Commentary

Relief Efforts: Closers with biggest value swings this season

Updated: May 7, 2008, 2:14 PM ET
By Eric Karabell | ESPN.com

Sometimes it's hard to believe major league managers know what's going to happen with their bullpen from one week to the next. In the fantasy baseball world, as a way of cautioning you to not overdraft closers and play waiver-wire bingo when the jobs change, we say that bullpen strategies change all the time.

We've gone through more than a month of weekly Relief Efforts columns, and already quite a few important things have changed. One by one, some of the better closers have dealt with injuries, while others have been ineffective and lost their jobs. It's not all negative, of course. Look at the current saves leaderboard: It's not filled with the typical names. Then again, it rarely seems to be.

Before we get to the normal meat and potatoes of Relief Efforts, let's highlight the pitchers who have seen their value affected the most since the season started, and reflect on what these fluctuations mean moving forward. You can see our staff rankings here, and no, they don't match those on the right side of this column. But they're not too far off, either.

Added Value

George Sherrill, Orioles: Just barely in our top 30 to start the season, Baltimore's closer saved 10 games in April alone, and is (obviously) on pace for 60. Sherrill is a 31-year-old lefty, enjoying his Eddie Guardado-like path of earning saves for the first time later in life. Why can't he keep this going? The Orioles don't figure to win as much as they lose, but they have created a lot of save chances, and they don't seem in any hurry to audition a young right-hander for the role.

Joakim Soria
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesJoakim Soria is proving that the top closers aren't always on contenders.
Joakim Soria, Royals: It's not that we wondered if the guy was any good or not, but his numbers are just silly. In 13 innings, Soria has allowed only three hits and one measly walk while striking out 15. The Royals, like the Orioles, aren't close to contenders, but when they win, they generally don't win 10-5, either. There were rumblings in the spring about Kansas City turning Soria into a starting pitcher, and who knows, crazier things have happened. For now, he is a top-10 closer.

B.J. Ryan, Blue Jays: Initially, I wasn't a believer. Tommy John surgery is hardly a death sentence for pitchers, but how could we have believed the Jays' thinking that this guy would not only return in less than a year, but return effectively as well? Ryan isn't completely out of the woods yet, but it's a good sign that the team isn't scared of using him on consecutive days anymore. At the same time, the preseason sleeper value of Jeremy Accardo isn't totally squashed, but don't expect him to find his way into too many save opportunities from here on out.

Brandon Lyon, Diamondbacks: The best team in baseball through April, Arizona was also the league's highest-scoring, but the D-backs still managed to get their closer 11 save opportunities, nine of which he converted. Lyon has a sub-1.00 WHIP. I saw 30 saves coming his way, but for him to have these peripherals is a nice surprise. He hasn't made the top setup men on his team irrelevant, but many of you have probably punted Tony Pena by now.

Lost Value

Manuel Corpas, Rockies: One closer's loss is another one's gain, and we saw the Rockies switch things up the other way last summer. They could do it again. Corpas had a 2.08 ERA a year ago and was drafted among the top 10 closers in some leagues this year. His current WHIP is 1.98, and he's walked more hitters than he's fanned, so don't look for him to replace Brian Fuentes anytime soon. As for Fuentes, he's closed before, and once one has this skill on a resume, one never loses it. Fuentes could keep this job, but even if he loses it, it doesn't appear Corpas is next in line anymore.

J.J. Putz
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesJ.J. Putz has been one of the biggest relief busts so far this season.
J.J. Putz, Mariners: The top closer from 2007 was also, along with Boston's Jonathan Papelbon, a consensus top choice in drafts for this season. Putz saved Opening Day, gave up a two-run home run to Texas's Josh Hamilton the next night, and then he was gone for three weeks with rib cage inflammation. Putz is back now but is having control issues, and he's Exhibit A for the rule that no matter how good a closer is in one season, there are no guarantees for the next. Putz probably will be just fine, but he's unlikely to regain the top spot among closers anytime soon. That reality repesents lost value since the draft.

Rafael Soriano, Braves: How could so many people be so fooled by his health issues? In 2007, he was one of those guys everyone wanted to see close, while veteran Bob Wickman held onto the job a few months longer than he should have, posing as the NL version of Joe Borowski, if you will. Borowski, however, held onto his job. Wickman got released, so Soriano got his chance and thrived. Health has always been an issue for Soriano, however, and after four appearances, he was out with elbow tendinitis. He should come back at some point, but the fact he's still feeling discomfort during his DL stint is not a good sign. A worse sign for his closing chances is that John Smoltz probably will come off the DL first and slip right into Soriano's role. Even if Smoltz struggles -- which by my ranking below, I doubt -- Mike Gonzalez might move ahead of Soriano in the pecking order for saves.

