Position Primer: Relief Pitcher

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Five years ago, back when Billy Koch used to blow saves for the White Sox, a dude sitting near me at a bar yelled something that perfectly sums up my feeling for closers:

"Just do the (expletive) job for which we overpay you, (expletive) Koch!"

There it is in a nutshell. Closers tend to be grossly overpaid, both in fantasy and reality. Koch himself was making $6,375,000 at the time. When closers fail, it's especially annoying.

In fantasy auctions, you'll often find that a top tier closer will cost 10 percent of a team's total budget. In drafts, the elite guys will go as early as Round 4. That's an extraordinary price to pay for 60 to 70 innings of work. You certainly don't need to acquire brand-name RPs in order to accumulate saves. Any team in Major League Baseball is capable of producing a 40-save closer – the 75-win Royals gave us one last year (Joakim Soria), and so did the 72-win Giants (Brian Wilson).

A significant percentage of total RP value won't even be owned at the beginning of the season. Jobs are lost, pitchers are traded, and ligaments are torn. In most formats, you'll be able to find saves in the free-agent pool throughout the year. That fact should limit the cost of closers on draft day, but it never really seems to.

We urge you not to chase saves in the early rounds in standard mixed leagues. In fact, we urge you not to chase them in the middle rounds, either. Get them late and cheap.

Not every team's closer situation is settled right now, of course. The A's and Orioles are likely to split the end-game workload early in the season – it's Joey Devine and Brad Ziegler in Oakland, George Sherrill and Chris Ray in Baltimore – while the Cubs (Carlos Marmol, Kevin Gregg), Rockies (Manuel Corpas, Huston Street) and Cardinals (Chris Perez, Jason Motte, Ryan Franklin) are currently undecided. Anyone who officially gets a full-time closing job jumps at least one tier.

In Seattle, there are no fewer than six closing candidates, and the three players who were thought to be primary contenders – Miguel Batista, Roy Corcoran, Mark Lowe – aren't exactly dazzling this spring. The fantasy community should be rooting for Batista, since he's SP-eligible. Manager Don Wakamatsu has said, "No one's really stood out." The M's have signed the rehabbing Chad Cordero (shoulder) to a minor-league deal, but he won't be in the saves mix in the near-term.

OK, fantasy experts, time to do the (expletive) job for which we overpay you …

Top 5 Relief Pitcher – Overall

Brandon Funston

Andy Behrens

Brad Evans

Scott Pianowski

1. Jonathan Papelbon – Has 35+ saves, 75+ K, sub-2.35 ERA, sub-1.00 WHIP each of past 3 years

1. Jonathan Papelbon – Sub-1.00 WHIP for three straight years, career .194 BAA, and the lord of the dance

1. Jonathan Papelbon – King of the River Dance has posted three straight 35-plus save, sub-2.40 ERA seasons

1. Jonathan Papelbon – His price is ridiculous but someone has to be first

2. Joe Nathan – Has averaged 40 saves, sub-2.00 ERA, sub-1.00 WHIP in his 5 years in Minnesota

2. Mariano Rivera – The best closer there ever was. Mo has delivered an ERA below 2.00 in five of last six seasons

2. Brad Lidge – Buried past demons after reversing GB/FB trend; another 40-save, 90-K year in order

2. Joe Nathan – Five dominant years in a row but you never hear a peep about him

3. Brad Lidge – Was a perfect 41-of-41 in save opportunities, but he truly exorcised demons with a 7-for-7 postseason

3. Joe Nathan – So yeah, the Pierzynski trade is still paying dividends

3. Francisco Rodriguez – Unsteady underlying numbers are a slight concern, but should receive plenty of opportunities with Mets

3. Francisco Rodriguez – Heads to the NL at the right time; still a safe bet for 40-plus

4. Mariano Rivera – At 38, produced his career-best WHIP (0.67) and opponent AVG (.165)

4. Joakim Soria – Better career WHIP and BAA than Papelbon

4. Joe Nathan – Three consecutive seasons of 36 or more saves, an ERA below 2.00 and 70 strikeouts -- money in the bank

4. Mariano Rivera – Coming off an electric year, but at what point does age become a factor?

5. Francisco Rodriguez – The Angels had most save opportunities in '08, but at least the Mets clocked in at 3rd in that department

