Putz's value drops as Mets' setup man
While the Yankees were inking ace CC Sabathia to a seven-year contract, across town, the Mets were addressing their bullpen, first by signing single-season saves record holder Francisco Rodriguez, then by providing him with a fellow former American League West closer to set him up, acquiring J.J. Putz from the Mariners early Thursday morning.
Why might that be, you ask? Simply put, Putz closed in Seattle; he will not in New York. And in most fantasy leagues, a closer is a valuable thing. A setup man, generally, is not. Blame it on the rotisserie scoring system; saves is one of the five standard pitching categories. Holds is not, and a 3.07 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP -- Putz's career marks in those categories -- from a 75-inning reliever tend not to hold the kind of weight they might if they came from a 200-inning starter. That's just the game.
But I'll go ahead and say Putz shouldn't be discarded in fantasy just because he's wearing Mets blue and orange. This is a smart trade for the Mets, with some subtle ramifications for our purposes. Most notably, Putz loses a good share of value, but his ERA and WHIP probably will be helped by the migration to the more pitching-oriented National League -- just ask Johan Santana. The new Citi Field probably won't be quite the pitchers' heaven Shea Stadium was, but a first guess is that the change in ballpark won't have too much of an effect on Putz in his transition both from Safeco Field to Citi Field and from the AL to the NL. At worst, if healthy, he's capable of that 3.07 ERA and 1.16 WHIP and probably better, especially if you note that those numbers were 1.86 and 0.81, respectively, in 2006 and 2007 combined. His questionable health was very much the cause of that poor 2008.
We'll get a better read on how healthy Putz is come spring training, but the Mets probably wouldn't have dealt for him had his elbow still been a serious issue. Besides, he had a 2.63 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in his final 15 appearances in 2008. Rodriguez long has been hailed as an injury risk because of his violent delivery, and while predicting a DL stint for the Mets' new closer might be a bit much, those owners with the luxury of a deep bench might be smart to handcuff him with Putz. After all, Putz did show in Seattle that he can be a dominant closer, too. At the very least, he can be that 75-inning reliever with good ratios and somewhere in the ballpark of 90 strikeouts. That kind of setup man has value; it's just generally higher in NL-only or deep mixed formats, or in leagues that reward holds.
Another benefit: With K-Rod and Putz now at the back end, Mets starters no longer have to worry about handing over late-inning leads. Santana, robbed of anywhere from five to eight wins in 2008 depending on whom you believe, certainly will be happy to hear he doesn't have to complete all his games anymore to earn that elusive W.
Franklin Gutierrez is the next-most-relevant fantasy name in the deal, going from Cleveland to Seattle, where he presumably will take over as the everyday center fielder, or right fielder, with Ichiro Suzuki going back to center. Gutierrez, 25, disappointed in 2008, but he's a tremendous athlete and a fine defender, and he mashes left-handed pitching. AL-only owners will find value in him now that he's practically guaranteed everyday at-bats, but asking for more than, say, a .265-.270 batting average with 20-homer power and perhaps 10 steals would be foolish.
Aaron Heilman heads from the Mets to Seattle in the deal, a piece that might result in the biggest fantasy impact of all -- it will be either Heilman or Brandon Morrow who replaces Putz as the team's closer. Morrow, who had 10 saves in 12 chances with a 1.59 ERA and 0.66 WHIP in 22 appearances as the team's closer from June 1 to Aug. 3 this past season, is by far the more likely, having had experience in the role. Problem is, both pitchers have said they'd prefer careers as starting pitchers. Heilman might get that chance and be a final-round sleeper if he impresses in the spring, but Morrow, with his power arm, genuinely has top-10 closer potential if that's his 2009 role. Keep tabs on how the bullpen shapes up, but I see Morrow closing and being a huge breakout candidate.
Among the lesser names in the deal: Joe Smith heads to Cleveland and Sean Green to New York. Both are side-armers and ground-ball specialists who are tough on right-handers but mediocre against lefties and thus matchup relievers. Neither has fantasy value, although Smith probably is the more talented of the two. Endy Chavez lands in Seattle and former top prospect Jeremy Reed in New York; it's a swap of defensive-minded backup outfielders. Neither should receive the at-bats needed to make a fantasy impact. Jason Vargas, Mike Carp, Ezequiel Carrera and Maikel Cleto also go from the Mets to the Mariners; none of them should have any effect in fantasy in 2009. Carrera will be a prospect worth monitoring, though. Finally, infielder Luis Valbuena goes from Seattle to Cleveland, where he'll help provide infield depth, at minimal-to-zero fantasy impact.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.