Relief Efforts: Going through the NL
Think about how rare it is to get a save in fantasy baseball. On offense, any player could, in theory, hit a home run, or steal a base. Any pitcher could, also in theory, win a game. But to get a save, most times the pitcher has to be chosen by the manager and get into the game at the right time. Saves don't happen that often.
The average major league team has 10 saves right now. That's it. Last year the average was 40. So if your pitcher tops 40 saves, consider yourself fortunate.
Last week I covered the American League closer situations, and now it's time for the NL.
Closer: Jose Valverde
Next in line: Tony Pena
Stealth: Brandon Lyon
Valverde certainly didn't start May the right way, allowing five runs in an ugly blown save against the Mets, but he's settled down since, allowing two hits total in the last five outings. Pena, meanwhile, has allowed one hit in six innings this month. Pena got the save chance over Lyon when Valverde was unavailable last week, which could be the precursor to bigger things, but that's assuming Valverde loses the job soon. For now, let's not jump ahead. Don't expect a great ERA or WHIP, not with his control. Speaking of, take a look at what Brandon Medders is up to. There is no chance he's anywhere near the closer picture, having allowed eight home runs in 16 2/3 innings. Now that's quite a feat!
Prediction: Valverde's wildness catches up to him in August, with a disabled list stint, and Pena gets his shot. Valverde reclaims the job in September, and ends up topping 30 saves. But it won't be pretty.
Closer: Bob Wickman
Next in line: Rafael Soriano
Stealth: Mike Gonzalez
It doesn't matter that Soriano and Gonzalez throw so much harder than Wickman, or that either would be a 30-save guy immediately. Wickman is the closer. His disabled list stint ended Tuesday, and Wickman is back and thrust into the role. His season ERA and WHIP (3.97 and 1.85) fail to impress, but note that he hadn't allowed an earned run before his last two outings, which were at Coors Field, and he was supposedly hurt. We have no reason to believe Wickman is not healthy, especially since there are replacements at the ready. This is arguably the National League's best threesome of relievers, though the Dodgers would top it if they had a dominating lefty.
Prediction: Wickman is healthy, and he ends up with 36 saves and a sub-3.00 ERA. Soriano takes over in 2008.
Closer: Ryan Dempster
Next in line: Bob Howry
Stealth: Michael Wuertz
Really, the way Howry and Scott Eyre have pitched lately, the case can be made that Wuertz has already passed Howry and could be in line for some saves should Dempster fall apart, which he's shown no signs of doing. Wuertz has actually had an underrated career, but has never been relied upon for important innings, which could change. Dempster continues to get little credit for his solid 2007, as most of his owners expect pending disaster. I disagree and point them to 2005, when Dempster led the NL in save percentage. Hey, he's got a 0.84 WHIP and is averaging a strikeout per inning. All looks well.
Prediction: Dempster continues his fine hurling and ends up with 36 saves and an ERA of 2.96, while Wuertz passes Howry and vultures seven wins. Oh, and Kerry Wood still hasn't thrown an inning for anyone. I'll set his over/under for innings this season, majors or minors, at one. I'll take the under.
Closer: David Weathers
Next in line: Mike Stanton
Stealth: Bill Bray
Weathers continues to seemingly thrive under the radar, though he is owned in most leagues at this point. He's saved only two games in the last month, though the Reds are more to blame for that than Weathers, who has a 1.89 ERA and 0.79 WHIP after tossing three perfect innings on Tuesday. Mike Stanton, incidentally, has sputtered of late, and is probably far away from any ninth-inning work, but he's still closer than the untrustworthy Todd Coffey. Remember when this was supposed to be a left-right tandem? As for Bray, he's in extended spring training as he recovers from a fractured finger, and he could join the Reds within a week or so. It wouldn't surprise me if he instantly becomes a contender for saves.
Prediction: Weathers holds on to the job a while longer, until the inevitable happens and his ERA rises into the 4.00 range. After about six weeks of waiting for Bray to get a chance, he finally does near the All-Star break. Weathers ends up with 16 saves, Bray 10, and the Reds finish in fifth place with 71 wins.
Closer: Brian Fuentes
Next in line: Manny Corpas
Stealth: Jorge Julio
There just isn't very much to say about Fuentes, other than he's clearly trusted in fantasy. He's allowed one run all season at home, so Coors Field doesn't bother him, as if the last few years weren't enough proof. What is interesting is how newcomer Julio could be integrated into the bullpen. Corpas has seized the set-up role and ranks among league leaders in holds. Maybe he's this year's Ramon Ramirez. I doubt Julio will vault ahead of Corpas, and eventually Ramirez when he comes off the DL, to pitch important innings. By the way, this staff's ERA is 5.05. Wow.
