The top two teams in the American League West have closer issues, and deciding who will receive the save chances for these teams over the next week, or more, presents a problem. Just look at who got the opportunities Tuesday night. Lefty Ryan Rowland-Smith got five outs to save an Erik Bedard win, while the Angels turned to Justin Speier. That didn't go as well.
Seemingly minutes after last week's Relief Efforts was published, Seattle's J.J. Putz was placed on the disabled list with a surprise injury to his rib cage. I fully expect that minutes after this version of Relief Efforts gets posted, the Angels' Francisco Rodriguez will join him. That's two of the top four closers in fantasy, and since saves are such a big deal in fantasy, this has created a bit of panic. Consider that the Putz and K-Rod owners in your league placed such high importance on saves that they were among the first to select closers. The easy thing to do in fantasy is just pick up the replacements, but in these cases, it's not so easy, since even the teams' managers don't seem to know who they are.
Let's begin with K-Rod, because his situation remains a bit more murky. He has not one, but two, sprained ankles, and the pitcher said the left has been a problem since August. The right was injured Saturday night in a 2-1 win over Texas. Rodriguez allowed a hit and threw 19 pitches that night, but he earned the save without much issue. He did appear to grimace a few times, and his normally high-powered fastball was topping out at 90 mph.
On Monday night, Rodriguez couldn't save the game. In fact, the only out he recorded came when Cleveland's Jhonny Peralta tried to stretch his go-ahead RBI double into a triple and Rodriguez tagged him out at third. That was it. Rodriguez walked Travis Hafner and allowed sharp doubles to Victor Martinez and Peralta. His last batter was Ryan Garko, who also walked. Rodriguez grimaced often and seemed to land wrong on the final pitch to Garko, prompting his removal from the game by manager Mike Scioscia, for injury-related concerns, if not for performance. It was pretty clear Rodriguez was not his normal self. What remains unclear is whether he will need a DL stint to heal or just a few days off. Both his ankles were heavily taped Monday, and it finally affected his performance.
"I couldn't get any balance on my back leg, and I was using all arm, not pushing off the rubber with my leg," Rodriguez told the Los Angeles Times after the game. "I couldn't locate my fastball. I had no power in my legs."
Our injury expert, Stephania Bell, will have more on this situation this week, but for now, fantasy owners shouldn't sell Rodriguez for 50 cents on the dollar. Even with a sore ankle in September, he managed to convert seven of eight saves, strike out 17 hitters in 10 2/3 innings and register a 2.53 ERA. There was little reason to worry about Rodriguez at the beginning of the season, and this remains the case. Even if a DL stint is pending, this closer should be effective for the final five months, and if it means missing a few April save chances, so be it.
As for who's next in line, don't assume it's Scot Shields. He just came off the DL himself, after dealing with forearm tightness, and he wasn't effective in relief of Rodriguez on Monday. He managed to escape the inning and got the win when Cleveland's Joe Borowski imploded in the bottom half of the ninth. It could very well be Speier getting the save chances, as he did Tuesday. Of course, he blew that save when Hafner homered with a man on and two outs in the ninth inning. Oddly, the Indians chose not to go back to Borowski but let Jake Westbrook complete his gem.
It wouldn't be a shock if Speier were first in line, since Shields has been one of the most abused relief pitchers over the past four seasons. Maybe all those innings finally are catching up to him. Since 2004, only nine pitchers have appeared in more games than Shields, and of that group, none have thrown more innings than Shields, who has 363 1/3 to his credit. In fact, the only pure relief pitcher within 50 innings of Shields in that span is Salomon Torres, who also hasn't been a beacon of health in the past year. Meanwhile, Speier spent time last season on the DL with a viral infection and later in the year dealt with a sprained MCL. He has visited the DL four of the past six seasons and likely was chosen for Tuesday's assignment more because Shields was unavailable. Basically, the Angels' bullpen, not long ago considered one of the team's strengths, now is a mess.
As for the other top team in the AL West, there is no timetable for Putz's return. He has inflammation in his rib cage, where the cartilage attaches to the ribs, and obviously, throwing isn't recommended. The Mariners aren't sure when he'll return, but I'd think he'll be back in April. In his absence, things haven't been going well, as the team was swept in Baltimore. The bullpen contributed to the losing. Lefty Eric O'Flaherty entered Tuesday's game having allowed a run in four of five appearances, and presumptive closer Mark Lowe entered Sunday's game with a man on base and a one-run lead, but he didn't get an out. Lowe was signed in nearly half of ESPN's standard mixed leagues. It is possible Brandon Morrow could return to the Mariners before Putz, and he would figure into the closer role. Morrow is not on the DL; he was sent to Double-A Tennessee with shoulder soreness, and when he's able to pitch on back-to-back days, it's likely the Mariners will want him back. Aussie Rowland-Smith is a nice story, but the Rays didn't send up much right-handed power to face him, either, which is why he stayed in the game. The hitters were lefty Eric Hinske, powerless Jason Bartlett, and lefties Akinori Iwamura, Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena. Rowland-Smith was a pretty obvious choice, considering no active reliever had distinguished himself lately, and if one man had reached base and brought right-handed hitting B.J. Upton to the plate, it's likely Lowe would have come in.
