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Closer Volatility At an All-Time High?

Take a look at the left column of ESPN’s Closer Depth Chart, won’t you? I’m almost terrified to mention any names, because based on what we’ve seen so far this year, it’s likely that some of these guys will change in the few hours between my writing this and it being posted on the site. But seriously, Rafael Dolis? Dale Thayer? Santiago Casilla? Steve Cishek? Casey Janssen? We’re barely more than a month into the season and the closer landscape is just littered with the corpses of injured and ineffective incumbents; entire drafts lay ruined in the carnage.

For years, I’ve avoided overpaying for closers in drafts, because saves can always be found, unlike harder to fill categories like home runs. Sure, if you’ve got multiple spots for relievers it can make sense to lock down one spot with an established closer seen as “safe” so you’re not completely punting the category, but saves will always present themselves – last year, 34 pitchers had at least 10 saves, a number which was 37 in 2010. If the theory goes that hunting for saves in the draft is rarely a wise strategy, this year is an extreme example of that, as nearly half the clubs in baseball have already made changes in the back end of their bullpens.

There’s always some change to be expected at the position, of course. The situation on the South Side of Chicago never seemed to be settled entering the year, and roughly 140% of us thought that Javy Guerra would lose his job to Kenley Jansen at some point, which he did right on schedule. Meanwhile, you always know that someone is going to blow out their arm or suffer some other injury, though I’ll admit that “Mariano Rivera tearing up his knee shagging fly balls during batting practice” wasn’t exactly high on my list of expectations.

Still, I can’t remember a year – a month, really – where we’ve seen anything like this, particularly when it comes to established closers. In addition to Rivera’s knee trouble, Joakim Soria, Drew Storen, Brian Wilson, Ryan Madson & Kyle Farnsworth all suffered elbow injuries of varying severity, while Sergio Santos is dealing with shoulder woes. Andrew Bailey is going to miss at least half the year after thumb surgery, and Huston Street is now out while working through a lat strain. It’s not only injuries that create turnover, though. It may not have been surprising that Guerra lost his job, or even the always volatile Carlos Marmol, but raise your hand if you thought both Heath Bell and Jordan Walden would struggle so much they’d be replaced just a few weeks into the season. Here’s a hint: you didn’t.

Some teams are actually on their third closer or more already in just the second week of May. When Bailey went down in Boston before the season started, it was Mark Melancon who took the job, where he lasted all of two nightmarish innings before being farmed out to Triple-A; Alfredo Aceves was the surprising choice to take over, and all he’s done since is incite Boston fans to scream for Daniel Bard to return from the rotation. It’s a similar situation in Toronto (Santos to Francisco Cordero to Casey Janssen), Washington (Storen to Brad Lidge to Henry Rodriguez) and Miami (with Edward Mujica battling Cishek until Bell turns it around). That’s without even considering the mess that is the White Sox; remember when Hector Santiago was the next big thing for about ten minutes? That is, until it was Addison Reed. Or Chris Sale. Or Matt Thornton. Or, who knows at this point, maybe Bobby Thigpen. Of the 30 teams, 24 of them have more than one reliever with a save, and while a few of those situations are simply due to the regular guy getting a night off, it’s still surprisingly large for so early in the season.

How crazy has it become this year? With all of the turnover due to injury, ineffectiveness, or player movement, the current active leaders in seniority among closers date back only to 2010, just over two years ago. That’s when Detroit’s Jose Valverde & Cleveland’s Chris Perez ascended to their roles with their current teams, and in Perez’ case, he’s barely managed to hang on since then, fighting off uninspired peripherals and several nagging injuries. Third behind them is Milwaukee’s John Axford, who two years ago today was pitching in a middle relief role for the Nashville Sounds ahead of the immortal closer Chris Smith, who isn’t even in professional baseball this year.

The impact on fantasy players is clear. Closers are known to be a volatile quantity to begin with, if the first month of this year is any indication, it’s only going to get worse. Deposed incumbents are going to reclaim their jobs. Unforeseen injuries are going to happen. Trades will cost jobs and open up opportunities. Guys you haven’t even heard of yet are going to arrive from the minors to make a splash, a la Axford two years ago. (On that note, I’ll admit I’m biased, but take a look at Shawn Tolleson‘s minor-league stats when you get a chance.) The point is, if you have closers to spare, it’s an excellent time to pounce on the owner in your league smarting from multiple losses and sell high. Even if you don’t have an excess at the position, if you can trade a closer for a position of greater need, well, the next closer is usually right around the corner.

It’s been a season unlike any I can remember. Oh, and we haven’t even made it to the annual “Matt Capps is terrible at his job” parade. So mark your calendars for that, too.