- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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So far, it's not so good for the closers. Huston Street blew his first save chance in Japan, while Jonathan Papelbon was sketchy in the same game. Kerry Wood and Eric Gagne got pummeled head-to-head Monday, and they were pretty questionable to start with. Fill-in closer Tom Gordon ended up retiring one hitter, while underrated Pirate Matt Capps inherited trouble, then made it a lot worse. Even J.J. Putz is halfway to his 2007 blown save total. Hey, at least they were out there. Who knows when Chad Cordero will be able to warm up again without feeling "weird" shoulder stiffness? Is there any other kind?
We love the closers; we hate the closers. The first few days of the season are more proof why we never know what to feel about them. How does a fantasy owner know Street will be fine, or how to pick and choose who is safer between Wood and Gagne? Gordon sure looked hurt to me, with declining velocity and little movement on his pitches, the ones he was allowed to throw before a tie game became a blowout. Then there are the save guys who did just fine in their first outing, like Brandon Lyon and Joe Borowski. Nobody seems to covet these closers, but they have saves. Do you believe in them because of one night?
Here's a fantasy tip for you: Don't panic. You'll read this in other areas of ESPN fantasy games, and it's quite true every season. I'll never forget April 6, 2002. Was one of my kids born that day? Did I buy a house or car that day? Um, no. That was the day John Smoltz, still a major question mark as he began his first full season as closer, got obliterated for eight earned runs against the Mets while retiring two hitters. It was bad. He entered in a 2-2 game, and six hits later, with a walk and a balk added in, you wanted no part of him. By the time Aaron Small had relieved Smoltz with the bases loaded and allowed a Rey Ordonez bases-clearing triple, Smoltz had been charged with eight earned runs. His ERA one week into the season was 43.20. How many of you dumped Smoltz, or sold him to whatever bidder was still out there for 50 cents on the dollar? Smoltz ended up nearly breaking the major league record with 55 saves, getting his ERA down to 3.25 and finishing third in the Cy Young voting.
Will the Cubs' Wood duplicate this success his first April as a closer? How about Street or Gagne? Their outings weren't anywhere near as bad as what happened to Smoltz six years ago, that's for sure. How does one know which outings they can and can't trust?
My rule of thumb on dealing with closers already on your team in early April is pretty simple. Do nothing. You drafted Gagne, for example, for a reason. Either you think he'll be a good closer, like he was for the Rangers the first half of last season, or you got stuck with him because you needed saves and he was just about the last guy available. Either way, he's yours. One outing does not a season make. Gagne isn't a closer I would choose to have (I'd instead opt for about 25 others), but if you already have him, chances are you're not going to be able to trade him, and you'd be foolish to drop him. In my leagues, every closer is owned, and a bunch of setup men who are next in line get owned as well.
Anyway, Relief Efforts breaks into a more normal format starting this week, and each week beyond. Last week I went 1-through-30 on the closers. We'll cover the news surrounding the closers to start with, while also discussing middle relievers, whom to buy and sell and other fun stuff. To the right you see my weekly relief pitcher rankings. What do they mean? Well, to me it's about fantasy value, so even though I think a bunch of middle men are going to have superior seasons to Gagne and Wood, for example, they might not have the saves, and that's a category for pretty much all of us. Consider my relief-pitcher rankings to be reflective of how they'd finish in our new and improved Player Rater, where contributions good and bad in all five fantasy pitching categories count for something.
Jon Rauch, Nationals: As of Wednesday morning, Chad Cordero was still taking a few days off to let his stiff shoulder become, well, less stiff. There has been some discussion of a disabled list stint, and it wouldn't surprise me if that's exactly what happens. Though I don't panic in the first week of a six-month major league season, I do pounce when I see a potential closer sitting there in 95 percent of ESPN standard leagues. Yes, Cordero might return any day now. Or he might be the next B.J. Ryan, with Rauch the next Jeremy Accardo. That could be 30 saves sitting on your free agent wire. See if you have room for Rauch. Some believe Luis Ayala and maybe spring sensation Joel Hanrahan could figure into the saves picture, but I think it's all Rauch.
Brandon Lyon, Diamondbacks: I can't find too many fantasy owners, even those who drafted or bought Lyon, who think he's going to get 30 saves. His first outing tells us little, but the fact he struck out a pair of Reds in getting a 1-2-3 save is a nice start. That's why you sell high, assuming you can get enough in return. Lyon fanned only 40 hitters in 74 innings a season ago. Punching out Adam Dunn and Edwin Encarnacion on Opening Day could be misleading. I mean, that duo could strike out 300 times this season! If only Lyon had struck out Scott Hatteberg, maybe then I'd believe. I'd feel better about predicting 30 saves for Lyon if he had done it before, or had a good spring, but one outing against a team that will strike out a ton hasn't swayed me.
David Riske, Brewers: The December day I heard about his three-year contract, I thought saves would be coming his way. I didn't think he'd earn the save on Opening Day, however, not with Gagne in town. We don't know for sure whether Riske is next in line if/when Gagne isn't closing, but let's just say I'm not on the Derrick Turnbow bandwagon. The fact that Turnbow wasn't brought in to earn the save in the 10th inning Monday, while Riske dispatched Ryan Theriot, Alfonso Soriano and Derrek Lee on nine pitches, does give us a hint to the hierarchy, and it's not like Gagne is the safest closer around. In fact, look at my rankings -- he's one of the least-safe.
Bullpen to watch
Detroit Tigers: I'm a Todd Jones fan. No, really, I am. I have the guy on a bunch of teams, just as I did in 2007 and the year before. I look at closer peripheral stats, and checking out Jones' numbers makes someone like me cringe, but there's one bottom line when it comes to Jones, and it's that he gets saves. In fact, he's earned 75 of them in two Tigers seasons, and 115 in the past three years. Since 2005 began, only Trevor Hoffman, Francisco Rodriguez and Joe Nathan have accumulated more saves than Jones. This all said, I have concerns. Jones might have to pitch not only the ninth inning, but set himself up as well. Denny Bautista? Jason Grilli? Detroit's opener was an indication Justin Verlander owners could see their ace lose some wins if the unknown middle relief corps struggles, but Jones also could lose save opportunities. Could he be like Mariano Rivera from 2007? He'd pitch well but end up with "only" 30 saves because his strong offensive team either wins games by a 10-5 score or because the middle relief blows leads and creates more extra-inning contests. Jones isn't a top closer by any means, but it's possible the messy situation ahead of him makes him a sell-high guy, if that's possible.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com fantasy. You can e-mail him here.
Eric Karabell analyzes the early struggles of some of the closers and whether they are sign of things to come.