- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Until mid-March, when his name was casually mentioned as one of the possibilities for saves in the Seattle bullpen, David Aardsma had one claim to fame: Open the humongous "Baseball Encyclopedia" with thousands of players listed, and the only one ahead of Hank Aaron is, well, you guessed it, him.
Now Aardsma is making a name for himself as an unlikely closer for the Mariners, and so far, so good, I'd say. Sure, it took a number of scenarios for him to earn the role in the first place, not the least of which is his finally pitching effectively at the big league level. And it might not last into the final months because the Mariners have numerous youngsters of interest, having used their past three first-round draft picks on pitchers currently assigned to a relief role. But fantasy owners should enjoy the ride for now.
Want to know who's next in line for saves for each team? Check out Eric Karabell's bullpen depth chart.
Of the 30 pitchers entering Tuesday with four or more saves, Aardsma compares favorably in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts. Those other 29 pitchers have also totaled 10 holds; Aardsma has six on his own, even more proof he's been a consistent performer this season, and maybe we shouldn't be so surprised he's beginning to thrive in the closer role.
A former first-round pick in 2003 by the Giants, Aardsma made his major league debut the following season, but has never delivered long stretches of effectiveness. He's been traded four times, pitched for the Giants, both Chicago teams and the Red Sox, and his career ERA entering 2009 was 5.29. Even I was skeptical about his place in the Seattle bullpen in spring training, especially once Morrow was moved from the rotation and tabbed to close, but manager Don Wakamatsu did praise Aardsma as the most consistent hurler of the relief corps. That also could have meant he was the least bad of the bunch. Aardsma picked up a few April saves when Morrow wasn't available, and when Morrow flamed out last weekend, Aardsma was the obvious choice to become closer.
This is ultimately why writers like myself and Matthew Berry don't draft Jonathan Papelbon, Mariano Rivera and Joe Nathan, ever. Every season, plenty of saves come out of nowhere, with more than a third of all closer jobs changing. Who would have expected Aardsma to become a closer? Nobody, even in Seattle, and that's entirely the point. Sure, Aardsma is no lock to continue his success, but even if he loses the job, there will be other saves available on the free-agent wire.
I actually happen to think Aardsma can continue to pitch well and pick up 20 or so saves, but we have to expect some regression in his numbers. He's not a ground-ball pitcher; he's just avoided home runs this season. Walks remain a problem as well as health. You might remember a season ago Aardsma was pitching reasonably well for the Red Sox. At the All-Star break, his ERA was 2.77 in 39 innings, with 41 strikeouts and only one home run allowed. He wasn't pitching only in games the Red Sox trailed, either. Then he hurt his groin and his numbers blew up the final two months.
This actually is a decent situation for him to succeed. The Mariners can send strong starting pitching out there half the time, with Felix Hernandez, Erik Bedard and Jarrod Washburn. Mark Lowe seems to be emerging as the set-up man, and during the weekend he threw nine of the 10 hardest pitches of the day, so he has that going for him. The Mariners' offense won't overwhelm anyone, so that cuts down on the 7-2 wins. In fact, the Mariners have won five games all of May, and each win was by two or fewer runs.
What do I think will happen with this bullpen? Let's discuss the members of the Seattle bullpen that matter for fantasy with my projections:
Aardsma: I say he keeps this going, finishes with 21 saves, a 3.45 ERA and in a Kevin Gregg sort of way establishes himself as someone who can close in the future. Gregg was never tabbed as a future closer, either. So grab Aardsma if he's available, as this could continue, but don't expect a sub-2 ERA for long.
Morrow: I just can't see him or his electric arm staying healthy. He'll have moments this season where he's dominant, and piles on the strikeouts, but I'll take the under on his getting to 10 saves, due to inconsistency and a lack of command. I still think he and Joba Chamberlain are more similar than we realize, and next spring he'll be tried as a starting pitcher again.
Lowe: He's a serious hard-thrower who often doesn't know where the ball is headed. I don't think there are saves in his future. He's also prone to the game in which nothing goes well, which can ruin his ERA and your week if you own him for safe outings. A week ago, he entered in a 1-1 tie and the Rangers scored six runs off him, though only three were earned.
