- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Fantasy owners often draft and trade for their closers on the basis not of saves, but on how the peripheral numbers are going to look in conjunction with that in-demand statistic. Regular readers know I put some, but not a ton of, stock in a closer's ERA, because my main goal is simply to accrue the saves at the cheapest possible price. Then again, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't enjoying what David Aardsma, Ryan Franklin and Trevor Hoffman are doing for some of my fantasy teams. I recognize that a good ERA is never a bad thing.
A bad ERA is rarely a good thing, though it can drive the price down on acquiring a talented pitcher about to turn things around -- think Ricky Nolasco back in May -- and this is also a good way to trade for a closer. Just because a closer has a bad ERA doesn't always mean he's going to stop getting saves.
Want to know who's next in line for saves for each team? Check out Eric Karabell's bullpen depth chart.
I've seen my share of awful seasons for torched closers in recent years. I'm talking Todd Worrell in his final season of 1997, when he finished with an ERA of 5.28 but compiled 35 saves. There was Joe Borowski leading the AL with 45 saves despite a 5.07 ERA. There was also that amazing Shawn Chacon season with the Rockies in 2004, where he went 1-9 with a 7.11 ERA, and still was left in there to save 35 games for the 94-loss team. I had Chacon that season and yes, those 50 earned runs in 63 1/3 innings did hurt my team ERA, but I also think a season like that is so rare. Kevin Gregg and his normal ERA of 3.50 doesn't kill a fantasy team in relation to owning Joakim Soria. Chacon was downright terrible that season, the last time he closed, and it wasn't just one or two bad outings. An ERA over 7! Tell me that's not incredible! Would that happen today?
In a word, yes. It could happen, and it could happen to a guy who was actually perfect in save chances a year ago. Is it coincidence that Brad Lidge's current ERA is ... 7.11? I think not! In general, one would think a closer with an ERA like the Las Vegas area code -- that's 702, but the way -- would lose his role and be sent to middle relief, the minors, the DL or Siberia. It doesn't always work that way.
I'm convinced Lidge, if even 50 percent healthy, is going to keep the Phillies' closer role all season, but it won't be terribly pretty. My stance for fantasy purposes, to reiterate, is that Lidge posting an ERA over 7 in 60 innings won't kill your fantasy team as long as he saves 30 games, which he should. (Lidge has done something similar, saving 32 games with a 5.28 ERA in 2006 for the Astros),
Of course I'd rather have an ERA around two, and of course in some leagues that difference in earned runs will mean a loss of points and possibly a championship. Let's not get crazy here. Nobody ever said a high ERA was better than a low one. It's all relative to the situation.
But we're not debating how Lidge's other numbers affect a fantasy team; the point is his situation is such that he's basically a hero for his franchise after being perfect in 2008, and delivering a World Series title. His ERA could be over 10 right now and still he'd be the ninth-inning guy. Charlie Manuel is nothing if not loyal. Meanwhile, someone like J.P. Howell could lose the job with two bad outings.
A pitcher's ERA is rarely the best way to evaluate performance. Look at Detroit's Fernando Rodney, for example. He's been closing all season, has not blown any saves and still hasn't reached the top 20 in my rankings. I haven't read or heard one negative word about how I've ranked him, either. Rodney doesn't have a great ERA, but who cares? He hasn't blown a save. He's been largely effective. He could have allowed eight runs in one of those "just getting work" outings and have a Lidge-like ERA, and you might be viewing him a different way. But it wouldn't have cost the Tigers games. For the record, of the 33 pitchers with at least seven saves this season, Rodney is the only one without a blown save. Fernando Rodney?
Lidge's ERA is back on the bad side of 7, and as a Phillies fan I root for him to enter games not with one-run leads, but large ones. If he can get a save as well, all the better. He's not himself, whether it's the walks or the home runs. Before Tuesday night, his past two outings had been clean, but still I wouldn't call him the safest guy to deal for statistical prowess. The thing is, however, he is pretty safe in terms of keeping his job. His performance might vary, but only a DL stint will move Ryan Madson into the role. You will not see Lidge pitching in middle relief. But he's not the only one.
Here are some other relief pitchers who could be like Lidge in keeping their jobs, but not making it so pretty.
Brian Fuentes, Angels: Over the past two days he's faced eight hitters, and retired none of them! Until giving up four runs on Monday on a pair of game-blowing home runs, Fuentes hadn't allowed a run since May. Now his ERA is well over 4, but he could get lit up a few more times and still Mike Scioscia has no choice about who gets the ball for the ninth inning. What's he going to do, give the job to Kevin Jepsen or Darren Oliver? On Tuesday, Jason Bulger was called on to save the day when Fuentes loaded the bases with nobody out. Bulger doesn't fit the prototypical closer role. Fuentes not only leads the majors in saves, but he could get pounded a few more times and keep the job. Scioscia says his closer is tired, but I'm thinking a lot of pitchers are. Fuentes' ERA literally could get to 7 without him losing the job.
