In this wild, wild world of baseball bullpens, it's a comfort to fantasy owners to know there's a one-stop source for all your save-seeking needs.
Seasoned veterans of ESPN's fantasy game are probably familiar with our Closer Chart, but as we introduce newer players with this resource, vets can always use a refresher. The Closer Chart breaks down each major league team's bullpen in terms of a reliever's proximity to the closer role, giving you a sense of who is closing for a given team as well as who might be next in line should something happen to the incumbent. It is not intended to rank a team's relievers in order of fantasy value, although often these things wind up one and the same because of the importance of saves in fantasy valuation formulas.
The Closer Chart is updated as news dictates, so check back regularly. Sometimes, this can mean multiple times in a day.
To discuss the reliever labels in greater detail, "closer" is either that team's officially designated closer or the pitcher most likely to get the team's next save chance (the latter instance generally because the usual closer is injured). Co-closerships and committees are noted in this space where applicable.
"Next in line" is the pitcher most likely to take over if something happens to the closer or the one who might get any save chances on the closer's nights off. When we discuss handcuffing relievers, these are the candidates we're talking about.
"Stealth" is a dark-horse candidate for saves, for those digging deep. These pitchers typically don't pose an imminent threat to the closer's job security but might if given time. They're the types you might want to stash in singular (AL- or NL-only) leagues.
"Looming" is a pitcher who has his sights set on the closer role but whose current circumstances might prevent him from doing so. Generally speaking, these are usual closers who are injured or on bereavement leave. Other candidates include closer-worthy pitchers currently working out of the rotation, specialists (especially lefties) or top prospects in the minors.
But a simple chart, as the Closer Chart is, can't provide a complete window into a team's bullpen approach. For example, some teams have committee approaches, and some have preferred -- although not officially full-time -- closer options, and the backups to those might be more relevant than those on teams whose bullpens are more cut-and-dry. You couldn't treat the Chicago White Sox's bullpen like that of the New York Yankees, for instance.
In this first edition of "Relief Efforts" for the 2012 season, let's take a closer look at each team's bullpen pecking order, explaining some of the individual selections in the Closer Chart and highlighting some of the potential changes we might see during the season as well as some sleepers for saves.
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. Prev Rank refers to Tristan's preseason reliever rankings, which were only 40 deep.
This is one of those cut-and-dry bullpens referred to above, with J.J. Putz the closer and David Hernandez his primary setup man and emergency fill-in, something necessary with a pitcher with Putz's injury history. But the primary takeaway from the season's first week is the No. 3 reliever in the pecking order: Bryan Shaw. Shaw notched a save on April 8 when neither Putz nor Hernandez was available -- both had previously worked on back-to-back days -- and he has emerged as a viable setup man thanks to a solid 2011 between the minors (16 saves, 2.58 ERA between Double- and Triple-A) and majors (2.54 ERA, 1.34 WHIP). Shaw might be irrelevant in fantasy leagues for now, but if either of the two men ahead of him gets hurt, he'd warrant NL-only consideration at least.
Another cut-and-dry bullpen, with Craig Kimbrel the closer and Jonny Venters his setup man, but the two men behind them could yet be of service in NL-only leagues: Lights-out lefty Eric O'Flaherty and long man/swingman candidate Kris Medlen. Medlen might have been more intriguing as a fifth-starter candidate, but even as a reliever, he might quickly work himself into high-leverage, late-inning relief.
Despite questions about his velocity during spring training, Jim Johnson showed enough in brief Grapefruit League time to earn Buck Showalter's nod at closer, and so far, Johnson is 2-for-2 in save chances with 2 2/3 scoreless innings pitched. Johnson is firmer in the role than people give credit; it's effectively a three-man mishmash of potential fill-ins behind him with Luis Ayala, Kevin Gregg and Matt Lindstrom, those three listed alphabetically. Considering the Orioles' usage of the trio late in games that were close on the scoreboard, Lindstrom looks like the leader of the group, Ayala second, which is why a pitcher with as many career saves as Gregg has dropped to the "Looming" class.
