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Thursday, April 1, 2010
Relief Efforts: Spring closer changes

By Tristan H. Cockcroft

Stability surprisingly was the name of the game at closer this spring.

You won't see us link that word with that position too often on these pages, but it was true in March, as 24 of the 30 projected closers at the onset of spring training managed to retain their roles the entire preseason. In addition, four of the six jobs that changed hands did so as a direct result of injuries to the top option, and one other switched partly for injury-related issues.

But you know what we'd typically say to that, right? That simply means the 24 other closer jobs will just switch hands midseason. Just kidding -- barring catastrophic injury, Mariano Rivera isn't giving up that dream job in New York. Neither are a few other staples at closer, health willing, of course.

So here we are, approaching the final draft weekend of the preseason (with a scattered handful more drafts that will take place within days after Opening Day), and even though little changed in the saves market in March, as always with the category, there has been some change. Keeping up with that change is imperative; it's all part and parcel to our advice everywhere on these pages not to overpay for saves, a strategy that also stipulates that you remain mindful of new closer candidates to fill the category cheaply at midseason.

Let's quickly recap what has changed this spring …

Change at the top

Chris Perez
Chris Perez has the closer's job on Opening Day, but how long can he hold on to it?

Cleveland Indians: Kerry Wood is headed for the disabled list with a strained right latissimus dorsi, a muscle below the shoulder, an injury that when it was reported was scheduled to cost him six to eight weeks. By that timetable, he'd return between May 2 and 16, meaning he might miss as much as one-third of the season even if he recovers swiftly. Chris Perez became the Indians' new closer, and they now have no clear set-up man because they had settled on the 24-year-old as their eighth-inning option but hadn't picked an obvious third-in-line reliever.

Perez's command might waver in the role, leading to the occasionally nasty blown save, but he has held opposing hitters to a .212 batting average in 102 big league appearances. He'll rack up strikeouts and be a more-than-adequate stand-in with the potential to hold the role all year, but this is a bullpen in which handcuffing the two relievers is imperative. And considering that Wood and Perez probably will each cost you plenty, you might want to opt for the cheaper one and spend the remainder of your reliever budget on another team.

Colorado Rockies: Considering that Huston Street had signed a lucrative three-year contract extension just before camps opened, job security didn't seem to be an issue for him. A tight shoulder, however, kept him out of Cactus League games and will land him on the disabled list for at least a few weeks and perhaps more than a month to begin the regular season. This probably will be Street's job once healthy, but frequent setbacks do make him a shaky fantasy option.

Franklin Morales has been tabbed to step in at closer, but he's not as sound a choice as his 6-for-6 saves performance during his first six appearances in September suggest. For one, his split statistics hint that he's more a LOOGY (Left-handed One Out GuY) than a full-inning option, and for another, he has been hit around a good share this spring (8.53 ERA in 10 games). If you're targeting cheap saves, grab Morales, seemingly a "last man standing" closer option in this bullpen, but be prepared for a Rafael Betancourt or Manny Corpas appearance in the role before Street's healthy return, and expect some ugliness across the board from the fill-ins.

Houston Astros: Here's the closer role that changed "partly for injury-related issues" referred to above, as minor shoulder surgery in February cost Brandon Lyon just enough camp time to allow Matt Lindstrom to sneak in and steal his job. What a performance Lindstrom put forth this spring, recording 26 outs (including eight strikeouts) without allowing a run, looking a lot like the high-upside reliever who was once considered a future closer candidate in Florida. Of course, there's a big difference between success in the Grapefruit League and the regular season in the National League, and Lindstrom's command has failed him at times in the past. But he's a sleeper pick even in shallow mixed formats because he's been tabbed the closer. However, the greatest knock on his status is that the Astros invested $15 million over three years in Lyon to close. Lindstrom won't have a long leash.

Minnesota Twins: When we say "health willing," here's an excellent example of why no closer is a guarantee. Coming into spring training, there wasn't a fantasy owner out there who wouldn't have had Joe Nathan as a top-five closer, and many people had him ranked No. 1 overall. Six weeks later, he's an undraftable pitcher, having undergone season-ending Tommy John surgery on Friday. The Twins entertained many options to replace Nathan this spring, from in-house relievers to converting Francisco Liriano to the role to trading for an experienced stopper (Heath Bell?), but in the end, they settled on a dreaded closer-by-committee that includes Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch, Jose Mijares and Jesse Crain, listed in that order when manager Ron Gardenhire revealed his plan to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Rauch is the "experienced closer" of the bunch, which is why he's typically the one fantasy owners have been targeting, but any of these relievers could step up as the go-to option with a hot start. In other words, you cannot possibly invest full-time closer dollars in any of them -- yet.

