There's no one "right" way to invest in saves.
On one hand, you've got the people who will remind you that saves are readily available on the waiver wire, noting such examples as John Axford from the most recent season alone. While it's true that saves can be picked up via free agency or waivers, the depth of the league has quite a bit to do with their availability. In shallow mixed formats, pitchers like Axford, Hong-Chih Kuo and Chris Perez might have been there for the taking, offering you a top-20 fantasy season for the price of a pickup. But in AL- or NL-only formats, especially those with 12 or more teams, pitchers like Kuo or Perez might have already been taken in the draft.
On the other hand, you've got the people who claim that the top closers remain worthy investments, citing Mariano Rivera as the ultimate example of a consistent fantasy stud. While it's true that many top closers do return on their investments, to steal a fellow all-time great as a counterargument, Trevor Hoffman turned in a miserable 2010 season and let countless fantasy owners down.
But there's one thing that is clear when it comes to saves: There will always be some out there for the taking, and there's always going to be someone who unexpectedly finds his way into double-digit saves off the waiver wire.
That's what this column is for.
This isn't a promise that anyone listed below is going to give you elite saves production at a minimal price. What this column is designed to do is alert you to eight relatively unknown relievers who have closer skill, and who at some point during the 2011 season might find their way into some saves. The eight pitchers combined could save zero games this season -- though even if that's true, they'll certainly help in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts -- or they could save 100 or more. There's no telling, but keep these names tucked away and monitor them closely.
Beneath the sleepers, I've also included sections for obvious handcuffs you'll want to target in the later rounds, as well as current closers who are bargains.
Zach Braddock, Milwaukee Brewers: He has a brilliant combination of mid-90s heat and slider, plus enough deceptiveness to help him improve upon so-so .284/.379/.432 rates against right-handers during his rookie season. Experience might help Braddock, who has some of the best raw stuff of any of the Brewers' relievers. Remember, the aforementioned Axford seemingly emerged from nowhere as a trusted fantasy option, yet another of the Brewers' out-of-nowhere closer gems of the past decade. Why can't Braddock follow suit?
Joba Chamberlain, New York Yankees: The true definition of "sleeper" is "something that achieves sudden, unexpected success after initially attracting little attention," and thanks to his mediocre past two years both as starter and setup man, Chamberlain is now a player who attracts little attention. So why can't he finally emerge as a meaningful finisher? It's a long shot -- both Rivera and Rafael Soriano rank ahead of him -- but this section digs deeeeeeeep, and Chamberlain's 2.88 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 9.70 K's-per-nine ratio the second half of last season say he might yet have a closer's future ahead of him.
David Hernandez, Arizona Diamondbacks: After transitioning to the bullpen for the Baltimore Orioles around last Memorial Day, Hernandez posted a 3.16 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 10.95 K's-per-nine ratio in 33 appearances, his fastball-curve combo proving quite lethal in shorter outings. He's probably next in line to closer J.J. Putz, who has a questionable injury history, especially with Juan Gutierrez off to a rocky start this spring. Hernandez's fly ball tendencies could keep him from ever being elite, but his arm is worthy of a look should Putz go down.
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers: A converted catcher, Jansen breezed through three levels, the final one being the big leagues, where he was every bit as effective as in high Class A or Double-A ball. He averaged 13.67 K's per nine, generated swinging strikes 14.2 percent of the time and held opponents to a 67.4 percent contact rate on all swings. What's more, Jansen is working on his slider, which he threw only 10.0 percent of the time for the Dodgers; with improvement on that pitch he'll quickly become closer-worthy. And with Jonathan Broxton coming off a miserable second half of 2010, Kuo a bit of a health question and Matt Guerrier lacking the overpowering stuff of a prototypical closer, it might be Jansen who emerges as the most reliable finisher.
Alexi Ogando, Texas Rangers: Could he actually be the Rangers' closer come Opening Day? Don't think for a second that the Neftali Feliz starter experiment this spring is a total mirage; he might be a long shot to crack the rotation but has the skill set to pull off such an upset. In that event, the ninth inning is up for grabs in Texas, and Ogando had a 1.32 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 8.87 K's-per-nine ratio for the big club as a rookie, counting the postseason. That comes on the heels of a 1.37 ERA and 0.91 WHIP during his minor league career, and his mid-90s heat and slider make quite a closer-worthy combination. He deserves to be in the mix.
Bobby Parnell, New York Mets: The Mets have talked about Parnell as a future finisher for a couple of seasons now, and in 2010 he finally looked like he was nearing readiness. He had a 4.13 K's-per-walk ratio and a 56.2 ground ball percentage, and despite a 8.49 K's-per-nine ratio he generated swinging strikes 10.4 percent of the time. Parnell has but one significant weakness: The lack of an out pitch against lefties, who managed .327/.364/.442 rates against him last year. But that's the kind of thing a reliever can develop, so he bears watching.
