- James Quintong, Fantasy
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Over the past couple of years, contending teams have not been afraid to call up their highly touted starting pitching prospects to work in the heat of a pennant race. However, instead of those youngsters taking the ball every fifth day right away, they're being called on to get key outs in middle relief or set-up roles before shifting them back to a starting role the next season.
The Yankees most notably did this in 2007 by turning Joba Chamberlain into a reliever in midseason in the minors and then unleashing him as a key set-up man (complete with the much-discussed "Joba rules" to manage his workload) down the stretch. He's now established himself in the Yankees' rotation. The Rays did the same thing last year by turning David Price into a key lefty reliever during their World Series run, and then shifting him back to the rotation this season (albeit with varying results after he started the year in the minors).
The thought process behind the move is relatively simple: Teams want to have their top guys contribute on the major league level because they feel they're ready. However, they don't want them piling up too many innings too soon, so giving them an inning or two every few days out of the bullpen could give them the best of both worlds.
The Yankees are trying this again with Phil Hughes, who's pretty much swapped roles with Chamberlain. Joba is now the starter with Hughes one of the key set-up men for Mariano Rivera. After a few hiccups in his previous stints as a starter the past three seasons, Hughes has thrived as a reliever, sporting a 1.45 ERA as well as striking out 40 in 31 innings out of the bullpen. While Rivera is as steady as they come, Hughes could even see a few scattered save chances in his current role, and even if they don't come, he still has solid fantasy value in stabilizing the ERA and WHIP numbers even if he isn't pitching a ton of innings.
Want to know who's next in line for saves for each team? Check out Eric Karabell's bullpen depth chart.
Despite the great numbers he's put up so far as a reliever, Hughes' future still lies in the starting rotation. Just don't expect him to get any starts down the stretch, even as the Yankees fill the fifth-starter role with Sergio Mitre (and have retreads like Chad Gaudin, Russ Ortiz and Jason Hirsh potentially waiting in the wings). Obviously, being a starter would be quite helpful to Hughes' fantasy value (he'd help the strikeouts and wins categories more in the role), but the Yankees are happy with his production, and fantasy owners should be, too.
While the Yankees have made Hughes their most recent version of Chamberlain, the Rangers are also stealing a page from New York and Tampa Bay's playbook by turning highly touted pitching prospect Neftali Feliz into a reliever for the pennant chase. The 21-year-old gem of the system made his presence felt in a hurry when he struck out the first four batters he faced in his major league career Aug. 3 against the A's. So far, he's struck out eight in 4 2/3 innings in his first three games, with his only blemish being an Adam Kennedy home run.
Unlike Hughes, save chances don't seem to be in Feliz's immediate future, especially with Frank Francisco and C.J. Wilson in front of him in the closer pecking order for sure. However, if Feliz continues to pitch well, he could line himself up for even more meaningful innings down the stretch (especially if Francisco needs another trip to the disabled list).
And much like the examples above, the Rangers are in no hurry to get Feliz in the starting rotation even though they've got a hole after cutting veteran Vicente Padilla last week. It's probably best they protect his arm and unleash him on a grander stage come next season. In a sense, they're a bit different than the Rockies, which started top prospect Jhoulys Chacin on Tuesday in place of the injured Aaron Cook after a handful of solid relief innings since being called up at the start of the month. Chacin then got rocked by the Pirates, so he could be headed back to the bullpen in due time.
Fantasy owners may end up using Hughes and Feliz as anchors of their starting rotation in the years to come, but for now, they're providing some instant impact as relievers and could help fantasy owners even if they're not getting saves.
• Mike MacDougal, Nationals: Who knew the Washington Nationals had an eight-game win streak in them? Because of that recent surge, MacDougal saved five games over a stretch of six days last week. With that workload, he needed some help picking up extra saves, and those came from journeyman Jorge Sosa who claimed two over the weekend. MacDougal is still the guy for now, but Sosa appears to have stepped up as the next in line. And while some of the ratios are a concern (16 K's but 26 walks?), MacDougal just keeps getting the job done.
• Jose Valverde, Astros: He's been making up for lost time in the saves department, as he's picked up four this month, plus he's had a strikeout in seven consecutive outings. You know he's got the ability to rack up saves, so while the season total is relatively low, he could get back up to a respectable number by season's end. And it looks like he'll have top set-up man LaTroy Hawkins back as well Wednesday after spending time on the DL dealing with a case of shingles.
• Frank Francisco, Rangers: Manager Ron Washington officially anointed him as the closer again Friday after three scoreless outings since returning from the disabled list at the start of the month. He's done the job when he's been healthy, but he's also had three separate trips to the DL this season. With a guaranteed role, he moves up, but C.J. Wilson obviously has to be on alert (Wilson has just one fewer save than Francisco). Of course, the Rangers haven't had any save chances since the announcement was made, but there should be a number of them to come as Texas hunts for a playoff spot.
• Francisco Rodriguez, Mets: His team isn't giving him many save situations, and when he's getting them, he's blowing them. K-Rod blew saves in consecutive appearances last week, the first time he did that since 2004, including a five-run meltdown against the Padres on Friday that ended with a walk-off grand slam from Everth Cabrera, of all players. He's struggling with his command, partly due to rust from not appearing in that many games. Manager Jerry Manuel said he wanted to get him in more non-save situations to work off the rust; hopefully that works for K-Rod, because there are too many situations in which closers "just trying to get work" end up getting bombed. And for what it's worth, according to the New York Daily News, former closer Billy Wagner is set to return to the team Sunday, a year removed from Tommy John surgery. No, he's probably not threatening K-Rod for saves, but it's worth noting that he's on his way back.
