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March 4, 2014

Fantasy Tiered Rankings

Relief Pitchers

by Paul Sporer

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Today, our positional tier rankings series continues with a look at relief pitching.

Players at each position are divided into five tiers, represented by a numerical star rating. Five-star players are the studs at their respective position. In general, they are the players that will be nabbed in the mid-single digit rounds of most drafts and often go quickly once someone opens the floodgates. Four-star players are a cut below the studs at the position. They will go a little bit after that first tier, usually in the early-double digit rounds.

Three-star closers still have plenty of value because of how important saves are, especially in 4x4 leagues. Most of the three-stars have a wart or two, but if they can patch them up, you could have a stud on your hands. Two-star closers have both the warts and a tenuous hold on their role so you don’t want them being your top closer unless you’re looking to attack the saves game in-season. The one-star arms are the guys who could take the job of those who have those tenuous holds on their roles. The positional tiers aren't simply a regurgitation of last year’s values but rather try to offer some insights into what we expect will happen in 2014.

Five-Star

Kimbrel holds the throne so it’d be silly to take him off of it, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Chapman takes the top spot in 2014. Rosenthal is the unproven one of the group without a full season in the role, but he showed he can handle it in the most pressure-packed of situations: the playoffs. He could easily start if given the opportunity, but instead he’s a 100-strikeout stud reliever ready to ascend up the closer ranks.

Five-Star Value Pick: Trevor Rosenthal
The groin flare-up could push him down a little bit, which only makes him more appealing to me, because I don’t believe it will be any sort of issue.

Four-Star

We need to see Robertson do it for a whole year in the role, and Uehara hasn’t stayed healthy in back-to-back seasons, plus he’s 39 years old, or else they both could’ve made the top tier. I’m betting on the come-up from Reed, who allowed 30 percent of his earned runs (nine of 30) in a pair of outings last year.

Four-Star Value Picks: Addison Reed and Glen Perkins
Reed and Perkins are just 20 picks apart in the NFBC ADP, so I’m looking at both as value picks. Perkins has been excellent for his three years as a full-time reliever, but there is still that tinge of fear that he gets dealt to be the lefty ace in a contending bullpen that already has a lockdown closer. Reed has no such fears and plenty of upside to grow into with his new club.

Three-Star

Romo’s strikeout rate is sliding rapidly, and without overwhelming stuff (at least velocity-wise), there is no real reason to expect to surge all the way back up, if at all. He can still be a strong closer with great ratios and plenty of saves, especially in that ballpark.

Grilli might’ve been fresh on your radar last year, but he’s had two excellent years with a 37 percent strikeout rate in both. Still, he is 37 years old with just one year of closing, so it’s a little worrisome to blindly invest.

Cishek has been excellent the last three years, but the continued worry is that the 28-year old gets dealt by a fledgling Marlins team only to become a setup man for a contending ballclub despite having the chops for the ninth inning.

Janssen’s shoulder has him shut down for the time being, which is reflected in this slotting, especially since they have Sergio Santos looming. You’ll recall that Santos was a promising up-and-coming closer a couple of years ago, with 30 saves for the White Sox in 2011. The Jays have a more-than-adequate backup plan in place.

Soriano was downright pedestrian last year, as his cutter stopped missing bats, dropping him from an okay 25 percent strikeout rate in 2012 to an ugly 18 percent mark last year. And unlike someone like Johnson, Soriano doesn’t have an elite ground-ball rate to fall back on. Throw in multiple viable options behind him and Soriano’s rope is short in 2014.

Three-Star Value Pick: John Axford
I’m buying into the rebirth of Axford as a closer. After allowing nine runs in his first four outings, he posted a 2.92 ERA in his final 61 2/3 innings with 61 strikeouts.

Two-Star

How the mighty have fallen: Papelbon saw his strikeout rate tumble 31 percent (10 full percentage points) to just 22.4 percent. His walk rate dropped, so he held his 5.2 K:BB ratio, but strikeouts are important for a pitcher to be an upper-end closer.

Street hasn’t topped 60 innings in any of the last four years and he also saw his strikeout rate tumble with a 37 percent plunge from 32.6 percent in 2012 to just 20.7 percent last year. Now with Joaquin Benoit looming, any injury mixed with continued skills erosion could spell the end of Street as a full-time stud closer. Oh, and his 99.5 percent LOB rate probably isn’t holding again in 2014.

Don’t sleep on Hawkins. He’s far from great, but he’s being given zero love in early drafts, and he’s getting a shot at the role, if only on a matchup basis. His price is low enough that he can be your third closer, so even if he only snags 10-12 saves, he’s worth it.

Two-Star Value Pick: Nate Jones
He sits 97-99 MPH with his fastball, topping out at 101, and pairs it with a devastating swing-and-miss slider that works against righties and lefties. He doesn’t have a firm hold on the job just yet, but Matt Lindstrom and Ronald Belisario aren’t exactly primed to steal and hold the role.

One-Star

This is our group of guys on the cusp of snatching a role if things break their way, but almost of all of them have nice $1-2 value in only leagues even if they don’t ever emerge into the ninth-inning role. Qualls, Soria, and Brothers are all in the throes of battles right now, while Santos could be if Janssen’s shoulder continues to be a problem.

Clippard, Melancon, and Allen are among the best setup men in the game, but they are all also primed to emerge at some point in 2014 as previously outlined. Soriano has been very shaky, Grilli is old, and Axford – despite my belief in him – is far from a sure thing.

Crain is going ahead of Qualls in a lot of drafts, but he is far from healthy at this point, so I have a hard time slotting him at the top of the mountain for the Astros bullpen. He has a calf and bicep issue and he’s tracking to start the season on the disabled list. I’m not averse to grabbing guys slated for the DL in early April, but that’s not really the case for a closer who doesn’t have any real track record in the role in the first place.

Parnell is now tracking toward Opening Day, but if anything happens, Black has a chance to take the role—at least temporarily. Guys like Bruce Rondon, Pedro Strop, and Kelvin Herrera are right on the cusp here, too. They definitely leapfrog ahead of Black if Parnell stays on track to start the season in the role.

One-Star Value Pick: Joaquin Benoit
Benoit was excellent as the Tigers closer last year and now goes behind one of the most rickety closers in the game, and in a ballpark that is more conducive to Benoit’s fly-ball ways. The big concern when the Tigers signed Benoit to a three-year deal was his health track record, but he went out and gave them three straight 61-plus-inning seasons, and even more if you factor in the playoffs in all three seasons. He could wrangle that job from Street in short order if Street doesn’t improve on last year’s modest numbers.

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

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