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July 11, 2008

Fantasy Focus

Closer Attrition

by Jeff Erickson

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Part of my recent conversation with Yahoo's Scott Pianowski centered on closers, and in particular on how, prior to the last week or two, there's seemingly been relatively little closer attrition this season. Usually we can count on 12 to 15 teams changing their closers in a given season, either due to injury or poor performance, and for many of those changes to become permanent. It's one of the ways we can justify discounting their price in our preseason dollar valuations, and at the draft table. If saves are a category that you can capture in part by being active on the waiver wire, then by all means, don't overpay for these one-trick ponies.

However, I wanted to see if my instinct was correct: Have fewer closers lost their jobs this year? For this exercise, we're focusing upon DL stints or outright changes. So, the saves recorded by Blue Jays relievers other than B.J. Ryan count when he was on the DL, but not when he couldn't pitch on three consecutive days (thus, I'm not counting Scott Downs' five saves-your mileage may vary). Unless the team's original closer is currently on the DL, the replacement needs multiple saves to make our cut. We'll list the team; the default closer (the player expected to close for the bulk of the season who received the attention on Draft Day); and his replacements and their save totals.


Team             Default Closer       Replacements
 1. Washington   Chad Cordero         Jon Rauch (17)
 2. Milwaukee    Eric Gagne           Salomon Torres (15),
                                       Brian Shouse (2)
 3. Colorado     Manuel Corpas        Brian Fuentes (14)
 4. St. Louis    Jason Isringhausen   Ryan Franklin (12)
 5. Seattle      J.J. Putz            Brandon Morrow (8),
                                       Ryan Rowland-Smith (2),
                                       Mark Lowe (1)
 6. Cleveland    Joe Borowski         Masa Kobayashi (4),
                                       Rafael Betancourt (4)
 7. Toronto      B.J. Ryan            Jeremy Accardo (4)
 8. Atlanta      Rafael Soriano       Manny Acosta (3),
                                       Mike Gonzalez (2),
                                       Peter Moylan (0)*,
                                       Blaine Boyer (1)
 9. Pittsburgh   Matt Capps           Damaso Marte (3)
10. Tampa Bay    Troy Percival        Grant Balfour (3),
                                       Dan Wheeler (3)
11. Chicago (AL) Bobby Jenks          Octavio Dotel (1),
                                       Scott Linebrink (1),
                                       Matt Thornton (1)

Looking at that list, is it possible that perceptions might not mesh with reality? With over a third of the league's 30 teams having at least a temporary turnover, it seems as though there's been a decent amount of buying opportunities. However, looking more closely at that list, there's a lot of frustration there. Only two teams have made permanent changes (Washington and Cleveland), although a few others have had their replacements installed long enough to earn a significant number of saves. The list above nets 101 saves from those 11 teams spread among 21 relievers. That's less than five saves per prospective stand-in, and that's only if you had perfect timing to grab those relievers for your active roster. To be fair, many of those on the list should pad their totals over the second half, hopefully improving the end result.

Making matters worse, many of those speculations on potential replacements have been rewarded with middling to outright awful results. Take a good look at that list, both in terms of who has stepped in, and also who is missing. If you jumped at the opportunity to pick up Rauch, Fuentes, Franklin, or Morrow at the first sign of danger, congrats, you made a pretty good investment. But Rauch was probably drafted after Chad Cordero's health problems in spring training in all but the thinnest of leagues, and Manny Corpas' owners might have thought to protect their investment by adding Fuentes at the draft table, particularly in NL-only leagues. Fuentes is now at risk of changing roles if and when he's traded, and it might not even be Corpas that reclaims the job, but rather Taylor Buchholz, though typically the Rockies haven't indicated who the ninth inning will fall to. In St. Louis, Franklin is starting to show signs of taking on water, and the Cards have hinted that Jason Isringhausen could reclaim his job.

