Commentary

2010 Position Preview: Relief Pitcher

Broxton, Nathan, Rivera among very few sure things at most volatile position

Updated: March 30, 2010, 4:00 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Thank you, Brad Lidge.

Fantasy Baseball Draft  Kit

Perhaps no relief pitcher during the Rotisserie Baseball era has more ideally demonstrated the volatile nature of saves. One of fantasy's best closers in the 2008 season, when he was a perfect 41-for-41 in save chances with a 1.95 ERA and 92 strikeouts, Lidge endured a miserable, fantasy-team-killing 2009 in which he blew 11 of 42 save chances while compiling a 7.21 ERA and 61 K's.

I'll repeat: Lidge still gave his fantasy owners 31 saves in 2009, only 10 fewer than the year before, despite torpedoing those same owners' team ERA with a number more than five runs higher than he had in 2008.

But saves are saves, right? That's the problem: Anyone can get them, and sometimes you have no idea exactly who will. To illustrate the point, there were times last season when the Philadelphia Phillies might have fared just as well had they added the Phillie Phanatic to the active roster, waited for a two-out, two-strike, up-by-two, bases-empty situation to call upon their beloved mascot in the ninth, and hoped he could perhaps float an eephus pitch past Emilio Bonifacio.

Voilą! Phanatic with the save.

Not that I'm endorsing the tall, bulky right-hander from the Galapagos Islands as a viable fantasy sleeper, but it illustrates the point that saves -- the primary target of owners drafting relievers -- can be such a product of a manager's whim. That's not the case with other primary rotisserie categories like home runs, stolen bases or strikeouts, where talent is the driving force behind the numbers. Even if you want to argue that wins can also be arbitrary, keep in mind more than 70 percent of wins in 2009 were recorded by starting pitchers. Saves, by comparison, can only be earned by whomever the manager feels is worthy of the opportunity (as it's defined by the rulebook) on any given night. You can't simply luck your way into a save, or create a chance yourself; a manager either gives it to you or he does not.

Jonathan Broxton
Matt A. Brown/Icon SMIJonathan Broxton had 36 saves and led the majors with 114 relief strikeouts in 2009, as one of the few sure things in the closer ranks.

It's for that reason Matthew Berry, during our annual baseball meetings, might have said it best when he suggested that for our Draft Kit, instead of a photo of Jonathan Broxton teasing this column, we should use a picture of us drawing names out of a hat.

The past season alone shows that might not have been an ineffective draft strategy:

•  Eight of the top 25 relief pitchers in our 2009 rankings failed to finish the season as closers: B.J. Ryan (seventh), Kevin Gregg (17th), Joey Devine (19th), Joel Hanrahan (20th), Matt Lindstrom (22nd), Troy Percival (23rd), Chad Qualls (24th) and Jason Motte (25th). And Gregg, if you remember, wasn't even the Cubs' projected closer at the onset of spring training; Carlos Marmol was. By the way, neither one finished the year among the top 30 relief pitchers on the Player Rater.

•  Two other top-25 relievers began and concluded the season as their respective teams' closers yet had atrocious ERA/WHIP numbers: Lidge (fifth) and Matt Capps (13th). In fact, among pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched in 2009, Lidge's 7.21 ERA ranked dead last and Capps' 5.80 was second-worst.

•  Two of the top 10 relievers on the 2009 Player Rater weren't even drafted in the vast majority of leagues: American League Rookie of the Year Andrew Bailey (fourth) and David Aardsma (eighth). One could argue, too, that neither Ryan Franklin (11th) nor Rafael Soriano (13th) was a viable mixed-league pick.

Of course, the flip side of this argument is that, volatile and readily available on the waiver wire in-season as closers are, at any given time there can be only 30 "closers" in baseball. Every other primary rotisserie category can be achieved in many different circumstances; but as stated earlier, saves can only be earned by whatever pitcher the manager has deemed worthy on that given night.

Does that mean you're better off grabbing a top save-getter, one with a proven track record? Or should you ignore the category entirely on draft day, instead opting to pick and choose from the waiver wire in-season? Both strategies have varying degrees of success, and much of your decision-making should be based upon your comfort level with making a hefty draft-day investment, as well as your aggressiveness pursuing free agents and trades in-season. An owner who doesn't like ever seeing his/her draft-day assets evaporate at a moment's notice might prefer to build the category in the latter method; an owner who won't have the time or focus to piece together the category during the year might prefer the former. A middle-of-the-road owner might want to draft one proven closer, but piece together the rest later.

