By mid-January, fantasy baseball owners should be thinking about their potential early-round draft picks, where they intend to get power and speed from, sleeper starting pitchers and, yes, to some degree, how they can build a reasonable bullpen without the likes of Craig Kimbrel and Mariano Rivera. Kimbrel has been amazing the past few seasons, and Rivera seemingly since the Eisenhower administration, and still, I'm far more likely to find the next Tom Wilhelmsen lurking on free agency than invest in saves before the 12th round.
More than a third of the closers from Opening Day last season failed to keep their role for the duration of the season, and quite a few of those pitchers couldn't even keep their jobs through April. Play the waiver-wire game in April/May and you'll find Wilhelmsen, Ernesto Frieri, Casey Janssen and, yes, even the fellow who finished first among all relief pitchers on the ESPN Player Rater, Dennis Eckersl- ... um, I mean Fernando Rodney.
For now, let's look at five teams that feature uncertainty at the back end of the bullpen, because it's never too early to start thinking about your 17th-round pick!
Detroit Tigers: Rumor is the organization loves fireballing Venezuelan Bruce Rondon, who closed effectively at three levels of the minor leagues last season. He's 22, and walks are occasionally an issue for him, but fantasy owners should know by now it's more about opportunity than skill. I mean, Antonio Alfonseca saved 129 career games! Rondon might be the next Kimbrel; Atlanta's stud closer was wild in the minors, as well. Or he could be Jordan Walden, who lost the Angels' closer job early last season. I find it hard to believe the Tigers won't sign a veteran presence at some point for insurance now that Jose Valverde is gone. Rondon is a strikeout/upside guy for the later rounds. The Tigers also could give chances to lefty Phil Coke or right-handers Joaquin Benoit -- look, there goes another home run! -- and Al Alburquerque.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Hey, sub-.500 teams get saves, too! And while I applaud the Bucs for realizing the time was nigh to unload closer Joel Hanrahan, I think they could have received more in return from the Boston Red Sox. Still, Jason Grilli, once upon a time a top starting pitching prospect, seems poised to inherit saves. Now 36, he thrived the past two seasons in a setup role. Frankly, I think it would be pretty funny if Hanrahan implodes in Beantown -- closers are overrated! -- and unheralded Mark Melancon, acquired by the Pirates in that very deal, outpitches him. It's not outrageous; Melancon was terrible in the first half of 2012, but not in the second half, and he does have closing "experience." For now, Grilli is the closer, but he's likely on a relatively short leash.
Houston Astros: I'm guessing most people can't name this team's top two save leaders from 2012. They're both elsewhere now: Brett Myers and Wilton Lopez. That doesn't leave much, but lest you forget, even 100-loss teams accrue saves. In fact, two teams even had fewer saves than last year's 107-loss Astros. Anyway, I'd say the leader in the Houston clubhouse is journeyman Jose Veras. The team has spent precious little money this offseason, probably more in reminding people it's an AL West team now, but Veras quietly got a one-year deal for $1.85 million, which labels him the bullpen's big shot. Veras has brought the strikeouts the past few years, and he's certainly more experienced than Hector Ambriz, Fernando Rodriguez or Wesley Wright. Keep a close eye on Rule 5 pick Josh Fields, a former Seattle Mariners first-rounder who throws hard and rejuvenated his stalled career at Portland and Pawtucket in 2012 (2.01 ERA, 12 saves, 12 K/9). Watch Fields seize the closer role by midseason.
Miami Marlins: The Heath Bell experience went poorly, but now he's Arizona's problem. Steve Cishek sidearmed his way to 15 saves and respectable peripheral numbers, and there doesn't seem to be much competition (lefty Mike Dunn, rehabbing Jose Ceda) for the role at this point. Of course, this wacky franchise cleans house every five minutes (yet they still signed Placido Polanco to play third base). Don't be stunned if Valverde or Bearded Brian Wilson take one-year deals to resurrect their careers. I just don't feel like Cishek is safe for 30 saves, that's all.
Cincinnati Reds: Surprise! Yes, this team employs Aroldis Chapman, Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall, among others, and it doesn't fit the theme of other teams covered above. However, this is a reminder that if you're drafting anytime soon -- I've already had multiple drafts -- Broxton is a risky pick, and not only for his performance/health. I just don't have faith that the Reds will keep the electric Chapman in a starting role the first time his elbow or shoulder hurts, or his fastball velocity fluctuates. Yes, I think the Cuban would be far more valuable tossing 200 innings than 70, and would help fantasy owners more as a starter -- one can always find saves -- but watch this team in March to see what they're really going to do.
There are other teams worth watching, too. It's presumed that Rivera will be fine after tearing an ACL last April, but David Robertson is a wise handcuff. The Los Angeles Angels could go with Frieri, who was terrific in 2012, or Ryan Madson, who returns from Tommy John surgery. And the Chicago Cubs welcome import Kyuji Fujikawa, perhaps the Rivera of the Japanese leagues. Also, it shouldn't be long before Carlos Marmol is walking hitters in the seventh inning or for another team.