- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Like many things in life, it comes down to trust. When you get to the point in a draft that you think you need to take a closer or two, think about the level of trust you have. If a 20/20 outfielder is sitting there, you'd better be really sure the relief pitcher you're about to select has 30 saves coming his way. It might be Mariano Rivera, who does it every season, or maybe it's J.J. Putz, Takashi Saito or Billy Wagner, three of the top six closers off the board a season ago, none of whom reached 30 saves. None of them is likely to do so this season either.
Welcome to the most volatile spot on a fantasy baseball roster. You don't have to take relief pitchers in a fantasy draft. Feel free to punt the category of saves if you must. Most of us won't go that direction at all, others until midseason, when the draft-day decisions went awry. Want more examples from 2008 of how that can happen? How about Rafael Soriano, Chad Cordero and Jason Isringhausen blowing up? Honestly, the fun doesn't stop, and it happens every season. Volatile yes, hopeless no.
This seems like one of those seasons in which very few relief pitchers will be universally trusted. We're going to break it all down for you in this column, putting those pitchers who do not start games into tiers, levels of trust, if you will. With some relievers, like Rivera, we have a pretty good idea how effective they will be. Other relievers, in the lower tiers, are just as likely to produce tears.
It's for this reason we recommend you let others participate in the first closer run off the draft board. I'm not sure I've ever owned Francisco Rodriguez, not because I'm scared of his production -- though now I might be -- but because it takes such a high draft pick to retain his services. With so many closer situations likely to change over the summer, it's often best to stockpile a few of the not-as-trustworthy relievers and see if you get lucky. Hey, I agree that Bobby Jenks looks largely impervious to fantasy destruction today, but if more than a third of Opening Day closers lose their jobs every season, there must be a few previously viewed safe options like Jenks among them. It can't all be Todd Jones types. We don't even have that guy to kick around anymore!
So, let's get on with the most volatile show in fantasy baseball, a circus of draft-day decisions you'll need to make about players who generally provide one key statistic. It's not easy to pick out the closers who will blow out their elbows or end up hurling in the seventh inning by Memorial Day. We're here to help. Trust us.
While I'm probably not going to end up with Jonathan Papelbon or Joe Nathan in any drafts, I can't argue against them being in the elite class, either. These guys come pretty much guaranteed for 35-plus saves and strong peripherals. Obviously a fantasy owner would prefer to receive a 2.20 ERA and high strikeout total to go with his 35 saves rather than what Brandon Lyon is likely to produce, but we all can't be so lucky. Papelbon has seen his save total rise in three successive seasons, although the inverse has happened with his ERA. Still, nobody's complaining about a 2.34 ERA and sub-1 WHIP. It's tough to do better, and Papelbon's trend really doesn't portend doom. Nathan's save total has been below 40 for three consecutive campaigns, but his ERA has remained less than 2 each season. If there are any relief pitchers we'd call safe and elite, it's Papelbon and Nathan.
It's also time we stop predicting Mariano Rivera will suddenly flop. In 2007, the Yankees closer had one of his worst seasons, with a 3.15 ERA and only 30 saves. I know, that must have been so tough to own, right? As a result, he was discounted in 2008 drafts and fitted for the rocking chair. His response, of course, was to deliver arguably his best season of what is sure to be a Hall of Fame career. Rivera, who signed a long-term extension to remain in Yankee pinstripes, managed to lower his WHIP to an Eckersley-like 0.66, and finish fifth in the Cy Young voting. He's always been elite, really, but this season his draft day rank will more suitably reflect it.
Finally, two other names belong in this section for overcoming odds in 2008. Brad Lidge needed a change of scenery from Houston, and got it when the Phillies considered him elite. Those worried about Lidge overcoming home runs in Citizens Bank Park didn't need to. Lidge rewarded the Phillies by having a perfect season; he allowed the occasional run, of course, but hasn't blown a save -- regular season or postseason -- since 2007. That's likely to change this year, but Lidge should be considered a top-5 closer and about as safe as it gets in the National League.
He's joined by Joakim Soria of the Royals. What did he overcome? Well, it's long been a fantasy myth that closers on bad teams can't accrue saves. Soria didn't lead the league in saves, but he would have come close hadn't K-Rod gone off, as the Royals were actually quite a bit better than people thought. The moral of the story might be that if you think a closer can be dominant, as Soria is, don't assume his save total will be dragged down by a 100-loss team. In the end, that team might lose only 87 times.
