2008 Positional Previews: Relief pitchers

Don't be that guy who ends up with Jonathan Papelbon, J.J. Putz and Joe Nathan in one draft, thinking you just cornered the market on saves and this whole relief pitcher thing. It won't work. We know this. Great, you might have just picked up 120 saves, but at what expense? What does the rest of the team look like? Is Geoff Blum one of your starting infielders?

Closers don't grow on trees, but they tend to disappoint just like any other fantasy baseball position, and it's not tough to find them on the free-agent market. At least a third of all spring closer situations will have changed by September, leaving fantasy owners plenty of new choices to take chances on. Sure, that Al Reyes pickup could eventually turn sour, but the Jeremy Accardo one looks pretty good, eh? Accardo wasn't drafted in 99 percent of leagues, but his final numbers were nearly top 10 for the position. What does that tell ya?

The point is you can wait on closers because you can pick up cheap saves during the season, and the saves are the ultimate goal here. You don't have to win the category by 30; you just have to be relevant in it. While you might think spending top-10 picks on Putz, Papelbon and Nathan is smart, that trio totaled 22 fewer saves in 2007 than Jose Valverde, Joe Borowski and Francisco Cordero. The members of this stunning trio didn't enter 2007 expected to be All-Stars, but they accrued the most saves.

And there's the rub. The closers don't always come from nowhere, but one can hardly predict how many saves even the top guns will get. Nathan's effectiveness hasn't really changed the past few years. In fact, he might have even gotten better. But Nathan last registered a 40-save season in 2005.

Don't pay too much for saves in terms of draft picks or auction dollars because what you think is a sure thing might not be. Rather, you could grab the Todd Jones and David Weathers types, or simply play the free-agent market wisely, and fare just as well in saves. It's one category, and while it's nice to get every last edge in strikeouts and ERA, fantasy owners don't win leagues by drafting the top closers, but they can lose them because of whom they don't draft.

The elite

Just as with the catcher position, there shouldn't be any relief pitchers taken in at least the first four or five rounds. More than likely, though, a few closers will start going in those rounds, and it might start a run of the elite guys. Do you want to be a part of the run? No, you don't.

But for the sake of being thorough, there are some closers we'd call more elite than others, led by Boston's Papelbon, Seattle's Putz and the Twins' Nathan. If we try really hard, we can come up with reasons why they might not be elite, but the truth is they should be as good, if not better, than their 2007 statistics suggest. It's perceived that Papelbon is an injury risk, and had his innings kept in check. But in reality, the defending World Series closer didn't pitch many fewer times than the other guys, and it might not have affected his save total anyway. Papelbon threw 58.1 innings in 2007. Only nine pitchers registered more saves, and the only one to top Papelbon's innings by more than 10 was Putz.

Similarly, one could also consider Putz an injury risk since he was held back a bit last March with a balky elbow, but his April performance didn't show any problems. What possible problem could there be with Nathan, by the way? Even if the Twins have lost a bit off their rotation, he'll still get save chances, the offense has been upgraded, and he has been arguably baseball's and fantasy's top closer over the past four seasons.

A few other closers can go into the elite category, led by the Angels' Francisco Rodriguez and -- surprise -- the Dodgers' Takashi Saito. Yes, leads get protected pretty well in Southern California. K-Rod's WHIP and walk rate are a bit worrisome, but he makes up for it with a high strikeout rate and three straight 40-save seasons. Saito will be 38 on Opening Day, so maybe you can point to age being a concern, but the guy has allowed just 81 hits and 36 walks over 142.2 innings in two seasons for the Dodgers. Yes, that's a 0.82 WHIP, and only Papelbon has done better since the start of 2006.

The aging upper tier

While Saito is hardly young, even by baseball standards, the closers in the next tier do have some significant mileage on their arms. Statistically, there's little reason to expect Billy Wagner, Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman to completely fall apart in 2008, although there are signs of Hoffman being in decline, as our poor ranking indicates.

