Commentary

Relief Efforts: Experience critical for closers

Updated: April 30, 2008, 9:58 AM ET
By Eric Karabell | ESPN.com

Fantasy baseball owners always seem to be looking for the next big things to draft and trade for, aiming to unearth Evan Longoria and Max Scherzer types while they're still rookies, or even in the minors. When it comes to closers, however, experience certainly seems to be a critical factor in success. Maybe this helps explain why quite a few of the top-10 closers are old enough to have sired many of the current rookie of the year contenders.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Sherrill
Otto Greule Jr./Getty ImagesGeorge Sherrill is second in the majors with 10 saves this season. He had four saves in his first four major league seasons.
Nearly two-thirds of today's closers were born in the 1970s. There are always exceptions, of course, but it's telling that even a healthy portion of the top closers from draft day are on the other side of 30. Someday I guess I'll know what that, um, feels like. J.J. Putz is 31, Joe Nathan is 33, and taking a look at the current save leaders, Francisco Rodriguez looks more like the exception to the rule, being 26. George Sherrill, getting his first shot to close and boasting nine saves, is 31, while nobody in the NL has more saves than once-given-up-on Jason Isringhausen, now 35. And take a look at the closers who haven't allowed runs this season, and you'll see Joakim Soria is bringing down the mean age of the others by a decade. Ancient Troy Percival has been perfect, as has 31-year-old Brad Lidge.

However, what we're seeing from the New York closers is even more special, and proof that fantasy owners can never really write off anyone when it comes to saves. Mariano Rivera and Billy Wagner entered Tuesday with 815 career saves, and more than 74 cumulative years between them. While Trevor Hoffman seems to be declining quickly, neither Rivera nor Wagner has allowed an earned run this season, nor come all that close. Wagner did give up a run on Tuesday, though an error played a major role. In 23 combined innings through Tuesday, the duo has allowed seven total hits and two walks, and averaged a strikeout per inning. Rivera registered his eighth save on Monday, while Wagner entered Tuesday having allowed only one hit all season! Wow.

Todd Jones obviously isn't a fantasy favorite, but as the old-man closer of the AL at 40, he's pitching with the same velocity he did years ago, and he's really no less effective. Of course, that might speak to how average he was a decade ago. The point is, age hasn't hurt him. I think the case can be made age doesn't hurt closers at all.

Dealing a young closer often will work better as trade bait, because unsuspecting owners think Huston Street or Matt Capps could become so dominant they'd have superior value to an old closer. Nothing against Street or Capps, who next to Kansas City's Soria are the youngest closers today, but saves are saves, and those two guys are no more guaranteed to pile them on than Hoffman, really. Remember that the next time you get offered "old man" Isringhausen for a song. Sure, he's more likely than Soria to break down or suffer an injury, but nothing comes guaranteed at closer.

And with that, it's time to deal with the rest of the ample news coming from the relief pitching world.

Reliever Rankings

Colorado's Brian Fuentes returns to the closer role, but he's outside the top 20 for now.

1. Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox
2. Joe Nathan, Twins
3. Mariano Rivera, Yankees
4. Billy Wagner, Mets
5. Bobby Jenks, White Sox
6. Francisco Rodriguez, Angels
7. Joakim Soria, Royals
8. Francisco Cordero, Reds
9. J.J. Putz, Mariners
10. Takashi Saito, Dodgers
11. Brad Lidge, Phillies
12. Matt Capps, Pirates
13. Jason Isringhausen, Cardinals
14. Huston Street, Athletics
15. Kevin Gregg, Marlins
16. Jose Valverde, Astros
17. Trevor Hoffman, Padres
18. George Sherrill, Orioles
19. Kerry Wood, Cubs
20. B.J. Ryan, Blue Jays
21. Brian Fuentes, Rockies
22. Rafael Betancourt, Indians
23. Brandon Lyon, Diamondbacks
24. Todd Jones, Tigers
25. Brian Wilson, Giants
26. C.J. Wilson, Rangers
27. Troy Percival, Rays
28. Eric Gagne, Brewers
29. Carlos Marmol, Cubs
30. Jon Rauch, Nationals
31. Manny Acosta, Braves
32. Joba Chamberlain, Yankees
33. Santiago Casilla, Athletics
34. Chad Cordero, Nationals
35. Hideki Okajima, Red Sox
36. Tony Pena, Diamondbacks
37. Manny Corpas, Rockies
38. Rafael Soriano, Braves
39. Jesse Carlson, Blue Jays
40. Jonathan Broxton, Dodgers
Buying low

