Position Primer: Relief Pitcher

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More RP analysis: Yahoo! RP ranks | Closing Thoughts

Let's begin with a familiar piece of fantasy advice: Don't pay for saves.

No one really knows who first uttered those words. The basic idea – that saves are a commodity you can find in the free agent pool throughout the season, and thus one that you don't need to draft – is an ancient concept. It's part of the deep history of fantasy sports. It pre-dates us all. It's etched into our DNA. It was painted on cave walls, beneath crude representations of Firpo Marberry.

But obviously "Don't pay for saves" is also a piece of fantasy dogma that applies to specific formats, not to every format.

If you're playing in a casual 12-person mixed league, then no, you shouldn't pay for saves. You'll be able to add useful closers during the year, because roughly one-third of all major league teams will experience turnover at the position due to injuries, ineffectiveness or trades. Last year an aggressive owner in an inactive league could have ignored closers entirely on draft day, then later picked up Andrew Bailey(notes), David Aardsma(notes) and Ryan Franklin(notes). Those three finished as the No. 2, No. 9 and No. 12 relief pitchers according to year-end Yahoo! ranks. A substantial percentage of total relief pitcher value – and of starting pitcher value – goes undrafted in standard leagues.

Non-standard leagues, however, are a different matter. Lots of you play deeper formats in which nearly all of the elite eighth-inning relievers will be rostered on opening day. If that's the case, then you're going to have a much more difficult time finding low-cost saves – you won't necessarily find them mid-season, and you won't find them late in your draft. Matt Thornton(notes) will be long gone in the final rounds. So will Daniel Bard(notes), Michael Wuertz(notes), Mike Adams(notes), Chris Perez(notes) and a dozen other sneaky-useful RPs. In that case, you'll need to seriously consider paying for a few dozen saves.

Yes, it's endlessly aggravating to spend a mid-round pick (or $10-$20 at the auction table) for 60-70 innings of work. But tactically speaking, it's worse to enter the season save-less in a deep, competitive league.

So just to be clear: Know your format. Public leaguers, you don't have to pay for saves. In fact, it's wasteful to do it. Custom leaguers, you'll likely need to address the category in your draft – perhaps earlier than you'd like – unless your competitors tend to sleepwalk through the season.

Before transitioning to the tiers, we need to launch a preemptive strike against commenters who might otherwise be tempted to write something like this:

LMAO at Dotel. Pirates [profane] stink. No saves on bad teams.

Stop spreading your lies. In fact, closers on bad teams do earn saves. Heath Bell(notes) led the National League in the category in 2009, saving 42 games for a 75-win team. Francisco Rodriguez(notes) managed to save 35 games for the 70-win Mets. Joakim Soria(notes) spent 25 days on the DL, yet he still closed the door 30 times for the 65-win Royals. Even the Nationals' bullpen totaled 33 saves. And 25 blown saves.

Any team, no matter how flawed, can deliver a useful fantasy closer. Don't let the commenting community – which is normally delightful and well-behaved – tell you anything different.

Position averages, top 48 starting pitchers based on year-end Yahoo! rank
2009 RP1 – 4.2 W, 35.3 SV, 79.0 K, 2.30 ERA, 1.02 WHIP
2009 RP2 – 5.8 W, 18.6 SV, 74.7 K, 2.68 ERA, 1.14 WHIP
2009 RP3 – 4.2 W, 13.2 SV, 60.3 K, 3.04 ERA, 1.16 WHIP
2009 RP4 – 3.8 W, 4.4 SV, 59.1 K, 2.82 ERA, 1.07 WHIP

2008 RP1 – 4.0 W, 29.6 SV, 80.9 K, 2.04 ERA, 0.99 WHIP
2008 RP2 – 4.8 W, 14.6 SV, 61.3 K, 2.64 ERA, 1.05 WHIP
2008 RP3 – 3.0 W, 14.0 SV, 63.5 K, 2.73 ERA, 1.15 WHIP
2008 RP4 – 3.9 W, 8.5 SV, 61.1 K, 3.11 ERA, 1.23 WHIP

