Fantasy Relief: Assessing all 30 bullpens
What do the bullpen and closer situations look like in the Nationbal League? Michael Hurcomb debuts Fantasy Relief, a weekly column dedicated to finding you saves and other critical relief pitching stats.
I was 11 years old when Mariano Rivera recorded his first career save on May 17, 1996. Sixteen years later, Rivera has been able to stand the test of time.
Not much has changed the last two decades when it comes to the Yankees' closer situation. When "Enter Sandman" blares at Yankee Stadium, we all know what happens next. Rivera has put together a Hall-of-Fame career and has been a favorite of Fantasy owners for years.
While we know what to expect from Rivera and the Yankees, not every bullpen or closer situation is as cut and dry. Welcome to Fantasy Relief, where we focus on bullpens, how they affect the game and what Fantasy owners need to know.
The intent is to highlight bullpen happenings around the league on a weekly basis and how they will affect your Fantasy team. And we aren't going to stop at closers. We'll spotlight setup men, left-handed specialists and whoever else needs to be on your radar.
Sifting through the reliever pool can be as stressful as any other Fantasy position, so let CBSSports.com provide some relief.
The initial piece in this series will break down the closer situation for each team by league and feature other names to know.
The J.J. Putz experiment was a smashing success for Arizona in 2011. The oft-injured reliever made just one trip to the disabled list last season and finished with a career-best 45 saves. When healthy, Putz is one of the best closers in baseball. But if he has to miss any time, the Diamondbacks are confident in former starter-turned-setup-man David Hernandez, who went 11 for 14 in save chances last year.
We hope your lasting image of Craig Kimbrel is the 2011 NL rookie of the year and not the dejected reliever whose final blown save last year cost his team a chance at the playoffs. Kimbrel had some down moments as a rookie closer last season, but most of them were memorable on his way to 46 saves, which tied John Axford for the NL lead. Outside of the saves, Kimbrel was also a boon for Fantasy owners by averaging 14.8 strikeouts per nine innings. There's no threat to take his job, but Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty both showed last season they could thrive in late-inning situations, with each lefty reliever recording 30-plus holds.
Carlos Marmol has electric stuff, but he needs to do a better job of harnessing it or else the Cubs could be looking for a new closer. Lucky for Marmol, who is walking 5.9 batters per nine innings in his career, he gets a fresh start with a new regime taking over in Chicago. Marmol, who blew 10 saves last year, is hoping some mechanical tweaks and the re-emergence of his slider will get him on track. If not, then Chicago could turn to former closer Kerry Wood.
Saves specialist: Marmol
Holds hero: Wood
Rainy-day name: James Russell
The Reds bullpen situation went from steady to unsettled in the blink of an eye. The loss of closer Ryan Madson, who is out for the season due to elbow surgery, now has the Reds scrambling to find a ninth-inning replacement. Newcomer Sean Marshall is the likely candidate to elevate to the closer's role, but Aroldis Chapman is also an option if he doesn't end up in the rotation. If Cincinnati goes to the committee approach, then the steady Nick Masset could be the Reds' answer for a right-handed closer.
The Rockies are handing the closer's responsibilities to Rafael Betancourt. If he pitches like he did down the stretch in 2011, then it will be a worthwhile gamble. Betancourt, who is replacing the traded Huston Street, had a 0.33 ERA, .029 WHIP, eight saves and 39 strikeouts in 27 second-half innings last year. The logical choice if Betancourt falters is Matt Belisle, but don't count out Rex Brothers, who has future closer written all over him.
Even though Brandon Lyon is healthy following an injury-shortened campaign last year, the Astros are turning to starter-turned-reliever Brett Myers to close out games. Perhaps this is a way for Houston to showcase Myers to potential contenders and deal him before the July 31 trade deadline. The Astros still have Lyon as a fallback option, but if Myers falters, gets injured or is traded, perhaps Houston should take a look at Wilton Lopez, who has a 2.87 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 138 innings the last two years.
Saves specialist: Myers
Holds heroes: Lyon, Lopez
Breakout candidate: David Carpenter
Los Angeles Dodgers
Los Angeles is going to give Javy Guerra every chance to keep the closer's job after the 26-year-old reliever bailed out the team last year following a myriad of injuries to the bullpen. However, we don't know how long the leash will be with strikeout artist Kenley Jansen breathing down his neck.
The Marlins added some key pieces to their roster via free agency, including All-Star closer Heath Bell. The right-handed reliever recorded 132 saves the last three seasons while striking out 9.6 batters per nine innings in that span. Bell supplants incumbent closer Juan Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez). However, Oviedo is stuck in the Dominican Republic, so Edward Mujica will serve as Bell's primary setup man in Oviedo's absence.
On Draft Day 2010, John Axford wasn't even a blip on the Fantasy radar. Two years later, he's now one of the most coveted Fantasy relievers. Axford has gone 10-4 with a 2.19 ERA and 1.16 WHIP the last two regular seasons. He's also converted 71 of 76 save chances in that span. Axford has such electric stuff that Francisco Rodriguez, who recorded an MLB single-season record 62 saves in 2008, is the man bridging the gap to Axford and not closing out games for Milwaukee.
