Commentary

Astros, Dodgers, Cards bullpen turmoil

Updated: May 5, 2011, 11:39 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Make some room, Ryan Franklin and Matt Thornton, you've got a new partner atop the blown-saves leaderboard (4): Brandon Lyon.

Relief Efforts

Lyon, a surprisingly effective closer for the Houston Astros the final two months of last season, converting 19 of 20 save chances with a 2.51 ERA and 0.96 WHIP, is off to a miserable start to 2011, blowing as many saves (4) as he has converted (4), while posting a 7.15 ERA and 2.12 WHIP. What's worse, he blew his fourth save in spectacular fashion on Wednesday; he entered a 2-0 game in which the Astros as a team had allowed only one hit total through eight innings, and promptly surrendered three runs without recording an out, allowing one walk, three singles and a game-winning double to Jay Bruce.

That gives Lyon two particularly ugly blown saves -- the other coming on Opening Day (⅓ IP, 6 H, 3 ER) -- and in the past five games (out of 12) he has surrendered at least one run, and in the past seven he has allowed multiple hits. Opponents are batting .389 against him and left-handers .563, and his line-drive rate is a bloated 25.0 percent. Lyon isn't fooling anyone, and he has blown three consecutive save chances while allowing six runs on 10 hits in five innings in his past five outings.

The Astros said Thursday that Lyon will be sidelined with shoulder issues, and manager Brad Mills installed Mark Melancon as the closer in his place. Melancon is currently owned in 1.0 percent of ESPN leagues, but obviously that number will be zooming way up after this news.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Lyon
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesBrandon Lyon has converted just half of his save opportunities so far this season.

Melancon has thrived in a setup role this season, registering a 1.72 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and three holds in 18 games. A former top prospect with the New York Yankees -- he came over in last summer's Lance Berkman trade -- Melancon was once considered that team's best in-house option to eventually succeed Mariano Rivera, and over the years he has shown plenty of improvement with his curveball and changeup. Melancon's curveball is a true strikeout pitch; his 48 percent miss rate ranks third in the majors (among pitchers who have thrown one 50-plus times). His changeup, meanwhile, brilliantly neutralizes left-handers, who have merely .192/.297/.269 rates against it during his brief major league career.

If you look at some of the other closer switches around baseball in 2011, it seems the hot hand and the younger option has been the popular choice in other instances, even ahead of what might seem the more "experienced" choice: Sergio Santos with the Chicago White Sox and Jordan Walden with the Los Angeles Angels, to name two.

If you're wondering about Wilton Lopez, the Astros' most effective setup man in 2010 (2.96 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 14 holds and a sparkling 10.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 68 games last season), he spent nearly three weeks on the disabled list with irritation in the ulnar nerve in his elbow before being activated Monday. Mills told the team's official website that he'll work Lopez back in slowly, so he's not in the running for the time being.

Jonathan Broxton shut down

Following up on last week's "Relief Efforts," the Los Angeles Dodgers stripped Jonathan Broxton of his closer's role on Wednesday after he admitted to having been experiencing discomfort in his right elbow. He was sent for an MRI exam, and pending the results, might be a candidate for the disabled list.

Such a report provides an obvious explanation for Broxton's diminished velocity, not to mention poor command, and it wouldn't be at all surprising to see him DL-bound within a matter of hours. Certainly, he's probably out as closer for more than a few days; this should be a matter of weeks.

Vicente Padilla, owned in only 15.2 percent of ESPN leagues, instantly becomes the favorite for saves. Hong-Chih Kuo did toss a scoreless inning of relief on Wednesday, but it was in the seventh inning; Padilla threw a shutout frame of his own, but it was in the ninth. Before that, Kuo struggled during his rehabilitation stint, and last week's "Relief Efforts" discussed his checkered injury history. Kenley Jansen, meanwhile, has been demoted to Double-A and is out of the mix.

The St. Louis Cardinals committee

Could Tony La Russa's bullpen strategy be any more aggravating to fantasy owners than it has been this season? I mentioned this in a recent chat and will repeat it here: He's quickly become fantasy baseball's answer to Mike Shanahan.

Just look at how La Russa has doled out the team's past nine save chances, and how those pitchers fared in them:

April 20: Mitchell Boggs save (1 IP, 1 H, 1 K)
April 22: Boggs save (1⅓ IP, 1 H)
April 24: Boggs save (1 IP, 1 H, 2 K)
April 26: Boggs blown save and loss (⅓ IP, 4 H, 2 R, 1 ER)
April 27: Eduardo Sanchez save (1 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 2 K) -- a "Dirty Fuentes" save
April 28: Fernando Salas save (1⅓ IP, 1 H, 1 BB, 1 K) -- though in this case he was held over into the ninth after the Cardinals stretched their lead to four runs
April 29: Trever Miller save (one out recorded) -- an extra-innings win in which both Boggs and Sanchez had previously pitched
April 30: Salas save (1 IP, 1 BB, 2 K)
May 3: Sanchez save (1 IP, 1 BB, 1 K)

Surprisingly enough, during that time span the Cardinals actually gained three games in the National League Central standings, and in fact claimed the division lead by 1½ games. And that saves game log doesn't even include Wednesday's loss to the Florida Marlins, during which Sanchez allowed two walks and a home run in the ninth inning to suffer the loss.

The Cardinals' post-Ryan Franklin bullpen was covered two weeks ago in "Relief Efforts," and the most prominent changes in stance since then is that Sanchez, hailed the "deep sleeper" of the bunch, is now every bit as viable an option as Boggs, while Miguel Batista appears to be a total non-factor in what's an obvious committee. Sanchez's stuff certainly looks closer-worthy: He has a 15.09 K's-per-nine ratio and 16.6 percent swing-and-miss rate in nine innings. Drawing back to the previous point about more teams going with the "hot hand"/most deserving candidate statistically, Sanchez is probably the smartest choice of the bunch.

But would La Russa really give a full-time closer's job to a 22-year-old with all of nine games' big league experience? That is the risk you take with Sanchez.

History says it'd be smart of La Russa to eventually pick one closer and stick with him. Boggs is the Cardinals' current saves leader with three, or a pace of 16 for the season, and no other Cardinals reliever is on pace for more than 11. In a true committee arrangement -- Boggs, Miller, Sanchez and Salas four of the candidates, plus perhaps the occasional Jason Motte or Miguel Batista appearance -- there's a realistic chance no Cardinals reliever will save even 10 games. (In that event, not one would help in the category in anything but deep NL-only leagues.)

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last team to fail to have a single reliever reach double digits in saves was the 2005 Detroit Tigers, who won just 71 games and tried six different people in the job. Only three teams, meanwhile, did it and still reached the postseason: The 1987 Tigers, 1982 California Angels and 1973 Baltimore Orioles, and all three of those teams did it during an era when bullpen strategy was different and the weight of the save lesser.

If I'm ranking the relievers for fantasy today -- and I am, to the right -- I'm going Sanchez, Boggs, Salas and Miller. But with the team's saves leader so uncertain, you can see how poorly those four compare to the rest of the league.

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.

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