Al Reyes, Dan Wheeler, Joakim Soria, Henry Owens, David Weathers ... to the average baseball fan these names mean little. In the fantasy realm, especially rotisserie formats, they are diamonds in the rough.
A handful of major league teams have already made switches at the back of the bullpen. Less than two weeks into the 2007 season the tunes that power the musical-chairs for the closer position have accompaniment.
For AL- or NL-only owners, finding those cheap saves off the waiver wire is comparable to finding money lying in the street -- it feels more valuable than it really is. In mixed leagues, having a third of fourth closer can transform a cold, wet spring into a balmy summer breeze. Stashing that might-be-fireman on your bench and having saves eventually fall in your lap ... priceless.
The closer turnover is already at mach speed this early season. First in-season rule of thumb: Don't trade for saves. Check and see if these pitchers are available in your mixed, AL-only or NL-only leagues, and if they are -- claim them.
1. Dan Wheeler, Houston: Old news, right? Brad Lidge was yanked from the closer role earlier in the week, and most in the know already had Wheeler on their roster. The Astros' setup man doesn't have Lidge's strikeout upside , but has experienced more ninth-inning success over the last 12 months. Lidge hasn't had the same mental mindset since the 2005 post-season, when Albert Pujols knocked down the left-field wall with one of Lidge's fastballs.
2. Al Reyes, Tampa Bay: Most experienced fantasy managers would be shocked to know in how many leagues Reyes is available. Yes, he does close for the Devil Rays; that team that plays somewhere in the Caribbean, but saves are saves and Reyes has no challengers.
3. Eric Gagne, Texas: Gagne made his final one-inning tune-up with Double-A Frisco on Tuesday, and Rangers manager Ron Washington is sticking with the plan of making him the closer upon his return, and was confident that the ex-Dodger would be ready to make his Rangers debut this weekend in Seattle. Gagne will be able to pitch in consecutive games if needed, but Texas will use current closer Akinori Otsuka if a save situation comes up for a third straight day.
4. Joakim Soria, Kansas City: Octavio Dotel has experienced durability issues over the last two-plus seasons, and a spring training oblique injury won't allow him to start throwing again until April 20. The next Royals save opportunity could go to Soria and not David Riske. Riske made a non-save appearance on Wednesday night, which could indicate that Soria is in line for the save opportunities until Dotel is cleared to return. Soria hasn't allowed a run in five innings so far.
5. Henry Owens, Florida: As much as we believe Taylor Tankersley will get save chances this season, the word is that Jorge Julio is out and Owens is in. While some have whispered the name Lee Gardner, it's Owens or Tankersley who will eventually battle it out when the hatchet finally lays waste to Julio.
Honorable Mention: Rafael Soriano, Atlanta: Makes a move from Seattle to Atlanta after two seasons of physical ailments, and has closer stuff. The only thing standing in his way is an aging Bob Wickman.
Vinnie Chulk, San Francisco: Armando Benitez had a terrific spring, but followed that up with yet another volatile April. The Giants right-hander has lost velocity on his fastball and while he does have two early saves, his 13.50 ERA, 3.00 WHIP and .429 batting-average-against just won't get it done. The writing's been on the wall for quite some time: Chulk is the pitcher in line to snare the ninth-inning role.
The closer turnover will force many owners to reach for players out of desperation, all for the single category of saves. First in-season rule of thumb; don't trade for saves, and don't waste roster spots on the following:
1. Chris Reitsma, Seattle: If J.J. Putz gets injured, as during spring training, the Mariners would not depend solely on Reitsma, who has had ample opportunity to stake claim to a closing role and has failed time and time again.
2. Chad Qualls, Houston: Brad Lidge is on the trade block and if Dan Wheeler struggles in his new role over the next month, Qualls wouldn't automatically fall into the closer role. Qualls is the prototypical journeyman who is best suited for seventh- and eighth-inning work. Home runs have been an issue for him. The Houston reliever allowed 10 in 2006, and despite his overall success that makes him a non-factor as a potential closer.
3. Jon Rauch, Washington: While Rauch has closer stuff, the Nationals won't find themselves in many save situations, with or without Chad Cordero. It's possible that this team could lose in the neighborhood of 115 games, leaving Cordero and Rauch overvalued in their current roles.
4. Mike Timlin, Boston: If there's one pitcher who could be overused, or subject to injury, Jonathan Papelbon comes to mind. The reason the team moved the young right-hander out of the ninth-inning role this spring was because doctors feared that his health was in jeopardy. The Red Sox' coaching staff wouldn't completely depend on the 41-year-old Timlin if Papelbon experienced another shoulder setback; Seattle import Joel Piniero and others would share the ninth-inning opportunities.
5. Derrick Turnbow, Milwaukee: Not only is Francisco Cordero rock-solid secure as the Brewers' fireman, the coaching staff has lost what faith it once had in Turnbow. The deep Milwaukee pen would share save opportunities if Cordero were to suffer an untimely injury.