Stop me if you've heard this one before: Never pay for saves.
Sure you have. It's only one of Matthew Berry's mantras said annually in his Draft Day Manifesto. Plus, it is repeated no fewer than 1,000 times by many of our ESPN Fantasy columnists throughout the year.
Amazingly, some fantasy owners still haven't taken the tip to heart. You'll still see a few people grabbing Mariano Rivera in the fifth round, perhaps doubling up on "elite" closers -- if there is such a thing -- before the 10th. To each his (or her) own, and such a strategy might make sense in a small percentage of creative league formats, but the primary reason we advise you to take a conservative approach to saves searching is that piecing the category together with in-season pickups is a completely legitimate, and often successful, strategy.
The reason is lists like the one below.
If you're not a believer that saves can just fall into your lap, take a look at this list of names: David Aardsma, Andrew Bailey, Ryan Franklin, Mike MacDougal, Leo Nunez, Rafael Soriano. Not one of those pitchers was forecast as an Opening Day closer at the onset of 2009 spring training, yet by the final pitch of the season, the group had totaled 176 saves. And that's not even the full scope of saves that could have been plucked off free-agent wires at any point last season.
Not to say these sleeper save getters are easy to find, and success in many cases might hinge upon who's quickest to the waiver wire. But if you're in a league with deep benches and can afford to take a chance on a future/fill-in closer or two, here are a few names who might yet see some ninth-inning work in 2010.
The criteria considered: Every one of these relievers seemingly has the numbers and makeup to close if needed, but not one was even a 50/50 bet to be his team's Opening Day closer at the onset of spring training.
Mike Adams, San Diego Padres: Most people pick Luke Gregerson as the next-in-line to Heath Bell, whose name has spent as much time on the rumor mill in the past calendar year as Adams has spent on the disabled list throughout his career. And therein lies the problem with Adams: He's injury-prone. Period. He's also a better pitcher than Gregerson when healthy. In the past two seasons with the Padres, Adams has a 1.85 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 10.47 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio and .175 batting average allowed in 91 appearances, that number of appearances only one shy of his number of disabled-list days during that span. But Adams also lacks any discernible platoon split, à la Bell, while Gregerson lacks an out pitch versus left-handers, à la another former Padres reliever who once put forth an amazing, out-of-nowhere season, Cla Meredith. Adams should get just as long a look as Bell's successor if he can merely stay healthy until then.
Daniel Bard, Boston Red Sox: If you thought Adams' numbers were filthy, take a look at Bard's from the past two seasons since his conversion to relief. In 106 appearances, he has a 2.20 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 12.52 K/9, the latter number still a healthy 11.49 during his rookie-year stint last summer. What's more, he already has expressed his desire to be a future closer despite the roadblock ahead of him that is Jonathan Papelbon. Not that Papelbon has shown any signs of being ready to surrender his role, but if Papelbon's small upticks in his walk and line-drive rates last year hint at a career downturn, Bard might be ready to fill in.
Brandon League, Seattle Mariners: He's a pick from my Kings of Command column, and on that page you can read all about his positive exploits with the Toronto Blue Jays last season. What's relevant here is that the man ahead of him in the pecking order in Seattle, David Aardsma, has one season of closer experience under his belt, had disturbingly high walk (4.29 per nine) and fly-ball (53.9 percent of all balls in play) rates in 2009 and was simply not as accomplished a set-up man as League was one year ago today. The history books are littered with closers who had one exceptional, out-of-nowhere campaign only to disappear into the mist the very next season -- Derrick Turnbow, anyone? Not to suggest Aardsma's job security is imminently threatened, but League warrants a look in AL-only formats.
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians: The former "closer of the future" in St. Louis now presumably holds that distinction in Cleveland, especially after posting a 1.08 WHIP, 10.26 K/9 ratio and .201 BAA in 32 appearances for the Indians following his arrival on June 27. Perez's 4.32 ERA during that time is the misleading number; his peripherals rivaled his lofty minor league numbers (1.20 WHIP, 11.99 K/9, .161 BAA). The man ahead of him in the pecking order, Kerry Wood, is as brittle as pitchers come. Plus, Perez worked primarily the eighth inning during the season's second half, and that bullpen is light on viable alternatives.
Ryan Perry, Detroit Tigers: Until the Tigers signed Jose Valverde in January, Perry looked like a realistic candidate to serve as the team's closer this season, primarily because he's the reliever the team has ticketed for that role in the not-too-distant future. Valverde's arrival gives Perry some time to develop, most importantly working on improving his walk rate (5.55 per nine last season) and adding a pitch to frustrate left-handers (who had an .841 OPS against him). Plus, it's not as if Valverde is the healthiest fella, having made three trips to the disabled list in his career, one for a month and a half last season. Perry, who had a 3.41 ERA and 9.17 K/9 ratio after a July 18 recall last season, by all rights could be ready for closer duties at some point this year and would be a smart handcuff for Valverde's owners in deeper leagues, especially if he looks good in the spring.
