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Most-maligned closers

5/20/2010

You know what we often remind you about closers.

Poor performance doesn't necessarily mean a drop in rankings; it usually means a precipitous drop, because poor performance usually leads directly to a demotion from the closer role. And as fantasy owners know, it's the guy who's getting the saves that truly matters. Everyone else is just an afterthought.

So when you're looking at our updated top 300, keep in mind that the closers whose values have dipped the most have probably done so because they already have lost their jobs, regardless of whether it was due to injury or poor performance. A few examples: Mike Gonzalez, Jason Frasor and Brad Lidge. There's little reason to talk about any of them because none is actually closing today. In the event they get another chance? Well, OK, then we'll talk, but that'll wait for another "Relief Efforts."

But that doesn't mean that every incumbent closer is safe, not according to our rankings. Those who have slipped significantly might have done so because job security is no longer a strength, and it's those closers upon which we'll focus today.

Listed below are five who have dropped by 30 spots or more, as well as the reason for the decline. Perhaps more importantly, however, we'll also take a look at who might be a potential threat to each closer's job security.

Trevor Hoffman, Milwaukee Brewers (Preseason: 141st, now: 195th): Frankly, I'm surprised he didn't slip further in our rankings, and I actually did have him lower, at 214th. Hoffman has been awful all year, with as many blown saves as saves (5), more outings in which he has been scored upon (8) than not (6), more home runs allowed (7) than any relief pitcher other than Doug Mathis and a higher batting average allowed (.356) than all but eight other pitchers in baseball who have faced at least 50 batters. Every indicator with Hoffman has been down, and down consistently all year. In fact, if not for his 596 career saves, or that the Brewers aren't stocked with quality alternatives, Hoffman might have already lost his job. But at the pace he's on, a demotion is probably forthcoming.

The question: Who might get the call? It's a topic that had already been discussed in great detail in the April 29 edition of "Relief Efforts," but let's look at what has happened since: LaTroy Hawkins is on the disabled list. Todd Coffey has a 6.75 ERA and .394 BAA. Carlos Villanueva has a 7.27 ERA and 1.50 WHIP. Manny Parra has been moved to the rotation. Triple-A closer Chris Smith has a 2.70 ERA and five saves, but has also surrendered three home runs in seven appearances. If a switch is imminent, expect it to be termed a "breather" for Hoffman, with Coffey and Villanueva duking it out. Coffey's recent setup usage probably has him a slightly better bet, but on skills alone, Villanueva probably deserves a shot first.

Bobby Jenks, Chicago White Sox (Preseason: 181st, now: 216th): Manager Ozzie Guillen has already hinted at the prospect Jenks' job might be in jeopardy, so unsurprisingly his ranking has slipped since the preseason. Not that we were especially high on him in the first place; he was the lowest-ranked of these five relievers in the preseason, and our 20th-ranked closer (removing any relief-eligible starters) back then. Jenks does have a save since Guillen first expressed concern, but so does Matt Thornton, and Jenks has made but two appearances in the past nine days, mainly because the White Sox have lost four of seven games since then. Jenks' command has been less-than-sharp, but the way the White Sox's bullpen is set up, he might be the most logical choice for the long haul. Still, as a less-than-elite closer, fantasy owners can't expect more than low-second-tier closer value.

Not to take anything away from Thornton, of course. In case you weren't aware, he has a 2.64 ERA and 1.00 WHIP since the beginning of 2008, consistently keeping his ERA under 3.00 and WHIP beneath 1.10 each year. He's also every bit as effective versus right-handers (.230/.317/.363 AVG/OBP/SLG in his career) as left-handers (.228/.303/.355), which makes him a fine fit for the role. Don't rule out the prospect of Thornton supplanting Jenks, which means he's a required handcuff except in the shallowest of mixed leagues.

