Broxton, Hoffman show 'wow' factor


We've been telling you for years that relief pitchers make lousy keepers in fantasy baseball, but this season, relief pitchers have been generally lousy, period. Even the best ones, while still reliable, haven't really been as helpful to your pitching staffs as usual. Each week when it's time for me to update the rankings you see below and to the right, I want to move certain pitchers down, further away from the top 10, but there just isn't anyone else to leap ahead of them. Even now, how can Brad Lidge be that close to the top 10? Who do you want to move past him? Kerry Wood? Ryan Franklin?

I'm certain colleagues Christopher Harris and Brendan Roberts, in their fine weekly columns on starting pitching and hitters, don't have the same issues when it comes to their rankings. Take the starters, for example. Harris makes his changes wisely, but how many of the pitchers in his top 20 are really struggling? With the closers, we can count on one hand the ones having a special season. With hitters, Roberts probably has 40 guys he wants to put in his top 20. I have maybe 10 relief pitchers truly deserving of that status.

Want to know who's next in line for saves for each team? Check out Eric Karabell's bullpen depth chart.

I finally gave up on Jonathan Papelbon in the top spot, as you can see. Where are the 1-2-3 innings we've grown to love, Jonathan? It's not merely Joe Mauer's plugging home runs off him, but he's walking people, has a WHIP worse than George Sherrill, and Omir Santos took him deep. He's not necessarily bad, of course, but you expected more out of him. You must have, or else you wouldn't have chosen him in the fifth round. Mariano Rivera has permitted more hits than innings pitched. Joe Nathan has as many saves as David Aardsma. Time bomb Francisco Rodriguez is having back troubles. You know about Lidge. Who's left?

Well, Jonathan Broxton is the top closer on the Player Rater, in no small part due to the crazy five wins he's already got, but past that misleading stat there are other reasons. No closer has a better strikeout rate, he's not giving up hits, and it's not like we can simply assume the wins stop. He's got five of them for a reason: His team is good and scores late runs. Eleven pitchers other than Broxton have saved 10 or more games, and combined those guys have earned six wins. Broxton isn't necessarily better than those guys -- though he has been, anyway -- but he's been fortunate to win games because the Dodgers are having a special season, Manny Ramirez or not. It all counts the same in fantasy. Somehow, only 11 pitchers in all of baseball have more wins than Broxton, which might be the stat of the year.

Past Broxton, who is having that tremendous a season? Trevor Hoffman has been the best closer in baseball since coming off the DL roughly a month ago -- Broxton included -- and I wanted to move him slowly through the rankings, but I couldn't wait anymore. He's literally not walking anyone and he looks as good as ever. Would I really take Hoffman right now over all but five relief pitchers in baseball today? Um, yeah, and I nearly moved him higher.

Taking a broad look at closers with nearly a third of the season gone, I count fewer than 10 relief pitchers putting up numbers that would really make us notice and say wow, in a good way. They can't all make up our top 10, because we shouldn't overlook Papelbon, Rivera, Bobby Jenks and the reliable closers. But just for fun, here they are, my list of the top "wow" relievers. Maybe you should take a look at these fellas and see if you can acquire them.

Jonathan Broxton, Dodgers: Proof that he should have been closing over Takashi Saito a year ago.

Heath Bell, Padres: Proof that his rough second half of 2008 shouldn't have meant too much.

Trevor Hoffman, Brewers: Proof that guile counts for a lot when it comes to closers, especially older ones.

Ryan Franklin, Cardinals: Proof you don't have to throw 98 mph like Jason Motte to close.

David Aardsma, Mariners: Proof it's all about opportunity, not who has the strongest arm.

Andrew Bailey, Athletics: Proof that your 100-strikeout relievers can come from the wildest places.

Frank Francisco, Rangers: Proof that even in the friendly hitting climate of Arlington, Texas, a closer can be perfect.

Dan Meyer, Marlins: Proof that you never give up on a lefty, no matter how much a trade bust he appears to be.

Kiko Calero, Marlins: Proof that Marlins relievers tend to come from nowhere to be useful in fantasy.

Mark DiFelice, Brewers: Proof that career minor leaguers with average stuff sometimes bloom late in life.

Now, on to the normal stuff a Relief Efforts column covers.

