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February 21, 2011

Fantasy Focus

Closer Rankings

by Mike Petriello

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These are the closer fantasy rankings for 2011. Check out our previous first base, second base, third base, shortstop, and catcher installments.

Today we’re starting the pitcher portion of the annual fantasy rankings with closers, and, as everyone knows closers operate in something of a world of their own just because of the fascination with saves. You’ll notice that there are no five-star closers, and that the four-star names have a lower dollar figure than the four-star players at other positions. Since closers are mainly valued for their ability to produce in only that one category, their prices are low, but the laws of supply and demand tend to inflate their value. Teams may have more than one productive first base eligible player, but rarely more than one guy collecting saves at the same time, right? That means if I’d stuck to the same valuation as the rest of the rankings did, we’d be starting at three-stars, and that just didn’t seem right. So if you want to compare these to the other charts, be sure to bump all the closers down a tier in your mind so they fit.

As for who’s listed here, I've identified the 30 pitchers (one per team) who are most likely to get the bulk of the save opportunities this year as it stands today. Clearly, there are a few situations where that’s in doubt, but if we were to include everyone who has a claim for save opportunities we'd be looking at a list that would span over 50 names. However, in recognition of the fact that there are several competitions still in the air and that there are a few non-closing relievers who may be as or more valuable than some lower tier closers, I'm also including an additional chart with ten names at the end, comprised of important names to know outside the top 30. Let’s not forget that every Thursday, I cover relievers as part of our Value Picks series, and will focus on some of these spring training battles until they are resolved.

Four Stars

Player

Team

IP

SV

W

K

ERA

WHIP

2L-$

1L-$

Brian Wilson

SFN

71

29

4

74

3.08

1.26

$10

$18

Joakim Soria

KCA

66

27

3

71

2.65

1.10

$12

$20

Heath Bell

SDN

78

33

4

84

2.50

1.17

$17

$24

Neftali Feliz

TEX

74

30

4

73

3.41

1.28

$9

$21

Mariano Rivera

NYA

63

27

3

57

2.52

1.04

$13

$20

I can't imagine there's a whole lot of argument with these five, particularly since Soria, Bell, and Wilson topped the WXRL charts last season. Wilson made the leap from "overrated save compiler" in 2008 to unquestioned stud by reducing his walk rate while increasing his strikeout rate over the last two years, all while cutting his homer rate and his WHIP. Soria's going to have to overcome what looks to be an atrocious Royals squad, but his performance clearly puts him in the upper echelon. Bell's strikeout rates have jumped markedly in the two years he's been closer, and having Petco Park in his corner doesn't hurt either – PECOTA is particularly upbeat on him. In my book, the top three are basically interchangeable here.

Feliz was electric in his rookie season, though he of course carries the fantasy risk of ending up in the Rangers starting rotation. Considering the multitude of fifth starter options the Rangers have compiled, however, I still expect him in the ninth inning, and that makes him a top option here. If you’re wondering why PECOTA doesn’t look upon him as favorably, keep in mind that his youth and minimal track record carry with them an inherent uncertainty and risk of injury.

Rivera is 41 years old, and Rafael Soriano is now in the fold to help shoulder the load. He showed slight signs of decline last year with a declining strikeout rate, which is definitely worrisome at his age, though overall his performance was still very good and PECOTA forecasts more. While he’s at the bottom of the top tier, he still belongs until he proves otherwise.

Three Stars

Player

Team

IP

SV

W

K

ERA

WHIP

2L-$

1L-$

Carlos Marmol

CHN

75

31

4

101

3.12

1.30

$12

$20

Jonathan Papelbon

BOS

65

27

3

73

2.72

1.15

$12

$20

Chris Perez

CLE

76

30

4

83

3.38

1.28

$10

$21

Andrew Bailey

OAK

61

24

3

56

3.38

1.28

$5

$15

Joe Nathan

MIN

69

29

4

78

2.12

1.04

$17

$24

Francisco Rodriguez

NYN

67

28

3

74

2.98

1.27

$9

$17

Matt Thornton

CHA

63

26

3

73

2.78

1.16

$10

$19

There's only one thing keeping Marmol out of the top tier, and that's his continued indifference to the strike zone. He'll pile up a ton of strikeouts and plenty of saves, but the walks don't exactly make him a WHIP superstar. In Boston, there's been a lot of talk about Papelbon's demise, but that may be a bit premature; he still offered plenty of strikeouts in 2010 and PECOTA predicts another good year in 2011. Perez was excellent upon taking over the job last year in Cleveland; though he walks more than you'd like, also working in his favor is the lack of any competition in the bullpen.

Bailey’s low dollar figure here is partly due to the rib cage strain which cost him a month last year, in addition to the elbow surgery he had in September. Though the A’s hedged their bets by fortifying an already strong bullpen with Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes, Bailey is reportedly throwing without pain and is on track for Opening Day. When healthy, he’s been one of the best. Speaking of relievers returning from injury, Nathan is our first real risk, as he's attempting to return after missing 2010 to Tommy John surgery. I think PECOTA's projection here is perhaps a tad rosy, if only due to the uncertainty, but don't forget just how good he was before getting hurt. The early date of his injury is a real boost here, as all reports of his rehab have been positive and he reportedly touched 91 MPHin a bullpen session earlier this month.