As for those of you in auction formats, as opposed to drafts, you might have it easier. Instead of having to sweat what round to pick your first closer, and whether that closer will earn you enough points in the saves category, you merely need to set a budget for saves and stick to it. Traditionally speaking, fantasy owners tend to spend somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 to 35 percent of a standard $260 budget on pitching, or anywhere from $75-100 total. It's not unheard of to spend a quarter or more of that on closers; if you're going for the aforementioned "middle-of-the-road" strategy you might aim to purchase one premium $15-20 closer and a cheaper, $8-10 type, if not a few upside plays at a few bucks each. Make sure, however, you stick to your budget. Overpaying for saves can have as catastrophic a result as drafting a closer in the third round.

What of ERA/WHIP-helping middle relievers? Surely that's another strategic angle for fantasy owners. Many successful fantasy teams have been built around two or three useful set-up men who can help lower your ERA and WHIP.

Consider this: Nine starting pitchers threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, while also maintaining an ERA beneath four, in each of the past three seasons. Accounting for the fact a relief pitcher with only 60 innings would need an ERA better than 3.25 to have an equal impact to a starter with 200 innings of a 4.00 ERA on a fantasy team with 1,000 innings of a 4.31 ERA (the major league average in 2009), I'll set the comparable criteria for relievers as that: A sub-3.25 ERA and 60-plus innings in each of the past three seasons. Guess how many relievers did it?

Three. Hardly sounds like a foolproof strategy to load up there, either. Heck, you might be as lucky picking up middle relievers in-season as drafting them!

The Elite

Relief Pitcher rankings

1. Jonathan Broxton, LAD, $15
2. Mariano Rivera, NYY, $15
3. Joakim Soria, KC, $13
4. Jonathan Papelbon, BOS, $13
5. Francisco Rodriguez, NYM, $13
6. Heath Bell, SD, $11
7. Francisco Cordero, CIN, $11
8. Jose Valverde, DET, $10
9. Andrew Bailey, OAK, $10
10. Brian Wilson, SF, $10
11. Trevor Hoffman, MIL, $8
12. Billy Wagner, ATL, $7
13. Chad Qualls, ARI, $6
14. Rafael Soriano, TB, $6
15. Brian Fuentes, LAA, $6
16. Frank Francisco, TEX, $5
17. Huston Street, COL, $5
18. Ryan Franklin, STL, $5
19. David Aardsma, SEA, $5
20. J.A. Happ, PHI, $5
21. Bobby Jenks, CHW, $4
22. Carlos Marmol, CHC, $4
23. Octavio Dotel, PIT, $4
24. Mike Gonzalez, BAL, $3
25. Leo Nunez, FLA, $3
26. Matt Capps, WAS, $1
27. Jason Frasor, TOR, $1
28. Brad Lidge, PHI, $1
29. Kerry Wood, CLE, $1
30. Jon Rauch, MIN, $1
31. Matt Lindstrom, HOU, $1
32. Chris Perez, CLE, $1
33. Neftali Feliz, TEX, $1
34. Phil Hughes, NYY, $1
35. Brandon Lyon, HOU, $1
36. Todd Coffey, MIL, $-
37. Franklin Morales, COL, $-
38. Matt Guerrier, MIN, $-
39. Takashi Saito, ATL, $-
40. Brett Myers, HOU, $-
41. Kevin Gregg, TOR, $-
42. Ryan Madson, PHI, $-
43. Daniel Bard, BOS, $-
44. Scott Downs, TOR, $-
45. Ian Kennedy, ARI, $-
46. Luke Gregerson, SD, $-
47. Fernando Rodney, LAA, $-
48. Justin Masterson, CLE, $-
49. LaTroy Hawkins, MIL, $-
50. Drew Storen, WAS, $-
Rankings based on 2010 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Dollar values baed on 10-team mixed league with $260 budget.

When it comes to closers, defining the true "elite" at the position comes down to precisely two must-have traits: Job security and lights-out talent. The very rare closer to possess both is the one fantasy owners want, but the question is when? Even the elite closers can't match the five-category offensive potential of those hitters available in the early rounds, or the four-category ability of an ace starting pitcher. It's for that reason our No. 1 closer, Broxton, is ranked just 61st overall, as opposed to one or two rounds sooner. Sure, the elite might warrant selecting somewhat earlier depending on your league format -- AL- or NL-only or daily leagues without starts/innings caps -- but it could also be argued that the top closer shouldn't even be selected that soon.

