Burke and the value of middle relief

As my colleague Eric Karabell noted earlier this week, the value of quality middle relievers is often overlooked by fantasy players.

My good friend Todd Zola from mastersball.com once published a study showing the viability of deploying multiple middle relievers effectively in single-league formats. The conventional wisdom held that doing so wasn't a wise play in 5X5 leagues, because you'd be putting yourself behind the eight ball in wins and strikeouts, but Todd showed that as many as three middle relievers/set-up men could be used to compete, especially if they averaged around a strikeout per inning. In the absence of decent starting pitching options, it is most definitely a method to consider, as both Eric and Todd attest.

Is the Padres' Greg Burke one of those relievers?

After scuffling at high Class A ball in 2007, posting a 5.23 ERA that was every bit as bad as it looks, Burke had a breakout season at Double-A last year, saving 23 games, striking out 97 and walking 12 in 84 1/3 innings, and posting a 2.24 ERA and 1.10 WHIP.

He pitched in the Arizona Fall League, and there were multiple scouts who weren't that impressed with him, but there were likely reasons for that. He was a little fatigued after a lot of innings during the season, and it caused his fastball command to wander. He also spent a lot of time working on a mid-80s split -- his third pitch -- as opposed to always coming with his best stuff, after living off of his slider during the season.

"I started using it the beginning of the year," Burke said, "but I was doing so well with just fastball/slider that I kind of forgot the third pitch. I was being successful without it, so I just used the other two pitches, but at the end of the year I knew I needed to work on the split for lefties."

He still doesn't throw the split much in game situations now, but he does use it enough to keep lefties honest a bit, so that when the pitch is away it could be a split and not just his fastball.

Burke's fastball is a low-90s two-seamer with sink, eschewing a four-seamer. His slider, which ranges from 82-87 mph, will act either as a true slider or function as more of a cutter when he's not throwing it the way he wants. Call it a happy accident, because his slider can still be effective that way.

"Sometimes I have a little problem getting around a bit on it," Burke said, "but sometimes it pans out for me, as it gets that cut action on lefties when they look for fastball."

Burke does have to make sure he keeps his front side closed to make sure he gets through and stays on top of his breaking ball, but his slow, deliberate delivery has been helping him do that more consistently and we're seeing the results.

He saved seven games in 13 appearances at Triple-A this season before being promoted to the big leagues, where he's fanned more than a batter per inning and walked just three in his first 17 2/3 innings, leading to a 2.55 ERA and 0.96 WHIP entering Sunday.

With Heath Bell pitching lights-out thus far, the ninth inning is locked up for the Padres. However, Burke is a reliever to watch that can have some of that "sneaky" value in NL-only leagues even if he's not getting saves at the moment.

American League

Sean O'Sullivan, SP, Angels: He's a sinker/slider guy who has to rely on pinpoint fastball command to succeed at the big league level. He had the advantage of unfamiliarity in his first start, but as the video and the scouting reports make the rounds he's going to find the going a bit harder, and he may be out of the rotation when Ervin Santana returns. Don't worry about investing FAAB heavily here.

Alfredo Figaro, SP, Tigers: He's a 24-year-old with a four-pitch mix and a low-90s fastball that performed really well in the low minors, though he started having some command issues when he moved to Double-A this season. He did well enough to get a call to the big leagues and acquitted himself well in his debut, although he had to pitch his way out of some jams. If he continues to be prone to leaving the ball up, he's going to have some problems down the road. Still, he may be worth a flier in deep AL-only leagues if you need more starting pitching.

Mike Carp, 1B, Mariners: I wrote Carp up on Friday. It's possible the injury to Endy Chavez could give Carp a little time in left, but probably not.

Jeremy Accardo, RP, Blue Jays: He recorded a save in his first game back in the big leagues, and don't be so quick to hand the Jays' ninth-inning role to Jason Frasor while Scott Downs is out. Accardo saved 30 games in 2007 before a forearm injury shelved him last season. If you're scrounging for saves, here's a good candidate.

Mike Gosling, RP, Indians: He's a lefty long reliever that shouldn't be anywhere near your fantasy team.

Dusty Ryan, C, Tigers: Ryan was swinging a hot bat at Triple-A after a very slow start, with an OPS better than .850 over the past two months and will get some occasional starts at catcher in place of Gerald Laird because Laird is slugging just .324. The Tigers are trying to shake up their offense, and Ryan could be the beneficiary of more at-bats than expected.

Chris Woodward, IF, Mariners: Woodward is just up to provide infield depth while Jose Lopez is on bereavement leave, and he'll go back down when Lopez returns.

Brad Mills, SP, Blue Jays: I profiled Mills extensively earlier in the season. He had some rough numbers at Triple-A, but Las Vegas is not a good pitching environment for his game at all. He's a mild sleeper in AL-only leagues if he stays in the rotation.

Jason Pridie, OF, Twins: Pridie will serve as outfield depth until Denard Span returns, which is likely the end of next week. He has a little speed, but that's about it.

Rafael Rodriguez, RP, Angels: He's just another middle relief arm that shouldn't have any fantasy value.

Russ Adams, SS, Blue Jays: Adams will be a backup in the middle infield. The former first-round pick was a starter for a season and a half in 2005-2006, but lost his job because he didn't hit, and has seen just 60 major league at-bats since. His bat has just never come around, and it shouldn't be any different in this big league stint.

National League

Kyle Blanks, 1B/LF, Padres: I profiled Blanks on Friday. With the recent roster turnover the Padres have had, and their woes hitting against left-handed pitching, Blanks may have a chance to stick around longer than first expected.

Danny Richar, 2B, Reds: He'll serve in a utility role with Alex Gonzalez on the disabled list, but doesn't really bring anything to the table offensively.

Juan Rincon, RP, Rockies: He was a money set-up man for a four-year stretch between 2003 and 2006 and a perfect example of the value of a reliever that's not closing, but hasn't been effective since that time and we have no reason to expect this stint in Coors Field to be any different.

James McDonald, SP, Dodgers: He performed well at Triple-A after his demotion, doing a better job of throwing strikes. His short-term value is limited, as the Dodgers have three pitchers on the disabled list who are expected to return soon, but he could have some NL-only value in the second half of the season if things break right. If he's out there in the free-agent pool and you have some room, he could be worth stashing away.

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