New York Mets
The Mets overhauled their bullpen by stealing Toronto's. New York plucked both its new closer -- Frank Francisco -- and setup man -- Jon Rauch -- from the Blue Jays' bullpen. Francisco is an erratic closer and isn't considered durable either, so Rauch needs to stay sharp just in case the Mets need him to close games. Don't sleep on newcomer Ramon Ramirez, who was acquired in a trade with the Giants. He has seven saves the last two seasons and is an underrated reliever.
Saves specialist: Francisco
Holds hero: Rauch
Newcomer of note: Ramirez
Innings eater: Bobby Parnell
The Phillies once again opened the checkbook this offseason to upgrade their pitching, but this time they invested in their bullpen by adding closer Jonathan Papelbon. Philadelphia will bridge the gap to its closer by using the lefty-righty setup combo of Antonio Bastardo and Jose Contreras, who both could step into the closer's role if anything should happen to Papelbon.
Joel Hanrahan was one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2011 season. He beat out Evan Meek for the closer's job last spring and finished as a top 10 Fantasy reliever thanks to 40 saves in 44 opportunities. Hanrahan's biggest disappointment was that his strikeouts per nine innings dropped from 12.9 in 2010 to 8.0 last year, but he countered that with a career-best 1.83 ERA and 1.05 WHIP. Meek might be healthy heading into 2012 after an injury-plagued '11, but he's no threat to a healthy Hanrahan.
San Diego Padres
The Padres filled the vacant closer's role left by Heath Bell's departure to Miami by acquiring veteran closer Huston Street. While the move to pitcher-friendly PETCO Park should be a boon for the right-handed reliever, Street has durability issues, so San Diego needs to have a contingency plan. That could consist of either Andrew Cashner, who was acquired in a trade with the Cubs, or Luke Gregerson, since both pitchers have the arsenal to close out games.
San Francisco Giants
Closer Brian Wilson battled through adversity last season, but he still finished on a sour note because of an elbow injury. Luckily, Wilson avoided surgery and rest seemed to be the right call since Wilson has pitched well this spring. Unfortunately, if Wilson has a setback, then manager Bruce Bochy is likely to go back to a committee approach that has worked well in the past. Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt, Sergio Romo and Javier Lopez could all be candidates for saves.
Saves specialist: Wilson
Holds hero: Romo
Innings eaters: Affeldt, Lopez
Rainy-day name: Casilla
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals used the hot hand in the closer's role in 2011 after Ryan Franklin faltered at the start of the season. Fernando Salas ended up with a team-high 24 saves, but the closer's role going into 2012 belongs to Jason Motte, who recorded five saves during the Cardinals' postseason run. It's tough to say how much room for error first-year manager Mike Matheny will give the 29-year-old reliever, but he does have fallback options like Salas, Mitchell Boggs and Lance Lynn, who is expected to work in a setup role once he returns to the bullpen.
Drew Storen is coming off a breakout season in 2011, when everyone saw why he was fast tracked to the majors after being selected 10th overall in the 2009 MLB draft. Unfortunately, an elbow injury might force Storen to miss the start of his third major-league season. Surprisingly, too, manager Davey Johnson wouldn't turn to setup stud Tyler Clippard in Storen's absence. Johnson has said newcomer Brad Lidge and Henry Rodriguez would be candidates for saves in Storen's absence.
The Orioles rotation is a mess and their bullpen situation isn't much better. It appears Jim Johnson is going to take over the closer's responsibilities despite the presence of Kevin Gregg, who had a team-high 22 saves in 2011. Johnson has just a 57 percent save conversion rate (21 of 37) in his career, so he still has a lot to prove. There are rumors the Orioles are looking to trade Gregg. If that happens, then Matt Lindstrom could get the first chance at save opportunities should Johnson falter.
Saves specialist: Johnson
Holds heroes: Gregg, Lindstrom
Rising reliever: Pedro Strop
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox countered losing Jonathan Papelbon to free agency by trading for former A's closer Andrew Bailey. Durability problems are an issue with Bailey, which is why the Red Sox overhaul didn't stop at one move. Boston also added former Astros closer Mark Melancon as a setup man and insurance policy in case anything happens with Bailey, who was already hurt for a period this spring.
Chicago White Sox
Chicago dealt closer Sergio Santos and moved Chris Sale to the rotation, leaving first-year manager Robin Ventura to sift through a myriad of candidates for the closer's role. Ventura has named Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain, Addison Reed, Hector Santiago and Will Ohman as ninth-inning options. Thornton seems like the ideal candidate, but don't discard Reed and Santiago, who are rookie sleepers for the position.
Saves specialist: Thornton
Holds hero: Crain
Breakout candidate: Reed
Rising reliever: Santiago
Lefty specialist: Ohman
Chris Perez regressed in 2011. His ERA and WHIP both took significant hits, while his strikeouts per nine innings dropped from 8.7 to 5.9. Despite the shaky performance, Perez was still an All-Star and will remain the Indians' closer heading into 2012. Unfortunately, Perez might miss the start of the season with an oblique injury. The team has said Vinnie Pestano will fill in for Perez if needed.
