Before we get into the fourth of what will be five tiers of keeper closer rankings, we’ve got two pieces of business to attend to. One is Rafael Betancourt, who inherited the Rockies’ ninth inning job following the trade of Huston Street to the Padres. I have him in Tier Two of my holds rankings, and he’d very likely fit into Tier Two of the closer rankings, probably right behind Heath Bell.
Secondly, and more importantly, I completely whiffed on Joakim Soria. Left him out of rankings entirely. That’s obviously a pretty severe screw-up on my part, and I’m not going to make any excuses. Flat out whiffed. Anyway, Soria had the worst season of his career in 2011 (4.03 ERA and 3.49 FIP in 60.1 IP) as shoulder problems gave him some trouble, but I think we all expect him to right the ship next season. Soria still struck out a ton of batters (8.95 K/9) and walked a few (2.54 BB/9), he just ran into a case of homeritis (1.04 HR/9). Hopefully a winter of rest and a healthy wing allows him to keep the ball in the park a little more in 2012.
I’ve included Zach Sanders’ end of season player rankings for reference, but they weren’t the only criteria used to create the rankings or delineate the tiers.
Andrew Bailey – -$1
There’s a pretty good chance that Bailey will be traded in the coming weeks, but the real question for him is health. He’s always had nasty stuff and performed at something very close to an elite level (9.00 K/9 and 2.53 BB/9 with 40.1% grounders), but knee, elbow, and forearm problems have limited him during the last three seasons. Bailey could jump into Tier One with a full, healthy year.
Matt Thornton – -$6
Santos is now in Toronto, leaving Thornton as the favorite for save chances on Chicago’s south side next season. Of course he’s on the trade block himself, but he’s not exactly cheap ($5.5 million per season for the next two years) or young (35). But hey, teams love hard-throwing lefty relievers. Thornton’s performance was very good this past season (9.50 K/9 and 3.17 BB/9 with 48.8% grounders) but not as otherworldly as his 2008-2010 numbers. He might be slipping, but he still figures to be a pretty good fantasy option as long as he doesn’t completely crater.
Brandon League – $5
League put himself on the closer map by saving the third most games in the AL in 2011 (37), but we should be more impressed that he cut his walk rate in half from 2010 to 2011 (3.08 BB/9 to 1.47 BB/9). He is a ground ball machine (57.1% in 2011 and 61.3% career) that doesn’t offer many strikeouts (6.60 K/9 in 2011 and 6.70 career), but he does have a 9.16 K/9 season to his credit (74.2 IP in 2009). If League can get back to doing that, he’d shoot right up the rankings. Scheduled to become a free agent after the season, he’s a prime candidate for a midseason trade.
Mark Melancon – $5
The Astros have gotten some quality innings out of Melancon after acquiring him from the Yankees in the Lance Berkman swap last season. He saved 20 games thanks mostly to his 56.1% ground ball rate, simply because his 7.99 K/9 and 3.15 BB/9 aren’t high-end totals for a fantasy closer. With his first full season as a big leaguer out of the way, Melancon is the clear favorite for ninth inning chances with the rebuilding Astros and could be a sneaky good late-round saves option next spring.
Jason Motte – $3
We all saw what Motte did as the Cardinals made their improbable run to the World Series this year, emerging from the ashes of St. Louis’ bullpen late in the season to become a ninth inning force. He’s always been a high strikeout guy (8.95 K/9) with solid walk rates (2.87 BB/9) despite having converted to pitching not all that long ago. Motte’s late season and playoff dominance has earned him the closer’s job heading into next season, which is pretty exciting for Cardinals fans and fantasy owners alike.
Frank Francisco – -$3
Francisco’s been a sneak good fantasy option for a few years now, but injuries have limited his innings in each of the last three seasons. He’s a high strikeout (career 9.92 K/9), low ground ball (career 34.5% grounders) guy that should do a better job of keeping the ball in the park with the move to the NL and a pitchers’ park (assuming the new version of CitiField doesn’t prove to be a bandbox). You’ve got expect Francisco to spend some time on the DL next year, but hopefully he stays on the mound long enough to beef up your staff’s strikeout total.
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