Coming into the 2011 season, Ryan Franklin looked to be one of the most reliable relievers around. He wasn’t elite by any means, but at least we knew he was locked into his closing gig. That was more than we could say for about a third of the league, right? Even though he wasn’t considered a top-tier guy, Franklin still just wrapped up a season in which he had a 6-2 record, 1.03 WHIP, 27 saves and two blown saves. When he blew his first save of the season on Opening Day, it seemed like an innocent blip on the radar.
Did I say blip? I meant Red October. After one textbook save six days after his first blown save, Franklin completely fell apart, submarining fantasy teams by blowing his next three save opportunities and getting yanked from the role. Even though Jason Motte had been the vice closer in St. Louis for a while, The Bottom of the 9th pointed you towards Mitchell Boggs in the middle of the meltdown, and he would soon ascend to the closer throne.
Boggs rattled off three straight saves between April 20th and 24th, blew his next opportunity and found himself packing up his desk and moving out of the closer position, as well. It looked like a dumb move at the time, but give credit to Tony LaRussa, as Boggs has made five appearances in middle relief in the month of May and only managed scoreless outings twice.
Eduardo Sanchez picked up the next save, though he did it by allowing two runs to score in what had been a three-run game. That was two too many, and Fernando Salas chalked up the next two save opportunities. LaRussa must not have liked that second one, because Salas would next throw the seventh inning of a tie game a few days later, and then watch Sanchez pick up a save the following day. He recorded a loss the next day in a non-save situation, and by this point you would have thought that got him banished to the fifth inning, but he pitched a third consecutive day and picked up another save. Was this the light at the end of the tunnel? It appeared so, for about a week.
After Sanchez and Salas each picked up one more save, Sanchez officially recorded his first blown save of the season on Friday the 13th by allowing one run on two hits and a walk in Cincinnati. Pitching coach Dave Duncan placed a horse’s head in Sanchez’s bed that night.
O.K., now you have the entire back story (and chances are you’ve rostered one of these clowns at some point of the season, so I apologize for the trip down Memory Lane), let’s figure out who’s closing. Salas didn’t actually get a chance to blow a save yet, so he’s the de facto closer. All bets are off the first time he isn’t perfect, though. Mitchell Boggs would likely get the next chance to close should Salas blow a save, allow a run, have a bad bullpen session or look Duncan directly in the eye. Own Salas, own Boggs too if you have room and pick up Lee Smith as well, just in case.
Seattle: Generally when a closer records losses in four straight appearances while blowing three straight saves, you’d call it kind of a bad week. But Brandon League actually became more locked in as the Seattle closer over the course of the week, as news of David Aardsma’s recovery took a turn for the worse. Now it appears he’ll miss at least six weeks with a strained ulnar collateral ligament, and though Tommy John surgery appears like it’ll be avoided, any sentence involving the words “Tommy John surgery” is not promising. League, who’s allowed eight runs in three innings over the four-game stretch, is still worth owning in fantasy leagues, though I hope you benched him last week for whatever reason. His ERA went fro 2.08 to 7.31 in the four-game span, but he’s still the leader in the clubhouse for Mariners MVP. I kid.
Los Angeles: Normally a strikeout machine, Jonathan Broxton looked like a closer that was off his game over the first month of the season. Doctors discovered a bone spur in his pitching elbow, so the Dodgers sent the struggling closer to the DL. In past years this occurence would mean Hong-Chih Kuo would step into the ninth inning and become one of the top closers in the league, but he ain’t quite right either. Kuo surrendered four runs while recording just one out in his first appearance off the DL on May 1. Three solid efforts later, Kuo gave up a run on May 9 before hitting the DL with anxiety disorder. No one knows when he’ll rejoin the team, and there’s a small chance it will never happen. That puts Vicente Padilla, who has been a very capable starter over the last few years, in the ninth inning. He’s been a little spotty in his first week as the closer, but he now has three saves (and no blown saves) on the season. Pick him up in all leagues, as he shouldn’t be challenged for the role for at least six weeks (Broxton’s estimated return date).
Houston: In another Bottom of the 9th special, we called Mark Melancon the best long-term closing option in Houston while predicting Brandon Lyon wouldn’t reach 10 saves. Here we are on May 16th, and Lyon has four saves, while Melancon is close to being named the closer (nothing official has happened yet, as the Astros understandably don’t carry a lead to the ninth inning too often). I admit that I didn’t see it happening this quickly for Melancon, but Lyon’s trip to the DL paired with Wilton Lopez’s own injury and mediocrity have the youngster looking like the Astros’ best option right now. Will Melancon get the closing role? Is Lopez ready to put up a fight? Will Lyon eventually return to the ninth inning and make a run at topping ten saves? I’d bet on the first two before the last of those questions.
Frank Francisco predictably jumped into the closer gig in Toronto after one Jon Rauch misstep … Sergio Santos hasn’t allowed a run in 18 innings this season. Remember when owners were falling over each other to draft Matt Thornton and Chris Sale? … Ryan Madson is a save machine, with four straight conversions in a seven-day stretch last week … Drew Storen allowed a run in his first appearance this season before turning in 19 straight scoreless appearances. He’s the top-rated reliever in Yahoo leagues; I’d say he’s locked in. By the way, Mariano Rivera ranks second at the position, followed by Santos, Madson and Jonny Venters. If you had that as your top five relievers in fantasy baseball before the season started, you’re a liar.