Tiers, Not Fears: Closers

Don’t engage in Storen Wars
Photo Credit: Miss Chatter

In the final installment of “Tiers, Not Fears,” we have landed at relief pitching. A lot of fantasy owners hate having to deal with closers, but not me. While you read a lot of “don’t pay for saves” idioms being thrown out there, the fact is, if you play in a league that uses closers, you HAVE to pay for saves. Me? I try to stock up on at least four (preferably five) closers on draft/auction day because saves are the easiest commodity to trade during the season.

Think about it. Pulling off trades is tough in a lot of leagues since owners engage in a pissing contest as they each try to “win” the trade. When saves are involved, however, you cut through the shit. Saves are the one stat any owner can sell as a way to gain more points. There are only so many dudes getting saves, and everyone knows that. I’m not saying hitch your wagon to a bunch of high-priced closers, but just cast a wide net.

Sure there is a ton of turnover at the position, you will probably watch at least one of your closers shit the bed or get hurt at some point. That’s even more of a reason to pick up a bunch of ninth inning options in your drafts and auctions. Trying to scour the waiver wire for saves is a frustrating endeavor in competitive leagues, as all the best handcuffs and even the short-term closers are all rostered. You become a slave to fantasy news information sites, looking for every edge you can get. Then you end up picking up, like, eight relievers in the hopes that you can scrap up enough saves to stay in the race. Don’t be that guy. Suck it up, pay for saves, and win your goddamn league.

More after the jump:

The “Guarantee” Generals
1. Craig Kimbrel
2. Jonathan Papelbon
3. Mariano Rivera
4. Sergio Santos
5. Jordan Walden
6. Jose Valverde
7. Heath Bell
These dudes are the closest thing to a guarantee when it comes to not losing their jobs. Whether it’s their salary or legacy, they are staying in the closer’s position all year if they stay healthy … Even though Jonny Venters has the makeup of a closer, he poses no threat to Kimbrel. The Braves threw Kimbrel into the fire from the jump and never wavered on their commitment to him as the closer. You can’t blame them as the young flame-thrower posted a crazy 14.84 K/9 and 15.8 SwStr% in 2011 … Pap-smear is doing his thing in Philly now, but the lack of familiarity NL hitters have with Papelbon will be very advantageous. With a 16.8 SwStr% and 12.17 K/9 last year, Papelbon still has plenty left in his tank … He may be 42 years old and is inducing fewer swings-and-misses, but Mariano Rivera’s cutter still generates enough weak contact to make him a sterling closer. Plus, he has as much job security as any closer could possibly have … Santos dominated hitters last year to the tune of a 13.07 K/9 and 14.1 SwStr%. The fact that the Blue Jays picked up Francisco Cordero shouldn’t dissuade owners from targeting Santos as a premiere closer. Dude is the truth … Surprised to find Walden so high on this list? I was too at first, but the simple fact is that he is a superior option to all the suckas ranked below him. Last year, homeboy averaged 97.5 mph on his heater, registered a 9.99 K/9, and generated a good amount of grounders to boot (45.2 GB%). While the Angels have a stable of veteran relievers in their bullpen, I don’t see any way that Jason Isringhausen, Scott Downs, or LaTroy Hawkins will overtake him as the closer. The Wal’s job is safe and he’s an elite talent … Say what you want about Valverde. He’s fat, his fastball lost a tick last year, and his strikeouts are a bit down. Still, manager Jim Leyland has his back and for good reason. Including the playoffs, Valverde had a sparkling 0.52 ERA in save opportunities last year … It’s not the brightest idea to pay a 34-year-old fat reliever (who declined in SwStr% and LD% last year) $9 million a season, but the Marlins made their bed, so now they have to sleep in it before Bell eats it. Because of the salary, Bell will stick in the closer’s role regardless of how he performs. Good thing the new Miami ballpark looks almost as expansive and pitcher-friendly as Petco.