The Red Sox's bullpen has a 5.89 ERA and two blown saves thus far, both of those ranking them among the five worst teams in the majors, and neither current closer Alfredo Aceves nor his primary setup man, Mark Melancon, has established himself as a go-to guy in real life or fantasy. In Aceves' defense, at least manager Bobby Valentine is showing confidence in the rubber-armed right-hander, throwing him out there for what resulted a successful first save this past Monday after Aceves posted back-to-back bad outings in Detroit to open the season. But this might be a team that endures much shuffling of the names on the Closer Chart. Vicente Padilla has been the team's most effective reliever so far, Franklin Morales has pitched well and has a hint of past closing experience, and Daniel Bard could return to the bullpen if the rotation experiment fails. I stand by these projected saves totals for Red Sox relievers, at least today: Melancon 14, Andrew Bailey 12, Aceves 10, Bard 4, Padilla/Morales 3, someone not on the team 3.
I fully expect to change my mind several times. Maybe even by next week.
Closer Carlos Marmol and primary setup man Kerry Wood have been awful so far: They've combined to blow two of three save chances, absorb two losses and register a 12.46 ERA, and in either case there's a legitimate question about their long-term value. With Marmol, it's his horrendous control, and with Wood, it's stamina. It's for that reason that a younger middle reliever like Rafael Dolis bears watching. In NL-only leagues, he already warrants stashing on your bench.
Chicago White Sox
For as mysterious as the White Sox were about their closer plans during the preseason, their bullpen attack couldn't have been clearer since the regular season began: Addison Reed has consistently pitched the seventh inning, Matt Thornton the eighth inning and Hector Santiago the ninth.
Wait, what?! Hector Santiago?! Believe it, as the left-hander with the 0.82 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and .184 batting average allowed during spring training emerged as Robin Ventura's go-to guy, even though he averaged 4.12 walks per nine innings while allowing more fly balls than ground balls during his minor league career. Santiago looks like a different pitcher today, however, perhaps thanks to what has been reported a splitter -- although our pitch-tracking tool classifies it as a changeup -- giving him a viable out pitch. Maybe he won't be a long-term success and hotshot prospect Reed, listed as "Stealth" if only because of his current role, will shift back two innings to take over later this summer. But Santiago is well worth having on a fantasy team today, and maybe he can keep this up for a while.
The Reds are one of only five teams to have not garnered a save chance thus far, so it's impossible to say definitively that Sean Marshall is their closer. He looks highly likely to be the closer, however, being that he has pitched the ninth in both of his two appearances to date, while Aroldis Chapman has now been called upon to throw multiple innings in two of his three outings. That hints that Chapman's value to the team is too great to lock him into a mere one-inning gig, although with his stuff and vastly improved command (two walks in 22 innings thus far, counting the spring), he'd be a sensation if given a chance to close. The rest of this bullpen, as a result, is somewhat irrelevant, surprising given the changes it has undergone recently.
As with the Cubs, the Indians have questions at the back end of their bullpen, as closer Chris Perez might not even be the better choice than his primary setup man, Vinnie Pestano. Considering Pestano's lack of an out pitch against left-handed hitters, however, he might not be any more suited to close long-term. This could be a pingpong bullpen -- the role changing hands several times -- with a dreaded closer by committee hinted at during the rough spells. If you're looking for uber-deep fill-ins -- and none of these guys is even AL-only-worthy yet -- perhaps Tony Sipp, Nick Hagadone or even Jairo Asencio could factor in.
This is less a closer-and-his-backup arrangement than it is the "closer of the now" and "closer of the future," Rafael Betancourt being the former, Rex Brothers the latter. The Rockies will sit back and wait for one of two things: Betancourt to falter as closer or Brothers to polish his command to the point he's ready to take over. But Matt Belisle does warrant a mention for his performance for the team the past few seasons in a setup capacity.
One blown save, even on Opening Day, isn't going to change anything in Detroit: Jose Valverde is still the Tigers' closer, Joaquin Benoit his primary setup man. Octavio Dotel's experience at closer will be entirely irrelevant unless Valverde suffers some sort of unexpected, catastrophic long-term injury.
If the Astros' decision to move Brett Myers to the bullpen did anything, it was to clear up what was shaping up as one of the ugly closer pictures in baseball. With Myers occupying the ninth inning, the only relevance to the Closer Chart pecking order is who might take over should the right-hander be traded midseason. But we've probably got three months' audition time for the setup men before his successor would be known, if so; the leading contenders are David Carpenter, Brandon Lyon and Fernando Rodriguez, probably in that order.