J.J. Putz, Mariners: If you're trying to acquire fantasy's top closer from 2007, I wouldn't wait much longer. At some point, I expect he'll get in a groove and look like last season's version, and if you wait that long, it will be too late. Putz looked good in saving a win against the Orioles last week, the same day he came off the DL, but a few days later he entered in a 5-1 game and allowed three walks and two hits, with two runs. Is he still hurt? Possibly, but chances are Putz merely is working his way back into game shape while in games, as opposed to being in simulated or minor league games. Hey, if the back of your bullpen featured Mark Lowe and Ryan Rowland-Smith, you'd rush Putz back as well. Fantasy owners should feel confident in Putz's ability, and aim to get him now, before he runs off a month of dominant performances.

Selling high

Brian Fuentes, Rockies: He's been a quality closer before, and Fuentes could be again, but Rockies manager Clint Hurdle didn't completely write off Manny Corpas, either. Fuentes has allowed a run in only one game all season, and only one walk in his past six appearances. Why trade him in fantasy? Because closing is mainly about opportunity, and no matter how good Fuentes is, the shadow of not one, but two younger right-handers is going to linger. Corpas signed a four-year contract extension recently, and once he gets his mechanics straight, he'll be a constant threat to regain the role, regardless of how well Fuentes performs. Also, 2007 first-round pick Casey Weathers is throwing darts at Double-A Tulsa and should make his major league debut this summer. Weathers is being groomed as a future closer, and let's just say his stuff is a whole lot nastier than Cincinnati's David Weathers, no relation. Meanwhile, I found it interesting whom Hurdle was going with to get games to the ninth inning, and there could be value for NL-only owners in Taylor Buchholz, Kip Wells and Matt Herges. These three right-handers all are piling on the innings and have combined for 43 strikeouts in 51 2/3 innings.

Who's next?

Jesse Carlson, Blue Jays: Nothing happened to B.J. Ryan, at least not yet, but is fellow southpaw Carlson becoming a closer candidate in case something happens to Ryan? Ryan pitched the eighth inning with a 3-2 lead over the weekend, retiring Ross Gload, Tony Pena and David DeJesus on nine pitches. Gload and DeJesus hit left-handed, so that makes sense, while Pena just can't hit. Lefty Alex Gordon was up in the ninth inning when the lead became three runs, so why didn't Ryan stick around, especially after throwing a mere nine pitches? More importantly, with two right-handed hitters coming up in the ninth, why wasn't Jeremy Accardo next? Accardo was warming in the bullpen, in case Carlson ran into trouble, but maybe the order has changed. Carlson, a 27-year-old rookie who was born on New Year's Eve 1980 just a few minutes from ESPN's Connecticut offices, has a 1.42 ERA and 0.79 WHIP so far. Accardo has closing experience, but he also hasn't fanned a hitter in his past six appearances. But if something were to befall Ryan, could Carlson step into his role as closer and not Accardo? Let's assume that Ryan is still the closer and not the setup man, but we might have more clarity should Ryan get hurt.

Meaningless save of the week

Kyle McClellan, Cardinals: This guy certainly has good numbers, and he's more valuable if your league counts holds, but the first career save for this 23-year-old isn't likely to be a harbinger of more to come in 2008. McClellan, who had pitched once in 10 days, relieved Kyle Lohse on Sunday and breezed through three perfect innings, tossing 32 pitches and getting five of his outs on fly balls. McClellan lowered his ERA to 1.84 and could follow in teammate Ryan Franklin's ample footsteps for middle relief dominance, but he doesn't figure to get too many of Jason Isringhausen's saves.

Holding on

Tony Pena and friends, Diamondbacks: While Brandon Lyon had saved eight of Arizona's 19 wins, the fact is others in the bullpen weren't getting saves. Those were pretty much all the save chances. Everyone's getting holds, though. Pena had four of them in the past seven days, while Chad Qualls and Juan Cruz had combined for six more. The threesome had allowed one earned run in 12 innings in that span, and fanned 13 hitters. Overall, not only were the Diamondbacks leading the majors in wins and ERA, but each of the three setup men also was on pace for more than 30 holds. A year ago only eight pitchers reached as many as 30 holds, and Lyon and Pena were two of them. Moral of the story? The best teams don't always generate the most save chances, but they do tend to pile on the holds.

