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Relief Efforts: Injury landed Trevor Hoffman in bargain bin

4/9/2009

My colleague Christopher Harris discussed how to deal with injured starting pitchers in his standout "Sixty Feet, Six Inches" column Tuesday, noting that many of the decisions a fantasy owner must make on whom to target and ignore are dependent on the size and depth of your league. When it comes to starting pitchers, fantasy's deepest position, I totally agree. I play in leagues in which I won't wait for Ervin Santana and others in which anything I get from Tim Hudson this season is worth it.


When it comes to relief pitchers, however, I don't follow this line of thinking at all. My proof is in pretty much every draft I participated in this spring, as I went heavy on offense time after time and still wound up with strong enough pitching I found worthy of relying on in the later rounds. Ignoring an injured starting pitcher isn't such a big deal because plenty are out there. Doing this at closer is just not an option. Sure, I never end up with the Jonathan Papelbon and Joe Nathan types, and I'm not sure I've ever owned Mariano Rivera, but I don't forget about saves. I just get Joel Hanrahan in every league! Point is, there are far fewer closers than starters and a fraction of saves to wins, so it's just not the same relationship.


Who's next in line for saves in Seattle? What are Detroit's full complement of 9th-inning options? Check out Eric Karabell's Bullpen depth chart for the answers.
So it was that I found Trevor Hoffman to be one of the most popular closers on my many teams. No, I don't have a strong affinity to the game's all-time saves leader. In fact, I've been writing about his clear decline for two years and was concerned leaving Petco Park would really send his numbers into a spiral, but I kept taking him because he became so crazy undervalued in drafts this spring, first when he was healthy, and then especially after his disabled list stint was announced. And when I say kept taking him, we're talking Round 21 or so in 10-team mixed leagues. This is after George Sherrill and Fernando Rodney territory, to put things in perspective. Hoffman is still better than this, and should get his 30 saves (even with an inflated ERA) because he might miss only one week of the season with his current oblique strain. His injury has scared the public so much that the reaction has been extreme.

Harris also discusses the degree to which a pitcher is hurt when evaluating how a fantasy owner must react in roster moves made and not made, and in the case of Hoffman, I'd call the injury minor. Really, no official major injuries have befallen closers yet, though I think one is pending from the Bay Area, and I'll discuss that below. Unfortunately, there will be more. Hopefully, the active closers who I fear might be more hurt than they're letting on -- B.J. Ryan and Matt Lindstrom, for example -- either overcome injuries or remain effective enough that nobody notices.


This is Relief Efforts, and you'll be able to check it out each Wednesday among ESPN's fantasy baseball coverage. If you have topic ideas, feel free to post below the column in the conversation section or to my feedback box. You'll see sections below similar to what Mr. Harris used in his work -- company initiative! -- and one and a half times as many relief pitchers in my rankings as last season (to 60 from 40). Also, early in the spring I debuted a full-column chart listing each team's current closer as well as which pitchers are next in line, looming options and stealth possibilities. That chart will stick around and be updated each week as well. Enjoy, and have a great season!

Fortunes rising

Carlos Villanueva, Brewers. Sticking with my Milwaukee theme, here is a valuable swingman from whom fantasy owners have been able to extract strikeouts and decent peripherals the past two seasons. Villanueva didn't make the Milwaukee rotation yet again, but I don't think he'll fill in as a starting pitcher. The Brewers seem intent on Villanueva's being the top set-up guy for Hoffman, a significant promotion from going back and forth, in and out of the rotation. Villanueva has fared far better in the bullpen in his three major league seasons, with an ERA of 3.58 (4.40 in 21 starts). And as long as Hoffman is out with a strained oblique, it appears Villanueva will get the nod over David Riske, Jorge Julio and the rest when a save opportunity pops up. Because Hoffman could/should return by Week 2 of Relief Efforts, you shouldn't get too excited about long-term saves, but hey, you never know. Hoffman isn't young, so he could miss more time. He could get hurt again or pitch poorly and lose the job, though I doubt it. Even if Hoffman does as I expect and saves 30 games this season, Villanueva could be a fantasy asset for the 90 strikeouts and 25-plus holds, plus an ERA that matters more than that of most set-up men because we expect so many innings.


Huston Street, Rockies. In one of those spring job battles that never seemed close to being decided, Street ended up the closer over Manny Corpas, I'm guessing for no other clear reason than his 94 career saves and the value they hold on the open market. Corpas, with 23 career saves, had the better spring, but it's not as though Street got lit up, either. It's also important to note that Street makes the big bucks, and if the Rockies are 10 games out of first place when July hits, he'll arguably be the team's best trade bargaining chip. That's why I think that even if Street sputters at times, the Rockies will want him in the role. They can always go back to Corpas, the closer of their 2007 World Series run, at any point. If they start with Corpas, and Street inherits the role, it lowers the former Athletic's trade value.