(Note: ADP data is via Mock Draft Central and auction values are from the Yahoo!/PFW Draft Guide)

Relief Pitcher – Tiers
Mariano Rivera(notes), $23; Jonathan Papelbon(notes), $23; Jonathan Broxton(notes), $23

Joakim Soria, $16; Francisco Rodriguez, $15; Brian Wilson(notes), $11; Carlos Marmol(notes), $12; Andrew Bailey, $9; Heath Bell, $12; Francisco Cordero(notes), $11

Rafael Soriano(notes), $9; Jose Valverde(notes), $9; Huston Street(notes), $9; Bobby Jenks(notes), $9; Trevor Hoffman(notes), $9; David Aardsma, $9

Brian Fuentes(notes), $11; Billy Wagner(notes), $4; Frank Francisco(notes), $7; Ryan Franklin, $4; Mike Gonzalez(notes), $3; Kerry Wood(notes), $3; Chad Qualls(notes), $3; Octavio Dotel(notes), $0; Neftali Feliz(notes), $4; Phil Hughes(notes), $3; Matt Thornton, $1

Leo Nunez(notes), $3; Matt Capps(notes), $0; Brad Lidge(notes), $4; Ryan Madson(notes), $0; Brandon Lyon(notes), $0; Matt Lindstrom(notes), $1; Kevin Gregg(notes), $0; Scott Downs(notes), $1; Jason Frasor(notes), $0; Jon Rauch(notes), $0; Matt Guerrier(notes), $0; Francisco Liriano(notes), $0 Michael Wuertz, $0 Chris Perez, $0 Daniel Bard, $1 Mike Adams, $0 Hideki Okajima(notes), $0 J.P. Howell(notes), $0

Fernando Rodney(notes), $2; Drew Storen(notes), $0; Jim Johnson(notes), $0; George Sherrill(notes), $0; Manny Delcarmen(notes), $0; J.J. Putz(notes), $0; Tony Pena(notes), $0; Joel Zumaya(notes), $0; Scot Shields(notes), $0; Pat Neshek(notes), $0; Joey Devine(notes), $0; Mark Lowe(notes), $0; Brandon League(notes), $0; C.J. Wilson(notes), $0; Juan Gutierrez(notes), $0; Takashi Saito(notes), $0; John Grabow(notes), $0; Dan Meyer(notes), $0; Ramon Troncoso(notes), $0; LaTroy Hawkins(notes), $0; Brendan Donnelly(notes), $0; Jason Motte(notes), $0; Brian Bruney(notes), $0
Top 5 Biggest Relief Risks

Brandon Funston

Andy Behrens

Scott Pianowski
1. Kevin Gregg – Has blown roughly a quarter of his chances the past two seasons and it only gets tougher now that's he's with the worst team in the AL East. 1. Brian Fuentes – A train wreck at times in '09, and the team added an ex-closer (Rodney) to the roster. 1. Brian Fuentes – He was on fumes late in 2009, and AL seemed to figure him out. Don't watch him pitch, it will rot your stomach.
2. Kerry Wood – He's starting to stick out like a sore thumb amidst the Tribe's youth movement. 2. Kerry Wood – Obvious trade bait, though few teams would be excited by the contract. 2. Kerry Wood – Injury risk, trade risk, karma risk.
3. Matt Capps – League hit .324 against him last year; WAS has three interesting replacement options in Clippard, Bruney and Storen. 3. Bobby Jenks – Plenty of in-house replacement options if the Sox choose to move him. 3. David Aardsma – He's only done it once, control will always be a problem.
4. Brad Lidge – The ultimate box-of-chocolates closer follows a 1.95 ERA in '08 with a 7.21 effort in '09 – there's typically no middle ground with Lidge. 4. Kevin Gregg – There's still a chance he doesn't get the gig, but if he does: Gregg + AL East = Bad idea. 4. Kevin Gregg – This could be a team where three different pitchers get a shot in the big chair.
5. Brian Fuentes – Few closers can match the ruts that he falls into from time to time but he should have some rope to work with after a 48 save '09. 5. Ryan Franklin – Allows lots of contact, yet fortunately maintained a .269 BABIP in '09. Likely has a long leash, though. 5. Ryan Franklin – Plenty of red flags under the hood, but keep in mind the Cardinals trust him more than everyone else does.
Top 5 Middlemen

