A few weeks ago I was out with some buddies and the conversation turned to the Phillies, of course. The Mets were talkin' trash, and hey, if I had just picked up Johan Santana for a song, I would be doing the same thing. But the Phillies did look as strong as they did in 2007, at least on paper, and the Braves could make this the best three-team race in baseball. Inevitably, conversation turned to the bullpen when someone asked if Brad Lidge could handle pitching in our tough town.
We determined Lidge had better not blow the save in the home opener.
Of course, now we don't have to worry about that. It will be Tom Gordon scuffling to save that game.
As colleague Tristan Cockcroft so deftly notes in Monday's Camp Notes, Lidge is still alive. We're not picking out coffins just yet. He's out three to six weeks with what is termed a minor knee surgery, his second one of the offseason, by the way. He'll be back. But he won't be on my team unless he really slips in my drafts.
Better for a pitcher to have a knee problem than deal with a sore elbow or shoulder, that's for sure, but I was a bit skeptical about this Lidge situation working out in the first place. Oh, he'll get some numbers. I'm not too worried about that. Even now, I can see 27 or so saves, an ERA around 3, loads of strikeouts and some critical home runs allowed. I'd trust him over the jelly arm of Tom Gordon at this point, and that's not really a dig at Flash, who's 40 and struggled last season. How can he be expected to thrive at this point? I bet we see plenty of J.C. Romero in the ninth inning if Lidge takes longer to heal. At least we won't get more Brett Myers there. He's starting. Not moving to the bullpen. Book it.
It's been a while since I discussed the updated closer situations around the league, so now seems like an opportune time to get back in there. Let's place these guys in categories, shall we?
THREE CURRENT CLOSERS I WON'T GET
Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox: I rank him No. 2 overall among closers, but there's no way I'll spend that high a draft pick to get a closer. I drafted a team last week and 14 closers came off the board before I dabbled. So, I guess you can add in J.J. Putz, Joe Nathan, Mariano Rivera, etc. to this list. Hey, I want saves just like the next guy, but the impact closers make on fantasy teams, even the top ones, to me is slight in comparison to top hitters. To draft Papelbon, you'd have to pass on, according to our top 100, Robinson Cano, Chipper Jones and Ryan Zimmerman. Not me.
Eric Gagne, Brewers: I just don't believe. We've gone over the reasons why, and if you didn't see them or hear me say them, I'm sure you can figure them out. Can he stay healthy all season? Can he stay effective? I don't blame the Brewers for giving him a one-year deal, but I won't be doing that in fantasy.
Rafael Soriano, Braves: I have concerns, and since I'm seeing him get drafted as a top-10 closer in numerous leagues, it seems others don't share my worries. Soriano's been groomed for this role, and at 28, it's about time he starts a season with opportunity. His 2007 WHIP was 0.861. He also allowed 12 home runs. I wouldn't compare anyone to Kyle Farnsworth or LaTroy Hawkins, good relief pitchers who just couldn't close effectively, but it wouldn't surprise me if a contending team like the Braves needs more experience, or turns to Mike Gonzalez at some point. I'd draft Soriano after the top 15 closers, but I doubt he lasts.
THREE CURRENT CLOSERS ON THE TRADE BLOCK
Joe Nathan, Twins: There's no way the small-market Twins can afford a long-term deal on a 33-year-old closer. Not a chance. They can say the right things, but this guy is going to get dealt in July when the Twins realize they aren't contenders. That makes Pat Neshek one of the top fantasy middle relievers on draft day. If you're going to take a shot on a middle reliever, make sure he strikes people out and could end up with saves. Neshek seems a bit underrated to me. Nathan, by the way, would close for his new team, so no worries there.
Bobby Jenks, White Sox: He just got a one-year deal, and maybe I'm just reading into things, but I have a feeling the White Sox are aware Jenks' stupendous 2007 season was about as good as it gets. To retire 41 consecutive hitters at any point takes luck, and it's not just fantasy teams that deal in value. Real-life general managers can get fooled, too. Octavio Dotel got good money to sign with the White Sox, and I wonder if he thinks a promotion to closer is imminent should the affordable (for now) Jenks be moved. Remember, there were major questions about Jenks' wildness and durability what, a year ago?
Chad Cordero, Nationals: It's obvious, isn't it? Or is it just me? He's on a one-year deal as well, and I doubt the Nationals feel the need to secure him long-term. Cordero's best season came in 2005, and while he can deliver good innings, they haven't been so great since then. He's given up 38 home runs, and in a pitcher's park no less, in four seasons. I see him setting up Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera come August, and Jon Rauch steps in for double-digit saves down the stretch.
THREE CURRENT CLOSERS WHO AREN'T SAFE FOR SAVES
George Sherrill, Orioles: I don't think anyone's drafting this former Mariners lefty assuming a 30-save season, but to call this guy safe is a mistake. The truth is the Orioles could pass the closer baton around all season. One week it could be Greg Aquino. Or Jamie Walker. Or maybe the Orioles will wise up and give a young pitcher like Dennis Sarfate, James Hoey or even Fernando Cabrera a chance. This is a last-place team, folks, and 30-year-old lefties like Sherrill, no matter how good they are, rarely turn into Eddie Guardado overnight.
Kevin Gregg, Marlins: Great story in 2007, but Matt Lindstrom throws harder, isn't nearly as wild and didn't just go to arbitration. Gregg will be 30 during the season, and whether he switches roles with Lindstrom or ends up some other team's seventh-inning option, I'll take the under on another 32 saves. Way under.
Brian Wilson, Giants: I've been trying to get onboard the Wilson train, but the fact the Giants already announced retread Tyler Walker as the top setup man scares me off. Wilson was supposed to be this team's closer a year ago, but spent much of the year at Triple-A Fresno. I'm 50-50 on him saving 30 games and outright losing the job in April all together. His stuff is not dominating, and he struggles with lefty hitters (more walks than K's for the Giants), so it's not just Walker's shadow, but performance is an issue. It's going to be a messy season in San Francisco, by the way, so I doubt any Giants pitcher would earn 35 saves.
THREE CURRENT CLOSERS I KEEP DRAFTING
Todd Jones, Tigers: What's not to like? OK, lots of things. But Joel Zumaya is out half the season, and I expect to hear about a disabled list stint and/or surgery for Fernando Rodney at a moment's notice. There's nobody to challenge Jones. He won't strike anyone out, and that ERA won't be good, but the guy has averaged 38 saves the past three seasons. I expect ... 38 more in 2008.
Brandon Lyon, Diamondbacks: I've changed my mind on what's going to happen in Arizona. I think Lyon keeps the job now, and Tony Pena racks up the holds along with Chad Qualls. Why can't Lyon close effectively? Hasn't he done so in the past? In 2005, he was leading the majors in saves through April, when an elbow problem ruined his season and opened the door for Jose Valverde (who I am not drafting this season, by the way). Lyon also closed for Boston back in 2003. He's not a strikeout guy, but he led the National League in holds. I doubt he'll simply succumb to pressure. He could be the NL version of Todd Jones. Good, that's another 38 saves for me.
Jason Isringhausen, Cardinals: It must be luck, or something, that I keep ending up with this guy, but I really don't have any concerns about performance or opportunity. I just think he's underrated.