July 14, 2010

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So many of the league's top closers have earned their reputations by featuring blazing fastballs, knee-buckling curveballs, all while exhibiting astonishing mound antics and intimidating sneers. These are the things of closer lore. Demeanor, almost as much as pure stuff, can steer a middle reliever straight to the fame and fortune of the back end of the bullpen.

At some point (typically many points) during the season, more than a few closers will lose their jobs. Some have lost their jobs already, and their replacements have enjoyed varying degrees of success. And, as Major League Baseball's July 31 trade deadline approaches, the rumor mill reminds fantasy owners that still others may soon be losing their jobs because of the imminent effect of free market enterprise.

While some names are as safe as our collective memories of 1950s middle-America (think Mariano Rivera), others may soon find alternative addresses, and their former teams will invariably look to within to fill the void created by their departure(s). The closers rumored to be on the trading block may not continue to close (for worse), while their lesser-known replacements (for better) will be given a chance to achieve fame, fortune, and perhaps even fantasy viability.

Evan Meek, RP, Pittsburgh Pirates. Things may be taking a turn for the better in Pittsburgh. Andrew McCutchen is a budding superstar and the new wave of young talent has finally made its way to the big league roster, giving residents of the Steel City reasons to smile for the first time in a long time. One reason to smile has been the arrival of Meek. While he's just 1-of-6 in save chances on the year, his 1.11 ERA and 0.95 WHIP portend of bigger things to come. He is, basically by definition, the closer in waiting for the Pirates. All Meek and his fantasy owners need is for an opportunity to shine. Whether by injury or by trade, Meek would likely be the first in line for the closer job should more changes arrive in Pittsburgh. For now he's merely an effective middle man, but he's also the obvious handcuff to current closer Octavio Dotel.

Chris Perez, RP, Cleveland Indians. Many are unaware that Perez has just one fewer save (7) than the Indians' illustrious team leader, Kerry Wood. While his 0.85 K/IP doesn't do much to instill closer confidence, Perez has shown the ability to record outs and work through difficulties, something the rest of the Cleveland pen has struggled with for two years running. His 2.62 ERA and 1.25 WHIP are useful enough (especially relative to the competition) that fantasy owners have had no choice but to take notice. He's been handed the job in a temporary capacity in the past, and it could be just a short time before a more permanent change works out in his favor.

Clay Hensley, RP, Florida Marlins. Only three players have earned saves for the Florida Marlins this season, and none of them are named Clay Hensley. Despite this fact, Hensley's effectiveness in 2010 has pushed him to the front of the line for the position of closer in waiting. His 1.27 K/IP is impressive albeit somewhat unexpected, but he seems to have turned the corner in his pitching career. Granted, it doesn't appear that Hensley looks anything like a long term solution for fantasy owners. Heck, he hasn't even earned the job yet. Still, his 2.39 ERA and 1.12 WHIP sure look like closer-type numbers. Should the Marlins make a change (perhaps via trade) as rumors suggest, Hensley has to be considered the frontrunner for the rest of 2010.

Octavio Dotel, RP, Pittsburgh Pirates. Dotel hasn't been an unmitigated disaster the way some closers have been in 2010. Granted, he's been basically the definition of replacement level in that regard, but there is limited value in his 19 saves. Fantasy analysts are fond of reminding everyone that, yes, saves are in fact, saves, much in the same way that beer is beer. For anyone who has had the misfortune of having a bad beer (and who hasn't?), it's patently obvious that not all beer, or saves for that matter, are created equal. Dotel's main problem for fantasy owners has been his inflated ERA, now sitting at 4.98, the highest it's been in any season of 20 or more relief appearances in a full decade. Yet even that bloated number hasn't kept potential trade suitors at bay, perhaps opening the door for other options to emerge in Pittsburgh.

Kerry Wood, RP, Cleveland Indians. Since his one productive season as a closer (2008) where he totaled 34 saves with an outstanding 4.6:1 K/BB, Wood has done nothing but fail to live up his immense potential -- a habit he's formed over a long and frustrating career. His one and a half seasons in Cleveland have been one disappointment heaped upon another, with 2010 being something of a low point. Case in point: 6.30 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, and just 8-of-11 in save chances; he's failed in not only being a dominant closer, but he's really failed at closing altogether. The mere fact that a few teams are rumored to be looking into acquiring his services via trade should make Chris Perez owners smile like the Cheshire Cat.

Leo Nunez, RP, Florida Marlins. Placing Nunez on the "for worse" list is something of a misnomer, really. He's actually been quite a find for fantasy owners in 2010. Drafted after most of the bigger names were already off the board, he's performed better than most would have anticipated with a 2.95 ERA, 20 saves, and 37:9 K/BB. No they aren't All Star numbers, but they're numbers that have elevated his potential trade value to the point that the Marlins might be forced to move him prior to the deadline. Most of the rumored suitors, however, aren't what one might call "fantasy friendly destinations". Rather, if Nunez is shipped out of Florida, it appears that his most likely destination will be middle relief (i.e. no saves).

Damian Schaab is a senior writer for SportsGrumblings.com, and member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. Visit SportsGrumblings.com today to ensure total fantasy sports dominance.

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