Brandon Funston

Andy Behrens

Scott Pianowski
1. Matt Thornton – Fantastic way to use 70 IP – 80 Ks, sub-3 ERA, low-1 WHIP, 5 W 1. Matt Thornton – For two straight years, he's had an ERA below 2.75, a WHIP below 1.10 and a K/9 above 10.0. 1. Michael Wuertz – Oakland's bullpen depth is obscene; if something happens to Andrew Bailey, run and get this guy.
2. Michael Wuertz – One of just three players to get at least 100 Ks in relief last year. 2. Daniel Bard – Last year's average fastball was 97.3 mph; Bard's K/9 was 11.5. In leagues with innings caps, guys like this are gold. 2. Jeremy Affeldt(notes) – Never made it as a starter, but works as a fantastic bridge to Brian Wilson.
3. Daniel Bard – Only Joel Zumaya and Jonathan Broxton had a higher fastball average velocity than Bard's 97.3 mph mark. 3. Neftali Feliz – Like Bard, Feliz has blistering velocity. He only allowed 13 hits in 31.0 IP last season. 3. Matt Guerrier – Not seen as a closing candidate, but league hit just .207 against him.
4. Phil Hughes/Joba Chamberlain(notes) – The loser of the battle for the No. 5 rotation spot makes a for a dominant middleman – both players sub-2 ERA career in relief. 4. Phil Hughes – He's a candidate to be the Yanks' fifth starter, which would wreck my plans to have a holds workhorse with SP-eligibility. 4. Kris Medlen(notes) – Quietly found his stride in the second half of 2009 (2.80 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, better than a strikeout per inning).
5. J.P. Howell – Two-year averages: 6.5 wins, 86 Ks, 10 saves, sub-3 ERA 5. Hideki Okajima – While he has little chance to save games, he's a lock for Ks and low ratios. 5. Daniel Bard – He's being groomed as likely Jonathan Papelbon replacement, maybe for 2011.
Top 5 "Next Aardsma" Candidates

Brandon Funston

Andy Behrens

Scott Pianowski
1. Mike Adams – Ridiculous 45:8 K-to-BB mark in '09; League hitting just .206 against him for his career. 1. Ryan Madson – Lidge may begin the season on the DL. And when he returns, he's still Brad Lidge. 1. Mike Adams – Padres are foolish if they don't move Heath Bell in mid-summer. Keep an eye on Luke Gregorson, too.
2. Chris Perez – Made the requisite improvement in BB rate last season and only a shaky Kerry Wood stands in his way. 2. Jim Johnson – If Gonzalez falters (or gets hurt, or has to face a lefty in the eighth), Johnson and his mid-90s fastball are waiting. 2. Matt Thornton – Lefty closers can work if they get batters out from both sides of the plate. Everyone hates hitting against Thornton.
3. Jason Motte – Ryan Franklin doesn't have the look of a here-to-stay stopper and with Chris Perez gone, Motte inherits the closer of the future title. 3. Mike Adams – When Heath Bell is dealt, Adams should get the first shot at the ninth for the Pads. 3. Chris Perez – Has the stuff (and the strikeout rate) to be a dynamite ninth-inning option, and there are obvious Kerry Wood flags.
4. Josh Roenicke(notes) – Nobody's talking about Roenicke in a wide-open race for the Blue Jays closer, but his makeup is ideal for the role. 4. Jason Motte – He has the traditional closer's fastball, but Franklin has the closing gig. And Tony La Russa loves his old vets. 4. Jim Johnson – Ordinary talent, but Mike Gonzalez is always a shaky health bet.
5. Dan Runzler(notes) – If he shows that he's secured a harness for his electric stuff, don't be surprised if Brian wilson's name lands on the trade market. 5. Tyler Clippard(notes) – Matt Capps is having an ugly spring, coming off an ugly '09. Someone may have to step in for the Nats. 5. Brandon League – Any hedge against David Aardsma has value; Mark Lowe also worth considering.