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March 13, 2013

Pre-Season Positional Rankings

Top 40 Fantasy Relievers

by Paul Singman

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The Baseball Prospectus fantasy team has been rolling out its positional rankings over the past couple of weeks, and this edition concludes the process. Each team member assigned to cover a position will create an initial top 15 (more for outfielders, starting pitchers, and relief pitchers) on his own. He will then send that list to the rest of the team for discussion, at which point we will debate the rankings, both in terms of each player’s specific placement and the merits on which he was included in the top 15. This back-and-forth debate will yield the final list, which will be presented by the original author with notes on the pertinent players. We encourage you to bring your opinions into the fray using the comment section below.

Here are the previous rankings lists:

Today, we bring you our top 40 relievers.

Last year was a brutal one for closers: Less than half of the pitchers who began the season as their team’s ninth-inning man were able to keep that role from Opening Day through game 162. From a fantasy standpoint, does this volatility mean that you should avoid overpaying for closers in the draft? Or, conversely, does it suggest that you should pay a premium for the safer ones?

The answer to this question depends on your league setup—specifically the means by which free agents are acquired. In FAAB leagues, buying a newly anointed closer is often very expensive, making the draft price reasonable in comparison. In a first-come, first-serve system, it’s possible to avoid closers in the draft and still pick up enough saves throughout the season, if you remain vigilant about following bullpen changes around the league from beginning to end. You have to know yourself and your league-mates, though, and be willing to put in the required effort during the season. When watching a movie with your girlfriend on a Thursday night, you have to be willing to hit the “pause” button if you hear that Fernando Rodney just left the Rays game clutching his arm.

I generally advocate a quantity approach to drafting closers. It’s not necessary to get a top closer, but in a 12-14 team league, grabbing three closers—or two in 15-20 team leagues—gives you a nice edge in the saves category from the outset. It’s easy to get stuck in the middle rounds (7-15) of a draft, and in those moments, I always have a queue of closers ready to go. They often aren’t the best picks, but drafting one can prevent you from making an ill-advised mistake that could impact the rest of your draft. And, if you get lucky and all of your closer picks work out, ninth-inning men are typically easy to trade during the season to address other needs.

With all of that said, here’s our list. (To see the pertinent numbers for all closers easily, be sure to reference Jason Collette's helpful Closer Matrix article from February.)

  1. Craig Kimbrel, ATL
  2. Jonathan Papelbon, PHI
  3. Jason Motte, STL
  4. Mariano Rivera, NYY
  5. Joe Nathan, TEX
  6. Fernando Rodney, TBR
  7. Greg Holland, KCR
  8. Rafael Soriano, WSH
  9. Jim Johnson, BAL
  10. J.J. Putz, ARI
  11. Tom Wilhelmsen, SEA
  12. Addison Reed, CHW
  13. Glen Perkins, MIN
  14. Sergio Romo, SFG
  15. Rafael Betancourt, COL
  16. Jonathan Broxton, CIN
  17. Huston Street, SDP
  18. John Axford, MIL
  19. Jason Grilli, PIT
  20. Grant Balfour, OAK
  21. Casey Janssen, TOR
  22. Joel Hanrahan, BOS
  23. Chris Perez, CLE
  24. Steve Cishek, MIA
  25. Ernesto Frieri, LAA
  26. Ryan Madson, LAA
  27. Kenley Jansen, LAD
  28. Jose Veras, HOU
  29. Bobby Parnell, NYM
  30. Brandon League, LAD
  31. Carlos Marmol, CHC
  32. Vinnie Pestano, CLE
  33. Kyuji Fujikawa, CHC
  34. Frank Francisco, NYM
  35. Bruce Rondon, DET
  36. Luke Gregerson, SDP
  37. Sergio Santos, TOR
  38. Jake McGee, TBR
  39. Ryan Cook, OAK
  40. Sean Marshall, CIN

Honorable mention: David Robertson (NYY), David Hernandez (ARI), Joaquin Benoit (DET), Tyler Clippard (WSH), Phil Coke (DET), Sean Doolittle (OAK), J.J. Hoover (CIN), Carter Capps (SEA), Michael Wacha (STL)

Notes:

  1. It’s hard to score runs on a pitcher that strikes out half the batters he faces and keeps the ball on the ground as well as Kimbrel does. That’s why the Braves closer is number one, taking the top tier all to himself.
     
  2. Papelbon has never notched fewer than 30 saves in his seven-year career and he hasn’t hit the disabled list since 2006.  He has remedied the control concerns from 2009 and 2010 by cutting his walk rate to just four and six percent, respectively, in 2011 and 2012.
     
