- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 27, 2004

Pity the Fool, who thought his waiver claim for Justin Lehr in his American League-only fantasy league would land him the latest star in the closing carousel.

At least he wasn’t Foolish enough to write this column ahead of time, or at least before Thursday night, when the latest dominoes in real-life baseball fell, creating fantasy heaven — and havoc for some owners.

Just days ago, Lehr stood first in line to get Oakland’s saves, thanks to one of the worst performances by a bullpen since last spring’s failed committee experiment in Boston. Once Oakland’s cheap new closer, Arthur Rhodes, cooled after a torrid start, he and the rest of the bullpen blew 14 saves — one more than they’ve actually saved.

But by Thursday night, the A’s had a new closer — and the Fool didn’t.

Trader Billy Beane facilitated the season’s first blockbuster, acquiring Astros flamethrower Octavio Dotel in the same deal that sent five-tool fantasy stud outfielder Carlos Beltran from Kansas City to Houston. The other players involved were minor leaguers — more on them later.

The movement gives fantasy players more closers to choose from, just from a different source than the Fool originally anticipated. In two of his leagues, however, the Fool looks brilliant as the owner of Brad Lidge. If you haven’t heard of him, it may be too late. For the last year and a half, Lidge has played a setup role in the nasty Astros bullpen, becoming one of those somewhat-rare middle relievers who are valuable to own. He struck out 97 batters in 85 innings last season while carrying a 3.60 ERA — inflated by a couple bad outings down the stretch.

This season Lidge has looked even better, striking out 66 batters in 421/3 innings while keeping his WHIP well under 1.00 and his ERA at 2.55. His 66 strikeouts rank with those of some starters and are more than any other relief pitcher in major league baseball and five more than Anaheim’s Francisco Rodriguez. Now his late innings of work become even more valuable, because with Dotel out of the picture he’ll get Houston’s saves while still blowing batters away. If he’s available, grab him — he should be one of the best closers in the league for the rest of the season.

Dotel had struggled of late in Houston in his first season as the closer, but he should dramatically improve the performance of Oakland’s bullpen — and the team’s starting pitchers, a boon for you owners of Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Rich Harden and Mark Redman. Dotel should get solid support from Rhodes, back in his more familiar setup role, and even from Lehr, who will still get a look with the big leaguers.

If you’re still scrounging around for a closer, there are a few more situations that bear keeping an eye on:

Colorado: Owning a Rockies pitcher is never fun, though with closers you can usually count on a few saves without destroying your ERA. But converted starter Shawn Chacon has struggled a bit more than his real-life and fantasy managers like, having blown six saves while sporting a 7.49 ERA. He also told the Denver Post last week that he “welcomes contact” — a strategy that obviously doesn’t work in the thin air. The Rockies’ setup man, Steve Reed, is the guy to watch if Chacon keeps struggling. He has dominated this season and has an ERA under 4.00 — the lowest of any pitcher who has thrown at least 100 career innings at Coors Field.

Cleveland: Speaking of Rockies closers, the last man to hold that job has found the going just as rocky with the Indians. When he finally came off the DL, Jose Jimenez earned the Cleveland closing job by default; his bullpen mates had blown 12 saves before he got there. Jimenez has saved seven but has lost six games and has an ERA approaching 8.00. Bob Wickman is rehabbing in the minors for the Indians, and you should certainly give him a look. He saved 32 games for Cleveland in 2001.

Pittsburgh: If you own Jose Mesa, you certainly got him for cheap, or late in your draft. Despite Mesa’s fast start, the Fool released him in one league after Mesa started morphing back into the Joe Table of old — witness the six-hit, five-earned run performance June 12 against Oakland. Mesa doesn’t strike out enough guys (only 16 so far this season) to make suffering through his ridiculous outings worthwhile. So watch that one closely, too; if the Pirates trade him to a contender (stranger things have happened), they’ll either get a young pitcher in return or try one of their assortment of odd arms. Either way, you can’t expect too much from this situation.

• If you have a comment, question or idea for the Fantasy Fool, e-mail him at thefool@rotogods.com.

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