Commentary

Valverde returning, Francisco hurting

Updated: June 10, 2009, 3:56 PM ET
By Eric Karabell | ESPN.com

Relief Efforts
Way back in April, fantasy owners believed the closer situations in the great state of Texas would be two of the stronger, safer ones in the game. Houston's Jose Valverde led the National League in saves each of the past two seasons, while Texas' Frank Francisco established himself with a strong second half in 2008, and didn't give up a run all of April (or most of May, for that matter). This is a key week for Lone Star State closers, as Valverde could be coming off the DL and rejoining our lineups, but Francisco might be taking his place on the sidelines.

For Valverde, his April calf strain has taken longer to heal than originally expected, but he's scheduled to come off his rehab assignment and rejoin the Astros for the weekend. Quite a few fantasy owners didn't want to wait for his return, though, so Valverde is available in about 15 percent of ESPN standard mixed leagues. Valverde isn't going to lead the league in saves for the third consecutive season, but he's still one of the most stable closers around, starting this season as the No. 7 closer. The Astros aren't very good, but Valverde can be a top-10 closer the rest of the way, and as he pitches well he'll move up in our rankings as well.

What's interesting about this situation is the fact the Astros could be in the market to rebuild, and both Valverde and fill-in closer LaTroy Hawkins are trade bait. In fact, it was reported in the offseason that the Astros were looking to shed salary and Valverde was available. He's certainly been one of the better closers in baseball the past few seasons, and he's someone a contender could use. Fantasy owners just hope Valverde goes somewhere to close games, rather than be the main setup guy for Mariano Rivera or another new team with an established saves guy. Hawkins isn't going to the Yankees. Been there, done that. Valverde could, in theory, be that guy.

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

With the Rangers, things certainly could be worse. They're in first place, despite losing Josh Hamilton, and if Francisco needs another DL stint, C.J. Wilson has proven he can handle the closing job. Francisco was already on the DL in May with biceps tendinitis, and this injury to his pitching shoulder might or might not be related. Regardless, he's having one of the better seasons of any closer, having allowed his first and only run of the season on the final day of May, when Adam Kennedy homered off him. Otherwise Francisco has been nearly perfect, 12-for-12 in saves and with five walks against 20 strikeouts. Let's not get ahead of ourselves yet, because Francisco thinks he can get his velocity back with just a few days left, but if the Rangers take the safe route -- as the Phillies have done with Brad Lidge -- then Wilson is the obvious replacement.

Neither the Astros nor the Rangers have much bullpen depth, and the cumulative ERA of each relief corps is well over 4 and in the bottom half of the league, but certainly these teams can't complain about their fill-in closers. Hawkins has done a nice job in his first real closing opportunity since 2004 with the Cubs, and Wilson has five saves in a nice bounceback campaign after his ERA skyrocketed in 2008. Will either of these guys be getting saves next week? Maybe both will, maybe neither, but should Valverde or Francisco need to miss any time, at least we know who is next in line.

Fortunes rising

Top 60 relievers

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

1. Jonathan Broxton, LAD (1)
2. Jonathan Papelbon, BOS (2)
3. Francisco Rodriguez, NYM (3)
4. Joe Nathan, MIN (4)
5. Mariano Rivera, NYY (5)
6. Trevor Hoffman, MIL (6)
7. Heath Bell, SD (7)
8. Bobby Jenks, CHW (8)
9. Brian Fuentes, LAA (9)
10. Francisco Cordero, CIN (10)
11. Scott Downs, TOR (13)
12. Ryan Franklin, STL (15)
13. Huston Street, COL (16)
14. Joakim Soria, KC (23)
15. Brian Wilson, SF (18)
16. Chad Qualls, ARI (12)
17. Kerry Wood, CLE (17)
18. Frank Francisco, TEX (11)
19. Matt Lindstrom, FLA (19)
20. Kevin Gregg, CHC (20)
21. Mike Gonzalez, ATL (21)
22. George Sherrill, BAL (24)
23. Andrew Bailey, OAK (29)
24. Fernando Rodney, DET (22)
25. Jose Valverde, HOU (27)
26. Matt Capps, PIT (25)
27. David Aardsma, SEA (26)
28. Ryan Madson, PHI (36)
29. Tony Pena, ARI (37)
30. C.J. Wilson, TEX (41)
31. J.P. Howell, TB (39)
32. Rafael Soriano, ATL (30)
33. Mike MacDougal, WAS (NA)
34. LaTroy Hawkins, HOU (34)
35. Joel Zumaya, DET (35)
36. Carlos Marmol, CHC (31)
37. Leo Nunez, FLA (50)
38. Brad Lidge, PHI (14)
39. Dan Wheeler, TB (38)
40. Brad Ziegler, OAK (32)
41. Joel Hanrahan, WAS (28)
42. Randy Choate, TB (40)
43. John Grabow, PIT (42)
44. Chris Perez, STL (43)
45. Kyle Farnsworth, KC (46)
46. Takashi Saito, BOS (45)
47. Juan Cruz, KC (44)
48. Brandon League, TOR (47)
49. Angel Guzman, CHC (NA)
50. Michael Wuertz, OAK (49)
51. Ronald Belisario, LAD (51)
52. Matt Herges, CLE (52)
53. Joe Nelson, TB (53)
54. Jason Motte, STL (54)
55. Kiko Calero, FLA (55)
56. Octavio Dotel, CHW (56)
57. Greg Burke, SD (57)
58. Matt Thornton, CHW (58)
59. Juan Gutierrez, ARI (59)
60. Mark Lowe, SEA (NA)