The “Relatively Safe” Society
8. John Axford
9. Brandon League
10. Sean Marshall
11. Joel Hanrahan
12. Carlos Marmol
13. Huston Street
They will enter the season as closers with a relatively long leash, but a pronounced slump could jeopardize matters … Clearly, I’m not as high on Axford as most. For starters, his SwStr% dipped to 9.4 in 2011, which is almost a two percent drop from 2010. Also, with Francisco Rodriguez, the Brewers have a more than capable in-house replacement. Axford throws hard (95.6 mph fastball last year) and generates a good number of grounders, but he just misses making the cut for the tier above … The League limits walks (1.47 BB/9 in 2011), averaged 96.5 mph on his fastball last year, and generates a high amount of ground balls. He doesn’t have the K/9 many want from their RP1, but what he lacks in elite K production, he more than makes up for in reliability … Marshall has a diesel cutter and he was one of the best RPs in baseball last year. He definitely has the strikeout potential and stuff to be a terrific fantasy closer. The presence of Aroldis Chapman does put a little bit of pressure on Marshall if he struggles, but he should have little trouble finishing the season as a top 10 closer … With a career-high 97.1 mph average fastball in 2011, Hanrahan cemented himself as a great fantasy closer. He even improved his control (2.1 BB/9) and upped his GB% to 52.4 percent last year … Marmol posted a 12.04 K/9 and 11.2 SwStr% in a down season, but there’s definitely some risk here. He’s wild as shit (career 5.88 BB/9), saw his fastball velocity dip to 91.8 mph last year, and is giving up more line drives. The organization seems to believe they’ll get him turned around and his K upside is still intriguing … The move from Coors Field to Petco Park is a welcome sight for Street, who gave up 10 gopher balls last year. Sure he’s injury-prone, but with great control (1.39 BB/9 in 2011) and whiff potential (13.1 SwStr% last year), Street still has the goods to be an RP1 in fantasy.

The “Overrated” Oligarchy
14. Drew Storen
15. Andrew Bailey
16. Brian Wilson
17. Joe Nathan
Their names ring out in the fantasy community, but these closers are all overpriced sucker picks … Storen was overrated before the elbow problems, but the arm trouble now makes him one of the riskier RPs. Even if the guy was healthy, he would not have been that great of a fantasy target. His 8.9 SwStr% simply isn’t the mark of a dominant stopper. However, because of all the hype he has received the last couple of years, he’s commonly thought of as an elite closer. Sure he possesses good control (2.3 BB/9 last year), throws hard, and has the full support of the Nationals organization. That’s all great, but even with a full bill of health, he wasn’t about to finish the season as a top five fantasy RP … Bail’ Money? Nah. Like Street, Bailey is injury-prone. Unlike Street, Bailey doesn’t have elite swing-and-miss potential (10.1 SwStr% in 2011 isn’t bad, but it’s also not great for a closer). Something to keep an eye on is the long ball. Bailey’s HR/FB on the road has gone up each of the last two years (10.7 in 2011). Now that he calls Fenway Park his home, he’ll need to do a better job of keeping the ball in the park. Plus, the team has Mark Melancon on hand just in case … All the early spring training reports seem to be rosy regarding Brian Wilson. Elbow problems plagued him in 2011, and that obviously hurts his stock coming into 2012. After all, closers do not have long shelf lives, and Wilson has been doing this for a while now. Is it possible Wilson is over the arm troubles and comes back strong in 2012? I suppose, but there’s no reason to draft him inside the top 10 when there are safer options to go to … Nathan is 18 months post-Tommy John Surgery and the Rangers just paid him closer money on a two-year deal with an option for 2014. They seem to believe he’s capable of pitching a full season and his leash should be plenty long in 2012, but I’m still unsure about Nathan’s prospects. He’s 37 years old, has lost some velocity on his fastball, and has Mike Adams lurking around. The most disturbing part about Nathan, however, is his newfound propensity for giving up the long ball. He posted an 11.5 HR/FB last year and is now moving to a big-time hitter’s park in Texas.

