In a season in which there has been remarkably little turnover at the closer position, might we be on the verge of there being a new influx of finishers?
It'd make sense; with Wednesday's games in the books, 75.8 percent of the scheduled Major League Baseball regular season is now complete. Contenders, at least this season, have clearly separated themselves from the noncontenders; by my count 17 of the 30 teams are out of the race -- sorry, Cincinnati Reds -- and another, the Tampa Bay Rays, is teetering on the brink.
What's the relevance?
As teams turn the page to 2012, it makes sense teams with closer candidates for next season might choose to get a look at those pitchers this year, even if only to get a sense of whether they'll need to trade or sign someone with experience during the winter. Go back through the history books: Last season, Juan Gutierrez and Koji Uehara were two new closers tested in late August and September. (Both teams ultimately decided to sign free agents.) In 2009, it was Carlos Marmol and Ryan Madson, both of whom have experienced plenty of success in the role since. In 2008, it was Fernando Rodney and Chad Qualls who used their performances as springboards to surprisingly productive 2009s.
That's a mixed bag, yes, and the wide spectrum of results in subsequent seasons underscores the point that none of the names discussed today are guaranteed to sustain any potential late-August or September success into 2012. As an aside, I'd rarely carry over a closer in a keeper league, except in the uber-rare circumstance that I had a Craig Kimbrel type at a deep, deep discount. So when we're talking speculative late-season saves -- continuing with the topic of "last-chance" investments in the rankings columns this week -- don't target any of these candidates with a clear mind on keeper-league value.
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 already been accrued.
Those 2008-10 examples, however, demonstrate that saves can be had off the waiver wire, even at this advanced stage of the year, and those of you in redraft leagues would do well to scour your waiver wire if you need help in the category. Let's take a closer look, team-by-team:
Perhaps there is no greater example of a "2012 closer audition" team this season than the New York Mets. Jason Isringhausen, the Mets' stand-in finisher since the Francisco Rodriguez trade, recently notched his 300th career save, and manager Terry Collins' intent was clear following the feat: He's going to audition several relievers in the closer role, now that Isringhausen has accomplished his desired career milestone. Besides Isringhausen, Bobby Parnell and Pedro Beato could be candidates for saves in the season's concluding weeks.
Oh, who are you kidding, this is all a ruse designed to throw us off the path to Parnell, right Terry? Fantasy owners have already gravitated toward Parnell -- he's owned in just 10.5 percent of ESPN leagues but that has risen by 8.3 percent in the past seven days -- and with good reason. He's the Mets' hardest thrower, his fastball averaging 97.0 mph this season. He leads them in strikeout rate, averaging 11.07 per nine innings, and for nearly three seasons, he has been hailed as a future closer by the team.
At the same time, Parnell has a 4.20 ERA and 1.55 WHIP and has been scored upon in eight of his past 14 appearances, so perhaps Collins' strategy is the truth, not merely him protecting his young pitcher from the pressures of being a full-time closer in New York. Parnell might have the skills to close, making him an attractive NL-only and deep-mixed pickup, but prepare for a rocky ride. Ask Mets fans: They're quick to remind you of his many historical struggles.
The key difference between this bullpen and that of the Mets is that, with Jon Rauch on the disabled list for the next 3-4 weeks, there's a clear-cut closer in Toronto: Frank Francisco, who was supposed to be "the guy" for the Blue Jays all season. Like Parnell, Francisco's bandwagon can take you on an adventure, as in the 17 single months in his career in which he has pitched 10 or more innings, his ERA was under 2.50 five times, but seven times it was over 4.50.
Francisco's "Jekyll" version has been the one toeing the mound of late, as he has gone 10 consecutive outings without allowing a run and has a 0.68 ERA, 0.75 WHIP and 11.00 strikeouts-per-walk ratio in 13 appearances since the All-Star break. During that time he has faced some hefty competition: Yankees (twice), Rangers (three times) and red-hot Athletics (once). Hot streak, perhaps, but exploiting such trends is often necessary when filling the saves category.
