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Fantasy Relief: Is Cook playing with fire?

Michael Hurcomb
Fantasy Writer
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There might be space on the Ryan Cook bandwagon, but I'm hesitant to jump on. His numbers are so astronomically off the charts, it just feels like the bottom has to fall out and the A's will be making a third change at closer at some point this season.

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Bob Melvin is a master of deception. When he removed Brian Fuentes from the closer's role on June 9, the A's manager said he would consider Fuentes, previous closer Grant Balfour and Cook for save opportunities moving forward. It seemed logical that Cook would be the guy to inherit the role since Balfour and Fuentes got their chances, but Melvin said he didn't want to give Cook the full-time gig because he wanted him available to use in other high-leverage situations. Well wouldn't you know, Cook has recorded the last four saves for the A's through Tuesday.

Though he indicated other intentions, you can't really blame Melvin for leaning on Cook, who has a 0.59 ERA and 0.85 WHIP in 28 relief outings. He is also striking out 9.4 batters per nine innings. Those numbers are fine and dandy, but some of Cook's other numbers scare me.

Let's start with his walk rate. Cook is walking 4.9 batters per nine innings. He isn't the first hard-throwing closer to have control problems. Jose Valverde and John Axford are known to have suspect walk rates, yet have been effective overall in their given roles. However, Cook has just a 46.2 percent first-pitch strike rate this season, which puts him in the bottom five in the majors among relievers. Rafael Dolis has the worst (44.6 percent) and he was demoted to the minors after losing his gig as the Cubs' closer, and wouldn't you know two spots behind Cook is Fuentes, who is throwing first-pitch strikes just 48.5 percent of the time.

Another glaring red flag for me is Cook's .134 BABIP, which is well below the norm and his career average as a reliever. When Cook converted to a reliever in the minors in 2011, he had a .245 BABIP at Double-A and a .283 BABIP at Triple-A. Even when he was in the majors last year, he had a .423 BABIP. It seems Cook's luck is bound to run out eventually.

Cook also has an outstanding 92.6 percent strand rate and 10.6 percent line-drive rate this season. The league average for strand rate is 70 percent to 72 percent and line-drive rate is 20 percent. Even when Craig Kimbrel won Rookie of the Year honors in 2011 he had an 80.7 percent strand rate and 15.4 percent line-drive rate.

Lastly, as you might know, FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is a measuring tool of what a player's ERA should look like over a given period and xFIP is calculated the same way but replaces a pitcher's home run total with an estimate of how many homers they should have allowed. Well, Cook's ERA might be 0.59, but his FIP is 2.73 and his xFIP is 4.09, indicating a market correction is likely coming.

If I were a stock broker, you might hear me screaming on the other end of the phone, "Sell! Sell! Sell!"

Closing Time

Each week we'll break down closer situations worthy of further examination ...

Seattle: Like Melvin, Mariners manager Eric Wedge also had a quick change of heart. A week ago he was ready to transition Brandon League back into the closer's role. However, a week later he said he will stick by current closer Tom Wilhelmsen for the time being. But the short-term could very well turn into the long-term for Wilhelmsen. The Mariners could still unload League as the trade deadline nears, and Wilhelmsen's numbers right now don't suggest a dramatic decline is coming. He has a .292 BABIP and his FIP (2.70) is actually lower than his current ERA (3.00). His biggest hurdle might be how he performs at the first sign of adversity. I endorse Fantasy owners in mixed leagues adding Wilhelmsen (owned in 43 percent of leagues) off waivers.

Top non-closers Week 11 (H2H)
Player Points
1. Jose Quintana, RP, White Sox 39
2. Lance Lynn, RP, Cardinals 34
3. Garrett Richards, RP, Angels 33.5
4. Luis Mendoza, RP, Royals 32.5
5. Matt Moore, RP, Rays 31
6. Felix Doubront, RP, Red Sox 29.5
7. Michael Fiers, RP, Brewers 26.5
8. Ronald Belisario, RP, Dodgers 26.5
9. Tim Collins, RP, Royals 22
10. Carlos Villanueva, RP, Blue Jays 20.5

Chicago Cubs: I understand Cubs manager Dale Sveum wanting to solidify roles in his bullpen, but is bringing Carlos Marmol back as the closer going to make him sleep easy at night? Marmol lost the job earlier this season because he had trouble throwing strikes. It's still not like he's a shutdown reliever. In nine appearances since coming off the disabled list in late May, Marmol has walked seven batters and posted a 4.32 ERA in 8 1/3 innings. We are seeing some improvements. He has thrown 58 percent of strikes in his last eight outings, which is up from 54 percent in his first 15 appearances (11 1/3 innings). He's also increased his strikes looking rate from 20 percent to 21 percent in those timeframes, but I wouldn't say Marmol is off the hot seat. It seems if Marmol were to lose the job again, then Sveum might just alternate save chances between James Russell and Shawn Camp.

