OpinionFebruary 18, 2009

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2 Up, 2 Down – Relief Pitcher Edition

By Michael Stephens

Listen closely. Do your hear it? If you can’t quite make out the words, I’ll let you in on a little piece of wisdom that’s been echoing through the annals of fantasy baseball for a long time now – the secret never changes from season to season, and it sounds something like this: never, EVER pay for saves on draft day. Of course, like all things, this phrase is relative – you always have to pay something for every player on your team. But it brings to light the omnipresent fact that if you over-“pay” for saves (either by burning 20+ auction dollars on an early closer nomination, or taking a supposed sure thing in the fifth round of your serpentine draft), the only thing that will pay in the long run is your hitting.

Sure, the Jonathan Papelbons and the Joe Nathans of the world look nice on your roster. It’s always fun to brag that you took a top player at their position with your first five or six picks, but wouldn’t you rather take very similar production four or five rounds later instead of passing on Curtis Granderson, Corey Hart or Bobby Abreu in the same position? The key to effectively mining your draft for cheaper save opportunities is to look past last year’s breakout and start looking for this year’s version.

Brian Wilson (41 saves in 2008) and Kerry Wood (35 saves in ’08) were routinely taken in the 14th round or later last year, and both finished in the top-10 in saves. You’ll always be better off stashing a handful of these late-round fliers and using those early picks on quality bats and top-flight starters. So without further ado, the following will layout which two closers you should target in the middle rounds of your draft and which two established stars you should avoid drafting unless the price is at rock bottom:


Jonathan Broxton – Dodgers (Median Draft Position: 121.91)
What’s not to like about this guy? First of all, he’s still very young – the 24-year-old Broxton enters his fourth full season in 2009 after shedding the closer-in-waiting tag for good last year. Second, he throws hard, really hard. Broxton improved his strikeout rate last season, showing signs of increased velocity as his fastball routinely topped 98 MPH on the radar gun (or 101 in home games – you gotta boost the kid’s ego a bit, right?). Add in the fact that his HR-rate has decreased in each of his last three seasons, and you can see Broxton has all the tools to be a top-3 reliever in the National League. On top of all of this, his higher-than-average BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) last year suggests Broxton’s ERA and WHIP are in for a dip in 2009.


The eight blown saves in 22 opportunities might be cause for pause on the part of some, but when you look closer you’ll see he was successful in 14 of 17 save chances in the second half of 2008. When you consider the peripherals Broxton boasts, and put them together with the fact that he is part of an improving offensive team ready to challenge for another division title, his potential volatility is overshadowed by his considerable upside as a 10th-11th round pick. Broxton finally has the Dodgers closer job all to himself, and he will continue his ascension as one of the best relievers in all of Major League Baseball in the ’09 season. Those of you in dynasty leagues, your patience has officially been rewarded!

Carlos Marmol – Cubs (MDP: 122.71)

Speaking of first year closers with electric arms, National League, meet Carlos Marmol. Marmol’s last two seasons playing on the north side of Chicago have been nothing short of dominant. He has struck out a ridiculous 210 batters in 156.2 innings (12.1 K/9) over that span and now takes his live, seemingly rubber arm to the ninth inning. Marmol was very lucky last year, only giving up 40 hits in 87+ innings of work, but a “spike” in WHIP should still send him up south of the 1.10 mark. He’s allowed a miniscule OPS-against in each of the last two years, which also further cements the fact that his filthy stuff is the real deal.


Don’t expect a BABIP anywhere near.185 next season, but all signs point to Marmol being a guy that will lower the curve again in 2009. With Kerry Wood out of the picture, Marmol will anchor an improved bullpen that added Kevin Gregg in the off-season. Gregg might vulture a save here and there, but as long as Marmol can stay healthy on this team, with this offense, he is a sure bet to be one of the top relievers in the N.L.


Franicsco Rodriguez – Mets (MDP: 62.62)

This guy saved 62 games last season. 62! The chances of this happening again are roughly the same as those of France winning the World Baseball classic this year. However, leading the league from start to finish is only one of the reasons Rodriguez will be overvalued this season. First and foremost, don’t be fooled by his move to the NL – it’s not grounds for increasing his value whatsoever. His WHIP climbed for the second consecutive year, as the absurdly low BABIP Rodriguez enjoyed in his early years has increased almost every year from just south of .200 in 2004, to a tad over the average of .300 in the 2007 season. In 2008, as you will see below, Rodriguez again dipped below the average BABIP, posting a number that actually suggests he was slightly lucky again last season, though he posted a career-high 1.29 WHIP.


The last three years’ results suggest Rodriguez’s luck has evened out and we can expect him to give up more hits than he allowed early in his career. It isn’t all bad news for K-Rod this season though, as his other indicators (HR/9 and BB/9) have remained remarkably consistent. All signs point to another 40-plus save season for Rodriguez, but with his strikeout totals declining and his hits allowed going up, it’s safe to say he isn’t a sure thing to finish this season as a top-5 closer. So the question remains, are you really willing to pay him as such when you can get guys like Marmol and Broxton over five rounds later?

Rodriguez also has the Mets’ newest bullpen addition, J.J. Putz to worry about. Putz proved himself to be a top-flight reliever in his own right in Seattle from 2006-07, and will likely vulture some of Rodriguez’s save opportunities (think Scot Shields circa 2006). Of course, all of this evidence overlooks the simple fact that K-Rod’s arm might actually fall off one of these years, as his maximum-effort delivery finally overtaxes his right arm like a furious governmental juggernaut.

Brad Lidge – Phillies (MDP: 74.85)
Lidge’s whopping ZERO blown saves and losses in 2008 might be even harder to fathom than Rodriguez’s 62 saves. His career averages suggest five to seven blown saves should be expected in a year where he won’t be as lucky as he was in his first season playing for the defending champs (Lidge posted a .234 BABIP in 2008 after a .300 number the year before). Somehow, he was able to keep the ball in the park last year, even though the cramped confines of Citizens Bank Park suggest more home runs allowed will be in Lidge’s future.


On an offensive machine like the Phillies, Lidge will likely be given 45+ save opportunities, and his ERA and WHIP should be respectable, even with a regression. Just don’t go into this season expecting to get the 2008 version of Lidge, as he did not actually pitch any better than he did in 2008. Lidge’s walks, hits allowed, and strikeout numbers are eerily similar to his 2007 numbers (in his last season in Houston), so taking Lidge as one of the first five closers will likely set you up for failure.

All information factoring into the MDP (Median Draft Position) can be found by clicking here. All BABIP calculations are courtesy of yours truly, so I pray my TI-89 did all the work for me correctly!

Michael Stephens is an avid sports enthusiast with over seven years of fantasy experience, who writes for the Cafe. He is an aspiring sports journalist who hopes to pursue a career in fantasy writing in the future. Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, he is a die-hard Mariner fan! You can find Michael in the Cafe's forums where he actively posts under the name of WaCougMBS.
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