The traveling upper tier
It's around this time some people might be wondering why the man who set the all-time record for saves in a season isn't viewed as elite. Well, he's close. There are, however, reasons to be a bit concerned about Francisco Rodriguez, 62 saves or not. There are no hard and fast rules about closers struggling after they switch teams, so that's not the problem. The issue is K-Rod's peripheral numbers have been in some degree of decline for years, and there's also the nagging issue of having fantasy's top closer from 2007 stealing the occasional save. Rodriguez earned those 62 saves for the Angels, benefiting from playing on a team that didn't score a ton of runs -- many a game ended 4-2 -- and had stellar setup men. Hey, it happens, but it's a once-in-a-career thing. It should be pointed out that there were only four other saves, all by Scot Shields. The addition of Putz shouldn't create a timeshare, but the Mets claim Putz will get chances as well.
The other factor on Rodriguez is inflated value. The man did save 62 games. Many great closers in the current era have fallen short of 50 saves. It takes luck and circumstance. Rodriguez accrued 18 more saves than any pitcher in baseball, yet still couldn't earn the top spot on the ESPN Player Rater. Rivera, with 23 fewer saves, did. Rodriguez was hardly rotten, but a 1.29 WHIP, which has been trending upward for years, is the culprit. His velocity and strikeout rate were down, and there's a big difference in pressure from Anaheim and New York. We still rank Rodriguez well, but don't be surprised if the walks, competition or concerns over his wild delivery eventually catch up to him.
Three other very good relief pitchers moved the other way from Rodriguez, out of the National League and are viewed by us as upper-tier closers. Brian Fuentes gets to replace K-Rod in Anaheim, and since the same factors that helped Rodriguez break Bobby Thigpen's 18-year saves mark remain in tact -- a low-scoring offense, strong relief support, a relatively weak division -- it can be implied that Fuentes, free from the potential danger of Coors Field, is in for a big season. Don't assume 62 saves are on the way, but Fuentes has saved in the 30-31 range three times, and it's certainly reasonable to expect a career high is on the way. I would have liked to see what Jose Arredondo could have done in the role, but it's tough to argue with the Angels having Arredondo and Scot Shields setting up a veteran closer. The bullpen will again be tough to beat.
Kerry Wood didn't have many supporters in the fantasy world a year ago, when Lou Piniella installed him as the Cubs closer. It was more of a desperation move than anything, as the fastball-toting right-hander couldn't stay healthy enough to start. Wood was one of the better closer values in the league, picking up 34 saves and being selected for the All-Star team. His move to Cleveland should be good for him, as this is a franchise that has seen Bob Wickman and Joe Borowski each have an AL-leading save total of 45 over the past four seasons. Those guys didn't throw nearly as hard as Wood does.
In Colorado, Huston Street hasn't been safely announced as the closer after coming over in the Matt Holliday deal from Oakland, but he does have more experience than Manuel Corpas does. Street could be trade bait, or he could end up with 30 saves. I wouldn't put Street in the same class as Rodriguez or Wood, but there is potential here.
The relatively safe third tier
Quite a few relief pitchers this season don't fall into any unusual class at all. They're not terribly old, lucky or risky in any way, but you can feel good about snagging them in the middle rounds and expect strong performance. We wouldn't call Bobby Jenks, B.J. Ryan, Jose Valverde, Francisco Cordero and Matt Capps elite closers, and each one of them brings just a hint of doubt, but they should all be drafted in the middle rounds. Let's move on.
The sleepers who need opportunity
Midround sleeper: Jonathan Broxton
Late-round sleeper: Frank Francisco
Prospect: Jason Motte
Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: Francisco Rodriguez
Player to trade at the All-Star break: Trevor Hoffman
Player to trade for at the ASB: Chris Ray
Biggest risk: Troy Percival
Best risk: Joey Devine
Wait, he could come back to closing: Fernando Rodney
Wait, he could leave closing: Chad Qualls
Home hero: Joakim Soria
Road warrior: Brad Lidge
Player I like but can't explain why: Joel Hanrahan
Player nobody likes but I can explain why: Kevin Gregg
Carlos Marmol of the Cubs was the lone relief pitcher to top the 100-K mark in 2008, and he did it with ease. Marmol fanned 114 hitters, easily outdistancing Joel Hanrahan, who had 93, and the triumvirate of Octavio Dotel, Brad Lidge and J.P. Howell, who reached 92. Had Marmol picked up the saves Kerry Wood did this past season, he probably would have ended up tops among relievers on the Player Rater. Now he could get his chance.
