Oh, saves, you fickle, fickle fantasy category.
I'll toss you a trivia question, one for which some of you might already know the answer (yet that won't make the answer any less surprising): We all know Francisco Rodriguez leads the majors in saves, with 18. But who, pray tell, ranks second?
That's right, it's George Sherrill. (I'll give you a moment to climb back into your seat.)
I know what you're thinking: So, wait, you mean to tell me that this former lefty specialist -- a "LOOGY" (lefty one-out guy), if you will -- has suddenly transformed himself into one of the game's most effective closers? Sure has. Sherrill, who totaled 85 2/3 innings in 145 appearances the past two seasons (that's less than two-thirds an inning per game), today finds himself the No. 3 closer on our Player Rater, despite being picked 27th on average in the preseason (among pitchers clearly their team's Opening Day closers).
He's not the first Oriole to have pulled off that role transformation this decade; B.J. Ryan did it in 2005, becoming one of the game's best closers. It's as if somewhere hidden deep within Camden Yards, the Orioles feed LOOGYs into a machine, and out pops a top-flight closer (my money: it's beneath Boog's BBQ).
Go ahead, say it, Sherrill supports that age-old strategy: Don't pay for saves.
That's only partly true. Remember, only one owner in a league is lucky enough to have Sherrill; the other nine (or 11 or 13 or whatever amount of teams are in your league) have to scrap together whatever else they can find. Not that it's impossible to do, but I always think of saves strategy as a seesaw: On one end you've got all of your resources with which to draft or trade for players. On the other, there's the alternative, doing the scouting necessary to fill the category, generally off the waiver wire, during the season.
And then there's Sherrill, the one lucky case we see each season that makes us think we can bend that proverbial seesaw downward on both ends.
Not that I'm saying perfectly balancing that seesaw is the right answer. It's more that as one side drops, the other rises proportionately. How much your workload increases on the scouting side is up to you, but suffice to say, anyone who invests little in saves at the draft table will either be punting the category entirely or doing that in-season work.
That includes, yes, includes, those lucky Sherrill owners. Not that the erstwhile Mariner is a candidate to go in the tank statistically at any second, but consider his circumstances. Sherrill is one of the most useful trade chips on a team unlikely to hang in the playoff race through July; he's a candidate to be overpriced next year due to his stellar numbers; and, at 31 years old, he's unlikely to be a key part of the team next time it's a playoff hopeful anyway. Sure, his numbers might be inflating his trade stock to the point that it's not worth it for an acquiring team, but remember, quality left-handed relievers are tough to find. The Yankees, for instance, don't have a single one in their bullpen!
And, if you're thinking about possible roles in the event Sherrill does get dealt, check these numbers: .147 batting average, three homers, 190 at-bats. Those are left-handers' combined numbers against Sherrill since Opening Day 2006, and they back up the idea of his being slotted in against lefties, not necessarily just in save opportunities.
So, even though Sherrill might be top-10 fantasy-closer worthy up until the July 31 trade deadline, there's no guarantee it'll last beyond that date. Look at some of the other closers of the decade who wound up robbed of much of their value after an in-season deal: Armando Benitez (2003), Eric Gagne (2007), Ugueth Urbina (2003), Mike Williams (2001 and 2003) and Scott Williamson (2003).
So fickle indeed, those saves. So don't get too cozy, you happy Sherrill owners.
B.J. Ryan, Blue Jays: He allowed his first run all season on Sunday, raising his ERA to an "unsightly" 0.64, and his nine saves in 14 games don't seem to fit the description of "buy-low candidate." But what's important to note about Ryan's Sunday appearance was that it was the first time since his Tommy John surgery that he pitched on back-to-back days. Sure, Pat Burrell took him deep, but let's be fair; Burrell against a left-hander and at Citizens Bank Park is a matchup no pitcher can like. Had that outing been anything but a good thing for Ryan's development, Scott Downs, he of the five vulture saves, would surely have been in there to face Chase Utley and Ryan Howard to begin the ninth. Ryan had no complaints about his arm the day after, and now that the leash has been let out one more big notch, he has the potential to be a top-10 fantasy closer at maybe top-20 value. It's the health risk that keeps his price tag down there, and understandably so, but if you're OK with gambling a bit, Ryan could really please.