• Brad Lidge, Phillies: He's now up to a league-worst seven blown saves and an ERA of 7.29 after failing to get the job done against the Cubs on Tuesday, although the Phillies rebounded to win in extra innings. And before that outing, he had allowed three runs in a "get some work in" appearance Sunday. Just when you think he's turned things around, Lidge struggles once again. It still appears his job is safe, but seriously, for how much longer?
• Matt Capps, Pirates: The ERA is up to 5.97, he's yet to record a save this month. In his only save chance this month Sunday, he was called upon to get five outs but failed to get even one, as he allowed a go-ahead pinch-hit homer to Skip Schumaker and then was ejected for plunking Albert Pujols immediately after that. Capps could be facing a suspension for his actions, but will it matter for fantasy owners if the Pirates can't play their way into any save chances during his potential absence?
Comings and goings
• David Weathers is back with the Brewers, as the Reds traded him to Milwaukee on Sunday for a player to be named later. Weathers pitched for the Brewers from 1998-2001 after coming over in a trade from -- you guessed it -- Cincinnati. Weathers' role doesn't change much with the Brewers as he'll help Todd Coffey set up Trevor Hoffman. Meanwhile in Cincinnati, the Reds activated Jared Burton from the DL to take Weathers' roster spot, although it's possible that Nick Masset could assume the primary set-up role and be next in line for saves.
• The Yankees also made a deal to bolster their staff by acquiring Chad Gaudin from the Padres for a player to be named later. While he spent most of the season in the San Diego rotation, he has bullpen experience and will work in relief for now but could be called on to start at some point (potentially in place of Sergio Mitre). While Gaudin's overall numbers are rather mediocre, he is averaging a strikeout an inning. He won't have much value as a reliever, but as a starter, he is marginally worth a look in deeper leagues.
• The Dodgers activated Ronald Belisario from the disabled list over the weekend, demoting Scott Elbert in the process. Belisario was having a solid rookie campaign before going down with an elbow injury last month. While the Dodgers are very deep in the bullpen, they could use Belisario's arm, especially with Ramon Troncoso struggling in recent days.
• The Red Sox have been churning through relievers in recent days with pitchers like Billy Traber and Enrique Gonzalez making cameo appearances out of the bullpen before being sent down, and rookie Junichi Tazawa giving up a 15th-inning walk-off homer to Alex Rodriguez in his big league debut before joining the rotation. But one reliever who could be around to stay is Fernando Cabrera, who had 20 saves for Triple-A Pawtucket at the time of his call-up. Cabrera, who previously pitched for the Indians and Orioles, served as the closer for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.
• Jose Arredondo was recalled from the minors Friday after Joe Saunders went on the disabled list. Arredondo appeared to be next in line for saves when Francisco Rodriguez left in the offseason, but that was before Brian Fuentes signed with the team. He pitched poorly, was sent back to the minors and then dealt with an elbow injury. Arredondo is healthy again and did have a 2.18 ERA in Triple-A, but he will have to work his way back up the Angels' bullpen ladder. But at least he won't have to deal with Justin Speier, who was let go Tuesday, four days after allowing three homers in an inning to the Rangers. It's been a strange year in the bullpen behind Brian Fuentes, with Scot Shields done for the year with an injury, Speier now gone and Arredondo just returning to the big leagues after a demotion. Who knew that Jason Bulger and Kevin Jepsen would emerge as Fuentes' top set-up men?
• Matt Lindstrom still hasn't regained his closer's job since returning from the disabled list earlier this month, and he told the Palm Beach Post he preferred to be the ninth-inning guy. He then got roughed up for three runs (but just one earned) on Monday pitching the ninth inning with a five-run lead, opening the door for Leo Nunez to get another save. Nunez did blow a save Tuesday, so there still is a chance for Lindstrom to get the job back sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, the Marlins also demoted Luis Ayala over the weekend, so scratch him off your list of sleeper save candidates.
• The Diamondbacks placed Scott Schoeneweis on the disabled list Tuesday because of depression. He also left the team earlier in the season after the sudden death of his wife. Rookie Daniel Schlereth replaced him on the roster, although he struggled in his first trip to the majors and missed a month of action in the minors with a broken rib. However, he does have a 1.01 ERA in Double-A this season.
• Welcome to the bullpen, Jamie Moyer. The veteran lefty was pushed out of the rotation to accommodate Pedro Martinez, who will start Wednesday against the Cubs. Moyer has 53 career relief appearances but just one since 1997, and not surprisingly, he's not happy with the move. Chad Durbin also came off the DL to join the Phillies' bullpen with Rodrigo Lopez being sent down to the minors, and got a save Tuesday after shutting down the Cubs in the 12th inning.
• The Royals placed Juan Cruz on the disabled list with a shoulder injury, with veteran Doug Waechter taking over on the roster. After recording a 1.69 ERA in April, Cruz's ERA since then has been 7.50.
• Finally, happy trails to veterans Tom Gordon and Troy Percival, who have a combined 516 career saves. The Diamondbacks released Gordon on Tuesday after an injury-plagued 2009 campaign. Meanwhile, Percival said he's likely to retire, as he's struggling to recover from a shoulder injury that has sidelined him since May.
James Quintong is an editor for ESPN.com Fantasy.
James Quintong discusses the recent trend of contenders using highly touted starting pitching prospects in relief roles, and how Phil Hughes and Neftali Feliz are thriving.