Rodriguez is coming off a season in which many questioned his future after his injury and off-field concerns, but he was actually quite productive last year before being hurt, and unless you really have high hopes for Bobby Parnell, he's solidly in the role again. In Chicago, I’ve gone back and forth on the “Thornton vs. Sale” argument a dozen times, so for the sake of this chart we’ll go with PECOTA’s choice. Really, you could probably just write “White Sox closer” in the table above, as Sale would fall into the three-star range as well if we find out he’s the closer for sure.

Two Stars

Player

Team

IP

SV

W

K

ERA

WHIP

2L-$

1L-$

Jonathan Broxton

LAN

66

27

3

81

2.62

1.19

$11

$18

Huston Street

COL

70

28

4

70

3.33

1.20

$10

$18

John Axford

MIL

72

29

3

76

4.57

1.59

$2

$12

J.J. Putz

ARI

61

24

3

65

3.20

1.23

$7

$14

Frank Francisco

TOR

61

23

3

67

3.27

1.23

$6

$16

Brad Lidge

PHI

61

23

3

66

4.06

1.39

$2

$11

Jose Valverde

DET

65

26

3

67

3.30

1.26

$7

$17

Ryan Franklin

STL

66

26

3

38

3.88

1.31

$4

$13

Joel Hanrahan

PIT

65

25

3

66

4.25

1.45

$2

$12

Craig Kimbrel

ATL

61

25

3

87

2.98

1.33

$7

$15

Drew Storen

WAS

66

26

3

62

3.42

1.26

$7

$15

Brandon Lyon

HOU

73

29

4

49

3.60

1.32

$7

$17

I’m a Dodger fan and I have as much invested in Broxton’s revival as anyone, yet while he’s got the potential to be the biggest steal of the draft, he could also be all but unusable by May. I tend to think that he’ll have a nice rebound this season (as does PECOTA), but we can’t turn a total blind eye to what happened last year, so proceed with caution.

In Colorado, Huston Street was one of the more difficult rankings for me. Most reviews of his 2010 are described as “injury prone” and/or “disappointing”, but a deeper look does have some answers. After missing the early part of the season with shoulder soreness, he worked through the rust and had started to turn it around… right up until the point in July where he took a BP liner off Ian Stewart’s bat right to a particularly sensitive area. That cost him most of August both in time missed and effectiveness, before performing very well in September. Basically, if he’s healthy, he’s still quite good, but the “if healthy” part is always the catch.

Moving on, Axford is getting no love from PECOTA, largely because his late debut and minor-league wildness can rightfully be seen as terrifying. I don’t necessarily agree, as a mechanical improvement from former pitching coach Rick Peterson helped Axford improve as the year progressed; his K/9 rate increased every month from June on. Putz stayed healthy and regained his Seattle-era form last year in Chicago; as always, health will be an issue, as will a potentially dreadful Arizona squad, but he’s an intriguing buy-low pick. Francisco is someone I’ve talked about a lot lately, and the more I hear the more I think he’s going to be the man in Toronto; he’s been underrated compared to his performance, and PECOTA agrees.

I’m not going to pretend I can predict Lidge any more than you can, though last year was a good season for him and he was particularly effective over the last two months, so there’s hope there. Valverde was excellent in the first half of 2010 before being slowed by an elbow injury. He’ll get every opportunity to show that he’s healthy, though don’t look past how much money the Tigers just gave to Joaquin Benoit. Franklin is someone I’ve never been a huge fan of because his peripherals are lousy, but while he won’t help you with strikeouts his propensity to collect saves (83 over the last three years) can’t be ignored.

Kimbrel and Hanrahan are both new to the job and are also twowho I’ve looked atrecently. Kimbrel hasn’t yet officially claimed the Atlanta gig, and might yet face competition from Johnny Venters. His absurd strikeout rate could have owners drooling, but just as easily his control issues could force him out of the ninth. Hanrahan’s improved velocity and slider contributed to his high strikeout rate as well, and he’s one of my sleepers this year; of course, he still needs to prove himself before he gets any higher on this list. In Washington, I’ve yet to hear a solid statement that Storen is the closer, but it’s a pretty good assumption, unless you’re part of Tyler Clippard’s immediate family. As a rookie, he struck out nearly a man per inning, a rate which increased steadily throughout the season.

Lyon, like Franklin, doesn’t wow anyone with peripherals, but was sneaky good last year–a fact I was surprised to find when I profiled him last week. He’ s not going to be as good as last year, but he does have less competition with Matt Lindstrom gone, and the potential for saves allows him to slip into the bottom of the two-star group.