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants: He's one of the more underrated set-up men in the game, but there are two concerns with Romo. One is that Brian Wilson hasn't showed any signs of being willing to cede the closer job the past two seasons, and the other is that Jeremy Affeldt is coming off a season so strong that he might technically be next in line to close in the event of an injury to Wilson. Still, Romo's numbers of the past two seasons rival Wilson's: He has a lower ERA (3.04 to 3.61), WHIP (0.96 to 1.31) and BAA (.188 to .242) and a higher strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.89 to 2.73), albeit in about half as many innings. If you're in an NL-only league, you can't ignore the possibility of Romo sneaking into cheap saves.
Takashi Saito, Atlanta Braves: Perhaps the second-riskiest pitcher on this list to Adams, Saito belongs nonetheless because the man ahead of him on the depth chart, Billy Wagner, is just 17 big league appearances removed from Tommy John surgery. Saito also has past closer experience, both in Japan and with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and when the Braves dished out $7 million to Wagner and $3.2 million to Saito this winter, they effectively said with their dollars, "Billy, you're our guy, but Takashi, you're our insurance policy." The problem: Saito is every bit as much a health risk as Wagner and perhaps more so because he's almost a year and a half older, and after returning from 2008 elbow issues, he was a very different pitcher for the Boston Red Sox last season. Saito's walk (4.04 per nine) and fly-ball rates (52.2 percent) were up, and his strikeout rate was down (8.41). Although he's a must-have Wagner handcuff, there's no saying that Wagner won't remain fully healthy and Saito will be the one due for a lengthy DL stint.
Obvious handcuffs, but fit to close?
Fernando Rodney (Los Angeles Angels) might have 70 career saves to his credit, 37 of those in 2009 alone, but also a 4.28 ERA and 1.42 WHIP on his résumé. He might be as obvious a handcuff as anyone in this column, but no more likely to hold the job if Brian Fuentes turns it over to him. Brian Bruney (Washington Nationals) is next in line to Matt Capps, who himself had a 5.80 ERA last season, but neither one appears to be the team's long-term ninth-inning option. Bruney is also as much of a health risk as they come, with more than 150 days' disabled-list time the past two seasons combined.
Joey Devine (Oakland Athletics), who had Tommy John surgery last season, was once considered a top contender to close for the Athletics, at least before Andrew Bailey captured everyone's attention en route to earning rookie of the year honors. Not that Bailey's job is insecure, but if he falters, Devine is only two years removed from a 0.59 ERA, 0.83 WHIP campaign, and he might get a look later in the season. Scott Mathieson (Philadelphia Phillies) might have parlayed a strong Arizona Fall League showing into a spot in the Phillies' bullpen to begin the season, and if he cracks the Opening Day roster, he might work his way into the mix by midseason. After all, Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson and Danys Baez don't sound like elite-caliber competition for saves, do they? Drew Storen (Washington Nationals) is the team's clear future at closer, as referenced above with Capps and Bruney, and the Nationals really have only the future in their sights. No one should be shocked if Storen records this team's final save of 2010.
Joe Nathan fallout
Fantasy owners will also be in the hunt for cheap saves from the Minnesota Twins' bullpen, following news that Joe Nathan might miss the entire season with a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Jon Rauch is considered the most probable candidate to close for the team on Opening Day, which might make some sense, as he had 18 saves for the Washington Nationals as recently as 2008 and was used a fair amount in the eighth inning by the Twins following his midseason acquisition in 2009. Mixed-league owners will surely target him in the final rounds of their drafts, but it's Rauch's handcuffs who might warrant sleeper potential.
Matt Guerrier is coming off a career year in which he registered a 2.36 ERA and 0.97 WHIP, despite seeing his strikeout rate plummet from 6.96 per nine innings in 2008 to 5.54 last season. He served as the bridge to Nathan in the Twins' lone postseason game in which they had the lead, made eighth-inning appearances at least as frequently as Rauch late in the regular season, and tied Jeremy Affeldt for the major league lead in holds (33). If Rauch falters, Guerrier is probably next in line.
Keep an eye on left-hander Jose Mijares as well. He finished fifth in holds (27), held opposing hitters to a .224 batting average and was flat-out dominant versus left-handed hitters, who managed .155/.228/.252 (AVG/OBP/SLG) numbers against him in 2009. The Twins might turn to him when matchups call.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.