He might have some quirky antics, but Tigers closer Jose Valverde showed in 2011 he is still one of the best closers in the game. Valverde had an MLB-best 49 saves and didn't blow one save opportunity. It was the third time in five seasons he had 40-plus saves. Joaquin Benoit is also back as Valverde's setup man to give Detroit one of the best back-of-the-bullpen tandems in the majors.
Kansas City Royals
Much like the Cincinnati Reds, the Royals are scrambling after losing their closer -- Joakim Soria -- to a season-ending elbow injury. Luckily for them, Kansas City signed an experienced closer in the offseason in Jonathan Broxton, who is considered the favorite to take over the closer's duties. However, Greg Holland and Aaron Crow are also potential candidates for saves since manager Ned Yost is considering a committee approach.
Los Angeles Angels
The Angels were rumored to be in the market for a proven closer this offseason, but nothing materialized and the team chose to spend its resources on other needs. That means Jordan Walden returns in 2012 for his second full year as the team's closer. But the Angels still have their concerns after Walden had 10 blown saves last season. The Angels did add veteran LaTroy Hawkins in the offseason and he will likely share setup duties with Scott Downs. Both of them could be options for saves if Walden struggles. Hisanori Takahashi is also a dark-horse candidate.
Saves specialist: Walden
Holds hero: Downs
Newcomer of note: Hawkins
Rainy-day name: Takahashi
Matt Capps is back in the closer's role for Minnesota after being removed from it in the second half last season. He became the De facto choice after Joe Nathan left for Texas. However, Capps will need a course correction after posting a 4.83 ERA and .299 opponents' batting average in his final 38 outings last season. He also had nine blown saves for the year. Setup man Glen Perkins might be the Twins' first choice to replace Capps if he falters or gets injured.
New York Yankees
As we have already mentioned in the lead, the Yankees situation needs little clarity. But outside of Mariano Rivera, New York still has some very good bullpen arms, including 2011 breakout star David Robertson, who might be the Yankees' closer post-Rivera. However, if anything were to happen to Rivera this season, don't forget about former Rays closer Rafael Soriano, who had 23 holds and two saves last season for New York.
The A's traded oft-injured Andrew Bailey to Boston, creating a vacancy at closer. The team opted to go with Grant Balfour over veteran closer Brian Fuentes, who will now likely share setup duties with Fautino De Los Santos, who has future closer potential. Balfour has just 10 career saves and his strikeouts per nine innings declined for a third straight season in 2011. But he has a 2.38 ERA and 1.06 WHIP the last two years, so Oakland is hoping he can keep those numbers pitching in a high-pressure role.
Seattle had to alter its bullpen plans in 2011 when closer David Aardsma couldn't shake the injury bug. Luckily, Brandon League helped ease the burden of losing Aardsma and now Seattle has a steady option at closer heading into 2012. However, it's worth noting that League will be a free agent after the season, so unless Seattle locks him up long-term, he could be on the move to a contender this summer. If that happens, then Tom Wilhelmsen and Shawn Kelley could be in line for save chances.
Tampa Bay Rays
For superstitious purposes, Rays manager Joe Maddon refuses to name Kyle Farnsworth his closer. However, it's not hard to figure out who is Maddon's first choice to close out games after Farnsworth recorded a team-best 25 saves in 2011. He did have some elbow issues down the stretch last season, which was a main reason why Farnsworth was brought along slowly this spring. Obviously, that should be of concern for Fantasy owners. Joel Peralta was second on the team in saves last season with six, but if Farnsworth gets hurt or struggles, Maddon might go with a committee approach that could include J.P. Howell, Fernando Rodney and Jake McGee.
Saves specialist: Farnsworth
Holds hero: Peralta
Bounce-back candidates: Howell, Rodney
Breakout candidate: McGee
After toiling with the idea for a few years, the Rangers finally made the decision to move closer Neftali Feliz into the rotation. They filled his absence at the back end of the bullpen by bringing in veteran closer Joe Nathan. The 37-year-old reliever struggled coming off Tommy John surgery, but he reverted back to his old form down the stretch last season for Minnesota, posting 11 saves and a 1.00 WHIP in the second half. Mike Adams is back as one of the best setup man in baseball and has the ability to close if needed. Alexi Ogando could also be a candidate for saves if something happens to Nathan, but Texas might want to use him in long relief so he can stay stretched out if the Rangers ever need a spot starter.
Toronto Blue Jays
The back of the Toronto bullpen was a mess in 2011. The team converted just 57 percent of its save opportunities and had 25 blown saves. Therefore, it was out with the old and in with the new this offseason. General manager Alex Anthopoulos strengthened the bullpen by trading for former White Sox closer Sergio Santos and bringing in former Reds closer Francisco Cordero as his setup man. Casey Janssen will also work in the late innings, but Cordero would be the first guy up if Toronto needs a replacement closer.
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