Last year six Rays relievers registered a save. Troy Percival got the majority of those (28 of the 52) when healthy. When he was hurt manager Joe Maddon relied a bit more on the “closer by committee” approach. While Dan Wheeler had 13 saves Grant Balfour seemed to grasp the closer’s role as the season came to a close. In 2009 the closer picture is even muddier.
The Rays will be bringing back every pitcher who recorded a save except Trever Miller (although he was pretty much just a LOOGY). Jason Hammel who recorded 2 saves will not be relied on for closing except perhaps in dire situations. Troy Percival will be back in the bullben, but he was fairly ineffective last year. He posted an ERA of 4.53, a FIP of 5.87, and a K/9 of 7.43. In other words, other than the saves he brought nothing to your fantasy team. He was a nice waiver pickup or late-round addition for cheap saves, but that was about it. Looking at the rest of the bullpen there seems to be four candidates to get the saves: Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell, and the newly signed Joe Nelson.
Balfour was one of the best relievers in baseball last year. He was utterly dominant with a FIP of 2.22, an ERA of 1.54, and a K/9 of 12.65. To put these numbers in perspective, he had the best K/9 of any reliever in baseball and was fourth in FIP. He was a welcome addition to any fantasy team even without the saves.
Dan Wheeler had a decent year to go with the saves. His strikeout numbers were not great (7.19 K/9), but he posted a pretty good ERA (3.12). I do worry about him going forward as he once again posted a FIP north of 4 (4.49 to be exact) due to his long-ball tendencies. Hid ERA was bolstered by a BABIP of .202 which implies that he should be in for a healthy dose of regression.
J.P. Howell was the second-best reliever in the bullpen. He did not have Balfour’s insane K-rate, his was only 9.27, but he did have a very good FIP/ERA (3.39/2.22). One would expect his ERA to regress a bit, but the defense behind him next year will still be one of the best in baseball. He probably will not be able to repeat the .259 BABIP, but the team allowed only a .288 BABIP for all pitchers (tops in baseball).
The last real option is the recently signed Joe Nelson. Last year he had an ERA of 2.00, a FIP of 3.45, and a K/9 of 10.00. He was very good last year for the Marlins, and he will try to repeat that performance after moving into the division in baseball.
I would imagine that all five of these pitchers will be used in save situations. The trick is finding which will provide the greatest benefit to your team. I rarely draft a proven closer in most leagues because they generally go to high for me and are much too volatile. Situations like these are where I get my saves. Late round picks that rotate in and out of the roster when they are getting saves. With the Rays bullpen, a few things stand out. There seems to be two camps of relievers in the Rays closer situation: the effective ones and the ones with closer experience. Percival and Wheeler fall in the latter, with the rest in the former group. The less effective options may be the ones that fill the closer role, but I would bet the other camp gets their share of saves as well. Howell is probably the least likely to see the bulk of the saves because he is so effective at getting tough lefties out or pitching multiple innings. I would stay away from Percival if there is any issue with injury at the beginning of the season (he was far more effective before his first DL stint). Wheeler will not bring any value if he is not getting the saves. This leaves the two that I would target for my team: Balfour and Nelson. Both should have good ERAs and a lot of Ks out of the bullpen (which is a nice addition). If either of those gets put in the closer role, then I would expect either to be a top 5-10 fantasy reliever. You should be able to get either relatively cheaply (especially Nelson who will not be on most people’s fantasy radars).