- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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The 2008 fantasy baseball season is coming to a close soon, and this is the final Relief Efforts until the spring. We've chronicled the happenings in major league bullpens all season and how they related to fantasy. Unknowns like George Sherrill and Luis Ayala carried teams; Joe Borowski and Todd Jones finally lost their jobs, along with a third of the April closers; the strikeout setup man who became a closer wasn't Carlos Marmol but Joel Hanrahan. Crazy season.
There's just something about closers that separates them from others on a baseball team. Teams can hit like crazy and get monster starting pitching, but still, with the pressure of a ninth-inning lead, the critical consequences of a single pitch and everything on the line, all it takes is one Greg Norton swing against Ayala and a sure-fire win is now a loss. Anyway, later in this article we'll discuss the latest comings and goings: K-Rod finally pushed Bobby Thigpen out of the record book; which pitchers will finish the season as closers in places like Arizona, Baltimore and St. Louis; whom to pick up if you need saves for the final week-plus.
For now, let's take a giant leap ahead to 2009. People in keeper leagues started thinking about next season months ago, but now most fantasy owners are also looking forward. Here are the five big questions on my mind concerning relief pitchers this winter:
Who's No. 1? Because he's going to end up with more saves in a season than anyone else in history, chances are good Francisco Rodriguez will be vastly overrated in 2009, for real life and fantasy. Yes, he has the most saves, and it's not close at all -- he leads Jose Valverde by 16 saves! -- but the wise fantasy owner knows that category fluctuates from year to year. Mariano Rivera is actually the top-rated closer on our Player Rater. He's had a better year. So have Jonathan Papelbon, Joakim Soria and Joe Nathan, for that matter, although K-Rod is ranked second on the rater due to his sheer volume of saves. My take has always been that I just want the saves -- Todd Jones types are fine with me -- so this is why I rarely end up with a Papelbon type of dominating closer. Whom will I rank first? You can see to the right whom I went with, and it wasn't Rodriguez. Papelbon and Nathan are still my top guys.
Who gets K-Rod? The Angels seem like a smart, well-run franchise, and as such I would be surprised if they give a long-term contract like Francisco Cordero's to their record-breaking closer. Of course, some team will shower K-Rod with at least $10 million a year. The best bet is probably the Mets, a team that seems intent on blaming all its current shortcomings on the bullpen, even though that's merely part of the problem. Billy Wagner will not pitch until late 2009 at best, and he says it won't be with the Mets. Luis Ayala might not be closing next week, and no team would go into a season with him penciled into the role. Rodriguez isn't the only closer the Mets can get: Huston Street won't be expensive at this point, and Brian Fuentes will be available as well. The Mets might have drafted Eddie Kunz to close, but how can they pass up a chance to christen a new ballpark with the record-setting option? If I were ranking the teams that could get Rodriguez, I'd go Mets first, the Tigers second, the Orioles third and a return to the Angels fourth.
Is the Trevor Hoffman era over? Talk about a guy who had become so overrated that now he's underrated! Hoffman isn't having a bad season by any means. He's 40 and might not want to deal with another season of losing 90 games, but I don't think the Padres will be this bad again. Hoffman's ERA is a tad inflated, but he's walked eight hitters all season, his strikeout rate is the best it has been in five years and his WHIP is 1.09. I say the all-time saves leader comes back for at least another season, gets ignored as a reliable closer by fantasy owners and has a fine campaign at age 41.
Which teams will be looking for closers? One never knows if there will be offseason trades and which free agents will choose to go where, but of the current 30 closers, there do not seem to be too many open jobs. The Mets, Tigers and Brewers seem like obvious teams that will look outside the organization for closers, but the Brewers are likely to lose both CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets to free agency, which makes that team less appealing. I could see the Brewers taking a chance on another retread with closing experience, someone like Octavio Dotel, if they could get him. Hey, how about Jason Isringhausen with Milwaukee? I could see that! There are a bunch of other teams that could look elsewhere, or let their current guys keep the job. For example, the Marlins, Cardinals, Orioles, Nationals, Rangers and Indians have closers who have done a decent job. Matt Lindstrom, Chris Perez, George Sherrill, Joel Hanrahan, Frank Francisco and Jensen Lewis, respectively, don't really need to be replaced, and none of those teams have obvious internal replacements. I see the Rockies going back to Manuel Corpas when Fuentes bolts for big money. The Angels likely will give the job to Jose Arredondo if K-Rod leaves.
