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March 7, 2014

Fantasy Players to Avoid

Relief Pitchers

by BP Fantasy Staff

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At long last, our journey has come to an end.

Over the past two months, we've worked tirelessly (read: written two blurbs a week) to bring you a player to target and to avoid for each fantasy position. We hope our collective experience has helped you recoup some value and avoid some mistakes in your drafts this year, and we've enjoyed the debates that many of the names we've listed have spurred.

With that in mind, it's appropriate that our final installment brings you pitchers who specialize—or are supposed to specialize, at least—in ending games. Symbolism is beautiful.

John Axford, Indians
Axford will strike out many batters and is decent enough to pile up saves, which are the two primary functions of any fantasy closer. That being said, he's earned an ERA in the mid-4.00s over his pat 135 innings with a matching FIP, and he posts poor WHIPs thanks to his high walk rates. Axford also gives up a good number of homers for a closer, and there's no reason to think his stuff is going to suddenly play up as he enters his age-31 season. Axford could very well hold on to Cleveland's closer role for a while and notch 20-plus saves with 60-70 strikeouts and a 4.00 ERA, but that's his upside, and it would barely make him a top-25 fantasy reliever. Factor in that the talented Cody Allen is waiting in the wings, and Axford doesn't figure to have a terribly long leash should he begin to falter. If he falls in drafts he's worth taking as your third reliever, but he should not be relied upon. —Ben Carsley

Neftali Feliz, Rangers
Aside from my stringent stance against investing any large amount into the closer position unless they’re the final piece of the puzzle, reasons not to like Feliz this year include: he might be currently injured, he might not get his velocity back, he might get reinjured, and he’s probably not as good as Joakim Soria. Yes, sure, Feliz was one of the better relievers in baseball when he was healthy, effortlessly touching the upper 90s and blowing away hitters with relative ease.

He is coming off two abbreviated seasons though, and while he’s working himself back into shape, reports have him in the lower 90s, which will likely affect his ability to, well, blow hitters away. That doesn’t mean he can’t be an effective pitcher, as plenty of guys (including the recently departed Joe Nathan) have had to learn to pitch without their best velocity. It does mean that 2014 might be a learning experience though, and I would rather not pay for the adjustment. Soria was impressive in his own abbreviated season last year, has closing experience and there’s a good chance if he gets the job he might never relinquish it. All that said, Feliz might earn and hold the closer role all season. I’d just rather not pay for the risk that he won’t. —Craig Goldstein

Ernesto Frieri, Angels
Frieri had a wild ride last season, when he briefly lost the closer job with a poor July before rebounding with a solid August and a strong September. Let's look at the sum of his season: a 33 percent strikeout rate paired with a 10 percent walk rate to produce mixed results. Sure, that strikeout potential is sexy, but he has a WHIP in the 1.24 range. That's a lot of base runners for a closer. He gets helped by his home park, but relievers like him tend to be volatile season-to-season. Maybe he's fine this year, but I'm okay with letting someone else find out. —Mauricio Rubio

Craig Kimbrel, Braves
This is all about opportunity cost. I think prosciutto di Parma is the best prosciutto, but if blind folded, I can barely taste the difference between the Parma and prosciutto di Montreal. When the Parma costs $31.99 per pound and the Montreal costs $15.99 per pound, I am going to be feasting on the latter. More importantly, that extra $8 per half-pound I am pocketing can go toward a more aged cheese and a fancier olive mix. Similarly, I am going to let someone else pay the premium for Kimbrel and his declining swinging strike rate, especially when there is not much separating him from Chapman, Jansen, Rosenthal, and Holland, the prosciutto de Montreal’s of the closer world. Taken a step further, even the summer sausages of the closer world will get you saves and they are a heck of a lot cheaper on draft/auction day. —Jeffrey Quinton

Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
A 31 percent (and 10 percentage point) drop in strikeout rate last year left him with a 22.4 percent rate and sapped a good bit of his value. Throw in nine fewer saves than 2012 (some of which was his fault with three extra blown saves), and he provided little more than solid ratios in a six-year low of 61 2/3 innings. He lost nearly two MPH off of his fastball, too. I don't see a bright future for the 33-year-old. —Paul Sporer