Chad Cordero, Nationals: A year ago, there were troubling signs in Cordero's splits -- mainly that right-handed hitters couldn't wait to face him -- and leaving the large RFK Stadium for Nationals Park was certain to be a negative because Cordero had allowed 38 home runs in his first four full seasons. Who knew he was hurt, though? The Nats really wanted to see Cordero have a good performance before the All-Star break so they could deal him for whatever prospects the Yankees or some other contender had left. Now that scenario seems very unlikely because Cordero tore a lat muscle and is unlikely to pitch again until June. Jon Rauch was arguably better than Cordero the past two seasons anyway, and he should hold on to this closer job for 30 saves.

And now, like every week, on to the rest of the ample news coming from major league bullpens-- slanted for fantasy purposes, of course.

Buying low

Reliever Rankings

Dominant, healthy Brad Lidge enters the top 10.

1. Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox
2. Francisco Rodriguez, Angels
3. Joe Nathan, Twins
4. Mariano Rivera, Yankees
5. Billy Wagner, Mets
6. J.J. Putz, Mariners
7. Bobby Jenks, White Sox
8. Takashi Saito, Dodgers
9. Brad Lidge, Phillies
10. Joakim Soria, Royals
11. Brandon Lyon, Diamondbacks
12. Jason Isringhausen, Cardinals
13. Jose Valverde, Astros
14. Huston Street, Athletics
15. Francisco Cordero, Reds
16. Matt Capps, Pirates
17. George Sherrill, Orioles
18. Trevor Hoffman, Padres
19. Todd Jones, Tigers
20. Brian Wilson, Giants
21. Kevin Gregg, Marlins
22. B.J. Ryan, Blue Jays
23. Kerry Wood, Cubs
24. Troy Percival, Rays
25. Jon Rauch, Nationals
26. C.J. Wilson, Rangers
27. Brian Fuentes, Rockies
28. Eric Gagne, Brewers
29. Carlos Marmol, Cubs
30. Rafael Betancourt, Indians
31. John Smoltz, Braves
32. Joba Chamberlain, Yankees
33. Santiago Casilla, Athletics
34. Joe Borowski, Indians
35. Hideki Okajima, Red Sox
36. Tony Pena, Diamondbacks
37. Manny Acosta, Braves
38. Rafael Soriano, Braves
39. Scot Shields, Angels
40. Salomon Torres, Brewers
Joe Borowski, Indians: It doesn't have to make sense to you or me, but Borowski and his strained right triceps are ready to throw again, meaning the guy who led the AL in saves a year ago could be back in a week or two. This all presumes that his velocity, which was never at the Nolan Ryan range to start with, is at least presentable. Rafael Betancourt had a dominant 2007 season, but he's already allowed four home runs, the same number from a year ago. Betancourt was brought into a 1-0 game recently, with the Tribe trailing, and allowed Miguel Olivo to homer on the second pitch. He doesn't look like the 2007 version to us. At least he isn't walking people, but he's not blowing away right-handed batters. Borowski will throw this week and work on his arm strength, and he could return to the closer role immediately upon activation. Rip him if you like, but the guy did have 45 saves a year ago, and he might be sitting on your free-agent list.

Selling high

Eric Gagne, Brewers: With five blown saves already, it's clear Gagne is struggling, and no matter how many votes of confidence he gets, his grip on the closer role is certainly tenuous. Anyone who accrues saves has value in a fantasy league, and there will be some who believe Gagne will simply snap out of this and get back on track for a 30-save season. I'm not one of them. Gagne wouldn't seem to have much value, but think about how little he'll have when he actually does lose the job. As for his replacement options, cross Derrick Turnbow off your list. To struggle is one thing, but to accrue an ERA of 15.63 and WHIP of 3.95 is another. Turnbow came into a 13-5 game a week ago and allowed six runs, on four hits and four walks. Three days later, he was designated for assignment. Turnbow should find work elsewhere, but not as a closer. Salomon Torres and Guillermo Mota are next in line, with David Riske sputtering along. I ranked Torres in the top 40 and believe he's actually the lucky one.

Who's next?

Taylor Buchholz, Rockies: To some it might seem odd that this 26-year-old failed starting pitcher would show up in this section, rather than the next one about meaningless saves. Oh, the save Buchholz recorded Sunday against the Dodgers did matter. Sure, the only reason he got to stay in and pitch the ninth after getting the last out of the eighth was because it wasn't a save chance for Brian Fuentes, but it's pretty clear the implosion of Manny Corpas has left Buchholz as the team's top setup man. Fuentes had his own notable, crushing implosion less than a year ago, so why couldn't it happen again? Buchholz is piling up the holds and the ground-ball outs, and he hasn't permitted a home run yet. As the top right-hander after Fuentes, saves could be in his future, so prepare accordingly.

