Every fantasy owner wants to be first in line for that closer of the future, but it so rarely happens the easy way. What we end up seeing happen is that most closers of the future become short-term disappointments, overdrafted and traded for in fantasy leagues, while veterans like Kevin Gregg show up in Florida at the right place and the right time, and change their career path forever. I think I can name more journeyman types who pitched well and lucked into a closer job, like Scott Downs and Antonio Alfonseca, than kids who were high picks and became the next Gregg Olson (see Orioles, circa 1989).
For Chris Perez, who was traded this week from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Cleveland Indians, the initial reaction I saw from others was that Perez became more in demand in fantasy from this deal. My reaction was quite the opposite.
Want to know who's next in line for saves for each team? Check out Eric Karabell's bullpen depth chart.
I think this is a trick for fantasy owners, and while the Indians won't regret the deal, they didn't help themselves much. I trust the Cardinals' leadership when it comes to decision-making, I really do. It's like how the Braves used to be when Leo Mazzone was handling the pitchers. Jose Capellan was supposed to be good. When the Braves gave up on him, that was a sign for me to do the same. Remember the Aussie Damian Moss? Young lefty, 26 years old -- they moved him quickly for a reason. Same thing, to a degree, with Denny Neagle, Kevin Millwood and Bruce Chen. It's like the Braves just knew. Same with some of those young hitters as well, like Andy Marte and Wilson Betemit, but I digress. Anyway, I trust Dave Duncan just as I did Mazzone. I mean, Jeff Weaver started five playoff games for the Cardinals in 2006, including two in the World Series. Jeff Weaver!
Many see the Cardinals' dealing their 2006 first-round pick as a sign of desperation for offensive help, and the Indians as getting a sweet deal for a future closer. I see a standard, ordinary middle reliever getting sent out of town while his value is still relatively high, because he has the arm but lacks something else to be a reliable closer. Relief pitchers grow on trees (not literally), but for every Perez who is drafted and groomed as a closer, there is someone like Ryan Franklin, for example, getting more saves when there's nothing in his past or in his current makeup that says he should. The Cardinals were so eager to move Perez that the rumors had been flying for months, even though they know Franklin isn't their future closer and Jason Motte could very well not be that future guy. I'm trusting the Cardinals on this one. They know something, or they think Perez can easily be replaced in the sixth and seventh innings by someone on the trade market like Danys Baez. I agree.
The problem for fantasy owners is that they always think they know something about that next big closer, but it so rarely pans out. Baseball's amateur draft plays a significant role in leading fantasy owners on. When Geoff Geary gets dealt, nobody bats an eyelash because he was a 15th-round pick and unspectacular in the minors. Perez was a first-round pick. (To be fair, it was in the sandwich round between the first and second rounds, the No. 42 overall pick.) He was a college closer, a big, intimidating right-hander with strikeout stuff. Hey, it's not that I think Perez will stink in Cleveland, but why do you think saves are automatic here?
Perez should not instantly jump onto your list of relievers about to become closers. In fact, I think he was better off in St. Louis if you wanted the potential for saves. Kerry Wood has a two-year contract for the Tribe, not a one-year deal, and there is no guarantee he gets traded as easily as Mark DeRosa. Perez might have to wait until 2011. Plus, do we just assume Perez is next in line in Cleveland? There doesn't seem to be much in his way currently, but Matt Herges has pitched well, Rafael Betancourt should be back soon, and Perez's first impression with his new team ended with four runs crossing the plate and only two outs getting registered. Major league teams don't just give closer roles to the guy who throws the hardest, even if they're in the midst of a horribly disappointing season that might result in 100 losses.
A year ago, I thought the Indians did well to get Jonathan Meloan from the Dodgers in the Casey Blake trade. Time might tell differently, but Meloan has been pounded at Triple-A since that deal. Perez might have better stuff, and won't get yo-yoed around from starting and relieving, but there are no guarantees here. I'd look elsewhere for saves this season, and for a middle reliever who can help your staff.
