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Fuentes on shaky ground upon return

4/22/2010

No better way to stir up a closer controversy than when, immediately after being activated from the disabled list, you serve up a game-tying home run to the first batter you face in your first save opportunity back, right?

Even better: When that blown save follows victories in the first two games of the series that were saved by the man -- himself an "experienced closer" -- who had been your stand-in, a man who during a seven-day stretch converted all five of his save chances while retiring all but one of the 16 batters he faced.

Obviously those individuals are the Los Angeles Angels' Brian Fuentes and Fernando Rodney, respectively, and to be fair to Fuentes, his first task back wasn't exactly easy. Coming on in a one-run game, he was forced to first face Miguel Cabrera, who has mashed left-handed pitching to the tune of .325/.429/.580 (AVG/OBP/SLG) rates since 2007. If you know anything about Fuentes, you know right-handed hitters, especially right-handed power hitters, aren't exactly his forte. Since the beginning of last season, he has .266/.367/.448 rates against righties.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia told ESPNLosAngeles.com after the game that Fuentes remains his closer, an unsurprising development considering it was, after all, only one game. But with Rodney already off to a hot start, and Fuentes' skills having diminished since signing with the Angels two winters ago, let's just say that Rodney's owners shouldn't want to let him go.

Besides Fuentes' obvious issues with right-handers, which could paint him into a LOOGY (Left-handed One Out GuY) role soon enough, he has surrendered fly balls on greater than 43 percent of his balls in play every year since 2006, 47.3 percent last season and 43.7 percent since 2002. He's also a pitcher with somewhat shaky command, averaging 3.85 walks per nine innings for his career and 4.13 between this and last year with the Angels. Combine that with a diminishing strikeout rate of 7.62 per nine since the start of 2009, down from 10.24 previously in his career, and it should be no surprise that he has eight blown saves, six losses and a 4.13 ERA during his Angels career. Sure enough, FanGraphs' data reveals that Fuentes' fastball has lost a few ticks, dropping to an average velocity of 90.0 mph in 2009 and 88.2 so far this year, both beneath his 90.4 number since 2002.

At the same time, Fuentes' chances at a league-leading saves total can't be declared impossible, being that Scioscia has given him another vote of confidence. Not to mention Fuentes has 49 saves since the beginning of last season, a number exceeded by only Mariano Rivera (50), whose ERA is more than two-and-a-half runs lower than Fuentes' during that time. In fact, the primary reason Fuentes' job security is threatened is because this year, there's a viable replacement on the roster in Rodney. Last year, there was not.

In ESPN standard leagues, it might be a tricky strategy due to shallow benches, but if you can, handcuff the Angels' top two men in the saves pecking order until further notice. After all, this team has amassed 123 total saves since the beginning of the 2008 season, easily the most in the majors.

Fuentes isn't the only "experienced closer" on the comeback trail. Let's take a look at some of the other injured closers' prognoses:

TOP 75 RELIEF PITCHERS

Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 75 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.

Brad Lidge, Philadelphia Phillies: Lidge was so very, very good during the Philadelphia Phillies' 2008 championship run, and so very, very bad during his team's title defense last season, and apparently manager Charlie Manuel has chosen his memory be short, after telling the Philadelphia Inquirer this week that Ryan Madson remains his closer. That proclamation, incidentally, came after Madson had endured an ugly blown save on Tuesday and news had broken that Lidge would have his rehabilitation shifted to Triple-A Lehigh Valley a day later.

Lidge might be back within a week, but his owners should prepare for him working in middle or setup relief at least initially. Coming off both elbow and knee surgeries this past winter, not to mention his awful 2009, the right-hander has plenty to prove, though our injury expert, Stephania Bell, notes that Lidge might yet do so and recapture the role in the not-too-distant future. If you're a Lidge owner who has been patient this long, it makes plenty of sense to stay that way awhile longer.

"Even though [Lidge] denied his injury was impacting him, it was," says Bell. "The knee forced changes in the arm and ultimately the arm suffered. He has since had both addressed, he's looking stronger and his velocity is working its way back. I like his chances."

Mike Gonzalez, Baltimore Orioles: Gonzalez's fantasy owners are anxiously awaiting Dr. James Andrews' report on the left-hander's strained shoulder, after The Baltimore Sun reported earlier this week that Andrews would examine him on Tuesday. Generally speaking, trips to Andrews' office aren't positive for a pitcher, but they're not always negative, and the Orioles are clearly downplaying the issue. That his status currently resides in the unknown is a concern.

"We still haven't really heard what the exact nature of the problem is, other than it being called a shoulder strain, and that may mean they're searching for answers versus confirmation," says Bell. "My concern is that some of the issues that were affecting him this spring may have ultimately altered his delivery, to the point where he injured himself. In other words, it may take awhile to correct. The team expects to have him back in three weeks from the DL date. It has already been almost two and he's not pitching yet, so don't count on it."

We'll see what comes of Gonzalez's examination, but his prognosis might be the least promising of the five pitchers profiled today. If you play in a deeper league, like an AL-only format, one thing that does bode well if you have him stashed: The Orioles lack the kind of fill-in who would stand in his way once healthy, with current closer Jim Johnson sporting a 6.75 ERA so far.

Huston Street, Colorado Rockies: That manager Jim Tracy used the phrase "progressing very nicely" regarding Street's rehabilitation when talking to the Rockies' official website is a positive, but the right-hander has resumed playing only long toss and has yet to throw off a mound. That important step might come this weekend, but that Bell uses the phrase "cautiously optimistic" to describe Street's progress does hint that a mid-to-late May return is much more probable than one in the next couple of weeks.

