- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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I feel like Alex Trebek promoting Player Rater week on "Jeopardy!" It's fantasy baseball, it's Relief Efforts, this is Jeopardy! In keeping with the theme of the week, in which cohorts James Quintong and Brendan Roberts have written articles using the ever-informative rating system, let's consider relief pitchers.
This closer's birth name is Joseph Jason, and his current ERA is 5.21
Who is Antonio Alfonseca?
Wrong, it's J.J. Putz! Just once I'd like to see Trebek brutally mock one of the contestants when they answer an obvious question wrong, wouldn't you? You know, like we do at fantasy drafts when someone tries to draft Prince Fielder in round five after the guy went with the 12th overall pick.
In general, closers appear to be the one type of player whose value couldn't properly be quantified by any rating system, including our fine Player Rater. Starting pitchers have a far greater impact on ERA and WHIP, they get more wins and strikeouts and don't contribute in saves, so they are four-category helpers. Closers have some impact across the board, but in general you want them for the saves. It's a single category. Are 30 saves worth more than a 15-game winner? I'd say they aren't in the bigger picture, but on the Player Rater, they are because of supply and demand. Someone wins every game, but someone doesn't necessarily save it.
If we preach the notion that closers are not to be drafted in the first five rounds of a mixed draft, then it would stand to reason closers aren't top 50 entities. But, of course, this is not demonstrated in the rater, and that's OK. It's not proof that closers are more valuable than we think, because it's still a volatile position prone to crazy roller coaster rides year after year. Joe Borowski went on the DL in April, giving the job to seemingly solid replacements, and then Borowski got his job back a month later. The Brewers had all these right-handed relievers, and somehow Salomon Torres was the one who ended up closing. In Seattle, who knows how effective Joseph Jason Putz will be from one day to the next, or when his next save chance for the worst team in baseball will be.
It would be easy for me to simply check the Player Rater and rank the closers in that little box below in the same order, but there's one of the imperfections with the tool: It only looks back. We look ahead. Also, its job, in the fine words of Roberts from Tuesday's column, is to use its series of formulas based on league averages to gauge value. We need to take into account other factors, like reliability, durability, a potential trade and whether we like the food from that guy's home city. What, you've never drafted players based on this important criterion?
For closers, the difference between one guy having 15 saves and another with 10 is huge, and, as we know, tells us little going forward. There are many more stolen bases out there in the majors, so Michael Bourn having five more steals than Carl Crawford has less impact than a difference of five saves.
Anyway, let's see where the closers do rank on the Player Rater, through Monday's games, and why.
1. Mariano Rivera, Yankees: The No. 7 pitcher overall, his ERA and WHIP are well below normal closer rates.
2. Kerry Wood, Cubs: Third among all relievers in K's, and third-most saves.
3. Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox: Not a surprise, the guy is good, finished second in 2007 to Putz.
4. Francisco Rodriguez, Angels: The most saves, by quite a bit, but nary a victory.
5. Brad Lidge, Phillies: Same numbers as Rivera, except for the impact of WHIP, and one fewer win.
6. George Sherrill, Orioles: Second in bigs in saves, other numbers are fine.
7. Jose Valverde, Astros: His ERA/WHIP is not great relative to others, but four wins!
8. Jon Rauch, Nationals: Three wins and solid WHIP get him into top 10.
9. Joakim Soria, Royals: Won't pile on the wins or saves, so he needs his peripherals.
10. Joe Nathan, Twins: Nothing wrong with his numbers, which is why
why I question putting too much stock in the Player Rater when it comes to closers. Joe Nathan entered Tuesday with 16 saves, the same as Rivera and Valverde. He doesn't have any wins -- actually, after Matt Capps imploded Tuesday, Nathan is the only full-season closer with no decisions at all -- and he also has fewer innings, for whatever reason, so his ERA and WHIP have less impact. There's not a thing wrong with Nathan, which is why, based on his Player Rater value, I'd certainly recommend trying to buy him on the cheap, if that's possible. By the way, a number of closers from my top 10 are not present in the Player Rater top 10. That doesn't necessarily mean they have performed to that level, just that a statistical oddity or lack of wins can wildly affect value. Billy Wagner gives up one home run to Tony Clark and -- voila -- he's no longer a top 10 closer? I don't believe that.
