May 19, 2009

We spend a lot of time in this column discussing starting pitchers, who can be great sources of wins and strikeouts while helping your ratios. However, they only pitch once every five games, or once or twice a week. And each start carries so much weight (around six innings) that a bad one can set you back mightily. Plus, there are only a few good, reliable starters. The rest are a crapshoot at best when it comes to consistency and staying healthy. If only there were an alternative ...

No, I don't mean fantasy football. I mean the creature know as the middle reliever pitcher (MRP), who is any non-starter pitcher that doesn't have the closer's job. They come in for somewhere between a single batter and a few innings, while amassing wins and strikeouts. And if they have a bad outing, their one inning of work can be absorbed by your ratios (although that four earned runs and no outs recorded by Kevin Gregg did hurt).

For example, Yankees starter CC Sabathia has three wins and 37 Ks. A's reliever Andrew Bailey has three wins and 28 K. That's not a big difference, except when you think about when they were drafted. Sabathia was gone by the fifth round. Bailey, on the other hand, might still be available on your waiver wire. Hopefully I don't need to explain how Bailey is the lower-risk option.

A middle reliever's win is known as a vulture win because he scavenges the win by being in the right place at the right time. Middle relievers can also vulture saves by either stepping in when the closer hits the DL or by simply out-pitching the closer and taking the job away.

So let's take a look at the middle relievers who are vulturing wins and saves.


I've been following this stat closely for years and here's what I've observed: (1) the King Vulture (the MRP who leads his league in vulture wins) rarely ever repeats; (2) the maximum number of vulture wins by a pitchers appears to be capped at 12; and (3) while you can predict that a pitcher is in great position to get a team's vulture wins, you can't predict when they're going to happen. An MRP can get three wins in a week and then not see another one for months. You just have to put your staff in position to get those vultures and let the games be played.

American League

In the AL, we have Jason Frasor (TOR) and Ramon Ramirez (BOS) at four wins each, and Bailey and Juan Cruz (KC) with three. Frasor is a good reliever and should convert on his vulture chances, however, the Blue Jays top my "Team Most Likely to Take a U-Turn" list. Why? While they are made up of strong components, their success has been due to a scheduling fluke that has seen them beat up on the AL Central teams while avoiding the East. Sure, they're 4-2 against their division rivals, but the rest of the division has played at least 19 games against the other AL East teams and the Jays' 4-2 record comes from a 3-0 sweep of the lowly Orioles and a 1-2 series loss to the Yankees. Expect more 1-2 series results as their schedule catches up to them.

All that was a long way of saying I'd expect no more than 4 more wins out of Frasor, if that. Ramirez, on the other hand, is someone the Royals likely wish they had back and is my candidate for AL King Vulture this year. Bailey should stay in the top tier of MRP and can help you the most with strikeouts of any of these guys, but I wouldn't waste your time on journeyman Cruz. Someone you should scoop up is Brian Bruney (NYY) who has been on the DL but should return this weekend. He currently has two wins, but could finish the season with 10.

National League

In the NL, Cla Meredith leads with four wins (yes, Jonathan Broxton also has four, but we're not including closers) and Clay Condrey (PHI), Mike DiFelice (MIL) and Tony Pena (ARI) all have three. Meredith has had a slight (but not awful) problem with the longball in the past, and I suspect it will catch up to him again. Also, the Padres are playing over their heads right now. While Condrey has been able to bring his strikeouts up, the home runs have also increased and spell doom for that park in the middle of summer. Plus Condrey will have to steal wins not only from the starters but from Ryan Madson, JA Happ, and Chad Durbin as well. DiFelice makes for a great story but I think he gets hit hard once MLB batters see him twice. Pena plays for a team that gets worse by the week. So okay, whom should we be watching?

While his control numbers and ratios have been pedestrian, Aaron Heilman (CHC) is in perfect position to see vulture wins for a team that can score runs late for a comeback. Ronald Belisario (LAD) burned team owners that jumped on his bandwagon with a couple of bad outings, but they were hiccups. He's your man, especially for strikeouts.


American League

Two of the best non-drafted closers this year were both in the AL: Scott Downs (TOR) and David Aardsma (SEA). If you got either -- or both -- congrats. While in Tampa, the one thing that they could count on last year is failing them now. Troy Percival (0-1, 4.91 ERA, 6 Sv), Joe Nelson (5.94 ERA, 2 Sv) and Grant Balfour (1-0, 5.60 ERA, 1 Sv) haven't blown a save yet, but they have been very hittable. Wait for the "Highlander" like ending ("There must only be one...") to see if someone takes the job from Percival (or fills in when he gets hurt yet again).

When the Tigers signed Brandon Lyon I know of at least one Tigers fan that nearly drove his car into a ditch (isn't that right, Mr. Bedenko?). But the Tigers were smart enough not to hand him and his almost 7.00 ERA the keys to the ninth inning (Lyon, not my friend). However, I am not -- and never will be -- a believer in Fernando Rodney. I still say Joel Zumaya is the second-half closer for a team that could rack up some wins after the All-Star Break. Excuse me for a second while I pick him up (Zumaya, not my friend).

In Texas, Frank Francisco is set to come off the DL, and has done a fine job in his role as closer. But if you need saves in the AL -- or just a dependable MRP -- look at Darren O'Day who has had a great May and should help in K. All the doo-dah day ...

National League

There are certain unofficial closers that should not be available on your waiver wire, namely,

Rafael Soriano (ATL) and Carlos Marmol (CHC). LaTroy Hawkins is the current closer in Houston while Jose Valverde gets healthy. The only problem is Hawkins might not want to give up the job any time soon. If you're not dying for saves, think about trying to trade Valverde for full value as he could be part of a closer by committee when he returns. If you picked up Ryan Franklin you're enjoying his nine saves. The question is whether he'll keep the gig with all those other candidates around and a manager that likes to play with lineups and go with the hot hand. So far he's doing a great job, but he'll only be as good as his last game.

Meanwhile, in Title Town Matt Capps is imploding. I picked up Sean Burnett speculatively, and he rewarded me with a vulture win in long relief. Not exactly where managers get their new closers from, but he's the best they have compared to the rest of the bullpen. In Florida, everyone keeps telling me everything is fine with Matt Lindstrom, but I'm not buying it, especially after that seven-spot against the Phillies. Stash Leo Nunez away. Lastly, in Milwaukee, while the 41-year-old Trevor Hoffman is healthy, he's a great closer. But he should see another DL stint or two which opens the door for Todd Coffey (whom I prefer over Carlos Villanueva).

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