Five relievers qualify as "The Elite," but they're broken into two tiers, which I'll call Tiers 1 and 1A. Tier 1 includes two of the aforementioned three relievers who had at least 60 innings of a sub-3.25 ERA in each of the past three seasons, Broxton and Mariano Rivera. The third to do it, Joe Nathan, would have joined them if not for the serious elbow injury he suffered this spring. But a low ERA isn't the only reason Broxton and Rivera are here; their stats back them up as by far the most dominant stoppers in baseball.

Broxton: He averaged 97.7 mph with his fastball and had a 13.50 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio and .170 batting average allowed in 2009, all MLB bests.
Rivera: He had MLB bests in saves (397) and ERA (2.08) among pitchers with 500-plus innings in the decade of the 2000s.

Tier 1A includes three proven closers who could give the above three a run for their money this season, but each has one small risk that keeps them a step behind:

Joakim Soria: He missed a month last season with a shoulder injury.
Jonathan Papelbon: Both his walk and fly ball rates soared in 2009.
Francisco Rodriguez: His strikeout-to-walk rate has decreased in each of the past three seasons and his 2009 ERA (3.71) was a career worst.

The Next Level

If there's any group with as much potential to be overrated as overlooked, it's the second tier of fantasy closers. Depending upon the draft habits of your league mates, second-tier closers can either be the unfortunate subjects of a position run, or forgotten until the middle rounds when they can be scooped up as potential bargains. Our estimation is that these seven closers could go anywhere from the ninth through the 14th rounds, but obviously the longer they last, the more the potential return value. In daily leagues, they might legitimately be worth earlier picks because of the tendency of owners to stream starters around them.

Bailey was fantasy's fourth-best relief pitcher in 2009, but he's also two years removed from an uninspiring season as a swingman in Double-A ball in which his ERA was 4.31 and his WHIP 1.40. He's a vastly improved reliever today, and one who showed no signs of slowing down during his rookie of the year campaign, but one season of elite closer numbers is no guarantee of a repeat. Similarly, Heath Bell of the San Diego Padres is coming off a breakout campaign of his own, but what keeps him a notch beneath the rest is the prospect he might be traded during the season. As a set-up man his fantasy value would plummet.

In the cases of Francisco Cordero and Brian Wilson, their closer jobs seem secure, but remember that they both reside in bullpens that ranked among the game's top five in ERA in 2009. Even a mini-slump might put either at risk, especially if the men behind them get off to red-hot starts. Huston Street and Jose Valverde fall just outside the elite classification thanks to checkered injury histories; Street battled biceps problems late last year and has two career disabled-list stints, while Valverde missed nearly two months last summer with a leg injury. Trevor Hoffman, meanwhile, is the all-time leader in saves but is now 42 years old. It's not unreasonable to think that at some point, he might begin to show his age.

Where's The Ceiling?

If you missed out on any of the 13 closers above and prefer to speculate on a high-upside, yet risky saves candidate, this group is for you. Picking one might, in the best-case scenario, net you a top-10 fantasy closer; in the worst-case scenario it might result in zero saves and a wasted mid-to-late round pick.

Billy Wagner might be baseball's No. 6 save-getter all-time, but he's also only 17 big league games removed from Tommy John surgery and hasn't recorded a save since July 29, 2008. Still, the Atlanta Braves are paying him closer dollars (one year, $7 million) and his velocity upon his return late last season was every bit as strong as it was before the surgery. Speaking of injury risks, Chad Qualls is on the comeback trail after having his 2009 season cut short by a dislocated kneecap. Project his numbers to a full year, however, and he'd have had 30 saves with a 1.15 WHIP.

Two ex-Braves get new opportunities in the American League East, as Soriano joins the Tampa Bay Rays and Mike Gonzalez the Baltimore Orioles. Both had strikeout rates well north of 10 per nine innings with sub-three ERAs in 2009, though they have combined for 11 career disabled-list stints (seven for Soriano, four for Gonzalez). Frank Francisco is another pitcher who averaged 10-plus K's per nine in 2009, yet has a checkered injury history; he made three trips to the DL in 2009 alone, twice for shoulder problems and once for walking pneumonia.

Where's The Basement?

This group includes a mix of proven closers with significant risk factors (Brian Fuentes and Kerry Wood), 2009 breakout performers (Aardsma and Franklin) and one who handed out countless free passes last season (Carlos Marmol).

Fuentes
Kirby Lee/US PresswireBrian Fuentes led the majors in saves in 2009, but he also had a 3.93 ERA and 1.40 WHIP.

Though Fuentes led the majors in saves (48), the second consecutive Los Angeles Angels pitcher to do that, his ERA (3.93) was higher than any other closer with at least 35 saves except one; the very man who might press him for his job this summer, Fernando Rodney (4.40). Fuentes might have 30-plus saves in four of the past five seasons, but the Angels might not be so patient with him if he's sporting a 5.30 ERA heading into June, as he did last season. Wood, meanwhile, lacks any "proven closer" pressing for his job, but health has not been his friend over the years. Though he made it through the 2009 season unscathed, he has made eight trips to the disabled list since 2004, including at least once every year from 2004 to 2008.

Aardsma and Franklin seemingly came out of nowhere last year. In Aardsma's case he wasn't even regarded as the fifth-best option in his own bullpen entering spring training, as he brought in a 5.29 career ERA. Franklin's ERA entering the year was 4.19. Both pitchers enter 2010 as top options in their respective bullpens, but some regression must be expected accounting for their favorable BABIPs (a batting average on balls in play of .269 for Franklin, .271 for Aardsma) and home run/fly ball numbers (3.2 percent for Franklin, 4.2 percent for Aardsma). As for Marmol, while he's the Chicago Cubs' preferred ninth-inning option, the team did bypass him at the onset of last season, and could always do so again because of his career ratio of 5.85 walks per nine innings.

Steady As She Goes

Though unexciting, current closers like Bobby Jenks and Octavio Dotel might prove bargain candidates if selected late enough in drafts. Jenks has saved at least 29 games in each of four seasons since his Chicago White Sox won the 2005 World Series, and his 3.28 ERA and 1.17 WHIP during that four-year span are solid ratios. His main drawback is that he's increasingly the subject of trade rumors, though the White Sox remaining a contender deep into July might alleviate that risk.

Dotel joins the Pittsburgh Pirates as their most proven ninth-inning option … despite the fact he hasn't closed a game since July 9, 2008, and has only 19 saves since the 2005 season. He does, however, have a 3.66 ERA and 11.70 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio the past three years combined, and the Pirates lack much in the way of reliable alternatives.

Jason Frasor might fit into this group, provided he can hold off a challenge from Gregg as the Toronto Blue Jays' ninth-inning option. Frasor had eight saves, a 3.20 ERA and 10.07 K's-per-nine ratio from Aug. 1 forward last season, yet most fantasy owners might not even think about him before the final rounds.

Whichever Minnesota Twins reliever steps up as Nathan's replacement, whether it's Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier or Jose Mijares, should also land in this tier of fantasy closers. Rauch is the odds-on-favorite, as an "experienced closer" who had 18 saves for the Washington Nationals in 2008, not to mention a 3.65 ERA and 1.21 WHIP the past four seasons combined. His saves might not necessarily be pretty, but he should be somewhat consistent getting them.

Start 'Em Elsewhere

Snapshot

Mid-round sleeper: Billy Wagner
Late-round sleeper: Octavio Dotel
Prospect: Drew Storen
Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: Jonathan Papelbon
Player to trade at the All-Star break: Heath Bell
Player to trade for at the ASB: Jose Valverde
Home hero: Ryan Franklin
Road warrior: Brian Fuentes
Player I like but can't explain why: Mike Gonzalez
Player I don't like but can't explain why: David Aardsma

Among relief-pitcher eligibles who should begin the 2010 season as members of their respective teams' rotations: J.A. Happ, Derek Holland, Justin Masterson, Brett Myers and Brandon Morrow. Morrow's is an interesting name of that bunch, as a former closer hopeful of the Seattle Mariners who has bounced back and forth between starting and relieving since being tabbed the No. 5 pick overall in the 2006 draft. Assuming the Blue Jays provide him a legitimate chance during spring training, he might claim a rotation spot and thrive in a new environment.

New York Yankees youngsters Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes are two obvious names who might be just as likely to begin 2010 in the bullpen as the rotation, though the Yankees maintain they'll use both as starters at the onset of spring training. Hughes thrived as a member of the bullpen in 2009, posting five wins, a 1.40 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 65 K's in 51 1/3 innings, while Chamberlain was a bust as a starter, turning in a 4.78 ERA and 1.55 WHIP in 31 starts. Until it's known which one will start and which will relieve, neither is necessarily a "safe" draft selection.

