March 12, 2009

The widely-used 5x5 fantasy scoring system employs two ratio categories for pitching, but only one for batting. What makes the ratio categories special is that every single player contributes to them. Not all of your position players will steal a base, and not all of your pitchers will record a save, but every hitter will affect your batting average and every pitcher will shape your ERA and WHIP. So every pitcher you draft will contribute to 40 percent of the pitching categories, but they will do so to varying degrees based on the amount of innings they pitch.

Some fantasy owners skew their staffs toward low-risk pitchers who help them win their ratios while keeping them competitive in the other three pitching categories (wins, strikeouts and saves). To achieve their goals, they draft a couple of Stud Starting Pitchers (SSPs) and 1-2 stud closers, and then fill the rest of their staffs with middle relievers.

I am not a proponent of this process as I've rarely seen it work, and usually when it doesn't, the end-of-season response starts with, "It was a good plan, but ..." These are the same sour grapes espoused by the proponents of communism, the AMC Pacer, and the books of Stephanie Meyer. It's a good idea, but the execution puts too much pressure on what SSP you target and adversely undercuts the competitiveness in your league as quality starting pitchers are distributed over one less team than they should be.

For example, what if you identified Justin Verlander as one of your '08 SSPs? If you had a normal staff with five to six starters, then it hurt you, but you could recover. But if you relied on just two starters, you were making your fantasy football cheat sheets in May.

Having said all this, there is a place for good middle relievers on a fantasy pitching staff. They can be a Band-Aid on hemorrhaging ratios, and, in some cases, can help your strikeouts and wins when they are in the enviable vulture position. Of course, you can also score big when you get the heir apparent for saves -- usually the eighth-inning setup man -- and he gets the closer gig during the season. Also, if you have an innings pitched limitation for the year or week, you can get more bang for your buck. For example, Jose Arredondo recorded as many wins (10) as Jeremy Guthrie last year, but in less than a third of the innings.

How do we find these quality middle relievers? First, if they thrived in the vulture job or a setup role last year and were not promoted to closer or starter, look for them to continue to be the solid middle men they are. Second, holds are a great indicator of a manager's trust, and he may see them as the tools of the vulture or setup man for the coming year. Third, look for a shaky closer whom everyone but their manager realizes will not have the job in a couple of months. Fourth, look for any reliever with eye-popping strikeouts rates (say, K/9 > 8.0). Last, look for a reliever who plays for a team with good but not great starters, can score a lot runs, and has a decent bullpen. That team is likely to be behind when the starter exits and then can come back and win while the bullpen doesn't blow the lead.

And while I'm concentrating on typical rotisserie 5x5 scoring, there is merit to having a middle reliever or two on your head-to-head team, as a reliever can come into any game. However, unless your league has found a way to drastically limit weekly pitching pickups for two-start pitchers or you're in a crazy deep league, I'd only carry at most one middle reliever on a standard H2H team.

Here are top middle relievers in both leagues, in order of draftability:

Carlos Marmol/Kevin Gregg (Cubs): One will be the closer and the other will be the setup man. However, as we've seen when there are two strong closer candidates (and yes, Marmol is a much stronger pitcher than Gregg with incredible strikeouts), the job can change hands. Pick up the one who isn't named closer later in your draft (and no, I don't expect Marmol to be available late in drafts).

Jason Motte (Cardinals): While Chris Perez has the inside track to the closer's job, Motte is the long-term solution. Expect Motte to vulture wins and saves and take him before considering Kyle McClellan (whom I wouldn't consider at all).

Ryan Madson (Phillies): Madson is consistently good. With J.C. Romero suspended for 50 games for PEDs (anyone else outraged he pitched in the World Series?), Madson will be the man for the first two months and likely all year. Think 7-plus vulture wins and perhaps the NL's King Vulture title.

J.J. Putz (Mets): Some are speculating Putz won't be able to handle a setup role, but he's done it before. If he were staying in the AL, I might not mention him, but he should have a good year with NL batters seeing him for the first time on a regular basis. Vulture saves are always a possibility as well.

Aaron Heilman (Cubs): In what was an awful season in a woeful Mets bullpen, Heilman increased his strikeout rate last year. If he can keep the walks down, he should return to '07 form for a team that will give him many vulture opportunities. Take Heilman and forget about Jeff Samardzija, unless either one sneaks into the rotation.

Hong-Chih Kuo (Dodgers): Kuo had a breakout season in '08, but it was so out of line with his other seasons that I'm not quite buying it yet. Plus, he's a lefty, and managers hate lefty closers. Being the strongest team in the West, though, he could be in line for 7-plus vulture wins. Even though Cory Wade will also get vulture opportunities, Wade's shoulder inflammation problems will haunt him this year.

