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Closers: What We Learned In 2012

This season must be considered yet another vindication for the don't-pay-for-saves crowd. With so much bullpen turnover in 2012, particularly in the early going, there's a good chance that any owner who drafted a closer -- regardless of the round -- got burned. To wit, here's a quick rundown of each team's Opening Day stopper compared to who finished the season in the ninth:

AL East
Rays: Joel Peralta - Fernando Rodney
Orioles: Jim Johnson - Johnson
Red Sox: Alfredo Aceves - Andrew Bailey
Yankees: Mariano Rivera - Rafael Soriano
Blue Jays: Sergio Santos - Casey Janssen

AL Central
White Sox: Hector Santiago - Addison Reed
Tigers: Jose Valverde - Valverde
Royals: Jonathan Broxton - Greg Holland
Indians: Chris Perez - Perez
Twins: Matt Capps - Glen Perkins

AL West
Angels: Jordan Walden - Ernesto Frieri
Athletics: Grant Balfour - Balfour (with changes in between)
Mariners: Brandon League - Tom Wilhelmsen
Rangers: Joe Nathan - Nathan

NL East
Nationals: Drew Storen - Storen (with changes in between)
Braves: Craig Kimbrel - Kimbrel
Mets: Frank Francisco - Francisco (with changes in between)
Phillies: Jonathan Papelbon - Papelbon
Marlins: Heath Bell - Steve Cishek

NL Central
Reds: Sean Marshall - Chapman
Pirates: Joel Hanrahan - Hanrahan
Cubs: Carlos Marmol - Marmol (with changes in between)
Astros: Brett Myers - Wilton Lopez
Cardinals: Jason Motte - Motte
Brewers: John Axford - Axford (changes in between)

NL West
Giants: Brian Wilson - Sergio Romo/Javier Lopez
Rockies: Rafael Betancourt - Betancourt
Padres: Huston Street - Street (with changes in between)
Dodgers: Javy Guerra - League
Diamondbacks: J.J. Putz - Putz

As you can see, the odds of a reliever going wire-to-wire  as his team's closer aren't very good. Of our 30 Opening Day closers, only 10 of them -- Johnson, Valverde, Perez, Nathan, Kimbrel, Papelbon, Hanrahan, Motte, Betancourt, and Putz -- made it through the season without either being demoted or seeing time on the disabled list at some point. I'm not very good at the maths, but by my calculations, 66.6% (with a bar over the last six, since it goes on for infinity) of our Opening Day closers lost their jobs at some point. This is why most fantasy pundits recommend holding off on closers till the early or mid-teen rounds in a 12-team draft. In fact, the late-teen rounds might even be the savvier value play for closers; I don't mind bragging that I nabbed Johnson in the 18th round in my primary league.

However, what makes this debate interesting is that it's not necessarily cut-and-dry. Those who dare to gamble an early-round pick on a stud closer are sometimes rewarded. For example, coming off a brilliant 2011, Kimbrel was just as good, if not better, this season. He was popped in the seventh round of my league this year, and there's no way around the fact that he was actually a bargain in that round. As of Tuesday morning, Yahoo! ranks him as the 17th best player in all of fantasy this season, while ESPN's weird algorithm pegs him as 10th best -- no, not merely the 10th best pitcher; the 10th best player overall. Elsehwere, Papelbon was also something of a value pick, trumping his ADP of 100 by a healthy margin as he pulled in at No. 44 in Yahoo! leagues and No. 43 in ESPN leagues.

And therein lies the rub. Value can be extracted from early- and mid-round closers on draft day -- but it's an extremely risky proposition. I'll look at that in a separate post. 

Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention this season's most valuable closer relative to his ADP: Rodney. This year, as is the case most years, the closers who yielded the most value are the ones who went undrafted and then managed to tear off 20 or 30 saves -- or even more than that. Rodney became the patron saint of that set in 2012, rivaling Kimbrel's ranking in Yahoo! and ESPN while going largely undrafted in most leagues. Chapman fell under the same umbrella, as well. It's no knock on Kimbrel, but in terms of fantasy, any owner worth his salt would rather have spent his Kimbrel pick elsewhere and then nabbed Rodney or Chapman. It's not that simple, obviously. One must be quick to the draw on the waiver wire in such cases, and even then, no one could have foreseen Rodney's brilliance. In Chapman's case, he was mired behind a very good reliever in Marshall on Cincinnati's depth chart; who predicted that Marshall would be out of the job by mid-May?

And so it goes.

So, what did we learn? We re-learned that it's most prudent not to (over)pay for saves, but we also learned that as is often true in life, those bold enough to defy convention are sometimes rewarded.


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