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Chasing Saves: Expect the Unexpected

In an ideal world, there are 30 closers in major-league baseball at any given time, because there are 30 major-league teams. (Mind. Blown.) However, there are more than 30 closers each year, due to injury, ineffectiveness or the inexplicable whims of a manager.

How many pitchers do you think recorded at least one save last year? If you decide to make a conservative guess, you might say around 60 or 70, figuring that about half the closing jobs don’t change hands, and the other half may average three “closing” pitchers per team. If you want to be a little more aggressive to account for the random pitcher picking up a save on each team, you may guess around 100.

The actual answer is 139. One hundred and thirty-nine pitchers could have made a positive contribution to the saves column in fantasy if owned on the right day.

The list of one-save pitchers alone is pretty interesting. It features guys like Raul Valdes, who threw just 3 2/3 innings in the majors last season, and Randy Wolf, who you thought before seeing his name in this sentence retired three years ago. It includes former fantasy ace Tim Lincecum, former foreign phenom Daisuke Matsuzaka and former Leo Nunez Juan Carlos Oviedo. It includes something called a Kirby Yates and something else named Ian Krol.

Throw out the one-save names and you still wind up with 79 pitchers. Throw out the two-save guys and we’re still looking at 65 pitchers. Want to consider only pitchers who rack up at least five saves as actual “closers?” That still leaves us with 49 guys, 39 of which recorded at least 10 saves.

Let’s just examine the 39 players with double-digit saves in 2014. How many of them were ranked as top-30 relievers (and I’m only counting pitchers who pitch primarily in relief and excluding RP-eligible starters)? Just 24, meaning that six top-30 relievers from last year’s drafts couldn’t even crack 10 saves, but 15 pitchers not in the top 30 managed at least 10 saves, including Francisco Rodriguez, who tied for fifth in baseball by notching 44 of them.

This is why many fantasy managers refuse to pay top dollar for “closers” in March – year in and year out, plenty of standard-league free agents work their way into the saves mix, and some flourish once they get there. The team that landed Rodriguez, Zach Britton and Mark Melancon for its bullpen boasted three players who finished with 30-plus saves and were available for next to nothing on draft day.

I like to keep at least one or two late-round RPs on my roster each year who could fall into some saves and see a spike in fantasy value as a result. Here are the guys who I think have the best shot (in roughly descending order) at racking up 25 saves or more but aren’t being drafted as No. 1 closers on their own teams at the end of March.

Tyler Clippard, OAK

Unlike the guy behind him on this list, Clippard has already won the job of fill-in closer with his team. Another thing that sets him apart is that he has a 32-save season on his resume, and that came in what may have been his worst season in the last five years from a skills standpoint. If he’s rolling when Sean Doolittle returns, it may be hard for Bob Melvin to make a switch.

Brad Boxberger, TB

Boxberger seems like the clear best option available to close while Jake McGee is out, and he certainly has the highest upside. If he emerges from a potential committee and dominates, why make a change? The righty delivered a 14.5 K/9 last season along with a 0.84 WHIP. Oftentimes it’s harder to lose the closer job when pitching well than it is to win it from another pitcher, even if that pitcher isn’t at his best. That puts Clippard and Boxberger atop my list.

Sergio Romo, SF

Santiago Casilla has been fine as the Giants closer. Romo has been better. He was pulled from the job last season after a poor stretch but has a higher upside than Casilla, who hasn’t topped 7.0 K/9 in either of the last two seasons. Manager Bruce Bochy should have more confidence in Romo this season after he gave up just two runs in 16 innings and racked up 20 strikeouts from August 1 on.

Andrew Miller, NYY

The Yankees have yet to anoint presumed closer Dellin Betances with the job, and with the high-upside pitcher struggling this spring, it’s possible Miller lands the gig after signing a big deal this offseason. He certainly posted closer-worthy numbers last season, delivering a 14.9 K/9 and allowing just 33 hits in 62 1/3 innings.

Joakim Soria, DET

Joe Nathan is still the closer in Detroit, and second-year manager Brad Ausmus has preached his commitment to the veteran. However, Ausmus also had to endure Nathan giving up a .277/.354/.400 line to batters while pitching in save situations and posting a 4.81 ERA in 2014. If Nathan’s spring struggles extend into the regular season, it’s hard not to see Soria quickly inserted into the ninth inning.

Chad Qualls, HOU

The Astros have yet to name a closer, and while Luke Gregerson is the most popular choice to win the job after signing a three-year deal, Chad Qualls can’t be discounted. After all, he did rack up 19 saves in 2014 and walked just five batters in 51 1/3 innings over the entire season. He’s been excellent again this spring, giving up two hits and no walks while allowing just an unearned run in five innings.

Ken Giles, PHI

Giles is the clear heir apparent at closer in Philadelphia and figures to gain the role at some point this season if (or when) Jonathan Papelbon is traded. But when will that happen? The Phillies may wait until nearer to the trade deadline in hopes of finding the best possible deal for Papelbon. GIles is good enough to help fantasy teams as a setup man, but asking him to crack 25 saves this season may be wishful thinking.

Bobby Parnell, NYM

Parnell not only may be looking at an uphill battle to wrestle the closing job from Jenrry Mejia when he ‘s ready to go, but even if he’s instilled in the role quickly, he may not have a chance to reach 25 saves depending on when he returns from Tommy John surgery. Best case scenario, he could land 25-to-30 saves, making him worthy of inclusion.

Other 25-save candidates to file away on watch lists: Evan Marshall, ARI; Tommy Hunter, BAL; Junichi Tazawa, BOS; Miguel Castro, TOR; Adam Ottavino, COL; Pat Neshek, HOU; Bruce Rondon, DET; Edward Mujica, BOS; Jordan Walden, STL.