Prediction: Fuentes saved 61 games from 2005 to '06, with a high of 31. Let's give him 32 this season, but say no other Rockies reliever is worthy of fantasy attention.
Closer: Taylor Tankersley
Next in line: Kevin Gregg
Stealth: Ricky Nolasco
We go from the Rockies, one of the clearer and more obvious closer situations in baseball, to this one, in which literally four or five pitchers could get the next save, and someone totally different, and currently on the DL, could be the long-term guy. First of all, I think Henry Owens gets the closer job back when he gets off the DL. It's shoulder tendinitis that put him there, and the team expects him back next week. Second of all, I don't quite understand why everyone loves Tankersley so much. He seems like a lefty specialist to me. It's hard to succeed in pressure situations when you're allowing home runs and walking people. The Byung-Hyun Kim trade could affect things. Nolasco is clearly struggling as a starter, and wasn't he the team's choice back in early March, before the Josh Johnson injury necessitated him starting? Kim is starting this week, but it was Wes Obermueller bumped from the rotation. For now, expect Tankersley to try to save games until Owens returns, but be prepared for everyone from Gregg to Matt Lindstrom to Lee Gardner and Bryan Harvey (have you seen what he did in the franchise's debut season?) to wind up with a save.
Prediction: Owens comes back strong and closes for the next month or two, until he needs another DL stint. I'll give him 19 saves. Lindstrom pitches so well in middle relief that he gets chances in August. Tankersley ends up with four saves, and B.H. Kim gets dealt to the Yankees on July 31 for a player to be named.
Closer: Dan Wheeler
Next in line: Brad Lidge
Stealth: Chad Qualls
Lidge has certainly pitched better in the last few weeks, giving rise to reasonable speculation that he'll regain the closer role at some point. I have to admit, I could definitely see that happening in the next few weeks. Wheeler hasn't done anything wrong, but he doesn't throw as hard as Lidge, and teams aren't lining up to trade for him. By the way, Lidge has an ERA a half a run lower than Wheeler right now. Hard to believe five different Braves and four Nationals all currently have saves, but Lidge does not.
Prediction: Lidge keeps on mowing hitters down, and Wheeler blows a save in the final week of May and the change is made. Lidge keeps the job the rest of the season as Houston wins the NL Central, and he ends up with 23 saves and plenty of love from fantasy owners. In 2008 he's a top-three closer and loses the job before April ends again, proving how volatile the position is and that you should never select a closer in the first hour of a draft.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Closer: Takashi Saito
Next in line: Jonathan Broxton
Stealth: Chin-Hui Tsao
Enough already, Saito is just fine as a closer. He's not too old, he's not having a sophomore slump, he's on his way to yet another terrific season. If not for Saito having a meaningless strained calf back in February, the notion that he was even a candidate to lose his job would have been ridiculous. Broxton continues to dominate in a Zumaya-like way and remains fantasy worthy even sans the saves.
Prediction: Saito glides toward 40 saves and keeps his ERA under 2.00. Broxton matches every stat, except the saves. Chad Billingsley, by the way, forces his way into the rotation within the next month.
Closer: Francisco Cordero
Next in line: Derrick Turnbow
Stealth: Matt Wise
If you asked me which Brewers reliever was more likely to have a meltdown before that Philly game on Monday, I would have said Turnbow. Entering that game Cordero and Turnbow had struck out 46 hitters in 32 innings and allowed 12 hits. Neither was walking people. Turnbow's explosion Monday was probably just a bump in the road, nothing to worry about (though he blew Tuesday's game, as well), and Cordero will also have games like that. What, you expected these guys to have sub-2.00 ERAs all season? Whatever happened to Jose Capellan being a key part of the bullpen, anyway? Now you know why the Braves gave him up so easily.
Prediction: Cordero ends up with 43 saves and a 2.06 ERA, while Turnbow ceases to be reliable very soon.
New York Mets
Closer: Billy Wagner
Next in line: Aaron Heilman
Stealth: Joe Smith
Wagner looks terrific. The only complaint fantasy owners have about him is that his save total is a bit low. Blame the bats; they score too many runs and turn three-run leads into six-run leads late. Still, there's nothing to worry about. Heilman has done well and should pick up plenty of holds along the way. Be careful on Smith; when hitters get a book on a guy whose main weapon is his delivery, they eventually catch on.
Prediction: Wagner ends up with 39 saves but tops Cordero for overall fantasy value due to a lower ERA and WHIP.