Dan Meyer and Leo Nunez, Marlins: It's pretty clear they are the closers for Florida for now and probably a while. Matt Lindstrom was pitching poorly, and now we know why: His pitching elbow is sprained, possibly from overcompensating for a rotator cuff injury from the World Baseball Classic. It could be six weeks, or 2010, before we see Lindstrom again. The problem for fantasy is that I think neither Meyer nor Nunez will establish himself as the go-to closer, but rather that they will form an effective tandem, like what Bobby Cox does with Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano. Meyer probably has a leg (arm?) up in the race for saves, but if he puts someone on base and a right-handed batter strides to the plate, the right-handed Nunez will get the call. Own 'em both if you need every save, but this is essentially what the Tampa Bay ninth innings would look like if J.P. Howell hadn't stepped in, with Dan Wheeler trying to save games and doing the heavy lifting, but Randy Choate getting the final out. I think Meyer gets more saves than Nunez.
Brian Fuentes, Angels: The Angels are back in their rightful spot in first place, and pitching has been the difference. The starting pitching is getting noticed, but how about Fuentes having a dominant June, with nine saves in 10 games, and only three hits allowed (no runs) in 8 2/3 innings. Maybe it was the threat of poachers trying to steal his job, but there are no next-in-line candidates these days. Scot Shields is done for the season, and Jose Arredondo is on the DL at Triple-A Salt Lake with a sprained ligament in his elbow. Fuentes could pitch poorly and still hold onto the closer role, but I moved him up in the rankings because the Angels are giving him more games to save -- only Huston Street and Joe Nathan have more saves in June, and nobody has more saves overall this season -- and he's pitching like a top closer again.
Mitch Stetter, Brewers: Welcome to the rankings, Mitch! You earned it! Stetter is having one of the best months I've seen for a so-called lefty specialist. Entering Wednesday, Stetter had struck out 19 hitters against one walk in 10 1/3 innings in June, allowing only three hits and no runs along the way. Trevor Hoffman is safe as the closer, but Stetter is getting just about everybody out, lefties and righties alike, and if your league counts holds, you have to like Stetter's being among the league leaders. He's not really like many of the lefties you've known over the years, like Trever Miller and Will Ohman, in that he's on pace for 72 strikeouts.
Carlos Marmol, Cubs: I'm not a Cubs fan, and I own Marmol in only one league that I know of, and still I cringe watching him pitch. Do you think he knows where the ball is going? He doesn't. Nobody does. He's still as wild as the day is long, and I don't see that changing anytime soon. In a way, I've been shortchanging Kevin Gregg for two months now. It's not that I thought Gregg was going to lose the closer role anytime soon, even if he gives up more runs than the average guy and blows a few games, which he will, but Marmol isn't doing a thing to show he can handle being a closer. In fact, until Angel Guzman hurt his triceps, I thought there was a legit chance Lou Piniella was going to switch the order in the seventh and eighth innings. Now I wonder whether Jeff Samardzija, called up Tuesday, could get involved in set-up duties. Gregg is fine. You know what you're getting. Now I think we know what Marmol is going to get us as well, and it's a lot of walks, not enough strikeouts to offset them, and a high WHIP. Enjoy the 30 holds, but this is not a 100-strikeout option, nor someone you should own for either the save potential or the safe peripheral work.
Brad Lidge, Phillies: Yay, he's back! But I have a feeling that he's not going to pitch effectively enough to remain the closer, whether the balky knee eventually lands him back on the DL shelf, or the balkier ERA does the trick. I don't call Lidge a buy-low option at all. He managed to save Sunday's game in Toronto, but it wasn't pretty. Why John McDonald allowed himself to be picked off second base in the ninth inning I'll never know. Hey, I'm happy Lidge got the save, but the Phillies have to be aware it's a ticking time bomb. My rank of Lidge is cautious. Fantasy owners should try to move Lidge for a safer closer before it gets even worse.
