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Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Masset, Meyer among top middlemen

By Eric Karabell

Relief Efforts
I took a cursory glance at some of the rosters in my leagues this weekend and was amazed at some of the relief pitchers owned. Then I clicked on their player cards and realized these guys are owned in a lot more leagues than they should be. Hey, I get why Manny Corpas, Brad Ziegler and Jason Motte are so popular, and probably a dozen more relievers like them, but saves aren't the only reason you own a relief pitcher in fantasy baseball.

If you want to help protect your team's ERA and WHIP, pick up some strikeouts and luck into the occasional victory or two, sometimes it's best to ignore the potential for saves and look at actual middle relievers, those who do their work in the sixth and seventh innings. No, you might not sniff a save all season or even get more than a few holds, but think outside the box. Some of these pitchers are just better, more effective.

For this exercise I figured it was time to shine a bit of love on the relief pitchers having really nice seasons, because they play a role in our game as well. You won't hear their names and saves in the same sentence, and that's why you might not know who they are. There are lot more relief pitchers out there than Carlos Marmol. Here are five of them who are really doing well, five I actually own in some league, somewhere.

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

Nick Masset, Reds: His situation reminds me a bit of Jon Rauch. Like Rauch, Masset never really got a chance to make it as a starting pitcher with the White Sox, and he was more or less given up on and sent somewhere else, then dumped in middle relief. Rauch became a trusted setup man. Masset is well on his way. He's allowed 11 hits in 25 1/3 innings, and found a way to win four games. No, he won't get saves, but aren't ERA, WHIP and strikeouts categories, too?

Dan Meyer, Marlins: I mentioned him in the lefty column a few weeks back, but Meyer is hardly a lefty specialist. Right-handed hitters have managed a .132 batting average and .406 OPS against him. Meyer's actually done better against them compared to lefties. Why did it take Meyer so long to flourish (he was a key part of the Tim Hudson-to-Atlanta deal years ago)? Like Masset, there was little indication back in March he'd have fantasy value. With a 0.76 WHIP, a strikeout per inning rate and a pace for 80 games, he does.

Darren O'Day, Rangers: The Rangers claimed O'Day off waivers in April, and he's posted a 0.95 ERA in 21 games. Now with closer Frank Francisco on the DL, O'Day has moved quickly through the pecking order into setup status. Originally on the Angels, O'Day was a Rule 5 pick by the Mets in December. Despite pitching through a torn labrum rather than opt for surgery, he looks like the real deal.

Greg Burke
Greg Burke is probably not in the saves mix just yet, but an ERA under 2 and a WHIP under 1, plus nearly a strikeout an inning, is appealing to fantasy owners.
Greg Burke, Padres: Let's just say Heath Bell isn't the only one thriving in the San Diego bullpen. Burke has only been in the majors a month, but he's striking out a batter per inning and his WHIP is less than 1. Edward Mujica has a similar WHIP and strikeout rate, and Luke Gregerson has a 0.41 ERA at home, though he's now on the DL. Burke is the one to watch, I believe, since he was the Triple-A closer and probably would be next in line for saves. Oh wait, we're not talking saves here! Burke should get, um, plenty of strikeouts and keep his peripherals strong. Yeah, that's it.

Jeff Fulchino, Astros: He's not on this list simply because he pitched down the street from ESPN at UConn! Fulchino is Houston's long reliever, having thrown two or more innings in six of his past 10 appearances, totaling 28 innings this season in 18 games. He hasn't allowed a run in 14 1/3 innings, and that run came when he hit Ryan Braun with a pitch, then left the game and another Astro let Braun score. Fulchino has been a career minor leaguer, and a starter at that, but he's making an impact in the Houston bullpen. Plus, if you can find a valuable long reliever for fantasy, which is rare in the NL, you pick them up.

Who else: Mark DiFelice of the Brewers has walked only five hitters in 25 2/3 innings, and he's getting lots of ground balls and strikeouts. … The Dodgers wouldn't be where they are without Ramon Troncoso and Ronald Belisario. They have 15 holds between them. … The Yankees' long man has been Alfredo Aceves, but now he's getting more important innings. … Clay Zavada of the Diamondbacks is a lefty but he's allowed a .136 batting average to right-handers. He has yet to allow a run. … Keep an eye on the Giants' Sergio Romo for the peripherals, but also in case Brian Wilson implodes, which he shouldn't.

Now on to the normal stuff from Relief Efforts.

