RotoGraphs Mock Draft: Relievers in the First 15 Rounds

Many times I hear one of the popular fantasy mantras (“always start your studs!”) I can’t help but roll my eyes. I’m just not a fan of trying to wedge advice into a one-size-fits-all framework. However, there is one overly-used cliché I actually follow. Believe it’s validity deep in my brain and deeper in the heart. “Never pay for saves on draft day.”

Of course, for those guys that love them some elite closers, the easy retort to this is “but… but… Mariano Rivera!” They’re right, I can’t deny Mariano Rivera has provided excellent return on investment for his drafters over the last decade or so. But that specific example doesn’t mean the closer position isn’t horrendously volatile and subject to the whims of finicky managers around the league.

Just look at 2012. Fantasy owners shelled out big bucks for Rivera, John Axford, Ryan Madson, Brian Wilson, Heath Bell, and Jordan Walden. How about their ROI? Meanwhile, Fernando Rodney, Aroldis Chapman, Jim Johnson, Kenley Jansen, Tom Wilhelmsen, and Ernesto Frieri were all guys who ended up in the top-10 of fantasy relievers (real relievers — guys like Chris Sale don’t count). How many of them did you spend a top-200 draft pick on? Heck, in one of my leagues every single one of those guys hit the waiver wire at one point or another during the season. Need more convincing? In a league where I deliberately drafted zero relievers (it was a keeper league during a total rebuild year), I somehow ended up with a top three saves ranking after picking up guys like Frieri, Casey Janssen, Glen Perkins, and Greg Holland as potential trade bait at various points during the year.

So now I’m stuck in my ways. I will never draft a closer early. Ever. Well, I guess Craig Kimbrel could fall to me in the 11th in one of those magically to-good-to-be-true drafts. But just because I won’t draft a closer inside the top 15 rounds, doesn’t mean my RotoGraphs partners in crime will follow suit (I know, shattering perceptions of FG/RG groupthink everywhere!). So without further adieu, here’s the breakdown of relievers taken in the first 15 rounds of our early mock.

RP Name Pick
1 Craig Kimbrel 4.4
2 Aroldis Chapman 8.3
3 Jason Motte 8.4
4 Joe Nathan 9.10
5 Fernando Rodney 10.4
6 Jonathan Papelbon 11.1
7 Greg Holland 11.8
8 Sergio Romo 12.11
9 JJ Putz 12.12
10 Rafael Betancourt 13.2
11 Addison Reed 13.5
12 Joel Hanrahan 13.10
13 Huston Street 13.11
14 Drew Storen 13.12
15 Mariano Rivera 14.1
16 Jim Johnson 14.5
17 Ryan Madson 14.10
18 Chris Perez 15.5

Craig Kimbrel is the number one choice headed into 2013 on a near-universal basis and, unsurprisingly, he was the first to spring off the board. What was surprising was how early he jumped, with Zach Sanders nabbing him in the fourth round, passing up hitters like Billy Butler and Adrian Gonzalez and other starters like Felix Hernandez and Zach Grienke. Kimbrel is easily the safest bet of all relievers (last year he dropped his xFIP from 1.94 to a mind-blowing 0.88) and was a top-50 player in most roto formats, so while taking him so early makes me queasy, it’s a defensible pick.

Aroldis Chapman will be an incredibly interesting selection this year as the Reds consider moving him to the rotation. From a real-life value standpoint, him putting up even 75% of his peripherals from last season over 150+ innings would be a huge boon for Cincinnati. However, assuming the K% falls off, he would likely drop in the fantasy realm. Mainly because of the heavy weight most leagues give to the save statistic but we also need to remember that he probably wouldn’t be working deep into games and may be on an innings cap. Potential bummer for his keeper league owners (including yours truly).

