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Thursday, May 12, 2011
Should you cut demoted closers?

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

Patience is something we stress often on these pages. Impatience is sometimes equally valuable.

Relief Efforts

In no other area, perhaps, is that more true in the saves market. You'll hear us advise "don't pay for saves" until we're blue in the face, and surely you've heard the counterarguments that top closers are absolutely worth the investment. Perhaps there's no true "right" answer, and both sides have valid points. It'd hardly surprise if so; one of the reasons saves is such a tricky market to read is that an incumbent closer is a valuable closer, and the minute he loses his job, he is, in the majority of instances, completely and utterly without value. There is no in-between.

It's that ping-ponging of market values that presents an interesting -- and often understated -- discussion topic, one relevant to either side of the debate: Why aren't fantasy owners as quick to adapt to market trends as major league teams?

For example, if you participate in a competitive league with aggressive owners, one preferably without transaction caps and with deeper benches, surely you've noticed the tendency of owners to snatch up the "next-in-line-to-close," often well in advance of his ascension to the role. We're oh-so-quick to grab fresh, brand-new saves off the waiver wire, for example the Houston Astros' Mark Melancon (owned in 52.6 percent of ESPN leagues) and St. Louis Cardinals' Eduardo Sanchez (34.8 percent), two players whose managers have almost purposely been vague about whether they're actually the ninth-inning guy.

We're not, unfortunately, nearly so willing to give up on ex-closers.

Perhaps it's the lure of historical stats, affection for players who have helped us in the past, or the same sort of twisted obsession that has managers so often reliant on the fabled "proven closer." Whatever the cause, sometimes it's time to cut our losses, to mirror the real-life team's demotion decision with the player's outright release. As Sean Connery might have said to Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones tried desperately to cling to that Holy Grail of Ryan Franklin saves, "Indiana … let it go."

Ryan Franklin
Ryan Franklin has struggled badly in other bullpen roles since being dropped from the closer's role.

Franklin is the perfect example of the ex-closer gobbling up all too many fantasy roster spots; he remains owned in 23.8 percent of ESPN leagues, despite ranking as the sixth-worst relief pitcher-eligible player on the Player Rater (279th out of 284). While St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa might be wholly unpredictable with his bullpen management, not to mention that no other Cardinals reliever -- the aforementioned Sanchez included -- has emerged as a clear full-time replacement, Franklin is easily the least deserving of another save opportunity the remainder of the year of anyone within his bullpen.

Consider Franklin's numbers before and after he lost his closer job, following his fourth blown save of the season on April 17:

Through April 17: 6 G, 11.57 ERA, 2.14 WHIP, 1.00 K/BB, .364 BAA
April 18 forward: 5 G, 8.22 ERA, 1.96 WHIP, 1.50 K/BB, .382 BAA

That can scarcely be considered improvement, and astute fantasy owners probably realize that Franklin's most recent appearance on Wednesday was that of mop-up reliever; he entered in the fourth inning with the Cardinals down 6-1 and threw three innings and 54 pitches of four-run, seven-hit baseball. Franklin's pitches are as hittable as ever -- his 4.0 percent swing-and-miss rate represents a career low -- and while there's no clear answer to the question, "Who's the Cardinals' closer," there's a clear answer to the question, "Who's it not, nor might ever be again?"

Franklin isn't alone … but while his is perhaps the easiest call of 2011's ex-closers-gone-bad, some haven't quite yet reached cutting-floor status. Working backwards by ownership percentage in ESPN leagues, let's take a look at some others:

Andrew Bailey (94.1 percent owned): It's probably the worst time to cut Bailey, being that if you kept him this long, you might as well wait through his rehabilitation stint, which, according to the Oakland Athletics' official website, should begin in extended spring training on Saturday. Bailey still has the most generous ranking in "Relief Efforts" of anyone profiled this week, primarily because the Athletics' closer job is his when healthy; Brian Fuentes' 4.42 ERA and 1.20 WHIP show that he's hardly a roadblock. I've got one worry, however: Bailey admitted to the team's website that he still feels "a little achiness," so the prospect of a sudden setback looms. He's approaching the two-month point since he initially got hurt, and if a setback means another two months lost … Verdict: Keep.