Kevin Gregg, Cubs. The Cubs' closer role sprouted arguably the most publicized offseason closer debate, because one of the competitors was a dominant strikeout reliever last season and supposedly was guaranteed to get saves once Kerry Wood wasn't invited back. The other competitor was, well, Kevin Gregg. Sure, he had 61 saves in Florida the past two seasons, but he walks people, isn't terribly unhittable and, well, he's Kevin Gregg. A funny thing happened this spring as I warned people against drafting Marmol: Gregg had the better audition, and late in March, manager Lou Piniella gave him the job. Surprised? No, I really wasn't, because I had been acquiring Gregg in league after league almost expecting this news. Marmol, once the No. 6 closer in our rankings, dropped precipitously soon after, but let's be a bit careful here. He remains my leading contender to lead major league relievers in strikeouts, and maybe holds, too. He's good, and even with nary a save this season, he has major value. And, oh yeah, I think Gregg will keep this job. So what if his Opening Day save wasn't the cleanest? He has another 35 in him, definitely. In his case, only the saves matter. In Marmol's, everything else does.


Fortunes falling

Top 60 Relievers

Note: Eric Karabell's top 60 relievers are ranked for their expected performance from this point on, not on the statistics that have already been accrued.

1. Jonathan Papelbon, BOS
2. Joe Nathan, MIN
3. Mariano Rivera, NYY
4. Joakim Soria, KC
5. Brad Lidge, PHI
6. Francisco Rodriguez, NYM
7. Jose Valverde, HOU
8. Bobby Jenks, CHW
9. Brian Fuentes, LAA
10. Kerry Wood, CLE
11. Jonathan Broxton, LAD
12. B.J. Ryan, TOR
13. Matt Capps, PIT
14. Francisco Cordero, CIN
15. Heath Bell, SD
16. Frank Francisco, TEX
17. Kevin Gregg, CHC
18. Brian Wilson, SF
19. Joel Hanrahan, WAS
20. Chad Qualls, ARI
21. Huston Street, COL
22. Matt Lindstrom, FLA
23. Mike Gonzalez, ATL
24. Brad Ziegler, OAK
25. Jason Motte, STL
26. Troy Percival, TB
27. George Sherrill, BAL
28. Carlos Marmol, CHC
29. Carlos Villanueva, MIL
30. Brandon Morrow, SEA
31. Trevor Hoffman, MIL
32. Fernando Rodney, DET
33. Scott Downs, TOR
34. Brandon Lyon, DET
35. Chris Ray, BAL
36. J.J. Putz, NYM
37. Manny Corpas, COL
38. Hong-Chih Kuo, LAD
39. Leo Nunez, FLA
40. Ryan Franklin, STL
41. Dan Wheeler, TB
42. Jose Arredondo, LAA
43. Justin Masterson, BOS
44. Chris Perez, STL
45. Grant Balfour, TB
46. Tony Pena, ARI
47. Miguel Batista, SEA
48. Octavio Dotel, CHW
49. Scot Shields, LAA
50. Joey Devine, OAK
51. Josh Kinney, STL
52. Santiago Casilla, OAK
53. C.J. Wilson, TEX
54. Cory Wade, LAD
55. Takashi Saito, BOS
56. Joel Zumaya, DET
57. Seth McClung, MIL
58. Rafael Soriano, ATL
59. Ryan Madson, PHI
60. Ryan Perry, DET

B.J. Ryan, Blue Jays. When it comes to veteran pitchers who have their role defined, spring training is for merely getting in work, trying out new pitches, just messing around and avoiding injury. That's the way it's supposed to be, I thought. For the second consecutive spring, Ryan's velocity was way down in March. In 2008, when he was coming off Tommy John surgery, any velocity was viewed in a positive way, as in, "Hey, he's throwing! Maybe he can pitch in a real game soon!" Ryan did very well, exceeding expectations from his rehab and saving 32 games.

When Ryan's velocity was down this spring, however, the team expressed concern, and reports surfaced that Scott Downs would earn some save chances early on. Ryan got a vote of confidence for keeping his job, but the implication was clear: The leash will be short this season. No, none of this seems fair to me, especially with a pitcher who said he was working on mechanics. I moved Downs into one of the first noncloser ranking spots, just in case the Jays are serious. Even if they aren't, Downs will be a valuable middle reliever in fantasy. I just wouldn't go and give Ryan away for peanuts yet. He'll have 30 saves in him this season.