The Do-Not-Draft List

Before trashing these lower-quality relievers, need we remind you: Saves are saves. While these four might find themselves mired in middle relief by the end of April, their respective teams' current plans have them closing on Opening Day.

Lidge: Besides his miserable 2009 numbers, the other risk factor is the two surgeries he had during the offseason, one on his elbow, the other on his right knee. He might be on the DL, not closing, come Opening Day.
Brandon Lyon: His .229 BABIP last season was absurdly low, and hints at his true value being much closer to his 2008 than 2009 performance level.
Matt Capps: He had the second-highest ERA (5.80) among relievers with 50-plus innings last season, and this team does have alternatives.
Leo Nunez: While he did save 26 games, his ERA was 4.06, he gave up a lot of home runs (13) and seven blown saves say he's teetering on the brink of disaster.

Must-Have Handcuffs

While "must-have" might be a strong statement, in AL-/NL-only leagues as well as those deep enough to afford you extra bench spots, "handcuffing" your riskier closers to their talented primary set-up men is often a worthwhile strategy. Beware overpaying for such relievers, unless you have specific plans for them also helping you in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts, as they're typically late-round gambles at best.

Luke Gregerson/Mike Adams: Gregerson had a 3.24 ERA and 11.16 K's-per-nine ratio in a breakout 2009, but Adams' skill set might make him the stronger choice to step in should Heath Bell be traded or hurt. Adams is simply more of an injury risk.
Todd Coffey: Did we mention Hoffman is 42?
Takashi Saito: With a pitcher so recently removed from surgery ahead of him in the pecking order, Saito would be a smart handcuff for Wagner owners. The problem: He can't be termed the healthiest reliever himself.
J.P. Howell: He has closer experience with the Rays the past two seasons and Soriano, again, has all those DL stints on his résumé.
Sergio Romo: In parts of two big league seasons he has a 3.04 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 9.79 K's-per-nine ratio. Wilson's 2008-09 numbers: 3.61, 1.31 and 10.02.
Neftali Feliz: If Francisco proves incapable of handling the closer chores, the Rangers could turn things over to their top pitching prospect, Feliz. If not, then Feliz might be a mainstay in the team's rotation.
Angel Guzman: Perhaps the next man in line for the Cubs, except that Guzman's command historically hasn't been all that much better than Marmol's.
Joel Hanrahan: Hey, he closed in Washington, so if the Pirates tire of Dotel's fly ball tendencies, Hanrahan might not be all that less effective an option.
Fernando Rodney: Their contracts alone say that Fuentes and Rodney should be the Angels' only options at the bullpen's back end all year. But which will it be?
Matt Lindstrom: Once a future closer with the Marlins, Lindstrom merely has Lyon (and his monstrous three-year, $15 million deal) standing in his way.
Danys Baez/Ryan Madson: Lidge is coming off two surgeries, and Baez has past closer's experience, while Madson has been a solid set-up man for several years straight. If Lidge lands on the DL, this will be a compelling spring battle.

Looking To The Future

At some point down the road -- be it later in 2010 or in a future season -- these four names should be in the saves discussion.

Drew Storen: The Washington Nationals picked him 10th overall last June with the expressed purpose of making him their closer in the near future.
Chris Perez: The former St. Louis Cardinals prospect adapted well to life in Cleveland, with a 2.90 ERA and 10.45 K's-per-nine ratio in his final 29 games.
Daniel Bard: His high-90s heat, not to mention his 11.49 K's-per-nine ratio as a Boston Red Sox rookie scream out "closer in the making."
Ryan Perry: He already has the stuff to close, and merely needs to cut down on the walks (5.55 per nine in 2009) to get a look in the ninth inning.

Bottom Line

Ultimately there is no "best" strategy to filling out your relief staff; you might be as successful picking two top-10 closers as you would picking one good closer and a few draft-day "stiffs," or even punting the category entirely. That's the fun -- or the aggravation, depending upon your perspective -- that is drafting saves. Craft your strategy around two things: The type of owner you are (are you patient enough to troll the waiver wire daily for cheap saves?) and the amount of trust you have in both closer and manager (how confident are you that a $4.25 million salary in 2010 is enough of a guarantee that Brandon Lyon remains the Astros' closer?).

One thing's for sure: Regardless of your strategy, be prepared for frequent, dramatic shifts in value at this position. Lidge sure showed us that the past two years. Or maybe he didn't … after all he did still notch 31 saves in 2009!

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.

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