What other surprises are in store? As good as Kerry Wood has been this season, don't be at all stunned if Carlos Marmol and his electric stuff takes over the closer role at some point this postseason and keeps it in 2009. Marmol is just that good. In Oakland, I can't see feel-good story Brad Ziegler holding off Joey Devine. The playoff-bound Rays shouldn't be letting Troy Percival close today, yet alone when he's nearing 40. Grant Balfour could leapfrog Dan Wheeler for the role. The Diamondbacks have a whole bunch of right-handed options, but are any of them appealing? I'll tell you what, it won't be ace-in-the-making Max Scherzer closing. And my final stunner is bad news for those keeping Mike Gonzalez for 2009: John Smoltz will come back for one more season, and he'll save 40 games for the Braves.
OK, ever so briefly, let's take a look at what is happening these days in bullpens. Best of luck the rest of your fantasy season.
Around the AL
Time for our final K-Rod update of the season. The record is broken! Just so everyone knows, the Angels have had 81 save opportunities, 18 more than the next-best team in the AL, the Red Sox. That's amazing. ... Jonathan Papelbon has experienced a little hiccup over the past week, as he allowed two runs in an inning twice. The Red Sox aren't worried; you shouldn't be, either. He'll have Hideki Okajima setting him up again in 2009, but look for Justin Masterson to join the rotation. ... George Sherrill came off the DL for Baltimore and probably wishes he hadn't. He allowed two hits, two walks and three runs to the Twins on Sunday. Incredibly, the Orioles have just one save since Aug. 5. Jim Miller, with five major league innings all season, got it earlier this week. ... The Rays probably will go to Troy Percival the next time there's a save chance, but Dan Wheeler owners shouldn't cut their guy. ... Fernando Rodney imploded Tuesday night, allowing three walks and three hits without getting an out, but who else could save a game for the Tigers? ... It appears Brad Ziegler will finish out Oakland's season as the closer. In two seasons, he'll be Chad Bradford. ... Finally, I doubt too many people would guess Mariano Rivera has been fantasy's top closer, since the Yankees are not playoff-bound, but this might be his best season yet. He has blown one save, walked six hitters and sports a 1.52 ERA.
Around the NL
I hope you didn't drop anyone important to get all those Chris Carpenter saves. He never got any and was shut down for the season. Chris Perez has been OK, so why all the talk of replacing him? ... The Brewers can't get a break. Salomon Torres remains the closer, but he has just one save in September. This bullpen really needs an overhaul. Why is Eric Gagne still on the team? ... Mercifully, Brandon Lyon lost the closer role for Arizona, though to be fair, he wasn't the reason the team recently lost 15 of 19 games. Lyon hasn't actually blown a save since July 20. Chad Qualls and his eight losses became the closer. He's pitched well of late, with only two baserunners allowed in his past five appearances. ... Takashi Saito is back with the Dodgers, but in a setup role for Jonathan Broxton. Don't look for Broxton to lose the closer role. ... Matt Lindstrom is Florida's closer, though Joe Nelson got a save chance earlier this week. He got two outs before hurting his back, and then Kevin Gregg relieved him. Gregg allowed a hit and lefty Arthur Rhodes picked up the save. ... After allowing a Greg Norton three-run pinch-hit homer in the ninth, Luis Ayala isn't the safe closer he was a week ago, but it's not like anyone else is seizing the role. Don't look for John Maine to play any role here.
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, "Top 100 Philadelphia Sports Arguments," will be released in October. You can e-mail him here.
Eric Karabell looks ahead to the 2009 season with five questions about the always volatile closer position.