Assuming Chapman moves to the rotation, Jason Motte becomes the second “true” closer picked. Motte put up solid peripherals in 2012 (30.8% K%, 2.88 xFIP) and plays for a contending team, but I can’t help but think this was also a bit of a reach. He probably would have been on the board a round or two later and taking him in the eighth meant passing up on guys like Alex Gordon and Roy Halladay who should provide good value in that stage of the draft.

The selection of Joe Nathan at 9.10 kicked off a mini-run of closers, with Fernando Rodney, Jonathan Papelbon, and Greg Holland all going within the next 20 or so picks. Nathan and Papelbon put up solid rates in 2012 and have the history to back it up, so they should be relatively safe picks here. Rodney doesn’t have the history, but miraculously shredded his BB% rate last year. He won’t put up a 0.60 ERA again, but will likely be a solid option for a contending team, even with a bit of regression. I like Holland’s upside this year, and he’s a great guy to target once the flashier names fall off the board. He’s not 100% assured of the ninth inning job, but it’s essentially his — he misses a ton of bats (31.5% K% in 2012) and his early-season struggles last year were largely BABIP-fueled. The Royals aren’t an elite team by any stretch, but he’ll get opportunities, especially with James Shields and Wade Davis in the fold. He went as RP7 here, but I’m willing to bet he’ll fall farther in most other drafts.

The real run on closers held off for another couple rounds. Seven relievers jumped off the board in 15 picks between 12.11 and 14.1. Sergio Romo strikes me as a risky pick as the eighth relief pitcher, especially given the fluidity in the San Francisco bullpen (and the relative success of said fluidity) the past few years. J.J. Putz and National League West counterpart Huston Street are both a year older but have rather steady peripherals and job security. Addison Reed had a bit of an up-and-down year as a rookie closer for the White Sox last year, but Robin Ventura stuck with him even with Brett Myers and Matt Thornton setting him up. He has some work to do, but he could sniff the top five if he flashes some of the stuff that led to a career 1.41 ERA in the minors. Joel Hanrahan is an interesting buy, he’s going to start the season as Red Sox closer — a job that could hold a wide range of values. However, Andrew Bailey will also be breathing down his neck in the event Hanrahan’s elevated walk rate from 2012 persists into the new year. High risk, high reward.

Drew Storen will quickly drop in the rankings now that Rafael Soriano is in the fold. That’s one of the perils of slow drafting. The name probably considered closest to an underdraft by save-drafting haters like myself is Mariano Rivera. The future Hall-of-Famer will sag big time in the rankings this year given his uphill climb to come back from a torn ACL, but even assuming he’s 80% of pre-injury Rivera, he should easily return top-10 closer value for a team that will likely flirt with 95-100 wins. Keep an eye on him in spring training, but don’t be afraid to pull the trigger if he’s still hanging around into 13th-16th rounds.

Jim Johnson fell all the way to RP15, but that’s probably a function of the more stat-inclined drafters. Everyone saw past the 51 saves and 2.49 ERA to the 3.63 xFIP and adjusted accordingly. I fully expect him to go way too early in the vast majority of leagues. Don’t be that guy. Ryan Madson will attempt to return from Tommy John surgery in Anaheim. While being the closer for the Angels will likely carry significant fantasy value, I need to see a healthy Madson get the vote of confidence before I’m buying him in the top 20 relief pitchers. Chris Perez rounded out the list. A pariah heading into 2012, he bounced back with his best season ever on a rate stat basis. He’s not the safest bet to repeat those numbers but, admittedly, once you get past the top 15 closers or so you begin to latch on to guys with firm grasps on the job.

From a draft value standpoint, I believe the more interesting names are yet to come. As you can probably tell, there are still lots of relievers on the board and this is where guys like Craig Kimbrel (2011) and Aroldis Chapman (2012) are found prior to their emergence. Plus, we’re getting close to where people (like me) who put less stock into drafting closers stuff their roster. But we’ll have to wait until next week to find out.

EDIT: The first cut of this was missing Betancourt. All better now.