You have to read the play-by-play of Wednesday's game to fully appreciate the experience that is Jonathan Broxton: error, walk, walk, hit by pitch, hit by pitch, game over. Broxton might have closer experience and a mid-90s fastball -- our pitch-tracking tool has him averaging 95.2 mph with the pitch this season, up from last year's 94.0 but still beneath either his 2009 (97.6) or 2010 (95.3) averages -- but his command is sorely lacking. He has two walks and two hit batsmen in 14 batters faced and has thrown only 42 percent of pitches in the strike zone; he managed 53, 50 and 47 numbers in that category in 2009, 2010 and 2011. It's for that reason that Broxton's primary setup man, Greg Holland, is an important name to know, as Holland possesses more polished skills and might yet lead the Royals in saves over the course of the full season. Aaron Crow and Tim Collins might factor into the mix if things get really messy.
Although the Angels also haven't generated a save chance, Jordan Walden remains their closer, with Scott Downs as his primary setup man. The interesting takeaway from this bullpen is that Jason Isringhausen, who has 300 career saves and at one point was the New York Mets' closer last season, made the team and has been getting seventh-inning work (granted, in losses). Hey, you never know.
It was the debate of the preseason: Do the Dodgers go with Javy Guerra, who did a fine job closing for the 2011 team, or Kenley Jansen, whose stuff is so outstanding you'd think of him as an automatic ninth-inning choice? Guerra won the battle without much argument and hasn't faltered since, and until he shows signs of struggles, he'll remain in the role with Jansen setting him up. Remember, the best arm in a bullpen doesn't have to close; see 1996 New York Yankees, 2001 Houston Astros, 2004 Anaheim Angels, 2007 Cleveland Indians
Everyone else in this bullpen is pretty much irrelevant as saves are concerned.
Heath Bell was signed to close, and close he shall. But who is his primary setup man? It sure looks like Edward Mujica, who has pitched the eighth inning in all three of his appearances, earning two holds. Steve Cishek has been getting lower-leverage work, shaping up as third in the pecking order, while the Oviedo Formerly Known as Nunez, Juan Oviedo (Leo Nunez), remains in the Dominican Republic.
Another cut-and-dry bullpen, with John Axford the closer and Francisco Rodriguez his primary setup man, even though Rodriguez has 219 more career saves than Axford. Nothing to see here beyond those two.
One of the weakest bullpens in baseball. Matt Capps is the closer, but he might face a challenge to his throne from Glen Perkins, whose 2.34 ERA since the beginning of last season is more than a run and three-quarters lower than Capps' 4.12. The rest of this bullpen is a mishmash of relievers poorly suited to close; Jared Burton, Brian Duensing and Jeff Gray might pingpong between the "Stealth" and "Looming" categories all season, if only for a lack of viable alternatives.
New York Mets
The Mets signed the 2011 Toronto Blue Jays closers to serve as the same for them in 2012, and thus far, they've remained true to that plan: Frank Francisco is the closer, Jon Rauch as his primary setup man. Francisco is fine -- health is a more significant question than skill -- but Rauch might face competition for his role in time. Ramon Ramirez, Bobby Parnell and Miguel Batista could each figure into the late-inning mix, and if it happens before Francisco gets hurt, NL-only owners might find a sneaky value. This is a bullpen to track but not to act upon today.
New York Yankees
It's as cut-and-dry as they come: First-ballot Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera is the closer, David Robertson is his primary setup man, Rafael Soriano gets the seventh inning. Maybe Joba Chamberlain will join the mix in 2013, if he's healthy.
Although Grant Balfour's spring -- 6.75 ERA, 1.95 WHIP, .346 batting average allowed in seven appearances -- made it a somewhat surprising decision, the right-hander was tabbed the closer at the Cactus League's conclusion, and he has thrived in his new role since. It was the right decision, considering his performance the past two seasons, and if he continues to perform at his current level, this might be a bullpen in which there is no debate. But let's debate the contenders for future shots in this role anyway: Brian Fuentes has the experience to build a case, Ryan Cook appears to be one of the team's more highly regarded relievers and Fautino De Los Santos probably remains the long-term future for the team.