Closer: Brett Myers
Next in line: Please don't ask me that
Stealth: Tom Gordon
Personally, I think Myers is going to thrive as a closer. He's already shown he can throw multiple innings, which of course is nice when Philly also lacks sufficient set-up men. Will he be perfect? No way, as he'll allow the occasional homer and walk, but he'll still pile on the saves. Is it possible the Phillies will need rotation help at some point? Yes, it is. Is it possible Gordon comes off the DL at some point feeling great, and throws well enough to warrant the ninth-inning work? Yes, it is. But I truly believe the Phillies will leave Myers alone the rest of the season. Gordon comes back in June and stabilizes the eighth inning. Who's next in line this week? It's probably Antonio Alfonseca. Please, Phillies, score enough runs so that won't matter.
Prediction: Myers ends up with 32 saves and more than 100 strikeouts. Then again, he got a head start on the K total since he was a starter. Ryan Madson comes off the DL soon and sets up Myers until Gordon is ready. What should you do with Myers in keeper leagues? I think he goes back to the rotation next spring, and Gordon, who is under contract for another year, starts 2008 with the job.
Closer: Salomon Torres
Next in line: Matt Capps
Stealth: Damaso Marte
Prediction: Fantasy owners flocked to Capps a few weeks ago, expecting a closer change to occur at some point. It will probably happen in time, but Torres is kind of looking like this year's version of Todd Jones. He's striking nobody out, giving up runs that never seem to have larger implications and, most importantly, his manager seems to trust him. Capps is better, of course, but really, does that ever matter? By the way, in those deep NL-only leagues, check out what Marte is up to, as he could fan 75 hitters.
Prediction: The Pirates don't seem too concerned about Torres, so maybe we shouldn't worry either. Torres ends up with 34 saves and actually keeps the role all season, making many a Capps owner angry.
St. Louis Cardinals
Closer: Jason Isringhausen
Next in line: Ryan Franklin
Stealth: Adam Wainwright
Izzy has allowed only eight hits in his first 14 1/3 innings, and his two problems from 2006, the arthritic hip and the crazy amount of walks, appear things of the past. Time to trust Izzy again, if you didn't already. Brad Thompson would have been next in line, except for the fact that he's been summoned to the rotation to replace Chris Carpenter long term. Why Wainwright? He's getting torched regularly in the rotation, and I could see him moved to set-up duties again. Could Franklin really be next in line this week? I find it hard to believe, but who else could it be? Tyler Johnson? Russ Springer? Where's Todd Worrell when you need him?
Prediction: Isringhausen ends up one of the best closer buys of the season, with 37 saves and an ERA in the low-2.00s. Tony La Russa continues to get enough production from Franklin types and eventually the Cards are a wild-card threat.
San Diego Padres
Closer: Trevor Hoffman
Next in line: Scott Linebrink
Stealth: Clay Hensley
Hoffman isn't really getting pounded at all. His ERA isn't stellar due to a few bad outings, but Hoffman is not someone you need to worry about. How much longer can he keep doing this? I don't see an end in sight, as long as he wants to pitch. Linebrink has seen his K rate drop, but he'd be next. Cla Meredith is no longer that guy who dominates ERA, and Doug Brocail is helpful but not closer material at his age. Hensley could move back into the rotation in a week, or the Padres could opt to leave him in the bullpen if Justin Germano shows he's no fluke.
Prediction: Hoffman ends up with 39 saves and a 2.57 ERA.
San Francisco Giants
Closer: Armando Benitez
Next in line: Brad Hennessey
Stealth: Vinnie Chulk
Benitez is not likely to go all season without a DL stint. He really isn't pitching very much, mainly in save situations, and each time I see him pitch I have the feeling someone's going to hit him hard. He blew the save Tuesday, as his ERA rose to 3.55. This is the bullpen where some shocking name could end up with saves down the stretch, especially if the Giants are out of the race. Jonathan Sanchez? Nah, I think he'll end up starting. Jack Taschner and Steve Kline? Too left-handed. And don't even say the name Tim Lincecum. Man, how could anyone have thought that arm would close?
Prediction: Benitez spends two terms on the DL but manages to save 19 games in between. Hennessey, who is currently hurt, and Chulk, who is currently quite average, each finds his way to a few saves. Where's Jeremy Accardo when you need him? The Giants had him, ya know.
Closer: Chad Cordero
Next in line: Jon Rauch
Stealth: Jesus Colome
Cordero came off the bereavement list the other day, and despite his problems on and off the field (check out that WHIP over 2.00), he's Washington's best end-game option. I doubt he loses the job unless it's due to injury or the talented prospect some desperate team offers the Nats in trade. Rauch and Colome each picked up a save in Cordero's absence and both would be reasonable alternatives over Ryan Wagner, who still apparently has the label of future closer to misguided fantasy owners.
Prediction: The Nationals and Royals will battle it out for baseball's basement, though neither will lose 100 games. Cordero doesn't get traded and doesn't really improve his performance, either. He ends up with 22 saves.
Eric Karabell covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. Check out his daily blog at this link.
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