Saving steals: Claim Francisco

To say that the first three weeks of the 2011 Major League Baseball season have been interesting would be a huge understatement.

The Cleveland Indians sit atop the AL Central. There is a four-way tie for first place in the NL Central. Jered Weaver and Dan Haren are carrying Mike Scoiscia’s Angels, and the Rockies have recorded a 13-5 record despite Carlos Gonzalez’s struggles. I won’t even get into the Red Sox, White Sox or Twins in this spot.

This time out, I’m scouring the bullpens and basepaths to find value on the waiver wire. The closer carousel has been active just three weeks in, with a number of managers already tinkering with their winning formulas. Owners are trying to be proactive to find the next breakout star.

On the basepaths, a number of new specialists have emerged to offer one-category boosts.

Let’s start in St. Louis.

Changing Bullpens

Mitchell Boggs, St. Louis

The Cardinals played their bullpen situation close to the vest. Ryan Franklin failed to convert four saves in the season’s first three weeks (he saved all but two opportunities last season), thereby opening the door for a change. Boggs earned the first call from Tony LaRussa and pitched one scoreless inning to earn his first save. Boggs has struck out 13 batters in 10 innings pitched against three walks. He’s pitched seven shutout innings in his past six appearances.

Veteran Miguel Batista is also on the radar for save opportunities. He doesn’t throw the smoke that Boggs or Jason Motte do, but he has been in the role before (41 career saves). Boggs is the pickup for the moment, but I’m not sure that LaRussa and Dave Duncan don’t work a committee for a while.

Sergio Santos, Chicago White Sox

The White Sox would actually have to be in the lead in the ninth inning to find out if Ozzie Guillen shifts away from struggling closer Matt Thornton. Santos has pitched 8 2/3 scoreless innings with 11 strikeouts this season. He’s a solid addition to your bullpen for the brilliant peripherals, but save opportunities might be forthcoming.

 

Drew Storen, Washington

Storen was the presumptive closer coming into spring training, but opened the season as the setup man to Sean Burnett. Following his fantastic start, Storen’s role appears to be shifting. He’s recorded saves in back-to-back appearances and hasn’t allowed an earned run in his past nine appearances (he allowed a solo home run in his season debut).

Koji Uehara, Baltimore

Save opportunities have been sparse for Kevin Gregg, but his control issues certainly don’t inspire Buck Schowalter. He’s allowed three earned runs with six strikeouts and a 2.00 WHIP in six innings pitched.

Uehara was slowed this spring because of elbow issues, but he’s now sound and ready to pick up a bigger role. He pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings in his first five appearances before surrendering a run on two hits and a walk on Wednesday night. Uehara pitched to a strong 2.86 ERA with a sub-1.00 WHIP (0.95) while striking out 11.25 batters per nine innings last season.

Kameron Loe, Milwaukee

John Axford imploded in his first save opportunity this season. It appeared that he’d started to turn things around, but Axford was shaky in his past two appearances, including his second blown save. He’s been much more hittable in the early part of the 2011 season, registering a sizable 8.53 ERA with a 2.21 WHIP through seven appearance.

Cue Loe. Save a terrible outing against the Nationals on April 17, Loe has been fantastic this spring. In his other 10 appearances, Loe has registered a 0.96 ERA with nine strikeouts against two walks.

Frank Francisco, Toronto

Francisco made his first appearance for the Blue Jays on Wednesday night. He promptly served up a home run to Curtis Granderson before striking out two batters with a walk in his inning of work. Francisco figures to share the closer role with Jon Rauch for the short-term, but the Blue Jays acquired him to own that title. Early reports about his injury resulted in his release in a number of leagues. Check the wire to see if an owner in your league was short-sighted.

Get the Green Light

Sam Fuld, OF, Tampa Bay

Fuld has become a folk hero in Tampa. It was supposed to be the spring of Evan Longoria and the rejuvenation of veterans Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon. Ramirez is long gone; Damon had a nice run; and Longoria remains on the disabled list.

He briefly led the American League with a .396 batting average before setting into a 0-for-8 mini-funk against the White Sox. Fuld currently owns a .344 batting average (21-for-61) with five RBI and seven stolen bases in 10 attempts. Unfortunately, you don’t get fantasy love for Fuld diving around in the outfield.

Jarrod Dyson, OF, Kansas City

I know. It’s hard to bang the drum too loudly for an outfielder with a nice, round .000 batting average. However, Dyson has already stolen five bases and is starting to see more playing time. He stole bases in back-to-back games in which he started. He’s 0-for-5 this season with three walks and three strikeouts.

David Murphy, OF, Texas

Murphy represents a sneaky source of speed and, unlike many of those on this list, will offer value in the power categories. He has yet to find his stroke in 2011 (one double and one home run), but he’s batting .325 (13-for-40) with four stolen bases in six attempts. Murphy will receive regular at-bats for the foreseeable future in the power-packed Texas lineup.

Jonathan Herrera, 2B, Colorado

Herrera has demonstrated an exceptional batting eye thus far and takes advantage of his opportunities on the basepaths. He enters Thursday’s play with a .341 batting average (15-for-44) with four stolen bases and 12 walks (.482 on-base percentage).

Michael Brantley, OF, Cleveland

Brantley isn’t going to offer much in the power department, but he’s starting to live up to expectations. He’s hit safely in all but two of his starts this season, producing a .328 batting average (21-for-61) with 10 walks and three stolen bases in four attempts. Brantley has 40-steal speed, and his growth at the plate portends to a fun summer in Cleveland.

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