- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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The news that John Smoltz will have season-ending shoulder surgery could end one of the most interesting fantasy careers. Smoltz was a top fantasy starter for years and was still in the top 10 this spring. He also has had some top seasons as a closer. Now, he likely will officially pass the baton.
Fantasy owners waited through May for Smoltz to return, with visions of 25 saves in their greedy heads. In reality, his shoulder just couldn't handle pitching anymore, regardless of the role he had. He blew a save chance Monday, and that was his end -- at least in 2008. Though Smoltz is having the surgery in the hopes he'll return in 2009, he's said in the past that he'd retire if he needed to undergo another major surgery. With his future very much up in the air, those in keeper leagues can't rely on Smoltz either.
Rafael Soriano closed out Tuesday's win and could have the job to himself if he can stay healthy. But his elbow has been giving him problems, which necessitated a DL stint as well, and his injury history is vast. The Braves may be hesitant to let Soriano pitch on back-to-back days early on, a plan similar to how the Blue Jays handled B.J. Ryan earlier this year.
Thus, it's likely Manny Acosta will get a handful of save chances as well, though he's been pitching in middle relief lately. Acosta did get the save chance on Wednesday, but promptly blew it by allowing a pair of two-run homers to the Marlins in the ninth inning. Blaine Boyer has been effective as well, and lefty Will Ohman has a pair of saves from when the situations warranted them. Former Bucs closer Mike Gonzalez has not allowed a run in two rehab stints, as he's working his way back from Tommy John surgery and could zoom right into the top set-up role this month.
Be careful of Soriano, though, who's always enticing due to solid K rates. These are the Atlanta Braves after all, and Bobby Cox has been known to give the closer's job to relative unknowns. It's a shame a possible Hall of Famer might be going out this way, but fantasy owners should have scrutinized Smoltz's health from the outset.
Who will fill Joba's relief role?
Now that Joba Chamberlain is firmly planted in the Yankees' rotation, and of course well on his way to becoming a surefire Hall of Famer and one of the best who ever lived, we can look at those left behind and wish them well. They're Mariano Rivera, who also is on his way to Cooperstown someday, and what the media portrays as a less-than-perfect motley crew of replacement-level middle relievers.
This isn't really the case, of course. The Yankees made the right move, realizing Chamberlain's arm is better used as a starting pitcher, even if the eighth inning will be a problem the rest of the season. Still, does this really affect Rivera at all? Does the adjustment of Chamberlain's status make Rivera a sell-high fantasy closer? And is that bullpen really so bad?
The short answer is no. The long and drawn-out answer is the same, really. Certainly the main reason Chamberlain's promotion to the starting rotation has been questioned is because of what happened Monday night, when Kyle Farnsworth turned an eighth-inning tie game into a loss. Would Chamberlain have kept the game tied, which would have eventually helped the Yankees earn the win? It's possible. It's also possible he would have had no bearing on the outcome of the game or pitched at all. By the way, don't judge Joba on what he did Tuesday; he will get better.
In May, the Yankees went 14-12, and Chamberlain pitched in 10 games. He allowed runs in only two of them: He lost the May 6 game when David Dellucci hit a memorable three-run homer in the eighth inning, and a few weeks later gave up a meaningless ninth-inning run to the Mets while apparently just getting in some work. In the other eight games, Chamberlain registered holds in six of them, and Rivera ended up saving four of those wins, as the lead grew to a non-save spot in a couple of instances. It's a bit presumptive to assume another Yankees pitcher would have blown the lead in those games, isn't it? Certainly Chamberlain played a role in six Yankees wins in May, but the Yankees don't have enough starting pitching to contend, and they need him more in a starting role. As colleague James Quintong noted in his Tuesday article, Chamberlain also will have more fantasy value there.
