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March 3, 2014

State of the Position


by Ben Carsley

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For the earlier articles in this series, click below:

Do you want the good news or the bad news when it comes to closers?

The good news is that there is any good news at all. Despite the retirement of Greatest Reliever Ever Mariano Rivera, we are currently blessed with five elite relievers who every fantasy owner should be delighted to own. You can probably guess the names, but here they are: Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, Trevor Rosenthal, Greg Holland, and Kenley Jansen. These pitchers are young, they are dependable, and they strike out everyone they face. Hooray for these pitchers.

The bad news is that there are 25 other teams who also employ closers, and these teams cause fantasy owners plenty of headaches. Consider that Koji Uehara and Jason Grilli finished as two of the best fantasy closers in the game last season. Meanwhile, Proven Closers™ like Joel Hanrahan, Chris Perez and Carlos Marmol all fell apart.

It can sometimes sound like an exaggeration, but the volatility among closers is not to be understated. Yes, there is turnover on a yearly basis at every position. But if I told you that eight to 10 pitchers who begin 2014 as closers will end 2014 in middle relief, would you doubt me for a second?

You shouldn't, and that makes forecasting which relievers will have success this year and beyond a necessary, but frightening, proposition.

The League Breakout
The senior circuit has the clear lead over the junior circuit when it comes to closers right now. With Kimbrel, Chapman, Rosenthal, and Jansen, four of the five clear-cut elite options all call the NL home, as well as some second-tier closers like Sergio Romo, Rafael Soriano, Addison Reed, Steve Cishek, Jonathan Papelbon and the inexplicable Grilli. Jim Henderson, Huston Street, Bobby Parnell, LaTroy Hawkins, and Jose Veras round out the crew here.

The most undervalued closer in this league may be Cishek, who will provide similar value to many of the better-known relievers who precede him by several rounds in ADP. The most likely to decompose into a puddle of Bud Light and unwarranted rage is Papelbon, who's clearly in decline. The teams with the most fluid closing situations here are the Mets, Rockies, and Cubs, which is just a shocking collection of teams to associate with instability of any sort.

In the AL, Holland is the clear top dog, with Uehara, Glen Perkins, and Joe Nathan representing the next tier. David Robertson, Jim Johnson, Casey Janssen, Ernesto Frieri, and Grant Balfour are not far behind, while Fernando Rodney, John Axford, Nate Jones, Tommy Hunter, and State of Texas Closer Candidate X bring up the rear.

Janssen is probably the most undervalued of this group, though Neftali Feliz makes a very interesting play for owners ready to take on some significant risk. Rodney is perhaps most likely to be felled by a karma-wielding bowman (though his hat is fine), and the other older guys here carry plenty of downside, too. The Indians, Rangers, Orioles, and Astros have the most questions in the backs of their bullpens in this league.

In the NL, the disparity in talent means you can either spend more on an elite option, or you can take a more frugal approach and perhaps grab two perfectly acceptable closers a bit later. In the AL, it's probably wisest to splurge on Holland or simply wait. You don't want to overdraft or overbid for the likes of a Balfour or Rodney with so much fluidity in nearly one-third of the league and the ability to select talented hopefuls like Cody Allen or Tanner Scheppers much later on.

The Strategy in Mixed Leagues
Conventional wisdom says to bid on one of the top five guys or play it conservatively and go quality over quantity, but I'm not so sure that's the best play this year. Yes, older guys like Uehara, Nathan, Balfour, and Grilli are scary if you miss out on an elite name. But do you really want to get stuck rolling the dice on Veras, Axford, Hawkins, or Chad freaking Qualls? In mixed leagues, I would not be afraid to snag relatively safe plays like Perkins, Romo, Robertson and Soriano in the middle rounds. They won't be the type of sexy picks that earn the adulation of others in your leagues, but they could save you headaches later on.

If you do find yourself mining the depths of current closers, I think it's better to role the dice on high-upside non-closers like Allen, Scheppers, or Rex Brothers rather than settle for an older player who could implode by June.

In deeper leagues or leagues that count holds, you'll also want to be on the lookout for set-up guys. Joaquin Benoit, Tyler Clippard, Brothers, Brian Wilson, Jason Motte, Edward Mujica, Ryan Cook, Mark Melancon, and J.J. Putz are some of the more attractive options here, though such a list could go on forever. For more fliers who shouldn't cost much and who should rack up strikeouts, try Sergio Santos, David Hernandez, Jake McGee, Darren O'Day, Rubby De La Rosa, Luke Gregerson, Drew Storen, and Vinnie Pestano.

The Long-Term Outlook
Pegging the long-term value of closers is perhaps the most difficult task in fantasy baseball. Failed starting pitching prospects are shuttled to the bullpen and are often lauded as having "closer potential." A quick list of starter prospects who could be in store for a move and who could reach the majors shortly: Marcus Stroman, Alex Meyer, Kyle Crick, Carlos Martinez, Allen Webster, Daniel Corcino, C.J. Edwards, Enny Romero, and Mike Foltynewicz.

As for prospects who profile as relievers right now, it's a less inspiring group of names. That being said, the diminished prospect status that comes with being a reliever also means these players will likely be quite attainable even in deep leagues. Some names who could help you out in 2014 are: Chad Bettis, Chris Withrow, Heath Hembree, Arodys Vizcaino, Jeurys Familia, C.C. Lee, Ken Giles, Donnie Joseph, Nick Wittgren, Wilmer Font, Bruce Rondon, and R.J. Alvarez.

If you're trying to project closers out past 2015, well, good luck. Gamble on one of the elite five staying elite. Other than that, it's a total crapshoot.

A Closing Haiku
Perhaps were I a
Proven closer, this haiku
Would be much better

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

7 comments have been left for this article.

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Fantasy Article Fantasy Players to Tar... (03/03)
<< Previous Column
Fantasy Article State of the Position:... (02/24)
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Fantasy Article State of the Position:... (01/05)
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Minor League Update: S... (03/03)

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