What's odd about the current perception of Brad Lidge is that many expected him to have these problems a season ago. He allowed home runs at a high rate while with the Astros, and it was easy to see how he would have a similar problem when he moved to Philadelphia. Not only would he have to deal with an unforgiving fan base skeptical that he was the answer in the ninth inning, but fly-ball pitchers in Citizens Bank Park seldom succeed.
Of course, Lidge was just about perfect in 2008 -- he was 41-of-41 in his regular-season save chances -- and he was one of fantasy's top closers, to boot. He didn't blow any saves or lose any games, his 1.95 ERA was terrific, and only two relief pitchers amassed more strikeouts. Somehow most of the fly balls he did allow stayed in the park; he allowed 19 home runs his final two seasons in Houston, but only two in his Phillies debut. I don't think it was Lidge's best season statistically, but close to it, and he was certainly a bargain in fantasy.
Two weeks into 2009, however, Lidge has blown a save, lost a game and already permitted more home runs than he did in six months last season. Is this cause for alarm for the Phillies or fantasy owners? Lidge was somehow able to walk this tightrope in 2008, but now his mistakes have become a problem -- fixable, but still an issue.
After Saturday's game, in which he allowed four runs to the scrappy Padres and saw the third-longest consecutive saves streak in major league history stopped at 47, Lidge admitted that command of his fastball has been a problem, and he is leaving sliders up in the strike zone. In the opening two weeks, Lidge allowed home runs to Matt Diaz and Ryan Zimmerman while still converting saves, but on Saturday the three-run home run that Kevin Kouzmanoff mashed broke a 5-5 tie. A few pitches earlier, a Jody Gerut double and a pair of groundouts blew the save. The Kouzmanoff swat blew the game open. Philly fans, still on cloud nine from a World Series triumph, rewarded Lidge with a standing ovation for what he's meant to the franchise. Now that perfection is over, I doubt he'll get such leeway the next time out.
How are the Cardinals' closer options ranked? What about the Brewers? Check out Eric Karabell's Bullpen depth chart for the answers.
It's reasonable to assume Lidge will overcome his location problems. His velocity hasn't been an issue, and he's well-aware that he's not pitching his best. "I think I learned, in terms of the art of pitching ... before last year, for the most part I was trying to throw everything as hard as I could," Lidge said after Saturday's loss. "You can have a lot of success with that if it's working, and if you're in a good rhythm. ... I learned how to pitch, and how to take a little off from time to time and to mix it up, which for me was really something I hadn't gotten into yet."
Personally, I'm not worried about Lidge. I dropped him a bit in my rankings, but hey, other closers are performing better and don't have an ERA over 9. It was very unlikely Lidge was going to be perfect again this season. Fantasy owners don't expect perfection anyway. If Lidge gets his 35 saves and doesn't have more than two or three outings like Saturday, he will have been worth it. No, he might not be a top-five closer this season, but I think it's premature to assume his home run problem -- and the ghost of Albert Pujols dingers past -- will derail him. Buy low and enjoy.
• Matt Lindstrom, Marlins: He picks up a few spots in the rankings because I'm convinced any shoulder issue he had a month ago is either a memory, or he's figured out how to compensate and still retire hitters. It's likely the latter. Lindstrom picked up three saves in Florida's 11-1 start, but he was clearly the team's closer. In truth, the Marlins were winning games by too many runs. Lindstrom closed out a few four-run wins along the way. He hasn't allowed a walk in five appearances, and with the Marlins' rotation looking terrific, he's got another 30 saves in him. Incidentally, even though Leo Nunez is next in line, Kiko Calero has more holds and could steal the eighth-inning role at some point.
• Manny Corpas, Rockies: Not a big surprise here, as has been noted the past few weeks in this space. Huston Street pitched himself out of the role with one tough outing after another, leaving manager Clint Hurdle no choice. Corpas hasn't exactly been dominant, allowing multiple runs in two of his past three outings, so be careful dealing the farm to get him. He's lost the closer role before and has been streaky. What a shame that Taylor Buchholz, out until May with a sprained ligament in his elbow, isn't in the picture. He might have earned the closer role based on his terrific 2008. Note that Street has been so bad that I think he's not the main set-up guy, either. It's probably Jason Grilli, ready to pounce if Corpas struggles.
• Joe Nelson, Rays: Now we can see why the Rays, despite what appeared to be unusual depth in their bullpen after a tremendous 2008, felt the need to acquire Nelson. Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour are really struggling so far, each entering Tuesday with an ERA of 13.50. Wheeler is back to his old ways of permitting home runs, while Balfour has walked six hitters in 3 1/3 innings. Nelson has not moved past Wheeler or Balfour in the official pecking order for setting up time bomb Troy Percival, but it's pending if the 2008 heroes keep up their poor pitching. Nelson has been a bit wild himself, but he looks like the same fella who had an ERA of 2 in Florida. He moves into the rankings, while Wheeler drops a bunch and Balfour drops out. J.P. Howell is still here, but it wouldn't surprise me if Nelson ends up getting saves at some point.