Brad Lidge
Injuries will sideline Brad Lidge early, but fantasy owners wonder which Lidge will show up -- the one from 2008 or 2009?

Philadelphia Phillies: Brad Lidge's ongoing recovery from offseason knee and elbow surgeries will land him on the DL come Opening Day, but he might miss the least time of these injured prominent closers. One worry: The Phillies' official Web site reported that his velocity was only 87 mph during an intrasquad game Tuesday, so reports that Lidge could be ready by the second week of the season might be a tad optimistic. The other worry: Lidge's ERA last season was 7.21 and he blew 11 of 42 save chances, so he might, simply put, not be any good. Based upon reputation, he's worth a late-round look, especially in NL-only formats, but he might be on the shakiest ground of any closer in the game even when healthy. Ryan Madson, who will fill in for Lidge in the season's early weeks, is a necessary handcuff even after Lidge's healthy return. Danys Baez's performance is also worth tracking, as he's a dark-horse candidate to close if neither Lidge nor Madson is capable of holding down the role long term.

Toronto Blue Jays: Although the Blue Jays brought in "experienced closer" Kevin Gregg during the offseason to not only provide some competition for the ninth-inning role but also wreak havoc on early-drafting fantasy owners' plans, in the end the team picked Jason Frasor, the more talented reliever for the role. Frasor did a fine job as a late-inning option for the team in 2009, turning in a 2.50 ERA and 1.02 WHIP and even converting eight of nine save chances after Aug. 1. Gregg, by comparison, has never had numbers in either ERA or WHIP that low in any of his seven career big league seasons, but he has 84 saves in 104 chances the past three years combined. Going by the numbers, Frasor might be one of the best bargain candidates among prospective save getters right now. However, Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston might mix and match, even giving left-hander Scott Downs the occasional chance when the matchup calls. Be careful not to let the bidding get out of hand with Frasor, but second-tier closer numbers are indeed possible.

Change in the pecking order

Chicago Cubs: Carlos Marmol's job security, amazingly, seems strong, but with Angel Guzman out for the season after shoulder surgery, the primary set-up role is up for grabs. Veteran John Grabow is the obvious choice if you desire Marmol's handcuff, but keep an eye on Esmailin Caridad, who dominated this spring to the tune of 12 shutout innings with 12 K's.

New York Mets: Shoulder soreness kept Kelvim Escobar, signed during the winter to serve as the primary eighth-inning option, on the shelf for the entire spring, and probably will cost him at least a month of the regular season. That leaves the set-up job in flux for the Mets. The gig could go to Japanese import Ryota Igarashi, or, if the Mets deem rookie Jenrry Mejia ready for the pressures of the role, it might go to him. Mejia had a 1.69 ERA in 10 spring appearances.

Joba Chamberlain
Joba Chamberlain is back in the bullpen, knocking down his fantasy value slightly.

New York Yankees: The team's fifth-starter battle also had implications in the set-up department, as the loser of the Phil Hughes-Joba Chamberlain competition was destined for eighth-inning duty. That became Chamberlain, not that he, Yankees fans or his fantasy owners should complain, because he has a 1.50 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 11.85 K's-per-nine ratio in 50 career relief appearances.

Oakland Athletics: Injuries took their toll on this bullpen throughout March, and at one point it looked as if closer Andrew Bailey might land on the DL. He's healthy now, but primary set-up man Michael Wuertz is DL-bound, opening up the eighth-inning duties for either Brad Ziegler or Joey Devine. If you're in an AL-only league, a speculative late-round pick on either might make you happy, because even if neither one garners even a single save chance this season, both of them can be helpers in ERA and WHIP.

Washington Nationals: Besides all the Stephen Strasburg hoopla, the other rookie name fantasy owners were tracking in Nationals camp was Drew Storen, who is on the fast track to ninth-inning duties in the nation's capital. An early demotion -- March 20, to be exact -- hints that Storen isn't as close to being big league-ready as expected, but he'll be back before season's end. In the meantime, Brian Bruney will assume eighth-inning duties, a decision that shouldn't be taken lightly, being that Matt Capps' spring ERA is a bloated 8.44.

In addition to Thursday's updates, don't forget that we're constantly updating our Closer Chart, which breaks down all 30 big league bullpens by relievers' proximity to the closer role. Our updates to that page will extend throughout the regular season, keeping you apprised of the latest closer changes throughout the majors year-round.

Until next week's Relief Efforts, best of luck navigating the tricky saves category in your weekend drafts!

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for 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.