Chapman is the better choice.
With roles still in flux, Chapman, like Marshall, should slip in drafts, to the point that both would be late-to-final round selections in standard, 10-team ESPN mixed leagues. These are pitchers who warrant consideration once the first 200 players are off the board, but they could be brilliant picks after that point.