Mike MacDougal, Nationals: Yeah, I'm kind of sick of this situation as well. Really sick, in part because I foolishly relied on Joel Hanrahan in multiple leagues, but mainly because it appears nobody can do the job for poor Washington. Really, do we think MacDougal will be any better? Sure, he was an All-Star not too long ago. OK, so it was 2003, and he finished with an ERA on the wrong side of 4, but he was on the roster, thanks to being the Royals' representative. MacDougal struggled the past few years with his command, and his stint with the White Sox was not a pleasant one. He was released by the team in late April, quickly picked up on a minor league deal by the Nationals and promoted to the big leagues a few weeks later. He hasn't pitched badly, though, and he does have closer experience. While we scoff at the move, he's really no less qualified than anyone else the Nationals have. What a shame. I'll set his over/under on saves at 15, and take the under. This team might not even win 50 games.

Ryan Madson, Phillies: I covered the Phillies situation in a Tuesday afternoon blog, so I won't get too deep into it here, but the focus of what I wrote about Madson was that this is probably a short-term promotion to closer, so don't get too excited. Madson enters the top 30 rankings in the same area as some of the other fill-in-type closers who might not be long for the role, but I don't really have concerns about Madson being effective while Brad Lidge is out.

Tony Pena, Diamondbacks: I do, however, have some concerns that the forearm tightness Chad Qualls is dealing with could linger. How do I know? Well, Qualls told us! "I don't think it's going to be something that's going to heal overnight," he said Monday. "It's going to be a grind to get it back to feeling good and comfortable." My advice to the Diamondbacks would be to give Qualls -- who somehow surrendered a David Eckstein game-tying home run over the weekend -- a DL stint and see if rest helps, but I'm not a doctor. I did, however, go look to see if Pena was available in my deep leagues, or shallow ones in which I needed saves. He's been Arizona's top full-season relief pitcher, with five wins and six holds, with the only semi-troubling stat being the six hits allowed in 2 2/3 innings in June. Pena might not be the best closer, but he's solid enough if Qualls needs to sit.

Fortunes falling

Brad Ziegler, Athletics: We can probably assume at this point, at least officially, that Ziegler has seen the end of the line for saves in the immediate future, if not any future. The Athletics never did make an announcement on this, but the fact Andrew Bailey continues to dominate and now is getting all the save chances is a pretty good sign. Ziegler isn't bad when used properly, but it's obvious he's not the same pitcher against left-handed hitters. He wasn't last season, either, with a 300-point difference in OPS. This season lefties are torching him at a .364 clip, and he's walked twice as many lefties as he's fanned. Mr. Ziegler, meet Chad Bradford. You're a righty specialist. I wrote about Bailey, who hasn't allowed a hit in five June innings, in my Leading Off column Monday and noted he might end up fantasy's top rookie because of the saves. Imagine that!

Dan Wheeler, Rays: Wheeler didn't exactly tumble in the rankings, but the last time a right-handed pitcher saved a game for the Rays it was rookie Dale Thayer going three innings in a 15-2 win over the Marlins. Thayer is in the minors now. Before that one-time event, it was Troy Percival closing out a May 17 win against the Indians. The point is, Wheeler has been talked about all season long as the supposed next in line for saves, and here we are in June and he has nary a save. Wheeler was having trouble closing out a 9-5 lead against the Yankees over the weekend, allowing three hits and a pair of runs before lefty Randy Choate bailed him out. I practically begged for Rays manager Joe Maddon to give lefty J.P. Howell a chance to close, and it happened against the Royals, who sent Billy Butler, Mike Jacobs and Jose Guillen to the plate. This wasn't one of those Choate saves matching lefty on lefty. Howell can get anyone out. What happens later this week? I think Howell is the closer, but Maddon has to resist using him earlier in games and making him unavailable in the ninth, so the Wheeler/Choate left-right thing could continue as well. Either way, Wheeler isn't an enticing option to own.

