Plenty of turnover in closer ranks

Updated: May 11, 2012, 5:17 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Since Jan. 20, 15 closer jobs have changed hands. Fifteen.

Relief Efforts

Why bury the lede? That's a fact that speaks for itself.

For full details, Jan. 20 was a significant date for us; that was the second day of our annual fantasy baseball rankings summit, the day that we, the ESPN Fantasy team, gathered to project and rank every team's closer. And since that date, 15 of the closers we all agreed upon then have lost their jobs.

Now, a 50 percent success rate might strike you as horrendous, especially since we're not even one-fifth of the way through the season. But to be fair, at the summit we successfully predicted the winners of two closer battles up for grabs this spring: Jim Johnson (Baltimore Orioles) and Grant Balfour (Oakland Athletics). Hey, at least we got a couple of 'em right.

Most of the 15 closers who have since lost their jobs, meanwhile, took everyone by surprise. Nine of them have done so since Opening Day. There have been seven closer changes, in fact, since last week's "Relief Efforts!" Heck, the first four bullpens discussed last week -- the topic was setup men with greater skills than the closers ahead of them -- are among those seven changes.

We've had four closers lost for the season due to injury: Joakim Soria (Tommy John surgery announced March 23, occurred April 3), Ryan Madson (Tommy John surgery announced March 24, occurred April 4), Brian Wilson (Tommy John surgery announced April 15, occurred April 19) and now Mariano Rivera (torn ACL and meniscus May 3, surgery date not yet set). You read that right: Even the game's all-time best closer wasn't safe from the injury bug.

[+] EnlargeHeath Bell
Debby Wong/US PresswireDespite signing a lucrative offseason contract, Heath Bell couldn't avoid being part of this year's mass closer turnover.

We've had five other closers lost for extended periods, though perhaps not yet for the season, due to injury: Andrew Bailey (thumb surgery April 4, expected recovery time was three to four months), Kyle Farnsworth (elbow soreness, DLed April 5, return date unclear, though ineligible for activation before June 5), Drew Storen (elbow surgery April 11, expected recovery time was two months), Sergio Santos (shoulder inflammation, DLed April 21, expected recovery time was at least four weeks) and Huston Street (strained lat May 5, return date unclear).

We've had four closers lose their jobs due to ineffectiveness: Jordan Walden (demoted April 27), Carlos Marmol (demoted May 4), Heath Bell (demoted May 5) and Javy Guerra (demoted May 7).

And, finally, we've had two closers replaced because their teams moved starting pitchers into the role: Brett Myers took over the vacant Houston Astros gig on Feb. 28, while Chris Sale was announced Friday as the Chicago White Sox's new closer, supplanting Hector Santiago.

Oh, for some more fun, we've even had a closer role that has changed multiple times: The Toronto Blue Jays began the year with Santos, replaced him with Francisco Cordero, then recently replaced Cordero via manager's decision with Casey Janssen.

Got all that?

As always, the rankings to the right attempt to evaluate every relief pitcher -- closer or middle man -- based upon their value in the five prominent Rotisserie categories. If you're interested in one man's opinion of fantasy production by closers from this very date through the final date of the 2012 regular season, my thoughts are right there. My long-term preferences rank accordingly.

But this one man also says that, for this season at least, anything goes with closers. The proverbial "dart board" is as relevant an evaluation tool as ever, and a reactionary approach is fair. Yes, change might be the annual story at the closer position, but when was the last time you can recall this much change this quickly?

Here's what's most remarkable about this season: Statistically speaking, closers as a whole haven't been any more or less productive in 2012 than in the three seasons before it. Entering Wednesday's games, here were their average numbers, the stats from past seasons also through May 8 of those years:

2012: 65.4% conversion rate, 0.51 SV/G, 0.27 BS/G
2011: 66.3% conversion rate, 0.50 SV/G, 0.26 BS/G
2010: 63.1% conversion rate, 0.47 SV/G, 0.27 BS/G
2009: 62.4% conversion rate, 0.48 SV/G, 0.29 BS/G

Apparently it's not that closers as a whole are becoming less efficient, it's that the position itself has become more volatile. That makes sense, especially considering two of the top five closers we agreed upon on Jan. 20 no longer have any chance at finishing among the top 25 at the position, let alone top 5.

