NL closers: holding steady

Matt Romig
Yahoo! Sports

Danny Graves got zero respect on draft day. He was the 28th closer taken in the average Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Baseball PLUS draft - leaving the board after the likes of Robb Nen, Damaso Marte and Mike MacDougal.

The expert consensus out of spring training was that Ryan Wagner would be closing games for the Cincinnati Reds by summer. This, of course, was before Graves came out of nowhere like an Antonio Tarver left hand to lead the National League in saves through May 16.

NL bullpens have been ruled by afterthought fantasy draft picks in the early going. Jose Mesa is 11-for-11 on save chances. Matt Herges has just two blown saves in 13 tries. Braden Looper has yet to allow a run in 18 2/3 innings. Then there's Graves, who leads the way with 16 saves in 19 tries.

With the suspect guys overachieving and the top picks effective but thirsty for opportunities, there hasn't been much turnover in the NL closer ranks to date. There are a few situations to update, however, and we'll cover those before revisiting some American League positions battles.

Chicago Cubs (hold Borowski, add Hawkins)
LaTroy Hawkins replaced Joe Borowski in the ninth inning on Thursday to earn his second save of the season, touching off a waiver-wire frenzy that carried through the weekend. The buying intensified when Hawkins closed out Saturday's win. If you own Borowski, you pretty much have to sign Hawkins as insurance, but don't count your original closer out just yet.

He wouldn't have been out there Thursday with a 7-1 lead had he not been short on work. Since May 1, Borowski has seen only one save situation and 4 2/3 innings of action. Manager Dusty Baker told the Chicago Sun-Times that he stayed with Hawkins Saturday because Brian Giles, San Diego's leadoff hitter in the ninth, has worn out Borowski (3-for-4, two home runs).

Now I grant you that's not the most convincing of arguments, but lost behind the 6.59 ERA and .310 opponents' average is the fact that Borowski has yet to blow a save this season. Under save conditions, he has allowed only one earned run and three hits in six innings.

Adding Hawkins is a safe short-term play, but Baker has good reason to keep him in a setup role. Since handing over closer duties to Eddie Guardado while a member of the Twins in 2001, Hawkins is 16-3 with a 1.95 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. In his previous two seasons as a sometimes closer, Hawkins was 3-10 with a 4.33 ERA and a WHIP of 1.55.

Philadelphia Phillies (DL Wagner, add Worrell, watch Madson)
Tim Worrell knows a little something about filling in for sidelined All-Star closers. Last year it was Robb Nen who hit the DL, creating an opening for Worrell to close the door on 38 of 45 save opportunities for San Francisco. Now a member of the Phillies, Worrell again has become an interim closer after Billy Wagner was placed on the 15-day DL with a groin injury.

Worrell promptly earned his second save of the season on Friday. On Saturday alone he was added in 13,000 Yahoo! Sports leagues (more than doubling the next pitcher on the most-added list), making his availability unlikely. Wagner owners should relax. This was a precautionary move. He missed only 15 days with what has been deemed a worse groin injury in 1996.

Rookie Ryan Madson has allowed only one earned run in 22 innings but will remain in a setup role with Wagner on the shelf.

Montreal Expos (hold Biddle, watch Cordero, Ayala)
Like Borowski, Rocky Biddle is dealing with some deceiving season totals. The closer's job is to protect late-inning leads, and so far Biddle has been successful on eight of nine tries. Under save conditions, Biddle has allowed three earned runs and five hits in eight innings. Take out Tuesday's implosion (0 IP, 3 H, 2 ER) and he has a 1.15 ERA when assuming the fireman's role.

Unfortunately, fantasy owners can't sub out Biddle when he appears in non-save situations – and they are left to deal with the fact that he has allowed nine earned runs on 13 hits in six horrendously ineffective mop-up innings. Luis Ayala saved five games a year ago and is a candidate to step in if Biddle falters. Chad Cordero is another candidate, but he is riding a streak of seven consecutive appearances in which he has issued a walk. Biddle and Ayala have walked a combined eight batters to Cordero's 12.

Arizona Diamondbacks (DL Mantei, add Valverde)
The DL position is probably the safest spot on your roster for Matt Mantei. If you want to take it a step further, placing him on the waiver wire probably won't come back to bite you (he was dropped in 10 leagues for every one in which he was added over the weekend). The 2004 season has been a disaster for Mantei and his fantasy owners. He has appeared in 12 games and allowed at least one run seven times. He has blown three of his last five save chances. Opponents are batting a robust .354 at his expense.

The beneficiary of Mantei's struggles is Jose Valverde, who ascends into the closer role for a second consecutive season. Last year Valverde was successful in 10 of 11 save tries with an impressive 71 strikeouts in about 50 innings. This is now Valverde's job to lose. He has converted his only two save chances since assuming the role on May 4.

American League updates
Terry Adams earned his second save of the season Sunday and looks like the guy, at the moment, for the Toronto Blue Jays. Jason Frasor continues to be effective but has little fantasy value at this time.
• Mike MacDougal was sent to Triple-A by the Kansas City Royals, leaving Nate Field in charge of closer duties. MacDougal's 13.50 ERA through three games at Omaha probably won't signal a quick return.
• Since earning back-to-back saves against Boston in early May, the Cleveland Indians' Rafael Betancourt has allowed four runs on eight hits in 3 1/3 innings. Jose Jimenez has been equally bad, meaning David Riske may well see Cleveland's next save opportunity.

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