Tout Wars: Bullpen speculating

Different owners from the Tout Wars expert league will be submitting a guest Fantasy Baseball column to CBSSports.com each week. This week's columnist, Jeff Erickson, writes for RotoWire.com, and he has been in the Tout Wars AL-only league since 1999.

By Jeff Erickson

Last weekend saw the Cardinals and Brewers change their closers on successive days, while playing each other. Both Jason Isringhausen and Eric Gagne were on the hot seat prior to the weekend, and their blowups on back-to-back nights were the final straw. Because of the run-up to the role change and timing of the moves, the potential replacements for both have been swept up in most leagues. But these won't be the final closer changes this season -- usually there are 10-12 teams that change their closer each year, either due to injury or ineffectiveness of the incumbent closer. Let's speculate on what teams could be next to make a change, and handicap their replacements.

Atlanta Braves

Incumbent: Rafael Soriano (inj); Other Options: Manny Acosta, Jeff Bennett, Blaine Boyer, Mike Gonzalez (inj), John Smoltz (inj).

Comments: Soriano has been on the DL since April 9 with an el bow problem that nagged him in spring training. He's making decent progress in his bullpen sessions and said after Sunday's session that he'll return early next week. We'll see if that timetable holds after he throws in minor league game action. Meanwhile, Acosta nominally is the closer, but hasn't necessarily been used like a traditional closer would be. He's pitched with the Braves behind (Monday), started the ninth inning but not finished it (last Tuesday), and then not started the ninth inning but finished it (Wednesday), costing him a save in the process. Meanwhile, he hasn't really pitched all that well, highlighted by a 4.24 ERA and a 12:11 K:BB over 17 innings. If he's still the closer, it's not for long, even if Soriano's return gets delayed. Looming in the background is John Smoltz, who will almost certainly take over the closing duties when he comes back from the DL. Right now he's limited to throwing from 40 feet, but wants to return by the end of the month. That may be a touch too optimistic, but then again, Smoltz has defied the odds before.

If you're looking for a short-term alternative to Acosta, take a look at Blaine Boyer. He's made the full recovery from Tommy John surgery, and after struggling with his control last year, he's managed to post a 24:4 K:BB over 22.1 innings. His 4.03 ERA seems a little high, but that's mostly the product of three bad outings, including one in the Braves' wacky home opener. His strand rate is down at 53 percent, indicating that the ERA is at least a little bit unlucky. Jeff Bennett has also picked up a save, but that was a one-out special; more often than not, Bennett is used in longer relief settings, and his high walk rate indicates that he wouldn't be too successful in the role.

Baltimore Orioles

Incumbent: George Sherrill Other Options: Matt Albers, Jim Johnson, Dennis Sarfate, Jamie Walker.

Comments: Even though his numbers aren't great (10 walks in 16.1 innings, 4.41 ERA), Sherrill isn't in danger of losing his job as long as he's with the Orioles. He's successfully closed the door in 15 of his 15 chances, and there's no clear alternative behind him. The danger for Sherrill's owners is that he gets dealt to a team that doesn't use him as a closer. The O's have made it plainly obvious that they're rebuilding, and high on the Rebuilding GM Handbook is the directive to spin off closers for value. None of the other relievers in the Orioles bullpen have that high-strikeout, low walk package that we're looking for when speculating on relievers.

Looking at the alternatives, Walker closed as part of a committee last year, but this year has been used more as a lefty specialist, pitching only 11 innings in 20 appearances. He might still get a spare save or two when the situation calls for a lefty specialist, as Brian Shouse did on Sunday for the Brewers. Albers has had some success this season, but he's being groomed more as a starter, and that might even be in his immediate future if/when the O's part ways with Steve Trachsel. Johnson has a 0.84 ERA in 21.1 innings in relief so far, but he's pitching in longer stints and was used as a starter in the minors. Further, he's only struck out nine batters in those 21.1 innings. Two darkhorses are Dennis Sarfate and Radhames Liz. Sarfate is currently working in the O's pen, and he's striking out a lot (18 in 16.2 innings), but also walking a lot (12). Liz, starting at Triple-A Norfolk, has the same package - throws hard, strikes out more than a hitter per inning, but also walks a number of hitters. The Orioles might be better off giving him his next major league trial in the bullpen, allowing him to go all out and learn his major league craft in shorter segments.

Florida Marlins

Incumbent: Kevin Gregg Other Options: Logan Kensing, Matt Lindstrom, Justin Miller, Renyel Pinto, Doug Waechter.