A few closers fared worse on the Player Rater, far from the top 10, like Brian Wilson, Trevor Hoffman and Todd Jones. It's not hard to see why. Those guys don't have the sort of ERAs people covet. Wilson's WHIP is a bit elevated, and Jones is still in single digits in strikeouts, which isn't an attractive feature. I would argue, however, that these are the closers you want to trade for because they are less expensive on the open market. I just want the saves. I know Jones really doesn't help me in any category, but I'd also argue that as good as the Yankees' Rivera has been, his WHIP isn't the difference between me winning and losing. It helps, make no doubt, but over six months, it's minor. Just to make sure, I did the math in the three important leagues in which I have Jones, and subbed in Rivera's stats instead. I picked up one point in the standings of one of those leagues in WHIP, and two more in strikeouts. That's three points, and maybe that will be the difference come October if things don't change, but I also think it's too small a sample size. Plus, Rivera won't finish with a 0.52 WHIP.
I find that the best way to use the Player Rater is in trade talks. You want to move Milton Bradley, point out how he's No. 10 on the rater. You want to acquire Nate McLouth, don't you dare mention that he's No. 11. Same with closers. Capps wasn't top 10 on the rater before Tuesday anyway, and he's certainly no closer after Lastings Milledge took him deep. Everything can change one night to the next in fantasy baseball. Don't waste time, because these players move up and down the rater all the time, especially the closers who don't have a ton of innings. Know how much each save -- and blown save -- means.
Now let's get to the rest of the ample fantasy news coming from major league bullpens.
Jon Rauch, Nationals: Call me crazy, I guess, but I find it hard to believe the Nationals are going to simply welcome Chad Cordero back into the closer role even if he's healthy and throwing hard, and just push Rauch out of the way. It's a good time to get Rauch because the Nationals are struggling badly and he's had one save chance in June -- which he promptly blew against the Cardinals. Rauch still has pristine stats, especially his walk rate (just four free passes all year!) and the threat of Cordero taking his job combined with the hideousness of the team behind him could help you land him on the cheap. I maintain a 30-save season is coming, and Cordero will end up being dealt to the Yankees by the end of July.
Brandon Lyon, Diamondbacks: I wouldn't worry too much about this pitcher all of a sudden losing it. However, Lyon isn't getting as many save chances these days because the D-backs aren't fattening up on the NL West as they did earlier in the season. He's still pitching well; it's been more than two months since he allowed any runs at all, and even in Arizona's wildest Lyon dreams, they didn't expect that. I don't expect the threat of Max Scherzer to ultimately remove Lyon from the role, but don't we have to expect some statistical regression to the mean in this case? Plus, here's more proof the best teams don't necessarily give their closers the most save opportunities.
Joel Zumaya, Tigers: With each and every ugly Tigers loss, no matter how that loss is accomplished, I start to believe this team might look for any spark it can get -- and adding a guy who throws in triple digits can't hurt. Todd Jones is safe in terms of the current bullpen structure, since nobody behind him is a threat for saves. Nobody on this team has more than three holds. To be fair, Detroit's got a lot of problems, and the bullpen is not one of them. Zumaya is hitting 98 mph on the radar gun in his rehab appearances, and Fernando Rodney is also on the fast track back to the Tigers. The bullpen depth will be welcomed, but what I'd start to worry about, as a Jones owner, is that the Tigers never get back into the race and Jim Leyland decides to look at the closer of the future. Who knows, Jones could be trade bait if the Tigers are 10 games under .500 in a month. Zumaya is the future for this bullpen, and the Tigers could opt to make a switch, whether it's warranted or not.