Then again, Cubs manager Lou Piniella doesn't have to place his top relief pitcher in the closer role. There's no rule here. The argument rages every season about closers being the third or fourth best pitchers in the bullpen. Todd Jones closed over Joel Zumaya, Borowski over Rafael Betancourt, and Dotel himself has been in this debate a few times. Kevin Gregg might seem an underwhelming choice to save games for the defending NL Central champs, but he does have that indefinable closer experience, and 61 saves in two seasons. Marmol can hurl more than an inning at a time. While I'm not saying Gregg will win the closer job, don't be surprised if he does. Marmol could be just as valuable to the Cubs shutting down opponents in the seventh and eighth innings, though we should expect that hit rate to rise. Marmol's batting average on balls in play was .185, and while that luck doesn't have to even out, it probably will.
While Marmol seemingly deserves his chance to close, he's not alone. Jonathan Broxton was viewed as a future closer in 2006, but Takashi Saito was brought in and did a terrific job. Saito has moved on to the Red Sox, but the Dodgers still dabbled in free-agent talk (Trevor Hoffman, notably) and it's not assured Broxton will get a full-season chance. If he does, like Marmol, there are few doubts he would likely thrive. The man has 306 strikeouts in 241 career innings.
A few others belong in this class, though to a lesser degree of expected performance. Hoffman left San Diego, leaving top setup man Heath Bell to inherit the role. Bell was arguably fantasy's top middle reliever in 2007, and while he took a step backward in 2008, give him 30 saves and we'll overlook an ERA in the 3s.
Three other teams have flamethrowers ready to take over the closing role, should they secure the job in the spring. Arizona's Chad Qualls picked up seven saves in September, and has been anointed the leading contender to hold the job in 2009. Then again, the Diamondbacks have rarely been shy about changing closers in the past. If Qualls pitches like he did in the second half, with a 1.21 ERA and four walks allowed, he should keep the role and possibly end up a top-10 reliever. The same can be said for Oakland's Joey Devine. While the older, sidearm-throwing Brad Ziegler was breaking the record for longest shutout streak to start a career, Devine was dominating in relative obscurity. A former top pick of the Braves, Devine ended up with a better ERA (0.59) than Ziegler (1.06) and is the odds-on favorite to start 2009 as closer.
Then there's St. Louis, where manager Tony La Russa is bound to try just about anything. I mean, he let Ryan Franklin save 17 games in 2008, while Jason Isringhausen closed 12 despite a 5.70 ERA. Already this offseason, he has hinted at 2005 Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter being shuffled to the role, like John Smoltz years ago, for health reasons. La Russa does have an obvious choice in the bullpen, should he want it. Former first-round pick Chris Perez was a closer at the University of Miami, and should he manage to harness his control would seem to be a potential closer for years. Perez saved seven games as a rookie, and just needs opportunity for more. La Russa can also turn to surprise Jason Motte, who allowed only one earned run in 11 innings with the big club, and has closed games in the minors. Motte was drafted as a catcher and pretty much rears back and tries to throw each pitch 100 mph, but throwers with lesser stuff have been successful closers. Motte is a real sleeper, especially knowing how unconventional La Russa tends to be.
The wily veterans who won't go away
Two of the recent playoff entrants are planning to go with closers whose combined age is 80. The Brewers somehow managed to make the playoffs with the Eric Gagne experiment blowing up and veteran Salomon Torres saving the day, but both men have left. All-time saves king Trevor Hoffman was given a one-year contract, with an option for a second. Hoffman's best years are clearly behind him, and there are signs in his peripheral numbers that the Brewers might have overlooked. Hoffman allowed eight home runs, seven of them in the spacious home ballpark he will no longer call home, and left-handed hitters have been teeing off on him for years. Hoffman can still deliver 30 saves, though, even with a few chinks in the armor, but don't consider him a top-10 option anymore.
Meanwhile, the AL champion Rays signed Troy Percival to be their closer, and for most of the season he did well. Percival had 19 saves by the All-Star break, finishing with a team-best 28, and allowed a strong .178 batting average against. Walks and health were a big problem, however, especially in the second half when the Rays had to look elsewhere for a ninth-inning option. Dan Wheeler was generally the choice, and while he permitted 10 home runs, his WHIP finished under 1. Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell were the top relievers on the team, and will offer strong setup support for the Rays and fantasy owners this season, but neither is likely to accrue saves. Look for Percival, in the final year of his deal and probably career, to close when healthy, and Wheeler to back him up.