Meanwhile, Rivera is humming along at 38 years old having permitted one run all season, walking two hitters and boasting a 0.36 ERA and 0.52 WHIP. Trevor Hoffman, he's not. He's also a healthy pitcher. Rivera will be fine. Among the other teams with fine closers around the league who don't appear to have great set-up men are the Tigers, Giants, Reds and Astros. Those closers are doing fine -- they're performing at least as was expected or better.
From a team bullpen ERA standpoint, the Yankees were actually in the top half of the majors before Tuesday, No. 13 overall at 3.65. They have a better ERA from their relief pitchers than the Mets, Angels, Red Sox and Padres, notably. No matter how well the current Yankees relievers not named Mariano perform, help is on the way. Maybe it will be Brian Fuentes, maybe someone else, but the Yankees know middle relief is a team weakness. But how weak is it? Let's examine.
Kyle Farnsworth: It's hard to believe this fella once was one of the more feared relief pitchers in the game, but it's true. In 2001 with the Cubs, he fanned 107 batters in 82 relief innings and earned 24 holds with a 2.74 ERA, setting up Tom Gordon and Jeff Fassero. In 2005, he was a top set-up man in Detroit with a 2.32 ERA, and he picked up six saves, making the Braves interested enough to deal decent pitching prospects Zach Miner and Roman Colon for him at the trade deadline. In Atlanta, he had a terrific ERA and WHIP (1.98 and 0.80), saved 10 games and helped the Braves make the playoffs. Even in Yankee pinstripes, though he hasn't pitched to quite the same level of success, he has been durable and strong against right-handed hitting. He's not a closer, but he doesn't need to be. He's more of a seventh-inning guy than a top set-up man, but even as he's struggled this season, his on-base percentage against right-handed hitters is a low .295. For him to be viable, he just needs to stop allowing home runs.
LaTroy Hawkins: Though he's pitched poorly of late, it seems premature to cut the cord with the free-agent pickup in real life. Hawkins actually hadn't allowed a run from April 26 to May 26, throwing 11 1/3 scoreless innings and permitting only four hits and four walks. He's been lit in his past two outings and likely will remain a lightning rod for criticism, but like fellow enemy Farnsworth, Hawkins has been a respectable pitcher for years. Hawkins also had a terrific season as a set-up man with the Cubs a few years ago. Last season in Colorado, he posted a 3.42 ERA and 18 holds, which was more than respectable considering his home ballpark. Left-handers are having fun with him right now, but right-handed batters are struggling with a .535 OPS and one extra-base hit (a double) in 54 at-bats. Hawkins should remain in this bullpen, but until he starts solving lefties, he should be kept away from them. Currently the Yankees have no lefties in their bullpen, making a potential acquisition of the Rockies' Fuentes seem even more critical. It would seem that one or two southpaws would help solve this team's woes and make Farnsworth and Hawkins more effective.
Edwar Ramirez: While this is only his second season in the majors, he's not a kid. Ramirez, 27, gave up too many walks and home runs a year ago, but he did fan 31 hitters in 21 innings. The Yankees haven't used him in many high-leverage situations so far, but that appears to be changing. On Friday in Minnesota, he registered the final two outs of the seventh inning and protected a two-run lead, and the next day he was relieving Chien-Ming Wang with a lead in the sixth inning. He allowed his first run of the season in the seventh, when Michael Cuddyer homered. Ramirez entered Tuesday having allowed a .391 OPS to left-handed hitters, which is still too small of a sample size to draw a conclusion. But on Tuesday he imploded, throwing 17 pitches, only three of which were strikes. He walked three and, helped by Hawkins, allowed four runs to ruin that fancy 0.56 ERA. I still think Ramirez stands in line to become a more important part of this bullpen, but he can't lose command again.
Jose Veras: Another 27-year-old Dominican, Veras entered Tuesday having thrown 11 2/3 innings, but few of them in important situations. Tuesday didn't go so well for him either, as he put two men on base, and both scored. Veras has one hold and was used to set up Farnsworth on Saturday at the Metrodome. A starting pitcher in the minors, Veras isn't ticketed for that role on the Yankees. I'd think Ramirez is ahead of him on the depth chart for important innings, and wouldn't be surprised if both become reliable.
