- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Good for Bobby Cox. No, I mean it. In an era of specialty in bullpens, when each team normally has one closer and that guy is babied so much that he is asked to pitch the ninth inning and only the ninth inning, it's nice to see Cox thinking outside the box. On Sunday, the Braves' manager had closer Mike Gonzalez warming up in the top of the eighth inning at Philadelphia. The flummoxed Phillies announcers tried to figure out what was happening.
Want to know who's next in line for saves for each team? Check out Eric Karabell's bullpen depth chart.
Had Gonzalez lost the closer role?
Who would pitch the ninth?
Would he pitch two innings?
Had Bobby Cox lost his mind?
It was none of the above, people. What Cox did was smart. Gonzalez was called upon to retire some of the hard-hitting left-handed portion of Philadelphia's lineup, and he did just that, retiring Ryan Howard, Raul Ibanez and, after a walk to Matt Stairs, right-handed hitting Pedro Feliz, all on 17 pitches. Gonzalez isn't one of those one-out left-handers with strong splits against lefties and bad numbers against right-handers, but because Rafael Soriano is thriving, it's a wise move to attack left-handers with a lefty.
Soriano, meanwhile, zoomed through the ninth inning on 12 pitches, 11 of them strikes, to earn his third save of the season.
Luckily for fantasy owners, I don't see this trend catching on, but it should. It's not similar to Tony La Russa's batting his pitcher eighth, you know. This is smarter. Leverage your best relievers to their strengths, and good things will happen. Of course, Cox had Soriano available, so it's not as if he was relying on Jeff Bennett or James Parr to close the game.
Soriano has a 1.20 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 16 innings. When healthy, he's been one of the better right-handed set-up men in the game, and he saved nine games for the 2007 Braves. He can close if needed. Gonzalez will close more often, but Soriano should pick up a few saves when the matchups are right. The fantasy spin on this is that Gonzalez isn't likely to pick up 30 saves, not with Soriano figuring to end up in double digits, but Derek Lowe and Jair Jurrjens can feel safe in the knowledge their manager doesn't care about egos when it comes to holding leads. (Don't be worried about Gonzalez blowing a save during Jurrjens' start against the Mets on Tuesday, which was basically on-fire Carlos Beltran doubling, stealing and scoring pretty much on his own.)
The Braves essentially have two closers, a huge advantage considering quite a few teams don't have any viable or reliable options. Gonzalez is owned in a mere 80.2 percent of ESPN.com standard mixed leagues, which tells me that plenty of owners out there believe this is a true time-share. It's not, really. Few teams are so unbalanced in the middle of the order. Soriano's first save of the season came when Gonzalez needed a day off after pitching the previous few games. His second save came when Gonzalez was called on in the eighth inning of a scoreless game against the Nationals, with lefty Adam Dunn coming up and a man on base. Soriano faced three right-handed hitters in the ninth, so the move worked out perfectly.
So what if Cox's interesting thinking starts to catch on, or if he decides to use Soriano a bit more for an out at a time in the ninth? Are there other situations in which closers could start to share opportunities? It's probably premature at this point, but here are some situations that might warrant attention.
Angels: Brian Fuentes is getting hammered by right-handed hitters, but luckily for him, Jose Arredondo and Scot Shields were better against lefties in 2008. I think Fuentes would simply lose the role, not share it.
Nationals: In theory, I could see Joe Beimel getting a chance, but this situation changes by the game. More on this later.
Phillies: Hey, J.C. Romero will return later this month, and he held lefties to a .102 batting average in 2008. Lidge will lose the job only if he's hurt (which he probably is).
Pirates: Matt Capps is more likely to hit the disabled list than to lose chances to John Grabow, but if he does, Grabow and the otherwise erratic Tyler Yates (.192 against right-handed batters, .500 against lefties!) could share duties.
White Sox: Lefty Matt Thornton has struck out 13 of the 23 lefty hitters he's faced. But manager Ozzie Guillen would never share a closer role.
Now, back to the normal categories you know from Relief Efforts.
Juan Cruz, Royals: Sometimes life just works out, doesn't it? Cruz had been an excellent strikeout relief pitcher for the Diamondbacks for three seasons and, before that, for other teams, but he spent most of the winter looking for work anyway. No obvious closer situations were open, so he waited. And he waited. Between Cruz's asking price and the compensation a team needed to give Arizona to sign him, he remained unemployed until the final day of February, when the Royals gave him a two-year contract. It had seemed like an odd destination because the Royals had one of the top closers in the business, and spending money on the luxury of a strikeout set-up man didn't seem the Kansas City way. Alas, Cruz found a new home. If he wanted to get saves, it didn't seem like the place to go, but who knew Joakim Soria would deal with lingering soreness in his pitching shoulder throughout the spring and start of the season? It finally resulted in a disabled-list stint last week.
For all we know, Soria might return within the 15 days when eligible, or he could have problems all season. The Royals claim the shoulder has not suffered structural damage, which is good, but it hardly means the pain will go away soon. Don't drop Soria, but this might take more time than we think. Cruz instantly became the team's closer, but the interim tag could stick awhile. Cruz always has had closer stuff, but his command sometimes betrays him. He's been a Cub, Brave, Athletic and Diamondback, and at each stop he has managed to avoid getting a save, though he always has had major strikeout totals. Now he's a closer, for however long it lasts, so one can argue that in his ninth season he's never been more valuable in fantasy than he might be for the next fortnight, or more.