Fortunes Rising

Dan Wheeler, Rays: Well, someone has to get the next save chance after the awful performance by the Tampa Bay bullpen Monday. Wheeler and J.P. Howell must have been deemed unavailable for manager Joe Maddon to bypass them and let Jason Isringhausen try to save the game, which he couldn't do. Wait, don't look now, Izzy just walked another guy! Many reasons will be given for why the Rays aren't going to repeat their 2008 success -- they aren't -- but I think the bullpen is the main reason. Fantasy owners bought into this, not overdrafting Troy Percival, but assuming Wheeler, Howell and Grant Balfour would be ownable. Howell has been, but that's about it. I really thought when Percival hit the DL last week with shoulder problems that Joe Nelson would get the next ninth-inning save chance. He still might. The fact he pitched the seventh inning Monday proves nothing other than Maddon probably believed, like everyone else, the 10-2 game was out of hand.

Please don't make us look at the Rays' bullpen the way we did the Washington one. If I'm projecting forward I'd say that Percival, who is mulling retirement, comes back before the All-Star break but struggles, and the end of the line is unkind. Wheeler and Nelson split the saves over the next month, and ultimately Wheeler -- or someone not on the team to be acquired -- leads the team in saves.

Joel Hanrahan, Nationals: Speak of the devil! Manager Manny Acta has been begging for the hardest thrower in the bullpen to step up and seize the role, and it appears Hanrahan has. No, not all outings will be clean, but he has locked down consecutive save chances since last week, fanning two hitters in each outing and walking nobody. That's progress. In the Washington bullpen, it's Eckersley-like. I'm glad I held on to Hanrahan in every league I had him in, and I maintain he ends up with about 20 saves and a strong strikeout rate. I'm still buying low. And yes, for those in my oldest league I did trade Joe Nathan in a six-player deal on draft day, and casually noted -- as if to prove the age-old point -- that Hanrahan could match him in saves. Hanrahan has had a sketchy season, yet he's only two saves behind Nathan.

J.J. Putz, Mets: I think it's premature to signal the demise of Francisco Rodriguez, but I do think we're going to see more of Putz in save opportunities to ease the load on him. K-Rod had to be taken to a Boston hospital over the weekend due to severe back spasms, and while he came back to save Monday's game, it wasn't the cleanest outing. Back in March the Mets had everyone believe Putz would share save chances with Rodriguez. I scoffed. But now that Rodriguez is battling back problems, I think it's becoming more likely he'll need a DL stint at some point, and Putz will get into double digits in saves.

Fortunes Falling

B.J. Ryan, Blue Jays: He's out of the top 60 now, which is quite a feat since he remains owned in considerably more leagues than the team's actual closer. Scott Downs isn't doing anything wrong to lose the job, but the Blue Jays also haven't supplied him with many save chances. Regardless, there's little reason to own Ryan at this point, even though he is owned in 79 percent of ESPN standard leagues. Makes no sense. Ryan has pitched in five games since coming off the DL, mainly in low-pressure situations, and in his past two games he's allowed three runs, three hits and two walks while recording only five outs. No, he's not done, but his velocity is way down, and he's not having much success even against lefty hitters. Jesse Carlson is struggling as well of late and the Toronto bullpen doesn't have an obvious set-up man for Downs, so Ryan might get chances in the eighth inning, but he's not pitching like he's going to retain the closer role.

Brad Lidge, Phillies: I don't think he's done by any means, and his plight has been discussed in this space and again in Monday's Out of the Box, but I think his right knee remains a problem and has hampered him in locating his fastball. Another caveat here: The Phillies are more confident in Ryan Madson than Lidge at this point, but their concern comes with who would replace Madson in the eighth inning. In one week, J.C. Romero is scheduled to return to the team, and I believe if Lidge has another weekend like he just had at Yankee Stadium, where he blew saves Saturday and Sunday, Romero's return to the bullpen could nudge a DL stint for Lidge. People say we're likely to see the Lidge who allowed homers his final two seasons in Houston, but his ERA wasn't 9 those years. I still think he'll save 30 games for Philly, and he finished up Tuesday's contest successfully, but keep an eye on him once Romero returns.

Matt Capps, Pirates: It seems like this guy can't catch a break. Capps took a Geovany Soto line drive off his pitching elbow Monday, and while X-rays were negative (and negative is good in this case, by the way), it remains a possibility the Pirates will place their closer on the DL by the weekend. Capps was still suffering from elbow soreness and swelling Tuesday, which isn't a surprise. For a guy who is closing for his third season, it seems odd that Capps has a mere 40 career saves, but remember he missed a few months in 2008 with shoulder bursitis and missed time earlier this season with a bone bruise on his pitching elbow. Let's not call him brittle, because he can't help it when a line drive hits him, but we would like to see him get more than 21 saves in a season. John Grabow is next in line for saves, but he is a lefty, and I think manager John Russell won't hesitate to use right-hander Jesse Chavez if the opponent has right-handed hitters coming up in the ninth. Chavez has been the team's top relief pitcher, and it's not particularly close.

