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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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Player News
Twins outright pitcher Stephen Pryor to Triple-A, clear roster spot
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(5:45 pm ET) The Twins have decided to outright pitcher Stephen Pryor to Triple-A Rochester and cleared a spot on the 40-man roster, according to 1500 ESPN.

Pryor was optioned to Triple-A earlier in the week, but the team decided to outright him and open up a second roster spot on the 40-man squad. Pryor posted a 1.50 ERA in five spring training appearances.


Rangers 2B Rougned Odor day-to-day with bruised shin
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(5:40 pm ET) Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor is day-to-day due to a bruised left shin, the team announced.

Odor struck out in his only at-bat Sunday before coming out of the game. He has hit .394/.429/.606 in 33 spring at-bats.


White Sox pitcher David Robertson tosses one scoreless inning
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(5:34 pm ET) White Sox relief pitcher David Robertson tossed one scoreless inning Sunday with 17 pitches, inducing three groundouts.

Robertson, who is working his way back from forearm soreness, threw 10 strikes and didn't allow a hit. Robertson felt strong after the outing, but won't throw on back-to-back days this week. He might pitch in another game and then throw a bullpen session, according to ESPNChicago.com.


Maddon: Cubs will play Kris Bryant in the outfield more
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(5:31 pm ET) Kris Bryant got a start in left field for the Cubs on Sunday, the second time this spring he's played there. 

Manager Joe Maddon would like to see Bryant there more. "You never know where the need will arise," Maddon said, per MLB.com. "All of a sudden, you could have a need here, and he hasn’t played there." 

Maddon also thinks it will help Bryant at the plate. "I honestly believe it makes a younger hitter a better hitter," he said. "If he’s moving around a lot, and has to work with so many different defensive positions, he doesn’t worry so much about his hitting."


Yankees option Bryan Mitchell, Ramon Flores
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(5:29 pm ET) The Yankees optioned pitcher Bryan Mitchell and outfielder Ramon Flores to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Sunday while reassigning eight players to minor-league camp.

Mitchell allowed six earned runs in 7 1/3 innings this spring. Flores hit .206/.270/.412 with two home runs in 34 spring at-bats.

In addition to the options, the Yankees reassigned catchers Francisco Arcia and Kyle Higashioka, infielders Cole Figueroa and Jonathan Galvez, outfielder Slade Heathcott and pitchers Kyle Davies, Jacob Lindgren and Nick Rumbelow to minor-league camp.


Brewers test out Gerardo Parra at first, Luis Jimenez at catcher
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(5:19 pm ET) Brewers manager Ron Roenicke is checking out his options around the field defensively this spring, reports MLB.com. Regular outfielder Gerardo Parra is getting some work at first base and third baseman Luis Jimenez is being looked at as an emergency catcher.

"Trying to figure out what can happen during ball games," Roenicke said. "If [Parra's] really good at it and Lind's down for a couple days, you just don't know. He looks great. He works at it all the time. Getting him more experience with all the situations that can come up in a ball game."

Jimenez caught a bullpen session Sunday and is competing for a bench role.

"If he's going to be on our squad, it's nice to have somebody who can do that job," Roenicke said. "He's been going out and warming up pitchers between innings. He's pretty good at it."


Cubs' Maddon on Jason Motte: 'I'm not worried about him'
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(5:18 pm ET) Cubs manager Joe Maddon indicated Sunday that he's not concerned with the struggles of pitcher Jason Motte, who has posted a 14.21 ERA in 6 1/3 spring innings, the Chicago Tribune reports.

"Something that I’m not often into is mechanical adjustments," Maddon said of Motte. "It's something that [pitching coach Chris Bosio] picked up on in a conversation. I'm not worried about him. I think the velocity is very good. Just the shape of his pitches were different."


Yankees' Cashman: Stephen Drew the 'smart play' at second
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(5:16 pm ET) Stephen Drew has been outhit by two Yankees prospects this spring, but GM Brian Cashman said the veteran was still the "smart play" at second base. 

Rob Refsnyder is hitting .343 with five doubles. Jose Pirela is hitting .370.

Meanwhile, a hot stretch over the weekend brought Drew to .243. 

"I know there’s a lot of dialogue wrapped around Refsnyder and Pirela," Cashman said, per the Journal News. "But I think also that those guys have shown they still have work to do on the defensive side still. ... The bats are impressive, but you’ve seen the defensive stuff they’ve shown us in short sample sizes as well. ... So right now I’m pretty comfortable that Drew signing was the smart play for us on the front end."

Refsnyder has made five errors and Pirela two. 

Drew had a three hit game on Friday, homered on Saturday and doubled on Sunday. 

"He’s looked really good at the plate," Cashman said. "He’s looked so much better than last year the last week to 10 days. That’s encouraging. I know it’s got to be building his confidence and having memories of what he was prior to last year, because that’s certainly what’s playing around in my head. I feel much better about the situation right now."


Orioles' Miguel Gonzalez may get start in season-opening series
(5:13 pm ET) When the Orioles open the season with a three-game series in Tampa Bay, manager Buck Showalter said Miguel Gonzalez will likely start one of the games, reports MLB.com.

“We’re leaning that way. It kind of slots him out the rest of the month where he should be," Showalter said. "Like I say, we’ve got a rare opportunity with playing in our division for as much as we do and the track record our starters have there in different venues against different teams and kind of take advantage of that.”

For his career, Gonzalez is 3-1 with a 2.64 ERA in five starts at Tropicana Field.

Showalter said earlier this spring that Wei-Yin Chen would probably pitch among those first three games as well as Chris Tillman, who's been widely speculated as the club’s Opening Day starter.

Twins' Ricky Nolasco serves up two home runs Sunday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(5:12 pm ET) Twins pitcher Ricky Nolasco allowed four runs (three earned) on five hits and two walks in six innings while striking out three in his team's 6-5 win over the Orioles Sunday.

Nolasco served up back-to-back home runs in the first inning but was able to settle down after, giving up just an unearned run over the last five innings of work.

"I kind of picked the wrong day to give up fly balls," Nolasco said after the outing, per MLB.com. "I'd been getting ground balls all spring, but gave up some fly balls today with the wind blowing. I just tried to limit the damage from there and get my work in."

Nolasco was able to retire 10 batters in a row during his best stretch of the game. He has posted a 4.12 ERA and 16:5 K:BB ratio in 19 2/3 spring innings.


 
 
 
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