Fortunes rising

Top 60 relievers

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

1. Jonathan Broxton, LAD (1)
2. Jonathan Papelbon, BOS (2)
3. Francisco Rodriguez, NYM (3)
4. Joe Nathan, MIN (4)
5. Mariano Rivera, NYY (5)
6. Trevor Hoffman, MIL (6)
7. Heath Bell, SD (7)
8. Bobby Jenks, CHW (8)
9. Brian Fuentes, LAA (9)
10. Francisco Cordero, CIN (10)
11. Joakim Soria, KC (14)
12. Huston Street, COL (13)
13. Scott Downs, TOR (11)
14. Ryan Franklin, STL (12)
15. Brian Wilson, SF (15)
16. Chad Qualls, ARI (16)
17. Kerry Wood, CLE (17)
18. Jose Valverde, HOU (25)
19. Matt Lindstrom, FLA (19)
20. Kevin Gregg, CHC (20)
21. Andrew Bailey, OAK (23)
22. Mike Gonzalez, ATL (21)
23. George Sherrill, BAL (22)
24. J.P. Howell, TB (31)
25. Matt Capps, PIT (26)
26. Fernando Rodney, DET (24)
27. David Aardsma, SEA (27)
28. C.J. Wilson, TEX (30)
29. Ryan Madson, PHI (28)
30. Tony Pena, ARI (29)
31. Rafael Soriano, ATL (32)
32. Frank Francisco, TEX (18)
33. Mike MacDougal, WAS (33)
34. Joel Zumaya, DET (35)
35. Brad Lidge, PHI (38)
36. Leo Nunez, FLA (37)
37. Carlos Marmol, CHC (36)
38. Dan Wheeler, TB (39)
39. Kyle Farnsworth, KC (45)
40. Brad Ziegler, OAK (40)
41. John Grabow, PIT (43)
42. LaTroy Hawkins, HOU (34)
43. Randy Choate, TB (42)
44. Chris Perez, STL (44)
45. Brandon League, TOR (48)
46. Angel Guzman, CHC (49)
47. Takashi Saito, BOS (46)
48. Joel Hanrahan, WAS (41)
49. Ronald Belisario, LAD (51)
50. Darren O'Day, TEX (NA)
51. Matt Herges, CLE (52)
52. Octavio Dotel, CHW (56)
53. Juan Cruz, KC (47)
54. Michael Wuertz, OAK (50)
55. Kiko Calero, FLA (55)
56. Jason Motte, STL (54)
57. Alfredo Aceves, NYY (NA)
58. Greg Burke, SD (57)
59. Matt Thornton, CHW (58)
60. Mark Lowe, SEA (60)

C.J. Wilson, Rangers: He's a closer again, as Frank Francisco heads back to the DL for the second time this season. Wilson has closed before, and he appears healthy, so there are few concerns, if any. As I wrote a week ago in discussing Ryan Madson taking over for an injured Brad Lidge, just don't assume Wilson keeps getting saves in July. He might not get any next week depending on how quickly Francisco's shoulder stops hurting.

Trevor Hoffman, Brewers: I couldn't move him up in the ranks, as he's already really high and nobody above him needed a bump down, but I was impressed that Hoffman was able to pitch three consecutive days culminating in his Monday save. He bounced back from allowing his first run of the season Sunday. Really, the entire Milwaukee bullpen is underrated, not just the closer. Todd Coffey continues to avoid walks, while lefty Mitch Stetter has allowed four hits in 44 at-bats to left-handed hitters this season and is second in the NL in holds.

Huston Street, Rockies: One of the NL co-players of the week, Street has saves in each of his past five outings, and he's starting to accumulate nice strikeout totals as well. The fact the Rockies went nearly two weeks without losing is another good sign for Street's fantasy value; if the Rockies get back to 10 games under .500 by mid-July, look for Street to be on the trade market, and if he moves, who knows what happens. I don't think he'd close for the Yankees, for example.

Fortunes falling

Joe Nelson, Rays:: With J.P. Howell seemingly taking control of the closer role, and Nelson being used earlier in games, it's time to look elsewhere for a relief pitcher on the verge of getting saves. Nelson has actually pitched really well since May 31, as all seven appearances have been hitless, scoreless frames. The problem is, while the team was winning five of those games, Nelson picked up a hold in only one. He's just not the eighth-inning option anymore. Pick up J.P. Howell, as he could be the closer the final four months, while the Dan Wheeler/Randy Choate combination takes the eighth inning.

