- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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After seeing how the AL thrashed the NL in interleague play, it should come as no surprise that the top closers reside in the land of the Red Sox, Yankees and Angels. Though the top individual offensive players for fantasy purposes seem to be in the NL, there's no question about the top saves guys.
Francisco Rodriguez remains on pace to top Bobby Thigpen's record 57 saves in the 1990 season, but six AL pitchers have accrued 20 or more saves so far this season. Only three have done so in the NL -- and the NL has more teams. Whereas Jose Valverde and Brian Wilson entered Tuesday night leading the NL with 22 saves each, the erratic duo had also combined to walk 31 hitters and sport a cumulative 4.25 ERA. Three AL pitchers had 22 saves -- Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan and Joakim Soria – with a total of 18 walks and an ERA barely more than 1.00. Those three were ranked behind K-Rod, George Sherrill and Jonathan Papelbon, two of those guys among the top closers in the game, the other a very lucky guy.
In mixed fantasy leagues, this not only is hardly breaking news, but it's also not terribly relevant. You want the saves, and picking between the leagues doesn't matter. For the record, back in ESPN average live drafts, only three of the first nine closers came from the NL. On the Player Rater, it's the same ratio, with six of the first nine showing up from the AL. However, this perceived divide might make for some harried moments searching for saves in NL-only leagues, but in the AL, you probably can afford to deal a closer for a hitter, knowing there's plenty of supply for the demand.
Last week, I broke down each of the NL bullpens a bit more in depth, analyzing what to expect moving forward. I listed them from the most interesting situations to watch to the least. Despite making it clear it was just the NL last week, there were plenty of e-mails wondering where B.J. Ryan, Todd Jones and others were. They'll show up in this edition. It's AL pitchers only. Enjoy.
Seattle Mariners: Brandon Morrow could be a big-time closer, and fantasy owners shouldn't shy away from him just because they're concerned J.J. Putz will come back in a few weeks and steal the job away. That might happen, or maybe Putz and his sore elbow will continue to have problems. Even when he does come back, it could be in a set-up role. Morrow has loads of talent. Though I think he would be better served as a starter and could be the next Joba Chamberlain, Morrow still can help fantasy owners in the bullpen, as the 35 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings show. He's allowed two earned runs all season. The Mariners aren't winning much, so save opportunities are few and far between, but Morrow should keep the closer job at least another month, pass Putz and save 15 games. Just don't cut Putz, as he could end up with 15 saves as well. I wouldn't keep Miguel Batista around for the saves anymore, however.
Detroit Tigers: Todd Jones has a little hiccup from time to time, but we all know that, so why does a single Joel Zumaya save get everyone so excited? Zumaya saved Monday's win over the Twins, but mainly because Jones had pitched in four of the preceding five games. Even he needs a break. Zumaya doesn't seem to have his command yet, anyway. In 5 1/3 innings, he's allowed eight hits and five walks but fanned only three hitters. That's not normal Zumaya. Jones clearly is the closer, and now that the Tigers have righted the ship and seem well on their way to becoming a playoff contender, Jones' save opportunities should increase. Zumaya should improve as well and own the eighth inning. Incredibly, no Tigers pitcher has more than six holds. The Angels' Jose Arredondo did that in a matter of weeks. Jones should end up with 35 saves and the admiration of all who assume he'll lose his job every season with such a low K rate.
Texas Rangers: C.J. Wilson doesn't get a lot of credit, but he's on his way to 35 saves, and the recent shoulder woes from Eddie Guardado helps his case to keep the role even if problems crop up. Wilson hasn't been perfect; his June ERA was 5.40, and his WHIP was nearly 2. His strikeout rate has gone down from last year as well. I wouldn't be confident Wilson will help fantasy teams in terms of peripheral numbers, but he's a good bet to keep on closing due to lack of alternatives, as Guardado isn't durable, Joaquin Benoit is pitching poorly and Jamey Wright and Frank Francisco are being used in the sixth and seventh innings. Expect some ugly moments from Wilson but 32 saves.