Minnesota: Speaking of a lefty-righty closer combo that seems to be manager Ron Gardenhire's choice when Matt Capps is sidelined. Gardenhire said after Capps sat this weekend with a sore shoulder that Jared Burton and Glen Perkins would be up for save chances based on matchups. Capps is only sidelined for the short-term, so Gardenhire could always change his mind if it becomes a long-term situation. Perkins would seem to be the favored closer, but if you remember Twins general manager Terry Ryan didn't want to promote Perkins to the closer's role after Joe Nathan signed with the Rangers. Ryan said, "History says you might want to have somebody with experience." Well, Burton closed games in the minors and Perkins didn't, so I wouldn't sleep on Burton if the Twins' need an alternate closer at some point.

Detroit: Phil Coke was called upon for a save Tuesday against the Cardinals after Jose Valverde was unavailable with a wrist injury. Manager Jim Leyland said earlier this year that Coke would be used in save situations if Valverde was unavailable and the matchups called for it. The Tigers were set to face three left-handed hitters in the ninth inning Tuesday, which is why Coke received the call over Joaquin Benoit. Valverde has been diagnosed with a sprained right wrist and hopes to avoid the disabled list. If he has to miss extended time, then Benoit would still likely be the first option for saves, with Coke as the backup closer. Coke is a workhorse in the Tigers' bullpen and it doesn't seem Leyland would want to pigeonhole him into one role.

Milwaukee: John Axford has been off in June. He is 1-2 with an 11.25 ERA, 1.75 WHIP and three blown saves in eight outings. His latest came Tuesday against the Blue Jays, when he surrendered two homers in the ninth inning. Axford has allowed three homers in June after not allowing one in the previous two months. Manager Ron Roenicke can't put his finger on what's troubling Axford, but he backed him as his closer Wednesday. One of Axford's biggest problems is falling behind hitters. He has already issued six walks in eight June innings, and both of his surrendered homers Tuesday came on 3-1 pitches. Perhaps a saving grace for Axford is that setup man Francisco Rodriguez has also had his struggles this season, so his presence isn't forcing Roenicke to make a change. But if Axford's problems persist, then maybe Milwaukee will turn to K-Rod.

Top non-closers Week 11 (Rotisserie)
Player Rank
1. Tim Collins, RP, Royals 17
2. Ronald Belisario, RP, Dodgers 18
3. Carlos Villanueva, RP, Blue Jays 35
4. Chad Durbin, RP, Braves 40
5. Brayan Villarreal, RP, Tigers 54
6. Freddy Garcia, RP, Yankees 55
7. Matt Belisle, RP, Rockies 56
8. Sean Marshall, RP, Reds 60
9. Jamey Wright, RP, Dodgers 61
10. Matt Albers, RP, Red Sox 63

Washington: Drew Storen is expected to return to the major-league roster before the All-Star break, barring any setbacks in his recovery. Storen has been sidelined all season due to April elbow surgery, and the Nationals closer situation had been a carousel of uncertainty before Tyler Clippard brought stability to the role. But as good as Clippard has been, Storen is expected to regain the closer's job once active. Fantasy owners might want to deal Clippard while his Fantasy value is still high.

Pittsburgh: Manager Clint Hurdle hinted over the weekend that it was going to take an impressive offer for the Pirates to deal closer Joel Hanrahan. It makes sense because Hanrahan isn't slated to become a free agent until after the 2013 season, so the Pirates don't have to rush into a trade this summer. But if something did transpire with Hanrahan, then Juan Cruz, who filled in as closer earlier this season when Hanrahan was unavailable, would the logical choice to ascend to the closer's role. Unless, the Pirates unload him in a trade since he's set to become a free agent this offseason. Then, the next likely choice would be Jason Grilli, who is enjoying a career resurgence.

Call to the 'pen

Each week we'll break down pertinent Fantasy news with setup men and other relievers ...

