Street, Francisco, Rauch carry risks
Tuesday brought changes to two American League teams' bullpens.
So, naturally, it follows that Wednesday brought changes to two National League teams' bullpens.
Continuing with these winter meetings' theme of closers changing teams, both the New York Mets and San Diego Padres have new finishers: The Mets signed ex-Toronto Blue Jays relievers Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch late Tuesday night, and the Padres acquired Huston Street from the Colorado Rockies for a player to be named later.
Street is the most notable fantasy name, and he'll garner instant headlines for our purposes because of the substantial change in ballpark effects going from Coors Field to Petco Park. Last season, for instance, Coors ranked the second-most favorable ballpark in terms of runs scores, Petco 28th. Pitchers managed a combined 2.91 ERA at Petco in 2011, second lowest in the majors; their collective 4.89 ERA at Coors was the third-worst number in the game.
Street's own splits demonstrate how substantial the impact: He had a 5.59 ERA and 1.41 WHIP in his 32 games at Coors last season, but 2.15/1.02 numbers in 30 road appearances. In his career at Coors, he has a 4.11 ERA in 97 games. In 320 games everywhere else, his ERA is 2.83. (You might also enjoy learning that he has a 0.00 ERA -- only two unearned runs allowed -- in 11 1/3 career innings at Petco, though of course that's a minuscule, mostly irrelevant sample size.)
That's good news for a pitcher like Street, whose strikeout rate has begun to dip, and who has been no stranger to the disabled list. Moving to Petco might slow any statistical regression, to the point that, health willing, he might even have a top-10 season among fantasy closers in 2012. But he's not without risk: His 8.49 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio in 2011 was a career low. He allowed a .289 well-hit average -- the percentage of his at-bats judged as having ended in hard contact -- which was the fifth-worst number among pitchers who faced at least 200 batters. And he has made disabled-list trips in back-to-back seasons, totaling 104 days.
Fantasy owners who prefer to fill the saves column on the cheap might be OK gambling on Street in the middle rounds, though he'll almost assuredly be a sell-high candidate every step of the way. Besides the health risk, there's another possibility to consider: that the Padres might look to trade him midseason if he begins hot, meaning he'd lose the advantage of his cavernous new home ballpark.
Back in Colorado, Street's departure is good news for Rafael Betancourt, the Rockies' closer for the final seven weeks of 2011, who now takes over as the team's unquestioned top option in the ninth inning. From the date of Betancourt's first save -- on Aug. 9 -- he was 8-for-9 in save chances with a 0.56 ERA, 0.19 WHIP and 17 K's compared with zero walks in 16 appearances. Brief as his stint was, it was evidence that he could indeed thrive in the role, and that he has a 3.14 ERA and 0.97 WHIP in 94 career games at Coors as a Rockie shows that the ballpark shouldn't be a hindrance. Betancourt's numbers hint at value high in the second tier of fantasy closers; he might finish in the low teens at the position, perhaps higher, though he'll likely come at a noticeably lower price.
Speaking of poor well-hit averages, we turn to Rauch, the Mets' first bullpen addition of Tuesday night. He actually had the 10th-worst mark in the category (.279) among those who faced 200-plus batters, not to mention a 4.85 ERA, the fourth-worst mark among relievers with 50-plus innings. He and Francisco shared the closer role for the Blue Jays in 2011, when their bullpen finished among the 10 worst in baseball in most every statistical category.
But as was the case in Toronto, Francisco should be the favorite to close for the Mets, health willing. Remember, he has made trips to the DL in each of the past three seasons, for a total of five stints of 103 days. When healthy, he's actually capable of second-tier closer numbers; he did go 7-for-7 in save chances with a 1.37 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 8.20 K's-per-nine ratio in 25 appearances after the All-Star break last season. If you're speculating today -- in early December -- on the Mets' leader in saves, Francisco is your man, Rauch merely a handcuff candidate. (And the Blue Jays have already found their closer replacement by acquiring Sergio Santos from the Chicago White Sox earlier this week.)
Gaudy saves totals for either, however, seem unlikely. Browsing the rosters of the Mets' division foes indicates that they might be the favorites for last place. This was, after all, a team that won only 77 games a year ago, has since lost Jose Reyes, and hasn't made waves in terms of restocking its roster this winter. If the Mets win 65-70 games, the Francisco-Rauch tandem could save 35, albeit with an ERA in the threes. If the Mets win 60 or fewer, however, history shows that their save totals will suffer.
Mets swap leadoff hitters
Only a day after losing their 2011 leadoff man, Reyes, the Mets shipped Reyes' projected leadoff replacement, Angel Pagan, to the San Francisco Giants in exchange for Andres Torres and Ramon Ramirez. Ramirez, linking to the closer chatter above, immediately takes over as a setup man, and in fact is the much smarter choice to bolster your ERA/WHIP in NL-only leagues than Rauch.
Torres, meanwhile, is actually a downgrade from Pagan at leadoff. Coming off a breakout 2010, at the age of 32, Torres regressed considerably last season, managing .221/.312/.330 numbers; his on-base percentage was 10 points lower than Pagan's, and both are coming off down years by their standards. In fact, Torres' numbers dipped to .214/.299/.286 after the All-Star break last season, meaning the Mets must be hoping that a change of scenery might do him some good.
In Torres' defense, leg issues -- an Achilles injury that landed him on the DL in April and a leg contusion that resulted in an August DL stint -- bothered him for a noticeable amount of time, so perhaps the winter's rest will help. It's also a plus that Fernando Martinez, considered the Mets' most major league-ready outfield prospect, appears to no longer be an option in center field, having shifted to the corners last season. Torres should get regular at-bats out of the leadoff spot, but there's only one thing fantasy owners can count on: that at least he'll provide you some runs occupying that role, which helps in NL-only leagues.
Pagan's value scarcely changes in San Francisco, as he'll probably take over in center field, shifting fellow winter acquisition Melky Cabrera to left. Pagan, at least, offers a bit more promise of a rebound. He stole 32 bases in a down 2011, 16th in the majors, and he finished the season with .297/.343/.422 rates in 46 games after Aug. 1, eerily similar to those of his breakout 2010. He's more likely to be of help in NL-only than shallow mixed leagues, but don't be too quick to write him off as a one-year wonder.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.
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