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Bullpen Report: Finding some cheap relief

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Through the season's first nine weeks, we've ranked closers, discussed backups, offered wild suggestions for future saves, taken a trip down the very dark, deep wormhole of holds, and pretty much mentioned Tommy Hunter enough to earn stalker status.

And yet, things still fall through the cracks.

So I give you this nameless, less-bolded column. Just some random, stray observations on relievers that don't fit under one big theme. A smorgasbord of reliever facts, if you will. And I want to kick it off with two pitchers I will forever hold a candle for:

John Axford and Carlos Marmol have been very good lately

John Axford, 2013: 1-3, 5.79 ERA, 1.80 WHIP, 27 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings
Carlos Marmol, 2013: 2-2, 3.86 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, 21 strikeouts in 21 innings

Ugly lines, for the most part, but look a little deeper, and you get this:

Axford, since May 15: 8 2/3 IP, 0.00 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 10 strikeouts
Marmol, since May 15: 6 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, six strikeouts

Have the perennially-wild Marmol and the suddenly-ineffective Axford figured things out? Or is this just smoke and mirrors -- a small window of calm before the storm of walks, home runs, and wild pitches come back around?

Despite the similarities (both have 100-plus career saves, both sport career K/9 ratios over 11, and both lost their NL Central closer jobs very early in the year), Marmol seems to have figured things out, while Axford is still walking too many people (five walks since May 15 to Marmol's one). However, both are in situations where deep league owners may want to consider a speculative add. In Milwaukee, Jim Henderson is out indefinitely with a hamstring injury, making Francisco Rodriguez the closer. It may take just one implosion for Axford to get a shot, nail it down, and run with the job the rest of the way.

In Chicago, would-be closer-in-waiting Kyuji Fujikawa is out for the season with a torn UCL in his elbow, requiring Tommy John surgery. Meaning the only thing standing in the way of Marmol and the closer's job is Kevin Gregg -- who has been brilliant, but it takes one simple tweak of the groin to get Marmol another chance.

Robbie Ross is awesome

He's likely to see more starts than saves, but Robbie Ross -- who was almost exclusively a starter throughout the minors -- has followed up his 2012 debut (6-0, 2.22 ERA) with an even better 2013. Through 24 games, Ross is 2-0, having allowed one earned run in 24 1/3 innings. That's a 0.37 ERA. The one run was scored by Justin Smoak off a Robert Andino groundout on April 11. Since then, Ross hasn't allowed a runner to score.

And if you want to make Ross look more impressive, there's this: of the 20 runners he has inherited, Ross has only allowed two to score. Only four pitchers have a better ratio this season, and none have inherited more than 15 runners. The problem for Fantasy owners is what to do with Ross. He's not going to work into the saves mix and he probably won't get a shot at the rotation any time soon. His seven holds are nice, but those have him tied for 29th in the majors. He did win six games last year in middle relief -- and he already has two wins this year -- so there is some value for owners looking to add a pitcher who can keep ERA and WHIP low while picking up a handful of wins. And for those who play games like Scoresheet, Ross can serve any number of roles.

In most formats -- outside of AL-only Roto leagues -- Ross is just a player to keep an eye on, in case the Rangers decide to stretch him out and let him start at some point in the season.

Heath Bell reborn?

Since May 7, when he was installed as closer, Heath Bell has a 2.16 ERA with eight saves, striking out seven in 8 1/3 innings. While his WHIP is a relatively high 1.32, that should go down a bit, as Bell's BABIP is sitting at .345 over that period (his career BABIP is .310). There's not much else to do with this information outside of running with it. Bell is owned in 62 percent of leagues, and while he's allowed a hit or walk in three of his last four games, he's getting the job done as the closer for the Diamondbacks and should see a slow climb in ownership as he proves himself to would-be owners.

Your holds leaderboard

1. Mark Melancon, Pirates, 18
2. Jesse Crain, White Sox, 15
2. Joel Peralta, Rays, 15
2. Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals, 15
5. Jared Burton, Twins, 12

Your recent holds leaderboard

(Holds leaders over the last seven days)
1. Jared Burton, Twins, 3
1. Joel Peralta, Rays, 3
1. Garrett Richards, Angels, 3
1. Josh Roenicke, Twins, 3
5. Jonathan Broxton, Reds, 2

Garrett Richards and Friends!

There's been a recent wave of enthusiasm for Angels pitcher Garrett Richards, growing louder after he saved a game last Friday against the Royals. Richards is throwing pretty hard -- he averaged 97.1 mph the night before his save and has hovered in the high-90s since. And while he gave up four runs in a game against the White Sox in mid-May, Richards has been relatively clean since, with a five-game streak of not allowing a run.

There is some downside to adding Richards. First, Ernesto Frieri is still the closer, and it's likely that if he cedes the job to anyone, it would be Ryan Madson, who is still on that bumpy return road from Tommy John. Second, even though Richards is throwing about two m.p.h. above his career average, he's not really striking a ton of batters out. In May, Richards has pitched 12 2/3 innings and struck out only seven batters. And his ERA in May is 4.97 in 12 games -- all out of relief.

The flipside to this is that Richards looks good -- especially when the m.p.h. tracker in the top left of the screen keeps inching toward 100. And if you've seen him in a game, you can kind of see him closing games at some point in the future. I'd still rather have Marmol, Axford, Hunter, Junichi Tazawa, Brett Cecil, Jordan Walden, and a few other options ahead of him, but if Richards can get his strikeout rate up (he has six Ks in his last 5 1/3 IP, and it's not crazy to think that maybe he just needed to get back into a relieving groove after starting four games in April), he may become a more attractive option.

