Commentary

Diamondbacks shuffle closers

Qualls' freak injury, Rauch's trade opens up spot for rookie Gutierrez

Updated: September 2, 2009, 11:13 AM ET
By Eric Karabell | ESPN.com

Relief Efforts

If only the Diamondbacks had traded Chad Qualls to a contender, he wouldn't have been closing out Sunday's game against the Houston Astros, and he wouldn't have slipped awkwardly while deflecting a Jason Michaels liner with two outs in the ninth inning and grotesquely dislocated his left kneecap. But he did. His parting gift to fantasy owners in 2009 was his 24th and final save of the season, as the ball deflected to Stephen Drew and turned into the final out. The problem is now Qualls is done.

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

It's a shame because Qualls was one of the nice success stories for closers in 2009, saving 24 games with a 1.15 WHIP. The 3.63 ERA didn't help fantasy owners, but it certainly didn't hurt. He's no Brad Lidge! Anyway, Qualls was selected 23rd on average among relief pitchers in ESPN live drafts this season, and when he left us he was 20th among primary relief pitchers on our Player Rater. I'd say his owners certainly got what they asked for from him.

Some will view his injury as a major disappointment, but look at it this way: Plenty of closers will not reach 24 saves for the season, and you'd need to own them all six months to find that out. Qualls did you a favor, in a way. Now you have a month with his roster spot, and since there's no chance he'll return -- he was placed on the 60-day DL, after all, and he might be ready for the start of spring training -- you can drop him without worrying he'll return for one of your opponents. See, I always try to find the positive spin.

I owned Juan Gutierrez in a really deep league when he was, to some degree, the Bud Norris of the Astros organization in 2007. Gutierrez was 23 and made a few starts for the big club, but they didn't know if he would start or relieve for them. He, Qualls and Chris Burke were sent packing to Arizona in the Jose Valverde trade. I retained Gutierrez in 2008 in that league and followed his awful season for Triple-A Tucson, when his ERA skyrocketed to over 6 and he allowed 152 hits in only 116 2/3 innings as a starter. I realize Pacific Coast League numbers are so dependent on tiny stadiums and weather and such, but that's still a bad season. I gave up on him.

Juan Gutierrez
AP Photo/Bob LeveyJuan Gutierrez has quickly moved up the Diamondbacks' bullpen pecking order thanks in part to an 8.49 K/9 ratio.

Gutierrez is the Arizona closer for September. It doesn't matter to me that Diamondbacks manager A.J. Hinch says he won't name a full-time closer. I don't see Esmerling Vasquez fitting into the role; he's barely been used in high-leverage situations this season and he's pretty raw. At least Gutierrez has been setting up Qualls. Lefty Daniel Schlereth seems a bit too new to vault over both of them into the role right away since he's barely pitched above Double-A ball. All three of these youngsters are officially rookies. I can't find any other bullpen in the bigs so dependent on youth. With Jon Rauch traded last week and Qualls hurt, this is it. Man, if you held onto Rauch all season, what bad timing for him to be moved to Minnesota less than a week ago. He would have closed! So could have Tony Pena, but the White Sox took him earlier this season.

For those in keeper leagues, I don't think I can assume Qualls heads into 2010 as the closer, whether he's healthy or not. Gutierrez could have an awesome September/October and head into the spring with the role. Schlereth has closer stuff, and he could be groomed for the role. Arizona could sign or trade someone as well. Maybe Qualls deserves better, but that's baseball.

Fortunes rising

Andrew Bailey, Athletics: Kudos to the only full-time American League closer to allow nary a run in August. Bailey's streak of scoreless outings has reached 11 consecutive outings, and the rookie hasn't issued a walk in that span, either. Think about how special Bailey has been: No rookie saved more than 11 games in 2008 (and Gutierrez is second among first-year guys this year with two saves). Coincidentally, back in 2008 that was Bailey's teammate Brad Ziegler. In 2007, Joakim Soria was the lone rookie with more than five saves. The best season this decade for rookies and saves was 2006, when Jonathan Papelbon and Takashi Saito combined for 59 saves. Good for Bailey. Soon he should pass the save total Mike MacDougal accomplished as a rookie, meaning only Papelbon's rookie total will be higher this decade.

