|ESPN.com: Eric Karabell||[Print without images]|
Back in March, there was little indication fantasy owners would need to pay attention to -- or own -- the likes of Kevin Gregg, Koji Uehara and Francisco Rodriguez, but here we are days before the All-Star break and those guys are certainly a whole lot of relevant. Look around at the closer landscape and so much has changed. Edward Mujica is on pace for 45 saves, a 100-loss Houston Astros club might get its closer 30 of them and latest word from Arizona is that Byung-Hyun Kim is back in the mix for saves. What in the name of Oliver Perez is going on?
Anyway, now seems like a wise time to take stock in what we’ve learned from a fantasy aspect when it comes to that most frustrating of statistics, the save, and look ahead. One doesn’t need to pitch like a champ to earn them -- see Jose Valverde, Brandon League or Heath Bell. And one could pitch like a champ and still not earn them -- see Trevor Rosenthal or All-Star Steve Delabar -- so it’s easy to note things are ever-changing.
Top fantasy value so far: Alas, Nathan was no sleeper on draft day. I’ll go with St. Louis Cardinals surprise Edward Mujica. When Jason Motte blew out his arm, I thought the hard-throwing Rosenthal should have been given a chance to close. Instead, the now-departed Mitchell Boggs was chosen, and he was awful. Now he’s at Double-A Tulsa in the Colorado Rockies organization. Mujica got his first save in mid-April and has dominated.
Worst fantasy value so far: While I never would have chosen Atlanta’s Kimbrel in the fourth round, which is what it took to get him in ESPN average live drafts, he’s not having a bad season. He’s behind only Nathan and Jason Grilli among closers on the Rater. Chapman is sixth. Fernando Rodney, on the other hand, was the No. 3 relief pitcher on draft day (fourth among closers if you count Chapman) and has struggled at times, with a walk rate exceeding many of his Angels and Tigers days. He’s really not in danger of losing the closer role, and his strikeout rate is significantly up on last year, but I can’t call him a top-10 closer.
Antonio Alfonseca award performance: You remember ol’ six finger, who lucked into saves with the late-'90s Florida Marlins, saved 45 games with a 1.51 WHIP in 2000 and still managed to keep getting chances. Well, how does one explain Kevin Gregg? The Chicago Cubs couldn’t keep using Carlos Marmol in the role, but Gregg’s numbers in Baltimore the past two seasons, before he was out of work in mid-April, were miserable (4.62 ERA, 1.66 WHIP). The guy always finds a way, and now he enters the weekend with 16 saves, his best strikeout percentage ever and a 1.02 WHIP. I can’t explain it. I’m certainly selling it. Watch him replace Mariano Rivera for the Yankees in 2014, he types tongue in cheek.
Joaquin Benoit award for gopher-itis: You might not recall now, but back in early April Kansas City Royals closer Greg Holland struggled, and Kelvin Herrera seemed poised to usurp the role. Herrera earned a few saves, and there was a threat of Aaron Crow getting chances as well. But Herrera couldn’t stop allowing home runs and Holland became untouchable. Since May 1, Holland’s ERA is below 1. Herrera has permitted eight home runs, following in the footsteps of current Detroit closer Benoit, who allowed 14 a year ago. Benoit is doing better now in that regard, but don’t be surprised when he is replaced via trade. By the way, two relievers have allowed 10 home runs already. One is Houston’s Paul Clemens, whom even Astros fans haven’t heard of, the other is closer Huston Street, whom everyone knows and is nearly 100 percent owned. Be very careful there.
The sleeper gone right: Grilli has been all that and a bag of chips for the surprising Pittsburgh Pirates. What I wrote back in March was Mark Melancon was a great bounce-back choice as well, and he has shown it, with a 0.85 ERA and four walks versus 44 strikeouts. A great bullpen can carry a real team, as well as a fantasy one. It’s clear who is next in line should Grilli hiccup.
The winners: The winningest closer is New York Mets right-hander Bobby Parnell, with five. He’s having a fine season, but let’s face it, the win total (three came in May) has overrated him some. It’s mainly luck when closers win, unless they keep blowing saves to do so, but it also says something when a guy is used in tie games. Parnell, Addison Reed and Sergio Romo are seeing more decisions than most.
The losers: For this we don’t need to refer to the ridiculous win statistic (compare James Shields and Matt Moore and tell me who is having the better season) to know that Arizona’s Bell, the Dodgers’ League and Valverde had ample chances to save 30 games, but won’t do so. Of the 34 pitchers with seven or more saves, they are the only ones with a negative Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
WAR can be good: Speaking of this non-fantasy but certainly relevant stat, Rex Brothers, Jesse Crain, Drew Smyly, Nathan and Melancon are the top relief pitchers in WAR, heading into Friday. One of them is getting saves. Even on our Rater, Detroit’s Smyly ranks better than Casey Janssen, Jose Veras and several other closers. Add top relievers if you’re over the games started pace or tired of dealing with struggling starters like Yovani Gallardo, who can hurt as much as they help.
Buy low: Uehara has the skills to keep the Boston job, and Andrew Bailey can’t stay healthy, so I don’t see him as a threat. Nor do I see Ryan Madson as a threat of pitching anytime soon, so strikeout monster Ernesto Frieri remains underrated. And nobody seems to like Cleveland’s Chris Perez, but Vinnie Pestano didn’t shine in the role.
Sell high: Well, sell high on any closer that nets you the hitter or starting pitcher you need, because it’s easy to replace saves. Even Kimbrel, great as he is, has seen his strikeout rate drop quite a bit, and based on excessive usage in recent seasons I won’t be at all surprised when injury strikes. It has already taken his top setup men. Trade Rivera based on name value, Jim Johnson based on inconsistency and Mujica based on the fact Rosenthal is better and the Cardinals have made ninth-inning adjustments in the past without provocation. And I have concerns that in a month Gregg, Rodriguez, Tom Wilhelmsen, Janssen, Steve Cishek, Street and Benoit are earning as many saves as you and I, for performance, injury or trade explanations.
Buy low: Delabar, Dale Thayer, John Axford (yes, over Jim Henderson), Parker and Tommy Hunter are right-handers to keep an eye on for when their closers struggle with injury or performance. And I still think J.J. Putz retains the Diamondbacks job in July and keeps it.
Lifetime achievement: And finally, we close with the GOAT (greatest of all time), the always reliable Mariano Rivera. Not only is he thriving, but he’s potentially on his way to leading the majors in saves, a feat which over his 19 seasons has happened only three times. Are you going to bet against this guy?