Who could sneak in saves late?
Koji Uehara, Nick Masset, Chris Sale, Manny Acosta could be on the relief radar
Saves can come from the least likely places, and there might not be a better time of year that demonstrates that than the season's stretch run.
From this date forward in 2006, Salomon Torres, Mike Timlin, Joe Nelson, Mike Stanton, Justin Duchscherer and Dan Wheeler combined to save 41 games, or 16.9 percent of the total saves production during that time span. But before Aug. 25 of that year, those six combined for just 15 saves, meaning that, for the most part, all of them emerged from practically out of nowhere to help.
Now, keep in mind that I'm handpicking a specific year and example to support my case -- a little "selection bias" -- so in no way should you assume this means that between 15-20 percent of all September saves can be found on the waiver wire. The counterpoint is that, from this date forward in 2009, only one pitcher managed five-plus saves without saving at least five games before Aug. 25: Juan Gutierrez, who notched eight of his nine from Aug. 25 onward.
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.
What it does prove is that saves can still be found on the waiver wire (surprise, surprise), they often come from the least likely places and, to hand pick another example, in my 12-team mixed keeper league, 16 saves separate first place from eighth, meaning two saves on average equals one Rotisserie point. Again, there will be other examples of leagues where two saves means absolutely nothing, or where two saves could mean as many as 5-6 Rotisserie points, but the point is clear: Every save counts, at least in the vast majority of leagues.
So who might be this year's waiver-wire gems? Ah, that's the theme of today's "Relief Efforts"; it's an expanded "Middle reliever spotlight," if you will. Understand first that there's a chance that not one of the names below will notch a single save the remainder of the year. However, there's an equally good chance that every one will manage at least one, and even if they don't, they'll at least be of service in AL- or NL-only formats in terms of ERA, WHIP and strikeouts.
If you've got the bench room to stash one or more of these relievers, by all means consider it, and even if you don't, be prepared to pounce the instant any one has a straight path to his team's closer role. I'll list them in order of greatest chance at saves the remainder of the season. Remember, these aren't obvious closer candidates; check our Closer Chart for the obvious next-in-line names.
Koji Uehara, Baltimore Orioles: He was profiled in last week's "Relief Efforts," so no need to rehash his strengths and weaknesses in painstaking detail, but in seven days since, Uehara has notched the Orioles' only two saves, and was named by new manager Buck Showalter as every bit as deserving a closer candidate as Alfredo Simon or Mike Gonzalez. If you know anything about Showalter, it's that he tends to reward the hot hand, and since the All-Star break, Uehara has a 1.00 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and a 10.50 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio in 15 appearances. Compare that to Gonzalez's 2.08/1.00/8.31 or Simon's 6.50/1.67/7.00 numbers during that same time span and it's clear Uehara's time might be here.
Juan Gutierrez, Arizona Diamondbacks: He has already been mentioned above, he had eight saves, a 2.93 ERA and 0.98 WHIP from this date forward last season, and he has the Diamondbacks' most recent save, so simply arguing, "Hey, maybe he's just saving his best for September," can't be considered invalid. That said, he's the least attractive in ERA and WHIP of anyone on today's list, even if he's my second-safest bet for saves. Gutierrez is merely fortunate to work out of the game's most miserable bullpen; Aaron Heilman has a 6.10 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in 10 appearances in August, and Sam Demel has 4.00/1.67 numbers in nine appearances in the month, so who else is going to handle this job?
Wilton Lopez, Houston Astros: He became a hot pickup in deeper NL-only leagues when he notched a surprise save on Aug. 17, then promptly blew his next save chance -- one that came on a Brandon Lyon day off -- this past Tuesday. That'll probably make him a cut candidate in those leagues as quickly as he was scooped up, but make no mistake, Lopez has the skills to potentially sneak in a few saves in the event Lyon falters and/or Matt Lindstrom struggles to recover quickly from a back injury. Lopez has a 1.17 ERA and 0.83 WHIP in 22 appearances since the All-Star break, and actually has allowed only two walks in his past 42 1/3 innings. What manager doesn't love pinpoint control like that?
