Just hours after this article goes live, the first pitch of the 2011 season will be thrown by either by CC Sabathia or Livan Hernandez. It’s Opening Day! Or, as I like to think of it, “the equivalent of Christmas plus your birthday multiplied by ten Super Bowls”–not to overstate it, of course. It really ought to be a national holiday, no?

Unfortunately for some, there are a few relievers who won’t be joining us for the festivities. Let’s take a look.

Brad Lidge / Jose Contreras, Phillies

Most reports about Brad Lidge’s time lost due to injury have claimed “three-to-six weeks”, but Lidge himself doesn’t sound nearly so optimistic about his partially torn rotator cuff, claiming that his goal is to be ready for the second half of the season. That’s probably about right, because three-to-six weeks is simply the time he won’t be throwing for, not the time he’ll miss. Remember, once he does begin to throw, he’ll need time to strengthen the arm and then go on a rehab stint, so we probably are looking at a period of several months before he’s back in the saddle.

What’s surprising is that Charlie Manuel passed over supposed closer-in-waiting Ryan Madson to immediately anoint the ageless Jose Contreras as his closer. Bill Baer, writing at Crashburn Alley, thinks that the choice could be due to either finances (Madson is a free agent after 2011, and would certainly make less as a setup man) or proper use of leverage (Madson often faced the middle of the lineup more often in the eighth inning than did Lidge in the ninth last year), but on the whole isn’t that bothered by the decision.

That’s a reasonable reaction, because beyond the well-worn trope of “Madson can’t mentally handle the ninth inning”, Contreras was shockingly good in 2010, effective enough that this choice makes more sense than you might initially think. In his first full year as a reliever, Contreras showed improved velocity (averaging 94 MPH on his fastball) and shattered his previous best K/BB mark, coming in at 3.6. He also spent several weeks on the Value Picks list, though I must admit that part was my ever-present fondness for pitchers who are fantasy-eligible as starters but whom are used out of the bullpen, a qualification he won’t have this year.

Going forward, Contreras is a must-own in all leagues, and while it wouldn’t be a total surprise to see Madson get his chances here and there, any pitcher lucky enough to get ninth-inning opportunities handed to them by the stellar Phillies rotation is valuable. Contreras rebuilt his career as a reliever last year, and is suddenly in a position to be a major fantasy factor.

Brian Wilson / Sergio Romo, Giants

With the news that Brian Wilson will officially begin the season on the disabled list, there’s a decided hole in the back of the San Francisco bullpen. I took some time to look at Romo’s surprising effectiveness last week, so I won’t repeat myself here, but it is worth taking a look at exactly what the situation is here.

Manager Bruce Bochy hasn’t committed to Romo as his closer just yet, noting that Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt may also be in the mix. Lopez and Affeldt are each more equipped to handle fellow lefties, however, so it would stand that Romo would get the bulk of chances unless the opposing ninth inning is particularly lefty-heavy. Of course, Wilson’s DL move is backdated so that he could be back as soon as the second series of the season against the Padres, so Romo’s tenure as closer could be short. Wilson reportedly made it through a session of soft-toss without any issues over the weekend and isn’t expected to miss much more than the minimum. Upon Wilson’s return, Romo may retain value in leagues which count holds, in addition to his quality K/BB skills.

Drew Storen / Sean Burnett, Nationals

After three straight quality outings to balance a terrible start to camp, Storen handed back a chunk of that momentum by allowing seven hits in just 2/3 of an inning to the Mets on Tuesday, including a three-run homer off the bat of David Wright. That’s more hits than Burnett has given up all spring (five in 9 1/3 innings), and with Storen unable to right the ship, it looks as though Jim Riggleman’s refusal to name him the closer is proving prescient.

Fantasy-wise, this is situation you’d do well to stay far away from, because not only are we looking at the dreaded “closer by committee,” that committee is comprised of two arms with no closing track records on a lousy team. Long-term, I still like Storen to get it together and claim the job that the Nationals drafted him to have, but don’t be at all surprised if this is a matchup-based play to start the season, particularly with Burnett’s large platoon splits.

Fernando Rodney / Jordan Walden, Angels

All offseason long, I’ve been saying that Rodney was on the hot seat in Anaheim, and this spring has done nothing to change that impression, even despite the toe injury suffered by Scott Downs. Rodney has followed up an uneven 2010 with a less-than-impressive spring, allowing 15 hits in 8 2/3 innings. With Downs out and Hisanori Takahashi rumored to possibly be in consideration to replace the flailing Scott Kazmir in the rotation, Rodney will still get the first crack at the ninth–but I have no confidence that he’ll hold onto it for long.

When Downs returns in mid-to-late April, he’ll get consideration as well, but the name I really like here is Jordan Walden. The fireballing former starter overcame several injuries to make a splash as a reliever in a late-season cameo, striking out 23 in 15 1/3 innings to close out 2010. He continued that production this spring, striking out 10 across nine scoreless innings, and ended up making his first Opening Day roster. It may take some time, but eventually either he or Downs is going to unseat Rodney.

Kevin Gregg / Koji Uehara, Orioles

Buck Showalter made some waves this week when he noted that he had not decided on a set closer yet, and that he’d wait to see what the situation is–even dropping Mike Gonzalez’ name into the mix. My feelings on Uehara vs. Gregg are well-known, but if Uehara isn’t going to stay healthy, the matter of which one is more effective is irrelevant. Uehara did strike out two in a perfect ninth against the Blue Jays on Tuesday, but he’s also not able to go on back-to-back days. That being the case, Gregg has to be seen as the primary closer here, which may be better for the Orioles in a baseball sense: they could then pick-and-choose higher-leverage situations for the superior Uehara, while also keeping his workload down. 

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Best guesses on a couple of others -

Toronto: Frank Francisco/Jon Rauch?

Oakland: Andrew Bailey/Brian Fuentes? (Michael Wuertz/Grant Balfour)

Seattle: David Aardsma/Brandon League?

I think the answer is the same in all three places. The understudy (Rauch, Fuentes, League) starts off the season, then gets replaced when the other guys come back healthy. That'll probably happen soonest in Toronto.
Better flyer in a deep league with K/BB, Dotel or Jansen? I'm really tempted to grab Jansen for his k's as is, with the outside chance that maybe the cards fall right for him, but I'm very concerned that with his lack of control it backfires bigtime on me?
I'd stay away from Dotel. He's hurt and his role is most likely as a situational guy in the 6th-7th innings.