Playing the closer game

We’re less than three weeks into the season, but let’s peek at the saves leader board. Leading the pack with six saves (as of Wednesday afternoon) are David Aardsma, Jon Rauch and Matt Capps. After them, with five saves, are Francisco Cordero, Mariano Rivera, Fernando Rodney and Ryan Franklin. With the exception of Rivera, these are not the elite closers. Joe Nathan aside, guys like Jonathan Broxton, Jonathan Papelbon and Francisco Rodriguez are way down the list.

Surely the elites are going to get their saves eventually. Small samples reign in the early part of the season. But the likes of Rauch, Capps and Aardsma may very well keep pace or outpace them. Of course, they may not.

I’ve banged on often about how I think the “don’t pay for saves” mantra is oversold. In any decently competitive league, really good closers are not overvalued and underwhelming closers are not undervalued. Just because each season, guys like Rauch end up getting 35 or more saves doesn’t mean that the elites are overvalued. Sure, Kevin Gregg might turn out to be a really cheap source of saves. But the same was said about the man he replaced—Jason Frasor.

In fact, even this early in the season we can already see how risky low-end closers are.

Mike Gonzalez was put on the DL for poor performance. He’ll probably get another bite at the apple when he comes back, but he’ll be on a very short leash.

Jason Frasor’s already lost his closer’s job, at least for now. So has Frank Francisco. Neftali Feliz has Francisco’s job but could easily lose it back to him if his performance is either too bad (and he goes back to more middling relief) or too good (and they make him a starter).

Chad Qualls has looked shaky and may lose his job if a viable replacement can be found. Ryan Madson probably will lose his closer’s role once Brad Lidge is healthy. Likewise for Franklin Morales yielding to Huston Street. Trevor Hoffman may finally have hit a wall.

Matt Lindstrom and Octavio Dotel, and to a lesser extent Leo Nunez and Chris Perez, have performed well enough to bury rumors in a shallow grave. In other words, at the very least their performance so far hasn’t made their closer position more tenuous. But an egregious cold streak could leave them in the cold, and if they had a trip to the DL, a pretender could easily grab the throne.

So just with the above cases we have 11 teams with somewhat or very uncertain closer situations. Even if you handcuff these closers with their backups, there are costs. For one, you have to waste a reserve spot on the backup. I have Francisco and Feliz as well as Capps and Drew Storen on one of my fantasy teams (fortunately Storen is in the minor league slot). For another, you’ll miss out on saves in a weekly league whenever the switch comes midweek. I had Rodney in one of my leagues sitting in reserve. He got three saves before I was able to start him. I got a few more out of him, even this week, but already by Wednesday he’s out of the closer’s role. Rivera owners have no such waste.

The thing about saves and the closer spot is that it isn’t as special as it is made to be. Personally, I think baseball teams would be a lot better off treating the ninth inning as just a slightly more important inning and not the be-all-and-end-all for relief pitching. It is pretty clear that the team would be better off pitching its best reliever in the seventh inning if the bases were loaded and Albert Pujols was at bat rather than wait for Brendan Ryan to bat in the ninth.

From a fantasy perspective, it is also pretty clear that there are a bunch of suitors who could leap into a closer’s role if given the opportunity—that is, there are many pitchers as good as the marginal closer. I’m thinking of pitchers like Scott Downs, Daniel Bard, Cla Meredith, Matt Thornton, Rodney and Carlos Villanueva, who if given the opportunity and maybe a bit of luck could convince a fickle manager that they deserve the role.

There are only a few closers with the reputation and the track record (and perhaps the contract) hefty enough to be sure to keep their closer role no matter the setup man behind him. Joe Nathan is going to have his role back next year, no matter what happens in the meantime. Rivera and Rodriguez are safe, as is Papelbon (most likely). But you only have to witness the amount of chatter that blossomed around how Rodney might remain the closer even after Brian Fuentes comes back to see that very few closers are completely safe.

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