Brad Lidge, Phillies: Those who saw the Tom Gordon save Tuesday afternoon might assume Lidge is in trouble again, but that's not the case at all. Lidge pitched Sunday and Monday, and he warmed up Saturday night but was not brought in. He was unavailable for the Mets game Tuesday. Similarly, if you didn't see Lidge save Monday's win in Cincinnati and judged his performance on the line score, you might think he struggled. With two outs, he walked Paul Bako, and then So Taguchi misjudged a Corey Patterson pop up down the left field line for a two-base error. Ken Griffey Jr. was walked intentionally. Bako scored on a wild pitch, and then Lidge fanned Javier Valentin. It wasn't exactly a pounding, and one of the walks was planned. Buy low on Lidge, who should be good for more than 30 saves this season.
George Sherrill, Orioles: It's not that Sherrill shouldn't be good all season, but this magical ride the O's are on can't continue. The starting pitching isn't very good. The offense is questionable. And starting next week, the competition gets tougher, as the Blue Jays and Yankees visit. Sherrill saved four games in the first week and didn't allow a hit. It's impressive; it's a wonderful story about how you stole the guy in the final round of your draft. The Orioles could be better than people think and avoid more than 90 losses, but be prepared for the potential that Sherrill won't get save opportunities for a week at a time.
Santiago Casilla, A's: The presumption has been that if Huston Street either gets hurt or gets traded -- and neither of those options would be much of a surprise at this point -- Alan Embree is next in line. The wily lefty did save a career-high 17 games a season ago, raising his 15-year career total to 25. However, he's not really a closer. He was a stop-gap, and now we're seeing Embree occasionally used in the sixth inning. The A's are rebuilding, not contending, so they'd be wise to give a young, hard-throwing right-hander a shot to close. Casilla (you might remember that years ago he was named Jairo Garcia -- and he was much younger then), is off to a terrific start, having allowed two baserunners in 5 1/3 innings, striking out seven. Street looked fine in getting his first save of the young season Tuesday, but Casilla could be that sleeper guy used for saves later in the season.
On the move
Keep an eye on the Nationals this week, as it appears Chad Cordero is ready to come off the DL after dealing with shoulder soreness. Jon Rauch hasn't been great in Cordero's absence. He got the win on opening night after blowing the save on an unearned run. He also has a save, but he allowed two runs while getting work Monday. Rauch normally is used much more often than he has been the first week-plus of the season. That is why I fully expect Cordero to resume closing duties immediately after rejoining the Nationals. There's no guarantee Cordero is going to be able to stay healthy all season, and Rauch does have fantasy value as a setup man, so don't be so quick to toss him on the free-agent pile.
Hey, a lot of people, including me, play in leagues in which holds count. In fact, I have a few leagues in which holds are their own category or are added to saves to make sholds. Or is it shaves? Anyway, I picked the Braves to win the NL East, and their top setup man, that submarine Aussie Peter Moylan, also is the major league leader in holds. (Lot of Aussie talk in Relief Efforts, no?) I don't think Moylan is a fluke, although there has been talk that if Rafael Soriano and his sore elbow need time off, the replacement closer could be Manny Acosta. If you're looking for an AL guy off to a big start, look at Scott Linebrink. The White Sox look better than many people thought they would be, Bobby Jenks moved up in my rankings this week, and Linebrink has registered holds in three of his first four appearances.
Bullpens to watch
We began this Relief Efforts by focusing on a pair of AL West contenders; now, let's check out the top teams in the NL West. I am not assuming that, if/when Arizona's Brandon Lyon loses the closer role, the new guy will be Tony Pena. What's wrong with Chad Qualls, anyway? While Lyon has blown more saves than he's converted so far, Pena and Qualls have combined for 9 2/3 scoreless innings. Qualls has accumulated three holds so far, and in each case, he pitched the seventh inning while Pena hurled the eighth, so using that benchmark, it would seem Pena is next in line. Managers don't always think that way, however. Qualls does have some experience closing, and manager Bob Melvin could opt to leave Pena in the main setup role he's thriving in. As for Lyon, don't expect him to lose the job today, but when you're not a hard thrower or a strikeout option -- and he isn't -- the margin for error becomes smaller. It's a matter of time before Melvin is forced to remove Lyon from the role, and judging by the dreaded vote of confidence, which rarely is a harbinger of actual confidence, the pitcher got earlier this week, I say it will happen soon.
Over in San Diego, the revered Trevor Hoffman appeared in half of the Padres' first eight games, saving two and losing two. If one includes last September and October, it's obvious Hoffman has struggled. However, Hoffman would have to be worse than this to lose the closer role. Nobody has more saves in major league history, and the guy is a San Diego icon. This isn't New York or Chicago. Kerry Wood would have lost the closer role by now, but Hoffman will get more chances. I could see Hoffman eventually serving a DL stint at some point, as the team tries that angle to get him on track in games that don't matter, but if you're going to run out and sign Heath Bell, don't expect saves anytime soon. Hoffman might have a Todd Jones sort of year, but he's going to get saves. Bell remains one of the better middle relief options for fantasy, although I think it will be difficult for him to match his terrific 2007 stats. Cla Meredith clearly is behind Bell in the pecking order at this point.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com fantasy. You can e-mail him here.