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Ninth Inning Arms on the Rise

On Thursday, Mike rolled out our long list of reliever rankings which included many familiar names from seasons past, some of them dating back to the 90’s.  But there are some new arms vying for the fireman role this season and some of them have tremendous promise.

Matt Thornton

The veteran of this group, Thornton was once so bad that he was actually flipped for Joe Borchard. Since then, he has developed into one of the best relievers in the game, and he is currently locked in a Spring Training battle (or Ozzie Guillen coin-flipping contest) with Chris Sale for the closers gig. Most observers give the inside track to Thornton, but as Mike Axisa pointed out in the comments section of the rankings, between the two, Sale received more opportunity to close late last season.

Thornton’s repertoire is pretty simple: throw really hard.  In 2007, he was throwing 79.7% fastballs, trying to mix in an underwhelming slider the rest of the time. Today, it’s 90% fastballs, and since 2007 they in fact have only become faster, and along with that trend has gone his K/9 which has risen each year to a career peak of 12.02% in 2010.

Much of his value is going to be tied up in whether or not the White Sox decide to give him the closer role outright. At this point, it sounds like Guillen is quite serious about using a committee approach, which would certainly give Thornton opportunities to close, but obviously limit the number of saves you could count on. However, give Thornton 70 innings and he’s likely to give you 90 strikeouts to go along with an ERA south of 3 and a WHIP that flirts with sub 1.00.

My guess is they enter the season with a committee plan, but it will be evident early on that Thornton is Guillen’s preference. With an average ADP across Yahoo/ESPN/MDC of 190, he’ll have a lot of value even if he only saves 20 games.

Craig Kimbrel

Another flamethrower in a battle for the closer role is Craig Kimbrel, whose 2010 stats in 20 IP were so silly looking they looked like typos (0.44 ERA, 17.42 K/9). News in Atlanta is that he’s sharing the closing duties with Jonny Venters, which brings back memories of the two headed monster of Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano. But while Venters has excellent stuff, it’s not quite as explosive as Kimbrel’s, and if Kimbrel can manage to demonstrate that his control is better than the near 7 BB/9 rate he posted in 2010, look for Venters to be used in a role similar to Thornton’s in 2010 by May.

While Kimbrel probably won’t maintain a strikeout rate of 17.42, in just over 150 innings of minor league work, he did have a K/9 rate of 14.4, so he’s been missing bats for a while now. And for kicks, watch what he does to Cody Ross here. Kimbrel is of the Carlos Marmol mold where you’ve got to have a Costco-sized barrel of antacids handy to tolerate the occasional tight-wire act, but when they’re good, they’re practically unhittable.

Even if the committee approach sticks, due to the preponderance of right handed bats, we could expect Kimbrel to get the majority of save chances as Soriano did in a similar lefty/righty platoon. For context, Soriano got 27 saves that year, and it might be fair to expect Kimbrel to do the same even in a shared role. Kimbrel’s combined ADP is about 214, with Yahoo and ESPN registering in the 180’s, so it’s possible both he and Thornton will be leaving the board in the same round. While his WHIP might not get you excited, 100 K’s in 60 innings might, and if you toss in 25+ saves, you’ve got yourself a bargain.

Drew Storen

Storen is the only one of this group with job security headed into Spring as the closer of the Washington Nationals. His strikeouts aren’t as sexy as Kimbrel or Thornton, but he should stick somewhere around 8 K/9, which ain’t complaining material. He’s got a good fastball, which averaged 94.4 mph in 2010, but he compliments it with a vicious slider and very good curve, so he has a deeper arsenal than most two-pitch stoppers (or, one if you’re Thornton).

The big knock on Storen is the notion that he’s going to have limited save opportunities because he plays for a Nationals team that might not be challenging for the pennant right away. You’ve probably seen this piece over at Beyond the Box Score that delivers credibility to such an idea, but even the good fans of Fangraphs put the Nationals at 74 wins, which ought to provide enough chances to keep his output relevant at the very least.

Storen’s combined ADP is right in line with our other two risers at about 180. If you’re risk averse and you don’t like the committee possibility, Storen is a guy that could give you very respectable, if unspectacular, contributions in ERA, K’s, and Saves very much on the cheap.