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Scott Pianowski

Closing Time: Forget Blanton, let's talk Bullpens

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Let's get some Thursday night bullets out of the way first, and then we'll resume our Bullpen Blanket Bingo with a look at the National League save-chasers. That's right, Rotoheads, tonight's Closing Time offers you two columns for the one-column price.

Joe Blanton heading to Philadelphia doesn't thrill me, though I suppose it's a nice balance for the NL hitters given that CC Sabathia and Rich Harden just got sent over. Blanton's career splits (3.79 ERA in Oakland, 4.78 elsewhere) tell the majority of the story, and he's been mediocre anywhere and everywhere in 2008. Heads up in the Philadelphia bleachers now.

The Rangers have decided to bring Hank Blalock back as a third baseman, which means Chris Davis keeps the 1B gig and Ramon Vazquez slides into a utility role. Blalock is going to be in Friday's lineup.

Fernando Tatis continues to party like it's 1999, ripping a homer and three more hits at Cincinnati. He's an adventure in the outfield but the Mets will make the trade-off so long as he continues to hit. He's now 16-for-37 this month with four homers.

Jeff Keppinger rapped out two hits and should have a regular gig now that Jerry Hairston (hamstring) is back on the disabled list. Keppinger is a .315 hitter over his last 460 at-bats, and he's available in a lot of mixers.

Troy Glaus was smoking-hot before the break and it carried over to Thursday (two homers). He's now hitting .279 (23 points over his career average) with 17 long balls.

Chris Iannetta batted fifth and justified the love, with a homer, single and three RBIs against Pittsburgh. He's up to .281 on the year.

Johan Santana was working on six days of rest and didn't look sharp at all, getting knocked out after four shaky innings at Cincinnati (6 H, 5 R, 3 BB, 2 K, 2 HR). He had hoped to get a side-session in at Shea Monday, but some Piano Man was in his way.

Francisco Liriano doesn't understand the slow recall, either . . . and his agent is getting involved. This could be messy. Liriano had another dominant start in Triple-A Thursday (8 IP, 7 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 8K), what else is new?

We're not an injury blog, but here's a peek at sick bay: A sore knee landed Andrew Miller on the disabled list. He's been knocked around for five straight turns . . . Troy Percival (hamstring) threw to hitters Thursday and might be ready to go Saturday . . . David Ortiz (wrist) is on a rehab assignment in Triple-A and could be back with the Red Sox in a week . . . Erik Bedard doesn't have a return date yet, but Roy Oswalt might be ready Tuesday . . . Xavier Nady is on stork duty and won't return until Saturday. Carlos Guillen left the Tigers to be with his wife, who recently gave birth . . . Chris Carpenter (elbow) will make a rehab start Sunday . . . To the surprise of no one, Pedro Martinez (groin, etc.) will miss his next turn . . . Magglio Ordonez (oblique) was back in action and went 1-for-5.


Enough of the preamble, time to give the people what they want. Let's hunt for some saves.

The American League bullpen sweep was a leisurely stroll compared to the minefield of the NL. Shaky stoppers, trade rumors, slumping arms, we've got it all in the Senior Circuit. Tread carefully as we sort through the wreckage.

We'll stick with the Polish-Croatian rating system of 0-to-5 (higher number is better), and with each grade we'll considers a number of factors: competition for the ball, injury history, trade potential, recent performance and projected performance.

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National League East

Brad Lidge, Phillies (5): It's kinda funny that Lidge took the loss at Yankee Stadium Tuesday night because he hasn't had a misstep in his new city (a perfect 20-for-20 on saves, 12.4 K/9). The men in front of him (Chad Durbin, J.C. Romero, Rudy Seanez and Ryan Madson) have been outstanding as well, sparking the Phillies to the best bullpen ERA in the majors. If Lidge falls into an injury in the second half, Charlie Manuel will have lots of options. Keep Tom Gordon off your speculation sheet; he's on the shelf with an elbow injury and a comeback isn't guaranteed at age 40.

Billy Wagner, Mets (4.5): He's been panned in some places but there's so much to like here: 2.25 ERA, five strikeouts for every walk, tied to a winning club. Wagner loses a half-point from the judges because of his age (he turns 37 this month), but seriously, this is a very safe place to put your money. There's no Robin here to Wagner's Batman; if injury strikes, Jerry Manuel will probably downshift to committee mode.

Kevin Gregg, Marlins (3): Strikeouts are way down, walks are up, and he's already blown six games, so it wouldn't be a stunner if the Fish decided to make a pitch for another reliever. Joe Nelson (1.69 ERA) has settled in as the eighth-inning option, and lefty Reynel Pinto has been reliable. Matt Lindstrom is back with the big club after a stint in the minors, but he's not ready for ninth-inning responsibility.

Jon Rauch, Nationals (2.5): He's been outstanding as Chad Cordero's replacement, which puts the Nats at a crossroads - should they ship Rauch to a contender before the end of the month, or keep the menacing righty as one of the cornerstones for the future? Rauch is locked up for another year plus an option at a reasonable rate, so it won't be a major upset if Washington stands pat. Looks like a coin flip to me. There's no clear successor for the ninth inning if Rauch hits the road; Luis Ayala has been a carnival ride (5.44 ERA, 1.51 ratio), while Saul Rivera and Joel Hanrahan (9.87 K/9) have shown promise here and there.