Manny Acosta, New York Mets: The Mets' closer gig is currently in the capable hands of Japanese import Hisanori Takahashi, but beyond the left-hander, there aren't a lot of reliable alternatives. That's where Acosta comes in; he has snuck in as the team's primary eighth-inning option thanks to a 3.09 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 8.49 K's-per-nine ratio in 13 appearances since his July 23 recall. He even notched a save in an extra-inning game on Aug. 18, generating three consecutive ground-ball outs in a flawless outing. Considering Takahashi really had no more experience as a closer than Acosta at the time of his promotion, why wouldn't Acosta get a few more chances should the southpaw struggle at any point?
Jose Veras, Florida Marlins: He's another pitcher who has been profiled in a past "Relief Efforts," and since July 1, Veras has a 1.66 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 10.38 K's-per-nine ratio in 21 appearances. That's significant because closer Leo Nunez has 4.35 ERA, 1.69 WHIP and three blown saves in 16 chances since July 1, leading to questions about his future in the role, while primary setup man Clay Hensley has a 3.54 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 20 appearances since the All-Star break. Might it be that Veras, the Marlins' most effective reliever of late, could get a look?
Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox: The first member of the 2010 draft class -- he was the No. 13 pick overall -- to reach the majors, Sale stepped into a bullpen that has had a barrage of injury problems the past couple weeks. Back problems had closer Bobby Jenks a disabled list candidate earlier in the month, and setup men J.J. Putz and Matt Thornton both landed on the DL on Wednesday, opening up prominent roles in the Chicago bullpen. In his first seven career appearances, Sale has a 1.23 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 11.05 K's-per-nine ratio, after tearing through two minor league levels with 2.61/1.16/16.55 numbers in 11 games. He profiles as a future closer and might be pressed into that role sooner than later.
Nick Masset, Cincinnati Reds: Among major league pitchers with at least 15 innings pitched since the All-Star break, Masset's 0.42 ERA is lowest, so don't get too caught up in his 3.54 ERA and 1.33 WHIP for the season, which look mostly league average. Masset's second-half numbers -- which include a 0.74 WHIP -- easily beat those of incumbent closer Francisco Cordero (2.55 ERA and 1.30 WHIP), and the Reds can't afford too many rocky outings down the stretch. That's not to say Cordero is destined to struggle, but if he does ...
Jesse Crain, Minnesota Twins: Once a "closer of the future" himself, Crain appears as if he might be back on that track, having turned in a 0.31 ERA, 0.83 WHIP and 8.38 K's-per-nine ratio in his past 31 appearances, dating to June 13. Jon Rauch might seem like the obvious next-in-line should Matt Capps falter in the ninth, but Rauch has a 4.32 ERA and 1.44 WHIP in nine appearances since being dropped to setup duty. Don't make the obvious assumption.
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Despite the positive comments about Wilton Lopez above, it's Lyon who resides in the Astros' ninth-inning role, and for now, there's not much reason to believe he's ready to hand it over. With his two shutout innings for the save Wednesday at Philadelphia, Lyon has nine shutout frames, a 1.00 WHIP, nine strikeouts and is a perfect 6-for-6 in save chances in his past eight outings.
It wouldn't be the first time Lyon has thrived in the ninth; he saved 26 games for the 2008 Diamondbacks, then followed it up with a 2.86 ERA and 1.11 WHIP as a setup man for the 2009 Detroit Tigers. Most of the criticisms surrounding his 2009 were regarding his good fortune; he had a .229 BABIP and 80.8-percent strand rate. Look at his numbers in those categories this year, however: .296 and 74.8, much closer to his career rates, yet he has a 3.34 ERA and 1.35 WHIP for the season and hasn't looked incapable of handling the closer duties.
A healthy Matt Lindstrom might yet bump Lyon back to the eighth inning -- and Lopez the seventh -- but isn't it at least possible that Lindstrom's back becomes enough of a worry that it's he who drops back to setup duty once activated?
Wuertz, meanwhile, indeed was dropped into a setup role following closer Andrew Bailey's activation from the DL, robbing him of much of his fantasy value. Though Wuertz was a standout in ERA and WHIP in 2009, his command has been largely shaky of late; he has eight walks in 9 1/3 innings in his past 10 outings.
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.