By: Russell Shaffer (@RussellShaffer)
Championship caliber fantasy teams aren’t created equal. There is no sure fire, fail proof method for constructing a winner. Experienced owners who’ve tasted the sweetness of victory on more than one occasion will tell you it takes a savvy blend of shrewd waiver claims, cunning (sometimes ruthless) trades, diligent roster management and more than a little good luck to come out on top. They’ll also tell you it starts with the draft, and that while the foundation of your team is your early round studs the difference makers are those ascendant stars you snap up for nothing as the draft winds down.
A quick glance at a typical 2013 championship roster would likely include at least one of the following players: Matt Carpenter, Shelby Miller, Jean Segura, Chris Davis, Glen Perkins, Hisashi Iwakuma, Everth Cabrera, Jose Fernandez and Josh Donaldson. All these guys went in the middle to late rounds (or weren’t drafted at all) yet each finished the season near the top of the fantasy rankings at their respective positions and far outperformed their average draft status.
You need guys like these on your roster, and I’m going to help you find them.
Jim Henderson, RP – Milwaukee Brewers
ESPN Preseason Positional Ranking: 24
It’s hard to believe it’s been 27 years since the world was “treated” to the campy John Lithgow film Harry and the Hendersons. I realize the fantasy sports demographic trends young, so for those of you who weren’t even born in 1987 here’s a quick synopsis: The Henderson family (led by patriarch Lithgow) hits a bigfoot-like creature on the way back from vacation, straps the unconscious behemoth to the roof of their station wagon, befriends the gentle giant, comes to his aid when he becomes hunted and finally returns the mythical(?) mammal to the wilderness where they see other sasquatches emerge from hiding to greet him. They just don’t make movies like this anymore…
And that’s probably a good thing.
Around the same time Hendersons was released 2014 Hall of Fame inductee Tony La Russa – then manager of the Oakland Athletics – basically invented the modern-day closer position. La Russa took fellow Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, previously a successful starter and at the time the A’s best reliever, and turned him into a 9th inning specialist. Prior to La Russa’s managerial maneuvering the conventional approach was to bring in your best reliever late in games when the opponent got the tying run on base – regardless of whether it was the 7th inning or the 9th. Some of the game’s best all-time “closers” weren’t called closers at all during their playing days and they often pitched multiple innings to record their saves. In fact, Goose Gossage had more multiple-inning saves than he did of the now standard one-inning variety.
But La Russa’s bullpen strategy was credited as one of the defining characteristics of the dynastic Bash Brothers-era Oakland clubs and thus like its football contemporary, the run-and-shoot offense, the 9th inning specialist was adopted by teams hoping to reach the promised land. By the early 1990s terms such as firemen and stopper ceased being used to describe a club’s best reliever and the well-known title of closer was coined.
Today every team has a closer, but finding one with any real staying power is like finding, well, a bigfoot.
That’s why I – and most every other fantasy baseball analyst worth his or her salt – will tell you to wait on saves. Consider that as many as nine players expected to be their team’s Opening Day closer in 2013 aren’t anywhere near a closing job today. Several other guys who I ranked in my 2013 preseason RP rankings – including Joe Nathan, Fernando Rodney, Jim Johnson, Addison Reed, Grant Balfour and John Axford – are plying their craft in new locales for 2014 (see our Closer Chart for all the latest battles).
Closing is a volatile “what have you done for me lately?” business, and that’s why I look for those low-risk, high-reward closers late in drafts. They’re out there every season, and last year they were named Greg Holland, Glen Perkins and Jason Grilli. If you drafted any of those guys you were pretty happy with the return, and had any of them flamed out none of their owners would’ve cried too loudly about the late round pick they wasted.
So who’s this season’s Holland/Perkins/Grilli? In my opinion there are several intriguing candidates, however the guy I’m targeting is Milwaukee’s Jim Henderson.
Last season the aforementioned Axford entered the season with a pretty firm grasp on the Brewers’ closing duties before beginning the season with an epic meltdown. Axford blew his first six save opportunities and was summarily yanked from the job – a role he never regained before getting dealt to St. Louis in August. To show how lucid the hold is on closing duties, Axford had saved 105 games for the Brewers over the prior three seasons yet found himself permanently demoted less than a month into the 2013 season.
The benefactor of Axford’s ineptitude was fellow Canadian Henderson, who stepped into the chaos and brought season-long stability to the Brewers bullpen. Except for a brief stint on the disabled list and temporarily ceding closing duties to Francisco Rodriguez as K-Rod chased some career milestones, Henderson was steady as they go for Milwaukee.
In 61 appearances accounting for 60 IP, Henderson posted a fine 2.70 ERA with 28 SV and 75 K. . A little comparison reveals Henderson’s fantasy stats stack up favorably against those of Perkins, who tallied 36 SV, 77 K and a 2.30 ERA in 62.2 IP. Perkins was clearly better, but the margin isn’t as big as you might think. And when you factor in Henderson’s 5 W to Perkins’ 2, the gap shrinks even more.
That’s why it’s so surprising to me that ESPN has Henderson and Perkins separated by such a wide margin in their preseason RP rankings. The 2013 All-Star Perkins comes in at #7 while you need to scroll all the way down to #24 before you discover the unsung Henderson – just two spots ahead of a guy (Nate Jones) who isn’t even a sure thing to be his team’s closer. Henderson, on the other hand, seems a virtual lock to occupy the 9th for Milwaukee come Opening Day and really doesn’t have any legitimate competition for the role apart from Rodriguez – who didn’t arrive in camp until March 1 due to political unrest in his native Venezuela.
Henderson was plenty good throughout 2013, but so far he’s spent the spring retooling his arsenal in an effort to become even more effective. As of this writing Henderson had yet to appear in a Cactus League game, opting instead to spend time on the back fields sharpening his slider and developing an as of yet unidentified new pitch likely aimed at improving his success against lefties.
Regardless of what weapons Henderson brings to the mound on Opening Day, I like him as one of the best draft day values among closers. When you uncover minimal differences between the 7th- and 24th-ranked RP, it’s easy to see that it doesn’t take a genius to know it’s prudent to wait for saves.
I bet somewhere in the Washington wilderness even Harry employs the strategy in his Sasquatch keeper league.