Life as a closer, at least this season, has actually been somewhat easier than usual.
We've discussed the topic before in this space, but with the All-Star break now come and gone, a quick scroll through current closers reveals that 22 of the 30 major league teams still employ the same man in the ninth inning today as they did on Opening Day. That's remarkably little turnover for a position at which we constantly point out the turnover is annually high.
But even in a year where saves haven't been quite as volatile as usual, there are always a few surprises. Continuing with this week's theme of All-Stars, busts and a look ahead, today's Relief Efforts hands out the hardware to relievers, the men who traditionally get overlooked in the real game, but apparently are beginning to catch some eyes, at least judging by the fact that this year's All-Star rosters sported 11 relief pitchers, including four middle relievers.
We'll begin with the top names on the Player Rater -- the "Player Rater All-Stars" -- while also tabbing value-based All-Stars and first-half busts, then conclude with a few value selections for the coming weeks.
Let's get started, shall we?
Player Rater All-Stars
Billy Wagner, Atlanta Braves: It's not like anyone doubted his ability to dominate or to contend for top-closer fantasy status during the games in which he was healthy. What people doubted was his ability to stay healthy, as he made just 17 appearances last season after returning from Tommy John surgery, which before that had cost him more than 200 days on the disabled list in 2008 and 2009. At 38 years old (he turns 39 on July 25), Wagner probably struck most as less likely to make a full recovery than a younger pitcher. But make that recovery he has, as his velocity is up a notch (95.7 average mph with his fastball, compared to 94.6 in his last fully healthy season in 2007) and his strikeout rate of 13.5 per nine innings compares favorably with his best seasons in the category in 1997 to 1999. Wagner ranks among the top 10 in the majors in saves (21, eighth), strikeouts by a reliever (58, second), relief ERA among those with 25-plus innings (1.17, sixth) and relief WHIP (0.83, ninth). Talent-wise, he's entirely capable of maintaining this pace, and the longer he pitches without an injury setback, the more that risk factor diminishes.
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees: Wow, Mariano Rivera has been a top fantasy closer? Stop the presses! Even at 40 years old, Rivera is up to his old robot-like antics. In fact, one could argue that his 2010, so far, has been his most effective campaign to date. Among full-time closers -- let's define that as any pitcher with double-digit saves for these purposes -- his 1.05 ERA and 0.64 WHIP lead the way. Rivera hasn't had a WHIP of 1.00 or higher in any month thus far, and if the injuries to his left side and right knee that cost him an All-Star Game appearance worry you, perhaps his 12 saves, 0.43 ERA, 0.52 WHIP and .114 batting average allowed in his final 19 appearances of the first half will ease your mind. The Yankees aren't about to stop winning, therefore providing Rivera consistent save chances. Heck, would anyone be surprised if he's still dominating in 2015?
Heath Bell, San Diego Padres: He led the National League in saves with 42 last season and is on pace for an NL-best 44 this year, despite the fact that his team was 12 games under .500 in 2009 and 14 over .500 this season. What better example of how saves aren't always tied to a team's success? (Excluding, of course, instances of miserably bad, 100-plus-loss teams, for which there's considerable evidence to the contrary.) Though Bell outranked Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez and Joakim Soria on the 2009 Player Rater, perhaps the primary reason he was selected later than all three on average in ESPN drafts was that his prospective owners were worried he might be traded by the July 31 non-waiver deadline to a team that might demote him into a setup role. So much for that, as the Padres are clear playoff contenders or at least will be beyond that deadline, greatly diminishing the chances of his being dealt.
Rafael Soriano, Tampa Bay Rays: Another injury worry, Soriano has stayed surprisingly healthy since the beginning of last season. After making seven DL trips combined from 2002 to 2008, he has scarcely missed a game the past season and a half, and this season he has yet to miss time. How much more does he need to do to ease fantasy owners' concerns? Among relievers, Soriano ranks fourth in baseball in saves (23), sixth in WHIP (0.80) and 13th in ERA (1.60). He also plays for one of the most competitive teams in the game, one that should hang in the playoff race right up until the very end, assuring him consistent save opportunities. At this point, it could be argued that Soriano is one of the game's most underappreciated finishers.