If you're a Street owner, three things stand out as reason to maintain hope, at least that he might provide you four productive months: One, he signed a three-year, $22.5 million contract in January, or effectively "closer money." It's tough for a team to overlook that when deciding its bullpen pecking order. Two, the man filling in for him, Franklin Morales, has a 4.53 ERA and 1.51 WHIP since the beginning of last season and a skill set that suggests a lefty specialist role might be more appropriate. Three, Tracy has also said that Rafael Betancourt, perhaps the next-most talented arm in the Rockies' bullpen, isn't a closer consideration and is regarded as the primary set-up man. Street will clearly get a chance to close once healthy, as Fuentes is now, and for that reason he demands the patience of his fantasy owners.

Kerry Wood, Cleveland Indians: As the Indians' official website reported this week, Wood threw his first simulated session versus hitters on Tuesday, and will have another one on Friday, two important steps in his recovery. There's an outside chance he might be activated after that, but as Bell notes, it's more likely a rehabilitation assignment might be coming first.

"Expect [Wood] back in roughly a week, give or take, depending on how the next simulated game goes later this week," says Bell. "Don't be surprised if he gets a little extra rest between outings once he does return."

Considering Wood's health history, the Indians would be smart to ease him in more slowly once activated, but it's clear this team regards him as its top closer, with fill-in Chris Perez more suited for set-up duty at this stage of his career. Owning Wood means needing to handcuff him to Perez all season, however, and if you're a Perez owner, you might yet sneak a few more saves out of him throughout the summer.

Cubs bump Carlos Zambrano

Other than the return of Fuentes, perhaps the week's next-most significant reliever-related news story was the Chicago Cubs' decision to shift Carlos Zambrano, their opening day starter and an $18 million man, to the bullpen. It's a bizarre move by manager Lou Piniella, who apparently felt that Tom Gorzelanny (4.80 career ERA) and Carlos Silva (4.66) were stronger fits in his rotation, while Zambrano (3.56) might help shore up what had been a mediocre set-up crew.

Zambrano had been shaky through his first four starts, registering a 7.45 ERA and 1.86 WHIP, and his numbers had not been trending in the right direction the past few seasons besides, but it's curious Piniella would entrust the eighth inning to a pitcher off to that miserable a start, not to mention one who hasn't made a relief appearance since June 28, 2002. This isn't always an overnight transition.

Nevertheless, with both Angel Guzman and Esmailin Caridad on the disabled list, Zambrano has a clear path to the primary set-up role, and with it perhaps a healthy number of holds. Of course, not many leagues reward those, and while Zambrano's stuff does seem like it might be a fit in a short-relief role, there's no saying he has the makeup to succeed, especially not right away. If you have the bench room to keep him on hand and see what happens, by all means do so. In standard ESPN formats, however, cutting him isn't a crazy strategy. After all, this isn't the kind of decision a manager should make overnight, then reverse within a matter of days. This switch might last weeks, if not months.

One thing's for sure: Zambrano is no imminent threat to Carlos Marmol's job security. Marmol already has three saves, 14 strikeouts, a 1.17 ERA and 0.91 WHIP, the latter the most surprising of any of his numbers, and he currently rates 10th among relievers on our Player Rater. For now, this gig is clearly his.

On shaky ground

Don't expect to see this section in "Relief Efforts" every week, being that sometimes, there won't necessarily be a current closer on the hot seat. This week, however, it's Chad Qualls who has reason to worry. Though the right-hander seemed to have as much job security as any closer during the preseason, he's off to a miserable start, including two blown saves in four opportunities, a 10.80 ERA and 2.40 WHIP. Opponents are batting .419 against him, including two home runs.

Qualls' walk rate (4.05 per nine) is up and his strikeout rate (6.75) is down, and that his velocity has dropped to 91.4 mph on average with his fastball, compared to 92.5 in his career, is of concern. Keep tabs on him, with the primary reason he's not in greater risk of a demotion the Arizona Diamondbacks' current lack of a viable alternative. Juan Gutierrez has a 6.43 ERA and had an ugly blown save during one of Qualls' recent off days. Free-agent pickup Bob Howry, a former closer himself, has a 12.60 ERA and 1.60 WHIP in seven appearances.

Middle reliever spotlight: Sergio Santos, Chicago White Sox

If the name sounds familiar to you, it's probably because this is the same Sergio Santos who was once a shortstop and a top prospect in the Arizona Diamondbacks' organization, at one point ranking as high as the No. 37 prospect overall as judged by Baseball America in 2004. Since that point, Santos has been traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in the Troy Glaus-Orlando Hudson deal following the 2005 season, claimed off waivers by the Minnesota Twins in 2008, signed to a minor league contract by the White Sox following that year, traded to the San Francisco Giants during 2009 spring training, and then reacquired by the White Sox two weeks later, at which point his conversion from shortstop to pitcher began.

A quick glance at Santos' numbers in his first year as a pitcher might scare most anyone off, as he had an 8.16 ERA, 1.99 WHIP and 20 walks in 28 2/3 innings scattered across four professional levels last season. But at the same time, he struck out 30 batters, or more than one per inning, then made gradual improvements in ERA (6.14), WHIP (1.70) and strikeouts-per-nine (12.27) during an Arizona Fall League stint, and then again during spring training (3.48, 1.55 and 13.94) to make the White Sox's opening-day roster. So far, Santos is continuing the trend of improvement in his first six big league appearances.

Santos' success hinges on two filthy pitches -- a mid-to-high 90s fastball and a biting, high-80s slider -- that generate plenty of strikeouts. As evidenced by his numbers the past year-plus, however, command can be an issue, and it's possible that some of his success is a product of scouts having had so little time to formulate reports on him. AL-only owners should take Santos' performance seriously, though, and simply riding the hot streak isn't a foolish strategy for any owner in a deeper league. He's as high-risk, high-reward as they come, but so far, the returns are quite pleasant.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.