Buy-low, sell-high trading isn't necessarily easy with closers.
There are two reasons for that: One is the small size of the group that can be classified as closers; at any time there can be only 30 of them, barring teams going the dreaded co-closer or closer-by-committee route, in which case you probably don't want that team's individual candidates. With so few options available, it's fairly predictable which closers naturally fit either description, in which case you're not going to sneak anything past your competition.
The other, and perhaps more important, reason is that saves aren't a great measure of a pitcher's talent, yet they generally drive a reliever's fantasy value.
For instance, buy-low closers usually have low save totals, but if that's the case, it might be that either their teams don't win enough games to keep them productive in the category or they're not pitching well enough to save games, in which case they've got job security problems and are therefore less attractive targets. Sell-high closers, by comparison, typically have unexpectedly high save totals, but if that's the case, you might not get anyone buying a fluky, out-of-nowhere performer. Not to mention that baseball history is littered with examples of "no-names" who might have enjoyed a unexpectedly season-long hot streak -- David Aardsma and Ryan Franklin are excellent examples from 2009 -- in which case it would have been foolish for their owners to part with them at any price.
Still, the saves market can be a fickle one, and at any given time one owner might have an abundance of them, while another might desperately need to acquire them to plug holes in the category. And, voila, there's your buy-low, sell-high opportunity. You just have to be willing to sniff out that all-too-infrequent chance.
As with my other two columns this week, listed below are a few such candidates, the numbers in parentheses representing their preseason average draft position, their current Player Rater ranking among relief pitchers, as well as their 2009 Player Rater ranking at the position. Let's start with two possible sell-high closers:
Matt Capps, Washington Nationals (ADP 30th, PR 1st, 2009 PR 74th): The chances of him setting a season record in saves, as is his current pace (66), are slim. But what will his final number be? Something to think about: Capps has saved 78.6 percent of the Nationals' wins (11 of 14), but no pitcher in history has saved more than 70.3 percent of his team's wins (Bryan Harvey, 1993 Florida Marlins). In fact, only nine pitchers in history have saved more than 60 percent of their team's wins, and only four have done it since 2000 (Mike Williams, 2002 Pittsburgh Pirates; Eric Gagne, 2003 Los Angeles Dodgers; Danys Baez, 2005 Tampa Bay Devil Rays; and Francisco Rodriguez, 2008 Los Angeles Angels).
So how many games do you believe the Nationals will win? Seventy? Eighty? If you assume the latter, 60 percent of that is 48 saves, or only 37 more for Capps. If it's the former, 60 percent is 42, or 31 more, and remember, that's 60 percent, or a number only a select handful in history have achieved.
Most fantasy owners probably realize Capps, who had 48 saves the past two years combined, isn't a lock to save 48 in 2010 alone, so selling high on him won't be easy. In addition, that he's missing a lot more bats -- his 24.3 swing-and-miss percentage is vastly improved from his 18.2 career number -- suggests that, at worst, he's a solid second-tier closer and shouldn't be sold for less. But if you're already loaded at the position and can fetch top-10 closer dollars for Capps, it makes plenty of sense to spin him off now to improve your weak spots.
Kevin Gregg, Toronto Blue Jays (ADP 35th, PR 4th, 2009 PR 40th): The scary reality with Gregg is that he has pitched six seasons of 60-plus innings apiece in his career, yet has never finished with an ERA below 3.41 or WHIP under 1.23. Digest those numbers for a moment, because if he's at or above those ratios again, there's no way he's finishing among the top 10 closers.
Now, Gregg seems a different pitcher this year, throwing the cutter more than ever (25.4 percent of the time, compared to 2.4 percent in his career, per FanGraphs), and if he has truly improved the quality of that pitch, it's possible that's going to help him set personal bests in the ratio categories. But can we really make that assumption? It's not like this is a new pitch for him, so it's not necessarily safe to say he is a different pitcher this year. He just might be one.
Besides, Gregg has gotten off to hot starts before. In his career, 62 of his 92 saves have come before the All-Star break, and his ERA is more than half a run lower before the break (3.70) than after it (4.41). In fact, in his 3.41-ERA campaign of 2008, he had 20 saves and a 2.60 ERA in the first half, but only nine saves and a 4.94 ERA in the second. That suggests that even if Gregg has truly improved and can maintain this pace into July, chances are he won't make it through September without slowing down. If you can get near-top-10 value for him, do it.
TOP 75 RELIEF PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 75 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have been accrued.
