Let's get this right out of the way: I generally don't protect relief pitchers in keeper leagues. Of course there are situations in which I would, like the 16-team, 12-keeper league I've been in forever. If I don't keep Brian Wilson in that league, he'll be one of the first picks in the draft and I'll be laughed at. Most closers are kept. But in most leagues, you get to protect five or fewer players, I just don't consider even the best relief pitchers to be strong, viable options.
That doesn't mean closers aren't valuable to the cause. It's tough to win a fantasy league without proper saves, and we commend Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Broxton and the many others who have supplied their teams -- and ours -- with terrific numbers this season. If you're in a league with 10 teams that keeps five players each, and Round 1 of the March draft is essentially picks 51-60, I'd start thinking about Rivera, Nathan and Broxton in Round 3 or so. I'm still not keeping them, unless desperation has sunk in.
Want to know who's next in line for saves for each team? Check out Eric Karabell's bullpen depth chart.
We've been over this many times before, but closers change way too often, even on occasion the top ones, and even the top ones don't help a fantasy team more than a top hitter or starting pitcher. Kudos to Heath Bell for his 40 saves, but his other numbers didn't win leagues. I didn't have a closer in my overall top 50 for this season, nor will I in 2010.
With the season winding down this week, I figured it would be a wise time to recap what happened in every bullpen, while also looking ahead. And you can check out the rankings to the right, which are for 2010. Players are listed with the teams they are on now, though we know some of them will be moving on. And yes, since we're ranking players before this season ends, we've already moved on.
Here we go, team by team, in alphabetical order, and I'll attempt to be brief and kind to the editors.
2009 closer: Chad Qualls did fine work, saving 24 games with a 1.15 WHIP, until suffering a dislocated kneecap and torn ligament on a fluke play late in August. The Diamondbacks didn't trade him before the deadline, which implies they were happy with his work and want to see more of it next season
2010 closer: Juan Gutierrez has done a nice job filling in, but Qualls' knee should heal in plenty of time before pitchers and catchers report in February. Qualls should get 30 saves next year. The dark-horse candidate is Daniel Schlereth, but he wouldn't vault Qualls or Gutierrez.
2009 closer: Mike Gonzalez was the guy for a while, but Rafael Soriano pitched so well that he basically took the job away, and ran with it. Soriano has always had terrific stuff, so the only surprise was that he stayed healthy enough to approach 30 saves and 100 strikeouts
2010 closer: There's no guarantee that either Gonzalez or Soriano will come back, but there are no obvious options lurking in the system. I'd guess the Braves bring Soriano back, but this team could also be an active buyer in the winter. The rotation is terrific and screams for a shutdown bullpen.
2009 closer: George Sherrill pitched like an All-Star, an honor he was granted the year before, when he wasn't all that deserving. Then Sherrill was traded to the Dodgers. Jim Johnson hasn't been great in the closer's role since; he's a hittable ground-baller who has permitted eight home runs. The Orioles have to know this.
2010 closer: It wouldn't surprise me in the least if former closer Chris Ray got healthy, had a nice spring and reclaimed the role. Ray's 2009 numbers are largely irrelevant because, I think, the team realizes he wasn't healthy coming back from Tommy John surgery. Kam Mickolio is another internal candidate with promise. I don't expect Johnson to be the closer.
2009 closer: Jonathan Papelbon issued a career high in walks, and his WHIP rose, but the saves were still there. No worries here, despite the fact that there seemed to be a lot of worrying.
2010 closer: There's speculation the Red Sox could float Papelbon's name on the trade market before he gets too expensive and because Daniel Bard, who can throw 100 mph, waits in the wings. If Papelbon leaves, Bard would be in a perfect situation to succeed. Billy Wagner could also be re-signed, but the guess is he ends up closing elsewhere. Papelbon's value remains high, and he'll probably come back and save 40 games for Boston.
2009 closer: Kevin Gregg was acquired during the winter and, while nobody was watching, simply won the job over Carlos Marmol. Up until August, Gregg did fine. Then in August he allowed five home runs, blew some big games and lost the job to Marmol, who suddenly was able to control the walks (kind of) and close effectively. Marmol's WHIP is still way too high for a closer, at 1.46. Doesn't mean the Cubs won't stick with him.
2010 closer: One would think Lou Piniella would demand a top closer, one who can avoid home runs and walks. Papelbon, maybe? The Cubs can pay this winter, and even in a deep league I would not keep Marmol, though if he ever finds his 2008 command, he could be awesome in the role. Gregg could end up closing somewhere else.
2009 closer: Bobby Jenks had his moments but still allowed too many hits and home runs, and he's rumored to be on the trade block. His season ended early because of a calf injury, which opened the door for Matt Thornton to audition. So far, so good.
2010 closer: This is a deep bullpen, and I could see Jenks dealt. However, all you care about is whether he closes in his new home. I'd think he would. I'd also think the White Sox would go get someone more experienced and better than Thornton, Octavio Dotel, Scott Linebrink and Tony Pena.