Meaningless save of the week

Joaquin Benoit, Rangers: If Buchholz matters for fantasy because he's the top right-hander in the Colorado bullpen, then wouldn't it stand to reason that Benoit matters for the same reason? Just fill in "Texas" for "Colorado," right? Wrong. C.J. Wilson seems to have a firm grip on the closing role, and because he had pitched three straight days when the Rangers had a 6-3 lead at Oakland over the weekend, the rested Benoit was given a chance. Even though Jamey Wright is pitching better than Benoit, he's not next in line for saves. Benoit probably is, but I just don't think Wilson will relinquish the job. Benoit has more walks (and strikeouts) than innings pitched this season and isn't really showing signs of turning things around, despite the 1-2-3 save over the weekend.

Holding on

Luis Ayala, Nationals: While the Cardinals' Ryan Franklin continues to lead the league in holds and even picked up a save Tuesday, check out Ayala, the main setup guy for Jon Rauch. Ayala hasn't been perfect this season, but he's allowed a run in only two of his past seven appearances, and in three of those one-inning appearances, he's struck out two hitters. Ayala was a solid holds guy his first three years in the league before missing all of 2006 with elbow woes. His career ERA is 2.86, and there's no sign of Chad Cordero coming back to cost Ayala holds. Yeah, he blew Tuesday's game, but he was called upon in the eighth inning with a one-run lead, and that should continue.

Bullpen to watch

Toronto Blue Jays: We've already established that B.J. Ryan is looking better and better, but the rest of the bullpen situation for this team is a bit unclear. I was at a Blue Jays-Red Sox game last week, and it sure seemed like manager John Gibbons didn't want to use Jeremy Accardo, even though the situation warranted it. A few days before that, Ryan had pitched the eighth inning, and fellow lefty Jesse Carlson the ninth inning, while Accardo merely warmed up. We think Accardo remains the top right-hander in the bullpen, but he hasn't been asked to get three outs in a game since April 20, so he's being used more like a "ROOGY" (right-handed, one-out guy). You don't see many of those. His past five appearances have all been to face just a hitter or two, and he hasn't fanned any of them. Meanwhile, the team's past six saves have been split among three southpaws: Ryan, Carlson and Scott Downs. Accardo still matters, but if he's only an option against right-handed hitters, situations in which the OPS against him is nearly 250 points lower than against lefties, then look for Shawn Camp and/or Jason Frasor to eventually pass him on the depth chart.

Briefly

After casually insinuating in this space that the Braves could look to disabled John Smoltz to return to the closer role when he's healthy, this exact scenario looks to be taking place. In nearly four weeks as closer, Manny Acosta has registered only two saves. In fairness, he hasn't blown any opportunities; he's just not getting many. Acosta's five-walk appearance in Washington, however, spoke volumes, and on Tuesday he put a few men on base and lefty Royce Ring was summoned to retire Adrian Gonzalez. Jeff Bennett then got the one-out save. Meanwhile, teammate Peter Moylan tried to avoid Tommy John surgery, but now it appears inevitable. … Dodgers setup man Jonathan Broxton was unavailable much of last week with a strained lat muscle, but he returned to pitch over the weekend and on Monday, retiring all seven hitters he faced. He also looked fine Tuesday, striking out a pair of Mets for his fifth hold. Meanwhile, closer Takashi Saito hasn't allowed an earned run in nine outings. … Six current closers have yet to allow an earned run. The two New York closers lead the list, but surprisingly, Joakim Soria, Troy Percival, Brad Lidge and B.J. Ryan are on it as well. … Carlos Marmol continues to lead all relief pitchers in strikeouts. Kerry Wood has five saves in eight chances, and Lou Piniella remains committed to him. Marmol seems a lock for 120 strikeouts. The Cubs' bullpen took a small hit when Jon Lieber replaced the demoted Rich Hill in the rotation, but Bob Howry has pitched better of late. By the way, the No. 2 reliever in K's is Washington's Joel Hanrahan, though the rest of his stats aren't pretty. Be careful where you get your bullpen strikeouts, though: Only three of the top nine relievers in cumulative strikeouts have ERAs on the good side of 4. … As for the very popular Max Scherzer, who went from one awesome relief outing to 100 percent ownership in ESPN leagues and then got lit up in the rotation, expect him back in relief by the end of May. The Diamondbacks will remain loyal to capable Doug Davis, who is already throwing after thyroid cancer surgery. Plus, Scherzer might be more valuable to Arizona in middle relief anyway, and for fantasy purposes would be on par with Santiago Casilla-types as a top middle reliever. …Speaking of Casilla, formerly known as Jairo Garcia when he lied about his name and age years ago, he saved Tuesday's win, with Huston Street unavailable because he had pitched a few days in a row. It certainly seems Casilla is next in line in Oakland, but with this team's terrific start, the preseason fire sale seems unlikely to continue. Street should stick around.

Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com fantasy. You can e-mail him here.

Eric Karabell | email

ESPN.com Senior Writer

ALSO SEE