- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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There was a long e-mail exchange in one of my leagues recently, in which one of the owners essentially wasn't aware of one of the key rules. It would affect his chances of winning the championship, unless he changed his strategy. There's a season starts limit, and while this fella should have known it, he finally figured things out when he got to within 10 starts. He has good pitching, but he can't move it now that the trade deadline has passed. Roy Halladay on free agency, get ready to claim!
When I looked at where this guy's team fell in the standings, the situation didn't seem so dire to me. There are plenty of major league pitchers out there who neither start nor close games but have decent fantasy value, and they are sitting in free agency. While your normal Carlos Marmol types were likely drafted, there are others out there if you look.
I didn't want to help the guy out too much, since I'm competing for the title as well and normally employ a strikeout middle reliever at all times, but I figured now would be an opportune time to discuss the relief pitchers many owners have disregarded for four months. Now that they see they are above the pace for starts or innings, or just need to start ditching the ERA killers to get back into contention in that category, someone like Chad Durbin is starting to look pretty valuable, no?
Ownership in ESPN standard leagues is a decent indicator of what people are thinking, so I took a gander at which relief pitchers are available in more than half the leagues. You might be surprised at who is not so popular.
No, most middle relievers are not going to win you many games, but they can do the following: They can strike hitters out and they aren't Clay Buchholz. By this I mean if you take a look at the seven-day and other recent trends for free agents in your league, you will find that the strikeout leaders in any small time period will have your Glen Perkins types, but also fellas like Tim Byrdak and Joel Peralta. I'm not saying Byrdak and Peralta are team saviors or anything, but it beats sending Livan Hernandez out there, doesn't it? The relief pitchers aren't hurting you the way Buchholz currently is.
So, let's dig a little deep. We're not talking about Brad Ziegler, Chris Perez and Joel Zumaya, whether they are or aren't going to get saves. Nor will you see Todd Jones or Ryan Franklin. We want ERA, WHIP and strikeouts here, because you might not know it, but plenty of ground can be made up even in the final six weeks of the fantasy season. And you won't see Jon Rauch or Grant Balfour, because they are owned in just a smidge more than 50 percent of leagues. Balfour should be owned in a lot more leagues, but that's a topic for another column. I mean, John Grabow should get some saves for the Pirates and you should own him for that reason, but Balfour is just nasty, the AL version of Marmol. Since the All-Star break, he's allowed two hits and three walks in 12 2/3 innings, and fanned 17. Nasty.
Jose Arredondo, Angels: I actually thought he'd be owned in a lot more than 2.9 percent of leagues, but he's no threat for saves, cedes most of the team's holds to Scot Shields and, unlike Ziegler, he's allowed some runs, so maybe people aren't believers. Well, believe, because he might be the next Francisco Rodriguez. Remember, K-Rod didn't close when he first came up. Arredondo has permitted a mere four earned runs in 38 innings. His strikeout rate has dropped a bit over the past few weeks, though, but if you watch him pitch, you can see he's no less effective. Also, in two of his past four outings he's gotten six outs. You want relievers who don't get hit and pile on the innings.
Justin Masterson, Red Sox: He was mass dropped when he left the Boston rotation, but you have to like a strikeout middle reliever who can pitch multiple innings as well. Masterson pitched 2 2/3 innings against the White Sox on Sunday and struck out five hitters, which is nice. Plenty of starting pitchers that day didn't reach five K's, including Matt Cain and Cliff Lee, who tossed a shutout (Brandon Webb registered five as well). The Paul Byrd trade ensures, as if there were any doubt, that Masterson will not be starting this season. He could be Boston's version of Arredondo. The Cubs' Chad Gaudin is similar in that he was a starting pitcher and now is capable of pitching multiple innings in relief for a winning team, and performing well. These guys are underrated. So what if they don't save games!
Chad Durbin, Phillies: The interesting thing about relief pitchers is some throw really hard, others have nasty off-speed stuff, yet you still have Durbin types who seem to get by on guile and grit and get similar results. Octavio Dotel strikes out everyone. Only Carlos Marmol and Joel Hanrahan have more K's as relief pitchers, but pitchers like Dotel don't go under the radar. Durbin does. He was never a strikeout pitcher in the past, but might end up with more than 70 this season, a nice treat. He's not getting hit, he's allowed two home runs all season and was trusted to get a save over the weekend. I don't see him picking up more saves, but there's little reason to think poundings are coming his way, either.
Joe Nelson, Marlins: Remember when this guy picked up some late-season saves for the Royals in 2006? I watched him pitch and wondered why a 30-something finesse guy would be given the chance to close for a last-place team. Nelson had shoulder problems after that and now he's surfaced in Florida, where he's fanned 41 in 34 2/3 innings, including 18 in 12 1/3 innings since the All-Star break. Even if Kevin Gregg were to lose the closer's job, Arthur Rhodes might be next in line, but own Nelson because he's pitching well and accruing strikeouts. Steven Shell of Washington also fits this mold as someone piling on the strikeouts.
Frank Francisco, Rangers: He always had the stuff, but the tall right-hander had command problems and was a bit of an enigma to the Rangers, who didn't want to risk using him consistently in high-leverage situations. That has changed, or at least it had until Tuesday night in the 19-17 game at Fenway. I'm just overlooking that one. Eddie Guardado replaced the injured C.J. Wilson as closer for Texas, but Francisco is next in line and should pick up the occasional save as well. Francisco walked 20 hitters in 37 2/3 innings prior to the All-Star break, and before Tuesday he hadn't issued any free passes in 10 post-break innings, with four hits allowed and 13 strikeouts. He's also far more likely to be the leader in the clubhouse for saves in 2009 if he keeps this up.
And now, back to the normal categories you've come to expect from Relief Efforts each week.
