Relief Efforts: Bell's quick start no fluke


The common response to someone pointing out the first-place San Diego Padres are off to a blazing 6-2 start is to answer simply, "It can't continue." I don't disagree, because the Padres don't have much of an offense and nearly half the pitching staff was picked up off the scrap heap this offseason. These aren't particularly harbingers for success.

There's nothing wrong with Adrian Gonzalez and Jake Peavy, but it's relatively easy to see a scenario in which this team's most valuable fantasy player -- all things considered -- will be Heath Bell. The closer has converted his first four save opportunities with little issue; he allowed one hit, an Orlando Hudson gapper that turned into a triple, and a pair of walks, one of those unintentional/intentional ones following the Hudson leadoff triple. He remains unscored upon. He looks overpowering. Trevor who?

Who's next in line for saves in Toronto? What are Milwaukee's full complement of 9th-inning options? Check out Eric Karabell's Bullpen depth chart for the answers.
This wouldn't be the first time a writer, fantasy or any other sort, pointed out that truly awful teams aren't likely to furnish their closers with a ton of save opportunities. I generally agree with this notion, but I don't think the Padres are truly awful, either. Their division leaves much to be desired. The Padres aren't good, but I don't think Bell and his fantasy owners are going to want too much for save chances.

A year ago, when the Padres were losing 99 games, Trevor Hoffman found a way to save 30 games, while blowing four other official save chances. Overall, the Padres' 30 saves -- yep, Hoffman had all of them -- were third-worst in baseball (Braves, Nationals). But the team actually had 56 save opportunities, tied for 20th in baseball. The middle relief was a problem, and the Padres tied for seventh in blown saves.

Bell still isn't in the clear when it comes to his current setup men, but Duaner Sanchez was a significant addition and Cla Meredith has value. Edwin Moreno and Luke Gregerson haven't allowed a run in 10 combined innings. Things are looking up. The point is, there's no reason to ignore this closer based on his team's likelihood for losing. The Padres don't seem any worse than the 2008 version. They don't score many runs, which is actually good for creating save chances (see the Angels, circa 2008), and as long as Bell is effective, I can see at least 35 saves coming, maybe more.

Four saves in a week is nice, and they have turned Bell, the 15th closer to be selected in ESPN average live drafts, into the No. 2 relief pitcher on our Player Rater. Sure, it's early, and it's not likely other top-10 relievers from the Rater, such as David Aardsma and Michael Wuertz, will stay there for long, but I think Bell absolutely has staying power. In 2007, Bell was arguably the best reliever who didn't get saves, fanning 102 hitters in 93 2/3 innings with a 2.02 ERA and sub-1 WHIP. So what if Petco Park aids him? He still pitches half his games there, right? Bell was cruising in 2008 as well until a bad second half (6.18 ERA), with overuse being the point of contention, but even then he fanned more than a hitter per inning after the All-Star break and finished up with a cumulative 3.58 ERA and 71 strikeouts. There was little question Hoffman's departure opened up the ninth inning for Bell, as he became one of my relief sleepers and he's seized the opportunity, saving all four games he's entered, culminating in Monday's 1-2-3 save against the Mets.

I don't own Jonathan Papelbon, Mariano Rivera or Brad Lidge on any of my fantasy teams, because they just aren't worth the price on draft day. There are too many good offensive players to be found in the top 75. I'm not saying Bell will produce better overall numbers, but in terms of saves, which are all I'm looking for in a draft or from a trade, he's more than capable, and came at a fraction of the price. I dealt Joe Nathan during a draft for Joel Hanrahan and other parts, and don't feel at all guilty about that. They could end up with the same number of saves, just like Papelbon and Brian Wilson did in 2008. Wilson's Giants lost 90 games a year ago, but only Francisco Rodriguez and Jose Valverde had more saves. It happens every year.

Bell is going to give up runs at some point, even at Petco Park, but I think he could remain among the overall save leaders the entire season. Dealing a bigger-name closer for Bell and depth is not a bad move at all. This start is legit.