Bobby Jenks, White Sox: The problem with Jenks is that his ERA was a fine 3.14 on July 10. In order to accomplish what Chacon did, you have to spread out the bad outings for multiple months. Jenks has allowed runs in five of his past six outings, which could signal an injury or obvious mechanical problem the team will fix. Even with strikeout pitchers strewn throughout that deep bullpen -- Matt Thornton, Octavio Dotel, Scott Linebrink and Tony Pena -- I think World Series hero Jenks will keep the job all season, even if his ERA keeps going up, which it certainly might.
Matt Capps, Pirates: His ERA sits at 6, thanks in large part to the Phillies scoring five runs off him right before the All-Star break. Capps is not likely to attract much attention on the trade market this week, since he's having a poor season and hasn't compiled major strikeout rates in his career. He's an average right-hander earning saves for a below-average team that hasn't had better options, or had a ton of games to save. The other day Capps was "getting work" in what became a 9-0 loss, and he contributed a few of the runs allowed. The Pirates didn't care. He's their closer. This really could be like that Chacon season, except Capps is probably the Pirates' guy for next year. (Chacon was never a regular closer after that '04 season.)
Matt Lindstrom, Marlins: Leo Nunez has done a nice job filling in as closer, but the Marlins could get Lindstrom back in the next week. While manager Fredi Gonzalez claims the right-hander wouldn't go right back into the role right away, I doubt it would take long. Lindstrom is a very hard thrower, and with his elbow healed, he'd be viewed as an upgrade over Nunez and Dan Meyer in the ninth inning. Lindstrom's current ERA is 6.52, and with an average final stretch of the season, he could end up with 20-something saves and an ERA in the 6s.
Kerry Wood, Indians: He could be trade bait this week, but it's more likely the Tribe holds on to him for 2010, while developing some of their younger relievers, specifically those who came from St. Louis in the Mark DeRosa trade. Wood gives up home runs, which makes it easier to fashion a high ERA. As it is, he just moved his ERA below 5, so it wouldn't be tough for it to rise again. His road ERA is 7.80. Wood is precisely the type of closer a fantasy owner should trade for, because it would take so much for him to lose the job. How much damage could he do in his remaining 20 or so innings anyway?
Now, on to the rest of "Relief Efforts."
• Joakim Soria, Royals: This guy is just so lights out, it's a bit of a shame he doesn't get more save chances because of his brutal team. Soria was given the chance for a two-inning save over the weekend, and he didn't have much trouble getting it. It would be nice if more closers were permitted to get more than three outs in a game, wouldn't it? Of the 30 pitchers with at least 10 saves, Oakland's Andrew Bailey is the only one who has far more innings pitched than games pitched (44 games, 59 innings pitched entering Wednesday's action). Every other pitcher on the list is averaging almost exactly one inning pitched per outing. Go look up what Bruce Sutter did in the 1980s, now that can help a fantasy team! Anyway, don't get used to Soria pitching multiple innings. He can, however, finish with the lowest ERA among all closers if he keeps pitching like this, and he continues to move up the rankings.
• Brandon Lyon, Tigers: I remember where I was when the Tigers signed Lyon to a one-year contract back in January. I know, I know, it's not like recalling where you were when Kennedy was shot or on 9/11, but I was in a mall, bored while carrying the winter jackets of my wife and kids, checking e-mail on my BlackBerry, and saw that the Tigers might have found their new closer. I even wrote about it that day. Lyon had closer experience, and everyone knows Rodney isn't Mariano Rivera. Lyon had an awful spring and took that fun into April, blowing a save in the eighth inning on Opening Day and then losing the game in the ninth. As noted earlier, Rodney hasn't lost the job. However, we can't help notice that Joel Zumaya is on the DL and someone has to be next. After compiling a 0.56 ERA in June and 1.93 ERA in July, Lyon has a better ERA and WHIP than Rodney.
• Jeremy Affeldt, Giants: While everyone has been gushing about how good new Yankees setup guy Phil Hughes has been, with the right-hander having not allowed a run in 24 1/3 innings, Affeldt continued to fly under the radar for the Giants. Until Tuesday night -- naturally, right? -- Affeldt hadn't given up a run since May 7, covering 27 innings! That was the longest streak in baseball, and Brandon Medders was on the mound to give up Affeldt's run. The problem with Affeldt is he's not accruing strikeouts, and he hasn't won a game all year. Jonathan Broxton has seven wins, Affeldt has none. (For the record, Broxton allowed runs in only one of those wins, so it's not like he was doing the Mitch Williams thing, blowing saves only to have his team bail him out and win.) Anyway, Affeldt is owned in 1.8 percent of leagues. I don't think he'd necessarily get saves even if Brian Wilson was removed from the role, which isn't likely to happen, but don't fantasy teams need good innings, too? I moved him up in the rankings despite his streak ending.
