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Scott Pianowski

Closing Time: Chasing Saves in the AL

With this break in the action I thought it would be a good time to visit all of the MLB bullpens, diagnose the saves chase, make some educated guesses on the next closer good closer to go bad. Today we'll hit the American League, tomorrow the National League. You're on your own in Japan.

I'm given each closer a "security number" from 0 to 5; anyone at 5 is a no-worries sort of property, while the zeroes basically could get Borowskied at any minute. Competition for the ball, injury history and trade potential are factored into each closer's grade, along with recent and projected performance. I've also tried to suggest good hedge plays as we hunt for saves; obviously this is a constant task for any serious fantasy player.

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American League East

Mariano Rivera, Yankees (5): Amidst little fanfare, Rivera is having arguably his best season: a ridiculous 12.50 K/BB rate, a tiny 0.64 ratio. The Yankees have set him up for a win or a save in 27 of his 38 appearances. There's no clear successor for the ninth if something happens to Rivera - it's doubtful the Yankees would take Joba Chamberlain out of the rotation now. Kyle Farnsworth is the biggest name of the set-up men, but Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras have pitched better in 2008. It makes more sense to speculate elsewhere.

Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox (5): His ERA is half a run higher than 2007 but the peripherals suggest Papelbon is actually pitching better this time around; he's spiked his ground-ball rate with only a minor giveback in strikeouts, and he's had a jump with his BABIP (.313). In other words, the statheads will tell you what the casual fan already knows - this guy is a stud, and his supporting cast should continue to get him plenty of ninth-inning handshakes (28 saves, three wins). Lefty Hideki Okajima is still the No. 2 option here, in part because so many of the right-handers in The Hub have struggled (Mike Timlin looks all but expired; Manny Delcarmen and Craig Hansen are maddeningly inconsistent). But like the New York situation with Rivera, there's not a lot to grab onto here after the top dog.

George Sherrill, Orioles (3.5): He hasn't pitched anywhere near as well as the save total would suggest; make note of the six blown saves, 24 walks in 39.2 innings, the bloated 1.41 ratio. But Dave Trembley doesn't hesitate when a ninth-inning lead comes around, he calls in his lefty, and that's all that really matters in our fantasy world. The biggest risk with Sherrill comes at the end of the month; he's already 31 and he's arbitration-eligible this winter, so it's possible the Orioles might want to flip Sherrill when he's most attractive to contenders. Jim Johnson has been a surprise this year setting up for Sherrill, though his 2.03 ERA is a mirror show (21 walks against 29 strikeouts over 53.1 innings, .214 BABIP). Nonetheless, if Sherrill were to leave town later this summer, Johnson's eighth-inning work could easily get shuttled to the ninth.

B.J. Ryan, Blue Jays (3.5): While Ryan isn't blowing away hitters like he did a few years back, you have to give him props for the steady hand so far (18-for-20 in saves) given how uncertain his status looked back in March. Underrated journeyman Scott Downs rolled up five quick saves into mid-May when the Jays were still babying Ryan, but he hasn't recorded one since. If Ryan were to get hurt again, Downs and rookie left-hander Jesse Carlson (2.10 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 32 strikeouts in 30 innings) would likely be at the head of the line for the ninth. Jason Frasor has a saves resume if you look back to his rookie year of 2004, but he's been mediocre at best for three seasons now.

Troy Percival, Rays (2.5): Whatever you paid for Percival in March, you've no doubt turned a profit already (19 saves). But how much can we really expect going forward from an aging closer (he turns 39 in August) who's already broken down a couple of times in 2008? Joe Maddon has a lot of options after Percival in his bullpen and he's not afraid to get creative; Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour all have multiple saves. So if Percival's hamstring injury lingers into the second half, this looks like a committee in the worst way. Balfour's 2008 profile presents the best case to close, but Wheeler's "previous closer experience" will likely get factored into the equation, for better or for worse. If you want to bet on skills, hedge with Balfour; if you prefer to speculate on Maddon's whims, Wheeler becomes the play.

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American League Central

Joe Nathan, Twins (5): Is it too late for this guy to make a Hall of Fame run? He's been lights-out for five years in this gig and you almost never hear a thing about him. He hasn't picked up any wins this year but what's not to like about 27 saves (on 29 chances), a 1.13 ERA and a 0.93 ratio? Just for kicks, Nathan has upped his strikeouts and ground-ball rate this year while walking fewer batters. Dennys Reyes and Jesse Crain have been adequate as set-up men but please, let's not see them working the ninth.

Joakim Soria, Royals (5): Think the Padres regret letting this guy get away? Put Soria in San Diego's pen last year and the Padres at minimum make the playoffs. Soria was super in 2007 and he's taken it up a level this season, lowering his walk rate, inducing more ground balls, and essentially keeping the same strikeout rate. You hear the occasional whisper of Kansas City putting him in the rotation at some future date, but that's a debate for the winter - it's not going to happen this summer. Leo Nunez was a dynamite set-up guy before getting hurt in late May; rehab reports have been favorable, and he should rejoin the club shortly.

Bobby Jenks, White Sox (4): Don't fret over the fine job Chicago's set-up men have done; Ozzie Guillen prefers Jenks driving in the ninth and that's the way it's going to stay, assuming Jenks's wonky back isn't a lingering problem. Scott Linebrink got first crack to close when Jenks hit the DL early this month, and later Octavio Dotel took a spin - with nasty left-hander Matt Thornton still refined to the set-up ranks. Add it all up and Linebrink looks like the opportunity hedge, while Thornton probably is the skills darling (strong against righties, dominant against lefties). But unless Jenks has a major setback with his back, I'm not going to get the red pen out here.

Masa Kobayashi, Indians (3): He's essentially the last option standing in Cleveland: Joe Borowski finally ran out of polaroids chances, Rafael Betancourt couldn't handle the ninth, Rafael Perez is somewhat pigeonholed as a lefty/jams guy, and collectively the Indians have the worst relief ERA in the majors. Kobayashi isn't dominating by any means (5.68 K/9), but a heavy ground-ball rate (52.5) keeps him out of trouble. He's already 34 but at least he's got the stomach for the ninth inning - he saved 20 games or more for seven straight seasons in Japan. The Indians aren't going anywhere in 2008, but even losing clubs can and will support a decent saves count for someone, assuming there's just one mouth at the end of the funnel. I'm fine to discuss hedges if and when they seem necessary (you know where to find me), but Kobayashi's path looks clean for the moment.

Todd Jones, Tigers (3): In one corner we have Joel Zumaya, electric stuff but spotty command. On his best days you walk away gushing about his upside. In the other corner is Jones, the old warhorse, a guy who throws oh-so-hittable strikes and needs some help from the gloves behind him. The key here is recognizing that Jim Leyland trusts Jones and extends him a long leash. Jones won't look good on any kind of statistical survey (4.95 ERA, 1.54 ratio, and the deeper numbers are even messier), but Leyland sees 17 saves in 19 chances and he's not making a switch, not before a lot of accidents, anyway. I realize the Zumaya crowd wants a baton pass sometime this summer, but I'm feeling it won't happen until late in the year, if not 2009. We also need to consider that Jones is 40, but again, Leyland seems content to stand by his veteran.

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American League West

Francisco Rodriguez, Angels (5): From the peripheral side of things, this hasn't been a banner year for K-Rod: walks and line drives are up, while his strikeout rate has fallen off significantly. But the Angels are getting an awful lot of leads to protect in the ninth inning, and that's why Rodriguez is poised to shatter Bobby Thigpen's save record. From a fantasy perspective, sit back and enjoy the ride, pile up the saves. But if you hear anyone claim K-Rod is the AL's Cy Young favorite, change the channel immediately; timing shouldn't determine a major award winner, performance should. I've generally been afraid to own Rodriguez most years, put off by his loud mechanics and hefty price tag; this year, he's getting the last laugh. Still, if I were drafting tomorrow, I'd let someone else have him.

As for a hedge, it's still Scot Shields, though he's no longer the indestructible man. He's missed time with forearm and ribcage injuries this year. Impressive rookie Jose Arredondo, a favorite of the Y! Nation, also deserves mention.

Huston Street, Athletics (3): Maybe he's not dominant these days but he's still plenty good in the ninth inning. But Street's also arbitration eligible after the season, and you get the idea Billy Beane might not want to devote a major chunk of payroll to a puzzle piece that, in truth, isn't that hard to secure. Said another way, if another club wants to talk about Street at any time this month, Beane's probably taking the call. We can't automatically assume that Street would close for a different club if he's indeed traded, and he's not the most durable closer in the majors, either. Now that I've got everyone scared, let me back up and concede that the odds are better than 50-50 that Street isn't traded, and I figure he's probably good for another 15 saves or so before the curtain draws on the season. But don't let our first impressions of this kid a few years back cloud what his true value should be today.

How to hedge Street? That's a tricky one. Santiago Casilla hasn't looked right since his elbow injury and DL stint; Joey Devine (elbow) is still on the shelf; Andrew Brown doesn't have the idea control for the ninth; Keith Foulke is nothing special these days and has a sore shoulder besides; Alan Embree is in the middle of a mediocre season. Let's pay extra attention to how Bob Geren handles the eighth inning over the next few weeks, and see if Casilla can get back into form.

J.J. Putz, Mariners (3): He's top-shelf when healthy, we all know that, but the shipwrecked Mariners have no reason to take chances with Putz in the second half if there's any type of setback with his elbow. Brandon Morrow has been excellent as the stand-in; for two months no one scored a run off him, and I'll look past his mini-slump right before the All-Star break. When Putz returns (which should be this week or next week), look for Seattle to use him in middle relief once or twice while he gets his groove back.

C.J. Wilson, Rangers (1.5): With his job on the line in the middle of June, Wilson rallied, converting eight saves in a row. But Wilson's last appearance before the break was a messy one (five hits, three runs), and a 5.01 ERA and 1.57 ratio doesn't inspire a lot of ninth-inning confidence. Joaquin Benoit isn't a concern for Wilson owners - he's been worse than the lefty and now he's got a bum shoulder - but Ron Washington might look towards Frank Francisco (3.58 ERA, 10.75 K/9) or Eddie Guardado (2.88 ERA, 0.90 ratio) if Wilson doesn't come out of the blocks quickly.

Later on Thursday: The National League bullpens.

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