Brian Wilson, Giants: Well, technically there's no way to buy low on anyone if the trading deadline in your league passed, but I put Wilson in this category because I think he has been vastly underrated this season. It's all about the saves, correct? That's what I care most about, and if a guy has an elevated ERA, it's not that big a deal. Wilson has actually thrived in his save chances, and he's been good since the All-Star break. He hasn't walked anyone in his past seven outings, covering seven innings, which is another nice sign he's finally getting it. I don't think there's much debate about Wilson for 2009; he's a closer on a team that shouldn't be good, but he is a safe save guy at this point, and that makes him someone you could keep at a cheap price in auction leagues or deep keeper formats.
Brad Lidge, Phillies: It's always about the injuries. This is what scared me, not the fact he would give up home runs at his new cozy ballpark or whether the fans would make him cry if he blew a save chance in early April. Lidge might be fine in the long run, but one has to assume his recent struggles are related to his shoulder woes. If this were mid-April and not mid-August, chances are good the Phillies would have already placed their closer on the DL, but you can't do this in a pennant race and when the next in line is also disabled (Tom Gordon). For those who can still make trades, I wouldn't sell Lidge cheap, but I would take a lesser closer like San Francisco's Wilson and a minor upgrade in the outfield to feel safer.
Jensen Lewis, Indians: OK, really, I wrote this part before Tuesday's game. It's possible his save later that night was a harbinger of him becoming the next Lee Smith, because the Indians need someone to step up. Why not Lewis? And when I write "Who's next," why can't it be he's next to become a reliable double-digit save guy? Masa Kobayashi has pitched himself out of consideration by allowing runs in four of his past seven outings, and in three of those games he gave up home runs. Rafael Perez is an eighth-inning guy, and let's not forget he has allowed five home runs to right-handed hitters this season, meaning there's a clear need for a right-handed pitcher to step up. Lewis has Cleveland's lone saves in the past week, and in those games, Perez set him up. Lewis hasn't duplicated his success from his rookie campaign, but he's a groundballer who generally avoids the home run. He doesn't have closing experience, but it might not matter. Half of today's closers didn't, either.
J.C. Romero, Phillies: The post-deadline trade the Phillies made to get lefty Scott Eyre from the Cubs seemed minor, but it did allow Romero to break away from being just a situational lefty. Eyre can handle that. Romero is tied with the Cardinals' Kyle McClellan for most holds since the All-Star break with seven, and with Lidge still a question mark, expect plenty of high-leverage, late-game situations for Romero, like Tuesday when he pitched the ninth in a tie game. He allowed the winning run, but didn't exactly get lit up, as he hit a guy, gave up a ground ball that moved him over and allowed a scratch single by Andre Ethier that won the game. Romero normally demolishes lefties, having allowed six hits in 77 at-bats all year (.078 batting average), and while he does tend to walk people and his WHIP doesn't match up with the low ERA, he's safe. McClellan leads baseball in holds for the season, amazing considering few knew his name back in April. Arthur Rhodes and Ron Mahay are two other lefties who aren't just getting left-handed hitters out these days.
Bullpen to watch
New York Mets: Take your pick, really. I could have chosen the Cardinals or Tigers, too. I think Chris Perez can keep the closer job for Tony La Russa if he continues to pitch well and avoid walks, and it would help his cause if Jason Isringhausen wouldn't thrive setting him up. With the Tigers, one day we're told Joel Zumaya is the man, then Fernando Rodney saves the game that night. Rodney has figured out whatever was wrong, apparently, and the turning point might have been on Aug. 5, when he threw three hitless innings against the White Sox, fanning five. Since then he has picked up two saves, and Zumaya had a brutal outing when he walked three and allowed two hits without retiring a hitter. Now he's hurt again. As for the Mets, Aaron Heilman has been awful the past two weeks. Maybe manager Jerry Manuel sticks with him against right-handed hitters until Billy Wagner returns, which could be in a week, but I think Duaner Sanchez is back in the picture as well. Sanchez has allowed nary a run since July 26, while Heilman has a 10.97 ERA in that span. Rookie Eddie Kunz is in the picture, and he was expected to close Tuesday. Pedro Feliciano went 1-2-3 through the feared Nationals lineup to save the game for Johan Santana, getting Willie Harris, Wil Nieves and Emilio Bonafacio without much trouble, but don't read into that. Wagner can make all this moot by coming back healthy and strong soon, and then Sanchez can set him up, but that would just be too easy, right?
Francisco Rodriguez just can't be stopped. Save No. 46 came his way Tuesday, one off his career mark, when he entered with two outs and two on in the ninth and a four-run lead. Wow, the Angels aren't trying to hide the fact they want to get him the record, eh? Mariano Rivera blew the save Tuesday against the Twins, his first in about a calendar year, and how odd is it that singles hitter Delmon Young smacked the three-run homer? Rivera remains dominant, though his homer rate is nearly even with his walks (four homers, five walks). Brandon Lyon bounced back from back-to-back "getting work" outings in which he allowed five runs in two innings by getting a save Tuesday, his first in 11 days. Jon Rauch is pitching better, but no closer change is imminent. Brad Ziegler saved Tuesday's game against the Rays, and needed only three outs to do so. Oddly enough, his becoming the Oakland closer might lessen his value in all other categories, as he goes from a two-inning guy to one! In five of his previous six outings, he had gone two or more innings. Kerry Wood still isn't closing for the Cubs, but it shouldn't be much longer. Lou Piniella has no competition here, and Wood appears healthy. His back, blisters and psyche are all OK. While Detroit's Rodney has pitched well, Todd Jones might be back from the DL this week. Just sayin'. Atlanta's Mike Gonzalez has one save since July 18. Blame Chipper.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. You can e-mail him here.