Jordan Walden, Los Angeles Angels: Shifted to relief at the onset of last season, Walden's high-90s heat (he averaged 98.8 mph at the major league level) and slider made him a tough opponent in the late frames. He whiffed 13.50 batters per nine innings and generated swinging strikes 13.1 percent of the time in a 16-game, late-season stint with the Angels, who have only the shaky Fernando Rodney on hand as a "proven closer." Walden projects as the team's future finisher and, if the Angels plan to contend, they might quickly tire of Rodney's inconsistency.
Joel Peralta, Tampa Bay Rays: He's already in the wide-open closer mix in Tampa, and deservedly so. Peralta was one of the game's most overlooked relievers in 2010, his 0.80 WHIP third best among pitchers with 40-plus relief innings. Though it took him six seasons and four different teams, he seems to have finally mastered his fastball-curve-change repertoire, his greatest failing being one of the most extreme fly ball rates in baseball (55.6 percent in 2010). That might make him more susceptible to rocky outings than your average closer, but there's little doubt that his skills are at least equal to anyone's in the Rays' bullpen.
These are the closers-in-waiting you know, the guys with the most obvious "closer skills" and the clear top handcuff selections.
Daniel Bard, Boston Red Sox.
What's to like: He bested closer Jonathan Papelbon in nearly every ratio category, and is largely the reason rumors persist that the Red Sox might trade their veteran finisher. On skills alone, Bard might be the best they've got.
What's not to like: Papelbon remains in Boston, is being paid $12 million, or "closer money," and the Red Sox also added "experienced closer" Bobby Jenks during the winter. Bard's time as closer might have to wait another year.
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds.
What's to like: How about the 100-mph fastball, or the filthy slider? Chapman might have the nastiest stuff of any reliever, and the man ahead of him, Francisco Cordero, just registered the fifth-highest WHIP (1.43) of any closer who had at least 40 saves in that season.
What's not to like: Not much, but Chapman's long-term role might be as a starter, so he could always transition there midyear. He's also spotty with his command at times, so his WHIP might not be far better than Cordero's.
Luke Gregerson, San Diego Padres.
What's to like: Both his WHIP (1.03) and K's-per-nine ratio (10.68) the past two years combined are top-10 numbers among relievers, and he vastly improved what was a major weak spot in his rookie season when he limited left-handers to .180/.237/.303 rates as a sophomore. Heath Bell is also a free agent after the season, and might be a trade candidate midseason.
What's not to like: Bell is one of the game's most reliable closers and could be re-signed -- he has said he wants to remain in San Diego -- and even if Bell is dealt, Mike Adams might be an even more talented potential replacement.
Ryan Madson, Philadelphia Phillies.
What's to like: He was the Phillies' most effective reliever the final three months of last season, with a 1.64 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 11.05 K's-per-nine ratio and 15 holds in 46 appearances. And it's not like people have forgotten that incumbent closer Brad Lidge had a 7.21 ERA and 11 blown saves two years ago.
What's not to like: Lidge also finished 2010 strong, with 17 saves, a 0.63 ERA and 0.85 WHIP in 26 appearances the final two months of the year. All he needs to do is get off to a comparably hot start and he might never cede the job.
Rafael Soriano, New York Yankees.
What's to like: He closed last year, finished third in the majors in saves (45) and ranked second on the Player Rater among relievers.
What's not to like: Mariano Rivera is the closer ahead of Soriano, so the chance of saves is slim and mostly tied to Rivera's age (he's 41). Fact: Since 1997, Rivera's first year as Yankees closer, he has 554 saves, and other Yankees relievers have totaled 108 (or 7.7 per year). Picking Soriano means hoping for a disabled-list stint -- or unexpected meltdown -- for Rivera, and that might never come.
These are current closers who, for one reason or another, are potential bargains in 2011. You can get them later, but each might provide top-10 closer value.
Joe Nathan, Minnesota Twins.
What's to like: He was one of fantasy's top closers before succumbing to Tommy John surgery last March 26, and that's an operation that has an increasingly good track record of success. Nathan is already pitching in spring training games and might be 100 percent and ready to close as early as Opening Day. Remember, Billy Wagner returned from the same surgery as a top fantasy closer in 2010. Why can't Nathan repeat the feat in 2011?
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians.
What's to like: He was one of the most productive closers the second half of last season, with 16 saves in 17 chances, a 0.63 ERA, 0.87 WHIP and 10.05 K's-per-nine ratio. While his ratios were somewhat influenced by good fortune -- his second-half BABIP was .238, for example -- Perez still has the makeup of an elite fantasy closer. He merely needs his team to provide him regular opportunities.
Drew Storen, Washington Nationals.
What's to like: He has a closer pedigree, was drafted as the Nationals' future finisher with the 10th pick in the 2009 amateur draft and pitches for a team that's primarily focused on the future. The Nationals' smartest move might be to let Storen close on Opening Day and for a decade (or more) beyond. That 3.58 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 8.46 K's-per-nine ratio he had as a rookie show that would be a smart move.
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.