Top 60 Relievers

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

1. Joe Nathan, MIN (1)
2. Mariano Rivera, NYY (2)
3. Jonathan Papelbon, BOS (3)
4. Huston Street, COL (4)
5. Ryan Franklin, STL (6)
6. Heath Bell, SD (7)
7. Joakim Soria, KC (5)
8. Jonathan Broxton, LAD (8)
9. Francisco Cordero, CIN (9)
10. David Aardsma, SEA (10)
11. Jose Valverde, HOU (13)
12. Trevor Hoffman, MIL (12)
13. Brian Fuentes, LAA (14)
14. Francisco Rodriguez, NYM (11)
15. Bobby Jenks, CHW (15)
16. Andrew Bailey, OAK (18)
17. Brian Wilson, SF (19)
18. J.P. Howell, TB (16)
19. Rafael Soriano, ATL (17)
20. Kerry Wood, CLE (21)
21. Fernando Rodney, DET (23)
22. Frank Francisco, TEX (22)
23. Brad Lidge, PHI (25)
24. Carlos Marmol, CHC (24)
25. Mike MacDougal, WAS (26)
26. Jim Johnson, BAL (27)
27. Matt Capps, PIT (28)
28. Leo Nunez, FLA (29)
29. Juan Gutierrez, ARI (NA)
30. Jason Frasor, TOR (30)
31. George Sherrill, LAD (32)
32. Ryan Madson, PHI (31)
33. C.J. Wilson, TEX (33)
34. Matt Lindstrom, FLA (34)
35. Scott Downs, TOR (35)
36. Phil Hughes, NYY (36)
37. Mike Gonzalez, ATL (37)
38. Kevin Gregg, CHC (38)
39. Dan Wheeler, TB (39)
40. Brandon Lyon, DET (40)
41. Neftali Feliz, TEX (42)
42. Mike Adams, SD (43)
43. Billy Wagner, BOS (NA)
44. Angel Guzman, CHC (45)
45. Michael Wuertz, OAK (46)
46. Brad Ziegler, OAK (47)
47. Hong-Chih Kuo, LAD (51)
48. Takashi Saito, BOS (48)
49. Esmerling Vasquez, ARI (NA)
50. Chris Perez, CLE (49)
51. Chris Ray, BAL (50)
52. Brett Myers, PHI (NA)
53. LaTroy Hawkins, HOU (52)
54. Jeremy Affeldt, SF (44)
55. Kevin Jepsen, LAA (NA)
56. Sergio Romo, SF (59)
57. Matt Guerrier, MIN (55)
58. Jon Rauch, MIN (41)
59. Peter Moylan, ATL (57)
60. Hideki Okajima, BOS (54)

Matt Lindstrom, Marlins: Leo Nunez remains the closer, but Lindstrom really has gotten back on track, to the point that it won't take very much for the closer and setup roles to be switched back. Also, Lindstrom probably heads into next season as the closer again. In August, Lindstrom had a 2.45 ERA and didn't walk anyone. Ryan Franklin was the only closer to save more games than Nunez, however, so he kept the ninth-inning job.

Kevin Jepsen, Angels: In this case, Brian Fuentes isn't in any danger of losing the job, but as the Angels start to salt away the AL West, it's certainly possible Fuentes gets a few days off later this month. Jepsen still has a rather unsightly 5.03 ERA and 1.55 WHIP, but he pitched well in August, earning five holds. His ERA in July was 1.35; in August it was 2.51, with a strikeout per inning each month. The last time Jepsen pitched in a game the Angels lost was Aug. 4. It's good to own relief pitchers who don't pitch in losing games.