Ross Ohlendorf: I'm a little surprised the Princeton grad is still on the team. He's struggled mightily this season, even worse than the beleaguered Hawkins. Ohlendorf and his straight fastball have allowed two or more earned runs in a game five times this season, and in a game at Baltimore recently three Orioles homered off him. He's a long reliever at this point, but he's one who isn't long for the job.
Who else: Chris Britton really hasn't done anything wrong in his short major league career, posting a 3.24 ERA and 1.12 WHIP with the Orioles and Yankees, but he always seems to be on the Triple-A shuttle anyway. Dan Giese relieved Chamberlain on Tuesday, but he had been starting at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and will act as a long reliever for the Yankees for the fortnight he's up. Jonathan Albaladejo and Brian Bruney are currently on the disabled list, and neither should be back anytime soon.
Conclusion: With each game the Rockies lose, it becomes more obvious Fuentes is on his way out, because veteran lefty closers on 90-loss teams aren't really needed. No matter whom the Yankees target and land, they likely will be used for important innings. Even if this doesn't happen before late July, Farnsworth and Hawkins aren't nearly as bad as they seem, and Ramirez and Veras could begin to figure into the seventh- and eighth-inning picture soon. Lefties are sorely needed here, a Mike Myers type or two. Things just aren't nearly as bad as they seem for the Yankees' bullpen, with or without Mr. Chamberlain.
Now let's get to the rest of the ample fantasy news coming from major league bullpens.
Joe Borowski, Indians: You don't have to enjoy watching him pitch, but saves are coming his way -- a lot of them. Borowski is probably owned in your league, but that owner knows a high ERA comes with the saves, and therefore the pitcher's price tag is cheaper than other younger, harder-throwing closers. Borowski has pitched four times since coming off the DL with a strained triceps. He's allowed no runs and no walks in four appearances, and has recorded two saves in that span. The numbers are only part of the story; his velocity is back. We all know saves can come in bunches, and the Indians are capable of playing better than they have been. It's not always pretty with Borowski, but with 81 saves the past two seasons, it doesn't have to be. Also consider picking up top set-up man Rafael Betancourt, who has pitched better in a set-up role since Borowski returned. Remember his amazing numbers a season ago, including his 1.26 ERA in September. In the past three seasons, he has struck out 103 hitters in 100 2/3 post-All Star break innings.
J.J. Putz, Mariners: How does one sell high a closer who permitted four runs in his last outing, blowing a game against the Tigers and seeing his ERA rise to 5.60? Well, consider how tough it will be to move Putz if he's on the disabled list. This guy had pinpoint control in 2007, when he walked 13 hitters in 71 2/3 innings while fanning 82 hitters and allowing only 11 earned runs. Already this season, he's allowed 14 walks. He's allowed the same 11 earned runs, but in 54 fewer innings. I think Putz is hurting (either the same ribcage injury that forced him to the DL in April or something to his right arm) and things will get worse before they get better. His velocity is down, he's throwing fewer fastballs and he's getting hit hard. The Mariners are going nowhere, but unlike the Rockies, they'd like to keep their closer around for the future, because Putz was arguably the best closer statistically from 2006-07. He could be shut down soon. Because Brandon Morrow hasn't allowed a hit in his past four appearances, and talk of him following Chamberlain to the team's rotation has been denied, he would stand to gain from a Putz DL stint.
