Relief Efforts: Who's next in Washington?

Well, even I have to admit the Nationals' bullpen situation is just sad. I rejoiced Monday night when the Phillies' Raul Ibanez smoked a go-ahead grand slam in the bottom of the eighth inning, but how could you not feel a little bad for Washington manager Manny Acta? He really seems like a nice guy, and he's not the one who built this awful team, especially its porous bullpen. I mean, Jordan Zimmermann brings promise to the rotation, John Lannan is reliable, and who knows, phenom Stephen Strasburg, if Scott Boras lets him sign, could someday rule D.C. as Zack Greinke owns Kansas City.

One doesn't need to be the most optimistic person to realize the Nationals have some offensive promise and the rotation could end up presentable, but how does one spin that bullpen as competent? In the latest in a series of late-inning destructions, the Nationals allowed six runs in the eighth inning Monday, and it's not as though their proverbial Kyle Farnsworth was on the mound. Their top relievers were!

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Twice already, a beleaguered Acta has announced to the media he's blowing up the relief corps, but what can he really do? Cutting Steven Shell accomplishes only so much. Rumors out of Washington say Joe Beimel will be the team's closer when he comes off the DL. Maybe there will be a save opportunity before then. However, the lefty is 32 years old and has a career WHIP of 1.48 and three career saves. He's not even that good against lefties. Suffice it to say he's never been thought of as a closer before. In fact, about three weeks before the start of this season, he didn't have a job. Oh, he can be effective, but he has never been close to a ninth-inning pitcher. On this club, he and fellow newcomers/journeymen/scrubs Julian Tavarez and Kip Wells are the Charlton, Dibble and Myers.

Let me be clear that these fellows ended up as Nationals under different circumstances. Beimel is thought of as a useful situational lefty who misread the market, but he would have been employed. He was never Billy Wagner, though. Tavarez and Wells keep getting dumped by teams. Tavarez's main pitching vices are a rubber arm and durability. He pitched poorly for three teams in 2008. Sans work this past winter, he originally turned down a minor league deal with Washington to remain on the market, then when he had no other choices and had to pay the bills, he had a change of heart. Well, kinda. Upon signing, he gave this memorable quote: "Why did I sign with the Nationals? When you go to a club at 4 in the morning, and you're just waiting, waiting, a 600-pounder looks like J-Lo. And to me, this is Jennifer Lopez right here. It's 4 in the morning. Too much to drink. So, Nationals: Jennifer Lopez to me." 'Nuff said. And wow.

No, I don't think Tavarez is closer material, either, despite his closing experience many moons ago with the Pirates and Cardinals. When one pitcher after another drops in front of you, you kind of move up by attrition. Attrition, not his off-speed stuff, has become Tavarez's best weapon. And I think he'll earn the team's next save. Amazing. Beimel has been anointed closer, but he's not even on the active roster because he succumbed to a hip flexor strain a week ago and headed to the disabled list. He could return in a week or so. Man, and this team had no interest in bringing back Chad Cordero?

Kip Wells also was named as a part of this closer committee in Washington. I won't rip Wells because I guessed right on him in 2003 when he emerged for the Pirates and was my No. 3 fantasy starter. That was the last time his WHIP was below 1.50, though. I don't need to elaborate, do I?

I harbor no ill will toward Joel Hanrahan, even though I have him on so many teams one would think we're related. Hanrahan had a major strikeout rate in 2008, and although he wasn't going to pile on the saves because his team was going to lose many games, I still assumed he was a relatively safe closer on his way to 25 or 30 saves. He might still do this. It wasn't just that Hanrahan permitted the Ibanez home run, but he also walked two hitters before that to load the bases, so he had to aim a down-the-middle strike. Hanrahan often has command issues, but he's still the best arm in this bullpen, easily.

Garrett Mock also has some promise, and he was closing at Triple-A Syracuse before he was called up. Things weren't going so well for him in the minors, and he brought the poundings with him to the bigs. The Nationals have blown multiple late-inning leads, gone 2-5 in one-run games and 0-3 in extra innings, and no bullpen has walked more hitters. Everyone is to blame.