Chad Cordero: The obvious sleeper pick is still recovering from the torn labrum that ruined his 2008 campaign. The Mariners took a no-risk chance with a minor league contract, but it's very optimistic to think this is anything other than a Freddy Garcia-type deal from 2008. Maybe Cordero pitches a few times. Last I heard, his velocity wasn't close to where it should be.
Joshua Fields: The team's top draft pick in 2008 finally agreed to a deal in February, and he's pitching for the Double-A West Tenn Diamond Jaxx in the Southern League. His numbers are a bit all over the place, with more runs than innings, and more strikeouts than anything else. I doubt the Mariners start his major league clock in 2009, but he does appear to be a future closer, probably in 2011.
Phillippe Aumont: Here's the team's top pick from 2007, a 6-foot-7 fireballer who was converted from starter to reliever this spring. He's only 20, hurling in high Class A ball, and he looked good pitching in the WBC for Canada. Frankly, I don't get why he's not being developed to start games. General manager Jack Zduriencik wants these three strikeout pitchers in the majors soon, and that would favor having them pitch in relief, but it's just not wise long-term or proper use of value. Regardless, one would think Fields is ahead of Aumont for the right to close in 2011, but there's a long way to go. Either way, we won't see them in 2009.
Randy Messenger: I'm not proud to even mention the name, since we've seen the journeyman in the bigs before, and he's just not that good. Then again, Aardsma had that label as well. Messenger is the closer for Triple-A Tacoma and I'd think he's with the big club relatively soon, adding depth. If Aardsma loses the job and Morrow can't cut it, I'd think Lowe and even Miguel Batista would get the next shot. Former Nationals reliever Steven Shell has an 8.59 ERA for the Rainers, but I doubt we see him in the bigs anytime soon.
OK, let's move on to the rest of Relief Efforts.
Scott Downs, Blue Jays: B.J. Ryan is back pitching and still there is not even the threat of a closer controversy, because Downs continues to excel. It also didn't hurt when manager Cito Gaston quelled confusion by stating Downs would keep the job. With a 1.86 ERA and 0.78 WHIP in 19 1/3 innings, I don't know how Downs would lose the job. He's walked only two hitters against 22 strikeouts, and the lefty is destroying right-handed hitters for a .132 batting average against. I moved Downs up a few spots because he's looking safe to me.
Ryan Franklin, Cardinals: Same thing in St. Louis, where we know Tony La Russa is bound to try anything to win a game, but there's little reason to think Franklin is about to start struggling. Past performance might be an indication his final ERA will rise, but I don't assume that would mean he'll lose the job. Franklin has pitched in 16 games and allowed a run in only one of them, a road game in Cincinnati in which he somehow allowed home runs to Jerry Hairston Jr. and pitcher/pinch hitter Micah Owings. And Franklin still won the game. Those who recall Franklin's foibles as a gopher-ball-allowing starting pitcher might never trust him, and there will be more home runs in his 2009 future, but why can't he pick up 30 saves? I've become a believer.
Huston Street, Rockies: We have to give him credit for figuring things out, as Street has really turned his season around, not allowing a run since April 24. That's 10 appearances and nine innings, and he permitted base hits in only three of those games and a walk in only two. Meanwhile, Manny Corpas continues to implode, strengthening Street's hold on the closer role. At this point, we should assume Street is back on pace to earn 25 saves, though fantasy owners should remember he's prime trade bait and the Rockies hardly look like contenders. Street could be helping Brian Bruney out for the Yankees by August.
Kerry Wood, Indians: Well, it might be time to worry now, eh? Wood entered Tuesday with a 5.84 ERA, but he had allowed only two home runs and his lack of saves since May 1 was more because of his team than anything else. Then the Royals teed off on Wood, as Mike Jacobs and Mark Teahen homered, David DeJesus tripled to tie the game and the Willie Bloomquist sacrifice fly was the icing on the cake in Wood's second loss of the season. I don't think Wood is hurt. I think he craves more work, and that could be part of the issue, but overall his poor season was a bit misleading. At least until Tuesday night. Unless there's an injury we don't know about, I'll still expect 25 saves from him -- less than originally thought because the Indians just can't get their act together.