Hoffman is likely to fool owners into drafting him high because of his 42 saves, his rather spacious ballpark and noteworthy career achievements, but he's also coming off offseason arthroscopic elbow surgery, and his 2.98 ERA was his highest since 2001. Hoffman doesn't help fantasy owners in strikeouts, with a total well below the elite names, and there's that issue of left-handed hitters enjoying a .299 batting average against him.

As for the New York closers, there's really not much to worry about. Rivera saved only 30 games in 2007, so maybe you think it points to a great decline, but the Yankees gave him a mere 34 save chances. Don't blame Mo. His ERA and WHIP were higher than normal, but blame a bad April, in which he allowed nine earned runs in 7.2 innings and blew two of his three save chances. Darn Red Sox! Rivera had a 2.52 ERA and 18 saves after the All-Star break, with 41 strikeouts in 35.2 innings. I wouldn't call that a decline.

Meanwhile, in a nearby borough, Billy Wagner was recording the eighth 30-save season of his career, and a slight increase in some of his peripheral numbers shouldn't be evidence of a problem. Wagner was cruising along until August and September, when he got roughed up a bit. But his strikeout rate didn't drop, and he didn't allow more home runs than normal. Nothing to be concerned about here.

The 2007 surprises

In 2006, Jose Valverde had such a rough stretch that he was sent to the minor leagues. Francisco Cordero got traded to Milwaukee. Joe Borowski closed for Florida but wasn't regarded as a hot free agent when the Marlins let him go, and a wild Bobby Jenks finished 2006 with an ERA of 4.00.

So naturally, the first three entrants in this group led all of baseball in saves in 2007, while Jenks, at times a walk machine and hardly considered unhittable, tied a major league record when he retired 41 straight hitters from July 19 through Aug. 20.

Of these pitchers, Jenks had the best chance to fit the profile of a closer you'd grab after the first 10 are gone. His job was safe as a closer on what appeared to be a contending team. His job is still safe, and the White Sox made upgrades this offseason, so consider Jenks in the middle rounds.

Borowski remains the Indians' closer for now, but based on that well-earned 5.07 ERA and the presence of numerous set-up men who could usurp his job, he shouldn't be drafted among the top 20 closers.

Valverde and Cordero found new homes in the NL Central this winter, and their old teams didn't seem so interested in bringing them back, which kind of speaks to the volatility of the role. Valverde was traded from Arizona to Houston. The Astros had problems holding leads in 2007, and figured Brad Lidge was the problem. He's Philly's problem now, but Valverde easily could lose 15 saves off his 2007 total just by luck, even if he pitches as well. Cordero was a free agent, and the Reds made the odd decision of giving the 32-year-old reliever a four-year contract. In 2005 and '06, Cordero posted ERAs of 3.39 and 3.70, respectively, and he has had issues keeping the ball in the park at times. Well, good news, you're going to Cincinnati! Watch out, fantasy owners.

Closers on bad teams

Even bad teams give their closers the opportunity for saves, so don't forget about Matt Capps, Joakim Soria, Chad Cordero, Huston Street, Jason Isringhausen and Kevin Gregg.

In some cases, like with Cordero and Gregg, you're getting saves and little else. So what, though; saves are the primary reason you have closers. The Nationals and Marlins don't figure to be contenders, but they didn't contend in 2007 and still combined for 69 saves. Draft Cordero and Gregg late and you're already in the middle of the pack in saves.

Capps and Soria combined for only 35 saves, but neither held the job all season, as their teams foolishly went with older, more questionable pitchers in the role. Salomon Torres and Octavio Dotel are somewhere else now, leaving potential workhorses Capps and Soria all the saves to themselves.