Joey Devine, Athletics. The minute I heard Devine's elbow troubles had come to the point where he was going to meet with famed surgeon Dr. James Andrews, my entire opinion of Oakland's bullpen structure changed. Not to be pessimistic or anything, but pitchers don't visit Andrews to share war stories or exchange pictures of their kids. It's normally bad news. Devine saw the good doctor -- it's obvious he's a good doctor, because everyone goes to see him -- and as of this writing, the news was still pending. The Athletics didn't need to wait for any pending confirmation of Tommy John surgery, however, placing Devine on not the 15-day disabled list, but the 60-day variety. That's all we need to know. Forget about Devine. I left him ranked, but nowhere near the midteens where he was, until we hear official word that we won't see him again until the middle of the 2010 season. Yet there's a reason Brad Ziegler is one of the most popular additions in ESPN.com leagues. He's the closer. More on Ziegler next week, but I'm still taking the under on his getting 25 saves this season. I just don't like the way he attacks lefty hitters, and I think the Athletics have veteran bullpen depth that could find its way into the ninth inning at times. For Devine, if you already made him one of your top closers, sorry. Call us in two seasons.


Brandon Lyon, Tigers. This one surprised me coming from the town where Todd Jones was permitted to star for years. We all know Lyon is not a dominating pitcher by any means, and he showed this during the second half of 2008 when National League hitters teed off on him, but it's not as though Fernando Rodney had a great spring, either. Lyon did have one notable nightmare outing in which four straight Red Sox homered off him, and their names weren't Yastrzemski, Rice, Williams and Varitek. OK, threw that last one in there! (The hitters were, incidentally, Mike Lowell, Jason Bay, Chris Carter and everyone's future Hall of Famer Ivan Ochoa.) Anyway, it doesn't matter who hit the homers. Lyon is hittable, and he had a bad spring. Same with Rodney. Just a mere days before the season began, manager Jim Leyland told reporters that if there were a save opportunity on Opening Day, it would go to Rodney. Hey, that was surprising and came without warning. It didn't surprise me when the defending AL Central last-place Tigers were blown out on Opening Day, depriving us the chance to see Leyland follow through on this, but still, it's clear Lyon isn't the current closer. Further proof came Tuesday night when Leyland turned to Lyon to get the final out of the eighth; he eventually did, but not before allowing an Aaron Hill home run. Then Leyland left him in to allow the winning run in the bottom of the ninth. Hey, it's not a good bullpen. You can see why I ranked Rodney, 0-6 with a 4.91 ERA last season, and Lyon, pretty close to each other, and ranked neither of them high. I still think Lyon will lead the 75-win Tigers in saves, so don't cut him in deeper formats, but if Joel Zumaya ever gets healthy, or Ryan Perry emerges, Leyland will love to go that route as well.

On the farm

Chris Perez, Cardinals. A month ago, I thought Tony La Russa would choose Perez to close games for the Cardinals. Then he missed two weeks with a sore shoulder, and despite pitching well, there was no room for him. Plus, Jason Motte earned the job with a stronger spring. The fact that Perez, the team's first-round pick in 2006, has been billed as closer of the future pretty much since the day he came aboard and still isn't saving games regularly is not irony; any combination of Perez's being lights-out for Triple-A Memphis and Motte's having more outings like Opening Day when he blew a game to the Pirates could change things. I think Ryan Franklin and/or Josh Kinney would still get the first call over a Perez promotion, but that's in April. In June, I think it would be all Perez.


Jose Ceda, Marlins. I was ringside at a March draft for a bet between leaguemates. When one fellow drafted Kevin Gregg in the middle rounds, a full week before the announcement he won the job, another guy said he wouldn't even outsave the guy for whom he was traded. Ceda is that guy, and although he didn't make the Marlins after a sore shoulder ruined his spring chances, he has major strikeout stuff. There's nothing wrong with Matt Lindstrom and Leo Nunez, but I have a feeling Ceda will be a closer someday. I won't predict it'll be in 2009, though. The guy who chose Gregg in that bet has already won.


Josh Fields, Mariners. Color me skeptical that Brandon Morrow is the next Jonathan Papelbon. All winter long we heard from the Mariners that Morrow was a starting pitcher and that there was never really any debate about it. The team signed Tyler Walker, kept telling reporters nice things about David Aardsma and others and refuted all Morrow-bullpen talk until … the last week of spring training. Then Morrow was suddenly anointed a relief pitcher, with the implication he'd close. He will, for a while, though Tuesday's walkfest was ugly, but it's premature to assume he can stay healthy in any role. Fields, the team's first-rounder a year ago, finally signed his contract around Valentine's Day, and with his nasty, hard stuff, it's hardly a stretch to see his name eventually earning saves. Fields and another top prospect, Phillippe Aumont, will ply their trade in the Southern League for the Double-A West Tenn Diamond Jaxx. Seattle could, in theory, turn to any of 10 pitchers to get saves, from what's on its active roster, to Chad Cordero, to what's in Double-A. Very interesting.

Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.