Conversely, the following two relievers might be buy-low targets:
Jonathan Broxton, Los Angeles Dodgers (ADP 2nd, PR 35th, 2009 PR 2nd): The perfect example of how saves are a poor judge of a pitcher's talent, because if you look at Broxton's one save, you're unimpressed, but if you look at his 8 2/3 shutout innings (i.e., a 0.00 ERA), 0.58 WHIP, 14.54 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio and .133 batting average allowed, you're overwhelmed by how well he has performed. All of those latter numbers -- and not his saves total -- are what matters with Broxton, and continue to support him as a certain top-two closer, and the top guy if the stiffness in Mariano Rivera's side becomes a persistent issue.
Blame Broxton's issues on the Dodgers' performance as a team -- general manager Ned Colletti has made his displeasure with them no secret -- and consider this your one chance all year to get the possible No. 1 fantasy closer at a couple-buck discount. (Stress "couple-buck," because it's not like a Gregg-for-Broxton even-up swap will fly.) The Dodgers just haven't been handing Broxton leads to preserve, but that'll change, talented as this team is. By season's end he should be deep into the 30s in the category, if not a candidate for 40.
Billy Wagner, Atlanta Braves (ADP 12th, PR 29th, 2009 PR 162nd): There's a chance his owners might be down on him, especially after word circulated that he plans to retire at season's end. Like Broxton's Dodgers, Wagner's Braves have underperformed, which helps explain his three saves to date. But like Broxton, Wagner's other numbers are stellar: 1.80 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 13.50 K's-per-nine, .147 BAA. In fact, put aside his disastrous April 9 game at the San Francisco Giants and Wagner has been even more unhittable than Broxton.
Wagner cost a mere second-tier closer's price on draft day, and chances are you could acquire him at that cost or less. And while the Braves might not win as many games as the Dodgers this season, not to mention that Wagner is a greater health risk than Broxton, is it a stretch to imagine these pitchers finishing with similar numbers? On a per-game basis, at least, they're fairly comparable.
Introducing: Alfredo Simon
While last week's "Relief Efforts" might have been somewhat dismissive of Baltimore Orioles right-hander Alfredo Simon as a fantasy option, might I remind you of the comment " many times the most valuable reliever in a bullpen is the one who notched the most recent save"? There's a reason for that: With the exception of the "closer's-night-off" save or the "extra-innings-when-closer-has-already-been-used" save, it's often the most recent save-getter in a bullpen who will get the very next opportunity. And, sure enough, if he converts it we've got a changing of the guard at closer for that particular team.
That's what happened in Baltimore this past week, as four days after notching an ugly save versus the New York Yankees, Simon got a second save chance and converted it with a scoreless frame versus the Boston Red Sox, coincidentally on the same day that former closer Jim Johnson was demoted to the minors. The Orioles' decision to demote Johnson, in fact, significantly improved Simon's fantasy stock, as it removed any doubt who was tops in the saves pecking order.
That's hardly an endorsement of Simon as a long-term answer, or an immediate candidate for the top 20 closers, though. His command has been shaky; as Inside Edge reveals, he has thrown two of his first three pitches for strikes only 44 percent of the time (the major league average is 60 percent) and has thrown only 58 percent of his fastballs for strikes (MLB average: 64). With his new label, Simon is an instant pickup in all formats -- the age-old "saves are saves" advice -- but you can count on the Orioles replacing him once they find a safer option, if one exists.
Middle reliever spotlight: Tim Stauffer, San Diego Padres
A lot has been made of the Padres' starting-pitching depth this season, and with good reason: They ranked fourth in the majors in starters' ERA (3.10) through 28 games. Stauffer is a perfect example of that depth; he was a candidate for the rotation during the preseason but was forced to settle for a spot in the bullpen after Clayton Richard and Mat Latos were picked for the final two spots.
Oddly enough, a quick look at Stauffer's split statistics might suggest he wouldn't have been an ideal choice for a relief role. After all, opposing hitters had .306/.391/.528 (AVG/OBP/SLG) career rates in their first plate appearances against him as a starter, but thanks to his hot start in his new role he has .188/.246/.266 rates the first time through the order in 10 career relief appearances.
So what changed? A more aggressive approach, for one. Stauffer has thrown first-pitch strikes 57 percent of the time, up from 51 last year, according to Inside Edge, and 91 percent of his two-strike at-bats have become outs, up from 67 percent in 2009. He's also generating more ground balls (65.2 percent of them), and of course has Petco Park helping rein in any of his mistakes. Based upon his track record, Stauffer is unlikely to maintain a sub-one ERA, but there's no reason he can't be of ERA/WHIP help, at least in NL-only leagues. Scoop him up if available.
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.