First-half value All-Stars
TOP 75 RELIEF PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 75 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Wagner: Picked 12th among closers on average in the preseason, Wagner has topped the position on our Player Rater, as noted above, and done so by a significant margin over Rivera. You can't deny the value in that.
Matt Capps, Washington Nationals: Feel free to point out that, since May 17, he has only nine saves in 13 opportunities, a 5.31 ERA and 1.77 WHIP. For the past two months, it's fair to say that Capps has been a disappointment, at least relative to his hot start. But considering he was the 30th reliever off the board in the preseason, can you really complain about the value he has provided, even during his cold spells? He's on pace for 42 saves, and in his defense, he does have three wins, is 5-for-5 in save chances and has a 2.19 ERA in his past 13 appearances (since June 8), not to mention his brief swoon might have scared off enough teams that he might no longer be the top July trade candidate. The risk of a trade remains significant, and if he's dealt, it's hard to imagine him as anything other than a setup man elsewhere, but everyone knows this. He might fetch little in a fantasy trade, so keeping him around for the remainder of the ride could be the right move.
Neftali Feliz, Texas Rangers: One could argue that he'd have been a more-desired preseason sleeper had we known the Rangers regarded him as a possible closer than a rotation candidate since the onset of spring training, but the guy did get picked 29th among relievers, so clearly people were aware of his upside. Interestingly enough, he struggled as a rotation contender during the preseason, posting a 10.80 ERA in six appearances (one of them a start), cracked the roster as a reliever and elevated himself to the role of closer as early as his first save on April 12, if not his third on April 28, depending on the point at which you'd have called the role entirely "his." His 3.82 first-half ERA might not sound the part of a huge "value" pick, but before a two-thirds of an inning, four-run nightmare in a non-save situation on July 9, his final first-half appearance, that number was 2.92. Meanwhile, he has 23 saves, fourth in the game, a 1.06 WHIP and a 10.04 K's-per-nine ratio, numbers that together rival most any other closer's. In terms of raw talent, there's no reason Feliz can't maintain this pace all year, his primary obstacle being any potential workload concerns on the Rangers' part. To that point, he's on pace for 72 appearances, a high number for any reliever but especially for a closer.
Evan Meek, Pittsburgh Pirates: This All-Star is the highest-ranked non-closer relief pitcher (i.e., excluding clear closers and "relief-eligible" starters like Jaime Garcia and Phil Hughes) on our Player Rater, and if you take saves out of the equation entirely, he trails only Wagner in terms of value provided by any relief pitcher in wins, ERA, WHIP and K's. Remember, this is a guy who has been scored upon in four of his past six appearances, so imagine where he'd have ranked a few weeks ago? Meek, considered a closer in waiting from the onset of spring training, has done nothing but demonstrate his worthiness of a shot, yet incredibly, he might not get it even if incumbent Octavio Dotel is traded, judging by the Pirates' usage of fellow setup man Joel Hanrahan (an ex-closer) of late. Meek's performance has been valuable in just about every format except the most shallow mixed leagues, and you can bet the Pirates will make that a ninth-inning battle between the two righty setup men if Dotel gets dealt in the coming days.
Luke Gregerson, San Diego Padres: Perhaps no relief pitcher has done more to improve himself this year than Gregerson. It has been discussed in this space in past editions, but let's tackle the topic again: After getting hit to the tune of .285/.365/.423 (AVG/OBP/SLG) rates by left-handers in 2009, he has limited them to just .141/.203/.250 numbers this year. Plus, he has cut his walk rate just about in half, dropping it from 3.72 per nine as a rookie to 1.87 as a sophomore. Folks, this is no Cla Meredith-style, one-season flash in the pan; Gregerson is a legit, impact reliever. Yet, like Meek, he seems like he might be third in the saves pecking order, judging by Mike Adams' usage leading into the break. He also plays for a team where the incumbent closer, Bell, likely isn't going anywhere.