Joel Hanrahan, Pirates: Guess the Nationals really didn't want Hanrahan around. It's hard to believe this guy was a relatively successful closer a year ago, with one of the top strikeout rates among relievers, and now he's so buried he gets thrown into Tuesday's trade to Pittsburgh. I mean, the Nationals might have some stability at the back of the bullpen with Mike MacDougal, but I wouldn't call the corps deep. Anyway, Matt Capps is clearly the closer in Pirates land, but with John Grabow being a lefty, it's possible Hanrahan earns the right-handed set-up role, but with his potential for saves going away, he leaves the rankings. Either way, this is good news for Joe Beimel, whose setup role in Washington becomes safer, though it's possible Sean Burnett, who was acquired from the Pirates, will inherit the role if Beimel is traded before the deadline.
Comings, goings, random thoughts
• The Blue Jays have had two saves since Scott Downs hit the DL with a sprained toe. Jeremy Accardo lucked into the first save, being the last man standing in the bullpen, and Jason Frasor picked up the second one in more conventional fashion. I think Frasor is the closer until Downs comes back, which might be a little later than expected. Downs is eligible to return from the DL this week, but it seems he'll need more time. He's worth waiting for, though, which is why his rank remains the best of all Toronto relievers.
• By the way, Toronto's B.J. Ryan remains owned in 68.7 percent of leagues, which, stunningly, is more than all of the following relief pitchers: Downs, Andrew Bailey, Rafael Soriano, J.P. Howell, C.J. Wilson. I understand why Ryan was drafted. I don't understand why he's still owned. He's not going to get saves. Mike MacDougal will get more. Both Florida options will get more. Frasor, owned in 10.5 percent of leagues, will probably get more this week than Ryan the rest of the season.
• The Braves again sent lefty Mike Gonzalez out there for the eighth inning Tuesday, as the Phillies had lefties coming up, but then a not-so-funny thing happened: Gonzalez got lit up. He entered play having allowed two home runs this season, both to lefties, oddly enough. Then a pair of Phillies right-handed hitters (John Mayberry Jr., Pedro Feliz) took him deep. Gonzalez has two saves in June, same as Rafael Soriano. Don't expect Gonzalez to earn more than 20 saves this season.
• Congrats to Mariano Rivera for picking up his 500th career save, and also picking up his first RBI in the same game. Rivera is having another tremendous season, and I remind anyone trying to figure out who the next Yankees closer is that that pitcher might still be in high school.
• If we talk Yankees, we must talk Red Sox, right? Jonathan Papelbon saved his 132nd game recently, tying him with the legendary Bob Stanley for most in Red Sox history. While I do have doubts that Papelbon is long for Boston after his contract ends, I don't see an early end to his closing career, either. And while Daniel Bard could be the next closer for this franchise, in a Chris Perez kind of way he could also end up in the minors rather soon.
• Kudos to Trevor Hoffman for picking up his 18th save Monday, one of the easiest he'll ever get. The Brewers -- yes, it still seems strange to call him a Brewer -- entered the ninth inning with a seven-run lead, but Carlos Villanueva was off his game, and all of a sudden, after throwing for about a minute and a half, here comes "Hells Bells" into the game. The Milwaukee crowd loves this guy. I'm not saying San Diego patrons didn't, but I can't recall from TV a Petco Park crowd being as loud when Hoffman entered a game as the Milwaukee fans were Monday. Anyway, Hoffman barely warmed up. Brian Schneider hit a textbook 6-4-3 double play to short on the first pitch, and those were the two outs Hoffman needed to finish it. Four-run lead, one pitch, two outs, save No. 572. Yeah, I think maybe the save rule needs to be tweaked a bit.
Eric Karabell is a senior fantasy writer for ESPN.com. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He twice has been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Karabell by e-mailing him here.