- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Billy Wagner is third among all active pitchers in saves, behind only Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera, and in no danger of being passed by anyone for years. Hoffman could return to the Brewers next season, and Rivera is certainly not leaving the Yankees. I think Wagner will be joining them as save guys next season, whether it's in Boston or somewhere else. This guy is not done, not by any means.
Good for Wagner and the Red Sox for figuring out the late August trade that removed Wagner from Mets purgatory and sent him back into a pennant race. I have little doubt he'll pitch well in the American League, and I'll take the under if his over-under for accruing saves in the final five weeks is set at one. There are saves in his longer-term future, and that's something to think about in a keeper league.
Want to know who's next in line for saves for each team? Check out Eric Karabell's bullpen depth chart.
Wagner's presence with the Red Sox certainly can't hurt the team's chances if he pitches well, and in his few outings so far since returning from Tommy John surgery, he's looked fine to me. Really, it's amazing he's back this soon and throwing so hard. So what if new teammates Jonathan Papelbon and others aren't so excited about the trade to Boston? I get that. Papelbon probably perceives Wagner's addition as a threat to him. It's silly to think Terry Francona will be removing Papelbon from the role, but it's certainly not silly to envision Papelbon on another team next season if Wagner thrives.
The Red Sox have this fireballing right-hander named Daniel Bard, and while he remains a work in progress, anyone who can throw 100 miles per hour in short bursts and control where the ball is going -- we're talking to you, Joel Hanrahan -- tends to get a look for the ninth-inning role. Bard is really struggling this month, allowing runs in his past four outings and six of eight overall, and I wouldn't call him ownable in a standard fantasy league for the final month. He's not getting saves, and the strikeouts just aren't worth it. I can make the case I'd prefer to own Wagner the rest of the way.
However, there's little doubt the Red Sox expect Bard to be a future closer. He's a major strikeout guy, and while it's sometimes hard to gauge who is and isn't groomed for certain roles, I think it's safe to say Bard's skill set is closer-worthy. He probably won't be ready to do so by early 2010, though. That's where Wagner could step in. It's no secret that Papelbon's antics have ruffled some in the Boston organization, and from a value standpoint, one would think Theo Epstein and his crew have noticed the trend in the closer's statistics. Wagner could return to Boston and be the bridge to Bard.
Papelbon is still having a terrific season, good enough to be top-5 in my rankings and No. 12 on our Player Rater among primary relief pitchers, behind some surprise names like Ryan Franklin, Andrew Bailey and David Aardsma, but still ahead of the likes of Francisco Rodriguez, Trevor Hoffman and Joakim Soria. Papelbon is not having a bad season at all, with his 2.00 ERA and 30 saves in 33 chances. But he's already walked three times as many hitters as he did in 2008, and this is also the highest on-base, slugging and batting average against since his rookie year, when he wasn't a closer.
Look at the all-time saves leaderboard, and even the one of active pitchers, and you'll see an odd trend. Baseball isn't making closers like it used to. Most closers do not have a long shelf life. Hoffman and Rivera are clearly exceptions to the rule, but Papelbon is 28 and the Red Sox have other needs. Remember how deep the starting rotation seemed two months ago? It's not so deep now. There's still no shortstop in the organization for the future. If the Red Sox had closer taken care of for 2010, they'd consider trading Papelbon. From a fantasy aspect, this would not have serious repercussions on Papelbon's keeper value, either. He's a good closer. He would be for the Cubs, Marlins or any other team, too. (And I'm not alone in this thinking, Buster Olney also discussed a potential Papelbon trade in his blog.)
Wagner wants to close next season, whether it's in Boston or someplace else. If the Red Sox are OK with receiving draft-pick compensation and letting him bolt, both player and team are winners. Or the Red Sox might want to keep him around and give him what he wants. Wagner didn't envision ending his career as a one-out lefty in the seventh inning, which could end up being how he's used. I actually think he's going to become a critical part of the Boston bullpen right away, but Francona might not agree. Wagner could even be next in line right away. I trust him. He's not only experienced but he's been throwing well. He's a closer, acquired for below cost, and he will be used in a set-up role.
I just don't think he'll be setting up games, or sitting on the sidelines, next season.
• Ryan Franklin, Cardinals: Honestly, give me a reason why he shouldn't be safely in the top 10 this season? It's been five months, and Franklin has somehow permitted a run in only four games all season. He's arguably been the best closer in the National League in 2009, and there's no end in sight since the Cardinals are probably the best team in the circuit. Franklin passes Heath Bell and Jonathan Broxton. Joakim Soria, with his lack of save chances, is next. No, really. Franklin is doing great. We'll worry about 2010 expectations later.
• Carlos Marmol, Cubs: At the time of this writing, Marmol has not walked a hitter in five outings; based on his season numbers, that is just incredible. Could it be that Marmol is really comfortable in the closer role, thus the change in performance? I think that's premature. Give the guy credit, though; certainly I have said and wrote about Marmol's walks, but since taking over the role from Kevin Gregg, he hasn't done a thing wrong, and two measly hits and no walks over a 4 2/3 inning stretch is a strong run for him. By the way, it's not lost on me that Angel Guzman celebrated my kind words on Aug. 19 by allowing a Russell Martin grand slam. Didn't matter, because Lou Piniella wasn't thinking of him anyway. It's also worth noting that Gregg has had a pair of clean outings in the past week.