Comments: After the Marlins traded Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis this offseason, Gregg was left as their highest paid player. With the perception that the Marlins were rebuilding, it's was widely speculated that Gregg would be dealt to a contender by midseason. A funny thing happened on the way to fulfilling those expectations -- the Marlins had the audacity to get off to a good start, going 23-15 through Monday, tied for the best record in baseball. While not many expect them to continue at this pace, this start might have put the damper on any plans to trade Gregg. Incidentally, the Marlins' bullpen is a major reason why they're doing so well, even though Gregg hasn't been their best reliever -- his 2.89 ERA looks great, but his 12:10 K:BB is decidedly mediocre, and that strikeout rate is way off of last year's pace.

If the Marlins do trade Gregg, they have a bevy of useful options. Matt Lindstrom might be the next guy in line, thanks to his near-100 mph fastball, but he hasn't been all that effective this year. His strikeout rate has tailed off considerably, and he's allowing almost twice as many walks per nine innings than he allowed last year. If you're looking at sleepers in this bullpen, check out how utterly dominant Renyel Pinto has been against lefties, or what Justin Miller has done with the Marlins for the last year-and-a-half. But the real sleeper might be Logan Kensing. Like Blaine Boyer, Kensing once had Tommy John surgery and is just now getting his full command and velocity. In his last outing, he was consistently clocked at 95 mph, and he's starting to strike out batters at a more rapid rate. His command isn't quite where Boyer's is just -- he's walked 12 in 17.2 innings, but there's a lot of potential upside here.

Oakland A's

Incumbent: Huston Street Other Options: Santiago Casilla, Joey Devine, Alan Embree, Andrew Brown.

Comments: Like the Marlins, the A's weren't expected to contend this year after their offseason moves, and Street was considered a likely trade candidate. That still might happen, but not unless and until the A's start to fall off the pace. Are the A's for real? They're third in the American League in runs scored per game, and a study done by The Baseball Analysts suggests that run production isn't a fluke, though their ability to hit with runners in scoring position has been overstated. Nonetheless, they seem unlikely to collapse by the trade deadline. After a rough start to the season, Street has pitched well lately, lowering his ERA to 3.86 with a 18:5 K:BB over 16.1 innings. If he does get dealt, it would almost certainly be to a team that would use him as a closer, so he's not as risky an investment as Gregg or Sherrill in that regard.

Like the Marlins, the A's are getting fantastic work from the other aspects of their bullpen. Santiago Casilla has stepped forward as the most likely replacement for Street. It's not just his excellent stats so far that suggest he's the next in line, but also his usage pattern. It's Casilla, and not Joey Devin or Andrew Brown, that's been used most often in the eighth inning to get the game to Street, and he got the save last week when Street was unavailable to pitch. Since getting called up in the middle of April, Devine has been fantastic in middle relief, posting a 0.60 ERA, 0.933 WHIP and 17:3 K:BB in 15 innings. It's the three walks that stand out to us - in previous major league trials, Devine's command has been off. He seems to have conquered that problem so far during this go-around. Before you get too excited about his potential as a closer in the short-term, realize that he's been getting used as early as the fourth inning. His pedigree as a college closer and first-round pick may make it seem like he's closer to being the man than he is. Embree is also worth your attention, given his use as the closer last year when Street was hurt, and his own excellent numbers (2.60 ERA, 16:5 K:BB over 17.1 innings). He's far more effective against lefties, but the A's haven't been afraid to expand his role when necessary in the past.

This list is hardly exhaustive -- closing changes can often happen out of the blue, but those are the major ones we're following. In fact, virtually every team will have at least one reliever worth your attention, if not a free agent bid. Other possible free agent relievers that you might want to follow include the Indians' Jensen Lewis and Masa Kobayashi (though Joe Borowski is due back from the DL soon and is likely to reclaim his closer's job), the Tigers' Aquilino Lopez and Francisco Cruceta, the Heath Bell of the Padres and Franklyn German and Frank Francisco of the Rangers. Good luck bargain hunting -- the key to this exercise to get these high-skilled pitchers before they get the job, so that they come at a much lower cost to you.

You can e-mail Mr. Zola a question or a comment about this column to DMFantasyBaseball@cbs.com. Be sure to put "Attn:Tout Wars" in the subject field. Please include your full name, hometown and state. Be aware, due to the large volume of submissions received, we cannot guarantee personal responses to all questions.

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