Comings, goings and random thoughts

Time for an update on recovering closers: Joakim Soria of the Royals is set for a rehab assignment this week and could come off the DL on Friday, when first eligible. Juan Cruz picked up one save in his absence, but also got torched while "just getting work" in the eighth inning of a game at Cleveland. Kyle Farnsworth has had a terrific May, allowing no runs and only one walk against 10 strikeouts. It's possible Farnsworth is even with Cruz for top set-up man -- and next in line -- honors. Soria should go right back into the closer role when activated.

The Astros continue to wait for Jose Valverde to come back from his calf injury, but don't expect it to come in May. Interestingly, manager Cecil Cooper went with Chris Sampson for the team's last save, though LaTroy Hawkins has had a similar season. It doesn't really matter, though; Valverde is clearly going to close when he returns within a week or two. The team is going nowhere and it wouldn't be at all surprising if a healthy Valverde is traded before the end of July, so keep that in mind as well. If he gets moved to the Yankees, he won't get saves.

Brad Ziegler continues to kind of hold on the Oakland closer role over Andrew Bailey, with neither pitching particularly well over the past week. Kevin Cameron picked up a three-inning save, but don't get any ideas there. I still think Ziegler loses the job at some point, but Bailey is walking people and giving up runs, which could open the door for Michael Wuertz, who is getting holds. On Tuesday, Bailey threw a clean inning, and Ziegler wasn't tired. Hmmm.

Tuesday was an odd night, but other closers were tired. The White Sox won in Anaheim, and Scott Linebrink was called for the save, but even with Bobby Jenks unavailable with the flu, Octavio Dotel was not used for the save, even though he hadn't pitched Monday. I still think Dotel is next in line. For the Diamondbacks, Juan Gutierrez got the chance for his first career save, as Chad Qualls needed rest and Tony Pena, who had thrown 24 pitches Monday, apparently did as well. This is a good time to remind fantasy owners that set-up men need rest, too.

Brandon Morrow has thrown two innings in each of his past three outings, throwing an average of 43 pitchers per appearance, which could signal the right-hander is being stretched out. David Aardsma is thriving as closer, and the Mariners, as noted in last week's Relief Efforts, have future closers in the minor leagues. Morrow has struck out three hitters in each of those two-inning performances, and like the Blue Jays' situation in which the closer is available in more leagues than the set-up man, he remains owned in more than 60 percent of ESPN leagues.

Kerry Wood remains the Cleveland closer, but it's probably time to forget about Jensen Lewis being next in line. Did anyone else notice how Lewis entered that crazy 11-10 game against Tampa Bay in the second inning, relieving Fausto Carmona? Lewis got lit up for five runs. In his previous outing he took over from injured Anthony Reyes in the fourth inning and tossed three scoreless frames. Maybe Lewis is being groomed to start? Who knows, but I'd call Rafael Betancourt next in line for saves if Wood gets hurt.

There's nothing wrong with Heath Bell in San Diego, but it's worth noting that recent call-up Greg Burke has permitted one baserunner in his first 5 1/3 innings, with four strikeouts and three holds. He's vaulted to a spot where he might be next in line, and since we're speculating on saves, if the Padres suddenly turn that long winning streak around and begin losing, Bell could be on the move as well. He is, after all, 31 years old.

The Yankees placed Brian Bruney on the 15-day DL with more elbow pain, which is the main reason for so much speculation about whether the team will acquire help. Phil Coke is a lefty but has shown he can get anyone out, and he's probably the eighth-inning option for now. Bruney might be done. Man, the Yankees need help there, and it doesn't look like help is coming from within. Speculation about Joba Chamberlain being moved to the bullpen should increase, but don't bet on that move actually happening.

It's nice to see Manny Corpas starting to turn his season around, but I don't think he has saves in his future. Corpas has probably vaulted Jason Grilli for holds, but there's no reason he should be owned in 29 percent of ESPN leagues. Grilli has been awful in the past week, while Huston Street made a major jump in our rankings.

Eric Karabell is a senior fantasy writer for ESPN.com. 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.