- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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We're closing in on the midpoint of the major league baseball season. Most people probably take stock of their fantasy teams during the All-Star break, but remember, by the time games start up again, that's more than half of July down the drain and less time you have to make up ground in saves.
This week and next, we'll be adjusting the format of Relief Efforts to discuss each and every bullpen a bit more in depth and what to expect moving forward. We'll start with the National League, and next week we'll handle the American League. Rather than organizing these teams in (boring) alphabetical order, we listed them from the most interesting situations to watch to the least. That's not to say the Phillies' and Mets' bullpens aren't interesting, but really, is Brad Lidge or Billy Wagner in any trouble? I think not.
Atlanta Braves: Mike Gonzalez got the last save, and he'll get the chance for the next one as well, but it is far from definite that he'll keep this job all season. It's not that I think Rafael Soriano will be healthy enough to take it, but Gonzalez himself is coming off Tommy John surgery. What makes him a lock to avoid setbacks? John Smoltz and Peter Moylan are done, Soriano's elbow is not responding and Manny Acosta just isn't pitching well anymore. I predict Gonzalez will be handled carefully and end up the lone Braves pitcher with double-digit saves, but I still would handcuff Blaine Boyer to him. Gonzalez will get 13 saves, Boyer and Soriano will get a handful, and that eventually will lead this team to fourth place.
St. Louis Cardinals: Jason Isringhausen hasn't had the best season, but he remains a buy-low option because he's going to get his closer job back any day now. Izzy has pitched well since coming off the DL, and even though Tony LaRussa has a very deep set of right-handers in his bullpen and Izzy has the worst numbers, he's got the closer experience. I fully expect Chris Perez to get his chance in a year, probably when Isringhausen decides he has had enough or needs to move on to extend his career. I'd be careful with Kyle McClellan; he is hittable and isn't likely to continue his pace of holds with Ryan Franklin and Perez being used in more critical setup situations. Isringhausen will start getting saves this week and add another 15 to his total, giving him 26 for the year.
Milwaukee Brewers: Salomon Torres never looked this good in Pittsburgh, did he? And did you know this guy is 36 years old? Wow. Torres is cruising along, and now this Eric Gagne guy wants his closer job back. Well, he can't have it! And apparently manager Ned Yost is in agreement, as he refuses to say Gagne will get the job back immediately. The thing is, Torres probably is overachieving a bit, having converted every save chance since Gagne left. On Tuesday, he had a three-run lead to save, allowed a two-run Mark Teixeira home run, but still held the lead. I do think Gagne will get a shot to close at some point later this year, but it might be ugly and not worth it in fantasy. The one thing that is looking clear is that these are Milwaukee's main closer options, not David Riske, Guillermo Mota or Brian Shouse. Of the two, I say Torres has the better shot to reach 25 saves, but he won't get too many more than that.
Colorado Rockies: Brian Fuentes lost the closer role around this week last season, and Manuel Corpas took the job and ran with it. Corpas didn't last that long this season, and Fuentes has become a reliable performer again. Fantasy owners are concerned he'll end up pitching the eighth inning for the Yankees or the Red Sox soon, and sure, that is a possibility. Then again, the Rockies have played better of late and the Diamondbacks have not, so maybe the NL West race is still alive. As for who would be next in line if Fuentes were moved, Taylor Buchholz clearly has been the team's top relief pitcher this season and Corpas arguably the most disappointing, but we shouldn't assume Buchholz has saves coming his way. It could be Corpas. Regardless, predicting a real-life trade is risky, so I'll say Fuentes will stay put and end up with 31 saves.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Brandon Lyon is the closer, and he is pretty much cruising along with no end in sight, so I won't predict an end to this. And really, I believe that. I always thought Lyon was being given no love in preseason drafts. Tony Pena and Chad Qualls also are worth owning (although Qualls has had some ugly appearances) but merely for the holds and decent innings. As for Max Scherzer, I think when he comes back to Arizona -- and he will -- it will be as a starting pitcher. It's more likely there will be an opening there. Lyon will finish with 33 saves for the 85-win division champs and blow a key game in the playoffs, and the D-backs will woo a hard-throwing, free-agent closer in December.
Chicago Cubs: Kerry Wood is leading the NL in saves, which makes sense since the Cubbies have the most wins, but isn't it odd that five AL closers have more saves? Anyway, don't blame Wood. Carlos Marmol has had a significant command hiccup lately, but it's not like he was knocking on the door to close anyway. Marmol is dominant, potentially this season's Rafael Betancourt. Look up how good that guy was in 2007. Bob Howry has righted his ship, and while he is third in line for saves, he has NL-only value. Wood will go wire to wire as the closer and end up with 36 saves, and he will jog to the mound in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series against the Red Sox.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Matt Capps has blown three of his past five save opportunities but remains a safe closer on his way to 30 saves with an ERA in the 2.50 range. He might not be a top-10 player in fantasy, but he's not far off. Damaso Marte is having a fine season as well, with four wins, 14 holds and more than a strikeout per inning. Pirates manager John Russell certainly has used his top relievers consistently; Capps, Marte and John Grabow entered Tuesday all having thrown 36 1/3 innings, while Tyler Yates was at 36 2/3. There's no reason to think Capps will be a problem the rest of the way. Expect 35 saves.