Street is probably Oakland's top fantasy player at this point, the lone A's player who warrants consideration in the top 100. That could change any minute now, and not because Street will lose the job. He'll probably be changing his address. The A's seem more interested in a long-term building arrangement, and Street wouldn't fit in. Wherever he's sent, look for plenty of saves.

The NL sleepers

Someone must close for the Cubs, Diamondbacks and Giants, and Carlos Marmol, Brandon Lyon and Brian Wilson seem like the guys who will get first chance to do so.

Lou Piniella has options at the back of his bullpen, and he could choose to go with Kerry Wood, Ryan Dempster or Bob Howry instead of Marmol. Wood has thrown 44 innings the past two seasons combined. Dempster is likely in the rotation. Howry has had chances to close with the Cubs and has been just so-so. Look for Marmol, third behind Heath Bell and Jonathan Broxton for strikeouts by a relief pitcher, to win the job and thrive. His walk rate remains a bit high, but he held right-handed hitters to a .146 batting average, allowing just 41 hits in 69.1 innings.

Lyon has all but been handed the Arizona closing job in the wake of the Valverde trade, but he must hold off Tony Pena and newcomer Chad Qualls. Expect Pena, who had a 1.10 WHIP in 75 games in 2007, to seriously challenge for the job.

In San Francisco, Wilson had his audition down the stretch and passed the test, saving six games and posting a 0.972 WHIP. Brad Hennessey remains a Giant but could be used as a swingman. Wilson was groomed for the role in the minors, and would have to lose the job in spring training.

The Retreads

I guess you can tell from the section name, I'm not too high on Eric Gagne and Troy Percival. It was a nice story in 2007 when Gagne found work on the Rangers, thrived in May and June and got sent to Boston, where he could help a World Series-winning squad. He didn't help much. Gagne supporters blame Gagne's struggles on him having to play the role of set-up man, rather than closer. The Brewers figure a one-year contract is worth a shot, but Gagne has had either a poor second half or no second half at all since 2004. He's 32, but an injury risk to boot.

Speaking of injury risk, it's commendable the Rays would give Percival, now 38, a two-year deal, but didn't this team have a perfectly capable 36-year-old save 26 games for it in 2007? Percival missed most of 2005 with a forearm problem and retired in spring training of 2006. The Cardinals gave him a chance midway through 2007, and 40 very good innings later, he's signing a new deal elsewhere. How can we expect Percival to maintain effectiveness in the AL East, and stay healthy?

The Middle Men

Of course, not all relief pitchers earn saves. A common strategy in deep leagues with a lot of bad starting pitchers is to ditch the Adam Eaton types and play it safe with someone like Rafael Betancourt. While middle relievers aren't guaranteed to get wins, they are much safer in ERA and WHIP. Consider that of the top 10 relief pitchers in strikeouts, six of them accumulated five or more wins. Betancourt had an Eckersley-like season, walking only nine hitters against 80 strikeouts, and his 1.47 ERA and 0.756 WHIP were far more valuable than what Cleveland closer Borowski accomplished. However, Betancourt had 42 fewer saves.

Other middle relievers worth roster spots in 10-team leagues include San Diego's Bell, the Dodgers' Broxton, Minnesota's Pat Neshek, Washington's Jon Rauch and Boston's Hideki Okajima. You might not get saves, but each is capable of at least a few wins, plenty of strikeouts and good peripheral stats.

Auction strategy

There's an owner in every auction who wants to ensure a high save total by spending at least $20 on a pair of closers, maybe more. That team is likely to have plenty of saves but not win the league unless most every other dollar is spent wisely. Closers are important in fantasy, but if you get $260 to spend in auction and use $40 of it, or 15 percent of your funds, on two players, you'll be lacking elsewhere. Try to get an anchor closer, someone you can count on, then take some chances on midlevel closers or middle relievers who could emerge into the role. Remember, there will be closers coming from nowhere during the season, surely more save guys than 40-homer possibilities.

Eric Karabell is a fantasy sports expert for ESPN.com Fantasy.