5. Francisco Rodriguez – The four above have better ratios, but of course K-Rod has the saves record

5. Mariano Rivera – Guy hit puberty when Quiet Riot was rocking the charts, but his peripheral, saves conversion rates still spectacular

5. Brad Lidge – Got his confidence back, and don't overlook the 92 Ks

Top 5 Relief Pitcher – Undervalued

Brandon Funston

Andy Behrens

Brad Evans

Scott Pianowski

1. Brian Fuentes – Has a proven past, and Angels have been in the top 12 in save opportunities 4 of the past 5 seasons (twice top 3)

1. Matt Lindstrom – The ADP is right (173.0) and his stuff is classically closer-ish

1. Frank Francisco – ADP after pick 250 screams bargain -- clear-cut favorite to emerge stopper for offensive powerhouse; 35 saves attainable

1. Brandon Lyon – Quit dreaming about Guitar Hero Joel Zumaya; Jim Leyland will close with a slumdog so long as he throws strikes

2. Frank Francisco – 5th-best K/9 rate (11.79) among relievers (min. 40 IP) in '08

2. Brad Ziegler – Co-closer Joey Devine already having elbow issues, and Ziegler is on the board very late (ADP 193.1)

2. Brandon Lyon – 6.67 K/9 last year highest mark since '03, but .355 BABIP swelled ERA over 4.00 -- he's a quality closer capable of 30-35 saves

2. Brian Fuentes – Mike Scioscia loves to reward his stopper with cheap saves; sublime setup men also help the cause

3. Hong-Chi Kuo – Not only was he 11th-best RP in Y! game in '08, he's also an option if Broxton doesn't take to the closer role

3. Brian Wilson – You can't project another 41 saves (can't really project saves, period), but the job is safe and he's there in R12

3. Manny Corpas – Huston Street's tenuous grasp on ninth-inning role has much improved former end-game option waiting in the wings

3. Chad Qualls – Dominant September (two wins, seven saves, 0.00 ERA) earned him some leash for 2009

4. Manny Corpas – Reported to camp in great shape, has had a great spring – he's well out in front of Street for the job

4. Brandon Lyon – Detroit closer is buried in the pre-draft ranks (574)

4. Kevin Gregg – Marmol's WBC humiliation opens the door for the once effective Marlins stopper; 15-20 saves potential a nice end-draft risk

4. Matt Lindstrom – Proved he could handle job with a dynamic second half (1.86 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, .224 BAA)

5. Brandon Lyon – There's nothing exciting about him, other than the fact that he's the front-runner for Detroit's closer role

5. Juan Cruz – Outstanding K-rate in '08 (12.37 K/9); combine him with Arredondo and you've built an ace from scraps

5. Grant Balfour – Injury risk but Kangaroo K's 12.65 K/9 Aussie-rific; could emerge last-frame option if Percival bombs

5. Kevin Gregg – Carlos Marmol might be more valuable to the Cubs as a "get out of jams" guy

Top 5 Relief Pitcher – Overvalued

Brandon Funston

Andy Behrens

Brad Evans

Scott Pianowski

1. Joba Chamberlain – Starter or reliever, there's wiser ways to spend a top 100 pick

1. Jonathan Papelbon – He's everybody's No. 1 RP, but the 41.9 ADP is insane

1. Carlos Marmol – Sweet Lou has always liked him in the eighth; WBC debacle could shift him back to setup role

1. Kerry Wood – Go ahead, ignore everything in his medical file

2. Huston Street – He's the object in Manny Corpas' rear-view mirror right now, and he's not closer than it appears

2. Francisco Rodriguez – K-Rod is the No. 2 closer in ADP (59.0), but not quite there in the RP ranks

2. Huston Street – The real closer in Colorado is going roughly 120 picks later

2. Joel Zumaya – Leyland doesn't really trust him, and that goes double for Fernando Rodney

3. Francisco Rodriguez – He's one of my top 5 closers, but that doesn't translate anywhere close to his current ADP value