Hisashi Iwakuma is moving up the Mariners' bullpen ladder. Manager Eric Wedge said Sunday that Iwakuma will be used more frequently in setup situations. Iwakuma has mostly pitched in losses or blowout wins this year. Iwakuma might soon be worth adding in leagues that reward for holds ... Kris Medlen's performance in the minors as a starter was less-than-spectacular, so Atlanta added him back to the bullpen last week. However, an injury to starter Brandon Beachy could mean the Braves reconsider adding Medlen to the rotation, especially if Jair Jurrjens bombs in his return to the majors ... Yankees manager Joe Girardi is comfortable using Boone Logan as a left-handed setup man. Since May 11, Logan has a 2.25 ERA, 18 strikeouts, seven holds, one win and one save in his last 18 appearances (12 innings). Logan is developing into a viable Fantasy reliever in leagues that reward for holds ... It's been a bumpy ride the last few years for Dodgers reliever Ronald Belisario. He missed last season because of visa issues and missed the start of the 2012 season while serving a 25-game suspension for a positive drug test. But now that Belisario's off-the-field issues are behind him, he's been one of the more steady arms in the Dodgers' bullpen. Belisario is 3-0 with a 1.25 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in his first 21 2/3 innings this season. He also has six holds. Belisario has been getting late-inning work and seems to be an alternate setup man to Josh Lindblom. Belisario has emerged as a low-end Fantasy option for holds ... The Orioles bullpen has been outstanding in 2012, and 34-year-old veteran reliever Luis Ayala has played a huge part in the bullpen's resurgence. Ayala is 2-1 with a 1.74 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, one save and six holds in 27 outings. He also has walked just five batters in 31 innings. Ayala pitches in multiple situations for the O's and is even used in multi-inning situations, so he doesn't see a steady diet of hold situations. Ayala remains a very low-end Fantasy reliever.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Michael Hurcomb at @CBSHurc . You can also send our staff an e-mail at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com

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Player News
Blue Jays LHP Mark Buehrle said he'll make first start April 10
(6:35 pm ET) Blue Jays pitcher Mark Buehrle said he will make his first start of the season April 10 in Baltimore, reports MLB.com.

The Blue Jays have not yet officially announced their rotation but it is expected they'll go in the order of: Drew Hutchison, R.A. Dickey, Daniel Norris, Buehrle and Aaron Sanchez.

"Doesn't matter to me," Buehrle said when asked if he had a preference. "I'm going to get 33 starts in by the end of the year, so it doesn't matter."

The left hander has started three games this spring, posing a 2.45 ERA in 9 2/3 innings.

Rangers' Jake Smolinski could be unexpected Opening Day left fielder
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(6:21 pm ET) Prior to spring training Jake Smolinski was not on anybody's radar, but a strong camp has put the outfielder in strong contention to be the Rangers' Opening Day left fielder, according to MLB.com.

Smolinski is hitting .333 this spring, with a home run, four doubles and a triple in 39 at-bats.

"I had some setbacks early in my career, some serious injuries," Smolinski said. "I battled back, struggled in the minors but just stuck with it and continued to get better."

Smolinski did get a Double-A call up last season, hitting .389 in 11 games, but broke a bone fouling a pitch off his left foot and missed two months.


Mets' Matt Reynolds could start at second if Daniel Murphy isn't ready
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(6:20 pm ET) Mets middle infielder Matt Reynolds may get the nod at second base if regular starter Daniel Murphy is not healthy enough to play on Opening Day, reports MLB.com.

Reynolds, who spent most of last season in Triple-A, is hitting .381 in 42 spring training at-bats, making the decision tough for manager Terry Collins.

"He's a baseball player -- everybody keeps saying that about him, but that's what he is," Collins said. "He handles the bat, he runs the bases, he does a lot of little things right. But Danny Muno's a dangerous bat -- I'll tell you what, he can get a hit. And the other kid, Ruben, he's played there. He's played there under the bright lights and been very successful. So we've got a lot of options."

Murphy is still recovering from a hamstring injury and is uncertain for Opening Day.


Braves third baseman Chris Johnson making adjustments at the plate
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(6:06 pm ET) Braves third baseman Chris Johnson needed to make some slight adjustments to his swing at the plate to get things on the right track, reports MLB.com. Johnson, who struggled early in camp with a 4 for 30 stretch, has now hit two home runs in the last four days.