LaTroy Hawkins, Astros: The return of Jose Valverde pushes Hawkins to a setup role, but don't assume that ends any chance of Hawkins helping fantasy owners. I dropped him in the rankings because he'll lose saves, but remember both he and Valverde are candidates to be dealt.

Los Angeles Angels: Brian Fuentes continues to rank among the league leaders in saves, and while his peripheral numbers aren't great, all his competition is leaving. I wouldn't necessarily call this a good thing, though. On Monday, John Lackey had a 8-0 lead and little by little he, Justin Speier and Kevin Jepsen made it a 9-7 game, until Fuentes got the final out. Dependable Scot Shields is out for the season after knee surgery, and fireballer Jose Arredondo is at Triple-A Salt Lake, where he really doesn't belong. Jepsen was supposed to be a big helper for this bullpen, but he got lit in the minors for 30 hits and 16 walks in only 18 innings. Add it all up and the Angels need help. Fuentes might get his 35 saves regardless, but it would be nice if Kelvim Escobar, pushed out of the rotation with shoulder fatigue and on the DL, could eventually contribute.

Comings, goings and random thoughts

• Even including the Tuesday-night blown save, Ryan Madson has been so good since Brad Lidge went down that the Phillies are no longer assuming Lidge returns from the DL the day he's eligible. Still, don't get too comfortable with Madson in this role. There's no chance Lidge returns to the eighth inning.

• A week ago it seemed clear the Diamondbacks would need to place Chad Qualls on the DL with forearm tightness, but Qualls is pitching through the problem, and picked up a save in the process. By the way, he has a Mariano-like four walks this season, and 26 strikeouts.

• Speaking of the DL, I watched in person as Toronto closer Scott Downs hurt his foot while running to first base to beat out an infield grounder to Jimmy Rollins in the 10th inning late Tuesday night. This brings up the age-old debate about pitchers batting, yet alone running, and while it is possible Downs needs to miss a few days -- an MRI was negative, which is good news -- stop right there. He could have easily hurt the foot covering first base on a ground ball hit by Rollins. If Downs were to um, go down, would B.J. Ryan really replace him? His ERA is over 6. He looks awful. His velocity and movement are not the same. It sure can't be Jesse Carlson, allowing a run per game the past month. I think Brandon League would be next.

• I also saw Daniel Bard pitch twice over the weekend in Philadelphia -- personally, I love interleague play -- and there's little question he can make a radar gun sing, but one also has to wonder about his command. He walked three Phillies in the Sunday game and allowed four runs, spiking his ERA. Just remember the name if anything were to happen to Jonathan Papelbon long-term. I doubt the Red Sox would turn to Bard as the closer in-season, but to start a season, absolutely.

Brian Bruney came off the DL for the Yankees and immediately was pitching in the eighth inning. It would really help that team if he could stay healthy, and it might also ensure the Yankees don't trade for someone else's closer and make him their eighth-inning fellow.

• Let's say a few goodbyes, shall we? First off, if Street is going to lose the closer role in Colorado you can forget about Taylor Buchholz cashing in. Buchholz was the Rockies' top relief pitcher in 2008, but now he's headed for Tommy John surgery.

• Goodbye also to a perfect season for Mets stud Francisco Rodriguez, though in the end he can't be blamed for Luis Castillo dropping an easy popup. K-Rod did put two Yankees on base before inducing Alex Rodriguez to pop the last pitch up. Is it still inducing if the end result is a bad one? Regardless, Rodriguez won't pull a Lidge circa 2008 this season in save chances. In case you were wondering, of the 35 pitchers with four or more saves this season, only Trevor Hoffman, Fernando Rodney, Frank Francisco and Troy Percival have nary a blown save.

• And finally, we should thank Jason Isringhausen for all the fine memories over the years. Izzy hasn't officially announced his retirement at age 36, but the fact that he left his weekend outing with a torn ulnar collateral ligament and will need Tommy John surgery will probably signal the end. It's not like Isringhausen had pitched well since 2007. If he's done, he finishes with 293 career saves, which I never would have guessed when I selected him in the second round of a 1996 fantasy draft as my No. 2 starting pitcher. Izzy was a Met then, but by 2000, he was a closer for Oakland, and a really good, dependable one for most of the decade. He's not Hall of Fame-bound, but he earned the fantasy dollars.

Eric Karabell is a senior fantasy writer for Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He twice has 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 Karabell by e-mailing him here.