February 16, 2012
Resident Fantasy Genius
Fantasy Tier Rankings: Closers
Today, I’m happy to kick off our annual fantasy rankings, taking over where my predecessor Marc Normandin left off. I’ll be going position by position, organizing players into five tiers, beginning with relief pitchers.
In general, five-star players are going to be your star-level players that will be selected within the first couple of rounds, usually worth upward of $30*. Four-star players are the next step down, worth more than $20. Three stars are worth more than $10, two stars will be in the single digits, and one star will be roster-filler and late-round fliers. Of course, this is just a general guideline. While the rankings will generally follow PECOTA, I will deviate when I feel strongly that a player will over or underperform his PECOTA projection.
*Closer tiers will hold a slightly different meaning. While there will still be five tiers, the top guys at the position aren’t necessarily going to be worth early-round picks. You can usually wait until at least the fifth or sixth round to take the elite closers in most standard leagues, and our PFM indicates that this is wise. Our top-ranked closer is only worth $18 in mixed leagues, so be sure to take this into account when deciding when to pull the trigger on a ninth-inning man.
For reference, the dollar values were created by our PFM using a league format of 12 teams, 5x5 scoring, and 23-player rosters—broken down as C (2) 1B (1) 2B (1) 3B (1) SS (1) CI (1) MI (1) OF (5) UT (1) P (9)—and $180 of the $260 budget allocated for hitters and $1 minimum salaries. A minimum of 20 games needed to be played at a position in the previous season to qualify. We’ll be providing values for both mixed leagues and AL-only/NL-only leagues. While this is the industry standard format, your own league structure may differ, in which case you can customize the PFM to your own needs.
Mo and Pap are obvious choices for the top tier. Seeing as they are two of the longest-tenured closers in baseball—15 and six years, respectively—and have top-notch skills, you’d have a hard time making a reasonable case for anyone else as the first closer off the board.
Our second closer tier encompasses the solid closers with good skills and secure jobs but not quite at the level of Papelbon or Rivera. Still, you’re likely better off passing up the five-star guys in favor of a couple of players from this or the next tier. The differences in value just don’t justify the difference in the price you’ll have to pay.
If you’re looking at projected value, John Axford sticks out like a sore thumb in this tier; PECOTA is just not a believer. My guess is that the extra weight given to past years has something to do with it, as Axford’s control in the minor leagues was hideous. That said, I’m buying into him as a 4.0 BB/9 kind of guy. He’s shown two years of such performance, finds the zone at a league-average rate, and I’ve spoken with someone inside the game whose opinion I place a lot of value in who believes he’s turned a corner with his control since coming to the majors.
Carlos Marmol and Joakim Soria are interesting cases in that the PFM sees them as the third and fourth most valuable closers, mock drafters see them as the 15th- and 16th-most valuable, but my rankings place them in the middle. Were it not for the fact that these two will be trade candidates around midseason, I’d have them third and fifth, respectively.
Soria struggled last year and was even removed from the role for a short period, but his peripherals were strong, and a bounce-back 2012 is likely. Marmol gets flak because he lost a couple ticks off his fastball this year, but he was still inducing whiffs and generating strikeouts at the same rate he’s done his entire career. With a K/9 that remained over 12, all of those strikeouts make him a top-notch option as long as he’s closing. I had actually debated making him a five-star guy before knocking him down for the trade possibility.
Our third tier is where things become interesting. This tier belongs to the closers with at least one major chink in their armor. Most possess risk in one form or another, but because this will translate to a lower cost on draft day, this is the tier where you’ll find the greatest value among Opening Day closers.
In this tier, risk can come in many forms. Pitchers like Nathan, Putz, and Bailey have injury concerns, while guys like Betancourt, Francisco, and Motte have yet to log a full season in the ninth inning. Then there are guys like League, Santos, and Hanrahan, who should have job security but are in this tier because they don’t have as much experience as our four-star closers, nor does their performance quite stack up. Santos and Hanrahan have control issues (not so bad as to cause concern, but enough that their rate stats aren’t on par with the tier above) and Brandon League succeeds by inducing a lot of ground balls as opposed to strikeouts (which are a category unto themselves).
This is the bottom tier of relievers who are likely to close, but the value of these guys is tied up almost exclusively in their saves totals. A reliever with an ERA over 4.00 holds no value in a mixed league and very little in an AL-/NL-only league if he’s not saving games.
Matt Thornton makes this group not because he fits this mold, but because his skills are just so good. Combine that with being the favorite to close in Chicago, and he has enough saves to go with his excellent ratios to get bumped up from the One Star group. Were he to officially be named the closer, I’d bump him up again to Three Stars.
PFM likes Chris Perez a lot more than his two-star ranking indicates, but I just can’t justify putting him any higher. Yes, it’s important not to get bogged down in small samples, but there is just so much cause for concern with him that I have a hard time buying into a projected 3.47 ERA. As I briefly discussed on Monday, he was really bad in 2011. His fastball has worsened both in terms of movement and velocity, he’s not getting the kinds of swings-and-misses he used to, and he has never managed to improve his control. He’s getting by on low BABIPs that may or may not be sustainable, but if I can avoid it, I’d like to not to find out whether it is while he’s on my roster.
Our final tier belongs to players competing for a closing job and a few elite relievers whose skills alone make them worth something. Javy Guerra is projected for the most saves and could get bumped up a category if you’re desperate for saves, but PECOTA is not optimistic about his performance, and Kenley Jansen will challenge him during spring training. If Jansen does win the job, he’d easily be a Three-Star guy. The same goes for Balfour and Reed. If Lyon, Carpenter, or De Los Santos were to win a job closing, they’d jump up to Two Stars (DLS would be a borderline Three-Star guy).