What's the bottom line here? Well, one should never say never, so I don't think fantasy owners can go so far as to simply ignore one of the worst bullpens in the majors, even one that has three times as many blown saves (six) as saves (two). Tavarez, Beimel, Hanrahan or someone else could take the closer role and run with it. Saves are saves, even when they are accompanied by awful peripheral numbers. No matter how bad the Nationals are, they have another 60 or so wins in them, so someone has to save some of them. This week, I don't own any Nationals relief pitchers. Next week will be a new week, though, and I probably will.

Fortunes rising

Scott Downs, Blue Jays: It's pretty clear the velocity issues and incumbent struggles closer B.J. Ryan had in March were a bigger deal than anyone let on. Ryan was placed on the DL last week with soreness between his shoulder and back. Not that anyone would doubt the Blue Jays, but 60 percent of major league pitchers are probably sore in that area today. Giving Ryan a few weeks rest is wise, though, whether he could have pitched through it or not.

The issue I see here is that Downs was better than Ryan in 2008, and there might not be any reason to switch these roles when the team's "closer" returns in a few weeks. Why remove Downs? In 10 2/3 innings, he has permitted one run and five hits and hasn't walked anyone. His strikeout rate has been good enough for years, though not at Ryan's previous levels. Still, Downs is fully capable of keeping this role and saving 30 games. The question is whether manager Cito Gaston will feel loyalty to return Ryan to the role in mid-May. I'm guessing he will, but Downs needs to be owned in a lot more leagues than his current 41.4 percent. I moved him all the way up to No. 19 in the rankings, but he's even better than that if we suddenly get word Ryan needs to sit longer.

By the way, the Blue Jays don't have an obvious eighth-inning guy, but I think it's yet another lefty, Jesse Carlson. Keep an eye on Jeremy Accardo in the minors, as he has closed before. There's no rule a team needs to throw any right-handers in the final two innings of a game.

Rafael Soriano, Braves: What happened to Soriano this past week was odd. Mike Gonzalez appeared to be the main closer in Atlanta, with Soriano the clear next guy. Then Gonzalez was used to record the final out in the eighth inning of a scoreless game in Washington. Of course, Gonzalez struck out Adam Dunn, and when the Braves took the lead in the top of the ninth, on came Soriano to get the save. Kudos to Bobby Cox for using his best lefty -- his closer, even -- in a tie game before the ninth. So few managers do this. Soriano had no problem picking up the save, striking out two of the three hitters he faced.

For the season, Soriano has better numbers than Gonzalez, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see roles change, but I don't think this has happened. Expect Gonzalez to remain the first choice at closer, and I could see him earning about 25 saves, assuming he stays healthy. Soriano should reach at least 10 saves, though, just on the nights Gonzalez can't perform. Soriano moves way up in the ranks because he has been unhittable and has been striking everyone out. Who knows? Maybe Cox will use these guys as Closer 1 and 1A.

Ryan Madson, Phillies: His major rise in the rankings is due to inflammation. Madson is just fine, but apparently the right knee of 2008 hero Brad Lidge is not. Lidge's knee injury could explain his poor start to the season, but it's not yet time to drop him and pick up Madson. Lidge has had knee problems and surgeries in the past, including early in the 2008 season, and it was reported in March he was dealing with a sore forearm. It's reasonable to assume the Phillies will be cautious and Lidge might need a DL stint to get fully healthy. Knowing that the Phillies have won the past two NL East division titles in September, it further drives the point home that it's a really long season and Lidge should take time off to heal for the long haul.

Madson is worth owning whether he earns saves or not, with 15 strikeouts in his first 10 innings. And take a look at his 2008 stats when you get a chance. They were really good. Philly's real bullpen problem isn't the perceived drop in the ninth inning from Lidge to Madson, but that there's nobody to set Madson up, not until J.C. Romero returns in a month.

Fortunes falling

Want to know who's next in line for saves with each team? Check out Eric Karabell's Bullpen depth chart for the answers.
Joakim Soria, Royals: Well, now we know why Soria was pitching so sporadically and wasn't being used in high-leverage situations instead of awful Kyle Farnsworth. Soria's prized right shoulder has been sore, possibly since March, for all we know. Royals manager Trey Hillman never shared this information with the public, so we were led to believe he just really liked Farnsworth more in important eighth innings.