Heath Bell, Padres: This isn't a new name to fantasy owners, but each time Trevor Hoffman gets lit up, fantasy owners wonder when Bell will get a chance to save a game. It might not happen this season, but if Hoffman gets a Jason Isringhausen-like DL stint to clear his head and recover from whatever injury the Padres say ails him, that would work for Bell. Fantasy owners look at Hoffman's stats and think he's done, but the fact is that the May numbers for each right-hander were very similar. Hoffman struck out 14 hitters in nine May innings and allowed fewer runs than Bell. The Padres, like the Mariners, seem to be going nowhere, but it's not fair to solely blame the closer or expect he'll get shipped out of town. I could see a DL stint for Hoffman at some point, but no early retirement or release. Bell clearly is next in line before Cla Meredith and everyone else in San Diego, but don't assume the man at the head of the line will leave.
Meaningless save of the week
Matt Guerrier, Twins: Blame Delmon Young! If the Twins left fielder hadn't tried to make a shoestring catch of a Mark Teahen fly ball, which predictably turned into an inside-the-park three-run home run and cost Nick Blackburn a win and Joe Nathan a save, then this game wouldn't have gone into the 12th inning, and Guerrier wouldn't have earned his third career save. It happened though, and Guerrier was up to the task, throwing strikes on 13 of 15 pitches. It's the third consecutive season in which Guerrier registered a save, and the first two times there was little hint of more to come. This time is no different. Nathan is signed long-term and is a very secure closer.
Eddie Guardado, Rangers: While C.J. Wilson strengthens his hold on the closer role, Guardado has become the main set-up guy. He earned three holds in a four-game span recently and has six overall, and he's allowed only two runs from May 13 through Tuesday. Guardado hasn't allowed a run in nine road appearances, and overall his May ERA was 2.19. With Joaquin Benoit and Jamey Wright both being hit hard the past week, Guardado should remain the closer in waiting should Wilson falter.
Whatever happened to?
Grant Balfour, Rays: Once a top closer candidate in the pre-Joe Nathan days in Minnesota, Balfour became a starting pitcher, then succumbed to Tommy John surgery and was lost for 2005 and 2006. The Rays picked him up from Milwaukee, and he was helpful for a stretch out of the bullpen late last season before imploding at the end. Balfour didn't make the major league staff out of spring training, but in 15 appearances at Triple-A Durham, he allowed only five hits in 23 2/3 innings and fanned 39 hitters. That tends to get noticed. With Troy Percival on the DL and Dan Wheeler struggling in a game recently, Balfour got the last out against the White Sox to register his first major league save. It's likely Wheeler and Al Reyes are ahead of him for save chances with Percival out, but Balfour has a chance at age 30 to be a key member of the bullpen and possibly earn a late-inning role by attrition.
Bullpen to watch
Chicago White Sox: Manager Ozzie Guillen clearly isn't happy, but he can't blame his bullpen. Bobby Jenks is on his way to 40 saves, but check out the right-handers setting him up. Octavio Dotel struck out 24 hitters in 14 May innings, and Scott Linebrink had a 0.68 ERA and 0.60 WHIP last month, leading the team with seven holds. Both right-handers can help fantasy owners, even without getting saves. As a team, the White Sox had a 2.94 ERA in June. If only Jim Thome, Paul Konerko and pals could score some runs.
A few closers could be close to regaining their roles soon. In Tampa, Troy Percival has been treating his strained left hamstring, and the expectation is he'll return to the closer role when he's eligible to come off the DL late next week. Jason Isringhausen of the Cardinals could come off the DL this week, as he recovers from a hand laceration. Ryan Franklin has done a nice job, but he's also critical to the team as a setup man. Chris Perez continues to be owned, but there's been no hint he'll be getting saves this season. As for Eric Gagne, he's eligible to return from the DL but hasn't done any formal throwing for the Brewers recently. Salomon Torres continues to thrive as closer, so expect the Brewers to be cautious with Gagne. Kerry Wood saved his 15th game of the season Monday. His season ERA and WHIP are 2.87 and 0.80, while the supposedly far more dominant Carlos Marmol has a 2.43 ERA and 0.81 WHIP. Just when you think Brian Wilson is too dangerous because of his peripheral numbers, he allows one hit and no runs in six appearances.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com fantasy. You can e-mail him here.
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