"It was not easy during the first couple weeks of games," said Johnson. "I struggled, and it was hard for me mentally. I'm a results-oriented kind of guy. So, it was tough for me. Being able to stick with it and then see results is a lot of fun."

After he realized he needed to lower his hands at the plate, Johnson improved his reaction time and is able to pull the ball better.

"Pulling the ball is good for me because the book on me is to pitch me [inside] and not allow me to go to right field," Johnson said. "The new approach and [placement of my hands] is allowing me to get [opposing pitchers] out of there. Then when they go [outside], I'll be able to do what I want to do."


Astros pitcher Scott Feldman struggles with command Sunday
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(6:00 pm ET) Astros pitcher Scott Feldman surrendered three runs on seven hits with two walks in 4 1/3 innings pitched against the Yankees Sunday. Feldman needed 83 pitches to get through the outing and most concerned with his pitch location, reports the Houston Chronicle.

"I want to get my command better before the season starts," Feldman said. "It's just a progression, trying to just set the foundation here and take it into the season."

Feldman was taken to deep right field in the third for his first run by Chase Headley.

"Headley is a good hitter," said Feldman, who will start the second game of the season. "I kind of just got it into the happy zone for him, and he put a good swing on it."


Dodgers' Dustin McGowan pitches back-to-back days
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(5:56 pm ET) Dodgers pitcher Dustin McGowan threw 19 pitches in a minor-league game Sunday, and it was the first time this spring he has pitched on back-to-back days, MLB.com reports.

"Haven't felt this good since I was completely healthy -- a long time ago," McGowan said Sunday. "Knock on wood."

McGowan has dealt with shoulder issues throughout his career while also undergoing Tommy John surgery once. He's given up six runs in eight innings while competing for a bullpen role.

"I don't think he's comfortable yet," Mattingly said. "We've seen some good sliders, offspeed [pitches], but I don't think he feels as consistent, throwing the ball where he wants. It's spring training and a new organization factors with him. That makes the situation tougher to figure out."

McGowan will receive a $1 million bonus if he spends one day on the active roster this year, due to the terms of his contract. He is out of minor-league options and must clear waivers before being sent down.


Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo shows defensive prowess Sunday
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(5:56 pm ET) Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo continues to show manager John Farrell why he should be in consideration for a starting job this season. Castillo made two outstanding plays in right field Sunday, reaching foul territory to make a catch and catching a runner at home with a strike from the outfield, reports MLB.com.

"It turned out to be a good play," said Castillo. "I'm always kind of anticipating that kind of thing to happen. When you have a man on third in a big situation, you hope you can make a play like that and execute it. Fortunately it went our way."

Castillo provides Farrell exactly what he needs in the outfield: flexibility.

"I don't know that you can make a play better than the one he made -- diving play in foul territory, he gets up, sets his feet, and then he throws a 150-foot strike," said Farrell. "A dynamic player, when you consider the skill set that he has. If there was any question on whether he could play right field, he's certainly answering those for us in camp here."


Brewers' Roenicke, Aramis Ramirez to discuss plan to stay 'strong'
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(5:51 pm ET) Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez plans to meet with manager Ron Roenicke Sunday to discuss different ways to keep the veteran "strong" through scheduled off-days and playing-time considerations, MLB.com reports.

"I think that's really important to try to get the most out of him and make sure we keep him on the field, strong and productive," Roenicke said. "How do we do it? We adjust to it as the season goes along. But how do we come up with some kind of a plan to give him his days [off]? Not when he needs it, but days to make sure that he stays strong."

Ramirez has hit .241/.353/.310 in 29 spring at-bats. He's likely to retire at the end of the season.


Twins outright pitcher Stephen Pryor to Triple-A, clear roster spot
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(5:45 pm ET) The Twins have decided to outright pitcher Stephen Pryor to Triple-A Rochester and cleared a spot on the 40-man roster, according to 1500 ESPN.

Pryor was optioned to Triple-A earlier in the week, but the team decided to outright him and open up a second roster spot on the 40-man squad. Pryor posted a 1.50 ERA in five spring training appearances.


Rangers 2B Rougned Odor day-to-day with bruised shin
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(5:40 pm ET) Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor is day-to-day due to a bruised left shin, the team announced.

Odor struck out in his only at-bat Sunday before coming out of the game. He has hit .394/.429/.606 in 33 spring at-bats.


 
 
 
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