It was bound to happen.
Nine weeks into the season, we might finally have our first instance of a closer who previously had lost his job (for performance-related reasons, that is) reclaiming it. Or at least we will if the Toronto Blue Jays play things entirely by the numbers.
Kevin Gregg, who wrested the ninth-inning gig from Opening Day closer Jason Frasor and rattled off eight consecutive saves, is suddenly in a funk. He blew his third save of the season Tuesday allowing four runs on one hit and five walks while recording only two outs. All three blown saves have come in his past nine opportunities. With the outing, he's 0-2 with a 9.90 ERA and 2.70 WHIP in his past 11 appearances, and opponents are batting .359 against him during his slump.
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Quite the change from Gregg's first 13 outings, in which he had eight saves, a 0.64 ERA, 0.71 WHIP and .167 BAA. However, it's hardly the first time in his career he has run hot and cold to these extremes: His 3.32 first-half and 6.75 second-half ERAs in 2009 demonstrate that.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays have yet to hint that Gregg's job is in jeopardy. Frasor, the man Gregg replaced, has a 2.13 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and .222 BAA in his past 13 appearances. Of course, Frasor has had back-to-back shaky outings himself, allowing three hits, one walk and two runs while recording only two outs in them. Still, that's a steep differential in performance by the two in the past month, and at this rate it might not be long before Frasor is back in his old ninth-inning role.
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.
As for Scott Downs, who might have been a sleeper in the Toronto closer battle, he served up a grand slam to Carl Crawford in the ninth inning of Wednesday's game, the third time in his past four appearances he had been scored upon. Downs continues to be used as something between a LOOGY (Left-handed One Out GuY) and setup man, and while he might be in the mix if Gregg and Frasor struggle, chances are the Blue Jays would prefer him in his situational role.
Fantasy owners need to handcuff Gregg and Frasor, recognizing their streakiness and the chance they hand off the job to each other a couple of more times this season. If you've been keeping Frasor stashed since April, the decision might soon pay off.
Trevor Hoffman: Shaky setup man, too
Fantasy owners anxiously awaiting all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman's return to the closer role might not want to hold their breath. It's entirely possible we've seen the last save chance of the veteran right-hander's career.
Hoffman, demoted to a setup role a little more than a week ago, pitched three consecutive scoreless outings in his new role, but a poor outing Tuesday served as a significant setback. He allowed three runs on three hits in an inning of work to take the loss. With the outing, Hoffman has walked three batters in four innings and thrown just 55.2 percent of his pitches for strikes, statistics that suggest that he's still having trouble hitting his spots.
If there's any argument to support Hoffman's prospects at reclaiming the closer role, it's that the Milwaukee Brewers are lacking in quality alternatives. John Axford, currently handling the ninth-inning chores, has good stuff but shaky command (at least he did during his minor league career). LaTroy Hawkins, signed to serve as Hoffman's backup during the winter, is on the disabled list with a shoulder injury. Todd Coffey, Hoffman's primary setup man last season, has a 3.91 ERA this year. And Carlos Villanueva, the Brewers' most effective reliever in April, has allowed six runs on 13 hits in his past 10 appearances, raising his ERA to 3.62.
Still, just because there isn't an obvious alternative doesn't mean Hoffman should get another opportunity. He needs to earn it and hasn't, and that the Brewers are starving for bullpen help simply means more homework for fantasy owners who need to track trends among their relievers. Almost anyone could see save chances for this team between now and October, so keep close tabs on your Brewers relievers, at least if you play in an NL-only league.
Brad Lidge rejoins Phillies
Lidge returned from the DL following an elbow injury during the past weekend, but according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the closer role won't be his, at least not right away. He's expected to work in middle relief a couple of times before retaking the ninth-inning reins from Jose Contreras, who converted all three of his save chances in Lidge's stead before absorbing the loss Wednesday. Lidge might be back in the role at some point in the next week or two, which makes him a viable option in deep mixed or NL-only formats, but, as he has shown during the past calendar year, he's as risky as they come in terms of both his ratios and his health.
Contreras, meanwhile, appears to have warmed to a short-relief role. Wednesday marked only the second time all season that he had allowed a run, and even with it he still has a 1.08 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 12.4 K's per nine in 19 appearances this season. Don't those sound like numbers more than worthy of the closer's role? Lidge's owners need to keep Contreras stashed as an insurance policy, as the Phillies shouldn't be afraid to give him another shot if necessary. In fact, no one should be surprised if it's Contreras -- not Lidge -- who is the more valuable fantasy reliever from this point forward.
Middle reliever spotlight: Matt Belisle, Colorado Rockies
Matt Belisle is an ideal example of how an effective reliever can come from almost anywhere. A second-round pick in 1998, the right-hander endured an undistinguished career between the majors and minors for 10 seasons, turning in a 4.25 ERA and 1.37 WHIP in 103 appearances at the Triple-A level, and 5.06/1.49 numbers in 132 games at the big-league level through the 2008 campaign. Signed as a long reliever by the Rockies the following winter, Belisle struggled to find his niche between the big club and Triple-A ball for three months. The Rockies finally decided to convert him to more of a short-relief role in June.
The decision made sense: Belisle lacks an overwhelming changeup and is more of a fastball/slider/curveball type. In his new role, he thrived in Triple-A, posting a 1.83 ERA, 0.81 WHIP and 41 strikeouts in 39 1/3 innings, eventually grabbing the closer role, where he registered nine saves.
But Belisle didn't stop there. Given a September call-up, Belisle quickly found a spot on the Rockies' postseason roster thanks to a 1.42 ERA in nine appearances before making the 2010 roster as a member of the team's setup corps. Since Sept. 10, including the postseason, he has a 1.84 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, .199 BAA and 49 strikeouts in 49 innings from 34 appearances, ranking him as one of the most productive relievers during that span. Those numbers have also helped him leap ahead of Rafael Betancourt in the setup pecking order, meaning a boost in holds might be in Belisle's future.
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.