Meaningless save of the week
Brian Shouse, Brewers: This 39-year-old lefty has been in this space before, and while he has moved up the food chain for saves, he is what he is. Salomon Torres is the closer, and the Brewers are going to have to figure out how to break that news to Eric Gagne at some point, unless Torres makes the decision easy. Shouse recorded his second save of the season as the Brewers toppled Randy Johnson and the Diamondbacks. He pitched a perfect eighth inning with a 4-1 lead, and when Max Scherzer allowed home runs to Prince Fielder and J.J. Hardy to extend the lead to 7-1, Shouse stuck around in the ninth to finish up. Hey, it's a save. Shouse isn't the worst fantasy option for safe relievers, since he doesn't get lit up, and he might get five or so wins and saves. Still, I think Torres is keeping this job.
Tom Gordon, Phillies: The Phillies keep on winning with the majors' best bullpen certainly playing a major role. Gordon registered four holds in the first week of June, upping his season total to 13 and placing him among the league leaders. Gordon wasn't popular in fantasy leagues, however, since his ERA and WHIP remained high. In truth, this is why using peripheral numbers to judge relief pitchers can be misleading. Gordon got shelled on Opening Day against Washington for five runs in a third of an inning. Take that unfortunate outing off the books and his season ERA is 2.13. Oh, and the Phillies are going to remain good, and having Gordon and J.C. Romero set the table for Brad Lidge is a key reason why.
Bullpen to watch
Atlanta Braves: A few days after John Smoltz announced his season was over due to persistent shoulder problems, Rafael Soriano was struggling with more elbow pain, meaning the Braves are in no better a situation than they were a few weeks ago. The team's horrific record in one-run games (3-17, and 1-6 in extra innings) might lead some to believe the bullpen is at fault, but it's not like the Braves are blowing late-game leads. They're not. The Braves aren't hitting late in games, and the Phillies stole a weekend series in part because they got timely hits. Blaine Boyer, Manny Acosta and friends weren't necessarily good, but the Braves' .500 record can't be wholly blamed on them. What the Braves need is a closer. The rest of the pieces are in place, with Boyer, Acosta and Jeff Bennett good enough, Will Ohman a workhorse lefty and Soriano likely to be an occasional contributor. It's Mike Gonzalez time. He makes the top 40 rankings on the premise that he's a mere week or two away from returning to the club, and he'll likely figure into the saves picture right away. Gonzalez does having closing experience, after all, and he's regained most of his velocity. I'd still expect Soriano to be the main closer when he's available, but if you need saves, Gonzalez is a smart add as well.
Week 1 of the Joba Chamberlain era as a starter certainly got a lot of attention, but let me ask you this: Did you really notice the raggedy bullpen he left behind? The Yankees lost twice during the week after Chamberlain's first start, and the only reliever who officially blew a game was Mariano Rivera (and he almost lost two games). Of course he'll be fine, but this is just another example that the Yankees will survive with Chamberlain starting. Don't be shocked if long reliever Dan Giese sticks around once Chamberlain is able to pitch more innings. Those who just saw the line score from J.J. Putz saving Monday's game missed the real story. Putz loaded the bases with nobody out, with one of the runners reaching on an error, and he threw a wild pitch. Then he induced a double play, issued his second walk of the inning and retired David Eckstein to save the game. It wasn't easy, though. If Putz continues to struggle, Brandon Morrow is likely next in line despite battling shoulder soreness. It stinks when you own a middle reliever for the low ERA and WHIP, and one outing messes those stats up for months. Hideki Okajima blew the Tuesday game against Baltimore, and now has six blown saves. Who sets up for Billy Wagner now? Aaron Heilman was displaced by Duaner Sanchez, and the latter blew up against Arizona on Tuesday, allowing five hits and three runs while retiring two hitters. Oakland's Huston Street has been an annual visitor to the DL, but his current groin strain hasn't been deemed that serious quite yet. Alan Embree would be next in line with Santiago Casilla and Joey Devine on the DL. Finally, with Capps -- who will be just fine -- blowing Tuesday's game, only four current closers remain perfect in save chances. Rivera and Lidge are the safe names, Todd Jones is a bit unsafe, and Tampa Bay's Dan Wheeler is about to lose the job back to Troy Percival. Being perfect just isn't so easy.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com fantasy. You can e-mail him here.
1dBrando Simeo Starkey, The Undefeated staff writer