Baltimore Orioles: George Sherrill has been piling on the saves all season, but things haven't been so cool of late. K-Rod is the only AL closer to have walked more hitters, and Sherrill's five home runs allowed are a major red flag as well. Everyone assumes the Orioles will peddle Sherrill before the trade deadline; because he's a 31-year-old lefty most teams wouldn't be building around, and he can do more setting up for a contender. Sherrill owners should, however, be worried about his effectiveness. Jim Johnson leads the team in holds and sports a sub-1 WHIP, with 26 hits allowed in 46 1/3 innings, and he has moved to the front of the line for saves should Sherrill move on. As for former Astro Dennis Sarfate, that 3.44 ERA doesn't jibe with 33 walks in 36 2/3 innings and a 1.61 WHIP. Look for Sherrill to remain an Oriole, as they go for a .500 record and save 39 games.
Cleveland Indians: Joe Borowski isn't pitching close to particularly well, but because the last-place Indians are likely to be sellers at the trade deadline, few seem to notice. Borowski isn't getting many save chances. He did get one on Tuesday, and it didn't end well. Everyone knows about the potential for a C.C. Sabathia trade, but couldn't Borowski be on the move? He certainly has closer experience, doesn't he? For now he's the saves guy, whenever a situation calls for it. For the record, Borowski has the worst ERA in save situations in the majors this season, minimum 10 opportunities, at 12.46. The others on the list all have lost their jobs already: Manuel Corpas, Jason Isringhausen and Eric Gagne. The entire Cleveland bullpen (except for Scott Elarton) struggled in June, from Rafael Perez to Masa Kobayashi to especially Rafael Betancourt, who is unusable in fantasy these days. It's not like there's an obvious Borowski replacement worthy of getting saves. It doesn't matter. Borowski sticks around and gets 12 more saves the rest of the way, finishing at 18.
Tampa Bay Rays: Troy Percival is 38 years old, and the last time he had more saves than his current 19 was in 2004. Dan Wheeler is a must-handcuff if you want saves, especially after Monday's game in which Percival left with two outs in the ninth inning with a hamstring problem and ended up on the DL. Rest assured that even when he returns, durability probably will be a problem going forward. Wheeler is having a very good season, and even without the saves, he should be owned, anyway. Same with J.P. Howell, the lefty who finished Monday's game and sports a 6-0 record. Al Reyes probably would be fourth in line for saves after these guys, assuming he comes off the DL soon. Fantasy owners shouldn't read too much into Grant Balfour's saving Tuesday's game, as Wheeler had pitched in three straight days. It's not wise to trade for Percival if you expect 40 saves. Expect periods of dominance when healthy, and 28 saves for his season, as Wheeler chips in with 11.
Oakland Athletics: Huston Street might be scaring his owners with that ERA higher than 4, but the WHIP is barely 1 and the strikeout rate is there, so he's entitled to a bad game or two. The A's are contenders in the AL West, yet still Street remains a trade possibility because he'll cost too much in a few years. I wouldn't hold out hope for Joey Devine or Santiago Casilla to get saves, however. The new kid on the A's bullpen block is Brad Ziegler, a submariner baffling hitters with his slider. Ziegler was the right-handed set-up man much of June, combining with Alan Embree to get leads to Street. Keith Foulke is also in the mix, but his health can't be counted on. Chad Gaudin has been the long man who's waiting for a rotation spot to open up. Look for Street to continue his success and end up with 33 saves.
Kansas City Royals: Joakim Soria continues to dominate, finishing up June with nine scoreless outings. In the final eight of those, he retired 24 of 25 hitters, allowing just a Randy Winn single in eight otherwise perfect innings. There are no concerns about Soria. Ramon Ramirez has seized the eighth-inning duties and remains a hidden source for holds and strikeouts among the relievers set. The Royals are not a 100-loss team, which is what should allow Soria to end up with more than 40 saves when the season ends.
Toronto Blue Jays : B.J. Ryan looks pretty safe at this point, but it wasn't always that way. Remember in mid-May when Ryan had six saves for the season, Scott Downs had five and Jeremy Accardo had four? Since then, Ryan has recorded all the Toronto saves. Though his overall June stats don't look attractive (0-3 record, 5.40 ERA), note that in his past seven outings, he allowed a hit in only one of the games. Ryan is rolling; he just needs more chances. Downs remains the top set-up guy, as the back of this bullpen is very left-handed. Don't expect Accardo back anytime soon, because he's struggling to return from his forearm strain. Ryan should end up with 34 saves.
