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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.