The Skinny: Focus Factor

Matt Romig
Yahoo! Sports
CLOSER HOT SEAT
BOSTON RED SOX RED HOT
1st Chair: Mike Timlin
2nd Chair: Keith Foulke
Skinny: Foulke didn't expect to close right away, and manager Terry Francona made it clear he wouldn't Friday when he handed Foulke the ball in the seventh inning even though Mike Timlin was unavailable after pitching in four straight games. Throwing mostly strikes – though still well off his 2004 velocity – Boston's rehabbing closer pitched an uneventful one-third of an inning. He followed that up by getting Curt Schilling out of a jam Monday. Timlin, meanwhile, has a 2.15 ERA and five saves in eight chances since Foulke landed on the DL in early July. Look for Foulke to make one or two more set-up appearances before getting a shot at regaining his old gig.
ATLANTA BRAVES RED HOT
1st Chair: Kyle Farnsworth
2nd Chair: Chris Reitsma
Skinny: Still no official announcement here, but sometimes a manager's actions speak louder than words. Farnsworth has owned the ninth inning of late, and he's been effective. Since returning from suspension, Farnsworth is 4-for-4 in save chances, with 14 strikeouts and no runs allowed in 11.1 innings. The critical stat: only two walks in those nine appearances. Reitsma has steadied the ship a bit, but until Farnsworth falters, manager Bobby Cox has no reason to shuffle roles. Dan Kolb is just about out of the picture.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS HOT
1st Chair: Duaner Sanchez
2nd Chair: Steve Schmoll, Yhency Brazoban
Skinny: Sanchez closed August with 12 straight scoreless appearances, collecting five saves in five chances along the way. Coors Field got the best of him Sunday, however, to break up the shutout streak. Brazoban is coming off a couple of rough outings and Schmoll has been hittable. Bottom line: not much value here due to the team's struggles, but Sanchez is fairly secure when you consider manager Jim Tracy's other options.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS WARM
1st Chair: Armando Benitez
2nd Chair: Scott Eyre
Skinny: What a difference a WHIP makes. Tyler Walker had a WHIP right around 1.60 during his stint as Giants closer, and as a result ninth inning leads never felt secure. Since re-joining the Giants bullpen in a surprise early return, Benitez has a 1.04 WHIP. The result: eight saves in eight chances and a surprise return to the pennant chase. Eyre remains one of the league's best left-handed specialists, but the ninth will belong to Benitez as long as he's healthy.
DETROIT TIGERS WARM
1st Chair: Fernando Rodney
2nd Chair: Chris Dingman, Franklyn German
Skinny: When your closer is coming off elbow surgery, you want to guard against overusing him. Detroit starters have done everything they can to ensure that doesn't happen. In a recent streak, the Tigers allowed 82 runs in a nine-game stretch, and Rodney's value has suffered as a result. He has seven saves in nine chances since becoming closer, but has inherited only two opportunities since Aug. 17.
ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS WARM
1st Chair: Jose Valverde
2nd Chair: Brandon Medders, Tim Worrell
Skinny: With 24 strikeouts in his past 15.1 innings, Valverde sure brings closer stuff to the hill. The only thing he doesn't bring with him that often is a save chance, and you can't fault him for that. Arizona has struggled, and as a result Valverde has only three saves (in three chances) since Aug. 4. Brandon Lyon continues to allow runs in bunches, so you have to figures Medders gets the first shot if Valverde stumbles.
PITTSBURGH PIRATES LUKEWARM
1st Chair: Jose Mesa
2nd Chair: Salomon Torres, Mike Gonzalez
Skinny: Now that Tyler Walker is out in San Francisco, Mesa can make a strong claim for the title of worst closer in baseball. In the past month, he has one save, an 8.22 ERA and a WHIP of 1.70. For the season, opponents are hitting .288 off him, which is actually an improvement over his two previous years. All this and Pittsburgh might bring him back next year. Gonzalez doesn't appear to be ready, so if the Pirates are going to make a move, they'll probably turn to Rick White or perhaps Torres, who has a 0.42 ERA since Aug. 6.