Chad Qualls, Arizona Diamondbacks (Preseason: 160th, now: 218th): Talk about bad bullpens. The Diamondbacks' bullpen ranks dead last in the majors in ERA (7.90), WHIP (1.83) and opponents' OPS (.921), and is second only to the Kansas City Royals in blown saves (9, Royals have 10). Qualls is responsible for three of those blown saves, to go along with his 7.07 ERA and 2.00 WHIP, but he's fortunate in that there is a dearth of quality alternatives in the desert. Suffice to say, if he continues on this path and anyone else can string together three or four consecutive quality outings, a change might be forthcoming.

Who might that "anyone else" be? Perhaps Aaron Heilman, the only Diamondbacks reliever who has pitched effectively all year. Juan Gutierrez already has four losses and an 8.62 ERA, and Bobby Howry had a 10.67 ERA before being released in the past week. Therefore, it should come as no coincidence that Heilman has been getting work in the eighth and ninth innings on many occasions in recent weeks, perhaps a reward for his having turned in a 0.93 ERA, 0.72 WHIP and .194 BAA in his past 11 appearances. If you're a Qualls owner wondering whether you need to back him up, it's Heilman, not Gutierrez, you should consider.

Frank Francisco, Texas Rangers (Preseason: 169th, now: 280th): He had already lost his closer role early in April, but what's important to keep in mind with Francisco is that the man who replaced him, Neftali Feliz, seems to further adapt to the closer role with each passing day. A few short weeks ago, the worry with Feliz was that he wasn't ready to pitch on back-to-back days, but in the month of May alone he has done it three times already, and in each of those he pitched a one-two-three inning to record a save each time, striking out four hitters total. Overall, Feliz has eight saves in nine chances with a 0.87 ERA and .118 BAA in his past 10 appearances. We might even be overrating Francisco at this point, but much of the reason is that it's tough to imagine the Rangers regarding Feliz's long-term future as anything other than as a starting pitcher.

Brian Fuentes, Los Angeles Angels (Preseason: 164th, now: 220th): One might think that a closer with two blown saves in six chances, a 7.27 ERA and four home runs allowed in nine appearances since his return from the disabled list might be at risk to be demoted to middle relief, but apparently not Fuentes. Manager Mike Scioscia remains firm in his decision to keep Fuentes in the ninth, despite the fact that setup man Fernando Rodney, who has past closer experience, has vastly outpitched the left-hander, with two wins, two holds, a 1.00 ERA and .172 BAA in 10 appearances since Rodney's activation. The Angels have already demonstrated that they're a saves machine as a team, so this ninth-inning battle is of great relevance to fantasy. And at the pace these two pitchers are currently working, one has to think it wouldn't be long before a swap happened. That is, if their paces continue.

Middle reliever spotlight: Jason Frasor, Toronto Blue Jays

His is a familiar name, one mentioned above, and don't forget that he was the Blue Jays' closer on Opening Day, but within a week's time had lost the job, thanks both to his own struggles as well as Kevin Gregg's hot start. April was not a good month for Frasor; he had an 8.38 ERA, 2.59 WHIP and .370 batting average allowed in 11 appearances. Still, the Blue Jays stuck with him as their primary eighth-inning option, even through his struggles.

Turns out it was the right move. Since April 30, Frasor has allowed only one run on seven hits and one walk in nine innings, limiting opponents to a .226 batting average. That actually exceeds Gregg's performance during that same time span; Gregg might be 7-for-8 converting save chances, but he has a 3.00 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and .242 BAA in his nine innings' work. Not that Gregg's numbers are nearly poor enough to anticipate possible closer controversy, but it seems that, for now, the Blue Jays have a sound one-two punch at the back end of their bullpen.

The relevance: Frasor was dropped in enough ESPN leagues after losing his closer's role that he's now available in a whopping 78.7 percent of them. With his performance the past few weeks, he's the clear next-in-line to Gregg, a role of particular relevance if you consider Gregg had a 6.75 ERA after the All-Star break last season. Handcuffing might not be a useful enough strategy in a standard ESPN mixed league, but in deeper formats it might, not to mention you should be prepared to scoop up Frasor instantaneously should Gregg get hurt.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.