March 18, 2008

Here's all you need to know about relief pitchers. Last year, our No. 1 ranking went to B.J. Ryan, a player who's season consisted of all of 4.3 innings pitched and 97 pitches thrown. In theory, relief pitcher should be a "safety first" position; you draft the guys who have a 100 percent lock-solid hold on their closer jobs, and clean bills of health. But in practice, virtually all relief pitchers require you to make some compromise.

Well, here's a surprising one. Why does PECOTA put Street at the top of the closer heap? Well, for the first time this season, PECOTA is evaluating first/second half splits, and it loves the way that Street closed out his season, with a remarkable 39-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio over the last two months of the year. It also likes the milieu of the A's roster, which it expects to have a pretty decent pitching staff but a mediocre offense; that means a lot of close, low-scoring ballgames, which tends to lead to a lot of save opportunities. Do I buy it? Not entirely; I'd probably take Jonathan Papelbon in front of him. But relative to what you'll have to pay for each pitcher, Street should provide the better return on investment.

The only reason to be cautious here is that the Red Sox manage Papelbon's workload very carefully, to the point of performing stress tests on him on during games to determine whether he'll be available to come into the ballgame. That means somewhat fewer save opportunities over the course of the season. But when he is on the mound, Papelbon is as dominant as any pitcher in baseball.

Year after year, people expect Rodriguez' violent mechanics to lead to a major injury, and year after year, he proves the doubters wrong; '07 made it three years in a row that he achieved at least 40 saves. The truth is, we know less about the relationships between mechanics and injury risk than we let on, and at some point you have to throw up your hands, look at the track record, and conclude that what might look awkward for one pitcher might be perfectly natural for another. K-Rod is a virtual lock to have among the highest strikeout rates in baseball, and working behind an outstanding starting pitching staff, he'll yet again get a ton of save opps.

Clearly, you can go any which way with the first four closers without getting yourself into too much trouble, but PECOTA is a surprisingly leery of Putz. The reason PECOTA hedges is because Putz is a little older than the other pitchers on this list -- he'll be 31 next season -- and a number of his top comparables, such as Bryan Harvey, Robb Nen, Duane Ward, Eric Gagne, and Ryan, all hit a real wall once they got a couple of years into their 30s. There may be more smoke than fire with these PECOTAs, but Putz will be expensive, and may be worth making somebody else's risk.

How long has it been since a Royals pitcher racked up 30 saves? You have to go back to ... 1998, when Jeff Montgomery racked up 36. Soria's strikeout and walk numbers are only a hair behind those of the best closers in the game, and with the Royals likely to be at least somewhat livelier this year, he has a good chance to improve in the saves department too.

It's quite unusual for a closer to sustain an elite level of performance for as long as Wagner has. But Billy Wags has already reached No. 7 on the all-time saves list, trailing only Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman among active pitchers. At the same time, however, the risk that his run could come to an end increases with every year he appends to the age column. The price of buying a closer like Wagner is that you might have to sit through a stint or two on the DL.

This is a heck of a pitcher to have gotten for Horacio Ramirez. Soriano's command is slightly better than that of most other closers, and he has no lack of stuff. His Achilles' heel to date has been his home run rates -- the 12 he allowed last year is a high number for a closer -- but if he can cut down on that number, he'll break into the inner circle.

Capps has a different approach than most other closers, relying less on dominating stuff and more on control and smart pitch sequencing. But the upside to this approach is that this puts less wear and tear on his arm than for a guy that goes full-throttle every pitch out, thereby enabling to Capps to carry a heavier workload. That means he'll be ready to go whenever the Pirates have a save opportunity, even if they're a little harder to come by in Pittsburgh than they might be elsewhere.

Like Street, Valverde finished his '07 season pitching strongly, compiling a 40-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the second half. While he's unlikely to rack up 47 saves again -- you should pay very little attention to previous seasons' save totals when drafting relief pitchers -- he's a solid and relatively safe second-tier closer option.

Rivera's demise was greatly exaggerated last year, the result of giving up a few big hits at inopportune times in the first half of the season, which served to inflate his ERA. Rivera has never had issues with poor clutch performance in the past -- quite the opposite, of course -- so the risks here have more to do with injury and more to do with injury and the potentiality of a 38-year-old body catching up to him, rather than any decline in the underlying performance.

He was our sleeper last year, too. So what? Not only does Broxton instantly become one of the more valuable players in rotisserie baseball should something happen to 38-year-old Takashi Saito, but he also can provide plenty of value as a middle reliever, racking up huge strikeout totals and helping you in ERA while occasionally vulturing wins and saves. He's also the sort of pitcher that could easily get traded and wind up as the frontline closer somewhere else, should GM Ned Colletti feel the need to fulfill his obsession with overpriced veterans once again.

We don't expect a complete collapse by any means, but it would be easy to fixate on last year's 2.08 ERA while ignoring the fact that Corpas' strikeout rates were fairly pedestrian, and that pitching in Colorado is inherently going to be an uphill battle.

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