• Scott Downs, Blue Jays: A week ago I noted there was nothing to worry about with Downs, who gave up a few runs and lost a week ago Tuesday. This column is posted on Wednesdays. Of course, Downs also lost Friday against the Rays, then blew a save the next day when Carlos Pena and Willy Aybar homered in the ninth inning. Downs allowed seven runs -- six earned -- over a five-game span and his ERA went from 1.84 to 3.18. In his only good outing over the past week, he threw a scoreless eighth inning in an 11-4 game Monday, which to some might have meant he wasn't going to get the save chance. Hey, it could have been Jason Frasor. We might never know. I wouldn't drop Downs in deep leagues or AL-only formats, but I also wouldn't expect he ends up with 20 saves. The Blue Jays are certainly not contenders, they might move their ace this week and Downs is a 33-year-old lefty who is unlikely to start 2010 as the closer.
• Manny Corpas, Rockies: Hard to believe he was given a 50-50 shot to close for this team back in March. He'll likely finish this season with ... one save. Corpas remains owned in more than 26 percent of ESPN leagues, despite a 5.88 ERA, and just had surgery on his elbow. He's likely done for the season. Meanwhile, Huston Street is rolling along and having what might be his best season for fantasy value, including his rookie campaign. Drop Corpas. The Rockies enjoyed his breakout 2007 and rode him to the World Series, but since then he's been bad. Keep an eye on top pitching prospect Jhoulys Chacin; he'd help fantasy owners more in the rotation, but good innings are still worth it.
• Jason Motte, Cardinals: Ryan Franklin could use some right-handed set-up help. Kyle McClellan, a right-hander, has been much better against lefties, while Motte got pounded by the Phillies over the weekend for five runs, and last registered a hold more than a month ago. Josh Kinney also got lit by the Phillies and got a ticket to Memphis. Dennys Reyes is probably Franklin's set-up man for now. Among the sixth-inning guys will be Todd Wellemeyer, who was awful in the rotation and had won once in seven starts. Motte has been ranked in this space all season, but not anymore. He might be in the minors by the end of the weekend.
News and notes
• The Dodgers weren't sure if set-up man Hong-Chih Kuo was going to return this season -- or ever -- when yet another elbow injury landed him on the 60-day DL, but the lefty was back Thursday throwing 95 mph and retiring all three Cardinals he faced. He should really help out Jonathan Broxton, and if effective might even get a few future vulture wins at the expense of the closer.
• Carlos Villanueva was downright awful in relief this season, so the Brewers sent him to the rotation, where he started Tuesday, and got lit up again. For our purposes in this column, Todd Coffey has been the top set-up man for Trevor Hoffman for two months.
• It might take a while before we know for sure, but the Indians got two very strong right-handed arms in the Mark DeRosa trade. Chris Perez was the original name, and the player to be named finally was, and it's Jess Todd, who had 24 saves and a 2.20 ERA for Triple-A Memphis. Kerry Wood remains the closer, but Todd and Perez are future closers.
• We've discussed Lidge plenty, but three other members from the World Series champion bullpen are on the DL. Lefty J.C. Romero should be back soon, but there's no timetable for Clay Condrey and Chad Durbin. The Phillies are also hoping Brett Myers can contribute out of the bullpen sometime in August; Myers had hip surgery in early June but has apparently made such good progress he could return soon.
• No, I am not any more worried about Jonathan Papelbon today than I was before he allowed three runs to the Athletics on Tuesday. It happens. Plus, the final two runs scored on an infield single and then another infield single combined with a throwing error. That should have been a save.
• The Rockies were certainly having their own problems in middle relief, and it led them to call up Jhoulys Chacin to fill that bullpen role. They also made a trade, acquiring Indians set-up guy Rafael Betancourt for a pitching prospect. Betancourt is definitely having a better year than he did in 2008, but not nearly as good as his dominating 2007. He came off the DL a few weeks ago from a groin injury.
• We've been discussing a potential George Sherrill trade for weeks -- really, for a year to be technical -- but has anyone noticed a change in ground-baller Jim Johnson? I have. A year ago Johnson did not allow a home run in 68 2/3 innings. On Tuesday, noted slugger Willie Bloomquist smacked his eighth home run in more than 1,500 career at-bats, the fifth home run allowed by Johnson this year.
• LaTroy Hawkins wasn't going to be traded anyway before the deadline because the Astros had become contenders, but now the team will be without him for at least the next 15 days as he was placed on the DL due to back pain associated with shingles. Hawkins is having a strong season, the only pitcher in baseball with double digits in saves and holds. Doug Brocail was activated off the DL, but look for Chris Sampson, who came off the DL a day earlier, to help Alberto Arias set up Jose Valverde.
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 looks at a handful of closers who will keep their jobs and pile up saves despite awful ERAs.