By the way, surely you've been reading about Scherzer this week, the guy who struck out 38 hitters and walked three hitters in 23 Triple-A innings. He's likely to make this bullpen even more formidable, but don't expect him to get too many save or hold chances initially. I do think his eventual role for this season will be in middle relief, and he could be dominant there. In his first outing with the big club, Scherzer was awesome, throwing 4 1/3 perfect innings, fanning seven. All the rest of the numbers are zeroes. The guy is good, and could make my top 40 rankings even as a middle reliever soon.

Whatever happened to … ?

Bill Bray, Reds: It seems a lot longer than two years ago that the Nationals traded Bray and Gary Majewski to Cincinnati, supposedly stealing Felipe Lopez and Austin Kearns in the process. Looking back, did anyone win that trade? Forgotten in the deal is Brendan Harris, who went to the Reds, emerged with Tampa Bay and now is a Minnesota regular. Anyway, Bray was the key to the deal for the Reds, who saw him as a future closer. At the time, the Reds weren't excited about either David Weathers or Eddie Guardado, for obvious reasons. Of course, now Francisco Cordero is clearly the saves guy for the next four years. Anyway, Bray hadn't been in line to close games for Washington, but all of a sudden a strikeout lefty became fantasy-relevant just because the Reds teased fantasy owners with saves. Bray has three career saves in 67 appearances, but don't look for too many opportunities if he sticks with the Reds. Bray was called up Monday, replacing former tease closer Todd Coffey on the roster, and I think he can become relevant as the main setup guy, competing with Jared Burton. Other teams go with lefties in the eighth inning as well, against hitters from both sides of the plate. Philly's J.C. Romero is an example. Bray throws harder, he just needs to stay healthy.

Bullpen to watch

Minnesota Twins: This franchise always seems to pump out valuable middle relievers, and the newest to get the call to the majors is Bobby Korecky. At 28, he's a bit old to be a prospect, but Korecky did save 35 games at Triple-A Rochester a year ago, and both Pat Neshek and Matt Guerrier have ERAs higher than 4.00 so far. Juan Rincon, once a big holds guy, has an ERA above 5.00 since 2006 ended. Joe Nathan's save opportunities aren't being compromised, but if you're looking for holds in deep AL-only leagues, Korecky could find a way to get some, or he could be trade bait. Just remember, those who accrue saves in the minors are hardly guaranteed to repeat the feat in the majors, but all it takes is for one team to look at Korecky's stats and think he could be their answer.

Briefly

Tampa Bay's Troy Percival finally dropped off the short list of closers who hadn't walked a hitter, when Lyle Overbay drew a free pass Thursday. Still, Percival got the last laugh, saving all three games in the Rays' series sweep. … Mariano Rivera and Joakim Soria remain the lone closers who haven't issued a walk. … How good a strikeout pitcher is Carlos Marmol? He's got 21 strikeouts. Only half the 30 major league closers are even in double digits so far. … The Cardinals' Isringhausen has lost in two of his past three games, but manager Tony La Russa is very loyal. Ryan Franklin would probably be next in line, but Izzy is safe. … Joe Borowski hit the DL on April 14, and the Indians didn't get Rafael Betancourt a save chance for 10 days. Then Betancourt registered saves in back-to-back games. After a slow start, his ERA is down to 3.27. Borowski expects to return in mid-May, and don't be surprised if he closes again. … Eric Gagne still has a 6.17 ERA, but he hasn't allowed a run in his past three outings. Derrick Turnbow appears to be next after saving a win against Philly. He also has nine walks in 5 2/3 innings this season, and a WHIP of 3.00. … Chad Cordero tossed a scoreless inning during the weekend, though his velocity hasn't returned to 2007 form yet. On Tuesday the Nationals did the obvious and disabled him again, and we might not see Cordero for a very long time. If you need the DL spot on your team, feel free to use it on someone else. … Takashi Saito walked 13 hitters in 63 games a year ago, and none in his first six appearances of 2008. Then Saito walked four hitters in a five-day span, though the Dodgers won all three games, and he saved one of them. Jonathan Broxton still has more walks on the season. … Manny Acosta seems to get more job security as Atlanta's closer each time Rafael Soriano has a throwing session. Soriano felt elbow discomfort during the weekend, and the Braves have pushed his return date back again. This could take awhile. Something to think about for the future: The Braves placed John Smoltz on the DL Tuesday. He's closed before. OK, I'm just thinking out loud now, but …

Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com fantasy. You can e-mail him here.

Eric Karabell | email

ESPN.com Senior Writer