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There are few things Colin loves more in life than a pitcher with a single-digit BB%. Find him on Twitter @soxczar.

11 Responses to “RotoGraphs Mock Draft: Relievers in the First 15 Rounds”

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  1. BJ says:

    Only issue I have with this article is saying the Yankees will flirt with 95-100 wins. They’re barely a 90-win team at this point.

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  2. Scott says:

    Ah, but they will give a ball with their number on it to 95 wins.

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  3. Jimbo says:

    RP are a lot like the football Lucy holds for Charlie Brown over and over again. Every year I try to remind myself how easy it is to find QUALITY closers througout the year. My goal is to draft ONE value RP (Kimbrel two years ago, Motte last year, Holland or Reed this year). Then force myself to avoid other RP picks until the end.

    Even taking a mid-to-late round flyer can lead to rostering a guy you aren’t ready to drop right away when the first closer role opens up. Punting that second or third RP will help prepare your roster for a quick pickup in-season.

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  4. mort says:

    The whole “dont pay for saves on draft day” advice is terribly wrong. Yes, injuries and changes happen, however the other owners in your league have the same access you do to the closers-in-waiting. There is no guarantee that frieri will be on the waiver wire for you when you need someone to add.

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    • DrBGiantsfan says:

      I agree with this. I believe you need to draft at least 1 and preferably 2 closers who have a reasonable chance of lasting through the year unless you want to spend 24/7 scouting the injury reports and rumor mills. It doesn’t mean you have to take them in the first round, but you don’t want to let a big run go past you or get outbid on every closer on draft day.

      As for injuries and busts, it can happen with any player. A lot of people paid a lot for Matt Kemp, Mike Napoli, Troy Tulowitzki and many other position players last year. Last year was a particularly bad year for closers. Most seasons at least 15-20 make it through the whole season.

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    • Colin Zarzycki says:

      Just to clarify, there is a difference between drafting zero closers and waiting to draft closers.

      As we will see next week, I employ the latter strategy. My point is not to say “ignore closers, just pick them off the wire.” Rather, given the position volatility, I’d rather invest in more “sure” commodities early in the draft and save my RP gambles for later on.

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    • Ian says:

      It all depends on your league. My main league tends to over-value closers on draft day, yet is really slow to react to changes during the season. Last year I was able to lap the field in saves, despite only drafting Soria (ugh), Street, and Chapman (thank goodness), just because I monitored the Closer Report here on RotoGraphs.

      There’s no guarantee that 2013 will play out like 2012 and 2011, when there was a new closer or two nearly every week. But it already looks to be that way. I’d only write down Kimbrel, Motte, and Papelbon as sure bets for 35 saves. The rest I’m just not sold on being the closer for the whole season, for various reasons.

      So personally, I’m probably going to target getting at least one of those three, while not reaching for them before slot. Then wait until all other starting roster positions are filled before filling out my RP spots. Saves are going to be fluctuating all season long. There’s lots of RP’s that are potential closers who carry excellent rate stats while you wait for saves to show up, either from them or the waiver wire.

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  5. dudley says:

    i like betancourt as a relative saves bargain.

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  6. Allen says:

    Soriano was named closer by Davey, not sure why Storen was drafted so high & Soriano not at all.

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    • This was a slow mock, so Storen was taken before the signing of Soriano.

      Soriano was immediately drafted upon word of his signing, but that doesn’t happen for another few rounds.

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  7. jordo2323 says:

    I’ve been waiting for an article to point out the lack of stud closers this season. I agree paying for saves is often dangerous, but this season seems to be more of an anomaly as there aren’t a lot of top closers with track-record and stability. Frankly, Papelbon to me is the only one who has the stuff and experience to be in that “Mariano Rivera” group and justifies a significant investment on draft day.

    It oddly parallels the lack of proven RB talent in many fantasy football drafts to start the 2012 season. Most notable starters had one issue or another (be it injury or age). It seems most closers have an issue themselves.

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