• Scott Downs, Blue Jays: He's off the DL, but we've also said that before. Downs served a pair of DL stints for this toe injury and missed quite a bit of time, but now he is back, and on Tuesday he served as the set-up man for Jason Frasor. It's worth noting that Frasor missed nearly a week of time with shoulder tendinitis, so Downs' return came at a perfect time. I do think Frasor gets the next save chance for Cito Gaston, but Downs is absolutely in the picture, and could easily take back the role within the next week. Both Downs and Frasor remain readily available in ESPN standard leagues.
• Brad Lidge, Phillies: Geez, Charlie Manuel, how much more can you take? Phillies fans aren't throwing stones at Citizens Bank Park because the NL East flag seems secure -- or maybe not? -- but certainly if the Phillies were being pushed a bit more, Lidge would already have lost the closer role, at least temporarily. He's permitted 11 home runs now and blown nine saves, which are extraordinary numbers for any relief pitcher. The last Phillies pitcher to blow this many save chances in a season was ... wait for it ... Jose Mesa. Really, has Lidge fallen so far that we're comparing him to Mesa? Look at the numbers; Mesa wasn't this bad. It's true! I can't answer as to why Manuel threw Lidge out to the mound Tuesday to save a 4-3 lead against Pittsburgh, when it was his fourth consecutive day on the mound. That makes no sense at all, and Lidge admitted after the game he was tired. You can't blame the poor outing -- Lidge didn't get any outs, allowing an Andrew McCutchen walk-off home run -- on Manuel, but Lidge shouldn't have been out there.
In previous days, Lidge had shown some promise that he was improving and figuring things out. He hadn't allowed an earned run in four outings, nor any walks. He was the beneficiary of a once-in-a-lifetime triple play to save a win over the beleaguered Mets; that could have easily been a Jeff Francoeur RBI single and the makings of a blown save, even if the baserunners were put there on errors. Regardless, here's what I see happening in Philly: Lidge is still the closer. He gets more chances. When Brett Myers is activated and ready to close, Manuel will have an option. I don't think he wants to move Ryan Madson to the ninth inning, because then there's a rather large void in that spot. If you're a Lidge owner in fantasy, bench the guy, but I expect that if the Phillies have 10 more saves in them, Lidge gets eight or nine. Manuel is loyal.
Hong-Chih Kuo, Dodgers: You probably expected me to name Jonathan Broxton in this spot. Yes, I was very surprised to see Broxton pitch the eighth inning in a weekend game, while George Sherrill closed, but I don't think that's the beginning of a new trend. It's odd, because Broxton was summoned to face switch-hitter Milton Bradley and a pair of right-handed hitters, but this is certainly something Joe Torre hasn't done in the past. Think about it: He's always had a set closer. Sherrill made things a bit interesting in the ninth, and there's been nothing to save since. I think Broxton is the closer. I think Sherrill is next. And I think we can forget about Kuo as being involved in any save chances. In fact, in each of his past six outings the Dodgers lost the game, though it's not like Kuo was at fault. It's the way he's being used. Look elsewhere for help in fantasy. He's not pitching enough innings anyway to help you.
News and Notes
• Speaking of pitching in losing games, I can't find anybody who has done that more than poor Cla Meredith, now of the Orioles. Between Baltimore and San Diego, two teams with far more losses than wins, Meredith's past 33 appearances have all been in losses. That's really hard to do, and I would love to know if it's a record. Of course, Meredith has no fantasy value, but this is Relief Efforts, and I had to point it out.
• Meanwhile, Chris Perez has pitched in three consecutive wins by the Indians! Really, Perez has done a terrific job in his new home, having not allowed a run all of August, and in his past seven appearances he hasn't issued a free pass, either. The Indians obviously didn't trade Kerry Wood, and he's their closer, but Perez will enter 2010 as one of the top next-in-line guys for saves.
• Rafael Soriano seems back on track after some shoulder woes had scared the Braves and fantasy owners. Soriano overpowered three Padres in Tuesday's extra-inning loss, and last allowed a run six outings ago. Mike Gonzalez shouldn't expect September saves.
• While the Phillies were abusing Lidge's valuable right arm, Rockies manager Jim Tracy didn't fall to temptation in a huge game against the Dodgers, sitting Huston Street with a ninth-inning lead because his closer had pitched three consecutive days. Rafael Betancourt and Joe Beimel were not up to the task, however. Street moved up in my rankings this week. I like the fact his manager is using him wisely, and certainly his performance warrants it.
• Leo Nunez continues to get the saves for the Marlins, and now Matt Lindstrom is doing fine in the main set-up role. I haven't heard anything lately about these guys switching roles, that's for sure. And forget about Dan Meyer getting saves. I could see Nunez continuing to close until a bad blowup forces a change, and I don't expect that.
• Lost in Lidge's blowup was the fact Matt Capps really wasn't any better in the top of the ninth inning, allowing a Ben Francisco RBI double and Shane Victorino RBI triple. Capps got the win thanks to Lidge. The main reason Capps is safer than Lidge is the Pirates don't have an obvious or even stealth closer on the roster, and they aren't in a pennant race. I do not think Joel Hanrahan is going to get more saves this season.
• There have been rumors that Chad Qualls and Trevor Hoffman could get claimed on waivers and dealt, but I don't see it happening. First of all, there is a deadline later this week for teams to have playoff-eligible players. It doesn't mean a team wouldn't make a trade to get to October and be forced to not have that player in the postseason, but I think if Qualls, Hoffman or another successful closer were to get moved, it would have already happened. In the case of Hoffman, Brewers fans love this guy. It doesn't mean the team wouldn't trade him for a really good prospect, but Hoffman has been a stabilizer for this team that will fall short of expectations. I see him finishing out his 35-save season in Milwaukee.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He has twice 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 Eric by e-mailing him here.