Let's see what the story is with the remaining teams on this list; it's a harrowing tale:

  • Brewers: David Riske cleaned up after Eric Gagne's blown save on Opening Day, and he got the save in extra innings, spurring a slew of first week speculative bids. He still has that one save for the season, along with a trip to the DL, and a mediocre 17:13 K:BB in 28 innings. Brian Shouse got the first save after Gagne was officially demoted from the role (May 11), and has had one save since, going back to his usual lefty-specialist duties. Guillermo Mota got a save on May 12, rescuing a situation where the Brewers started with a six-run lead to begin the ninth inning. He then blew his first real save opportunity on May 14, and he too has just one save on the season. The dial finally settled on Salomon Torres, but he didn't succeed initially-he blew one lead against the Red Sox on May 17, and gave up two more runs the next day. Many of his original speculative owners dropped him for that next FAAB period, including one of my opponents in my NFBC league. He didn't get his first real save conversion until May 24, with a new set of owners reaping the benefit of his current run as the Brewers' closer. Gagne is now back from the DL, and still looms as a potential threat to take back the job.

  • Indians: This might be the biggest nightmare situation of them all. Ever since Joe Borowski got the job with the Indians, we've been waiting for the other shoe to drop. He somehow managed to keep it all season last year, saving 45 games despite arguably being the Indians' fifth- or sixth-best reliever for the season. He finally lost the job this year, first through injury, and then by his own demerit upon returning from the DL. Here's where the frustration really sets in. Sabermetric darling Rafael Betancourt blew up spectacularly (and is in fact still blowing up) when he got the opportunity, converting four save chances while blowing two others, and giving up eight home runs already this year. This has been his best opportunity to win the job in the nearly four years that we've been tracking him, and he's unlikely to get another shot. Masa Kobayashi now has the job, in case the Indians ever produce another save situation, and GM Mark Shapiro said that he'd likely address the role this offseason. Kobayashi had his own struggles shutting down games when Borowski was on the DL earlier, but he's the best bet on the current roster to succeed for the rest of 2008.

  • Blue Jays: If you picked up Jeremy Accardo as a hedge for B.J. Ryan, you felt pretty smart when Ryan went on the DL to begin the year and Accardo got three saves over the first week. Unfortunately the season continued after that first week, and Accardo gave up five runs over the next two games, collecting two losses and a blown save in the process, then muddling around until the middle of May when he went on the DL with a forearm strain that's kept him there since. Ryan is now back and pitching well, and Accardo will no longer be the top alternative, regardless of when he returns.

  • Braves: If Cleveland's closer situation hasn't caused the most fantasy heartaches, then it has to be Atlanta's. Rafael Soriano finished 2007 with a nice run, setting up some fairly high expectations for 2008. Instead, it's been a nightmare, and not simply because he's been hurt, but also because of the uncertainty of his availability. One day he's able, the next day his elbow won't let him throw at all, but check again tomorrow, because he might be pitching the ninth. Good information has been hard to come by for the Braves' medical staff, let alone the fantasy owner. Meanwhile, Soriano's potential replacements have dropped like flies. Peter Moylan was the next in line, but had to go under the knife before seeing his first save opportunity. John Smoltz was going back to the closer's role after a DL stint for his shoulder, but blew his one opportunity and promptly underwent season-ending surgery. Manny Acosta nominally had the role for a while, but wasn't used traditionally, struggled when he did get a save chance, and is now on the DL after blowing out his hamstring running the bases. Blaine Boyer caught the attention of speculators with his strikeout rate, but he's since tailed off and battled his own share of nagging injuries. Mike Gonzalez finally came off the DL and appears to have the job, and has been fantastic so far (13 Ks without a walk in 8 2/3 innings) but alas, the Braves haven't been able to provide a save opportunity since June 25. Gonzalez is the man for now, but Soriano will attempt another comeback from his elbow injury, and could claim some of those chances. All in all, that's a lot of FAAB money down the drain for a meager return.