Jeremy Affeldt (Giants): Affeldt was a key part of the '07 NL champion Rockies, and the past two years he has looked good pitching in terrible parks. Because the Giants will be close in most games, he should see his share of vulture win situations despite being a lefty. I'm also a big Merkin Valdez fan, but he's yet to show durability or consistency.

Rafael Soriano (Braves): A consistently healthy Soriano would be second on this chart, but when's the last time we saw that? Expect more than 14.0 IP this year, and vulture saves and wins pitching for what could be the most-improved NL team in '09.

Jon Rauch (Diamondbacks): Rauch has the tools to close, but I don't see him putting it together consistently every day (I'm still waiting for that homer he gave up to Jody Gerut to land). He will vulture about 10-15 saves this year and might be good for a few vulture wins at home, so he will give you value. Also, think Tony Pena as I'm not convinced Rauch or Chad Qualls get the job done.

Will Ohman (Free Agent): Ohman was great last year for the Braves, but now finds himself without a job. Grab the lefty if he gets a major league contract, and downgrade Madson a touch if Ohman lands in Philly.

Jose Arredondo (Angels): Relievers rarely vulture double-digit wins in consecutive years, so don't expect Arredondo to repeat as King Vulture. However, I'm quickly losing faith in Scot Shields, who can still strike out batters, but whose IP is dropping like a rock each year, indicating he's a very old 33. Arredondo is your better bet.

DanWheeler/Grant Balfour/JP Howell (Rays): Not enough credit has been give to the bullpen's part in making the Rays the AL champs last year. These three guys combined for 17 wins and 20 saves, and had gaudy ratios and strikeout numbers. Wheeler's value is being the closer when Troy Percival gets hurt. Balfour has been incredible and has value just as a middle reliever. Howell finally put it all together and is the only lefty in the group. Take them in the order listed.

Hideki Okajima/Takashi Saito (Red Sox): Boston has a strong bullpen, and if I had to take one, it would be the known quantity Okajima. However, a change of scenery and fewer ninth innings might be all that Saito needs to find his groove. Being the righty to Okajima's lefty, Saito has value as well. That makes ex-Royal Ramon Ramirez the odd man out. Monitor Ramirez's progress, but don't draft him unless you're in a very deep AL-only league.

Jesse Crain (Twins): A year removed from shoulder surgery, Crain should be back in form as the main vulture in Minnesota's pen, and my dark horse candidate for AL King Vulture. If you're trawling the wire looking for another name, think about Craig Breslow. He's the top lefty in the Twins' bullpen and finally put it all together last year.

Jesse Carlson (Blue Jays): Carlson did a great job out of the pen with seven vulture wins. He should repeat his performance this year, especially with all the health problems in that lefty-rich bullpen.

Brad Ziegler (Athletics): On the one hand, I'm leery of righties blasting onto the scene at age 28, and Ziegler's control numbers are good, but not great. On the other hand, I have no faith in Joey Devine, who has the arm (which is now hurting) for closing in the bigs, but perhaps not the head.

Rafael Perez (Indians): It's a given Kerry Wood will injure himself fishing the toy prize out of his cereal, and frankly, I'm not a believer in Jensen Lewis. I know Lewis is young, but he hasn't shown me anything yet (yes, he's looked good in spring training). Expect Perez to be depended upon for a strong team that has to win this year, and enjoy the strikeouts.

Octavio Dotel/Matt Thornton (White Sox): Dotel has done well in the role of vulture closer and tied with Howell for most strikeouts by an AL reliever in '08. The lefty Thornton had a WHIP of 1.00 in a park that kills WHIPs. Both will help in vulture wins and strikeouts, with Dotel also taking 10+ vulture saves.

Brian Bruney (Yankees): I'm not a fan of the Yankees' bullpen this year, but having said that, they should be able to come back late in games, making for good vulture opportunities. I'm picking Bruney over Damaso Marte because Bruney has worked hard to be in better shape this year and had better numbers than Marte in '08. But Marte has value in deeper AL-only leagues.

Joel Zumaya (Tigers): This one is by attrition, but we all know Brandon Lyon is an average closer, and in my career as a columnist, I've never had a reason to recommend Fernando Rodney (and I see no reason now). Manager JimLeyland is trying to ease Zumaya back into the bullpen, but he'll quickly realize he'll need him at full strength if this team is going to win more games than last year.

David Young is a fantasy baseball columnist for, and can be reached at

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