Brandon Lyon, Diamondbacks: This actually has nothing to do with Tony Pena's first save of the year this past Friday. That was due to a Lyon off day, not a changing of the ninth-inning guard. No, the reason you might want to slap a price sticker on Lyon and put him on display is that, right now, he's on pace for a simply absurd statistical season for a pitcher with his skill set. Look at his paces: 43 saves, 1.80 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 54 K's. Those would all represent personal bests, all of them but the strikeouts doing so by far. Plus, his BIPA (balls in play average) is .262, more than 20 points below his marks of either 2006 or 2007, indicating some good fortune. Lyon has had six-week hot spells like this before, and never before has he been able to string it across a full six months, meaning if you can fetch top-10 closer value for him, you should consider doing it. As a food-for-thought note: Lyon kicked off 2005 with 13 saves and a 1.96 ERA in 18 appearances through May 12, eerily similar numbers to this year. Then he got hurt. Not that I'm forecasting an imminent injury, but I can't be totally confident in him, either.
Chris Perez, Cardinals: The path of a relief-pitching prospect is often rocky, but sometimes, an arm comes along so special you can't help but expect him to buck the trend. Think Chad Cordero -- he made a clean, immediate transition and was closing by his fourth month in the big leagues. Perez is that kind of pitcher, a guy to whom late-inning dominance comes naturally. He notched 35 saves in the minors in 2007, rattled off eight more with a 2.04 ERA in Triple-A Memphis this season, and oh, by the way, held opposing batters to a sparkling .161 average in 97 career minor league contests. Now Perez is a member of ever-creative Tony La Russa's bullpen, getting thrown into the fire in high-pressure situations, like, say, this past Sunday's 4-4 affair in which he picked up a win by throwing a scoreless ninth. Or, how about pitching the eighth inning on Tuesday, needing to keep his team within a run (which he did)? Jason Isringhausen isn't any closer to returning to ninth-inning duties, and while Perez might not be ready to wear that crown yet, it's clearly going to be his in the future. That future could certainly begin before the calendar hits 2009.
Meaningless save of the week
Jarrod Washburn, Mariners: John McLaren must be a fantasy baseball fan. Even when he's skipping starters, he's kind enough to toss them out there in save situations, as he did with Miguel Batista the first week of the season while J.J. Putz was on the disabled list. And, in Week 7 of the fantasy season (May 12-18), McLaren helped us out again, making sure that those of us who hoped for, yet missed out on, a delicious matchup for Washburn against the Padres at least squeezed value out of this orange. So Washburn didn't get us a quality-start "W" against San Diego, so what? Despite McLaren's decision to skip Washburn the past turn through the rotation, thanks to off days this past Thursday and Monday, the left-hander came on to shut down the Rangers in an extra-inning game last Wednesday, with Ian Kinsler and Michael Young two of his victims. Even better, Washburn's appearance didn't steal value from closer Putz; Putz got the win with two shutout innings of relief! Yes, all worked out nicely. Incredible: Two-fifths of Seattle's rotation now can claim at least a save apiece. Who's next, Erik Bedard?
Cla Meredith, Padres: Fantasy owners surely remember this name, from his astonishing 2006 campaign (an unreal 1.07 ERA and 0.71 WHIP in 45 appearances). Meredith let us down a year ago, with an ERA two-and-a-half runs higher, but this season, at least, he's performing closer to his 2006 than 2007. Here's the book on Meredith: He's a side-sidearmer, brutally tough on right-handed hitters but much easier for left-handers to hit. (Think a right-handed version of Damaso Marte.) Not that that's a bad thing to be, but the Padres are playing smarter to his skill set this season, exploiting his matchups properly, which has helped him in the holds department. He has nine, tied for 12th in MLB, only one behind fellow Padres setup man Heath Bell. Of course, Bell might have closer status in his future, but with Meredith not quite a complete enough pitcher for that, he should be fine in this nice role he has carved out for himself.