Washington Nationals: Jon Rauch is the man! Of the 29 relief pitchers with double-digit saves, the only one with fewer walks than Rauch is some Mariano Rivera guy. Rauch has major numbers, a low ERA and WHIP, 15 saves and a 34-to-5 strikes-to-walks ratio. He's fine. And I'm here to say he's safe. Chad Cordero is on the mend from his shoulder problems, but how could the Nationals, in good conscience, take the job from Rauch? It's not like Cordero has been a dominant closer since 2005 anyway. I'm seeing fantasy owners start to worry about Rauch, but they shouldn't. He is this year's Jeremy Accardo, a right-handed middle man who wasn't the Opening Day closer but took the job a week into the season. Cordero isn't B.J. Ryan, but I don't see saves coming his way.
Houston Astros: Jose Valverde has been messy at times this season, including Tuesday's tightrope act, but among current closers, only Kerry Wood has more strikeouts and only Kevin Gregg has more wins. So yeah, that ERA of 4.34 is not fun, but Valverde really has made up for it in other ways. Doug Brocail clearly is next in line, although Astros fans should hope he doesn't do the following too often. In Brocail's last save chance, he faced four batters and didn't retire any of them, blowing a 3-2 lead. The rest of the bullpen is anonymous, although Shawn Chacon is back there and we all remember the season when he got 35 saves with a 7.11 ERA. Valverde better not get hurt this year. I say he's fine and will threaten 40 saves.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Takashi Saito continues to make those who drafted Jonathan Broxton for saves feel silly. Saito has a monster strikeout rate, and he struck out the side in three consecutive outings earlier in June. Broxton is doing well, but there's no end to Saito's run in sight. His save total is low (11), but it's more a reflection of luck than anything else, and he easily could have a 20-save second half.
San Diego Padres: Trevor Hoffman has better numbers than you might think, despite allowing a pair of home runs to lose Tuesday's game. While everyone and the mailman thinks this guy is toast, he's on his way to another 30-save season and his WHIP is 1.19. Yeah, in comparison, his ERA is high, but it's all about the saves. Hoffman got lit on June 1 against the Giants, but it was the only time in more than a month that he allowed a run (until Tuesday). Heath Bell has the wins, the holds and better peripherals, but it's just not his time. Even if Hoffman were to step aside this offseason, which I doubt, keeper league owners should not assume Bell automatically will earn the closer role. Look for Hoffman to stick around, finish this season with 33 saves and come back for more in 2009.
San Francisco Giants: Brian Wilson outings tend to be a bit exciting, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see his save total in the second half be less than it was in the first half. The Giants entered Tuesday with only 32 wins, and Wilson saved 19 of them, a difficult percentage to maintain. Tyler Walker remains the top set-up man, but if something were to befall Wilson, I wonder whether hard-thrower Merkin Valdez would get a chance (assuming he was healthy, of course). Wilson will end up with 29 saves.
Florida Marlins: Kevin Gregg is not much fun to watch when he's walking people, but he manages to get the job done. None of the 39 pitchers with three or more saves has issued as many free passes as Gregg. Then again, there are positives, like the fact that he gets used in high-leverage situations and has won five games. He has permitted only one home run. Justin Miller and Doug Waechter have become more trusted than Matt Lindstrom in setting up, and lefty Renyel Pinto, although far more effective against right-handed hitters, should remain a safe holds option. Look for Gregg to wind up with 32 or so saves.
Cincinnati Reds: This team made a big splash in the offseason by signing Francisco Cordero to a huge deal, and he has brought stability to the role. That hasn't made this a .500 team, though. Jared Burton is a better fantasy option than David Weathers, mainly due to his strikeouts, and Bill Bray looks like the type of hard-throwing lefty who could get a chance at some point in the future, although it's doubtful it will happen in the Cordero era. Expect 30 saves from Cordero, which some might find disappointing based on his 2007 season, but it's not really his fault.
Philadelphia Phillies: Brad Lidge still hasn't allowed a home run. Hey, it certainly appears he just needed a change of scenery. His K rate never was a problem in Houston, and Lidge is showing no signs of trouble here. He could end up being the best closer in terms of ERA in the game this season. Philly's bullpen has been the best in the NL, as J.C. Romero, Chad Durbin and even Rudy Seanez have NL-only value. This is real. There could be a problem setting up Lidge, though, as Tom Gordon and his balky shoulder remain an issue. I say Lidge will end up with 37 saves and a career-best 1.80 ERA.
New York Mets: Billy Wagner had his rough stretch, and now he's fine. New manager Jerry Manuel did recently assign official bullpen roles to other pitchers, and none of it was much of a surprise. Duaner Sanchez should be the main set-up guy, with right-hander Joe Smith and lefty Pedro Feliciano getting key outs as well. As for Aaron Heilman, he's buried, and there's no reason to own him in fantasy. I expect he's trade bait as well. The Mets will make a big run for the playoffs, and Wagner will save 38 games.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com fantasy. You can e-mail him here.
3hEthan Sherwood Strauss