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Relief Efforts: Rating the closers

Before some of you even woke up on Tuesday morning, there was already a blown save in the major leagues. That's how fast things change in the topsy-turvy world of relief pitching. Well, Relief Efforts is back for 2008, and it's better than ever. I won't get into much detail about breaking news at the top here, because I'm going through every team below. There will be a more regular format in coming weeks, including e-mails and rankings and other fine stuff. For now, let's get right to the meat and potatoes.


Here are the closers for each team, ranked in order for the first full week of the season, along with others to watch in the bullpen. I dug pretty deep for the stealth guy in some cases, but that's how it has to be.

1. J.J. Putz, Mariners: The best closer in the game a year ago, and I think he's the best again. No need to worry. It doesn't mean you pounce on him in round four, but you know to be careful about overrating saves. Putz ends up with 44 saves.
Next in line: Brendan Morrow
Stealth guy: Ryan Rowland-Smith


2. Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox: It wasn't the best opening day for him, but at least he didn't blow the save. Thanks, Emil Brown! Papelbon isn't likely to lead the league in saves because of the way he's used. He also won't win much. But a sub-2 ERA is always a beautiful thing. Own Hideki Okajima for the 25 holds, and another five saves.
Next in line: Hideki Okajima
Stealth guy: Manny Delcarmen

3. Joe Nathan, Twins: I couldn't believe the financially strapped Twins opted to give their closer a long-term deal, especially when there are other solid, right-handed arms in waiting. I wasn't concerned about Nathan and project 40 saves and terrific peripherals for him, but now you don't draft Pat Neshek for the potential saves because Nathan's big contract ensures that he won't get traded. Anyway, Nathan registered all but one of the Twins' saves last year. (Underrated Matt Guerrier picked up that one.) Behind Nathan I'll give Neshek two saves and Guerrier none.
Next in line: Pat Neshek
Stealth guy: Jesse Crain

4. Francisco Rodriguez, Angels: His ERA and WHIP were a bit higher than his owners might have liked, but you'll still take it. Another 40-save season is on the way. However, I wouldn't get excited about Scot Shields. I think he's got a DL stint in his future, and Justin Speier gets those vulture wins and moves to next in line. Speier was better than Shields last season anyway. I give K-Rod 43 saves and Speier seven wins and four saves.
Next in line: Justin Speier
Stealth guy: Jason Bulger

5. Mariano Rivera, Yankees: Nope, I am not worried one bit. The fact he had "only" 30 saves does not reflect poorly on Rivera; rather, the fact that the offense is so deep means the Yankees have more 9-4 games in the ninth inning than most other teams. Rivera could easily save 40 while you're not looking (I predict 41). I've also changed my mind about what happens with Joba Chamberlain (7 wins, but no saves). Now I think we do see him join the rotation in July. The Yankees will find someone else to set Rivera up, and it won't hurt the closer's numbers.
Next in line: Joba Chamberlain/LaTroy Hawkins
Stealth guy: Edwar Ramirez

6. Billy Wagner, Mets: As long as he isn't facing Pat Burrell or the Phillies in general, there's little reason for concern. His numbers are still top-notch. The return of Duaner Sanchez could eventually make Aaron Heilman trade bait for starting pitching depth, but it's not like Wagner shares save opportunities anyway. Give Wagner 38 saves with no decline in performance, and Sanchez outsaves Heilman three to two. If you're counting.
Next in line: Aaron Heilman
Stealth guy: Duaner Sanchez

7. Bobby Jenks, White Sox: The acquisitions of Octavio Dotel and Scott Linebrink should help this team hold more leads, which in turn gives Jenks more save opportunities. You might think, how can he save more games than 40? Well, he can! I'll give Jenks 42 saves without worrying about Dotel stealing more than two or three. It's good to have bullpen depth.
Next in line: Octavio Dotel
Stealth guy: Mike MacDougal

8. Takashi Saito, Dodgers: For me, the first two tiers of closers ended at Jenks. Putz, Papelbon and Nathan are the top three; then there's the next group; now we come to the question marks. Saito's statistics in two seasons have been elite, and there's little reason to worry about decline, even at age 38. However, health has been an issue this spring, with a variety of maladies, the latest being a case of tight buttocks. No, seriously. Jonathan Broxton owners want their guy to get saves, but I don't see it unless Saito's buttocks remain a problem. Give Saito 36 saves and Broxton five.
Next in line: Jonathan Broxton
Stealth guy: Jonathan Meloan