Soria is not on the DL yet, but he was held out of this past weekend's series against the Tigers. The team could opt to sit him for a few weeks just to make sure he's fully healthy, but he has to drop a few spots in our rankings until we're sure. Let's be clear on who is next in Kansas City: Juan Cruz is definitely the guy should the Royals have a ninth-inning lead and don't want to let Zack Greinke simply finish the game himself. But Farnsworth hasn't been run out of town yet, and he could figure into the equation.

Jose Valverde, Astros: A week ago, Valverde was in this same space, but it was a minor drop in the rankings and I didn't believe his owners should worry. Things have changed quite a bit, as Valverde landed on the DL on Tuesday with a calf injury. He strained the calf chasing after a batted ball that ricocheted off his ankle a week earlier. I think we can officially say Valverde won't lead the National League in saves for three straight seasons, but don't expect a long DL stint, either.

LaTroy Hawkins should handle the rare save chance that comes the Astros' way -- this team isn't very good, you know -- and Doug Brocail could fit into picture as well. Don't cut Valverde, but expecting more than 35 saves would be wishful thinking.

Brian Bruney, Yankees: Bad news for the Yankees, as their top eighth-inning guy heads to the DL with a strained flexor mass in his pitching elbow. Bruney moved up in these rankings a week ago because he was pitching really well, and for those in leagues where holds matter, Bruney looked like a legitimate option.

Where do the Yankees turn now? Jonathan Albaladejo and Jose Veras move up by the dreaded attrition, as lefty Damaso Marte has been terrible and there's nobody else to set up Mariano Rivera. Mark Melancon came up from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he had fanned 17 hitters in 10 1/3 innings and wasn't allowing baserunners, so he could move up in the pecking order and become interesting. Melancon had Tommy John surgery in 2007, and yes, he does throw hard, but he's inexperienced.

Unless the Yankees turn to Joba Chamberlain -- and now that Phil Hughes looks for real, it depends on whether Chien-Ming Wang gets his stuff back -- this team might have to audition right-handers. See who emerges, as that pitcher could pile on the saves.

Comings and goings

Joel Zumaya is back with the Tigers, making Brandon Lyon even more irrelevant, and he could absolutely become an immediate threat for saves because Fernando Rodney has allowed runs in his past three outings. Man, just when I think that guy has turned a corner, he remembers who he is. Then again, Zumaya could pull a muscle on his next 100 mph pitch, so don't invest a ton in him. I still think youngster Ryan Perry will earn saves at some point. For now, own Rodney, watch Zumaya and forget about Lyon.

Trevor Hoffman returned Monday for the Brewers -- well, he made his debut with them -- and tossed a scoreless inning. The Brewers had broken open a tie game minutes before but had scored too many runs to give the all-time saves leader another save. Don't worry about Hoffman, as he should accrue plenty of saves, and he'll have a relatively long leash. Todd Coffey has clearly moved up to become next in line, but I think Mark DiFelice is the better choice if you want a middle reliever who racks up strikeouts.

Michael Bowden is a starting pitcher in the minors for the Red Sox, but he got a weekend promotion and pitched two perfect innings in a win against the Yankees. Then he got sent right back down to Triple-A Pawtucket.

Why is Bowden worthy of discussion in this column, rather than colleague Christopher Harris' Sixty Feet, Six Inches? Well, the Red Sox have, like, 43 starting pitchers and incredible depth, and at some point I expect Bowden, Clay Buchholz, Justin Masterson and even fireballer Dan Bard to each take turns in the bullpen helping to set up Jonathan Papelbon. My brief thoughts on this crew: All should be starting pitchers except Bard, and all would be on just about any other team. Watch Bard. I didn't discuss Papelbon's minor struggles in this column, because I'm not at all worried, but it should be pointed out that Bard has 18 strikeouts in 10 2/3 innings at Pawtucket. In two years, he could be the closer, so think about that in keeper/dynasty leagues.

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.