My colleagues here have been ranking the top keepers by position for the last month or so, and now it’s time to get caught up on the guys pitching at the end of the game, the closers. There aren’t many relievers out there worth a keeper spot, especially in leagues that limit you to four or five keepers, but these four guys are the very best of the best. They offer top-of-the-line production and job security, but they also play on what are expected to be strong teams. Theoretically, they’re in line for more save chances.
I’ve included Zach Sanders’ end of season value rankings for reference, but they were not the sole criteria used to create the keeper rankings or delineate the tiers.
Craig Kimbrel – $17
The National League Rookie of the Year was baseball’s most dominant bullpener this past season, leading all relievers (min. 60 IP) in strikeouts (127), strikeout rate (14.84 K/9 and 41.5 K%), FIP (1.52), and xFIP (1.94) while posting a high-end ERA (2.10) and WHIP (1.04). Kimbrel led his league with 46 saves, but he also led all closers in appearances (77) and innings (77.2). That took a bit of a toll and likely contributed to his subpar finish (three blown saves in his last eight outings) and the Braves’ collapse.
The 23-year-old right-hander has been an elite strikeout pitcher during his short time as a professional (14.42 K/9 in the minors), but he finally seemed to get his walk problems under control this summer. His 3.74 BB/9 and 10.5 BB% in 2011 were by far his lowest at any level in which he’s thrown at least 33 IP, and he did a nice job of bringing those rates down as the summer progressed. Relievers are nearly impossible to predict, but Kimbrel misses more bats than anyone else and is locked into the job on Opening Day. I do worry about the heavy workload having a carry-over affect, but not enough to let him go if I have the spare keeper spot.
John Axford – $12
If Kimbrel is our number one keeper closer, than Axford is basically number 1A after saving 46 games for the Brew Crew. He relied on big strikeout numbers (10.51 K/9 and 28.2 K%) and a healthy amount of ground balls (49.7%) to succeed, and the walk problems that plagued Axford earlier in his career appear to be a thing of the past. He walked just 3.05 batters per nine innings (8.2 BB%) this season, continuing a long and glorious downward trend.
Axford, 29 in April, is fastball heavy and he’ll deploy both a curveball and a slider. The free agent departures of Takashi Saito and Francisco Rodriguez means he won’t have to look over his shoulder after a rough week (sorry, Kameron Loe fans), not that I think his job is any kind of jeopardy. After close to 140 elite innings in the show, you can expect more of the same next year.
Jonathan Papelbon – $9
The first truly tenured closer on our list, Papelbon joined the Phillies earlier this month and improved his fantasy stock just a tiny bit with the move. For one, he didn’t get that big contract not to close, so job security is a non-issue. There was always just enough of a seed of doubt in Boston because of Daniel Bard‘s continued presence as the closer-in-waiting. Secondly, he’s in the easier league, though that is subject to change depending on what the Marlins and Braves do in the coming weeks. Not having to face the Yankees 18 times is usually worth a little sliver of ERA and WHIP over the course of the season.
Papelbon’s underlying performance was on par with Kimbrel’s last season, making up for the gap in strikeout rate (12.17 K/9 and 34.1 K%) with a considerably lower walk rate (1.40 BB/9 and 3.9 BB%). He’s a fly ball pitcher (career 36.6% grounders) and might give up an extra homer or two with the move to Citizens Bank Park, but even a return to his 2009-2010 performance (10.1 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9) means you’re still getting an elite end-game stopper.
Mariano Rivera – $11
Rivera is still a god among men, the gold standard at baseball’s most volatile position. He’ll have his usual one bad week in April and one bad week in August, then dominate the rest of the year. The velocity on his trademark cutter jumped up a notch last summer, as he continues to get further away from shoulder surgery during the 2008-2009 offseason. Mo’s a virtual lock for a sub-2.00 ERA, a WHIP at or below 1.00, close to a strikeout per inning, and maybe two walks per nine if he has an off year.
My only concerns with Rivera is something beyond his control: his age (42 in a few weeks). He’s managed to defy Father Time so far, but he has missed a handful of games with nagging, minor injuries over the last few seasons, and Joe Girardi likes to play it safe with his primary bullpen arms. Expect Rafael Soriano and/or David Robertson to vulture to occasional save. Otherwise, there’s no safer bet for elite performance at the closer position.