One Star

Player

Team

IP

SV

W

K

ERA

WHIP

2L-$

1L-$

Koji Uehara

BAL

65

26

3

57

3.41

1.19

$8

$17

David Aardsma

SEA

50

18

2

48

3.24

1.31

$1

$0

Fernando Rodney

LAA

64

25

3

56

4.09

1.44

$2

$13

Francisco Cordero

CIN

70

27

3

65

3.82

1.40

$4

$14

Leo Nunez

FLO

68

27

3

27

4.01

1.34

$4

$14

Kyle Farnsworth

TBA

71

28

3

67

3.84

1.32

$6

$17

Down in the one-star range, we’ve got both talented arms with concerns and some veterans on their way down. I’m a big fanof Uehera, and PECOTA sees value from him as well; unfortunately, what the system cannot see is the $10 million contract the Orioles gave to Kevin Gregg and his shiny 37 saves. I still think Uehara wins out in the end, but the uncertainty (not to mention his lengthy injury history) makes him hard to count on. Aardsma’s 2010 was underratedand he’d otherwise deserve to be a tier or two higher, but he’s also just barely begun trying to walk without crutches after hip surgery… so there’s that. He’ll miss at least the first month, but should be a great value pick upon his return, though.

Francisco and Rodney have similar PECOTA outlooks and similar issues: they’re both aging relievers with peripherals trending in the wrong direction, and they both have more talented arms behind them. Cordero’s salary is about the only thing keeping Aroldis Chapman out of the job, and Rodney needs to fight off newcomers Scott Downs & Hisanori Takahashi as well as youngster Jordan Walden. I’m not optimistic he’ll actually be able to do so for long.

Finally, the two Florida clubs are dealing with ninth inning questions. Nunez actually lost his job at one point last year after a brutal August; he’ll start 2011 as the closer again, but the Marlins have rebuilt their bullpen and there’s certainly opportunity for anyone who can step up. That brings us to Kyle Farnsworth, and if we can put all of the obvious jokes aside for a moment, he did actually show improvement in 2010. That doesn’t mean he’s going to really be the Tampa closer all season, but I did need to list one from each team, so he’s here almost by default. To be fair, PECOTA doesn’t completely hate the idea of having him there.

And 10 more…

Player

Team

IP

SV

W

K

ERA

WHIP

2L-$

1L-$

Brandon League

SEA

77

30

4

61

3.41

1.26

$10

$20

Hong-Chih Kuo

LAN

66

6

3

73

2.53

1.14

$3

$5

Aroldis Chapman

CIN

111

4

7

132

3.37

1.31

$3

$7

Chris Sale

CHA

60

4

4

76

2.96

1.21

$1

$4

Scott Downs

LAA

65

6

3

53

3.02

1.19

$1

$3

Kevin Gregg

BAL

73

7

4

67

3.94

1.37

-$2

$2

Jake McGee

TBA

56

5

3

54

4.05

1.43

-$5

$0

Rafael Soriano

NYA

75

7

4

80

2.68

1.1

$5

$7

Matt Capps

MIN

69

6

3

51

3.79

1.29

-$2

$2

Jonny Venters

ATL

71

6

3

50

4.68

1.54

-$9

-$2

As a new addition to this year’s rankings, we have ten more non-closing relievers who either have a good chance at stealing the job or provide enough value that they could be worth owning even without saves.

League is going to be a must-own in the early going simply because he’s the likely fill-in for Aardsma. He should do fine, though I don’t see him staying in the role long enough to get close to the 30 saves PECOTA has him for, and he should be seen as a primary sell-high candidate before Aardsma’s return. Kuo, Chapman, and Sale are all flame-throwing lefties who are also the rare pitchers who are worth owning even if they’re not closing, just due to the high strikeout rates. It’s not hard to see any or all of them closing, though; do you really think it’s that unlikely that Jonathan Broxton doesn’t bounce back, that Francisco Cordero is finished, or that Ozzie Guillen chooses Sale over Matt Thornton?

Downs is better than Rodney, and PECOTA loves him. So why is he down here? Because all indications are that Rodney gets first crack at the job. I don’t expect that to last. Gregg and Capps are charter members of the "only worth talking about because of save opportunities" club, but they're also both highly-paid and paired with more talented closers dealing with injury concerns. Should Gregg’s paycheck get him the job over Uehara, or if Nathan’s rehab hits a snag, then Gregg and Capps have value. Until then, they’re not worthwhile.

McGee doesn’t get much love from PECOTA, and he may in fact not contribute much this year, but the Rays look to have shifted him to the bullpen permanently, and it’s not like Farnsworth is a major roadblock. This may be a year too soon for him, but he’s got the skills and the opportunity is there. Former teammate Soriano certainly isn’t going to steal a job from the great Rivera, but is an intriguing possibility if only because of his strikeout rate and the chance that the Yankees will limit Rivera’s workload somewhat. That could lead to a few more vultured saves than you’d think.

Venters probably isn’t going to beat out Kimbrel for the Atlanta job, but it’s worth noting that Kimbrel has historically had Marmolesque levels of wildness. It doesn’t take a whole lot of squinting to see a future where Kimbrel walks his way out of the role, and if so Venters is there to take over–if he doesn’t win it outright in the first place. 

Mike Petriello is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

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