3. Bobby Jenks – His K/9 gets a little lower each year. Just 38 Ks in 61.2 IP in '08

3. Brandon Morrow – Effective as Mariners ninth-inning guy saving 10 of 12, but transition to starter could prove initially shaky

3. Huston Street – Hasn't found best slider yet, Manny Corpas is a bigger threat than you think, and oh yeah, gravity is a bitch

4. Mike Gonzalez – He has great stuff, but the track record of injury makes him far from a sure thing

4. Francisco Cordero – It's been an ugly spring, for whatever that's worth. (Not much)

4. Brad Ziegler – Riveting debut unreal, but Joey Devine is the well-groomed Oakland closer you want

4. Grant Balfour – Don't chase last year's middle-relief hero (in the NL it's Hong-Chih Kuo); command issues might stand in the way of him closing someday

5. Chris Perez – Coming off the board well ahead of teammates Motte and Franklin, but he's probably behind them at the moment in the battle for the closer role

5. Huston Street – Well ahead of Corpas in ADP, but well behind in spring performance

5. Matt Capps – Bucco's clear-cut option in the ninth, but expected lack of opportunities means he's not a top-15 closer

5. Chris Ray – Maybe he'll close eventually but it's George Sherrill's gig to start

Top 5 Relief Pitcher – Prospects

Brandon Funston

Andy Behrens

Brad Evans

Scott Pianowski

1. Jason Motte – With a blazing fastball, good control and bulldog demeanor, he's ideal in closer role; has been striking out everything that moves in his pro career

1. Chris Perez/Jason Motte – Both have closer's stuff, and both are in the mix for saves in '09. Give Perez the edge, fantasy-wise

1. Chris Perez – Eyebrow-singeing stuff, but needs to harness control to earn Tony LaRussa's trust

1. Jason Motte – The highest upside in this bullpen (sorry, Chris Perez)

2. Josh Fields – Power-armed Georgia product one of the most MLB-ready players in '08 draft, and there's not much standing in his way in Seattle

2. Jeff Samardzija – Expected to begin the year in 'pen, where he was useful in '08. Long term starter, though

2. Jeff Samardzija – Should break with North Siders as long-man; 8.13 K/9 points to possible quality middle relief strikeouts source

2. Chris Perez – No doubting the talent and moxie but there's gridlock in St. Louis

3. Chris Perez – Has a better 2nd pitch than Motte, but also brings some control issues to the table

3. Jose Ceda – Hard-thrower arrived in the Gregg trade. Posted 95 Ks in 84.2 minor league innings in '08, at age 21

3. Jose Ceda – Acquired from Chicago in Kevin Gregg deal, hard-throwing import a high-upside strikeout force -- 12.46 K/9 at Double-A last year

3. Ryan Perry – Detroit's top pick from 2008 has the stuff and pedigree to close next decade

4. Jose Mijares – Lefty has nasty stuff -- should be in mix in 2011 when life after Nathan (likely) arrives

4. Jose Mijares – The lefty's audition went well last year (10.1 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 5 K), should have a role in MIN in '09

4. Jason Motte – Might start year in minors, but sensational 14.85 K/9 last year at Memphis shows he has dominant stuff

4. Jose Ceda – Possible stopper-of-future but won't challenge Lindstrom right away

5. Jeff Samardzija – Averaged nearly a K per inning, didn't allow a HR and held opponents to a .226 average in 28 innings for Cubs in '08

5. Adam Miller – The eternal prospect is wounded again (finger). Look for him in next year's primer, too

5. Josh Fields – Cordero, Batistia, plus a throng of mediocre middle relievers currently clutter the M's pen -- Fields a dark-horse option

5. Josh Fields – Contract standoff pushed him back a year, but first-rounder shouldn't be in minors long

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