Jonathan Papelbon is paid to close, while Antonio Bastardo, thanks to his breakout 2011, is locked in as Papelbon's primary setup man. Perhaps Michael Stutes could put himself into consideration for the No. 2 role with a hot start to the season, and Justin De Fratus could be a long-term candidate to close. Neither of the latter two seems especially likely to sniff a save chance this season, though. After all, Chad Qualls remains firmly in their way.
It's closer Joel Hanrahan, then a lot of question marks. This is not the bullpen from which to handcuff; Chris Resop is a productive enough setup man, but he has an injury history that makes him a risky stash. Jason Grilli has sleeper potential working the seventh but more so as an ERA/WHIP helper in NL-only leagues.
Just as he was during the 2011 postseason, Jason Motte has been fine as the Cardinals' unquestioned closer, his job security greater than most might give him credit. Primary setup man Fernando Salas is off to a rockier start, besides, though he remains the most likely fill-in if one is needed.
Huston Street is the closer, but the talk of the Padres' bullpen has been winter acquisition Andrew Cashner, who has all the makings of Street's eventual replacement. Cashner has averaged 98.5 mph with his fastball and has appeared in the eighth inning or later in all three of his games, not allowing a run in any. He's already shaping up as the next in line to Street, who in addition to being an injury risk is a midseason trade candidate, leaving Luke Gregerson and Ernesto Frieri to battle for the honor of seventh-inning reliever.
Brian Wilson, for so long as he remains healthy, is the Giants' unquestioned closer. But who might fill in should the right-hander get hurt? Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo have pitched the best thus far, albeit in limited action, while Jeremy Affeldt has struggled in his three appearances. It'll be quite a debate as to whether Casilla or Romo should get the gig in the event of a Wilson injury; I remain firm in my assessment that Casilla is a stronger choice, even if it's close. If there's any bullpen critical to track in the early weeks, this is it.
While Brandon League faces no immediate challenge to his closership, the pecking order behind him in the Mariners' bullpen might be relevant in AL-only leagues if he gets hurt at some point. Tom Wilhelmsen appears to have grabbed the primary setup role, making four appearances with a 1.59 ERA already, with Steve Delabar looking like the primary seventh-inning option.
As unbelievable as it sounds, Fernando Rodney -- yes, that Fernando Rodney -- appears to have stepped up as the Rays' fill-in closer, at least for the projected four to six weeks that Kyle Farnsworth (elbow) is expected to miss. Rodney has been a volatile finisher in his career, but he has faced eight batters so far this season, retired all eight and totaled three saves and one win in the process. The Rays seem to have a magical touch with relievers -- Farnsworth before Rodney another example of that -- so maybe there's something to this Rodney thing. Pick him up but brace for a potential implosion and prepare to shed him immediately in the event it happens.
As for who might fill in should it happen, Joel Peralta possesses the skills to close, and Jake McGee has been discussed as a future closer candidate. Peralta is the smartest choice, but then wasn't he in the first place when Farnsworth got hurt? That he's not closing today has me somewhat skeptical.
Although Joe Nathan was signed to close for the Rangers this season, he has struggled in two of his four appearances thus far and might go under the microscope in the near future. The team has plenty of viable alternatives: Mike Adams, one of the most effective relievers in baseball the past three seasons; Alexi Ogando, the former starter who has dominant short-relief stuff; and Koji Uehara, once briefly a Baltimore Orioles closer. Adams is the A-No. 1 choice to take over if Nathan continues to falter, and even in a setup capacity Adams has the skills to contribute in ERA/WHIP in mixed leagues.
Toronto Blue Jays
Sergio Santos might already have two blown saves in three tries, but credit the Blue Jays for remaining faithful with him, giving him a chance to close on Wednesday, an opportunity he successfully converted. Veteran Francisco Cordero, Santos' primary setup man, has considerable closer experience, so fantasy owners might expect Cordero to get a look should Santos continue to struggle. The situation bears watching, but clearly Santos has a lengthier leash than most expected; he might have to blow another 2-3 chances in the near future to face a challenge from Cordero. Still, it's smart to handcuff these two if you have the opportunity.
It is impossible to glean anything from the Nationals' first week of game action, because their save chances have been sporadic. From that angle, it's smart to assume that Brad Lidge and Henry Rodriguez remain in a co-closership, the hotter hand presumably taking over full-time sometime in the near future. Usual closer Drew Storen might miss the first half of the season, so either of these relievers warrants a pickup, even in mixed leagues.