Only a tiny percentage of Major League players are in position to help out in that area. Any hitter can wallop a home run or a steal a base in a game. Any pitcher can pick up a win or multiple strikeouts whenever he takes the mound. Only closers -- or those late-inning relievers temporarily filling in -- are capable of delivering saves.
As a result, owners often feel compelled to use a high pick or shell out serious dough in order to land the specialists needed to keep pace in this category. Fortunately, that doesn't have to be the case.
Cheap saves can be found if you're willing to hunt for them. Here's a quick quiz: What do Kevin Gregg, Jeremy Accardo, Manny Corpas and Matt Capps have in common? Each began the 2007 season as a setup man, but finished with at least 18 saves. Granted, Accardo and Corpas took advantage of injuries to earn their promotions, but that illustrates the point that saves are not a fixed commodity. Besides, Gregg and Capps didn't need a fortuitous turn of events to earn their saves; they simply were better than the closers they replaced.
In order to find cheap saves, you'll need to focus on relievers from teams with an unsettled bullpen or a shaky closer. Here's a look at the clubs that give you a best chance of striking it rich:
This is the bullpen battle that all owners are watching: Former closer Ryan Dempster is working out with the starters this spring, and Carlos Marmol, Bob Howry and Kerry Wood are all looking to jump in as his replacement.
Everything about Marmol screams closer: He completely overpowered batters last year, limiting them to a .169 average while racking up a 12.46 K/9 rate. Howry's numbers aren't as flashy, but he does have some experience closing and superior command. Both pitchers are worth drafting, especially since it's unclear which arm manager Lou Piniella will turn to at this point.
Wood could be worth a look in deeper formats, but he's unlikely to be entrusted with the high-pressure job considering that he's had a hard enough time just remaining healthy throughout his career.
As with the Cubs, the closer role is up for grabs in Baltimore. Newcomer George Sherrill significantly improved his command and shut down lefties and righties alike last year, so he has to be considered the favorite. Of course, with four career saves to his credit, he's hardly a proven commodity.
The soft-tossing Jamie Walker (7 SV) and Chad Bradford (2 SV) both received opportunities when Chris Ray went down last year, and either could get the call if Sherrill can't do the job. Another option to consider is Jim Hoey, a 6-foot-6 fireballer who recorded 16 saves, a 0.79 ERA and a 13.60 K/9 ratio in the Minors in 2007. With the Orioles in rebuilding mode, they have nothing to lose by giving the 25-year-old a shot.
C.J. Wilson took over the closer role after Eric Gagne was traded last season, but he struggled to a 7.56 ERA in September. That opened the door for Joaquin Benoit to earn a few opportunities, and the offseason additions of Eddie Guardado and Kazuo Fukumori further muddle the bullpen mix.
Wilson is expected to reclaim the job, but his late-season woes give owners plenty of incentive to look at other options. Believe it or not, Guardado is next in the Texas closing hierarchy, but how much does the 37-year-old have left? Benoit, who enjoyed a career year in 2007, and Fukumori, who saved 38 games over the last two years in Japan, are both worth late-round fliers as future ninth-inning candidates.
Brian Wilson has legitimate closer stuff, and he did an excellent job nailing down six of seven save opportunities late last season. But is he completely past the control problems that led to his demotion to Triple-A early in the year? The Giants have had a merry-go-round at closer since Robb Nen retired, so it's probably not a bad idea to invest in Brad Hennessey, who converted 19 of 24 save opportunities before losing the job to Wilson last year. And though it's unclear whether Jonathan Sanchez will be starting or relieving, owners may also want to take a flier on the hard-throwing lefty.
Manager Bob Melvin put a stop to closer speculation in Arizona by tabbing Brandon Lyon before the start of camp. Lyon does have some closing experience, having saved nine games for the Red Sox in 2003 and 14 for the D-backs in '05, but he's never lasted more than a few weeks in the role. And the 5.40 K/9 ratio he's produced over the last two years suggests that he isn't the team's long-term answer.
Troy Percival was one of the game's best closers from 1996-2004, and he made a nice comeback with the Cardinals after coming out of retirement last year. Of course, it's one thing to spend half a season as a setup man for a non-contending team, and quite another to last a full campaign as a closer against the mighty lineups of the American League. The 38-year-old right-hander may be able to gut it out for a while, but the odds are against him lasting the year as the ninth-inning guy.
That said, owners will want to invest in Al Reyes, who got off to a great start as the Rays closer last year before running out of gas. Dan Wheeler could also see a few save opportunities if Percival falters, and Rays might end up trying out one of their talented young Minor Leaguers before the year is through.
Gagne doesn't throw as hard as he used to, and his performance after getting traded to the Red Sox last year (6.75 ERA) raises legitimate questions about how effective he'll be in Milwaukee. Of course, it may be too soon to write him off altogether; Gagne has a one-year deal to prove himself, and he'll have an easier time bouncing back in the lighter-hitting National League.
Just in case, it's not a bad idea to draft Derrick Turnbow as insurance. Yes, Turnbow has caused a lot of ulcers over the last two years with his command problems and hairdo, but he limited hitters to a .183 average while recording a 11.12 K/9 ratio last year. He's the first-line option if Gagne stumbles, which makes him worth considering. Steady David Riske could warrant a look in deeper formats.
Lidge's struggles since he gave up that lunar shot to Albert Pujols in the 2005 National League Championship Series have been well documented. He's shown flashes of his old ninth-inning brilliance since then, but he's done far better job as a setup man. Compounding matters, he just had surgery on his right knee -- the same one that was operated on after the 2007 season. Will Lidge be ready by Opening Day? And will he have problems with the long ball in cozy Citizens Bank Park? There are simply too many questions here.
Unfortunately, there aren't many answers to be found in the bullpen. Tom Gordon will receive save opportunities if Lidge falters or is slow to recover, but a long career filled with injuries has taken its toll, and he's hardly a safe bet to stay healthy. If Gordon does down to another injury, Ryan Madson and J.C. Romero are the best bets to take over closing duties.
All fantasy writers are legally obligated to mention the potential demise of Joe Borowski in any article about save opportunities. Borowski made us eat our words by leading the AL with 45 saves last year, but he also posted a bloated 5.07 ERA. As much as manager Eric Wedge raves about Borowski's ability to put rough outings behind him, you can bet all the midges in Lake Erie that he's not going to have as much patience if the Tigers charge to the front of the AL Central.
Rafael Betancourt was arguably the top setup man in baseball last year, and he's a logical choice to earn saves if Borowski gets yanked. However, owners will also want to strongly consider newcomer Masahide Kobayashi, who recorded 227 saves over the last eight seasons in Japan. With his mid-90s fastball, power slider and deceptive delivery, Kobayashi is a good bet to enjoy success at the back end of the Cleveland bullpen.
Others to watch:
Blue Jays: B.J. Ryan has been busting his butt to get ready by Opening Day, but he's less than a year removed from Tommy John surgery. Accardo is a good bet to receive a few save opportunities in his place at the beginning of the year, and he'll naturally be the top option if Ryan succumbs to injury again.
Twins: Joe Nathan is as automatic as they come, but he's looking for a big contract extension. If the Twins deal him before the deadline, sidewinding Pat Neshek could step in as the ninth-inning option.
A's: Oakland has less of a chance of competing than Minnesota, which means Huston Street could be traded for even more young talent. If that happens, Alan Embree could return to the closer role he filled admirably for a stretch last year, or hard-throwing Santiago Casilla could step in.