Whatever happened to?
Joey Devine, Athletics: To think, back in 2006, a year after John Smoltz switched from closer to starter, Devine was one of the most appealing closer prospects, a future ninth-inning force for the Braves. That year would turn out to be a disaster, between injuries and ineffectiveness, and he'd find himself back in the minors by 2007. Now in Oakland, with a fresh start, Devine seems to be realizing his potential, with a 1.40 ERA and 1.03 WHIP to go along with 26 K's in 19 1/3 innings. Now, much of that has been accrued in the middle innings, but there's reason to monitor Devine, what with Santiago Casilla hitting the disabled list indefinitely with an elbow injury. In the short term, Devine could step up as the next-in-line to closer Huston Street, and that's an important role to assume; it's not unthinkable Street could be on the trading block come July.
Bullpen to watch
Cleveland Indians: While the Indians' rotation keeps chugging along with the game's best ERA (2.97) and WHIP (1.19), their ninth-inning picture couldn't have gotten any more clouded. Opening Day closer Joe Borowski's initial stand-in, Rafael Betancourt, has a 9.00 ERA, 1.67 WHIP and .324 BAA in 11 appearances since Borowski hit the DL, allowing Masa Kobayashi to sneak in with back-to-back saves May 13 and 15. But right as Kobayashi looked like the Indians' new closer, he blew his next chance on Sunday, with a dreadful ninth inning that included a Joey Votto single, Edwin Encarnacion hit by pitch and Adam Dunn three-run, walk-off homer. Now Borowski, he of the 5.81 ERA, 1.51 WHIP and 10 blown saves in 57 chances (17.5 percent) with the Indians, is nearing a return from the DL, with the closer role wide open for the taking. Not that he's pretty to watch, but that he was respectable enough in the role last season, allowing the team's more talented relievers to pitch the middle frames, might make him the best bet for saves in this bullpen looking forward. Of course, we might have said that back in March, so don't be too hasty. Anyone from Borowski to Betancourt to Kobayashi to someone else (Jensen Lewis? Rafael Perez?) could yet wind up the team's leader in saves come October.
It's only fitting I follow up news on the venerable Borowski with some on Isringhausen, if only because their common bond is "ridiculous DL excuses." Izzy landed on the 15-day disabled list this past Friday with poor performance -- oops, I mean, a laceration on his right hand, suffered when he slapped a television set in the clubhouse a week prior. He'll head to the team's spring training complex in West Palm Beach, Fla., in about a week, making his road back to the closer's road a bit longer one. Ryan Franklin's grip on the closer's role becomes a bit stronger, at least in the short term. ... Mariano Rivera is apparently back to his dominating ways, and demonstrating how entirely unpredictable a team's amount of save chances can be from year to year. He's a perfect 11-for-11 in save chances with a 0.50 ERA through the Yankees' first 45 games; through that many in 2007, he had five save chances, blew two of them and had a 6.32 ERA. ... Speaking of inconsistent opportunities, after going nine days between save chances, Joakim Soria notched three in a four-day span in the past week. He also surrendered his first two runs of the year this Sunday, on a two-run homer by Jeremy Hermida, but that still brought his season numbers against left-handed hitters to an .080 batting average and .388 OPS in 27 plate appearances. Wow. ... Carlos Marmol has 41 strikeouts and a .125 BAA, best among full-time relievers. Not that Kerry Wood's job security is threatened, but if Wood gets hurt, as he so often does, Marmol has the skills to post top-10 closer numbers. ... Dan Wheeler is owned in 3.9 percent of standard ESPN leagues, yet he has a 2.22 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and .153 BAA, and pitches behind a 38-year-old closer who, before the middle of last year, was effectively retired. It's something to think about in the handcuff department. ... Manny Corpas has a 5.40 ERA, 2.14 WHIP and .340 BAA in 11 appearances since losing the closer job to Brian Fuentes, yet I consistently see him still ranked among the top 40 relievers elsewhere. But at this point, I think either Taylor Buchholz or Matt Herges would get the next chance if Fuentes isn't up to the task of closing all year.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.