The Tigers just got through with the Todd Jones era, and while they wait for Joel Zumaya to keep his 100-mph fastball healthy, Brandon Lyon was summoned for a one-year deal. Lyon seems older than he is; he's only 29, but his stuff might look like that of an older arm. Lyon is going to give up his share of hits and won't post a strong strikeout rate, but he did have successful -- at times -- stints as Arizona's closer, and for more than a month in 2003 he saved games for the Red Sox. It seemed like even money the Tigers would go with a veteran in the Lyon or Jason Isringhausen ilk, rather than let Fernando Rodney have another chance. By the way, at press time, Isringhausen remained unemployed, but when he signs somewhere and gets a chance at saves, like Lyon, it might not be pretty, but in this case saves are saves.
The closers on sub-.500 teams
We're not expecting Soria-like performance from any of these guys, but they should begin the 2009 season in a position to get saves. Hanrahan is Washington's choice, as he brought stability to the role after Chad Cordero was hurt and Jon Rauch was traded. A former starting pitcher, Hanrahan will give up walks and runs, but only Marmol had more relief pitcher strikeouts in 2008.
In Texas, Frank Francisco had a strong second half, posting a 2.45 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 25 2/3 innings. Barring a late-signing, the job will be his. The Braves are set to go with lefty Mike Gonzalez again, and there's little reason he can't save 30 games. Matt Lindstrom gets first shot in Florida, though his 1.45 WHIP is a bit troubling, and fantasy owners who took a chance on the Giants' Brian Wilson in 2008 were rewarded with 41 saves, though disappointing peripherals.
The last two closer situations to mention are in Baltimore and Seattle. Neither team figures to win 70 games, so be cautious in relying on anyone there. The Orioles got 31 saves and an All-Star appearance from lefty George Sherrill, but former closer Chris Ray appears healthy after missing a season following Tommy John surgery, and could take the job. In Seattle, Putz is on the Mets, Brandon Morrow is likely starting and someone needs to emerge in the spring to earn saves. Tyler Walker and Miguel Batista have saved games before, but Roy Corcoran was more effective in 2008.
The middle men
Even without getting saves, middle relievers can be trusted to help fantasy teams. Look at Marmol from 2008, as he piled on the strikeouts and was strong in WHIP. In leagues in which an owner fills nine pitching spots, generally the way to go is six starting pitchers and three closers, but not all teams are going to be able to get saves from three pitchers. Similarly, some teams are going to end up drafting Jon Garland and Jarrod Washburn as their final starters. It's wise to at least consider taking the hit in wins and going for a top middle reliever instead of a below-average starting pitcher, or, in some cases, a questionable closer. Would you rather draft Hong-Chi Kuo of the Dodgers or Seattle's Mark Lowe? Kuo might not get any saves, and Lowe could always end up the top choice for the Mariners, but there's a big difference in risk to your ERA and WHIP. Kuo picked up 86 strikeouts in 69 1/3 relief innings, and boasted a 1.69 ERA in the role.
In addition to Kuo, and with a few of the top middle men from 2008 possibly moving into closer roles (Marmol, Bell, Francisco, Qualls), there remains plenty of strong, safe options available. Consider from the NL: Putz, Ryan Madson, Rafael Soriano, Taylor Buchholz, Carlos Villanueva, Kyle McClellan, Jared Burton, Jon Rauch, Corey Wade, Manuel Corpas. In the AL, take a look at Balfour, Howell and Joe Nelson of the Rays, Rafael Perez, Jensen Lewis, Matt Thornton, Ziegler, Jesse Crain, Manny Delcarmen, Justin Masterson and Ramon Ramirez.
The first thing to do in an auction is have some sort of plan on how much you intend to spend on pitching as a whole. In general, with a $260 budget, I rarely spend more than a third of the money on pitching. Then again, every owner is different, and building a strong pitching staff and using some overachievers as mid-season trade bait works well, too. When it comes to how much to pay for closers, it's wise to spend big money on only one closer, if you plan to spend on them at all. The fantasy owner who devotes $50 on saves is likely to be lacking in other areas, and the top, elite closers are going to cost more than $20 in most cases.
Picking up a safe closer to anchor the team for a reasonable price isn't a bad idea, but be willing to take chances on strike-throwing middle relievers who could end up as closers, as well. As mentioned before, a third of the closers from Opening Day will lose their jobs, so building up a strong base of single-digit dollar closers who can help in peripheral stats is a strong auction strategy.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.
Eric Karabell profiles relief pitchers for the 2009 Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit.