The turnover at the closer position is somewhat staggering. A number of top closers from 2004 have switched teams, one has returned to the starting rotation and several others are stepping into the full-time closer role for the first time.
Last season, 10 closers topped 40 saves and another eight tallied 25 or more. Four of these 18 relievers finished the season with an ERA under 2.00 and six surrendered eight or more gopher balls.
B.J. Ryan, Bal
He is the favorite to take over the closer role from the scuffling Jorge Julio. Though Julio converted 22 of 26 save opportunities, he struggled mightily in non-save opportunities.
Ryan pitched tremendously at Camden Yards, racking up 1.4 strikeouts per inning pitched with an ERA of 2.00 and WHIP of 1.09. For the season, opponents hit only .200 off of the lanky southpaw.
Keith Foulke, Bos
Strangely, Foulke has appeared in 72 games in four of the past five seasons. During that span, his ERA is a brilliant 2.55 with a WHIP of 0.98. He has averaged nearly a strikeout per inning during the course of his career and is at his best down the stretch. Foulke holds a career ERA of 1.95 from Aug. 1 through the end of the season.
Mariano Rivera, NYY
Rivera posted the second 50-save season of his career in 2004, but showed some vulnerability with an ERA that actually approached 2.00. His struggles against the Red Sox in 04 are now a thing of legend, with an ERA of 4.24 and a robust WHIP of 1.50 in nine appearances against the Sox (7.36 and 1.64, respectively, at Fenway Park).
Danys Baez, TB
The Devil Rays brought Baez in to fill the closer role in 2004 and he responded with 30 saves. Excepting his struggles in August, Baez proved effective with an ERA of 2.98 and 1.26 WHIP. His home and away splits demonstrate a sharp contrast, with an ERA 2.15 higher on the road than at Tropicana Field. His WHIP also ballooned from 1.11 to 1.64.
Jason Frasor, Tor
Frasor enters the season as the top closer candidate for Toronto. He converted 17 of 19 save chances, and struck out seven hitters per nine innings. The wheels fell off as of Aug. 1, prior to which he'd managed a spectacular ERA of 2.14.
Shingo Takatsu, CHW
The 36-year old "Mr. Zero" joined the White Sox and lived up to the hype. Opponents hit only .182 against Takatsu last season (.160 before the All-Star break) and he converted 19 of 20 save opportunities. The month of August was particularly difficult for him, with four games in which he allowed two or more earned runs. Takatsu managed a spectacular 2.14 ERA in 31 appearances at U.S. Cellular Field.
Bob Wickman, Cle
I remember completing a draft with Wickman as one of my closers, only to find that he'd been defeated by injury literally while the draft was in progress. The injury kept him sidelined until July. Wickman returned to the closer role at the end of that month and saved 13 games in 14 opportunities. He was more effective at Jacobs Field, with an ERA a run and a half better than on the road.
Troy Percival, Det
After a decade with the Angels, Percival joins the Tigers for 2005. To be an effective fantasy option, he'll need to see continued development from Mike Maroth and Jeremy Bonderman. He's saved 30 or more games in eight of his nine seasons as a closer and averages 1.2 strikeouts per inning.
Jeremy Affeldt, Kan
After eight starts in 2004 (six of which were miserable), Affeldt was moved to the bullpen. He promptly blew his first save opportunity on May 22 against the A's. Affeldt converted 13 of his next 16 chances. His career 1.46 WHIP may find him in middle relief soon enough.
Joe Nathan, Min
Nathan won 12 games out of the bullpen with a sub-3.00 ERA in 2003 with the Giants. With the Twins in 04, Nathan was virtually unhittable, saving 44 of 46 opportunities. Opponents hit a weak .187 against him, and his 1.62 ERA and 0.98 WHIP ranked among the best in the game. Nathan also gets the big whiff, striking out 1.2 hitters per inning.
Francisco Rodriguez, LAA
Rodriguez has allegedly been overworked in the Venezuelan league this winter. That's somewhat disconcerting, as he'll be counted on to take over for Percival. Rodriguez carries a three-year WHIP of 0.99 and a spectacular 1.3 strikeouts per inning. It'll be interesting to see if these reports are true.
Octavio Dotel, Oak
Split between Houston and Oakland in 2004, Dotel pitched his best wherever he called home. His ERA was 2.63 lower at home than on the road, and the composite opponents' batting average was 67 points lower.
Eddie Guardado, Sea
When sound (he didn't pitch again in 2004 after July 31), Guardado remains a solid closing option. His WHIP has been 1.05 or lower for four straight seasons with an ERA under 4.00 for the past five. The re-tooled Seattle lineup, fresh off of the additions of Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson, should open up additional opportunities for Guardado.
Francisco Cordero, Tex
Cordero turned in a positively spectacular season for the Rangers in 04, ranking second in the majors with 49 saves in 67 games. His 2.13 ERA ranked ninth among pitchers who appeared in more than 30 games and he added more than one strikeout per inning.
Dan Kolb, Atl
With John Smoltz moving back to the starting rotation, Danny Kolb was acquired from Milwaukee to keep the line of NL East titles running. Kolb finished his season with an ERA of 2.98 and a solid 1.13 WHIP. He was better before the All-Star break, with 26 saves and dominant ERA and WHIP marks (1.62 and 0.93, respectively).
Guillermo Mota, Fla
Mota assumes the closer role in Florida with the departure of Armando Benitez. Mota allowed earned runs in only 18 of 78 appearances last season with four blown saves. In 21 appearances at Pro Player Stadium, Mota has posted a solid 2.25 ERA and 0.71 WHIP. For his career, he averages more than seven strikeouts per nine innings.
Braden Looper, NYM
The Mets got a boost from the young closer in a season that they'd otherwise like to forget. Looper saved a career-high 29 games and will enjoy the additions of Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran to the mix. He strikes out better than six hitters per nine innings and is a durable member of the staff, averaging 73 appearances per season for the past six years.
Billy Wagner, Phi
Wagner remains one of the more dominant closers in the game when healthy. He has averaged 1.4 strikeouts per inning in his career, with a minuscule 1.02 WHIP. Opponents hit .186 against him. Wagner has topped 30 saves five times in the past seven years.
Chad Cordero, Was
The 22-year old Cordero earned his first save in 2004 on May 30. He successfully converted 14 of 18 chances. Cordero struck out better than one hitter per inning and limited opponents to a .222 average.
Ryan Dempster, CHC
The veteran right-hander earned two saves in 23 outings for the Cubs last season, and will open the 2005 season as the closer. His contributions of 3.92 ERA and 1.40 WHIP for the Cubs were the second-lowest of his career. In 19 career appearances at Wrigley Field, Dempster owns a 4.30 ERA and 1.33 WHIP.
Danny Graves, Cin
He took a one-year break from his reliever duties in 2003 to take a shot at starting. The 5.33 ERA and 1.45 WHIP indicated that it was a failed experiment, and he returned to the closer role last season. Graves saved 41 games in 68 outings, but his ERA and WHIP totals ranked near the bottom among the league's closers.
Brad Lidge, Hou
Lidge inherited the closer role after Billy Wagner bolted for Philadelphia and Octavio Dotel bounced to the West Coast. He went on to save 29 games with a 1.90 ERA and 0.92 WHIP. Lidge also averaged a whopping 1.7 strikeouts per inning.
Justin Lehr, Mil
With the musical chairs among closers, Lehr steps in for Kolb. In 27 games with the A's last season, Lehr had bloated numbers: 5.23 ERA and 1.50 WHIP. Prior to his call-up by the A's, Lehr dominated Pacific Coast League hitters, posting a 1.82 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 34 innings.
Jose Mesa, Pit
After a disastrous 2003 campaign, Mesa rebounded to deliver the fourth 40-save season of his career. He has averaged 38 saves per season for the past four years. The 1.47 career WHIP and alternating brilliant and horrid ERA totals he contributes often scare away fantasy owners.
Jason Isringhausen, StL
Isringhausen earned a career-high 47 saves behind the potent St. Louis offense. He struggled at Busch Stadium, posting an ERA of 4.63 despite saving 19 games. By contrast, he was virtually unhittable on the road, limiting opponents to a 1.34 ERA and 0.94 WHIP.
Greg Aquino, Ari
Aquino stepped into the closer role after both Jose Valverde and Matt Mantei went down with injuries. He saved 16 games in 34 appearances, with a 2.76 ERA after the All-Star break. Aquino allowed more than one earned run to only two teams (Milwaukee and San Francisco).
Chin-Hui Tsao, Col
Tsao got the call to the big leagues despite getting racked around at Triple-A Colorado Springs in four appearances. He struck out better than a hitter per inning, but allowed five bombs and 12 earned runs. Tsao converted one of two save opportunities in the final week of the season.
Eric Gagne, LAD
The streak had to end sometime. Gagne's record consecutive saves streak ended on July 5, and he blew a second a little over a month later. Forty-five out of 47 for the season isn't too shabby. He was rewarded with a two-year, $19 million contract extension. He's averaged 50 saves per season for the past three years and remarkably, has pitched exactly 82⅓ innings for three straight years.
Trevor Hoffman, SD
Hoffman returned after missing virtually all of the 2003 season. He saved 41 games in 55 appearances, posting miniscule ERA (2.30) and WHIP (0.91) totals. In his 11 years as a closer (including the injury-shortened 03 season), he's averaged 35 saves per season.
Armando Benitez, SF
Benitez has posted seven straight seasons of 20 or more saves. In 2004, he saved 47 of 51 chances and posted ridiculous ERA (1.29) and WHIP (0.82) totals. He's yet to earn a save in seven career appearances at Pac Bell.
Next time, I'll complete the tour with a look at the designated hitters, who fit so nicely into your league's utility spot.
Until then, keep watching the news for the next move.