Chad Qualls, Diamondbacks: Speaking of Cruz's most recent former team, part of the reason it didn't feel the need to bring Cruz back was that nobody was worried about Qualls' struggling as a full-time closer. So far, so good, as Qualls is one save behind the major league lead and is registering more than a strikeout per inning. He has moved up a few spots in the rankings thanks to the misfortune of others, namely Philly's gopher-ball specialist Brad Lidge, but if you ask me whether I would be comfortable choosing Qualls among the top 10 closers, I would nod my head in agreement. I don't think people realize how good Qualls, like Cruz, has been for a few seasons, as this will be the first season in the past five when he won't finish with more than 20 holds. That's because he's on his way to around 35 saves.
Andrew Bailey, Athletics: On the rising list for the second straight week, Bailey continues to be not only one of the top middle relievers in baseball but also a serious candidate to steal the closer job right out of Brad Ziegler's flu-ridden hands. Ziegler has been dealing with the illness and asthma, and when he finally returned to the field last week, he got lit up a few times, first by the Rangers and then the Blue Jays. Meanwhile, Bailey picked up a two-inning save this past weekend, taking a 5-3 lead from Michael Wuertz and Russ Springer and holding it with two perfect innings while throwing only 20 pitches. Manager Bob Geren didn't proclaim him the new closer, but one can see how Bailey's performance could change the situation if Ziegler doesn't pitch better. Based on Bailey's minor league numbers, there was little indication the next Carlos Marmol would be born, but the Athletics aren't complaining. Bailey has allowed six hits all season in 21 1/3 innings, and his strikeout rate has never been a problem. Sure, this guy was in Double-A a year ago and started 15 games, so who knows how long this fun will last, but he's a definite add just in case he starts getting more saves. Ziegler maintains the better ranking for now, but Bailey is thisclose to the top 30.
Brad Lidge, Phillies: I think Phillies fans and fantasy owners should be a bit worried at this point. Lidge is allowing home runs at a startling rate, five of them in 13 2/3 innings, and he's already allowed more than twice as many as his 2008 total of two. In 2006-07 with the Astros, Lidge allowed 19 regular-season home runs, which on the surface appears to be the only major difference between those seasons and his championship campaign with the Phillies. His K rate was fluid, he didn't allow too many hits, he just avoided home runs in 2008 and thus allowed many fewer runs, but his fly-ball rate didn't change. The fly balls just didn't leave the park. Was it sheer luck or something else?
Lidge and the Phillies seem in agreement that the right-hander's mechanics are just a bit off, and his troublesome right knee remains a problem. Manager Charlie Manuel says Lidge just needs more work. Whatever the case is, I don't think Lidge will lose the job unless he needs a DL stint, but I do expect him to finish with an overall ERA in the 3s, as he did his final season in Houston. He should surpass 30 saves if he stays healthy, but overall I can't confidently call him a top-10 closer if he continues on a pace to allow 25 home runs. I watched live from Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday night as he was handed a three-run lead in the ninth inning and gave up a few hard-hit singles, and Juan Pierre hit a rocket for the final out. It's like watching Mitch Williams in Philly all over again!
David Aardsma, Mariners: I almost feel bad for Mariners fans, because you can see how this bullpen situation could fall apart any day now, if it hasn't already. Aardsma drops in the rankings because Brandon Morrow came off the DL and went right back to the closer role, but it's not as if he's at all durable, so in AL-only formats, Aardsma's owners should keep him around. Morrow's owners should be happy he's closing, but when will the next injury come? The problem with the Mariners is that their strong April -- if 13-9 gets your heart racing -- was probably unsustainable.
The Mariners went to Kansas City last week and scored two runs in two games. Then they went to Minnesota and Scott Baker, he of the 0-4 record and 9.15 ERA at the time, shut them out for seven innings. Seattle can't score. That normally would be a good thing for a closer's potential save opportunities, but I don't know if the Mariners' bullpen can sustain its numbers, either. Aardsma still has the flashy ERA and WHIP, but I wouldn't place him among the top-10 middle relievers. His ranking reflects the possibility for saves, but any day now I almost expect a really bad outing, like the one Mark Lowe suffered through Tuesday.
Joe Beimel, Nationals: Anyone else getting tired of Washington's closer situation? Manager Manny Acta sure seemed to make it clear that lefty Beimel would take over the role when he came off the DL, but when the Nationals got their next lead, Beimel pitched the eighth inning and Kip Wells closed things out, although the lead was too big to register a save. It really seemed as though Beimel was merely the team's set-up man. On Tuesday, however, Wells pitched the eighth and Beimel started the ninth for the first time. After he got two outs and was on his way to solidifying the job, things did not go well. First came a single, then a walk and then Pablo Sandoval hit one a long way for a walk-off homer. It's important to note that Joel Hanrahan was warming up at the time. Look, this is crazy. I feel bad for the Nationals, because they seldom have leads, and when they do, someone can't hold them.
I still think Hanrahan will earn the job back. Some combination of Wells and Beimel has it now, but those guys won't hold it. Own Hanrahan or simply look elsewhere than this team for saves.
Comings and goings
It was only a matter of time before the Red Sox would realize Daniel Bard and his 100 mph heater were major league-ready. Although Jonathan Papelbon hasn't been as lights-out as normal, he's still really good, and good enough to lead my rankings. I could see a scenario in which Bard becomes one of the top set-up men, but it's a bit premature to assume it. Just so you know, Bard threw 16 innings at Triple-A Pawtucket, striking out 29 hitters and allowing six hits and five walks. I'd say he's ready to do what Manny Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez are doing.
The Indians weren't getting good pitching from anyone not named Cliff Lee, so rubber-armed Aaron Laffey lost his starting gig and picked up a three-inning save against the Red Sox. Jeremy Sowers replaced him in the rotation. The Indians didn't really solve any problems here, but Laffey and fellow bullpen newcomer Matt Herges could pitch well and in theory create more save chances for Kerry Wood. Entering Tuesday, the Cleveland bullpen had a 6.18 ERA and 1.62 WHIP. Not good.
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 twice has 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.
1dMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne