Commentary

Relief Efforts: Offseason bullpen roundup

Updated: January 8, 2009, 12:35 PM ET
By Eric Karabell | ESPN.com

Fantasy baseball is a year-round activity these days. Gone are the days when you could simply buy a magazine in mid-March and expect to know what happened since October. Doesn't work that way. It especially doesn't work that way for me, because I end up drafting a few teams in November and December anyway. Plus, it's fun to follow what the Detroit Tigers are thinking about for their desolate bullpen around Thanksgiving time.

Let's cut to the chase: We'll be following all movement involving MLB's relief pitchers in this space all fall and winter long, leading up to and including our Spring Training coverage. Want my updated top-40 reliever rankings? Look further down. Want to see a team-by-team look at bullpen hierarchy? Bookmark this page. Want random references to former fantasy heroes like Antonio Alfonseca? Don't go away.

Below you'll see every major league team's bullpen represented, with its current closer and next-in-line candidates. And the rankings are to the right. The page will be updated as new information warrants, and we'll even tell you when we updated it. Here we go.

Note: Teams that have made recent moves have been moved to the top; after that, teams remain in alphabetical order until updates are needed.

Early 2009 Reliever Rankings

Brian Fuentes should have a big season on a team whose closer just broke the saves record.


1. Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox
2. Joe Nathan, Twins
3. Mariano Rivera, Yankees
4. Brad Lidge, Phillies
5. Francisco Rodriguez, Mets
6. Joakim Soria, Royals
7. B.J. Ryan, Blue Jays
8. Bobby Jenks, White Sox
9. Jose Valverde, Astros
10. Carlos Marmol, Cubs
11. Brian Fuentes, Angels
12. Jonathan Broxton, Dodgers
13. Francisco Cordero, Reds
14. Kerry Wood, Indians
15. Matt Capps, Pirates
16. Brian Wilson, Giants
17. Heath Bell, Padres
18. Trevor Hoffman, Brewers
19. Matt Lindstrom, Marlins
20. Joey Devine, Athletics
21. Joel Hanrahan, Nationals
22. Manuel Corpas, Rockies
23. Chad Qualls , Diamondbacks
24. Frank Francisco, Rangers
25. George Sherrill, Orioles
26. Mike Gonzalez, Braves
27. Chris Perez, Cardinals
28. Grant Balfour, Rays
29. Kevin Gregg, Cubs
30. Dan Wheeler, Rays
31. Tyler Walker, Mariners
32. Jose Arredondo, Angels
33. Fernando Rodney, Tigers
34. Troy Percival, Rays
35. Tony Pena, Diamondbacks
36. Brad Ziegler, Athletics
37. Joel Zumaya, Tigers
38. Huston Street, Rockies
39. Jason Isringhausen, free agent
40. Chris Carpenter, Cardinals

Closer: Trevor Hoffman
Next in line: David Riske
Don't forget: Carlos Villanueva
Thoughts (Updated Jan. 8): Wow, is it going to be strange to see Hoffman pitching for this team! As I wrote the day Hoffman signed here, his numbers might not seem like it on the surface, but they are in decline, and leaving Petco Park will not help him. Still, he's clearly the closer, and he should get saves. The Brewers really had no other options in the wake of the stunning retirement of Salomon Torres. I think Villanueva could have done the job, and maybe in a year he gets the chance. Hoffman isn't perfect, but then again, look at whom this team employed in the role recently -- Eric Gagne, Derrick Turnbow, Dan Kolb -- and Hoffman might become beloved. I mean, who wants to see David Riske close?

Closer: Jonathan Broxton
Next in line: Cory Wade
Don't forget: Hong-Chih Kuo
Thoughts (Updated Jan. 8): I wanted to update this situation because it sure looked like the Dodgers were going after Trevor Hoffman, and that obviously would have affected the value for Broxton. Maybe the Dodgers add another arm or two and Broxton keeps his job, but the fact the team was even talking to Hoffman is a red flag. The other news is that it sure looks like underrated Takashi Saito won't be back in L.A. Saito was very good as a Dodger, but he's no youngster and his elbow appears to be a problem. He's gone. Wade and Kuo still make for nice setup men, for now, but it wouldn't shock me if help is still on the way.

Closer: Brian Fuentes
Next in line: Jose Arredondo
Don't forget: Scot Shields
Thoughts (Updated Jan. 7): The K-Rod era was obviously over, but I really thought the Angels would deal with the problems on offense, rather than sign another closer. Arredondo had a terrific season, and it's not like the team has depth problems in the bullpen, with Shields and other veterans lurking. I was surprised Fuentes ended up in Anaheim, but now that he's there, we have to embrace this. The Angels don't look like a team that will score a lot of runs, which is good news for providing save opportunities. I mean, isn't that part of the reason K-Rod saved 62 games, that every game was 4-2 in the ninth inning? Fuentes doesn't need help, either, as the southpaw can retire right-handed hitters, so Arredondo now becomes merely a strikeout middle reliever, one of the top ones off the board. If I sound a bit disappointed, well, I am. At least five other teams really needed Fuentes more, but you can never have enough top relievers.

Closer: Tyler Walker
Next in line: Roy Corcoran
Don't forget: Miguel Batista
Thoughts (Updated Jan. 7): No, I don't think former San Francisco Giant Walker is going to be a successful closer, but his January signing to a one-year deal is very significant. I think it does signal Brandon Morrow will continue with his transformation to becoming a fine starting pitcher. When J.J. Putz was traded to the Mets, that didn't leave much in the Seattle bullpen. Who are we kidding, there still isn't much, and Walker is likely to win and lose the job a few times, I think. At least Morrow can resume his Joba Chamberlain impression. I don't think Aaron Heilman will close; he wants to start, but will likely end up in the seventh or eighth innings. Other than that, Seattle needs to develop some arms within its system and not simply let its guard down and push Morrow back to closing. If you're going to lose 100 games anyway, might as well let Walker or Batista get 30 saves with a 5 ERA. It's happened before.

Closer: Chris Perez
Next in line: Jason Motte
Don't forget: Chris Carpenter
Thoughts (Updated Jan. 7): When I mentioned Carpenter as a "don't forget" guy back before Thanksgiving, I think we all had a chuckle and that was it. Now that manager Tony La Russa is actually discussing his former Cy Young winner as a possible closer, in a John Smoltz-type way because of injury concerns, it tells me Carpenter could save games, and that there are concerns about Perez. Could Perez save 30 games? Sure, he could, and Carpenter could start 30 games or not pitch at all. There's just some doubt now, that's all. Perez and Motte are strikeout right-handers apparently capable of taking that next step, but definitive word might not come on this situation until late March, if at all. La Russa has options. Ryan Franklin could end up with 20 saves for all anyone knows.

Closer: Brad Lidge
Next in line: Ryan Madson
Don't forget: Chad Durbin
Thoughts (Updated Jan. 7): The Phillies probably didn't intend to do much this offseason with the NL's top bullpen, but the new year brought bad news in the form of J.C. Romero's 50-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance. When you figure the champs lose Romero for a quarter of the season, and Durbin doesn't exactly have a strong résumé, the Phils might look to add depth now, rather than finding internal help. It shouldn't change fantasy much, though; Lidge and Madson are reliable. Lidge is not going to be perfect in 2009; it's just unreasonable to expect it. Hard to believe Brett Myers was closing a year prior. Someday, when Lidge's deal is over, keep an eye on Tommy John survivor Scott Mathieson. For now, Romero becomes less of an option in NL-only leagues.

Closer: Carlos Marmol
Next in line: Kevin Gregg
Don't forget: Jeff Samardzija
Thoughts (Updated Jan. 7): When I first wrote about the Cubs officially parting ways with Kerry Wood, I thought it was a given Marmol would close. My stance didn't change when Gregg was acquired from the Marlins for a younger, harder-throwing prospect who will probably outperform him by 2010. But now I'm getting the feeling there might be a competition here in the spring between Marmol and Gregg. Plenty of times before we've seen managers opt to use their top relievers as setup men, and the team's third or fourth best reliever to close. How else to explain Joe Borowski and Antonio Alfonseca, among many others, leading their leagues in saves this decade? Borowski saved 40-plus games in a season he wouldn't have made half the bullpens in the majors! Anyway, Marmol could be dominant as a closer, but there remains some doubt if he'll get the chance. I hedged a bit, and ranked him 10th, and Gregg is ranked later. By the way, Marmol might have ended up, statistically, as the best closer in fantasy baseball had those seven saves been more like 37. His 114 strikeouts and 0.93 WHIP are pretty special. Meanwhile, Samardzija still has rookie eligibility, but figures to be the seventh-inning option.

Closer: Matt Lindstrom
Next in line: Leo Nunez
Don't forget: Jose Ceda
Thoughts (Updated Jan. 7): Lindstrom converted all five of his save chances in September, after Kevin Gregg lost the job due to a sore knee. I updated this section when Joe Nelson, arguably the team's top reliever in 2008, was cut loose when he could have been retained for one year and at a relatively cheap price. The Marlins' loss is Tampa Bay's gain now. The Marlins thought it was a good idea to bring in former Yankee Scott Proctor, who you might remember was abused by Joe Torre in 2006, and has struggled since. Proctor and Nunez now appear the most likely right-handers for the eighth inning, but keep an eye on Ceda. Acquired from the Cubs in the Gregg deal, Ceda is projected to close for the Marlins at some point, and that could come in 2009.

Closer: Francisco Rodriguez
Next in line: J.J. Putz
Don't forget: Eddie Kunz
Thoughts (Updated Dec. 11): Not a shocker here, as the Mets really needed K-Rod, and they got the prime closer on the market. For more on what the signing means, click here. The Mets wisely weren't done yet; What, you thought Luis Ayala was going to be the main setup dude? The day after announcing K-Rod had joined the Mets, Putz was stolen from the Mariners for prospects, bad relievers (farewell, thee Aaron Heilman) and energetic Endy Chavez. Putz is no lock, though. For one, if you owned him in fantasy this is horrible news for his value. He's not going to get saves. He could be one of the top five setup men in the biz, a major strikeout guy who gets 30 holds. He could also succumb to injury. I wouldn't bother drafting him now, and he leaves the rankings to the right. Man, Billy Wagner has to be wondering why he never had any help.

Closer: Kerry Wood
Next in line: Jensen Lewis
Don't forget: John Meloan
Thoughts (Updated Dec. 10): As expected when I wrote this column a month ago, Lewis wasn't long for the closer role, but then again, I do think he's going to get a few saves because the Tribe didn't sign the most durable guy around. Wood had a terrific season with the Cubs, finding a role he could thrive and avoid injury (for the most part) in, and one would think Wood does a nice job with the Tribe. Remember, this team once gave Joe Borowski enough save chances for him to lead the league, despite how poorly he pitched. Wood shouldn't pitch poorly. Lewis might not be the prime setup man, because Rafael Betancourt, could easily bounce back, and Rafael Perez figures to play an eight-inning role against lefties.

Closer: Mike Gonzalez
Next in line: Rafael Soriano
Don't forget: Jeff Bennett
Thoughts (updated Dec. 10): The Braves are likely to be active in free agency, and it appears bullpen help will be coming. A healthy Gonzalez should keep the closer job, but Soriano has proven he can't be used like a top closer, and the Braves believe he's too brittle to be relied on as the main setup guy. I originally named John Smoltz as a potential "don't forget" option, but he seems to be set on starting again, not closing, and it's not even a given he returns to Atlanta. A name from the past to remember: Aussie Peter Moylan is coming back from Tommy John surgery, and could be ready in May 2009. He's got skills, and after seeing B.J. Ryan return effectively in less than a year, who knows?

Other teams in alphabetical order until updated...

Closer: Chad Qualls
Next in line: Tony Pena
Don't forget: Jon Rauch
Thoughts: Qualls wouldn't have been my first choice to close, but the Diamondbacks are saying it's his job to lose. Pena and Rauch are innings-eaters who could handle the role. Bottom line on this team is it might not matter who starts the year with the job. Jose Valverde saved a ton of games in 2007, and Brandon Lyon managed to keep the job most of this past season. Forget about Max Scherzer; he's the No. 3 starter, at worst.

Closer: George Sherrill
Next in line: Chris Ray
Don't forget: Dennis Sarfate
Thoughts: Sherrill was among the league leaders in saves for much of 2008, so he gets first shot. Ray missed pretty much all of the season after Tommy John surgery, but should be healthy in the spring. I'm going to continue to expect something, someday, of Sarfate, a really hard thrower who shouldn't be starting and needs to harness his control. Reminds me of Washington's Joel Hanrahan.

Closer: Jonathan Papelbon
Next in line: Hideki Okajima
Don't forget: Manny Delcarmen
Thoughts: Since there's no real intrigue for who hurls in the ninth inning, I think it comes down to what happens with Justin Masterson. He's got a killer sinker and, on most teams, a future in the rotation. On this team that's deep with starting pitchers and able to sign more, Masterson could follow Papelbon's path. The acquisition of Ramon Ramirez from the Royals could push Masterson to starting, but in place of whom?

Closer: Bobby Jenks
Next in line: Octavio Dotel
Don't forget: Matt Thornton
Thoughts: While it seemed like a few members of this bullpen ran out of gas in October, it's still pretty deep. Not only does Dotel have closing experience in case Jenks' dropping strikeout rate is a harbinger, but Scott Linebrink could save games. Thornton might be the best pitcher in this bullpen, and let's not forget prospect Aaron Poreda could end up in the bullpen as well.

Closer: Francisco Cordero
Next in line: Jared Burton
Don't forget: Bill Bray
Thoughts: Cordero is safe, and would always have a long leash because of his contract. Burton takes over the David Weathers role, and keep an eye on one-time college closer Bray, who was used as a lefty specialist but doesn't need to be.

Closer: Manuel Corpas
Next in line: Huston Street
Don't forget: Taylor Buchholz
Thoughts: The Brian Fuentes era is over, but what about Street, who came over in the Matt Holliday deal? Corpas didn't have a strong 2008 season, but then again, neither did Street, who could be on the move again. Chances are whomever pitches better in March would earn the job. Poor Buchholz did have a good season, but he's a deep No. 3 for saves. If you're wondering why I didn't name former top pick Casey Weathers, we won't see him until 2010 after Tommy John surgery.

Closer: Fernando Rodney
Next in line: Joel Zumaya
Don't forget: Kyle Farnsworth
Thoughts: How does a team possibly move on when the Todd Jones era ends? OK, seriously, you don't think Rodney will start 2009 as the closer, do you? Jason Isringhausen could be a short-term option, or even David Weathers, whose name has been discussed. I'd guess the Tigers bring in a veteran type who could also set up if needed, then unleash Zumaya. If he's healthy and throwing well, Zumaya could be a closer steal.

Closer: Jose Valverde
Next in line: LaTroy Hawkins
Don't forget: Bud Norris
Thoughts: Valverde has led the NL in saves for different teams the past two seasons, so there's little reason to think he'll fall apart. There is, however, reason to think the Astros might be willing to make it three teams in three seasons, if they get starting pitching back. He'd better not get moved, considering who's setting him up. Prospect Norris should make the Astros out of the spring, and he's got closer stuff, eventually.

Closer: Joakim Soria
Next in line: Joel Peralta
Don't forget: Luke Hochevar
Thoughts: Soria is better than most people think, and the Royals have enough depth that any rumors of his moving to the rotation should end. What they don't have, after trading Leo Nunez (for Mike Jacobs) and Ramon Ramirez (for Coco Crisp), is a deep bullpen. Hochevar projects as the No. 5 starter, and while I think he made strides and should improve, a team like the Royals might sign a free agent for that spot and use Hochevar for a year setting up. Could happen.