Frank Francisco, Rangers: He had skyrocketed up my rankings, then biceps tendinitis got in the way and sent him to the DL. Francisco threw a bullpen session Monday and appears ready to return to the Rangers this weekend. I expect he'll go right back into the closer role. C.J. Wilson was his top set-up option and will continue to get saves when Francisco cannot. With the help of Jason Jennings, Darren O'Day and rookie Derek Holland, this bullpen isn't half bad.
Chris Ray, Orioles: So much for the announced committee. George Sherrill is still getting each save chance, and it's not like he's only out there because the opposing lineup is all left-handed. Sure looks like Sherrill never lost the job. He will, of course, because he's still not that good and can't retire right-handed hitters consistently, but Ray is giving little indication he's ready to assume a larger role. A few days before Tuesday's pounding at Yankee Stadium in which he was charged with four earned runs and didn't get an out, Ray walked four hitters in an inning and a third. He's still owned in more than 20 percent of ESPN leagues. Look elsewhere. It sure looks like Jim Johnson is next in line, though Danys Baez is pitching better. It's probably time to forget about Ray getting saves in 2009.
Comings, goings and random thoughts
• Look who's coming back into relevance, everyone's favorite Royal Kyle Farnsworth. Hey, in April we were like the hitters Farnsworth faced, hardly kind to the right-hander, but credit is due as he's gone 10 consecutive outings, covering 11 innings, without allowing a run. He's also walked only two hitters in that span, and he won Tuesday's game thanks to the Kerry Wood implosion. I think Joakim Soria will be out longer than the 15 days on his DL stint, and Juan Cruz will get the saves until he returns, but Farnsworth is back in the picture for relevance.
• The Red Sox will get Daisuke Matsuzaka back in the rotation soon, meaning Justin Masterson will be sent back to the bullpen. Masterson wasn't so great in his six starts anyway, with a 4.59 ERA and high hit rate, so he might help fantasy owners more picking up the occasional win and hold in relief. I'll be interested to see if recently promoted flamethrower Daniel Bard gets more high-leverage outings.
• We talk Sox, we must give equal time to the Yankees, right? Brian Bruney is back on the active roster and should move right back into the top set-up role for Mariano Rivera, but Phil Coke certainly didn't hurt his chances for late-inning appearances. Coke saved Monday's game against the Twins, and we should note the lefty isn't having troubles retiring right-handers. One final Yankees note: It's a broken record from me, but forget about Joba Chamberlain's moving to the bullpen. I just don't get why Phil Hughes is never discussed in this manner.
• The Padres finally promoted Triple-A closer Greg Burke, and with the release of Duaner Sanchez it's possible Burke vaults over Cla Meredith, Edwin Moreno and Edward Mujica into a high-leverage role soon. I have no concerns about Heath Bell, however, and the Padres won't win much, so the point is probably moot for fantasy purposes.
• Weekly Washington update: Beleaguered Nationals manager Manny Acta wants Joel Hanrahan to seize the closer role and run with it. Upon hearing the news Hanrahan went out Monday and gave up two hits, two walks, three runs and struck out two. Yep, he's going to finish with more than 20 saves. He will. It's pretty clear Joe Beimel will not.
• The Phillies phinally got tired of Chan Ho Park every fifth day, so now he'll head to the bullpen and probably do more good for fantasy owners. Consider Park had only one win in seven starts anyway, and wasn't accruing strikeouts. J.A. Happ was doing those things in long relief, and now he will start. And speaking of the defending World Champs, Brad Lidge stopped his streak of allowing a run or more in six consecutive outings and enters Wednesday with three saves in the past four days, all scoreless appearances.
• Don't look for Jose Valverde back in the Houston bullpen until June. I'm not worried about his saving games when he returns, though. Chris Sampson filled in for fill-in LaTroy Hawkins on Sunday and allowed one hard hit ball after another, but got the save. One could argue no NL team has a bigger drop-off from its closer to other relievers than the Astros.
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.
Eric Karabell takes a look at the latest bullpen news, including David Aardsma being named the closer in Seattle.