Free-agent frenzy: Claim closers

BY John Halpin • April 12, 2011

I was thinking about including Tampa Bay outfielder Sam Fuld (owned in 0.7 percent of leagues) in this week’s edition.

But after he nearly hit for the cycle on Monday night, I think it’s obvious that he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for two weeks as a superstar. He has to come back to Earth soon, right? Not that I wouldn’t add Fuld in an AL-only league, but … wow.

And now, without further ado, below are 10 free agents owned in less than 75 percent of leagues, starting with the first player that falls below the threshold. Please note that no players will be repeated within any four-week period.

Jaime Garcia, SP, Arizona (74.2 percent owned)

Garcia was 13-8 with a 2.70 ERA last season, but some good fortune in BABIP and percentage of runners left on base made you think he’d step back in 2011. He still probably will, but an improved strikeout rate and his usual strong ground-ball percentage makes him ownable in any format.

Joel Hanrahan, RP, Pittsburgh (65.5 percent owned)

Hanrahan doesn’t have a track record as an established closer. Neither did Neftali Feliz last season nor did Heath Bell from the year before, and those situations seemed to work out OK. Hanrahan has maintained his excellent career strikeout rate in the early going, while keeping the ball on the ground and not walking anyone. He’s been pumping his fastball in the high 90s, too. Hanrahan has the arsenal to be an excellent closer.

Daniel Hudson, SP, Arizona (45 percent owned)

Hudson was dominant in 11 starts for the D-backs last season. While he won’t post a 1.69 ERA or a 0.84 WHIP again, he should be a solid standard-league starter. Hudson’s 3.46 ERA through a couple of starts is right about where he should end up, and you’ll take that in any format. His K rate is up a bit, too.

Josh Willingham, OF, Oakland (35.9 percent owned)

This year’s edition of Ron Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster – one of the fantasy industry’s best and longest-running publications – tabbed Willingham’s upside as 30 home runs if he stays healthy all season. He’s got three homers in 10 games so far. Who’s buying?

Jordan Walden, RP, Los Angeles Angels (32 percent owned)

The Angels handed Walden the keys to the ninth inning last week after shaky-as-they-come Fernando Rodney induced one early-season heart attack too many. Walden throws as hard as just about anyone. If his control improvements prove to be sustainable, it’s going to be hard for anyone to hit him. There’s a chance that Rodney could get the job back at some point, because of experience, veteran-ness, moxie and other such nonsense. But the bet here is that Walden will be too impressive to move out of the role.

Asdrubal Cabrera, SS, Cleveland (30.7 percent owned)

I liked Cabrera as a breakout candidate last season, but injuries derailed his progress. I dipped my toe in the water with him again this season and … four homers in 10 games? Really, Asdrubal? I know you wanted to make it up to me, but this is above and beyond any reasonable expectation. However, if you’d like to keep your hot streak going, by all means do so. My three fantasy teams that have you as the starting shortstop won’t argue.

Jose Lopez, 2B/3B, Colorado (29.8 percent owned)

Lopez is an interesting case since his homer totals over the last five seasons in Seattle were 10-11-17-25-10. Nobody can get the 25 out of their heads, especially since Lopez is now playing at the Coors Field arcade instead of hitter-hating Safeco Field. Even with Jonathan Herrera around to poach some at-bats, Lopez could slug 20-25 dingers in part-time duty. His dual eligibility is a nice bonus. If he hits enough home runs, you’re not going to care much about his putrid .297 career on-base percentage.

Jim Thome, DH, Minnesota (23.6 percent owned)

With second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka expected to miss six weeks with a broken leg, Michael Cuddyer got the start at second base on Sunday. If you managed the Twins and wanted to use your resources effectively during Nishioka’s absence, you’d play Cuddyer at the keystone, start Jason Kubel in right field, and make Thome the everyday DH. Thome got regular at bats last season after Justin Morneau got hurt and hit 19 home runs from June 28 thru the end of the season. You hate to tie up your DH slot. But if the Twins are going to let Thome swing his Paul Bunyan bat every day for a while, you can make an exception. On Sunday, he hit a 1,754-foot homer at Target Field. Or at least that’s what it looked like.

Alex Avila, C, Detroit (12.9 percent owned)

Avila hit 17 homers between Double A and the majors in 2009 and launched seven longballs in just 294 at-bats with the Tigers in 2010. Last season’s .228 batting average made fantasy owners wary of Avila this spring. But it’s probably better to take a guy who has a chance of improving in that department than a guy you know will hit for a poor average (hello, Miguel Olivo!). Avila has three homers already, and could hit 15-20 without a damaging batting average.

Dexter Fowler, OF, Colorado (7.4 percent owned)

If not for the self-imposed rule of not writing about the same player more than once in a four-week span, there would be a “This Week in Dexter Fowler” section of this article. Fowler is doing just what we expected with six walks, 10 runs scored and a couple of stolen bases in nine games as the Rox’ leadoff hitter. Fowler might hit 10 home runs; he should steal 30 bases; and he’s probably going to score 100 runs. Buy now while you still can.

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