9. Francisco Cordero, Reds: It seems that fantasy owners don't trust Cordero, despite a terrific 44-save campaign. Now he's on a different NL Central team, and because the Reds don't figure to win as many as the Brewers, fantasy owners want to avoid Cordero. Don't be that guy. His ERA should go up a bit, but this team will win enough to get Cordero back to 40 saves, provided he pitches at a similarly high level. David Weathers will try to match his 2007 save total (33) in holds, but he falls six short. He does pick up three saves, and Bill Bray finds a way to earn two more.
Next in line: David Weathers
Stealth guy: Todd Coffey

10. Jose Valverde, Astros: Like Cordero, Valverde switched teams during the winter, and his new club is unlikely to win as much as the old one. Still, there's no need to worry. Valverde avoids the midseason slipup from 2006 again, and reaches 35 saves without trouble. He'd better be good, because Astros fans don't want to see Doug Brocail saving games. He's the likely setup man, but don't be surprised if Oscar Villarreal earns a chance should Valverde have problems.
Next in line: Doug Brocail
Stealth guy: Oscar Villarreal

11. Huston Street, A's: He blew it opening day against the Red Sox, which will probably drive his price down in leagues that haven't drafted yet, but Street remains a good, young closer capable of more than 30 saves. The negative with Street is his potential for injury, since he did miss two months of 2007 with a nerve problem in his elbow. Buy low and look forward to 33 saves. If the A's decide to shed more salary and move Street, I think Keith Foulke has moved to the head of the class to pick up saves, even over last season's fill-in, Alan Embree. Let's say Foulke saves eight games this year.
Next in line: Keith Foulke
Stealth guy: Joey Devine


12. Matt Capps, Pirates: Capps might go under the radar after saving a mere 18 games in 2007, but the ghost of Salomon Torres is gone and Capps is all alone for saves. In fact, he's so alone it might end up being a problem. Pittsburgh acquired Tyler Yates from the Braves Tuesday, and Yates vaults to the head of the class among right-handed setup men. He'll join Damaso Marte in the race for holds. Capps will have good peripheral numbers and 32 saves this season, with Marte picking up three more.
Next in line: Damaso Marte
Stealth guy: Hector Carrasco

13. Rafael Soriano, Braves: Deep down I still think Soriano is an injury risk, even though he should be fully recovered from 2005 Tommy John surgery. With Bob Wickman gone, Soriano has the closing role to himself, and he should keep it. The 12 home runs he allowed last year are a concern, as is the sore elbow he reported early in the spring. Some call Soriano a top-10 closer, but I hedge a bit and will give him 31 saves. Former Pirates closer Mike Gonzalez returns in June and picks up nine saves, and underrated Aussie Peter Moylan chips in with seven.
Next in line: Peter Moylan
Stealth guy: Mike Gonzalez

14. Manny Corpas, Rockies: I don't think Brian Fuentes is going to get his job back. Corpas was terrific in 2007, and I don't view Fuentes, no matter how much he complains, as a major threat. I also don't think he gets traded, unless someone like Micah Bowie becomes more of a lefty strikeout threat. Corpas saves 34 games, Fuentes two. How's that for Fuentes getting the job back?
Next in line: Brian Fuentes
Stealth guy: Casey Weathers

15. Trevor Hoffman, Padres: Yes, at some point Hoffman will have to retire to Closer World, which is a town over from Disney World, but now is not the time. His peripherals weren't as special as normal, lefties had some fun with him, and the memory of him blowing the one-game playoff to the Rockies is still there, but here's another memory: Hoffman has averaged 43 saves over the past four seasons. He gets 40 on the nose this year, and Heath Bell gets … one. Yes, Bell is arguably the most coveted middle reliever, for the strikeouts and eventual potential for saves, but look up what Cla Meredith did in 2006 and how he followed that up. Bell is probably a bit overrated.
Next in line: Heath Bell
Stealth guy: Kevin Cameron

16. Jason Isringhausen, Cardinals: The Cardinals are going to stink. Albert Pujols will sit, and the offense will suffer. Isringhausen still has a bad hip. Yet none of these issues are really major concerns for Isringhausen's fantasy value, so don't let him slip much past the middle of the pack of closers. He saved 32 games a year ago; he'll do it again. Ryan Franklin, on the other hand, is unlikely to match his overachieving stats, so be careful if you need a middle reliever. The only other Cardinal to get a save will be Russ Springer, with two.
Next in line: Ryan Franklin
Stealth guy: Chris Perez

17. Chad Cordero, Nationals: Don't ever assume a real-life trade is pending, especially when the team doesn't acknowledge that the player is on the move. Cordero might seem like an expensive, extravagant piece to a non-championship puzzle, and the Nationals do have other options seemingly worthy of closing, but Cordero could hang around all season. In fact, I say he does! Cordero earns 30 saves, Jon Rauch four and Joel Hanrahan steps up in middle relief as a big surprise for fantasy owners.
Next in line: Jon Rauch
Stealth guy: Joel Hanrahan

18. Brad Lidge, Phillies: He'll start the season on the disabled list, but it's mostly precautionary as he recovers from another knee surgery. No worries, nothing to see here. Well, until he pitches and blows his first home save on a lazy fly ball that inches over the short left field porch. Lidge is an injury risk for this season, and a bit of a risk for performance reasons as well. And hey, I'm a Phillies fan! I'll give Lidge 28 saves and more than a strikeout per inning. When you watch him, you might be in awe, but Tom Gordon will also be worth owning for the 11 saves he gets this season. Ryan Madson also finds a way to get five saves. None for Brett Myers.
Next in line: Tom Gordon
Stealth guy: Scott Mathieson

19. Joakim Soria, Royals: Statistically the guy is fine. Sure, he totaled only 17 saves, but Octavio Dotel was the closer for awhile and got 11. Those were Soria's saves! I think the Royals will win a few more than they did in 2007, but it's largely irrelevant. Soria gets 29 saves. There are no Dotels lurking to steal his saves.
Next in line: Joel Peralta
Stealth guy: Luke Hochevar

20. Jeremy Accardo, Blue Jays: This is how I feel about B.J. Ryan. I think he misses April and maybe May as well, and really, if you ask me for an over/under on his innings I'll say about 30. Accardo had 30 saves a year ago and can do it again. There are some minor arm concerns about Accardo as well, and it's a shame that top setup man Casey Janssen tore his labrum and will miss the entire season.
Next in line: Jason Frasor
Stealth guy: Brandon League


21. Kevin Gregg, Marlins: If you ask me for five seemingly safe closers who could lose their job, I'm always going to put Gregg on the list. He was never a closer before, and Florida has a pattern of taking either ordinary middle relievers or throwaways and turning them into one-year wonders. I think Matt Lindstrom is better than Gregg, but for now, he must wait for Gregg to sputter. I'll say Gregg makes it through the season in the role, and saves 26 games, but Lindstrom is like Soria in Kansas City, knocking loudly on the proverbial door.
Next in line: Matt Lindstrom
Stealth guy: Joe Nelson


22. Joe Borowski, Indians: The man with the blown-up ERA still has the job, despite a bevy of top options licking their chops for the role. A normal fantasy expert would probably say Borowski is to be avoided and loses the job in mid-April. I think he's going to save 40 games. Why is he so low on this list? There's certainly risk here, and he's not much help in any other category. I don't think even the best closers help fantasy teams all that much, but Borowski hurts you some with the ERA. Still, he's the closer. Rafael Betancourt remains next in line, but don't assume another sub-2 ERA or many saves. I'll give him three.
Next in line: Rafael Betancourt
Stealth guy: Jensen Lewis


23. Todd Jones, Tigers: I predict Jones is in more danger than Borowski, but the reason Jones sticks around long enough to save 33 games is because there is nobody else to take the role. I mean, Joel Zumaya is out for months. Fernando Rodney is on the DL. Could Jason Grilli actually luck into some saves? I think he's next in line, and is a deep sleeper for holds if the top 15 or so middle relievers are off the board, but Jones keeps the job. His ERA will be 4.76, at best.
Next in line: Jason Grilli
Stealth guy: Yorman Bazardo


24. Brian Wilson, Giants: I want to rank Wilson ahead of Borowski and Jones, but I fear two things. One, the Giants are going to be a good deal worse than the Indians and Tigers. (I don't mean Royals bad, but 100-loss bad.) Teams that lose 100 games don't get their closers to 25 saves historically. The other problem? Wilson has to watch for former closer Tyler Walker, who doesn't seem to be very good but was oddly named the top setup man early in the spring. Wilson gets 24 saves, even though he keeps the role all season, and has an ERA in the low 4s.
Next in line: Tyler Walker
Stealth guy: Brad Hennessey

25. Eric Gagne, Brewers: I could see him pitching well for his latest team, but I still have concerns about how his arm will feel in the second half of the season. All closers deserve attention in fantasy, even the bad and the brittle, and Gagne is a decent sleeper if he can keep his arm intact. I'll predict 22 saves, and Derrick Turnbow is a constant free agent pickup (and drop) the first three months of the season. Then Turnbow gets his chance, walks the ballpark and cedes the role to the one guy here with the long-term deal, David Riske. He ends up with 13 saves down the stretch as the Brewers can't make up the September double-digit deficit to the Cubs.
Next in line: Derrick Turnbow
Stealth guy: David Riske

26. Brandon Lyon, Diamondbacks: A month ago I thought this guy was going to get 30 saves. I really did. But after a brutal spring in which Lyon allowed 12 runs in 6 1/3 innings and struck out a grand total of one hitter, I think Tony Pena is worth owning again. He was worth it all along, but now I actually think saves are coming his way. Lyon continues to pitch poorly in April and loses the job to Pena before May. Pena ends up with 19 saves, Chad Qualls picks up a few here and there and sleeper Juan Cruz becomes a really underrated middle man but is nowhere close to earning saves (much like Minnesota's Matt Guerrier.)
Next in line: Tony Pena
Stealth guy: Juan Cruz


27. Kerry Wood, Cubs: In a perfect world, the Cubs would win the World Series and Wood would get the last out. Well, I think the Cubs are going to represent the NL in the fall classic, but Carlos Marmol will be the one getting that final out. There's no way I can call Rich Harden a sell-high guy after his shutdown performance against the Red Sox in Japan and recommend Wood. Injuries will derail them both. Even the most optimistic among us have to question whether Wood will be able to pitch back-to-back days as the season progresses. I give Wood 16 saves but Marmol 20. And Bobby Howry gets one. One lonely save.
Next in line: Carlos Marmol
Stealth guy: Michael Wuertz


28. Troy Percival, Rays: See Gagne, Eric. I know Percival was an effective reliever for the Cardinals last season and revived a career that seemed over the year before, and maybe that memory is what I can't overcome. I think Percival thrives out of the gate, but older pitchers are more likely to deal with setbacks, and Percival will have them. I figure he saves 24 games, with Al Reyes a constant threat to overtake him. By August, Reyes will do so and get 12 saves.
Next in line: Al Reyes
Stealth guy: Dan Wheeler


29. George Sherrill, Orioles: We close our initial Relief Effort rankings with a pair of lefties, each of whom can retire right-handed hitters, but neither of whom is likely to attain 30 saves. Sherrill was very good in Seattle, but he wasn't used the way he will be in Baltimore. Sherrill appeared in 145 games the past two seasons, totaling 85 2/3 innings. He was a situational lefty, and there's no guarantee his arm can handle 70 innings in one season. Plus, like the Giants, this is really a bad team, which hinders his save potential in the first place. Sherrill will lead the Orioles in saves, but Greg Aquino will also get some, and at some point one would think this team looks to a young, hard-throwing right-hander.
Next in line: Greg Aquino
Stealth guy: Dennis Sarfate

30. C.J. Wilson, Rangers: Performance isn't the issue, and there's no reason why Wilson can't be like this year's Brian Fuentes: an underrated closer for a while who then slips up for a few nights and loses the role forever. Texas has a pair of right-handers lurking, neither of whom allowed a run in the spring. I don't think Joaquin Benoit is the next in line, but Japanese import Kazuo Fukumori is. He's the one who ends up with 21 saves, with Wilson eventually losing the role when he gets to 15.
Next in line: Kazuo Fukumori
Stealth guy: Wes Littleton

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Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com fantasy. You can e-mail him here.