  • Pirates: Matt Capps is out until the end of August with shoulder bursitis, and given that the Bucs have an investment in him beyond 2008, it wouldn't be a huge surprise if they were cautious with his return. Damaso Marte has three saves this week and has the best component numbers of anyone remaining in the Pirates' bullpen this year. Manager John Russell hasn't officially named Marte as the closer, but that doesn't worry us. What is a concern, however, is that Marte was the subject of trade rumors prior to Capps' injury, and frankly, should be traded by the Pirates given their status. What's best for the team isn't necessarily best for the fantasy owner.

  • Rays: Troy Percival was the source of plenty of concerns about his durability coming into the season, and is on his second stint on the DL with a hamstring injury. Right now the Rays are splitting the closing duties between Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour, with J.P. Howell on the periphery of the picture. A committee can often work for a team in a pinch, but it's a fantasy nightmare if all you're concerned about are saves. You often have to invest in two or three pitchers to get the production from one slot, including the original closer. It's scenarios like this that end up pushing sabermetrically-inclined fantasy owners away from rotisserie formats and more towards simulation games like Strat-o-Matic, Diamond Mind, and Scoresheet-you don't have to chase saves, but rather effective relievers. It also frees you from chasing the likes of Todd Jones or Brian Wilson, at least for the relative cost. Don't be surprised if the Rays add a reliever before the trade deadline to further muddle up the picture.

  • White Sox: Bobby Jenks is on the DL with a back injury, and already the White Sox have had three relievers pick up saves in the past two weeks. Octavio Dotel is the latest to get a save, striking out the side on Wednesday, but he also gave up a run on Thursday. Scott Linebrink originally was first in line, but he's blown two of his three save opportunities while Jenks has been out, and has allowed a run in his last four. Matt Thornton has been fantastic this year, but his save was of the one-out variety on June 30. He isn't necessarily being used as a lefty specialist, but rather as a set-up man, but the handedness could work against him. With three good options, the White Sox can safely use a committee without much of a drop in efficiency, but once again, they won't provide much clarity for fantasy owners.

So far, the returns haven't been great for those who have played the closer speculation game. How does the 2008 experience compare with the results from the past two full years? Without breaking down the individual team situations, here is a rough estimate of saves earned by pitchers who weren't their team's closer at the start of the season; pitchers who had a reasonable expectation of being on the waiver wire in a 12-team mixed league after the draft.

2007 / 261 total saves: The major names include David Weathers (Dustin Hermanson was projected to be the closer until the Reds released him the day before Opening Day), Kevin Gregg (his first traditional save didn't occur until May 16), Jeremy Accardo, Brad Hennessey, Manuel Corpas, Matt Capps, Joakim Soria, Alan Embree, C.J. Wilson, Dan Wheeler, Rafael Soriano, Bobby Howry, and Antonio Alfonseca. I did not include Al Reyes, who essentially won the job by the end of spring training, and Brett Myers, who was already owned as a starter in virtually every league.

2006 / 271 total saves: Some of the major names to emerge as closers that year included J.J. Putz, Jon Papelbon, Akinori Otsuka, Takashi Saito, Ambiorix Burgos, Jorge Julio, David Weathers, Salomon Torres, Tyler Walker, Justin Duchscherer, Joe Nelson, Danys Baez, Dan Wheeler, Mike Timlin, Todd Coffey, Mike Stanton, Chris Reitsma, and Fernando Rodney.

Even with this two-and-a-half year sample, we can notice a few repeating names, and how quickly some of these relievers can fade away. Compiling the full-year totals is good for measuring how many saves are coming into the league via the waiver wire, but it also filters out the failed speculation plays. Pitchers like Yhency Brazoban-who drew heavy free agent bidding after Eric Gagne's comeback try in 2006 fizzled-don't show up in this analysis.

Thus, I'm hesitant to say right now that the speculator on bullpen free agents has seen less profit this year than in the recent past, but so far the waiver tree has borne less fruit. That can still change in a hurry-all it takes is a continuing spate of injuries or a few trades of incumbent closers. Skimping at the draft table only to pick them up in the season can still be a viable strategy, but the results from this year also demonstrate the risks inherent in such a plan.

--

Jeff Erickson is the Senior Editor at RotoWire, and the host of XM Radio's "Fantasy Focus." He can be reached here.

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