Commentary

30 Questions: Who gets the most saves this season, Lyon, Pena or Qualls?

Updated: March 11, 2008, 11:38 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.

Who gets the most saves this season, Lyon, Pena or Qualls?

There's that key word: "Most."

Chances are, none of those three gets all of the Diamondbacks' 2008 saves, and we're actually leaving out an important alternative: "Other." In situations such as these, where there's no clear-cut top choice for the ninth inning, the possibility of a dark-horse candidate or perhaps even a trade must at least be considered.

That said, this isn't your typical "who gets the saves?" debate. Most of the time, such uncertain closer scenarios can be found on non-contenders, or even worse, last-place squads. The discussion becomes somewhat moot because there aren't many saves to spread around after all. With the Diamondbacks, we're talking last year's top National League seed, a 90-game winner and Championship Series combatant, and one perhaps even stronger as a team this season with the addition of a quality No. 2 starter in Dan Haren.

Diamondbacks' closer candidates

Brandon Lyon (right) appears to be the early favorite for saves in Arizona, but how do his career stats hold up against Tony Pena and Chad Qualls?

Player
IP
K
BB
SV
WHIP
BAA
ERA
Lyon
356.2
218
107
25
1.41
.281
4.42
Pena
116.0
84
39
3
1.19
.231
3.88
Qualls
284.0
218
84
6
1.24
.256
3.39
In other words, the Diamondbacks, last year's team leader in saves (51), could easily reach that 50-save plateau as a team again. Since 2001, 56 different teams have won at least 90 games in a season; listed below is their breakdown in terms of team saves:

• Seventeen of 56 saved at least 50 games as a team (30.4 percent).
• Another 17 saved 45 or more (another 30.4 percent).
• Only 11 -- the 2001 Diamondbacks (34 saves), 2007 Yankees (34), 2004 Athletics (35), 2003 Marlins (36), 2003 Red Sox (36), 2004 Red Sox (36), 2001 Cardinals (38), 2003 Mariners (38), 2005 Braves (38), 2005 Red Sox (38) and 2007 Rockies (39) -- finished with fewer than 40 saves (19.6 percent).

That doesn't guarantee the Diamondbacks oodles of save chances, as that latter group demonstrates. Still, if you believe the 2008 D-backs are a 90-win squad -- and I do -- then you have to like those odds. We're talking a better-than-four-out-of-five shot that there'll be 40-plus saves to spread around, better-than-three-out-of-five that there'll be 45 or more, and better-than-three-out-of-10 that there'll be at least 50.

So now that we know this mix will clearly be fantasy worthy, who gets the bulk?

Experience says it's Brandon Lyon on Opening Day. He's the only current member of the bullpen with big league closer experience; he closed for about two months for the Red Sox in May and June 2003, and then for a month and a half to begin the season for the 2005 Diamondbacks. It's not a glowing résumé, but it's enough to catch a manager's eye, and I remind you that when it comes to save chances, managers don't always look at the numbers; they look for what they feel is that key trait: Experience.

If you don't believe me, look at how Lyon is being used this spring, coming in earlier in games to ensure he faces quality big league hitters before their inevitable early hooks. That speaks volumes about Melvin's plans for his veteran right-hander.

Of course, Lyon isn't the most durable or consistent reliever around. Much of that has to do with his low strikeout rate -- 5.50 per nine innings career, 4.86 in 2007 -- which requires him to be nearly perfect with his offerings on any given night. Even if he begins the year as the closer, which seems probable, I'm not convinced he'll stay one. In fact, he might be in 2008 what he was to kick off 2005 -- a two-month closer.

The numbers, the raw stuff, they say Tony Pena (and not the Royals shortstop, we're talking Mr. Ramon Antonio Pena) should be next. He's the one with the noticeably better WHIP (1.10) and batting average allowed (.207) from a year ago, and the one with the mid-to-high-90s fastball and a quality slider. There's a key difference between Pena and Lyon, though, that hurts the former; he's the one believed to be more capable of pitching multiple innings, and managers often prefer those types in the seventh and eighth than the ninth. It's something Melvin might simply need to get over at some point.

Sleeper hunters might desire Chad Qualls, who for a few days this winter actually was the favorite for saves in Houston (before he came over in the Jose Valverde trade, of course). Not that Qualls would be a poor choice, rarely deviating from his career 3.39 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in his three-and-a-half years with the Astros. He's more suited for setup relief, and the likely No. 3 man to the above two, but there's a key knock against him: He's more homer-prone than the above two, far too much so for a ground-ball pitcher (2.17:1 career ground ball-to-fly ball ratio). Think handcuff status, but probably not regular saves.

Returning to the choice of "other," those same sleeper hunters -- at least the one in deep NL-only formats -- should tuck away the names Juan Cruz and Max Scherzer. Not that I have any notion that either will even be close to sniffing the role by Opening Day, but looking at their stats, their makeup, their stuff, either could get a look later in the season in a desperate circumstance. Cruz buckled down with a 3.10 ERA, 12.84 K/9 ratio and .205 BAA in an impressive season for last year's Diamondbacks, while 2006 first-rounder Scherzer struck out 106 batters in 90 2/3 minor league innings in 2007 and has a similar arsenal to Pena's, but with higher long-term upside.

Cruz's problem is that, like Pena, he's more suited to multiple-inning work, more so even than Pena. Scherzer, meanwhile, can't be ruled out for a Joba Chamberlain-like late-season arrival if he's shifted to relief in the minors early in the year. Still, the Diamondbacks are currently grooming him as a starter, and it must be remembered that Chamberlain stories generally don't come around more than, say, once a decade.

In terms of draft appeal, I'd rank the Diamondbacks' closer choices Lyon, Pena, Qualls, Cruz and Scherzer, in that order.

But I like to have fun with my predictions. I'll forecast that the Diamondbacks as a team will save 43 games, with Pena getting 21 (think all from June on), Lyon 15 (all in April/May), Qualls 4 (on Lyon/Pena off nights), Cruz 2 (see: Qualls) and Scherzer 1 (in September).

Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.