Closer: Joe Nathan
Next in line: Jesse Crain
Don't forget: Jose Mijares
Thoughts: Nathan remains one of the top closers in the game, a top-5 fantasy pick for saves, but the Twins are often a hunting ground for fantasy owners to get solid middle relief. Watch Mijares, the large, unhittable, Venezuelan lefty become a J.P. Howell-type whom fantasy owners love, even if he doesn't get saves.

Closer: Mariano Rivera
Next in line: Damaso Marte
Don't forget: Joba Chamberlain
Thoughts: First of all, I think Chamberlain should and will be a starting pitcher, but certainly the possibility exists that his arm won't comply. Also, one would expect the Yankees to acquire a veteran right-hander to help set up Rivera, someone more experienced than Jose Veras.

Closer: Joey Devine
Next in line: Brad Ziegler
Don't forget: Santiago Casilla
Thoughts: Who was the closer in September, and why am I dissing him? I'm not, really. The submariner Ziegler came out of nowhere and was terrific, but Devine has "closer" stuff, whatever that is. He misses bats. He strikes people out. He keeps people off base. I think this is an open competition, but if I was drafting today, I think Devine wins the job.

Closer: Matt Capps
Next in line: John Grabow
Don't forget: Craig Hansen
Thoughts: The underrated Capps has 40 career saves. It wouldn't surprise me if he garnered that many in 2009 alone. He has the ability. The Pirates just need to get him more leads. As for Hansen, until he can throw strikes consistently, avoid him at all costs. I just think the Pirates will -- and can -- be patient with him.

Closer: Heath Bell
Next in line: Mike Adams
Don't forget: Cla Meredith
Thoughts: Bell has been one of the top set-up men in fantasy for two seasons, compiling 57 holds. In a bandbox ballpark, I might be concerned and think that Adams, once upon a time a closer candidate in Milwaukee, would have a shot. Adams did have a better 2008, you know. Trevor Hoffman is gone, and sometime in May, I think Padres fans will be longing for security in the pen.

Closer: Brian Wilson
Next in line: Jeremy Affeldt
Don't forget: Sergio Romo
Thoughts: Wilson didn't have the greatest numbers, but the low-scoring Giants delivered plenty of save chances. The free-agent signing of Affeldt should help bridge the gap from Tim Lincecum's leads better. Keep an eye on the hard-throwing Romo, as he could pile up the holds.

Closer: Troy Percival
Next in line: Dan Wheeler
Don't forget: Grant Balfour
Thoughts: Very odd situation here, because the Rays gave Percival a two-year deal, and if he's healthy, I think they feel obligated to let him pitch the ninth inning. For most of 2008, Percival did pitch well. Health is, of course, the big issue. Balfour looks to me like the team's best reliever by far, and I could see him vault into the role over homer-prone Wheeler. If I'm projecting save totals for 2009, I could see all three right-handers get double digits, which is obviously not what fantasy owners want. By the way, forget about David Price in the bullpen. He's the future ace.

Closer: Frank Francisco
Next in line: C.J. Wilson
Don't forget: Eddie Guardado
Thoughts: Francisco was terrific after the All-Star break, allowing 13 hits in 25 1/3 innings, but you might look at his low save total and assume he can't close. He can. So can Wilson. The Rangers might take a look at older, veteran closers for a year, like Trevor Hoffman, and Guardado could be brought back and vault everyone.

Closer: B.J. Ryan
Next in line: Jesse Carlson
Don't forget: Brandon League
Thoughts: There's little reason to be concerned about Ryan's health at this point, and the Blue Jays will have depth behind him, meaning if you try to guess who's next, chances are you'll miss. Carlson and Scott Downs are portsiders, and the emerging right-hander League fills a void the injured Jeremy Accardo couldn't in 2008. If only the Jays had rotation depth.

Closer: Joel Hanrahan
Next in line: Saul Rivera
Don't forget: Steven Shell
Thoughts: Hanrahan is a big strikeout right-hander who remains a bit prone to wildness and the home-run ball, but there's not much here to make him fear for his job. He should threaten for 30 saves in 2009. Any good arms the Nats have are ticketed for the rotation.

Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.

Eric Karabell | email

ESPN.com Senior Writer