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An exception to the rule
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - For all its fanfare, fantasy baseball doesn't have many hard and fast rules. But here's one: never pay for saves.

This principle is as old as the game itself and for good reason. Closers are a tricky species, often wandering from city to city like modern day nomads. With such little continuity at the position from season to season, it's almost impossible for fantasy owners to go all-in on a closer.

But here's my problem with the never pay for saves theory. If we're talking about a second tier guy, someone like Bobby Parnell or Ernesto Frieri, I get it. Those guys are a dime a dozen. But what happens when Craig Kimbrel is staring you in the face in the middle of round four?

Now that Mariano Rivera's farewell tour has come to an end (we think), Kimbrel is unquestionably the best closer in baseball. And while most analysts will tell you to stay clear of Kimbrel anywhere before round six, I have to admit, I'm taking him in the fourth round every time. Here's why.

1. He really is that much better than everyone else

I consider Kimbrel the Jimmy Graham of fantasy baseball. Just like with closers, fantasy football owners tend to wait on tight ends. But because Graham is so much better than everyone else at his position, they make an exception.

Kimbrel's numbers since entering the league in 2010 are simply preposterous. His 1.39 ERA in 231 appearances is almost a full run lower than Mariano Rivera's (2.21). In 883 plate appearances, opponents are batting .155 against Kimbrel with just ten homers.

With Kimbrel, you're getting the whole package. Though Jim Johnson has more saves than Kimbrel since 2012 (101 to 92), Kimbrel has dominated in almost every other statistic. Have a look for yourself.

Since 2012

WHIP: Kimbrel 0.77, Johnson 1.15

K/9: Kimbrel 14.85, Johnson 6.28

ERA: Kimbrel 1.11, Johnson 2.72

Save percentage: Kimbrel 92.9, Johnson 89.4

And while we're at it, let's take a peek at Aroldis Chapman, Greg Holland and Joe Nathan, the three closers being drafted directly behind Kimbrel in most fantasy leagues.

Since 2012

WHIP: Chapman 0.92, Holland 1.12, Nathan 0.98

K/9: Chapman 15.56, Holland 13.03, Nathan 10.53

ERA: Chapman 2.00, Holland 2.08, Nathan 2.09

Save percentage: Chapman 88.4, Holland 90.0, Nathan 93.0

There's just no comparison. Kimbrel is head and shoulders above the rest and at age 25, he's only going to get better.

2. The injury risk for closers isn't as high

I'm not saying closers never get hurt. Countless relievers, including Nathan, have undergone Tommy John surgery. Just in the last week, Chapman suffered a facial fracture after taking a line drive to the face.

If you pitch in the major leagues, you're going to get dinged up once in a while. But compared to starters, closing is imminently safer.

Though starters only throw once every five days, their pitch counts are often in the triple digits. Kimbrel, on the other hand, averaged just 15.27 pitches per appearance last season.

When you're only being asked to pitch one inning at a time, the wear and tear on your body isn't quite as significant. That's probably why Kimbrel, Grant Balfour, Sergio Romo and Glen Perkins have all made at least 60 appearances each of the last three seasons. Nathan, Koji Uehara and Fernando Rodney will all be at least 37 years old on Opening Day, a testament to the longevity of closers.

And yes, I realize that by writing this Kimbrel is almost certain to wind up on the DL now. Sorry, guys.

3. It's hard to trust starting pitching

The fourth round is generally when you start thinking about adding a starting pitcher. Clayton Kershaw will be long gone but most of the league's other top starters will be fair game. The question is, should we trust any of them?

Not if you're smart. Last season in one of my leagues, I loaded up on starting pitching by taking Justin Verlander and Matt Cain within the first four rounds. Neither one panned out for me.

Cain was a total disaster (8-10, 4.00 ERA) while Verlander, though decent (13-12, 3.46), wasn't worth the price I paid for him. Whether it's injuries, fatigue from throwing 200+ innings the year before or just bad luck, starters that were great one year can easily implode the next.

My thinking is, in the fourth round, wouldn't you rather hitch your wagon to a sure thing than roll the dice on another starter? Verlander could disappoint but I doubt Kimbrel will.

4. Kimbrel can offset some of your team's weaknesses

Think of all the mediocre pitchers we end up drafting. Tim Lincecum, Jake Peavy, Scott Kazmir ... the list goes on and on. In the 25th round, these guys seem harmless enough but really, they're ERA killers in disguise. If your fantasy starting rotation consisted of only those three, your ERA last season would have been 4.21, good for last place in almost any league you could find.

So let's soften the blow by adding Kimbrel to the mix. With Kimbrel on board, your team's ERA would improve to 3.85. Kimbrel's presence would also lower your team's WHIP (1.27 to 1.22) while increasing your strikeouts per nine innings (8.56 to 9.11).

I'm telling you, a little Kimbrel goes a long way.

5. Drafting Kimbrel early will free you up in the later rounds

You're going to need a closer at some point. Why not grab one right away and then not have to worry about it the rest of the draft?

I tried this plan for myself and guess who I got in the 14th round while everyone else was searching for closers? Victor Martinez, a .303 lifetime hitter who has averaged 93 RBI in his last two seasons. A couple rounds later I grabbed Torii Hunter (.304, 17 HR, 84 RBI last season) just to rub it in their faces.

It's all strategy. If you snag Kimbrel early, the rest is easy.

If you think the fourth round is too early for Kimbrel, that's fine. Just know that you won't be getting him this year. In ESPN leagues, his average draft position is 40.6.

Never say never, people.




Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Jesse Pantuosco at jpantuosco@sportsnetwork.com.