2009 closer: Francisco Cordero did his normal terrific job, but Nick Masset emerged as a closer-in-waiting, possibly here. Then again, experience shows us half the emerging set-up men like Masset turn into Carlos Villanueva.
2010 closer: Cordero is signed for, like, 73 more years, so he's safe.
2009 closer: Poor Kerry Wood. The Cubs could have used him, eh? Wood didn't have a great season, but at least he eventually and mercifully got to 20 saves. We expected around 35.
2010 closer: Wood has another year on his deal, so expect him to stay. If the Indians stink again next July, he's trade bait, and former Cardinal Chris Perez could get his chance.
2009 closer: Huston Street or Manny Corpas? That was the story back in April. Street lost the job, then regained it and -- voilà -- had a terrific season, playing a large role in the Rockies' turning their season around. Street was a free agent in many leagues in April. He will be a real-life free agent this winter.
2010 closer: It's tough to tell what the Rockies will do here. Street could be signed to a multiyear deal, in theory, or the team could opt for someone more cost efficient. One would think Corpas has run out of chances internally, so how about Franklin Morales? He did well filling in for Street in September, though his command sometimes betrays him. Former first-round pick Casey Weathers might not be ready.
2009 closer: Surprise! Fernando Rodney can do the job, apparently, though the peripheral numbers aren't helping anyone. If Brandon Lyon had started April better, who knows how this would have worked out.
2010 closer: Don't keep Rodney. The Tigers could flush this bullpen away and start over, with Ryan Perry and maybe Lyon sticking around. And please, just forget about Joel Zumaya. Health is no less important than the ability to throw a baseball 100 mph.
2009 closer: It's always something with this team, isn't it? From Antonio Alfonseca to Todd Jones; Joe Borowski; and yes, even Kevin Gregg, the Marlins seldom go by the book. Matt Lindstrom struggled and lost the job to … Leo Nunez? They come from nowhere in south Florida, so don't ever keep a Marlins relief pitcher or draft one among the top 15 closers.
2010 closer: You think you know, but you don't. Honestly, it could be anyone. Maybe Jose Ceda will come back after shoulder surgery. I ranked Nunez over Lindstrom.
2009 closer: Jose Valverde missed some time with leg injuries, so he wasn't able to lead the NL in saves again, but the other numbers were still there. He could be the hottest closer on the free-agent market this winter.
2010 closer: If Valverde bolts -- and the cost-conscious Astros might go in that direction -- they'd have to find someone else, and nothing jumps out internally. LaTroy Hawkins can leave as well. Both could be back, or neither.
2009 closer: In the dark, pathetic place that is the Royals bullpen, Joakim Soria shined like a Lamborghini in a parking lot of 20-year-old Dodge stunt cars. Seriously, he's all alone.
2010 closer: Soria, Soria, Soria, but please get the guy some help, and not Kyle Farnsworth types. With proper health, Soria could have a season like the one Jonathan Broxton did.
2009 closer: Brian Fuentes signed a two-year deal, and while there were a few bumpy moments along the way, he still has 45 saves entering Wednesday. Tough to complain too much about that.
2010 closer: Fuentes should pile on the saves next season, but the peripherals bump him from the top 10.
2009 closer: Jonathan Broxton emerged as one of fantasy's top closers, thanks to the major strikeouts and low WHIP, but also seven wins. That last number is rarely duplicated from year to year, but Broxton should close effectively for years.
2010 closer: Broxton is one of the safest NL closers, and probably first off the board in an NL-only league.
2009 closer: Were you one of those who avoided Trevor Hoffman on draft day because some of his peripheral numbers were scary in his final season in San Diego? Bad news. Hoffman was fine this season and never came close to losing his job.
2010 closer: The all-time saves leader could retire, shop his services to the highest bidder or opt for another one-year deal in Milwaukee. If he comes back to pitch, expect 30 saves, somewhere. He's borderline top-10. If Hoffman leaves, the Brewers don't have a replacement, unless they think Todd Coffey can hack it.
2009 closer: Joe Nathan entered the year one of the best and finished it that way. No worries.
2010 closer: Nathan might be the first closer taken in your league. Just make sure it's outside the top 50. He's great, but saves are saves.
2009 closer: Francisco Rodriguez didn't come close to the record-setting save total from the year before, but those who drafted him shouldn't complain. The Mets were awful. K-Rod still managed to accrue 30-plus saves. He could have been Kerry Wood, getting to 20 saves only in the final weeks.
2010 closer: The Mets should get healthy and improve, so expect 40 saves from Rodriguez.
2009 closer: I don't know how Mariano Rivera does it, but he might be getting better. It didn't hurt that Phil Hughes emerged as a terrific set-up man. Next year, Hughes might be a better starting pitcher than Joba Chamberlain.
2010 closer: Well, it ain't gonna be Brian Bruney, I can tell you that. Rivera is again about as safe as you can get, and he moves to the top of my rankings.
2009 closer: Remember Joey Devine? He was knocked out in the spring and had Tommy John surgery. Brad Ziegler saved some games in April, but it became obvious that his 2008 success was a fluke. Along came rookie Andrew Bailey, and what a story he was. Yes, closers come from the strangest places.