Still, just to throw water on all the goodness mentioned, Richards may not even be the best backup saves option on his team right now, considering the way Robert Coello has been pitching (18 strikeouts in 10 1/3 IP, with an 0.87 ERA). If you want a primer on the pitch behind Coello's success, check it out here. Coello kind of reminds me of Frieri (c. 2012) -- he came in unheralded and just started striking batters out at an alarming rate.

All that being said, if I had to rank the Angels' non-Frieri relievers for save potential, it would be Madson, Coello, and then Richards.

Remember when Chris Davis pitched last year?

This really has little Fantasy bearing, but because he's the hottest player in the game right now, it's kind of funny to look back to May 6, 2012, when Chris Davis pitched an inning in relief for the Orioles against the Red Sox. He threw two innings, gave up two hits, walked one, and struck out two. And he got the win.

Starters in RP slots

I haven't been very good at hiding my general distaste for H2H formats that allow starters to be placed in RP slots, but I'm not going to just stubbornly refuse to play by those rules because of some misplaced sense of pride. So, the top five SPs able to be put in RP slots (by season point totals):

1. Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners, 228.5 points
2. Shelby Miller, Cardinals, 176.5
3. Kyle Kendrick, Phillies, 165.5
4. Jerome Williams, Angels, 133.5
5. Andrew Cashner, Padres, 122

Of these players, three are in the top five for innings pitched among RPs (Iwakuma, Kendrick, and Miller), while Kris Medlen has the third-most IP among the RP-eligible group and Jeremy Hefner ranks fifth (57 IP). Medlen has 99 points this season, while Hefner has 85.

Two free agent SP-as-RPs (screw it -- I'm calling them "SPARP"s from now on) I kind of like, who are probably free agents in H2H leagues:

Wade Davis, Royals (owned in 22 percent of leagues). I am all too familiar with all the arguments against Davis -- 5.71 ERA, 1.86 WHIP, velocity down about 3 mph from last year -- but he's being victimized by a BABIP (.389) that is almost 100 points higher than his career average. His xFIP is 4.34, which is somewhat encouraging, and he's giving up home runs at a higher rate (15.1 percent of his fly balls allowed end up being homers) than at any point in his career, which could be fixed (but could also be a result of his diminished velocity). Davis probably won't get back to that sub-3.00 ERA, but he could turn it around enough to be serviceable as a SPARP in two-start weeks.

Tony Cingrani, Reds (owned in 53 percent of leagues). This is just a question of "how much patience do I have?" Cingrani will be back in the rotation at some point in the season. And my guess is that it's some point soon. The Reds' staff had five starters make 30 starts in 2012 -- only the seventh time in MLB history that has happened. The pendulum is bound to swing back the other way in 2013, and when the injuries start popping up -- a tweak here, some tenderness there -- Cingrani will be ready to come up, be plugged in as a SPARP, and continue to put up solid numbers.

The strange case of Drew Smyly

Drew Smyly had a weird rookie season in 2012 -- he was pitching well as a starter, encountered a nasty blood blister, returned, strained his intracostal, went to the minors for a bit, came back up as a reliever, and rattled off a very quiet 1.98 ERA from September on.

This spring, Smyly was locked in a battle for the last spot in the Detroit rotation with Rick Porcello. Smyly went 4-0 with a 3.38 ERA and 1.03 WHIP. He was sent to the bullpen anyway. So far in 2013, Smyly has been stellar. He's struck out 34 batters in 32 2/3 innings, producing a 2.20 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. With that valuable RP eligibility locked in for this year and next, Smyly, owned in 26 percent of leagues, is a wonderful anticipatory SPARP play. He'll probably get about 10 starts this year, whether through injury replacement or trade, but has been a nice, Robbie Ross-esqe source of low ratios (with more strikeouts) as a bullpen source in the meantime.

Four thoughts on four relievers

Because, out of principle, we aren't ending this column on SPARPs.

1. Grant Balfour may be the most underrated closer in the game. Over the last four seasons, Balfour has a 2.35 ERA and 1.02 WHIP, with about a strikeout per inning. Last year, after being removed as closer in early May, Balfour went on to produce a 2.09 ERA in 60 1/3 innings, with 17 late-season saves and a strikeout per inning.
2. While Kevin Gregg may not be pitching in the best situation, he's still sporting sub-1.00 ERA and WHIP, while striking out over a batter per inning. Even without the ratio help, Gregg tends to get things done on bad teams. From 2007 to 2011, he averaged 29 saves per season, despite pitching for the Marlins, Cubs, Blue Jays, and Orioles.
3. After a rough start, J.J. Hoover has gone on a nice run. Hoover had a 7.94 ERA on April 12, having given up three home runs in six games. Since then, he's recovered nicely, with a 2.04 ERA, three saves, and just under a strikeout per inning. It's unclear whether he or Jonathan Broxton would be next in line for saves in Cincinnati, but Hoover is making a case, and does have all three non-Chapman saves.
4. Fernando Rodney and Jim Johnson, two of last year's feel-good closer stories -- lead the majors with five and four blown saves, respectively. But they still have 28 saves and four wins between them. This was more a statement of fact than a thought, but it was an interesting stat that I didn't want to go to waste (my backup favorites: Jake McGee in Tampa Bay and some converted starter in Baltimore).

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Nando Di Fino at @NandoCBS . You can also send our staff an e-mail at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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