NL-only owners are already opening their FAAB wallets for two of the game's "newest closers," but should fantasy owners everywhere follow suit?
Those quotation marks are carefully chosen; due to injuries in the Colorado Rockies' and Philadelphia Phillies' bullpens, there are two new closer openings, and naturally de facto finishers Manuel Corpas and Jose Contreras have seen their ownership numbers soar. In fact, among true relievers, only Alfredo Simon, who has four saves and hasn't allowed an earned run since his promotion, Tyler Clippard, the set-up sensation who has seven relief wins, 30 K's and a 1.80 ERA, and Octavio Dotel, who has four scoreless appearances and three saves in May, have seen their ownership in ESPN leagues rise more than Contreras' has in the past week.
But wait a second, isn't this the same Jose Contreras who was pounded to the tune of 13 losses and a 5.42 ERA in 21 starts for the Chicago White Sox at the beginning of last season? Wasn't this the same Manuel Corpas who, when seemingly handed the closer role in 2008, fell flat on his face and wound up registering a combined 4.92 ERA and 1.47 WHIP with 11 blown saves the past two seasons combined?
Yes and yes, but as we say often on these pages, saves are saves, and the fantasy owner who fails to examine every potential save-getter does so at his or her own peril. The aforementioned Simon is an excellent example why.
Really, Jose Contreras? Really?
Once again, yes. This might seem hard to believe, but Contreras has adapted beautifully to his second life as a reliever. Between the regular season and postseason for the Rockies late in 2009, as well as the first month-plus of this year, Contreras has made 20 relief appearances and has a 1.29 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 10.71 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio. He's now more of a fastball/slider/splitter pitcher, relying on the latter two pitches, the splitter in particular because it was traditionally his most effective pitch during his prime, more than ever. Pitching in such brief spurts affords him the luxury of whittling down his arsenal.
The Phillies have recognized this transformation, and elevated Contreras to high-leverage, late-inning situations, a good spot in which to be considering the health issues surrounding usual closers Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson. Whereas Danys Baez was seemingly added during the winter to bridge the gap between starters and closer, Contreras has developed into the sneaky signing fantasy owners shouldn't overlook. NL-only owners who open their wallet for him aren't wasting money.
After all, Contreras might luck himself into a surprising number of saves. Opening Day closer Madson, who broke his toe when he kicked a chair following an April 26 blown save, is on the 60-day disabled list and therefore out until at least July. Lidge, the Phillies' 2008-09 closer who was as good the former year as bad the latter, is headed back to Philadelphia for an examination after reporting stiffness Tuesday in his surgically repaired elbow. The Phillies haven't yet planned a disabled-list stint for Lidge, but such a move might be forthcoming depending upon exam results.
Might mixed-league owners find Contreras useful? Probably only if Lidge joins Madson on the DL, but that's certainly a possibility.
Manuel Corpas' 'second chance'
The Rockies' bullpen is comparably bruised and battered to that of the Phillies', though in the Rockies' case, their top two choices to close, Huston Street and Franklin Morales, are already on the DL. Morales joined Street on the shelf on Tuesday due to weakness in his left shoulder.
That thrusts Corpas, who had a fantastic 18 saves in 19 chances, a 1.54 ERA and 0.91 WHIP as the Rockies' closer the second half of 2007, back into the role in which he was so ineffective the following season. Astute fantasy owners might have noticed Corpas' strong April numbers; he had a 1.06 ERA, 0.88 WHIP and .140 BAA in 10 appearances the first month of the year. In five appearances in May, however, he has been tagged for six runs on five hits, two of them home runs, in 6 2/3 innings. That's not especially good timing for a newly crowned closer.
Besides, judging by his peripheral numbers, Corpas' hot start to the year might be more mirage than true comeback. He's serving up more fly balls than ever (on 50.0 percent of his balls in play, per FanGraphs), his walk rate (3.47 per nine) represents a career high, his average fastball velocity is down (89.8 mph, compared to 92.0 in his career) and he's still not striking out many hitters (6.56 per nine, only slightly improved from his 6.41 career number). This is a put-the-ball-in-play pitcher, one who's not overpowering, and that's not the most promising mix for a pitcher who calls hitter-friendly Coors Field his home. As in 2008 and 2009, Corpas might be a boom/bust reliever on any given night, which can be frustrating to own.
