Closing Time: What to do with ascending players like Adam Ottavino

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/7845/" data-ylk="slk:Chris Iannetta">Chris Iannetta</a> (left) and <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/8736/" data-ylk="slk:Adam Ottavino">Adam Ottavino</a> have much to celebrate thus far in 2018 (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Chris Iannetta (left) and Adam Ottavino have much to celebrate thus far in 2018 (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

For most of his career, Adam Ottavino has been a fun pitcher to talk about, but not always fun pitcher to fantasy-own. He wears No. 0, unusual for any player but especially for a pitcher. His name sounds like you’re out of wine. He’s always had a juicy strikeout rate, but sometimes hasn’t throw consistent strikes (last year he had 63 strikeouts, and 39 walks, over 53.1 innings — and a bloated 5.06 ERA). And who wants a Colorado pitcher, anyway, especially if they’re not closing?

Maybe the rules are different for Ottavino this year. Batters aren’t corking him, that’s for sure. Check out his 10.2 innings of work: 2 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 22 K. Those are wiffle ball stats from the backyard. (He’s also hit two men, but that doesn’t tarnish the old WHIP.)  He’s grabbed three victories; while he’s not closing, he’s seeing leverage work.

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Colorado’s played a road-heavy schedule to this point, though Ottavino has also been dominant in his three home innings (6 K, just one baserunner). As you’d expect, he’s throwing more strikes (and more early strikes) this year, and he’s spiked his swinging strikes. He’s increased his slider usage, and it’s been a knockout pitch for him. 

At this time of the season, I like to mine through the non-closing relievers and try to find some ratio-smoothing heroes. Follow the K/BB numbers. Last year this got us to Brad Peacock and Chad Green, among others. Alas, Ottavino is gone in my leagues already, because I’m ambivalent about any successful Colorado pitcher. Eventually the weather will warm and the Coors schedule will kick in, and I’m worried about a mad correction.

Either way, it’s last call on Ottavino in the shallower formats. He’s currently 46 percent owned in Yahoo. How are you playing this one, gamers? Is Ottavino going to keep cruising along, or will this eventually go sideways?

• The Rays are in for a long rebuilding process, and they’re off to a lousy start this year. But Monday was a happy day for Tampa fans. Blake Snell was brilliant, working into the seventh inning (1 R, 0 BB, 9 K), and the dormant Rays offense finally did something good (eight runs, two homers). For once, it was a laugher at the Trop.

Nonetheless, you look at this Tampa lineup and it hurts your eyes. Kevin Kiermaier (thumb) is expected to miss 2-3 months. Adeiny Hechavarria (.407 OPS) is batting second for some reason. Carlos Gomez is off to a terrible start (.177/.227/.323).

Mallex Smith can’t fix this offense on his own, but maybe it’s time for Tampa’s No. 0 — that’s today’s Sesame Street theme, heroes wearing zero — to take on a featured role.

Smith went 4-for-4 out of the No. 9 slot Monday, upping his slash to .409/.458/.545. He’s off to a wonky start on the bases — two steals, three times caught — but there’s no reason to stop running; this is a cat who stole 88 bases in the minors one season. No one thinks Smith will be the modern day Rickey Henderson, but he does have a .335 career OBP. His playing time is protected now that Kiermaier is hurt. Maybe the Rays will finally give Smith a shot at the top of the order. Hechavarria’s slot is a crime against logic.

While Smith’s average is going to come down, he has the potential to help you there. Eventually this could turn into a three-category player. He’s still available in 72 percent of Yahoo leagues.

• There was plenty of snickering when Matt Davidson and Christian Villanueva shocked the world with early three-homer games. Some of the skeptics basically challenged the crowd: you’re not going to be the sucker who adds those guys, are you?

I’m not going to think that way. When I see plausible upside, I’m willing to fiddle with the back end of my roster. Davidson’s average is under the Mendoza at the moment — some lousy weather hasn’t helped — but he’s also hit two more homers, spiked his walk rate (.365 OBP), and maintained a healthy slugging percentage (.585). I have no problem endorsing him for medium and deep-league play.

Villanueva is striking out a bunch — 17 whiffs in 45 at-bats — but exciting things happen when he makes contact. He’s homered in the last three games, bringing his total to six, and he’s sitting on a .333/.423/.822 slash. Can he be a possible late bloomer at age 27? He showed flashes of a power profile in the minors, and it’s easy to see why couldn’t get anywhere on the Cubs. They already have a pretty good kid at third base.

It’s last call on the Padres slugger. Sometimes it takes a village. He’s especially productive against lefty pitching; improvement against righties might determine how long the fun lasts. Villanueva is currently owned in 47 percent of Yahoo leagues.

• The primary goal when I write Closing Time is to give you something actionable — you already know Bryce Harper is a god — but I can’t ignore the Didi Gregorius start. He’s slashing .327/.446/.796, with five homers (two of them in Monday’s stomp over Miami). He’s completely flipped his contact profile — 12 walks against four strikeouts. This is someone who walked just 44 times the two previous years. I am never going to insist good hitters have to walk, but almost everyone who maintains this sort of BB/K ratio is a great hitter. Gregorius has also grabbed a couple of bases.

The Shuffle Up series won’t start until May, but let’s have some fun. What shortstops would you prefer to Gregorius at this point? Lindor, Correa, Machado, Turner, I won’t debate with those guys. Corey Seager? I side with Gregorius. Alex Bregman? He’s still a spec guy for me. Xander Bogaerts was off to a monster start but now he’s hurt. This is Graduation Day, Gregorius — you’re a Top 5 shortstop until further notice. Baby you’re a big star now. Enjoy the ride.

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