- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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A year ago, Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Jim Johnson came pretty much out of nowhere to become a valued middle reliever, inducing ground balls at a great rate and not giving up a single home run. That feat helped get him noticed, and since George Sherrill was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers last week, it has been presumed that Johnson will inherit the closer role. We say presumed because the Orioles haven't had much to save; the team has earned one save since the All-Star break.
A few of the out-of-the-ordinary statistics to which I pay attention for relief pitchers are ground-ball rate and opponents' slugging percentage, and Johnson certainly thrived in each a season ago. Among relievers who pitched at least 50 innings in 2008, only Grant Balfour and Mariano Rivera bested Johnson in opponents' slugging percentage (.235), and his ground ball-to-fly ball rate of 1.44 ranked him in the top 20 for all pitchers. Hey, it's tough to go an entire season without giving up a home run. Kevin Gregg of the Cubs managed to allow home runs on consecutive pitches to lose a game this past weekend.
Want to know who's next in line for saves for each team? Check out Eric Karabell's bullpen depth chart.
The problem with Johnson is he's not the same pitcher he was last season, and he's starting to look like the fellow who struggled as a starting pitcher in the minors in 2006 and 2007. Although his ground-ball rate remains strong, he's giving up home runs, including three in his past five appearances, and opponents have a hit against him in 17 consecutive appearances.
The major league leader in home runs allowed by a relief pitcher is Gregg, with 10, and Brad Lidge is close behind with nine, but Johnson's six certainly aren't a harbinger of good things. Yes, Gregg and Lidge remain closers, and neither is losing his job any time soon, but Johnson isn't experienced in the role. Plus, you can't like the Orioles' schedule the rest of the way, with more than half their games against AL East foes. Color me skeptical that Johnson will pick up a lot of saves the rest of the way.
I think Chris Ray is close to earning another chance, and his 2 2/3 scoreless innings Tuesday night in a blowout win over the Tigers were a very good sign. Ray has struggled with his command in his return from Tommy John surgery, and he was on the disabled list again recently with biceps tendinitis. If he starts to throw well, he could re-earn the closer role and keep it into next season.
Oddly enough, in a trading period full of rumors last week, the only deal that really affected a closer situation was the Sherrill deal. A few awful NL teams moved left-handed set-up men to contenders, as Joe Beimel became a Rockie and John Grabow joined the Cubs, but no other closers were traded, and no closers were toppled by newcomers. I'm not assuming that deals will be pending in the final two months -- it is possible -- but keep an eye out anyway. Who knows, a Kerry Wood or Heath Bell could, in theory, get through waivers.
• Jason Frasor, Blue Jays: Scott Downs hit the DL for the second time in a month this past weekend, and there really are no guarantees he'll re-earn the job. It's not as if he's some young stud groomed for the role. He's a 33-year-old lefty with 16 career saves. Frasor has more career saves, and the job looks to be his for the rest of the season. I still think Josh Roenicke, whom the Reds foolishly dumped in the Scott Rolen trade last week, has a legit chance to win this job in the spring, but Frasor could have another 10 saves in him this season. For some reason, the Blue Jays are dead last in the majors in saves despite having more wins than 10 other teams.
• Matt Lindstrom, Marlins: It shouldn't be too long before Lindstrom takes back the closer role from Leo Nunez, because Lindstrom throws quite a bit harder and most managers are loyal to players who lose their jobs only because of injury. Lindstrom came off the DL on Friday and pitched a scoreless inning this past weekend against the Cubs. On the surface, Nunez has done a good job closing, as he has converted all his save chances since mid-June, but he also has allowed home runs in three of his past seven appearances.
• Mike Adams, Padres: One of the top relievers in baseball since he came off the DL in early June, Adams has become the primary set-up man for Heath Bell and figured to jump into the closer role had, well, the closer been traded. Although Bell remains a Padre, he still could be moved in the final two months and probably will be in the offseason as the San Diego purge sadly continues. Bad teams don't need closers that make big money, and for the Padres, more than $1 million counts as big money. Adams has a 0.86 ERA in 21 innings and has issued only four walks against 25 strikeouts, and loyalists might remember he was in the running for saves on the 2005 Brewers before arm problems set him back. Even if he doesn't get saves, he's worth owning for the good innings.