So in order to help you straighten out this mess, as well as provide a handy partner to this week's rankings, let's take a quick-hitting look at those seven bullpens in which the closer role changed hands in the past week:

Chicago Cubs: A bullpen discussed in detail last week both in this space as well as by AJ Mass on Friday, the Cubs finally tired of Carlos Marmol's spotty command, demoting him to a setup role. Though his anticipated replacements were to be a righty-lefty combination of Rafael Dolis and James Russell, Dolis appears to have stepped up as manager Dale Sveum's go-to guy, receiving each of the team's two save chances since. Dolis faces two obstacles when addressing his long-term prospects: He has a troubling eight walks compared to five strikeouts -- though his five K's compared to zero walks in his past five appearances at least hints at improvement -- not to mention he's too reliant upon his fastball; and Cubs management clearly prefers to get Marmol back into his original role in time. Dolis' hold on the closer job might be lengthy enough that he'll be of service in NL-only and deep mixed leagues -- think two to three weeks, as a guess -- but he shouldn't be mistaken for a high-upside save-getter.

Chicago White Sox: This one borders on bizarre. After surprisingly tabbing Hector Santiago his closer on Opening Day, manager Robin Ventura gave Matt Thornton an out-of-nowhere save opportunity on April 25, then the team announced during the past weekend that Chris Sale, a starter-turned-reliever-turned-starter, would again return to the bullpen and take over as closer beginning with this past Monday. You probably know the story since: Addison Reed, the hotshot prospect most fantasy owners probably want to see in the role, picked up back-to-back saves May 5 and 8, then Sale's first "save chance" involved him coming into a game with no one out in the eighth inning on Monday, a chance he promptly blew. To top it off, now the White Sox have sent Sale home to Chicago for an MRI on Thursday to determine the source of his elbow soreness, the injury the team used as its rationale for restoring him to the bullpen in the first place.

Got all that?

What's most frustrating about the White Sox's bullpen is that the individual arms involved in the chase for saves -- arguably excluding Santiago -- are extremely attractive fantasy prospects, based upon their potential in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts. Sale, Reed or Thornton could be a borderline top-10 closer if the team made a commitment to any one. It's for that reason that Sale warrants a look in his new role, though his elbow issues are a noticeable concern, but if I'm projecting the White Sox's top save-getter from Thursday forward, Reed is my pick. In fact, if the team gets, say, 30 more saves, I think Reed gets 20, Sale 7, Thornton 2, Santiago 1.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Another bullpen discussed in detail in last week's "Relief Efforts," the Dodgers finally tired of Javy Guerra's continued ineffectiveness -- he's 3-for-6 in save chances with a 9.82 ERA in his past nine appearances -- and installed one of the most sought-after fantasy sleepers at the position, Kenley Jansen, on Monday. I've sung Jansen's praises for a while now, and most people are quick to make the comparison, talent-wise, to what Craig Kimbrel did in fantasy leagues in 2011. There's no question Jansen has that kind of potential, but can he polish his command to the point that he, too, won't surrender the job? Certainly it's a chance worth taking, and as Kimbrel possessed similar questions at this time last season, the comparison fits. Let's run with it.