Addison Reed, Arizona Diamondbacks
Swapped for third-base prospect Matt Davidson, Reed trades one hitter-friendly home in Chicago for another hitter-friendly home in Arizona. Reed was more or less the same pitcher in 2013 that he was in 2012, posting a 24.4 percent strikeout rate, 7.8 percent walk rate, and 3.13 K:BB ratio. Reed’s ERA decreased from 4.75 to 3.79, but I didn’t see enough improvement to make me think he’s ready to take the next step. A couple of really bad games spoiled his ERA in 2013, to be fair, but that’s become somewhat of an ugly trend since he’s become a closer. I don’t see top-10 potential here, which is right around where you’ll need to draft him. With slightly above average strikeout and walk rates, Reed’s value is heavily tied up in saves. There are better options later on I think can provide similar, if not better, value. —Alex Kantecki

Fernando Rodney, Mariners
It pains me to write something negative about Rodney, as I really dig the sideways cap and flashy postgame celebration. But he's a tough closer to rely on. He had himself a career renaissance two years ago in Tampa, setting the all-time single season ERA mark for a pitcher who threw as many as his 74 2/3 innings. And while he took a notable step back last year it wasn't that big: He still allowed contact on less than 70 percent of his pitches, posted a FIP under 3.00, and saved 37 games. But driving the regression from his highest highs of 2012 was a troubling return of the control problems that have been his Achilles heel throughout his career. He threw less first pitch strikes, and working behind in the count more often his knockout change-up lost a ton of value. His walk rate skyrocketed up above even his spotty career norms to eclipse 12 percent. He's moving out of Tampa, and therefore out of Jose Molina's house. The lost bonus strikes he became accustomed to over the past two years are certainly not going to help the issue. Add in a couple other Proven Closer™ options in the Mariner 'pen in Farquhar and Tom Wilhelmsen, and a likely shorter leash on account of the Mariners' apparent "go for it" mentality, and he's a risky option to invest in. Instead I'd take less WHIP-crippling three star options like Cishek, Johnson, and Balfour instead. —Wilson Karaman

Rafael Soriano, Nationals
Soriano makes me nervous in 2014 for two reasons: 1) His diminished velocity and reduced strikeout rate, and 2) strong options behind him in Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard. Soriano managed to put up a scoreless September 2013, but this was fueled by a very low BABIP and a perfect strand rate. With a strikeout rate well below 20 percent on the year, even if Soriano keeps the job he is no longer going to be a dominant closer but one who will live or die by the prowess of his defense. Soriano has a big contract, but it expires at the end of 2014 (there is a vesting option), leaving him with a shorter leash than he had last season. Maybe Soriano will be fine, but he should be viewed as a second-tier closer going forward. —Mike Gianella

Koji Uehara, Red Sox
This doesn't make me feel good in the least. I love watching Koji Uehara pitch. I love watching Koji Uehara celebrating things. I love watching this. And that's even breaching the subject of Little Koji. So as empty as it leaves me to talk about him in this space, I must. Uehara hasn't exactly been known as the most durable of pitchers in his career--in fact, even when Uehara became the closer, the Red Sox monitored his workload closely because there was concern about how often he would be able to throw. And it was warranted. Over the last four seasons, he's eclipsed 50 innings only twice, and the 88 innings he threw in 2013 (regular season and playoffs combined) was 23 more than his highest total as a reliever since coming over from Japan.

Of course, he also is coming off one of the most impressive reliever seasons ever and you could make the argument that we've never seen a closer perform at Koji's heights from July to October, when he allowed one run, two walks and 19 hits in 54 innings (while racking up 68 strikeouts). So I'm clearly not avoiding him like the plague, but if he's coming off the board just after the Big Five, I'll likely just wait and grab someone later on instead. —Bret Sayre

BP Fantasy Staff is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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