The NFL infiltrated this space a few weeks ago when I mistakenly identified a struggling Detroit first baseman as Eric Shelton, who of course is a rookie running back recently placed on injured reserve by Carolina. Well, prepare for a full-on invasion this week. Having just returned from a Vegas trip complete with an experts draft, there's now no denying that football has arrived. Focus will be tested – like trying to maintain eye contact during a conversation when Eva Longoria makes an entrance on TV. What were we talking about again? Oh yes, baseball. Let's catch up on the long weekend that was:

WEEKEND UPDATE: Need-to-know info from the past few days

  • Jerry Rice retired Monday at age 42, ending a brilliant 20-year career that saw him etch 38 records into the NFL books. A sad day for Bay Area sports fans to be sure, but one that closed on a high note as word leaked that slugger Barry Bonds may be days (or hours) away from returning to the Giants lineup. What we do know is that Bonds took 17 swings during batting practice at Dodger Stadium Monday, depositing five balls over the fence in the process. He also shagged balls, did some cutting drills and looked surprisingly jovial when meeting and greeting some Giants teammates. He also smiled when engaging reporters – a far cry from the public face he displayed before retreating behind his web site.

Bonds declared himself "day-to-day," and indicated that he would re-evaluate his situation Tuesday. The big rumor as the Giants finished off the Dodgers Monday night was that Bonds would be activated before Tuesday's game and would be available as a pinch-hitter. That's no guarantee, of course, but it looks like Bonds is days rather than weeks away. Before you drop someone and activate the slugger, keep in mind that he might pinch hit for a few games. But understand that, perfectionist that he is, Barry won't come back until he feels he can contribute. The biggest beneficiary of a comeback (other than Bonds) would be Moises Alou, who has four homers in the past month, but only nine RBIs.

  • Rookie running backs are more popular than ever in fantasy football leagues. Well, for everyone but The Skinny, who is still reeling after taking Chris Brown ahead of Cedric Benson Thursday. If involving yourself in a running back by-committee situation is the fantasy equivalent of splitting 10s, then I'm the guy whose erratic play forces you to collect your chips and find another table. That's at least five times drafting Brown, and I still have one draft to go. Rookie pitchers take a while to pay dividends, but a few are capable of carrying teams into the fantasy playoffs. Felix Hernandez is obviously the real deal, as evidenced by his domination of the A's Monday. Sadly, he's long gone in all but the most dormant of leagues.

There's still plenty of rookie value to be found, however. In Minnesota, Scott Baker just keeps throwing strikes. He has allowed less than one hit an inning in each of his four starts, and only once has he walked more than one batter. Matt Cain was a top 20 prospect entering the season according to Baseball America, and he hasn't disappointed. He rocketed through the Giants system before landing in the starting rotation with the big club. Control problems cropped up in his Major League debut, but he settled down Sunday in seven, three-hit innings at Arizona. If a healthy Bonds returns to the lineup, Cain is capable of stringing 3-4 wins together this month. Also, don't forget about Pittsburgh's Paul Maholm. He pitched eight shutout innings in his big league debut and will get a long look in the Pirates rotation, as the club moved Josh Fogg to the bullpen.

  • Monday belonged to the all-Antonio Gates team, a trio of starting pitchers who look like they wouldn't miss a beat finishing a fast break as crossover stars on the hardwood. Most impressive was 6-foot-7 righty Brandon McCarthy of the White Sox. At 190 lbs, he probably couldn't hold his own against an NBA power forward, but Monday he was more than a match for the powerful Red Sox lineup. In seven dominant innings, he allowed only three hits and a walk while punching out seven. In his previous start, he blanked Texas over 7.2 innings. It was a spot start, but if Chicago decides to limit the innings of Freddy Garcia and Mark Buehrle down the stretch, McCarthy could be a valuable addition to their rotation (and yours).

Kameron Loe is a lock to remain in the Texas rotation. The 6-foot-8 rookie is now 3-0 as a starter this season after pitching eight shutout innings Monday at Minnesota. Check out his numbers since joining the rotation: 3-0, 0.95 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 9 strikeouts, 2 walks. It's a curious run of success when you consider that he wasn't particularly dominant in the minors this year (5.08 ERA) and his stint in the bullpen was unspectacular. Fans of the fantasy spot-start should note that three of his next four starts will come against struggling offenses in Oakland and Seattle. Buy now. Scott Elarton had a rough August, but at 6-foot-8 he fits nicely into this recap. He pitched 6-plus shutout innings Monday to improve to 8-7 on the season. The best thing about this guy is that he has a couple of starts against Kansas City on the horizon. He's a spot-start candidate at best.

BARGAIN BIN: Top players available in 50 percent of Yahoo! leagues

  • Carlos Pena, 1B, Det
    On a day when the Detroit offense was otherwise dormant, Pena collected two hits Monday. Since returning from a productive stint in the minor leagues, the 27-year-old has seven homers and 16 RBIs in 12 games. He was hitting .181 at the time of his call-up. With two hits Monday, his average currently stands at .234. He has been miserable against left-handed pitchers this season, but manager Allan Trammell has penciled him in against lefties lately, apparently in an effort to see if he fits into the club's 2006 plan.
  • David Wells, SP, Bos
    Wells is experienced, he's effective, he pitches for a pennant contender – and he's probably available in your league. Wells carried an ERA of about 6.00 into the month of June, at which time fantasy owners seemed to write him off. All he's done since is win nine of 11 decisions while lowering that ERA to 4.24. In his past three starts, Boomer is 3-0 with a 1.29 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 21 innings. Last year he was 3-0 in September and dating back to 2002 he is 11-3 in the month.