New York Yankees: Mariano Rivera is machinelike in his dominance, even though he lost Tuesday's game. Want some advice? Use him only in save situations, in which he still hasn't allowed a run all year in 23 1/3 innings. With three walks and 42 strikeouts overall, and just four earned runs in half a season (all coming in tie games), it's like we're watching Dennis Eckersley from 1990 all over again. Hey, that sounds like a future Relief Efforts topic! Anyway, Rivera was never the problem here; the issue was replacing Joba Chamberlain in the eighth inning. Kyle Farnsworth seemed to settle the issue with a solid June, finishing with a 3.38 ERA and 12 strikeouts against four walks. Sure, he won't be perfect, but he's nowhere near as bad as people expected. Jose Veras was also effective in June, winning two games and allowing three earned runs all month. The Yankees might not catch the Red Sox and Rays -- excuse me, the Rays and Red Sox, I mean -- but it won't be the bullpen's fault. Rivera, at 38, might be having his best season yet. I predict 43 saves and an ERA in the 1.75 range, still a monster season.
Boston Red Sox: Jonathan Papelbon is a beast, and though Mariano Rivera is the No. 1 closer on the Player Rater, if I were drafting today, I'd still take Papelbon first. What hasn't gone unnoticed is that the rest of the Boston bullpen isn't coasting along. Hideki Okajima has run into quite a few speed bumps, and right-handed hitters are noticing, hitting him for power and average. Manny Delcarmen has generally pitched well, but Houston lit him up in his past outing, and Craig Hansen remains erratic. Who will pitch the eighth inning for this team in October? Don't be surprised if starter Justin Masterson ends up helping this group out. Clay Buchholz can't be buried in the minors much longer, and Masterson doesn't need more work in the minors. David Aardsma, whose current claim to fame seems to be being listed first in the Baseball Encyclopedia, has been the second-best right-hander in the bullpen, but he still doesn't get to pitch in high-leverage situations. In June, Aardsma pitched 11 times, and the Red Sox lost eight of those games, through no fault of his own. Look for Papelbon to come in earlier in key games down the stretch and in the playoffs, and he'll end up with 47 saves.
Chicago White Sox: Bobby Jenks anchors one of the better fantasy bullpens in the game, as Octavio Dotel is on his way to achieving 100 strikeouts for the first time since 2004 and Scott Linebrink just might lead the league in holds. Jenks saved only four games in June, but received only five chances. His low strikeout rate of 5.29 K/9, under normal circumstances, would be a harbinger of bad things to come, but it's not always such a bad thing to induce grounders. Lefty Matt Thornton picked up a stray save the other day but shouldn't be getting more. Jenks is well protected by a number of pitchers who are ownable in fantasy, so leads will keep coming his way, and he'll save 38 games.
Minnesota Twins: Joe Nathan remains a safe, top-five closer, and fantasy owners have little reason to doubt his fine pitching is in danger. Three members of the set-up crew are casual helpers in holds, but none is a big helper in strikeouts or WHIP (Dennys Reyes, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier). It's nice to see the Twins overcome the season-ending loss of Pat Neshek, but none of the other guys is coveted in fantasy. By the way, the staff leader in strikeouts, entering Tuesday, was failed starter Boof Bonser. This says more about the rotation, and lest you think Bonser is worth owning as a reliever, his ERA is 7.71 when he doesn't start. Nathan should cruise to a career-high 46 saves.
Los Angeles Angels: Francisco Rodriguez continues to cruise along. He's on pace for 64 saves, and if he earns one more by the All-Star break, he'll tie the first-half record (34) set by John Smoltz in 2003. The Angels have a first-place team and a terrific bullpen, and neither is likely to change anytime soon. It's bad enough for opponents that Rodriguez and Scot Shields are impenetrable, but now Jose Arredondo comes along with a 1.40 ERA and 0.72 WHIP in the first 19 1/3 innings of his career. Maybe he's the next Rodriguez. I predict Rodriguez will fall short of the record and end up with 55 saves, but it's still a great season.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com fantasy. You can e-mail him here.
4hBy Ian O'Connor