If it eases your mind, consider handcuffing Francisco to the man most likely to set him up, Casey Janssen, who has a 0.87 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in 11 appearances since the All-Star break.
If there's a current setup man who most fits the bill as a sneaky keeper-league candidate, it's Chris Sale, the 2010 first-rounder who has being considered as either the White Sox's future closer or a potential rotation option. That's why this might be a smart time for the White Sox to give the left-hander a test; determining his effectiveness in the ninth inning now might make their decision on his 2012 role, closer or starter, a little easier come wintertime.
As he did late last season, Sale has quickly risen the ranks in the White Sox's bullpen in recent weeks. He has a 0.61 ERA, 0.48 WHIP and 9.82 K's-per-nine ratio in 10 appearances since the All-Star break, even vulturing two saves from usual White Sox closer Sergio Santos, himself the owner of a 1.04 ERA during that span. Since June 1, Sale has a 1.24 ERA, 0.83 WHIP and 3.89 K's-per-walk ratio in 26 games. Santos, by comparison, has a 4.32 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 3.90 K's-per-walk ratio in 29 games.
Manager Ozzie Guillen might continue to play matchups in the ninth inning for now, knowing Santos has allowed an OPS 315 points higher against lefties (.690) than righties (.375), while Sale has limited left-handers to .214/.274/.296 rates, but Santos is probably on a short leash. Any further missteps could lead to Sale getting a few consecutive chances -- as Santos did April 25-26 in New York, when he initially grabbed the role -- and rolling with it, making him a must-have handcuff at this point and a player to closely track in all formats.
As with Sale, Aroldis Chapman's future -- closer or starter -- is in question. He has been outstanding in a setup role since returning June 25 from a shoulder injury; he has a 1.54 ERA, 0.69 WHIP and 15.81 K's-per-nine ratio in 22 games during that span, but perhaps most importantly, his walks-per-nine ratio is a sparkling by his standards (3.09). Fantasy owners have already been able to squeeze value out of Chapman despite his having only one save in that 22-game span, if only because he has as many or more strikeouts in that time than 55 starting pitchers who have worked eight or more times including teammate Johnny Cueto (also has 41).
Being that the Reds are effectively out of the playoff race, barring a miracle, perhaps they'll want to take a look at Chapman as a closer in the season's concluding weeks, if only to get a sense of his potential there long term. Considering how much he can help in the ERA/WHIP/K's categories, he should be owned in a lot more than the 23.8 percent of ESPN leagues in which he is currently.
The problem with that, of course, is that the man ahead of him, Francisco Cordero, has done nothing recently to warrant losing his job, and is paid "closer money" ($12 million this season). Since blowing three consecutive save chances to conclude the season's first half, Cordero is 6-for-6 in saves with a 0.82 ERA in 10 games. The argument for status quo in Cincinnati is every bit as compelling.
With usual closer Huston Street sidelined by a triceps injury, lights-out setup man Rafael Betancourt has been getting work in the closer role for the out-of-the-race Rockies, but as the weeks roll b, the team might think more about testing a hard-throwing rookie in the role as they retool for 2012: Rex Brothers. That, of course, depends largely on how quickly and effectively Street heals -- he is currently expected to return around the first day he's eligible, Aug. 24.
Brothers' stuff is filthy; he has a fastball that averages 95.0 mph and a slider he has used to strike out 18 batters in 33 plate appearances ending with the pitch. It's that combination that has helped him to a 12.00 K's-per-nine ratio in 32 appearances, ninth-best among relievers with 20-plus innings. He has long been groomed as a future closer for the Rockies, though that future might yet be more than a year off, being that Street remains signed through the 2012 season.
Brothers' shortcomings are his command, as his 4.67 walks-per-nine ratio ranks among the bottom third of relievers with 20-plus innings, and a so-so changeup, which increases his appeal -- at least at this stage of his career -- as a lefty specialist. Still, the Rockies might want to see exactly what they have in him, and his strikeout potential alone makes him an NL-only sleeper. Unfortunately, he is the least likely of any of the listed candidates so far to notch a 2011 save, if only because Street might recapture the role for the final 5-6 weeks.
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.