Fortunes falling

J.P. Howell, Rays: The overall numbers remain outstanding, but Howell has run into some problems of late, blowing consecutive saves against the Rangers and Blue Jays, thus giving Tampa Bay reason to have to defend its closer. Ultimately, the Rays are sticking with Howell, and they probably should. He's better than Dan Wheeler or anything else they've got. Howell has allowed home runs in four of the past eight games, and that's always bad news. If he keeps this up the Rays, who seem to be falling out of the wild-card race, will experiment with others. I don't have much confidence Howell will enter 2010 as the closer.

Joakim Soria, Royals: Now the problem isn't merely that he's not getting enough save opportunities. The issue at hand is Soria is getting lit up. He bounced back after opening August giving up home runs to Ben Zobrist, Tommy Everidge and Mark Ellis, then had a few nice multi-inning outings before losing games to the Twins and Indians. In the loss to Cleveland, Soria was summoned in the eighth inning and Luis Valbuena touched him for a three-run home run. Luis Valbuena? Soria is too good to be this bad, so I wouldn't be shocked if there's a hidden injury and the Royals shut him down. Of the 30 pitchers who picked up three or more saves in August, none made fewer appearances than Soria's seven. I call that a sign.

Comings and goings

• It's going to take a few more really bad outings for Brad Lidge to lose the closer role, but if it happens, it's not going to be Ryan Madson replacing him. It would be Brett Myers, who is nearing a return to the Phillies. I don't think it will matter, though. Lidge saved a pair of games against the Braves and didn't allow a baserunner, so maybe he really is turning things around.

• Got holds? In some leagues holds count, or as in one of my head-to-head formats, saves and holds are combined into one category. I owned Carlos Marmol all season, and the Kevin Gregg meltdown didn't affect him in that category for me. Anyway, did you know only one pitcher in baseball picked up more than seven holds in August? Honestly, take 50 guesses. It was Luke Gregerson of the Padres with nine. Hard to believe.

• As noted earlier, the Diamondbacks traded Jon Rauch to the Twins last week, then designated Philip Humber for assignment. Rauch joins Matt Guerrier and Jose Mijares as key set-up men for Joe Nathan, and he earned the victory in his first two games with his new team. I think Guerrier will remain the eighth-inning guy, however. He leads the AL in holds.

• The Brewers pulled back Trevor Hoffman from waivers after the game's all-time save leader was claimed by the Giants. Really, the Giants were claiming any relievers they could, whether because they really wanted them, or to keep them from joining the Dodgers or Rockies. Ultimately Hoffman remained a Brewer, just like Aaron Heilman is still a Cub. I still think Hoffman closes for the Brewers next season.

• The Cardinals don't think Ryan Franklin and his 35 saves are a fluke, so why should you? Franklin received a contract extension through the 2011 season. I wouldn't expect a top-five closer performance next season -- he entered Tuesday fifth among relievers on our Player Rater, then got hit a bit -- but there's also no reason to shy away. Congrats to pitching coach Dave Duncan.

• Remember when Jon Meloan was a hotshot relief prospect in the Dodgers chain? Now he's being designated for assignment by the Pirates. Meloan is 25, so I'm a bit surprised he can't find regular work. Acquired by Cleveland in the Casey Blake trade a year ago, he was dealt by the Indians to the Rays in July. Tampa Bay then let him go, and Pittsburgh claimed him. I still think Meloan's name will be relevant at some point in future seasons.

• Keep an eye on Luis Valdez of the Braves. He saved 26 saves for Triple-A Gwinnett, with a terrific strikeout-to-walk rate, and it's not like Rafael Soriano is the most durable guy around. Valdez could be in Atlanta's closing picture in 2010 depending on what happens with Soriano and Mike Gonzalez.

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.

Eric Karabell | email

ESPN.com Senior Writer

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