Trevor Hoffman, Milwaukee Brewers: Unlike the ageless Rivera, there were ever-so-slight hints the past few years that Hoffman's career was edging closer to its conclusion. He suffered a few more slumps in his final years with the Padres, his K rate was dropping and his fly-ball rate creeping upward, not to mention the oblique injury that cost him the first month of 2009. But considering his track record and his bounce-back 1.83 ERA when healthy last season, could anyone really have expected him to be this bad? I'll spare you his statistics so you can keep down your lunch (feel free to check 'em out yourself), and instead talk about whether he's showing any signs of improvement. In 14 appearances since being demoted from the closer role, he has a 3.86 ERA and 1.36 WHIP. Those are OK, but hardly vintage Hoffman. In fact, compare them to the numbers of John Axford, his replacement, since Axford's first save on May 23: 3.43 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 10-for-10 converting saves. Does that look like a necessary switch?
Chad Qualls, Arizona Diamondbacks: He began the season as the anchor of what has turned out to be baseball's worst bullpen, and he has lived up to the description of "anchor" at least in one sense -- he helped rapidly sink his team to last place in the NL West. Through a half-season, Qualls has the worst relief ERA (8.60) of any pitcher with 25-plus innings, and only Randy Williams of the Chicago White Sox has a worse WHIP than his 2.11. Inside Edge reports that opponents' well-hit average (the percentage of his at-bats in which hitters were judged to have made good contact) against him is .295, eighth-worst of anyone who has thrown at least 500 pitches, whereas his numbers in the category the past three years were .164, .194 and .205, working backwards. That doesn't offer much hope.
Frank Francisco, Texas Rangers: His loss has been Feliz's gain, as it took just five Rangers games for manager Ron Washington to decide his team needed a change in the ninth. Ugly back-to-back blown saves on April 8 and 10 cost Francisco his job, and even though he's 2-for-2 in save chances with 11 holds, a 3.08 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 40 appearances since, fantasy owners typically refuse to trust Rangers middle relievers. Consistency is not his friend; his WHIPs per month so far have been 1.80, 1.38, 0.95 and 1.20. Francisco might have the stuff to close -- evidenced by his 49 K's in 40 frames -- but his best chance at recapturing that role is if the Rangers rein in Feliz's workload, as hinted above.
Second-half value picks
Huston Street, Colorado Rockies: Now healthy, Street should be one of the better fantasy closers -- if not top-10 overall at the position -- the rest of the way. He's throwing well since his return from the disabled list, with a 2.19 ERA, 0.57 WHIP and no walks in 12 1/3 innings, and he plays for a team that historically has been much more successful after the All-Star break than before it. This is one of the deeper Rockies bullpens we've seen, so save opportunities shouldn't be a problem, and look at his numbers the second half of last season: 13-for-14 in save chances, 3.63 ERA, 0.76 WHIP and 10.88 K's per nine.
Drew Storen, Nationals: It's mostly a hunch, but of all the July trade candidates, Capps is the one I consider most likely to be moved, and of his two potential stand-ins, Storen is the one who makes the most sense as a "looking to the future" decision. Nothing against Tyler Clippard, who has 12 relief wins, a 2.97 ERA and 1.21 WHIP combined between this and last season and is probably the better bet in the short term, but Clippard has developed into a fabulous setup man, and maybe, just maybe, the Nationals will regard that as a reason to begin their future with Storen in the ninth sooner. Storen has looked perfectly ready: He has a 2.45 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and .227 BAA in his first 24 career appearances. To not give him at least an opportunity to close in September is somewhat silly, and that means there could be a sneaky eight to 10 saves coming from him yet.
Middle reliever spotlight: Mike Adams, San Diego Padres
He was alluded to as the potential next-in-line to Heath Bell in the highly unlikely event the latter is traded, so why not thrust the spotlight upon Adams, who since last June has been one of the game's most underappreciated relievers?