Miami Marlins: The Marlins sunk $27 million over the next three years in Heath Bell, and to date, the only positives he has offered them are three saves and six scoreless appearances. Unfortunately, the negatives include four blown saves, six scored-upon appearances and a 10.24 ERA through 12 games overall. Manager Ozzie Guillen couldn't accept that kind of ineffectiveness forever, so over the past weekend, he demoted Bell to middle relief, nominating Steve Cishek as Bell's replacement. Then, naturally, Guillen gave the next available save chance to Edward Mujica, who promptly converted it. Cishek did get the ball during Wednesday's game, then blew it, meaning this bullpen, again, is somewhat up in the air. Cishek's 1.17 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and experience both as brief fill-in for the big club last September and closer on occasion in the minors should grant him another chance, but Mujica's 3.14 ERA and 1.12 WHIP, as well as six consecutive scoreless appearances, have him edging closer. NL-only owners should want Cishek first, Mujica second, but Bell should recapture the job at some point if he's at all effective in the middle frames. He's paid to close, after all.

That's not to say that Bell will be effective; after suffering a troubling dip in his strikeout rate in 2011 (7.32, down from 11.06 in 2010), his number in the category has dropped again this season (6.52).

[+] EnlargeDavid Robertson
Brad Penner/US PresswireDavid Robertson has struggled in his first two outings as the Yankees' closer in place of Mariano Rivera.

New York Yankees: No one saw this one coming. Oh, sure, maybe you've at one point said, "Mariano Rivera is 42 years old, at some point he has to break down." But if you claim you knew that he'd suffer tears to both the ACL and meniscus in his knee while shagging fly balls during batting practice, an exercise he has performed for the vast majority of his career, you're lying.

Rivera is done for the year, setting up outstanding setup man David Robertson as the new Yankees closer, and a potential top-five fantasy option for the remainder of the year. My thoughts on Robertson can be read here, but let's not ignore the follow-up to this story: He endured a miserable blown save on Wednesday, allowing four runs in two-thirds of an inning, potentially putting this role back in the questionable category. Nevertheless, I remain firm on my Robertson pick; be aware that he's a pitcher who tends to throw taxing pitches, and he had thrown 25 the night before while escaping a jam he created, meaning he might have been tired. I'd give him another chance, though he bears watching.

San Diego Padres: In news that can't surprise anyone, Huston Street is on the disabled list. Street's owners had to have been prepared for some missed time, considering his injury history, but it's the Padres' strategy in his absence that's most curious. Andrew Cashner, he of the near-100 mph fastball, and Luke Gregerson, the team's veteran setup man, have apparently been passed over in an initially projected committee, in favor of Dale Thayer, a journeyman who returned to the Padres this season after spending the past five in the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Mets organizations. Thayer converted each of his past two opportunities with both Cashner and Gregerson setting him up, and those eager to dismiss him as an option at least for the foreseeable future are probably overlooking what has been an astounding 20 K's compared to one walk in his 32 career big league innings. Thayer is the pickup in NL-only leagues, but a month from now Street could be back at closer (if healthy), and if Street gets hurt again, Cashner might by all rights have earned the next opportunity. There's really only one reason Cashner is an iffy choice now: His command is in need of some polish.

Toronto Blue Jays: The first bullpen to formally change twice this season, the Blue Jays are finally giving save chances to one of the most surprisingly deserving members of their bullpen, Casey Janssen. Francisco Cordero, one of 2011's better closers who signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal to be the team's setup man and emergency closer backup, performed horribly as Sergio Santos' stand-in; he was 2-for-5 in save chances with a 15.19 ERA in his past six games. Janssen, meanwhile, might not have struck fantasy owners as a viable choice, primarily because of his 4.76 ERA so far this season. But in his defense, he has a 2.69 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in 66 games since the beginning of last year, and he's a much more valuable reliever now than, say, two to three years ago because of the introduction of a cutter to his arsenal. That has helped Janssen narrow his platoon splits and keep hitters off balance and it makes him a meaningful AL-only and deep mixed addition, at least in the short term. But make no mistake: The Blue Jays' bullpen is better with Santos as its closer and Janssen free to help anywhere in the mid-to-late frames, so he's probably only a short-term pickup.

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