I have to admit that, yes, I have protected a few closers in fantasy baseball over the years. There, I said it. I can't recall ever keeping a closer in one of those old standard ESPN leagues in which only five of your players remain yours through the winter, but in other leagues, with other rules, sure. In one really deep league, I went into 2008 with Joe Nathan, Todd Jones and Chad Cordero. Well, one of those guys worked out. I did enjoy the closing stylings of Jon Rauch for a few months, though, and somehow I'm in third place in saves in that league. Point made.
Why wouldn't I keep a closer in a standard league knowing how volatile the position tends to be? Just look at this year's top 10 closers for proof why this wasn't the year to sign J.J. Putz to that long-term deal. The real reason I wouldn't keep a closer is because of how many saves pop up out of nowhere every season. You have to basically avoid paying attention to not find saves. Look, there's another save guy in St. Louis! Whoa, here comes another closer, it's Jensen Lewis!
I wouldn't make it a point to try to keep a closer, no matter how good he might have been in 2008. Francisco Rodriguez is a great example. He should end up breaking the all-time mark for saves in a season, but where will K-Rod be in 2009? What if he closes for the Rangers, and he ends up looking a lot like Francisco Cordero? Don't laugh, it could happen! Yes, Rodriguez is having a monster season, but nobody else in baseball is on pace for more than 43 saves. Saves are saves, and Rodriguez could pitch the exact same way next season and end up with 40 saves.
However, some of you will look to keep closers anyway. Maybe it's an NL-only format; with so few clear, safe choices for next season, I guess I can see that. I mean, who is the best closer in the NL right now, Brad Lidge? He still leaves me a bit on edge. Maybe everyone else in your league is holding a closer, and you don't want to be left out. I suppose that makes sense, though I'd probably use the keeper slot to get a leg up offensively. Anyway, you know all the big names. Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, Joakim Soria and probably 15 others are pretty safe bets to be closing next season.
Who are some potential closers you can still get on the cheap for 2009, possible afterthought guys the deep leaguers might want to keep? Let's get a little wild here and predict 10 under-the-radar save guys for 2009. Sorry, to be eligible for this list you can't be a closer right now.
John Smoltz, Braves: Surprise! Let's start with the really old guy who you know is going to do everything possible to come back for one more season. I could definitely see him closing for the Braves over Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano. For that matter, Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux all return in 2009, and enter the Hall of Fame together in 2015. Man, that seems a long way off, no?
Joey Devine, Athletics: Nothing against Brad Ziegler, the amazing submariner who finally gave up a few runs, but Devine throws harder, and if you made this a competition in March, he could win. Huston Street has also become under the radar at this point, too, but I believe he'll be elsewhere by next season. Devine can be a big strikeout reliever, when healthy.
Grant Balfour, Rays: Troy Percival is signed for another year, but how many DL stints does this guy have to have before the Rays stop depending on him. Dan Wheeler is the closer this week, then Percy, but the unhittable Balfour appears to be the future. You can't fake 18 hits allowed in 43 innings.
Heath Bell, Padres: No, I don't think Trevor Hoffman is a lock to walk away, either, but if he ever needed help making his decision, he could look at this brutal, 100-loss team and see that contending in 2009, or anytime soon, isn't likely. Bell is next in line, and I doubt the Padres would chase an expensive, veteran option.
Casey Weathers, Rockies: Brian Fuentes will be elsewhere, and maybe Manuel Corpas gets the first shot, but Weathers was drafted to be a closer -- and he certainly looks ready. We'll be seeing him in the bigs next week.
Jose Arredondo, Angels: I end up discussing him every week now, and his numbers are starting to slip, but Francisco Rodriguez could chase the big money in that new Queens stadium, you know, to get his Francisco Cordero type of long-term deal.
Eddie Kunz, Mets: I always thought Billy Wagner could just give the game up on a whim, and now that his elbow isn't making things easy, I could really see an abrupt exit. Or surgery. Kunz might not be as close to closing as he appeared a week ago, since he's in the minors now, but he's hardly done. If Wagner walked away, the Mets would probably go after a veteran guy such as Street or Fuentes, but Kunz has a future.
Jon Rauch, Diamondbacks: Here's what I see happening to Brandon Lyon: He ends up with 32 saves this season, but blows a few in the playoffs. Then he exits as a free agent. Rauch is signed affordably and gets the nod over Tony Pena, while Max Scherzer will be starting games next April.