Another strike against Corpas: Street, whose projected return date is reported by the Denver Post as May 25, reported progress following a Monday bullpen session. If he remains on track, he'd presumably reclaim his closer role immediately upon activation, meaning less than two weeks' worth of opportunities for Corpas. That's probably enough to be helpful in NL-only leagues, but in mixed, you can do better.
On shaky ground
TOP 75 RELIEF PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 75 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Over in the American League, two incumbent closers are in the midst of funks, and while one seemed to have lost his manager's faith, the other received a surprising vote of confidence from his skipper.
Chicago White Sox stopper Bobby Jenks endured a rocky seven-appearance stretch dating from April 24-May 9 in which he allowed nine runs (eight earned) on 14 hits, two of them home runs, in six innings, for a 12.00 ERA and .424 BAA. That prompted manager Ozzie Guillen to suggest a closer-by-committee approach during the past week; he told ESPNChicago.com on Tuesday that "we'll be open to [changes] until Bobby starts throwing the ball better."
Interestingly enough, only hours later Guillen handed Jenks the ball in the ninth, with Matt Thornton, the most logical alternative to close, setting Jenks up in the eighth. Jenks did allow a double to Jim Thome, but retired three other Minnesota Twins to record a mostly clean save. Thornton, meanwhile, might have had the tougher task in the eighth, having to face left-handers Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel, with Michael Cuddyer sandwiched between Morneau and Kubel. Had the Twins' hitters come to the plate in a different order, with Mauer leading off the ninth, Thornton might very well have been Guillen's choice.
Perhaps Guillen's words might serve as a wake-up call to Jenks and he'll straighten himself out, but for now, it's imperative that his owners handcuff him to Matt Thornton, arguably the team's most valuable reliever with a 2.20 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and 14.33 K's-per-nine ratio. AL-only owners can even activate Thornton, as even when closers aren't unseated, it's not uncommon for managers to pick and choose lefty matchups in the ninth with pitchers like him.
Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia, meanwhile, stood behind his closer Brian Fuentes, despite the left-hander's ugly blown save on Monday, when he allowed three runs on three hits for his second blown save of the season (he's pitched in eight games total with six save chances). At the same time, however, Scioscia told the team's official website that "nothing is cemented in."
Fernando Rodney's owners -- the ones who have been stashing him either due to this column's frequent recommendations or Rodney's own hot start -- have to be itching for him to get another chance to close. Though Scioscia's words seem to overlook Rodney's efforts, the right-hander has been nothing short of exceptional even since his demotion back to a set-up role when Fuentes was activated from the DL in mid-April; Rodney has a 1.04 ERA and .179 BAA in nine appearances. Nine walks in 8 2/3 innings are a concern, but Rodney has had issues with his command before and remained effective overall.
If you're a Fuentes owner, handcuffing him to Rodney is still a smart move. No one should be surprised if a week from now, if Fuentes is still shaky in the closer role, the two swap roles for the final time this season.
Middle reliever spotlight: Sean Marshall, Chicago Cubs
You might know Sean Marshall as more of a swingman/spot starter, and due to the Cubs' wavering needs between rotation and bullpen, he indeed seemed to have settled into that role during the past two-plus seasons. Anytime the Cubs were hurting for a starter, he'd be there, ready to chip in. But at the same time, due to a lack of quality left-handed relief, Marshall often served as the No. 1 or 2 left-hander out of the 'pen, a role in which manager Lou Piniella often preferred him.
Turns out Piniella's preference might best suit Marshall's skills after all, despite his initially being pressed into set-up duty more for team needs than Marshall's own ability. Today, Marshall looks very much the part of an elite left-handed set-up man. Since 2008 he has a 3.18 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 8.45 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio and .236 batting average allowed as a reliever, numbers that have improved to 2.70, 0.84, 11.34 and .193 this season alone.
More importantly, Marshall doesn't fit the description of a LOOGY (left-handed one-out guy), having recorded three or more outs in 11 of his 18 appearances, faced three or more batters in 12 of his 18 and limited right-handed hitters to .167/.200/.250 (AVG/OBP/SLG) rates in 40 plate appearances. Sure, Marshall might get leveraged in key spots against tough lefties from time to time, but overall he's being used like a typical set-up man, having logged 16 2/3 innings, or more than traditional right-handed set-up men like Mike Adams, Matt Guerrier or Sergio Romo have. That makes Marshall plenty helpful to NL-only owners looking to bolster their ERA and WHIP, especially since he's chipping in a healthy number of strikeouts, 21 in those 16 2/3 frames to be exact.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.