We've seen plenty of ninth-inning turmoil through the opening two weeks of 2010 and there's no letup in sight. Get out the log for struggling closers, it's time to make another entry. Chad Qualls(notes), you're the next stopper under the microscope.
Qualls had a steady if unspectacular season as Arizona's closer in 2009 (3.63 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 24 saves in 29 chances), but his season ended prematurely with a dislocated kneecap in August and not much has gone right since. Offseason surgery on the left knee pushed Qualls back for spring training, he didn't get many people out when he finally started working in March (9.2 IP, 12 H, 8 R), and things haven't gone well in the real games. Qualls allowed a home run in his first appearance (a mop-up assignment) and he's really come unglued this week, blowing two consecutive saves at Los Angeles.
The latest mishap came Thursday night as Qualls coughed up a two-run lead in the ninth. The tying run was a little on the cheesy side – a piddly infield hit followed by a wild throw – but Qualls can't blame his teammates too much, he made his own mess. He started the carnival by walking the leadoff man, and Manny Ramirez(notes) and James Loney(notes) scorched base hits later in the frame.
With Qualls struggling to find his form, it's time to kick the tires on Arizona's main setup man, Juan Gutierrez(notes). You'll remember Gutierrez was sharp as the temporary closer down the stretch in 2009 (converting on 8-of-9 save chances), and he's off to a superb start this time around, with four scoreless innings already in the books (1 H, 1 BB, 4 K). If A.J. Hinch decides to make a switch for the ninth inning, there's little doubt Gutierrez would get the first look. Gutierrez has already become a hot pickup into the overnight, and that trend will continue Friday as the save carousel continues to turn.
• Negotiating the Mondays and Thursdays of fantasy baseball is an integral part of the pennant push and with that in mind it's important to get a few position-flexible guys on your roster, the Swiss Army Knife players you can slide to multiple positions. A couple of my favorite flex plays went deep on Thursday, Atlanta's Martin Prado(notes) (who qualifies at three infield spots) and Milwaukee's Casey McGehee(notes) (he fills two positions).
There's a lot of similarities between these two players: we're talking about two unheralded NL hitters in their mid-20s (McGehee is 27, Prado 26) who some feel overachieved in 2009. Said a different way, these are the types of players you want to see get off to a quick start right away, just to cement their name on the lineup card. McGehee has more power potential for the full season (he clubbed 16 homers in just 355 at-bats last year) but there's a lot to like about Prado's swing, too (he's currently producing a line drive on an absurd one-third of his at-bats).
• The Astros finally got some offense going en route to their first victory of the year, putting up five runs at St Louis, but let's not throw a parade just yet. The Astros weren't able to hit a homer, steal a base or even draw a walk, and three of the five runs came against pedestrian reliever Mitchell Boggs(notes). This is still an ideal offense to aggressively stream against, and a ballclub that should easily lose 90 or more games.
• Tim Hudson(notes) and J.A. Happ(notes) walked the tightrope in their respective starts but lived to tell about it; Hudson had five walks against no strikeouts in San Diego but only allowed two earned runs; Happ dialed up six walks against no whiffs against the Nats but only allowed one run (unearned at that). Of course the bases on balls come with another tax – the pitches collect rather quickly – and neither pitcher got through six innings.
• Is Francisco Liriano(notes) ready to enter the fantasy ace discussion again? He's putting together a strong argument. He led the majors with 30 spring-training strikeouts (against just five walks), and then there was Thursday's gem agains the Red Sox, seven sparkling innings (4 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 8 K). Have a peek at the delicious slider video here.
"I haven't felt like that since probably '06," said Liriano, who came down with elbow problems that year and subsequently needed Tommy John surgery. "He was really good [Thursday]," said Boston's Bill Hall(notes). "He should be really proud of himself. He's definitely got his old stuff back."
The Twins didn't want to put any pressure on Liriano to open the season – he was slotted as the No. 5 starter to begin the year – but this is no ordinary staff filler. If he's right, we're looking at a game-changer, someone who can swing the balance of a fantasy season. His next turn is a home date against Cleveland, and then he'll probably work in Detroit.
• Aaron Harang(notes) pitched just well enough in his first two turns to get people a little excited for a comeback season, but things came unraveled for him at Florida (4 IP, 10 H, 8 R, 2 BB, 4 K). I wouldn't own this guy on a bet right now, not in any sort of mixed league. Harang, for what it's worth, thinks he pitched better than the stat-line suggests. "I thought I made some good pitches and they hit them," he said.
• Mike Pelfrey(notes) didn't face Colorado's best lineup Thursday, but when someone throws seven shutout innings in Coors Field (along with six strikeouts and no walks), you take notice. His initial start against the Nationals was more of an up-and-down affair. He gets two home starts in Week 3, up against the Cubs and Braves.
• An MRI came back clean on Michael Gonzalez(notes), there's no structural damage with his shoulder. The Orioles are hoping to get him back in three weeks. Jim Johnson(notes) heads the bullpen in his absence, though there's no guarantee he'll have a hammer-lock on the save chances. Heck, the Orioles may not have a ninth-inning lead over the next three weeks.
Speed Round: David Huff(notes) has turned in two surprising starts in 2010, including a complete-game victory over Texas Thursday, but it's hard to get excited over someone who strikes out 4.5 batters per nine innings. I'm not putting him on my mixed-league radar. … Seven of the eight pitchers that worked in the Milwaukee-Chicago game were scored upon, largely because the wind was blowing out at Wrigley Field. Trevor Hoffman(notes) gave up two hits and a run in the ninth but that was no big deal, given that he had a three-run lead to work with. … I wasn't impressed at all with Ben Sheets's(notes) first two starts, but a home date with Baltimore paid a lot of bills 6 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 4 K). … Scott Kazmir(notes) didn't have much in his season debut at Yankee Stadium (4 IP, 8 H, 6 R). Until we see a show of good faith, there's no reason to run him out there on spec. … C.J. Wilson(notes) is expected to work Friday at Yankee Stadium, a lot more daunting than his original assignment this week (at Cleveland). Wilson was pushed back two days due to food poisoning.
Will Venable(notes) hit his third homer of the year Thursday and he should be safe to play through the weekend as Arizona is set to use three right-handed starters (including Kris Benson(notes), of all people, Saturday). … Bud Norris(notes) rang up a surprising nine strikeouts at St. Louis, though the extra pitches also forced him out of the game after five innings. If you want to do some scouting on him, here's your tape. He's expected to start at home against Florida next week. … Hiroki Kuroda(notes) had to settle for a no-decision Thursday and he was touched for 10 hits and three runs (two earned) over his seven innings of work, but his 14:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio through two turns deserves your attention. He's a little risky at Cincinnati next week, but then he's back for a couple of home assignments at Chavez Ravine. … It's been a slow recovery for Carlos Gonzalez's hamstring, and the Rockies haven't ruled out the disabled list yet.