The “Front-Runner” Felons
18. Rafael Betancourt
19. Jason Motte
20. J.J. Putz
21. Frank Francisco
22. Jim Johnson
23. Brett Myers
24. Kyle Farnsworth
25. Matt Thornton
26. Matt Capps
27. Grant Balfour
28. Javy Guerra
29. Chris Perez
Though the individuals in this tier are not locks to finish the season as closers, the fact that they are entering the season as ninth inning options makes them well worth drafting … Betancourt posted elite totals last year in K/9 (10.54), SwStr% (12.8), and BB/9 (1.16). The fact that he’s 37 is a tad concerning, but he seems pretty locked in as the Rockies closer … While a 8.95 K/9 and 2.54 BB/9 in 2011 are still pretty good marks for Soria, he may be entering a decline. He posted a career-high 20.8 LD% and 10.4 HR/FB in 2011, while also registering the worst SwStr% of his career (9.1). Plus, the team has three candidates to close in Jonathan Broxton, Aaron Crow, and Greg Holland. I don’t expect Soria to fall completely off a cliff, but a return to his once dominant ways seems highly unlikely … Unlike Tony LaRussa, new Cards manager Mike Matheny has already come out and declared Jason Motte the closer. Motte has the fastball of a closer (96 mph average last year) and he does a fine job of limiting the walks (2.12 BB/9 in 2011). Just be mindful that if he struggles, the Cardinals have other options to close … The Diamondbacks are making no secrets about their desire to not overwork Putz in order to keep him healthy all year. He posted a 9.47 K/9 and 12.0 SwStr% last year, but his fastball lost a tick and he is 35 years old. I want to put him higher, but it would be against my better judgment … Francisco is another injury-prone closer with great potential. The Mets do have backups ready in case he struggles or gets hurt (Jon Rauch and Bobby Parnell), but Francisco has the live fastball to succeed in the role … He may not have the strikeouts fantasy owners are looking for (5.74 K/9 in 2011), but Johnson seems more than capable of handling the ninth inning job in Baltimore. He had a crazy-high 61.5 GB% last year and averaged 95.1 mph on his heater while displaying terrific control (2.08 BB/9). He would be higher on this list, but he threw 91 innings in 2011, which is the most he’s tossed since 2007. Since he’s already dealing with a back ailment in Spring Training, there’s legitimate reason to be skeptical that he won’t be as effective in 2012 … On the surface, Myers seems like a shoe-in to hold down the closer’s role all year. He was named the stopper prior to Spring Training and the organization reworked his deal to accommodate the move. Just keep in mind that the team may just be looking to get max value in a trade of Myers. Besides, the guy averaged just 88.4 mph on his heater last season. Perhaps he gets a couple ticks back with a move to relief, but people expecting a return to his PHI closer days are operating on a magic beans-level of optimism. Also, the team has Brandon Lyon (proven closer) and David Carpenter (high upside K machine) chilling in the bullpen … Joe Maddon won’t name Farnsworth his closer, but it’s obvious that he will open the season as the answer at the back end of the bullpen. Farnsworth had a great season as the closer last year, but he’s turning 36 in April and the team has a plethora of options they can turn to if need be … White Sox manager Robin Ventura admitted Thornton is the favorite, but after loafing his shorts last year, he’s hardly a guarantee. If he does close, it might just be to boost his value in order to trade him during the season (left handed, flame-throwing relievers can fetch quite a penny). Whatever the reason, closers are must-own commodities in leagues that count saves, and I really don’t see Jesse Crain as much competition. Keep an eye on Addison Reed though, he’s the truth … Capps is just lucky there are no slam-dunk closer candidates behind him in Minnesota, because a 4.66 K/9 just isn’t cutting it. He should have decent leash, but a prolonged slump could have him forced out of the ninth inning role for the second straight season … Balfour has enjoyed a nice career in the majors as a reliable late-inning piece, but his SwStr% fell to a mediocre (and career-low) 7.8 percent mark last year. Still, just because Balfour is closing now doesn’t mean things won’t change as the season progresses. Joey Devine andFautino De Los Santos are capable of closing games, so if Balfour struggles, Oakland has options … Dodgers manager Don Mattingly has already anointed Javy Guerra as the closer coming into 2011, but he doesn’t have the whiff potential you’d like to see in a ninth inning man (7.33 K/9 and 8.6 SwStr% in 2011). Plus, there’s a certain set-up man who looks poised to surpass him soon (more on that later) … There’s more wrong than right with Chris Perez coming into the season. He’s dealing with a strained oblique and while he isn’t ruled out for Opening Day, that injury can be a bitch. Plus, he was hardly dominant in 2011. His 5.88 K/9 and 5.6 SwStr% were pretty bad by closer standards and hitters made good contact against him too (21.4 LD%).

The “Position Battle” Platoon
30-31. Jonathan Broxton vs. Greg Holland (CHW)
This is really the only battle left to watch. Broxton and Holland can both be RP1s if one of them seizes complete control of the closer’s role. Of course, it’s possible we could see the job switching hands or even landing at the feet of Aaron Crow or one of the other relievers in KC’s bullpen. Point is, Broxton and Holland each have their flaws, so if one of them doesn’t run away with this thing early, it could be a frustrating season for those of you invested in the Royals’ ninth-inning situation. 

The “Handcuff” Hooligans
32. Vinnie Pestano
33. Kenley Jansen
All set-up men are not created equal. These are the only late-inning, non-closer options who are worth drafting as handcuffs. You can make the argument that guys like Francisco Rodriguez, David Robertson, Mike Adams, and Jonny Venters all deserve to be owned even in non-hold leagues, but we won’t listen to it here. In this tier, we care only about the players who have a legitimate shot of closing sooner rather than later … Pestano makes the list because of the oblique strain to Chris Perez. That said, the “Pes’ Dispenser” has the look of a closer thanks to his 12.19 K/9 and 16.3 SwStr% in 2011 … If Jansen doesn’t take over the closer role this season, Don Mattingly should be fired. With an insane 16.1 K/9 and 16.2 SwStr%, he has lights out stuff that should not be relegated to mere set-up duties. Guerra had a nice run last year, but the fact is that he is nowhere near the talent Jansen is.

*Last updated March 25th, 2012.


About Starbonell

Starbonell is the co-founder of Sons of Roto and one of the most insightful and colorful fantasy analysts in the game. Mixing intelligent and well-researched advice with an entertaining style of writing that is easy to digest, Starbonell is the king of info-tainment.