First, let's point out that Adams, at least at the onset of the second half, is a candidate for a DL stint; he suffered an oblique strain Sunday. He'll be evaluated Friday, and the San Diego Union-Tribune suggests it might be a couple-day issue more than a full DL stint, but the possibility is out there. Today, we're discussing his talent; his injury history is well known.
Consider that since that his first appearance, on June 9, 2009, after shoulder surgery, Adams has a 1.49 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, .152 BAA, 10.46 K's-per-nine ratio and 37 holds in 79 appearances, numbers that anyone should welcome to a fantasy roster (they'd have helped even those in the shallowest mixed formats). Much of that was fueled by a sensational 2009, but his 2010 can't be characterized as bad in any way; his numbers in those categories this year are 2.18, 0.94, .185, 10.02 and 22 holds in 42 appearances.
But a debate about Adams in fantasy essentially boils down to him versus Gregerson as Bell's handcuff (if he really needed one). To that point, here's a comparison of the two:
Holds: Adams 22, Gregerson 19
ERA: Adams 2.18, Gregerson 2.91
WHIP: Gregerson 0.74, Adams 0.94
K's per nine: Gregerson 11.01, Adams 10.02
BAA: Gregerson .154, Adams .185
Pretty close, right? We'd give the slight edge to Gregerson? That's fair to say, but here are a few other facts that seem to point to Adams actually being "the guy" (again, if one is ever needed, like, say, in case of catastrophic injury to Bell):
• Adams has entered only one game with runners on base and inherited two runners overall; Gregerson has entered 10 with runners on and inherited 17. That hints that the Padres regard Adams as a one-inning, short-relief type, while Gregerson is the more versatile reliever capable of being leveraged in any situation.
• Adams has entered 25 times in what Baseball-Reference.com calls "High Leverage" situations, tops on the team. Gregerson has entered 22, Bell 24.
• Adams has entered the game in the eighth inning on 41 occasions (out of 42 total appearances). Gregerson has entered in the eighth only six times.
• The two have appeared in the same game on 28 occasions, and in only three of those did Gregerson enter after Adams, two of which occurred when Adams pitched the eighth in a tight game while Gregerson appeared in extra innings.
• Up to you how much it matters, but Adams, simply put, is the veteran of the two, and that often sways a manager's hand in a tight closer decision.
Take the facts for what they are, but even beyond the great saves debate, there's this: Adams can be a clear helper in ERA/WHIP/K's in NL-only and deep mixed formats, every bit as much as his fellow bullpen-mate Gregerson can.
Upgrade your roster
Whispers that Indians closer Kerry Wood might be a trade candidate himself in the coming weeks thrusts Perez back into the spotlight in Cleveland, deservingly so considering the way he has pitched of late. There's always the risk that a reliever gets thrown out of his rhythm with a role change, especially a demotion from closer to setup man, but Perez has adapted beautifully with nine holds, a 2.52 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and .193 BAA in 25 appearances since Wood's activation. What's more, Perez has even notched three saves on days Wood was unavailable, so he's proving he can handle the job in Wood's stead.
Perez has long been regarded a "closer in waiting," dating back to his tenure as a St. Louis Cardinals farmhand. His mid-90s fastball and biting slider have regularly helped him to low opponents' batting averages wherever he has pitched. In 138 career big-league appearances, in fact, he has a .209 BAA. There's every reason to believe he's ready for another opportunity if Wood is moved (or gets hurt), and even if you worry that he was somewhat shaky in the role earlier this year, the truth is that five to six weeks as a closer for a team that doesn't often provide save opportunities isn't a sample size to make definitive, long-term conclusions.
As for Rodney, the reasons for his stock declining are twofold: One is that Brian Fuentes hasn't pitched so poorly that a switch in L.A. is imminent, especially with manager Mike Scioscia standing firmly behind his closer the entire season to date. The other is that Rodney hasn't done much lately to tempt Scioscia to make said switch, having turned in a 4.67 ERA, 1.79 WHIP and .292 BAA in his past 18 appearances. Rodney's command continues to be shaky, as he has 10 walks in 17 1/3 frames during that span, which paints him as a high-risk bet to close should the opportunity present itself in the coming weeks.
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.