• Jose Valverde, Astros: He's the NL saves leader each of the past two seasons, and it would be quite a trick if Valverde can make it three in a row pitching for a bad Astros team. He also needs to overcome his current back woes, which apparently had a role in allowing a two-run homer to Ramon Hernandez over the weekend, turning what would have been a 1-0 win and his first save into a 2-1 loss. Valverde admits his back has been bothering him, and he's been used sparingly since there's been little to save so far. I wouldn't worry about Valverde; I dropped him a few spots in the rankings, but might have done that anyway since the Astros have a poor rotation and I was taking the under on another 40-save season. Add a back injury to think about and the drop to No. 12 is easily warranted.
• Joel Hanrahan, Nationals: While I have no problem taking a few Hanrahan types in every league -- pitchers way off the radar who should accumulate enough saves for a bad team to be worth it -- the major risk is that the unproven pitcher will lose the job. Hanrahan started Week 3 with a pair of saves, the second one really walking the tightrope as he escaped second and third and nobody out without allowing a run. The fact is, beleaguered Washington manager Manny Acta doesn't have many options. Well, he didn't have options, but the weekend bullpen bloodletting resulted in half the corps being turned over, and Garrett Mock arrived. Mock got the last out of the eighth inning Monday, leaving the ninth for Hanrahan, and all was well in Jordan Zimmermann's debut. Incidentally, previous setup man Joe Beimel went on the DL with a hip flexor strain, clearing the way for Mock to own the setup role. Oddly, Mock was struggling at Triple-A Syracuse and he's been a starter his entire career, but that's how fast roles can change (as noted in this space two weeks ago). Hanrahan is a strikeout pitcher with command issues, and he's the current closer. He's found his way to ESPN's most dropped list, but I'd keep him around. I still think he'll lead the Nationals in saves, but I'd definitely keep Mock in mind.
• Carlos Villanueva, Brewers: Not that the Brewers weren't excited about the pending debut of future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman -- I still can't believe he's not a Padre -- but Villanueva couldn't even make it to that point as the closer. He allowed runs in three straight outings, one of them a save chance, and the overperforming Todd Coffey passed him on the depth chart and saved Sunday's game. What was more odd was Coffey getting eight outs for the save. What is this, 1975, with Goose Gossage on the mound? I'd assume Coffey, who blew several chances to close in recent seasons with the Reds, will close this week, with Villanueva possibly losing a set-up role to Mark DeFelice as well. Villanueva drops from the rankings, Coffey enters, and Hoffman maintains his No. 31 spot. He's scheduled for a few rehab outings this week, and could make his Brewers debut Sunday. He goes right into the closer role. I'll still take the over on him earning 30 saves, but the other news in Milwaukee is that Coffey is next in line for him.
Comings and goings
• Jose Mijares, Twins: A major find a season ago who pitched in 10 games for the big club, Mijares had a terrible spring and ended up at Triple-A Rochester. Five scoreless outings and a save later, he's back and could vault quickly into the main set-up role for Joe Nathan, now that Jesse Crain is on the DL. He's not likely to be used as a Will Ohman-type who only faces lefties, so figure he could get 60 innings and be worth a roster spot in deep leagues.
• Chris Perez, Cardinals: A few hours after last week's Relief Efforts when I questioned what Tony La Russa was doing with his bullpen, Perez was called up from Memphis and in his second outing allowed an Alfonso Soriano two-run homer in the eighth inning to lose a game. As soon as Ryan Franklin blows a game, there might be opportunity to close for the Cardinals, but it doesn't appear Perez is close to getting his chance. He could be sent back to Memphis at any time. It's also prudent to note the Cardinals acquired Blaine Boyer from the Braves this week. Boyer isn't better than Perez, Franklin, Kyle McClellan or really anyone in the current St. Louis bullpen, but that hardly means he won't end up getting saves.
• Derek Holland, Rangers: While Holland is one of the team's top starting pitching prospects, I don't see how he fits into a late-inning role with Texas. Frankly, I don't get why the team would use him in relief at all. Fantasy owners will want this guy, especially when he teams up with Neftali Feliz to form a young 1-2 rotation punch, but Frank Francisco and the lefties setting him up are safe. I doubt Holland spends too much time in the bullpen, unless the Rangers want to model him on how Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano were handled once upon a time.
On the farm
• Jeremy Accardo, Blue Jays: A bad spring got him demoted to Triple-A Las Vegas -- there are worse places to be sent, incidentally -- but he's been closing for the 51s and we should note B.J. Ryan hasn't been thriving so far. Scott Downs is next in line for the Jays, but if the need arises for a right-hander to join Jason Frasor, Accardo could find himself saving games. Don't forget that he saved 30 games in 2007.
• Greg Burke, Padres: There isn't a thing wrong with Heath Bell, but I'm wondering how long it will take for Burke to get the call to help out. He saved 23 games with a 2.24 ERA at Double-A San Antonio a season ago, and he's off to a strong start for Triple-A Portland. Bell is safe, but Burke is being bred to be the closer of the future. He's a strikeout guy, and if Duaner Sanchez -- who got a really quick hook in a weekend game -- struggles, Burke could vault right into a major relief role.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He has twice 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.