Joe Bateman, Brewers: Who? Take a look at this fella's minor league stats; he's likely to get a call to the bigs soon to help out Salomon Torres. Get ahead of the curve, Bateman has rocketed through the minors and he's closing games at Triple-A Nashville. The Brewers got him in the minor league Rule 5 draft from the Giants, if you were wondering, and yes, part of the reason why I know of him is because he's good friends of the ESPN Radio producer I work with. As Tony Reali of "Around the Horn" says, inside information!
Dennis Sarfate, Orioles: I predict George Sherrill starts the new year closing games, but he either fails to remain successful or gets dealt before July. While the 2008 saves have been nice, that WHIP was a bit inflated, and Jim Johnson doesn't miss bats. Sarfate is a hard-throwing right-hander with control problems, a future Brian Wilson, if you will. And after starting four times recently with little success, he's back in Baltimore's bullpen, probably for good.
OK, now who didn't I mention in the above spot? Well, I had planned to write about Joel Zumaya of the Tigers, noting the age-old corollary that when you least expect it, you should expect it. At some point this 100 mph guy has to stay healthy and win the job, right? I find it hard to believe Todd Jones will be a Tiger after next month. In the end, I didn't pick Zumaya, who in reality does not have to stay healthy or win the job, because it's not like this stuff needs to even out. Health is a skill, and Zumaya doesn't seem to have it. If you have other sleeper closer names for me, you know where to send the feedback!
And now, back to the normal categories you've come to expect from Relief Efforts each week.
Jim Johnson, Orioles: Not that I think Dennis Sarfate assumes the role in 2008, but Johnson seems to be walking a thin line with his performance lately, and I don't think he'll have success as a closer that way. Not to mention, when the Orioles win, it tends to be in high-scoring games. In Johnson's past 10 outings, he has one hold. The Orioles won five of those games, but by an average of nearly six runs per game. What's alarming to me, other than the obvious lack of opportunities that All-Star George Sherrill didn't have to deal with, is Johnson's hit rate. In seven of his past 10 outings, he has permitted two or more hits, and only once was he asked to get more than three outs. For those counting, that's 19 hits in 10 1/3 innings, though only five runs. This pristine 2.26 ERA is not going to last.
Rafael Betancourt, Indians: Wow, look who's finally pitching well again! Jensen Lewis isn't going anywhere as Cleveland's closer; in fact, he has more saves in the past week than anyone. But Betancourt appears to have fixed his problems from the first four months or so. After getting lit for home runs by Evan Longoria and Cliff Floyd to open August, Betancourt has lowered his ERA a full run, tossing 8 2/3 scoreless frames, allowing three hits. His season WHIP is 1.39, still high but a lot better than it was a month ago. We discuss this once, and maybe future, dominant right-hander because while things look good for Lewis now, things can change quickly. Betancourt has value again for fantasy owners.
Chad Bradford, Rays: This under-the-radar pickup by the AL East leaders has holds in three of his past five outings, and he's just outside the top 10 for season holds as well. Bradford doesn't help a bit in strikeouts, and lefties destroy the guy, but if you want holds, you don't look at teams like the Orioles, where he used to be, but good teams that are playoff bound. Others you might not be thinking of who are picking up the holds lately include the Giants' Keiichi Yabu, the Braves' Jeff Bennett and everyone's pal, the Astros' LaTroy Hawkins. Plus, Guardado will get a lot of holds in Minnesota.
Bullpen to watch
New York Mets: Maybe Luis Ayala just needed a change of scenery, that's all. He certainly did not pitch well for the Nationals this season, as his 5.78 ERA pretty much proves. Ayala was 1-8 with Washington, then the Mets picked him up and -- voila -- the team has solved its bullpen crisis! Well, let's not act so fast. Yes, with Billy Wagner on the DL, possibly for the rest of the season, Ayala stepped up to become the closer, notching a save and then coming oh-so-close Tuesday before the Phillies' Eric Bruntlett tied the game in the ninth inning. Ayala allowed his first run with his new team, and now it's anyone's guess who closes the next game. It appeared Ayala had seized the closer role, and maybe he has. It was supposed to be a committee, but it doesn't look like it. Aaron Heilman, amazingly, either closes or is buried and doesn't pitch. You can't rip Jerry Manuel, because his team has played so well for him, but he couldn't have expected Ayala to keep tossing scoreless innings. I wouldn't bother owning any Mets relief pitchers at this point other than Wagner, as it's an effort in futility and nobody knows Wagner's prognosis, including the pitcher himself.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. You can e-mail him here.