Carlos Marmol, Cubs: I have little doubt Kevin Gregg can hold on to the Cubs' closer role, but each time I see Marmol throwing pitches well off the plate or a foot in front of it, I wonder if Angel Guzman could pass him in the setup role. Remember, a few seasons back these guys were compared evenly for rotation spots, with Guzman getting the nod. Marmol stayed in the bullpen and began to thrive. However, control is often a problem. He has walked two hitters in four of his past seven outings. No relief pitcher has allowed even close to the number of walks Marmol has. His season WHIP is 1.52, despite a 3.67 ERA, and he's now available in nearly half of ESPN's leagues. I added Guzman to the rankings just in case Marmol loses the eighth-inning role, but regardless it doesn't look like Marmol is going to deliver the same type of season he did in 2008, as he's gone from the best strikeout relief pitcher in the game to barely in the top 20 among relievers in the category. This is more proof that it's difficult for relief pitchers to repeat their success year after year.

Comings, goings and random thoughts

Fantasy owners welcomed Joakim Soria back to the Royals' active roster last week and he has pitched a few hitless, scoreless frames, but thanks to the anemic team around him he hasn't had a save chance. With even Zack Greinke sputtering, it could be a long final four months in Kansas City. I'd consider dealing Soria, because he might not pile on the saves no matter how good he is.

Incidentally, the reliever who is second in the majors in walks is David Aardsma. He needed a rest for Sunday's game, but Mark Lowe pitched the eighth inning, so Sean White was given the save chance, which wasn't expected. White converted it, but I still think Lowe is next in line. It was at the time, however, interesting that Brandon Morrow played no role.

Then we found out why Morrow played no role in that save when the Mariners -- again showing no consistency in decision-making -- announced Tuesday that Morrow will be sent to Triple-A Tacoma to be stretched out again as a starter. Look, I'm all for this move, but don't be surprised if Seattle changes course again the first time Morrow's arm aches. It's much more difficult to find a potential ace in baseball than a closer. Morrow should be doing what Joba Chamberlain is for the Yankees. Maybe this is the last time Morrow is mentioned prominently in Relief Efforts. Then again …

It's one thing for the Angels to sign Brian Fuentes and make him their closer, thus pushing Jose Arredondo into a setup role, but who thought Arredondo would be so ineffective he'd need more work in the minor leagues? Arredondo and his 5.55 ERA are being sent to Triple-A to get more work, while Kevin Jepsen, who was also supposed to be pretty good, is being promoted. Arredondo remains owned in 25 percent of ESPN leagues based solely on his 2008 work. He's not in line for saves, and not pitching well. Why are people keeping him around? He does have a future, though, so remember the name, but probably in 2010.

I personally think it's embarrassing for a major league team to let a position player pitch in extra innings, but it didn't stop San Diego manager Bud Black from using shortstop Josh Wilson in the 18th inning Sunday. Would fantasy be better off letting the hitting stats of pitchers like Carlos Zambrano count, or the pitching stats of hitters like Wilson count? You must be kidding. How about neither?

The Tigers shipped out promising rookie right-hander Ryan Perry to make room for Jeremy Bonderman this week, which seems a bit odd. Perry has minor league options, so that's probably why he drew the short straw, but he has clearly pitched better than Brandon Lyon, for example. Perry's stats were a bit misleading; the 1.52 WHIP thanks to 19 walks didn't match up with the 3.13 ERA. He'll be back, and soon. I could see Perry getting a chance to close in 2010.

Diamondbacks rook Daniel Schlereth hasn't been shipped out yet, but I expect the move is coming soon. The lefty is definitely a strikeout pitcher, but he was wild in a weekend loss at San Diego, allowing four earned runs without getting an out, and it's also noteworthy that of the six games he's entered, the Diamondbacks have won only one of them, an 8-0 blowout.

Rafael Soriano and his 0.98 ERA picked up the save Tuesday, with Mike Gonzalez pitching the eighth inning because there were lefties up. Before you get too excited about Soriano's saves, a topic we've discussed in this space, note his last save had come May 23. Then again, Gonzalez only has eight saves on the season, just three more. I just wouldn't add Soriano for the save potential, but his ERA, WHIP and strikeouts are worth having.

The Mets should be without setup man J.J. Putz until well into August after elbow surgery to remove bone spurs, so he's not really worth owning even in the deepest of leagues. Bobby Parnell had passed Putz for the setup role, but that was also because the elbow problems were preventing Putz from pitching well. Parnell has little track record, so he shouldn't be regarded as a safe option for holds. I'm assuming the Mets will continue to search for bullpen help, possibly acquiring a bad team's closer.

The other New York team finally gave Phil Hughes a chance to show his stuff in relief, and it went well as he retired all three Rays he faced Monday. Hughes has terrific stuff, and he'll get a chance to start again soon enough, but he could also really help solve the right-handed void the Yankees have in the seventh and eighth innings. Brian Bruney is expected to come off the DL this week, possibly at the expense of Hughes, but who really thinks Bruney can remain healthy?

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.

Eric Karabell | email

ESPN.com Senior Writer

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