Jonathan Broxton (73.7 percent owned): He has a bone spur in his pitching elbow and won't even resume throwing for another two weeks, and Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly told the Los Angeles Times that Broxton might be out six weeks total. Considering how poorly Broxton has thrown since last June, including a noticeable decrease in velocity, it's not unfair to say that Vicente Padilla might be best suited to close for the Dodgers from now through October, a point initially made in the April 28 edition of "Relief Efforts." Broxton probably will return in a lower-pressure middle-relief role, meaning you'll burn more than a month of time on your DL or bench, then a bench spot until he proves ready to close once more -- which might never happen in 2011. Verdict: Keep, but only if your league affords you the DL space to do so.

Brandon Lyon (40.6 percent owned): He has a partially torn rotator cuff and is expected to miss more than the 15-day disabled-list minimum, and the prospect of surgery looms large for Lyon. As hinted in last week's "Relief Efforts," Melancon has the skills to close -- and now enough time to prove it -- so we could be a couple of weeks away from Lyon being shut out of the role for good. There's one saving grace with Lyon: He's owed $10.75 million between 2011 and 2012, or "closer money," and his success in the role in 2010 might mean he hasn't saved his final game for the Astros. His upside, however, hardly warrants burning a useful roster spot waiting. Verdict: Cut, barring, of course, extensive DL space.

Joe Nathan (37.7 percent owned): Here's the guy whose reputation almost assuredly will keep him on a slew of fantasy rosters, as Nathan was easily one of the three most effective closers of the "aughts" before succumbing to Tommy John surgery in 2010. He was, however, awful during the spring and early regular season, his fastball velocity in the regular year averaging 91.4 mph (down from 93.9 career), his swing-and-miss rate 7.2 percent (down from 13.5 career), both of those per FanGraphs, and his walk rate 5.84 per nine innings (up from 3.48 career). Not every pitcher makes an instant recovery from such a significant surgery, and in Nathan's case, he was probably pushed too hard. But of all pitchers on this list, his long-term season prospects are the most encouraging. In three appearances in May he has 3⅓ shutout innings, a 3-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and four ground balls in eight total balls in play, nearer to "vintage Nathan" numbers. Fill-in Matt Capps, meanwhile, had an ugly blown save on Wednesday and has a 6.10 ERA in his past 10 appearances. I remain steadfast in my belief that Memorial Day is the over/under for a swap of the roles. Verdict: Keep.

Fernando Rodney (33.3 percent owned): That Jordan Walden has blown two of his past three saves with an 11.25 ERA during that four-game span might have Rodney backers believing a switch is inevitable. But why? Rodney has a 7.36 ERA and 1.77 WHIP in his past eight appearances, and has been scored upon in five of them. He also has a hideous 5.82 walks-per-nine ratio, the second worst rate of his career. Heck, Scott Downs is a lot more deserving of a look than Rodney, if the Los Angeles Angels determine they need a switch. Verdict: Cut.

Brad Lidge (32.8 percent owned): He's as volatile as closers come, so either guess is a fair one, but Lidge has resumed playing catch and told Buster Olney recently that he's targeting mid-June for his return from a rotator cuff injury. Fantasy owners' patience with Lidge might seem inexplicable, but in their defense: He was lights out the second half of 2010 (21 saves, 2.10 ERA) and the Philadelphia Phillies have made no secret they prefer Ryan Madson in a setup role rather than closer. I've said in this column before that I'm a Madson backer; at the same time this is an almost mandatory handcuff. Verdict: Keep.

David Aardsma (28.9 percent owned): The Seattle Mariners maintained all year that a healthy Aardsma was their closer; then he suffered setback after setback before being diagnosed with a Grade 2 strain of his ulnar collateral ligament -- you know, the "Tommy John surgery" ligament -- this week. We might be hours away from Aardsma being sent to the operating table, but even if he's not, what more does Brandon League need to do to prove he's closer-worthy? Verdict: Cut.

Jose Contreras (28.7 percent owned): It's a race as to whether Contreras or Lidge returns to the Phillies quicker, Contreras' timetable currently a couple of weeks ahead of Lidge's, but when I say I believe in Madson, I mean I believe in him over alternatives like Contreras. Contreras was fantastic in the closer role early this year; Madson has been even better, 5-for-5 with eight shutout innings in eight appearances since taking over. Verdict: Cut.

Understand, of course, that because it's the volatile saves market, even some of these calls can change in an instant. (Ask owners of anyone from either the Cardinals' or Dodgers' bullpens about that.) To return to the opening point, perhaps the answer is clear: Pick a side of the debate and stick to it … but be adaptable once the season starts.

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.