AL closers: deep relief

Matt Romig
Yahoo! Sports

You see, this is why I argued that Eric Gagne is a legitimate first-round draft pick.

Just look at these numbers: 5.73, 6.92, 10.13, 11.81. No, those aren't the scores you'll need to contend for the all-around gold in gymnastics at the Athens games. Those are the ERAs posted by third-tier closers through May 8. With apologies to Kerri Strug, David Riske's 10.13 ERA is less than perfect.

Meanwhile, Gagne is once again on his way to 50 saves, 100 strikeouts and miniscule WHIP and ERA totals. The reason you draft Gagne is so you don't have to read columns like this. You don't have to chase saves. You don't have to wait for the next implosion, hoping another job will change hands.

Best of all, you don't have to expose your team ERA and WHIP to the inevitable blow-ups suffered by these fill-in closers. Did I take my own advice? No. So here I am, scouring the waiver wire like a fantasy novice who didn't realize steals and saves were so important on draft day. I'll start by looking for help in the American League where several jobs have changed hands in recent weeks.

Toronto Blue Jays (add Adams, watch Frasor, Ligtenberg)
Terry Adams is the guy in Toronto for now, but there is no shortage of candidates to keep an eye on. Adams' save Saturday was his first since 2000 and just the fourth for any Blue Jays reliever this season. He hasn't closed regularly since a stint as the Cubs stopper in 1999 and his stuff is less than overpowering, so his hold on this job is tenuous at best.

Manager Carlos Tosca stayed with Kerry Ligtenberg in the ninth inning Sunday rather than using Adams for a third straight day. It was just the third save since 2000 for the former Atlanta closer who will return to set-up duties with Adams rested.

Jason Frasor earned a save Tuesday and has been effective, but as a rookie who did not pitch above Double-A a year ago, he's an unlikely candidate to be Tosca's go-to guy in the immediate future. Frasor has the velocity of a closer but has struggled with his command, walking a combined nine batters in 14.2 innings between Toronto and Triple-A Syracuse.

Syracuse is where you'll find Aquilino Lopez, the spring training favorite to win this job. His 2004 season got off to a disastrous start (11.42 ERA in nine games) but he has two saves down on the farm and is still in the picture here.

Chicago White Sox (add Koch, hold Marte, watch Takatsu)
Billy Koch needs to find his effective wildness. It was fastballs down Broadway that got him in trouble early on. Of late, he can't find the strike zone. Despite walking seven batters in his last six innings, Koch is riding an improbable streak of four straight successful save conversions. He may still be available in many leagues.

Rookie Shingo Takatsu is the wild card here. If Koch suffers another meltdown, Takatsu and Damaso Marte are the top candidates to fill the role. Takatsu leads the entire Chicago staff with a .162 opponent's batting average and Marte has already blown three save chances. At worst, Takatsu will continue to vulture a few wins in the late innings.

Kansas City Royals (hold MacDougal, add Field, watch Cerda, Huisman)
It might not be panic time just yet for Mike MacDougal owners, but you might as well keep your finger near the button. After posting a 6.85 ERA and 1.75 WHIP in 24 post-All Star appearances last year, MacDougal has struggled mightily out of the gate in 2004. Sunday's Kansas City Star reported that MacDougal is out as closer until he can regain his command.

Manager Tony Pena stopped short of naming an interim closer, but Kansas City's most effective reliever to date has been Nate Field. He allowed a home run to Dave McCarty Saturday, but has held opponents to a batting average near .200 and, unlike MacDougal, generally gets the ball over the plate. Pena also named Jaime Cerda and Justin Huisman (currently in Triple-A) as late-inning candidates.

Cleveland Indians (add Betancourt, hold Riske, watch Jimenez)
Rafael Betancourt has two wins and two saves in his last eight appearances, but don't be surprised if this job changes hands again in the near future. I'll give him credit for closing out Boston on back-to-back nights, but a .303 opponent's batting average doesn't exactly scream stopper.

Former Rockies closer Jose Jimenez has late-inning experience and David Riske was effective enough a year ago that he's still in the picture.

Oakland Athletics (hold Rhodes, watch Bradford)
Arthur Rhodes owners can find security in numbers. Start with 9.28, the ERA posted by set-up man Jim Mecir who is continuing a steady four-year decline. Mecir has been an effective set-up guy and fill-in closer in the past, but both roles are in jeopardy right now.

Then you have eight, the number of free passes issued by submariner Chad Bradford in 12.1 innings. Bradford walked only 14 in 75 innings in 2001.

Rhodes is looking like a draft bust right now, but Oakland manager Ken Macha has said that any immediate changes in the bullpen would involve players other than Rhodes. I'll reserve judgment on Rhodes until Oakland's big three of Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito start delivering him regular save chances.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays (hold Baez)
Danys Baez is getting the job done, but you wouldn't know it but scanning your rotisserie standings. Save chances arrive about once every 10 days in Tampa Bay, and so far Baez is perfect when protecting leads. Patience will be rewarded. Save opportunities come in bunches like Reggie Sanders home runs. Baez will still get his 25-30 on the season.

Minnesota Twins (hold Nathan)
Joe Nathan blew his first save of the season Friday after converting seven straight chances as a novice closer. Don't sweat the missed opportunity. Nathan couldn't get a call from home plate umpire Paul Schrieber, who later drove Terry Mulholland to the brink of ejection with his shrinking strike zone.

He rebounded with a solid ninth and then closed out Saturday's win to run his consecutive scoreless inning streak to 12. Couple his success with J.C. Romero's recent struggles and Nathan owners should have no worries.

Things are as secure as they can get elsewhere in the American League. Those fears that hitters would be banging Keith Foulke change-ups off Pesky's pole in Fenway Park are looking rather Y2K-like right now.

We'll take a look at National League closer news next week and update any of these AL situations as circumstances merit.

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