- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Entering Thursday, there was only one relief pitcher being selected ahead of Cincinnati Reds lefty Aroldis Chapman in ESPN standard drafts. Unfortunately, this will change now that Chapman is likely out until mid-May at least after a scary incident Wednesday night when a line drive off the bat of Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez struck him in the face. While our first thoughts should always be about the player and his health, of course there are fantasy implications. Chapman has facial fractures in his nose and near his left eye, and surgery to insert a metal plate is pending.
While there’s little reason to be concerned with how the electric Chapman performs once he returns to active duty, the fact is he could miss one-third of the season -- or perhaps more -- and that is a big deal. Again, we all want him healthy and thriving, and that’s the first concern, but 6-to-8 weeks is quite a while in a season that lasts perhaps 24 weeks at the most, depending on your league rules and format. While I am certainly not the fellow that selects one of the top closers in the first place -- along with catchers and one-dimensional stolen base guys -- in the top 100 overall, this news does push Chapman down the rankings quite a bit, and there’s always inherent risk in the unknown timetables for injured folks as opposed to safer, healthier choices.
Let’s play a name game! For now Chapman must drop outside my top 10 closers, after not only Craig Kimbrel, Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Kenley Jansen and Royals right-hander Greg Holland -- the so-called former big four, if you will -- but also St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Trevor Rosenthal, Detroit Tigers right-hander Joe Nathan, Boston Red Sox right-hander Koji Uehara, San Francisco Giants right-hander Sergio Romo, Minnesota Twins lefty Glen Perkins, New York Yankees right-hander David Robertson and even Oakland Athletics right-hander Jim Johnson. For now, assuming the timetable does not change, I’m comfortable drafting Chapman 11th, better than Pennsylvania right-handers Jonathan Papelbon and Jason Grilli, Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Addison Reed, Washington Nationals right-hander Rafael Soriano and all the rest. Put simply, while I have concerns about Chapman, the same goes for those pitchers as well.
After all, Chapman led all relief pitchers with 112 strikeouts last season, and he was seventh among relief pitchers on the ESPN Fantasy Player Rater. Seven pitchers accrued more saves. If, in the best-case scenario, we give Chapman a bit more than four-plus months of action, he’s still capable of fanning more hitters than most closers, and saving double-digit games in any month. Plus, you get two months prior to his return of a roster spot to do what you wish, adding a starting pitcher or fill-in closer. We’ll get to the Reds, but few are selecting Houston Astros closer Chad Qualls, and situations with the Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles remain problematic, while most people are choosing the wrong Colorado Rockies ninth-inning option (though that could/should change). So fantasy owners should still select Chapman, but instead of the fifth or sixth round, more like the 11th or 12th round. The Reds had talked of using him in more high-leverage scenarios, longer outings, and this could remain the case later on. It’s intriguing.
While most people are assuming former Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton is the fill-in, I don’t think he’s even going to be on the active roster in two weeks. Broxton, 29, underwent offseason elbow surgery and just tossed his first spring training inning earlier this week. He needs to build up arm strength and find his command, neither of which will be a given in two weeks. Lefty Sean Marshall has a bit of closing experience, but his throwing shoulder isn’t 100 percent after a truncated 2013 campaign. Frankly, it looks to me like right-hander J.J. Hoover gets the first shot to close. He pitched well in 2013 and perhaps more importantly, he’s healthy! Hoover’s been walking hitters this spring, but the stats aren’t too relevant. The team knows if he’s throwing well. I’d like to see what Nick Christiani could do, but certainly Hoover is more proven. Sam LeCure is also in play.
Then again, let’s just say no matter how well Hoover or anyone performs in the role, there’s no controversy when Chapman is healthy. Every save counts, though, so consider Hoover in the final round or two, where you would the Texas/Baltimore options, Qualls and the sleeper setup men like Joaquin Benoit, Danny Farquhar and Cody Allen.