Fortunes rising

Fernando Rodney, Tigers: I know it's only a week, and in Rodney's case three ninth innings, but they've been spotless ninth innings, and that does matter. Rodney has breezed through nine hitters without putting anyone on base, throwing a total of 26 pitches and looking, well, really good. He's showed emotion and riled up the home crowd, the kind of emotion that closers show when they know they feel good and can overpower hitters. Sure, we've seen this before from the inconsistent Rodney, and his nice stretch could end in flames any time now, but what if this is his career turning point? A week ago, when I ripped Brandon Lyon -- deservingly, by the way -- I still predicted he'd lead the team in saves, so let's discuss what has changed, if anything. Rodney has pitched well, as did Lyon in his only appearance in the past week. Joel Zumaya continues to see improvement in his shoulder. My prediction on Lyon was based on Rodney remaining inconsistent with his command, which helped torch his 2008 season. Even in a decent second half when he posted a 4.07 ERA and saved 12 games in 16 chances, he walked 24 hitters in 31 innings. To be fair, he also fanned 44 hitters, a terrific strikeout rate, allowed a .219 batting average against and surrendered one home run. I remain cautious on Rodney, but have to admit the possibility he keeps pitching well, and Zumaya becomes the Carlos Marmol of the AL, a major flamethrower who dominates the eighth inning. As for Lyon, I wouldn't cut him quite yet, but I no longer expect he will close regularly.

Ryan Franklin, Cardinals: I've started comparing Tony La Russa to Mike Shanahan, the football equivalent to a coach/manager who makes strange yet important decisions that affect the fantasy side on what seems to be an uncalculated whim. La Russa seemed to love his hardest thrower, Jason Motte, in the spring, and bestowed upon him the closer role. Opening Day went awry for Motte, when Jack Wilson tripled home three baserunners Motte put on base. Since then three Cardinals have registered saves, none of them by Motte. Chris Perez has thrown three hitless innings for Triple-A Memphis, earning a win and a save, but even though he's just been recalled, he could pitch the fifth or the ninth inning, who knows? My guess is that Franklin is the most trusted reliever in La Russa's bullpen these days, and he'll get save chances until Motte strings together several dominant performances and earns back the trust blown in a five-minute span. Fair? Hardly. Kyle McClellan and Dennys Reyes are also in the mix, and for all we know, Josh Kinney could force his way into the picture as well. Want answers? Ask Tony. Really, I'm not even sure he knows who gets the next save. Franklin rises in the ranks to nearly the same spot as Motte, and it's likely the order changes by the next Relief Efforts.

Octavio Dotel, White Sox: It's not always about the saves, fantasy friends. Dotel is off to a wicked start, having retired 10 hitters, nine of them via strikeout. Only two full-time relief pitchers registered more strikeouts in 2008 than Dotel: Carlos Marmol and Joel Hanrahan. Dotel has long been one of the premier strikeout relievers in the game, and it's probably not a bad time to remind people that Bobby Jenks saw some decline in 2008 as he battled back woes and velocity loss. No, I don't think Jenks will lose his job tomorrow, but Dotel is next in line. With a strikeout per nine innings rate of 24.3, Dotel deserves watching and a higher ranking than last week whether he earns saves or not.

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 they have already accrued. Last week's rankings in parentheses.

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

Brian Fuentes, Angels: It's a bit too early to panic when it comes to Fuentes, but the Angels do have significant bullpen depth, and Fuentes can't really afford to struggle much longer without whispers running rampant of others getting opportunities. In an eventual loss to Oakland last week, Fuentes followed up rough performances from Jose Arredondo and Scot Shields by permitting three ninth-inning runs to lose the game. Nobody was talking about Fuentes the next day, nor should they have been, because the starting pitcher whose victory was lost was killed in a car accident. Fuentes got his next chance to close four days later and struggled a bit, hitting easy-out Nick Green with a pitch, then later allowing a pair of singles to halve a two-run lead. Fuentes did strike out J.D. Drew to earn the save, but it wasn't a pretty inning. Fuentes has faced 17 hitters so far in three appearances, and right-handed batters have hits in five of nine at-bats. It's way too small a sample size to make assumptions, especially since Fuentes has not struggled to retire right-handed hitters in the past few seasons, but there's also a reason why just about every closer throws with his right hand.

We should also remember Fuentes pulled out of the recent World Baseball Classic with back spasms a month ago, and then struggled when he did pitch in spring training. I wouldn't cut him in fantasy, but keep Shields in mind as a handcuff the next time Fuentes pitches poorly. Manager Mike Scioscia probably won't hesitate to make a change, and I do think Shields is next, ahead of Arredondo. My change in the rankings is minor, as Fuentes drops to No. 10 overall, but if the Indians ever plan to give Kerry Wood chances, or Bell and Matt Capps keep their fine pitching going, Fuentes will continue to drop as others move up.