• Kevin Gregg, Cubs: I don't think he has lost the closer role, mainly because as bad as Gregg was this past weekend in blowing two saves, Carlos Marmol also was shaky despite getting a save Monday. Gregg says he has a tired arm, and he'll get a few days off, but I wouldn't be too concerned. He'll still end up with 30 saves. It was interesting to see Cubs manager Lou Piniella announce before Tuesday's game that Angel Guzman would be his closer that night. Guzman entered in the ninth inning up 6-1 and allowed two runs. Could Guzman eventually leapfrog Marmol? If he pitches well, he could.
• George Sherrill, Dodgers: This acquisition is really important for Los Angeles, but the lefty isn't likely to pick up any saves, thus the major drop in the rankings. Having Sherrill around, along with Hong-Chih Kuo, should make life a bit easier for Jonathan Broxton, who has been dealing with a toe injury.
• Brian Fuentes, Angels: Fuentes hasn't pitched at all in more than a week since allowing eight straight hitters to reach base and six runs to come across in a two-day period. Fuentes' ERA exploded from 2.78 to 4.29, as he didn't get any outs. Citing a tired arm, Angels manager Mike Scioscia has kept Fuentes on the bench, but there has been no obvious talk of a DL stint or someone else taking over the closer role.
Comings and goings
• Hard to believe that Jensen Lewis was a decent closer the second half of 2008, but he certainly did nice work in saving 13 games. This season, he keeps going up and down from Cleveland to Columbus, and he's far from earning saves. The Indians called him up a few days ago and dumped relievers Winston Abreu and Mike Gosling. Fun fact: Lewis still hasn't allowed a run in the International League this season in 18 2/3 innings. In the majors, he has given up 24 earned runs in 41 2/3 innings. By the way, newly acquired Justin Masterson is expected to bolt the Tribe's bullpen for the rotation next week. Jose Veras was designated for assignment, and Jess Todd was called up from the minors. Todd closed for the Cardinals in their farm system and was the player to be named in the Mark DeRosa trade. He could be at the front of the line if Wood gets traded or hurt.
• The Nationals probably drafted their closer of the future this summer in Stanford's Drew Storen, the 10th overall pick. Things went well for Storen down at low-Class A Hagerstown, as he struck out 26 hitters in 14 2/3 innings and didn't issue a walk. He has been moved to the high-Class A Carolina League, where the solid numbers keep coming. I don't see Storen moving all the way up to the majors this season, but he could be close in Washington by next summer. In other news in this dreadful Nationals season, the team called up Jorge Sosa. Woo-hoo!
• Troy Percival finally went on the 60-day DL, a procedural move that frees up a spot on the 40-man roster, and although this move in and of itself doesn't mean the right-hander will retire, I think it's safe for fantasy owners to move on. Use your DL spot for someone else, as Percival's season likely is over.
• White Sox closer Bobby Jenks underwent a procedure to remove kidney stones and should miss a few more games. Jenks has not lost the closer role, but we shouldn't assume his struggles were related to the very painful ailment. This is actually a wise time to trade for Jenks in fantasy.
• Frank Francisco fantasy owners are wondering when their guy will reclaim the closer role in Texas, and the answer is it shouldn't be much longer. C.J. Wilson had picked up saves in his past six appearances before an ugly loss Monday, but Francisco has had a better season. It's premature to assume top prospect Neftali Feliz will fit into a ninth-inning role, although he looked dominant in his major league debut Monday; Feliz struck out the first four hitters he faced and finished with a pair of perfect innings. It had been 47 years since any pitcher struck out at least the first four batters he faced in his major league debut.
• Diamondbacks first-rounder Daniel Schlereth is back with Double-A Mobile after missing more than a month with a broken rib. Arizona didn't move Chad Qualls or Jon Rauch at the trade deadline, but Schlereth still could move quickly in the pecking order for saves if he pitches well. Look for him to get promoted again in September.
• J.C. Romero should come off the DL for the world champs next week, but the big rumor making the rounds in Philly is that other new and internal changes are on the way. The Cliff Lee trade pushed Rodrigo Lopez to the bullpen, which is an experiment that doesn't figure to last long, but when Pedro Martinez is ready to join the team, it's likely J.A. Happ will have to switch roles. I doubt Jamie Moyer would suddenly join the bullpen. Also, keep an eye on Brett Myers, who is scheduled to pitch a simulated game Thursday and could return from the DL later this month. He has closer experience, but if something were to happen to Brad Lidge, it likely would be Ryan Madson getting saves, not Myers, Romero or anyone else.
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.
23mSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann