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Reality Check: Closers at a crossroads

Senior Fantasy Writer
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What a mess.

Picture a room in disarray. Not just a sock here or there, but an entire wardrobe scattered across the floor, with an article or two dangling from the ceiling fan. Then maybe a sack of flour ripped open and strewn about, an army of ants pouring in from underneath a baseboard, a sink stopped up and still running, spilling water over its sides, tufts of animal hair floating around like Glinda the Good Witch in bubble form, an unhinged curtain rod smashed through the front of an old tube TV, a washing machine on spin cycle lurching across the floor, and a macaw perched on the edge of a bookcase, taunting a ravenous cat below with three or four of the phrases it overheard on the Home Shopping Network. You know, complete mayhem.

That's the closer landscape in the big leagues right now.

As of the start of Fantasy Week 13 (June 24-30), just 18 true relievers were owned in more than 70 percent of Fantasy leagues, which suggests nearly half of all closer situations have become too convoluted for Fantasy owners to sort out.

Granted, some of the lower ownership rates have to do with format. Provided the six most valuable relief-eligible starting pitchers -- Shelby Miller, Hisashi Iwakuma, Kris Medlen, Kyle Kendrick, Hector Santiago, Andrew Cashner and David Phelps -- are rostered in a standard 12-team Head-to-Head league where each team has two relief pitcher slots to fill, 18 closers are enough to meet the demand.

Most Added Relievers (as of 6/25)
Player % change
1. Esmil Rogers, RP, Blue Jays 41
2. Joaquin Benoit, RP, Tigers 34
3. Koji Uehara, RP, Red Sox 33
4. Steve Cishek, RP, Marlins 9
5. Junichi Tazawa, RP, Red Sox 6
6. Casey Janssen, RP, Blue Jays 5
7. Bobby Parnell, RP, Mets 4
8. Kevin Gregg, RP, Cubs 4
9. Drew Smyly, RP, Tigers 4
10. Brett Cecil, RP, Blue Jays 4

OK, so maybe a big drop-off in ownership rates is warranted, but why the disparity within the bottom 12? Why is Tom Wilhelmsen, whose struggles recently cost him the role, owned in 70 percent of leagues while Steve Cishek, in the role since Day 1, is owned in 49 percent, and Koji Uehara, new to but long overdue for the role, is owned in 41 percent?

Nobody knows who to trust anymore. At a position where player value is tied directly to managerial decision, committing to a player means taking a stranger's word for it, assuming he bothers to comment on it at all.

So then, it's up to me to address this mess, weighing in on the closer situations that are, at least in the minds of Fantasy owners, still up in the air. I'll focus on the frontrunners for each of the 12, listing them in the order they appear in my rankings but also presenting scenarios for when you might want to break from the rankings. Different closers can meet different needs, even if you're ultimately just looking for saves.

And hopefully, you're just looking for saves, because if you're looking for your keys, there's a very real chance the cat ate them.

Tom Wilhelmsen, Mariners

No, Wilhelmsen isn't closing right now, but the Mariners' decision to remove him from the role is more for his sake than theirs. They don't have a replacement in-house, and as a last-place team, they won't be trading for one. Because they have every incentive to get him right and get him right fast, cutting him seems awfully short-sighted.
Go the extra dollar if ... you want the closer with the best chance of being top-10 the rest of the way. Wilhelmsen was lights-out last year and allowed just two earned runs in his first 24 innings this year.
Don't even bother if ... you'd have to start him right away. Obviously, a middle reliever working his way back to closing isn't going to do as much for you as an actual closer.

Huston Street, Padres

Street has allowed at least one earned run in three of his six appearances since returning from a calf strain, but the injury can't take all the blame. He has allowed at least one earned run in 11 of 27 appearances overall.
Go the extra dollar if ... you appreciate job security and track record. Of this group, Street offers the best of both. His would-be replacement, Luke Gregerson, was equally shaky in a fill-in role, granting Street a longer leash than most closers.
Don't even bother if ... you get all the saves you need already. That's about the only reason you'd let Street go unowned, and if that's the case, why are you here?

Rafael Betancourt, Rockies

Betancourt was as reliable as ever for a surprisingly competitive Rockies team before his groin started acting up midway through May. He's due back later this week, but with closer-in-waiting Rex Brothers doing a bang-up job in his absence, the Rockies will likely ease Betancourt back into the role.
Go the extra dollar if ... you don't mind waiting for saves. Betancourt's chances might be touch-and-go for the next couple weeks, but he's a virtual lock to close full-time again, provided he doesn't re-aggravate the injury.
Don't even bother if ... you need saves today. But that just means Betancourt shouldn't be your first choice. In the long run, you still want him.

Bobby Parnell, Mets

Though not the most owned of this group, Parnell is probably the safest bet in Fantasy. He's been adequate for the Mets so far (not that they have anyone who could replace him) and has performed like a top-25 reliever to date.
Go the extra dollar if ... you need saves any way you can get them. Parnell is a closer. He's going to remain a closer. Saves are just part of the equation.
Don't even bother if ... you want not just any old closer, but a great one. Though he hasn't embarrassed himself, Parnell is on pace for only 27 saves and doesn't figure to pick up the pace with the Mets looking like sellers at the trade deadline. And it's not like he has an other-worldly strikeout total to make up for the lack of saves.

Jim Henderson, Brewers

Henderson has gotten just one of the Brewers' last three save opportunities, switching off with Francisco Rodriguez. Though he looked like a lock to reclaim the role once the Brewers eased him back into it, his four earned runs allowed in seven appearances since returning from a hamstring injury aren't helping his case.
Go the extra dollar if ... you think the Henderson we saw before the injury was legitimate. That guy was ridiculous, allowing just two earned runs in 20 appearances and striking out well more than a batter per inning.
Don't even bother if ... you have no patience for closer platoons. It's possible the Brewers could keep Francisco Rodriguez in the mix until they find a taker on the trade market.

Chris Perez, Indians

Though the struggles of his replacement, Vinnie Pestano, have only improved his job security, Perez hasn't inspired much confidence in his rehabilitation from a strained rotator cuff, allowing three homers in his most recent appearance for Double-A Akron.
Go the extra dollar if ... you want to gamble on a big saves total. Again, the job is Perez's, if he's healthy, and the Indians are at least fringe contenders.
Don't even bother if ... you can't justify the risk. Given his recurring shoulder issues and occasional implosions, Perez may soon discover he's more injured than he thought.

Kevin Gregg, Cubs

Gregg has been lights out since assuming the closer role in Chicago, defying a track record that bordered on ghastly, particularly in recent years. Kind of says it all right there, doesn't it?
Go the extra dollar if ... you have a strong stable of relievers already and just want to pad your saves total.
Don't even bother if ... you won't be able to pull the plug on him at a moment's notice. With Kyuji Fujikawa out for the year and Carlos Marmol more or less out of the picture, the Cubs will sink or swim with Gregg. But the fall could be swift and ugly.

Koji Uehara, Red Sox

Uehara did an excellent job closing for the Orioles down the stretch in 2010 and has a 2.13 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings in middle relief since then. If the Red Sox intend for him to be more than just a fill-in until Andrew Bailey gets right, he could dominate.
Go the extra dollar if ... you want to make a big splash. Uehara's numbers in middle relief suggest his transition to the closer role could end up being a bigger deal for Fantasy owners than Kenley Jansen's.
Don't even bother if ... you can't risk burning a roster spot. In addition to Bailey breathing down his neck, Uehara also has an extensive injury history.

Steve Cishek, Marlins

Cishek had just five saves over the Marlins' first 59 games this season. He has seven over their last 13. They've made incremental improvements during that time but still have one of the worst teams in baseball.
Go the extra dollar if ... you believe Cishek can maintain close to his recent pace. Bad teams have trouble scoring runs, so when they win, they win close. Trevor Hoffman often had big save totals for bad Padres teams.
Don't even bother if ... you think the Marlins are historically bad, even with Giancarlo Stanton back. If 20-25 saves are the most you can hope get from Cishek, he's a last resort in Fantasy.

Joaquin Benoit, Tigers

Tigers manager Jim Leyland doesn't want Benoit to close, but with Jose Valverde now out of the picture and Bruce Rondon still not ready for the big stage, he doesn't have much choice anymore.
Go the extra dollar if ... you trust talent to win out in the end. Benoit has plenty of it. As a setup man over the last four years, he has a compiled a 2.62 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings. Sounds like Sergio Romo, right? The Giants were once reluctant to make him their closer, and clearly that's worked out OK.
Don't even bother if ... you're thinking in rest-of-season terms. Even if Benoit performs well in the ninth inning, the contending Tigers are still likely to bring in a proven closer to improve their bullpen depth and placate Leyland.

Jose Veras, Astros

Not intending to contend in 2013, the Astros would have been fine sticking just about any hard-throwing veteran in the closer role this spring and have probably gotten more than they hoped from Veras, who had a 3.63 ERA and 1.51 WHIP with the Brewers last year.
Go the extra dollar if ... it's between him, Parnell and Cishek and you mostly care about a raw saves total. Veras' save chances are as inconsistent as the Astros offense, but they tend to come in bunches.
Don't even bother if ... you want anything close to safe and secure. Again, Veras has never done this closing thing before -- and his track record didn't suggest he'd be good at it. Plus, the Astros could always trade him now that he has some measure of value.

Heath Bell, Diamondbacks

Bell was adequate in his first few weeks filling in for J.J. Putz, who's out with a strained elbow, but has since reverted to the pitcher who suffered one ninth-inning meltdown after another with the Marlins last year, allowing a home run in five straight games.
Go the extra dollar if ... you're just waiting for Putz to get back and want to make sure you have the Diamondbacks closer locked down either way.
Don't even bother if ... you want to preserve your ERA or WHIP. Seriously, among the pitchers in line for saves right now, Bell should probably be your last choice. He's not long for the role anyway

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Scott White at @CBSScottWhite . You can also e-mail us at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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