Miguel Batista, Mariners: Here's a pitcher who showed up in my rankings solely because he figured to get a chance for saves. That chance isn't officially extinguished yet, but with the Mariners off to a nice 5-2 start and Brandon Morrow not able to pitch every day, David Aardsma has emerged as the next in line for saves, while Batista hurled the sixth and seventh innings in his most recent outing. Batista has pitched well, but it's clear he's been passed on the depth chart. He did get the chance to relieve a struggling Morrow in the second game of the season, but Batista can't really be blamed for inheriting a bases-loaded situation, even with two outs, and failing. The Mariners have received strong relief pitching so far -- Roy Corcoran and Mark Lowe have also been effective -- but Aardsma's two saves on days when Morrow was unavailable speak volumes. He's next. Batista drops from the rankings, and Aardsma enters.

Huston Street, Rockies: Like with Detroit's Rodney, I wrote about the Colorado bullpen a week ago, but have a different perspective now because I've watched the closer perform. Unlike Rodney's case, it's hard to like the results. Street looked terrible in the series against the Phillies. While "getting work" on Saturday, he allowed a double, single and single to start the ninth inning, and the singles were hit by Pedro Feliz and Chris Coste, right-handed hitters a guy like Street should eat up. He did retire Matt Stairs and Jimmy Rollins to avert more damage, before being relieved, but the next day he entered in a tie game in the ninth inning and fared worse. Feliz doubled down the left-field line -- it wasn't a hard-hit ball, but a bloop that found an open spot -- and then Street served up a long, no-doubt-about-it homer to Stairs. It was a 1-1 pitch and Street missed the target with a fastball that ran over the plate (he said he meant to throw it inside). Stairs wasn't complaining. The ball might still be traveling. It's worth noting Manny Corpas, the fellow right-hander that Street beat out in the spring, allowed a two-run homer himself in the eighth inning, but here's why I could see a change coming soon: These two are viewed pretty equally in Denver, and Corpas threw better in March, and is throwing better now. I surmise Street won the job, despite inferior stats in the spring, based on his experience as a closer and his value in the trade market. In four seasons entering 2009, he totaled 94 saves, while Corpas has half a 2007 season saving games. It's no secret the Rockies have several veteran players to move in July if they're out of the race, and Street is among them. If Street continues to miss his spots and Corpas fares better, it won't be a surprise to see the pecking order switched soon.

On the farm

Derrick Turnbow, Rangers: Hard to believe this right-hander was one of the top closers in baseball in 2005, but it's true. He went 7-1 for the Brewers and saved 39 games, boasting a 1.74 ERA. Since then, his wildness has gotten the best of him, to say the least. The Brewers gave up on him when he couldn't throw strikes last season (13 walks in 6 1/3 major league innings; 41 walks in 18 Triple-A innings … yes, you read that right: a 3.22 WHIP and 10.50 ERA in the minors), but the Rangers took a shot by offering him a minor-league deal this past winter. Turnbow didn't make the team, blaming his demotion on spring rust, but he did show signs of being competent. No Rangers pitcher appeared in more official spring games, and Turnbow fanned 13 hitters and walked nine in 12 innings. That's progress, I suppose. Now in Oklahoma City, Turnbow's first outing was a disaster; he walked four of the five hitters he faced. Why are we discussing him? I placed Turnbow in the "stealth" category for Rangers saves on the bullpen chart page, mainly because Frank Francisco is about the only reliable right-hander the team has, and he's a largely unproven closer. I'm days away from removing Turnbow from consideration if he can't harness his considerable stuff.

Garrett Mock, Nationals: I selected Mock in a deep dynasty league on the chance he'd become a back-of-the-rotation option for the big club, and after a decent spring in which he delivered a 3.94 ERA, the right-hander was demoted anyway. That in itself didn't surprise me, but the Nationals announcing Mock would train at Triple-A Syracuse to be a closer did. Mock doesn't have overpowering stuff, relying mainly on a low-90s fastball and competent slider to retire hitters. He's been a starter for years in the minors, and never profiled as an ace in the making, but don't the Nationals need starting depth more? Anyway, so far at Syracuse, Mock has pitched once, and it didn't go well, as he gave up a double, intentional walk to load the bases and then unintentionally walked in two runs to blow a game. Nationals closer Joel Hanrahan, a staple of many of my teams because of the low risk it took to get him, appears safe at closer, assuming the Nationals get him something to save. They're still winless as of this writing. Most teams don't announce that they're training someone else to close like this, so Mock deserves some attention. Hanrahan is also a converted starting pitcher, so if he struggles with his command, it's possible Mock could pass the others on the active staff, like Saul Rivera and Steven Shell, and get a chance to save games.

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 Karabell by e-mailing him here.