  3. Motte had a tremendous first full year as the Cardinals closer, saving 42 games and upping his strikeout rate to more than 30 percent. Compared to the other elite closers, I’m less confident that the 30-year-old can deliver an encore to his career year. However, I value consistency, and Motte has a relatively clean bill of health to go with three consecutive reliable campaigns.
     
  4. At 43 years of age and coming back from an essentially lost year, Rivera is somewhat of a risk. But, in the already risk-laden closer landscape, you’ll take your chances on the machine-like legend.
     
  5. The combination of Nathan and Arlington appeared scary at first, but he made it work last year. The 38-year-old produced a career-low five percent walk rate and got his fastball back into the mid-90s, proving that he can still be dominant, regardless of the environment.
     
  6. Yes, Rodney is coming off one of the best relief seasons of all time, but it was also the first season in five years during which his ERA was below 4.00. If he struggles early on, I don’t expect the Rays to be particularly loyal down the stretch.
     
  7. Holland doesn’t have the name recognition of the guys ranked above him, but if he can bring his walk rate down (which he did in the second half of 2012), he can join the elite ranks of closers thanks to an overpowering fastball-slider combination.
     
  8. With only slightly above-average strikeout and walk rates compared to his peers, Soriano doesn’t strike me as an elite closer, despite his impressive performance last year filling in for the best of all time. His fly-ball tendencies and injury history make me hesitant to rank Soriano as high as others have. Also, the presence of the more-than-capable Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard on the roster heightens the likelihood that he could be replaced in the event of a slump.
     
  9. Johnson lacks the strikeout element to his game, but he excels at inducing ground balls and limiting walks. The O’s are bereft of potential replacements, securing the sinkerballer as their ninth-inning man for the long haul.
     
  10. Putz almost lost the closer job after posting a 7.71 ERA in May, but he held on to finish the season in dominant fashion. In 26 second-half innings, he posted a 1.03 ERA with 36 strikeouts while issuing just four walks. Health wasn’t an issue for the 36-year-old in 2012, but he does have a history of elbow trouble.
     
  11. The bartender-turned-closer, Wilhelmsen struck out more than a batter per inning in his first tour as closer. His stuff is nasty, but lacks the track record and experience that those ranked above him bring.
     
  12. Reed emerged as the lead dog in a messy White Sox bullpen, converting 29 of 33 save chances despite a 4.75 ERA. He was very impressive in the minors, but will need to show that he can retire major leaguers more consistently before fantasy owners can trust him.
     
  13. Perkins emerged as the Twins’ top ninth-inning option last year and he offers everything you’d want in a closer: lots of strikeouts and grounders, and not many walks. His uptick in fastball velocity, to an average of over 95 mph, is a reassuring sign, though he occasionally struggles with the home-run ball. Playing for the Twins, who are projected by PECOTA to hover around the 70-win mark, may limit Perkins’ save opportunities this year.
     
  14. Romo has the stuff to be an elite closer, but the Giants aren’t fully committed to a one-man approach in the ninth inning. Javier Lopez, Santiago Casilla, and Jeremy Affeldt could all be used, as manager Bruce Bochy employs a matchup-based strategy to hold late leads.
     
  15. The good news is that Betancourt displays elite control and hasn’t hit the disabled list in three seasons. The bad news: He struggles to get lefties out and is a midseason trade candidate, meaning that he’s not a safe bet to continue earning save opportunities down the stretch. Nonetheless, he’s a solid mid-tier choice.
     
  16. Broxton is far removed from his years a dominant closer for the Dodgers, but he showed flashes of his old form in 22 innings with Cincinnati last year. Aroldis Chapman has to stick in the rotation for Broxton to take over the ninth-inning reins, and Sean Marshall is looming as a very capable replacement, but the 29-year-old could easily wind up a top-10 closer.
     
  17. Street is still elite when healthy, but that caveat is a significant one. Try to handcuff him with Luke Gregerson later in the draft.
     
  18. Axford struggled to limit his homers allowed and walks issued—a losing combination for any closer regardless of strikeout rate. His fastball velocity has increased each of the past three years, and in the past he’s done a good job of suppressing the long ball, so there’s good reason to believe he can bounce back in 2013.
     
  19. At age 35, Grilli emerged as a major strikeout threat, with his 37 percent rate ranking fourth in the majors. He’s the Pirates closer with Joel Hanrahan gone and has a good chance to stay in the role, even if his punchout volume regresses.
     