PROSPECT WATCH: Top players down on the farm

  • Rick Ankiel, OF, STL (ETA – TBD)
    Since we have likely seen the last of the relevant call-ups, it's time for a novelty update. Or is Ankiel more than a novelty? The starting pitcher turned outfielder closed the season Sunday with a two-homer game for Double-A Springfield. In his final 28 games at that level, Ankiel hit 10 homers and drove in 28 runs. For the season at two levels, he hit 21 homers and drove in 75 runs in 85 games. He's still a longshot to make a big league roster as a position player, but those are impressive numbers for what amounts to a first-year player.
  • Dustin Nippert, SP, Ari (ETA – Will start Thursday)
    Nippert led the Double-A Southern League in ERA with a 2.38 mark this season. He went 3-0 in August with an ERA right around 1.00 to improve to 8-3 on the season. He struck out 97 in 117 innings. For Nippert, Thursday's start against Pittsburgh will mark the end of his long road back from Tommy John surgery. The 6-foot-7 righty also has a brother, Derik, in the Arizona system.

MARKET MOVERS: Charting player values

Rod Barajas, C, Tex – Feasting on Kansas City pitching, Barajas finished the week with five homers and eight RBIs. Since Aug. 1, the Texas catcher has nine homers, 21 RBIs, and 18 runs scored in 25 games.

Ben Johnson, OF, SD – Speaking of home run binges, Johnson went deep in three straight games ending Friday. Manager Bruce Bochy has said he won't bench regular left fielder Ryan Klesko, but he will do everything he can to get Johnson's bat in the lineup.

Clint Barmes, SS, Col – No fireworks yet, but at least the long-anticipated return of this rookie sensation is behind us. Barmes went 3-for-15 against the Dodgers and will have to endure a three-game set at pitcher-friendly Petco Park before returning home Friday.

Alejandro Freire, 1B, Bal – Now that Rafael Palmeiro has been sent home, the Orioles have a number of options at first base. One is Freire, who hit 19 homers and had a .376 on-base percentage at Triple-A Ottawa this year. He hit his first big league homer Friday at Fenway Park.

Justin Huber, 1B, Kan – Huber hit 23 homers and drove in 97 runs at two minor league levels this season while still finding time for two stints with the Royals. Mike Sweeney may not take another swing in 2005, so Huber should get plenty of at-bats down the stretch for K.C.

Aaron Small, SP, NYY – If Mike Mussina can't return to the Yankees rotation, Small may be asked to play a big role in New York's playoff run. He shut out Oakland Saturday and is now 4-0 with a 2.06 ERA as a starter.

Marlon Byrd, CF, Was – After hitting .407 with five homers in 21 games for Triple-A New Orleans, Byrd re-joined the Nationals and kept the streak alive. If five games since his promotion, Byrd is 10-for-23 with five extra-base hits.

Francisco Liriano, SP, Min – Liriano gave up a tape-measure homer to the first batter he faced, but he rebounded to strike out two of the next three batters he faced in his major league debut. The club's top prospect is being called the next Johan Santana.

Jae Seo, SP, NYM – He just keeps winning. Seo pitched seven strong innings Sunday to improve to 5-0 since joining the rotation in August.

Nick Swisher, RF, Oak – Listed here to represent the entire Oakland offense, Swisher is currently mired in a 5-for-52 slump.

A.J. Burnett, SP, Fla – The strikeouts are still there, but Burnett dropped his third straight decision Sunday, allowing five earned runs in his second consecutive start in the process.

Johnny Peralta, SS, Cle – Whether he is struggling or teams just refuse to get beat by him, Peralta has seen a dip in production of late. He finally got a hit Monday, but he's still mired in a 1-for-18 slump.

Brad Eldred, 1B, Pit – Not only has the book been published, it's already in a second print. A steady dose of breaking balls down in the zone has seriously hampered Eldred's productivity after an initial power spike.

Yahoo! Experts League Update
What a week for KFFL-Bruce, who got 11 homers from the unlikely trio of Rod Barajas, Travis Lee and Jay Gibbons. It's still a two-horse race between Funston and Guru, with Funston holding the lead despite making roughly 100 fewer moves on the season. Just goes to show there's more than one way to climb the standings.