Mike Gonzalez, Braves (2.5): He's been unreal since his return a month ago (10.2 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 0 BB, 16 K), but talent has never been the question here. Durability, now that's another story. Rafael Soriano and his assembly-required elbow should be back soon, but I don't see how we (or Bobby Cox) can rely on him. If Gonzalez goes down again, it's another messy committee for us to negotiate. Blaine Boyer probably has the stuff for the ninth, but his erratic control would give Cox an ulcer.


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National League Central

Jose Valverde, Astros (4.5): He's been dealing with recurring gopheritis (eight homers), but otherwise the Astros are getting what they paid for (24 saves, four wins). Three of his five blown saves came in April, and over the last three months Valverde has a tidy 2.15 ERA. Doug Brocail, old enough to remember the Golden Girls as debutantes, stands as a solid Plan B.

Kerry Wood, Cubs (4): He's been a lights-out stopper from the word go, but let's not forget that Wood's injury history is longer than Danny Ocean's rap sheet. If Wood can't answer the call later in the summer, Lou Piniella has an interesting choice between Carlos Marmol (electric stuff, but he's struggled of late and might be more valuable as a jams guy anyway) and Bobby Howry (still dialing it up in the 90s).

Francisco Cordero, Reds (4): His hiccup Thursday was his fifth blown save in 24 chances, but when you're collecting on a $46 million contract, the leash is a long one. Cordero's strikeout and walk rates are moving in the wrong direction, but does Dusty look at that stuff? David Weathers (3.69 ERA, 1.56 ratio) is the Wayne Fontes of NL relievers and would probably slide into the big chair if Cordero got hurt.

Salomon Torres, Brewers (3): He's been a steady hand with 15 saves in 18 chances, but there are some red flags under the surface (ordinary strikeout rate, plus 3.7 BB/9). Eric Gagne came off the DL with three clean appearances, but he was hammered in his last outing (four runs, two homers). With a playoff spot in the balance, I don't anticipate Ned Yost trying to fix something that's not broken.

Ryan Franklin, Cardinals (2): He's been scored upon in five of his last ten appearances and his stuff doesn't blow anyone away (1.50 ratio, yikes), but somehow he's cobbled together 13 saves in 15 chances, including another nail-biter Thursday against San Diego. Tony La Russa plans to start the second half with Franklin heading the closer committee, with Jason Isringhausen entering the mix now and then. Chris Perez (4.18/1.44) is an intriguing closer-of-the-future stock, but he'll have to wait his turn.

Damaso Marte, Pirates (1.5): He's marked his territory with three quick saves, but the Bucs don't have long-term plans for the 33-year-old veteran and contending clubs are always looking for quality lefties (plus Marte can get right-handers out). The Pittsburgh pen becomes a real carnival ride if Marte leaves town; Tyler Yates has struggled with his control all year (33 walks in 47.2 innings), and John Grabow and Sean Burnett aren't much better. Collectively the Bucs have the worst relief ERA in the NL.

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National League West

Brian Wilson, Giants (4): It's hard to get inspired by a 4.58 ERA or 1.53 ratio, but Wilson has 25 saves in 27 chances and that's enough for Bruce Bochy. Tyler Walker has been erratic as the eighth-inning man (4.86 ERA), but he's probably Plan B if Wilson gets hurt. Alex Hinshaw's stuff is intriguing (28 strikeouts in 21.2 innings), clip and save for the future.

Trevor Hoffman, Padres (3.5): A pair of blown saves in April got everyone up in arms, but he's been pretty steady since, throwing strikes and spiking his strikeout rate (10.5 K/9). Heath Bell has already been endorsed as the successor, but the change probably won't come until Hoffman retires.

Brandon Lyon, Diamondbacks (3): He's making good on his one year deal (two wins, 19 saves), though his 2.43 ERA isn't supported by the peripherals. Nonetheless, let's tip the cap to Lyon for raising his strikeout rate and throwing more strikes in 2008. The Snakes have plenty of choices if Lyon breaks down, and everyone comes with a pro and a con: Chad Qualls is the name-brand favorite but he's struggled from May on; Tony Pena has improved his control but doesn't have eye-popping stuff (he's also slumped recently); Juan Cruz is a strikeout ace but can be wild at times.

Jonathan Broxton, Dodgers (2.5): He's got the arsenal you want in a closer (power stuff, three good pitches), and now the opportunity is there with Takashi Saito (elbow) out at least six weeks. Does Broxton have the inner mettle needed for the ninth? That's open to debate, but I'd bet on him in a second. Hong-Chih Kuo is a dynamic holds play (his dominating numbers jump out at you) and you have to figure he'll see more high-leverage situations while Saito rehabs.

Brian Fuentes, Rockies (1): He's had one heck of an audition in July (six scoreless innings, 12 strikeouts, including Thursday's electric ninth), and a slew of contenders are watching. Colorado is just eight games out in the NL West despite a 40-57 record, but it's also behind three clubs and the proper move here is to liquidate the closer. Taylor Buchholz has an electric line and looks ready to close to us, but the Rockies don't want to rush him and will, at least initially, give Manny Corpas the ball in the ninth inning if and when Fuentes leaves town. Call me stubborn if you want, but I'd still take Buchholz over Corpas as my hedge play, despite the fact that Corpas has been decent of late.

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