2010 closer: Devine should return, but how can Bailey lose this job in the offseason or the spring unless he pitches poorly? Can't and shouldn't happen. He just missed the top 10 for next year, but he'll be a nice value pick for those who think he's going to take a step backward, as Ziegler did. Totally different pitchers.
2009 closer: From perfection and World Series hero to comparisons to Shawn Chacon's horrendous 2004 season, when the Rockies closer went 1-9 with a 7.11 ERA … but 35 saves. I never thought Brad Lidge would fall like this. We all thought he'd take a step back, but this is pretty much unprecedented. It's anyone's guess as to who closes in the playoffs.
2010 closer: Lidge has to be considered the favorite heading into the spring, and we should expect something in the middle of his 2008 and 2009 seasons. Of course, that's a Grand Canyon-like difference. I'd say keep an eye on two-time Tommy John survivor Scott Mathieson, who was throwing in the high-90s again in September, but that would presume Lidge doesn't figure things out and get many more chances.
2009 closer: Those who drafted Matt Capps late were hoping for a career-high in saves, and they got it. Of course, if you add up Capps' ERA from his first two seasons as closer, it's still better than what he did this year. He never had competition, so the job was always safe.
2010 closer: The Pirates say it's his job to lose. He pitched like he could lose it, but there's nobody to take it, unless you think Joel Hanrahan can handle the role. Draft Capps in Round 20.
2009 closer: Chris Perez or Jason Motte? How about neither of them. Tony La Russa just continues to surprise, doesn't he? Motte blew a save by allowing four runs on Opening Day, and that was it for him. In steps Ryan Franklin, nobody believes in him, and he makes the All-Star team with 21 saves and a 0.79 ERA. Amazing.
2010 closer: I won't be selecting Franklin as a top-10 closer next year, but go right ahead if you believe. Be my guest.
2009 closer: One of the more popular sleeper picks for this season, Heath Bell certainly earned his value with a 40-save season. The Padres can keep him around or move him for much-needed offense.
2010 closer: Bell will probably stick around and turn in another very good season, but even if he's traded, he'll close for his new team. Hard to believe he was once an unwanted Met. In San Diego, relief pitchers emerge all the time. Maybe next year, Luke Gregerson will close. He was Bell a year ago.
2009 closer: If you want saves, Brian Wilson gets them. His team doesn't score much, so close games are always coming. Wilson also lowered his ERA and WHIP quite a bit from last season.
2010 closer: There's little reason why Wilson shouldn't flirt with 40 saves again.
2009 closer: So much for Brendan Morrow being a safe closer. The Mariners still aren't entirely sure what to do with Morrow, but I recommend having him start now that David Aardsma is finishing an incredible season with, at this point, 36 saves.
2010 closer: Who cares where Aardsma came from? He's here now, and fairly safe for the foreseeable future. He's already proven he can close, so even if he slips up next year -- and there's no reason to think he will -- he bought himself years of being considered. Do remember, though, that the Mariners have a couple of former first-round arms they're grooming to work in the bullpen, so at some point in 2010, Josh Fields and Phillippe Aumont could be names to know.
2009 closer: This situation was in flux in the spring, as Troy Percival and Dan Wheeler were considered the main options, while Jason Isringhausen lurked. J.P. Howell pitched the best -- he finally earned the role in June and kept it until mid-September.
2010 closer: Howell led the bullpen in wins, saves, ERA and strikeouts, but be wary of drafting him for the saves next year. The Rays are likely to aim to improve their situation and return Howell to set-up duties. One would think they get someone not currently on the squad. The Rays seem to like older pitchers (Percival, Isringhausen, Randy Choate, Joe Nelson), so maybe someone like Billy Wagner lands here.
2009 closer: Despite numerous trips to the disabled list, Frank Francisco did the job when healthy; C.J. Wilson was also effective. There's little question, however, that Francisco is the closer.
2010 closer: One would think the Rangers would bring Francisco back, and since a few of the DL stints were fluky, expect 30 saves.
2009 closer: Entering Wednesday, no team had fewer saves than the Blue Jays, with Jason Frasor and Scott Downs acting as the main closers. Neither did poorly in the role, but this team didn't provide enough chances for fantasy owners to gain much.
2010 closer: Unfortunately, rumors from Toronto claim that Frasor and Downs are slated to begin next season sharing the role. Ugh.
2009 closer: Joel Hanrahan saved five games for the club but was so awful that not only was he removed from the role, but the Nationals also seemed eager to trade this power arm to the Pirates. Joe Beimel, Kip Wells and Garrett Mock were discussed for the role, but ultimately Mike MacDougal was signed off the scrap heap and actually piled on the saves in the second half.
2010 closer: With this season's closers racking up more walks than strikeouts, one would think the team would look elsewhere for its future closer. Drew Storen was the team's other first-round pick in the Stephen Strasburg draft, and he's being groomed for the role. He might be ready by next season.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.