  20. Balfour raged his way through a second successful season in Oakland, racking up 24 saves despite ceding the job temporarily to Ryan Cook. Only an injury or a midseason trade is likely to dethrone the Aussie.
     
  21. An unlikely turn of events led to Janssen becoming the Blue Jays closer, and the then 30-year-old righty flourished in the role. He converted 22 of 25 save opportunities while striking out over a batter an inning and keeping his walk rate below five percent. He’s on track to be ready for Opening Day after offseason surgery, but his injury history and the presence of the talented Sergio Santos elevate his risk.
     
  22. Similar to Axford, Hanrahan saw an unexplainable increase in his homers and walks allowed. Now with the Red Sox, he’s slated to be the closer, but a healthy Andrew Bailey would shorten his leash.
     
  23. Perez had a surprisingly superb season last year, but the combination of his current shoulder injury and the presence of Vinnie Pestano makes him a risky option. The Indians’ free-agent additions should keep their ninth-inning man sane
     
  24. Cishek excels at keeping the ball on the ground and strikes out over a batter an inning. Without much competition in Miami, he has a decent shot of keeping the job all year and is a nice late-round choice.
     
  25. The eventual landscape of the Angels bullpen is one of the trickiest to forecast. On the one hand, you have Frieri who was dominant last year and will start 2013 as closer...
     
  26. ... On the other hand, you have another fantastic reliever in Madson, who is coming back from Tommy John surgery and could be on track to usurp that role a few weeks into the season. I have Frieri ranked higher, because I favor inertia over change when it comes to closers, but this one could go either way.
     
  27. With last year’s heart issues hopefully behind him, Jansen can focus on being one of the most dominant relievers in the game. Brandon League doesn’t present much of an obstacle, and the question of Jansen overtaking the former Mariner seems to be when, not if.
     
  28. Veras is a bad closer on a bad team, but he is still a closer. I’d draft him before most of the top setup men go.
     
  29. Despite his being hailed as the closer of the future in New York, the Mets seemed to give the reins to everyone but Parnell last year. Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch, Ramon Ramirez, and even Manny Acosta were given chances to close in what was a pathetic Mets bullpen. In 2013, Parnell will get his shot—while Francisco rehabs from surgery—and if his strong peripherals hold up, he has a good shot to run with the job.
     
  30. In League, you’re getting a pitcher with inconsistent control and a disappointing 18 percent strikeout rate. He will start the year as the Dodgers closer, but Jansen poses a major threat.
     
  31. After nearly being traded earlier this offseason, Marmol is a near lock to be dealt before the end of the year. You just have to hope he racks up as many saves as possible before leaving Chicago and avoids his patented implosions.
     
  32. Pestano is a better reliever than Chris Perez, but it will still take an injury or meltdown from the latter to propel him into the closer role. Perez seems likely to recover from his shoulder injury in time for the start of the season, but next time, he might not be so lucky.
     
  33. When Marmol leaves town, Fujikawa is the favorite to take over the ninth inning at Wrigley. He has long been the best closer in Japan and should have similar stateside success. PECOTA projects an excellent 35 percent strikeout rate from the first-year import.
     
  34. Although he was inconsistent last year and is still rehabbing from offseason elbow surgery, when Francisco returns in mid-April, manager Terry Collins could favor his experience over Bobby Parnell’s upside.
     
  35. Rondon’s wild spring has likely cost him the chance at sole possession of the Tigers closing gig. Until they bring in another arm, though, the erratic youngster will remain in the mix and has the fastball to rack up strikeouts.
     
  36. As the likely replacement for the fragile Huston Street, Gregerson is a solid setup man to own. San Diego isn’t a bad place to pitch, either.
     
  37. Santos lost his ninth-inning job when he needed shoulder surgery and missed essentially all of 2012. If he can regain his pre-surgery effectiveness, he’s a decent bet to overtake Janssen as the Jays closer.
     
  38. After not living up to the hype in his rookie year, McGee was awfully impressive in 2012, posting a 1.95 ERA and 0.80 WHIP. It’s unclear whether he or Joel Peralta would take over as the closer if Rodney falters, however.
     
  39. A throw-in from the Trevor Cahill-for-Jarrod Parker deal, Cook emerged in the A’s bullpen and even took over the closer role for a few weeks. Although he’s a little wild at times, he should be ready to step up again if Balfour struggles.
     
  40. Marshall has established himself as one of the premier setup men in baseball the past three years, annually posting an ERA of 2.65 or better. Wins for relievers are fairly random, but he’s in a good position to earn his share while working the late innings for Cincinnati. 

24 comments have been left for this article.

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