September Song   (09/14/00)

So, you're out of the race in your fantasy baseball league.  There won't be any prize checks in your mailbox this fall.  You've already started scanning the waiver wire for 3rd string wide receivers for your fantasy football league.  Well, if you are in a keeper league, this is a big mistake.  A smart September is often the launching pad for a championship effort.  You could be missing out on some cheap pickups who will give you a head start for next year.  And even if you're not in a keeper league, September games can offer a great deal of insight as to what to expect next season.

The key to winning any auction-based fantasy sport is getting more production than what you paid for.  It doesn't matter if you end up getting  Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey Jr, Jeff Bagwell and Greg Maddux on your team - unless you get some other guys at below their production value, you're not gonna win.

In fantasy baseball, no class of player is more expensive - or more volatile - than the closer.  This year, the average closer went for nearly $30 in the draft.  If you paid big bucks to get Billy Wagner, Ugueth Urbina, Bobby Howry, Scott Williamson, Matt Mantei, Wayne Gomes or Mike Timlin, you were sorely disappointed.  All of them fell well below expectations, either due to injury or losing their jobs.  Guys like Jason Isringhausen and Keith Foulke, on the other hand, who went for less than half of what the established closers went for, rewarded their owners with big years in saves

Was there any way to predict that Isringhausen and Foulke were going to assume the closer roles this year?  Oh yeah.  For one, in spring training their managers stated that they were inclined to consider them in the closing role.  Of course, their managers knew reason #2: that they performed very well the previous September closing out games.

Foulke's ERA in August and September last year was 1.61.  In 39 innings, Foulke allowed only 21 hits and 8 walks while striking out 47 batters.  Numbers like those have closer written all over them.  Isringhausen has a similar story - his August/September ERA was 2.16.  In 25.1 innings of work, he allowed 21 hits and 12 walks while striking out 20.

This year, there are several candidates in the NL

Don Baylor has anointed Kyle Farnsworth as the Cubs' closer for the rest of the year.  So far this August and September he seems like a great candidate to continue in the role next year.  Since August 15, he has pitched 17 2/3 innings and allowed only 5 earned runs (2.55 ERA) and 21 baserunners (14 hits, 7 walks) while striking out 22 batters.  With his high-90's gas, solid cutter and serviceable slider, his skills seem more suited to closer than starter.  Todd Van Poppel found his niche in the Cubs' bullpen after years of struggling as a starter.  Farnsworth, who's experienced similar struggles, might become a revelation there.

When he was in Pittsburgh, scouts and managers always thought Jason Christiansen had closer's stuff.  But for various reasons, he was never given much of an opportunity to show what he could do, as Rich Loiselle, then Mike Williams were given the role.  Now he's in St. Louis after a mid-summer trade, where there have been questions about the long term effectiveness of Dave Veres.  Veres has a great split finger pitch, but a very mediocre fastball.  And while his overall numbers look reasonably good, Veres has struggled in September (5.14 ERA) as batters have learned to lay off his offspeed pitch and wait for the fastball.  Should his troubles continue, the Cards will look for another answer.  Enter Christiansen, who, after a horrendous struggle with shoulder tendonitis, has regained his early season form in which he had a 1.86 ERA entering June.  Since his return on August 15, he has thrown 5.1 shutout innings, allowing just 4 hits, walking none and striking out 7.  His recent performance should garner a closer look for the closer role from LaRussa's crew very soon.

In Pittsburgh, Mike Williams hasn't lost the job yet, but he hasn't exactly been lights out in the 9th either.  His ERA since the All-Star break is 5.55 and he's allowed 32 baserunners in just 24 1/3 innings.  Meanwhile, lefty set-up man Scott Sauerbeck has quietly posted a 2.87 ERA in 31 1/3 innings, walking 11 and striking out 34.  If Williams doesn't turn things around soon, he'll be setting up Sauerbeck next year.

While injuries can't be predicted, breakout performances can be to a reasonably high degree.  If you're serious about making a run at the title next year, now is the time to begin preparing.  Take a close look at what's going on this September, at who's showing signs of making a big splash next year, and you'll be predicting your own breakout season.  Ignore it, and you could again be looking for 3rd string wide receivers instead of checks in the mail next September.