Closers are a volatile crew. As many as a third lose their job from injury or poor performance from year to year – the Small Sample Size Blues if you will. If your league has jettisoned the save statistic, call yourself lucky to avoid the headache that is chasing saves all year.
If you aren’t so lucky, then you know the perils of punting, or even the risks of being cheap when it comes to your bullpen. If you spend on Brian Wilson, you get consistency and statistics that are great when compared to others at his position. There is such a thing as value over a replacement closer, and that’s probably worth paying for.
But, as with most rankings, there must be tiers. There will be a cheaper top-end closer and a more expensive mid-range closer, and you know which one you want. So let’s try to separate these guys into their respective groups. Get it sorted, right?
Neftali Feliz, Heath Bell, Brian Wilson, Joakim Soria, Mariano Rivera,
These closers have all excelled in the role for multiple years. For the most part, they are young, healthy and in their primes.
Okay, so there’s an obvious outlier. But it’s hard to count out Mariano Rivera before it actually happens. Sure, he just showed his second-worst strikeout rate of the decade and he’s pitched progressively fewer innings each season since 2004 – but you go over there and tell the Best Closer That Ever Lived to hang it up.
One of this group will likely get hurt, it seems. Murphy’s Law will have it as the one you draft. Brian Wilson threw the most innings last year, Mo the fewest. Joakim Soria has been a little frail over the course of his young career, and Neftali Feliz had some issues that led him to the pen. You get to try and sort these tea leaves and pick the right one for your fantasy team.
[Non-closer of the tier: Aroldis Chapman. He’ll be worth owning even if he only manages five saves, and has the upside to take the job from Francisco “Co-Co” Cordero, whose stats have been sliding.]
Carlos Marmol, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, Jose Valverde
These closers all have elite skills bogged down by some asterisk.
Carlos Marmol had the best strikeout rate in baseball last year and deserves to be lauded for his work. He also showed a walk rate that was almost twice the national average. The ability to strikeout enough batters to avoid paying for that bad of a walk rate seems to be unique. There are few comps to point to, few paths for him to follow.
Joe Nathan’s story may be a little less exceptional. This starter, racked by injuries, turned to the bullpen and excelled. Then (surprise) an injury came calling. That said, he could easily be healthy for a couple years. And when he’s healthy he’s an elite closer.
Both Jose Valverde and Jon Papelbon have shown signs of decline. In Valverde, 32, those signs may be more worrisome. His strikeout and walk rates have taken a three-year turn south, but he still has his velocity and a new-found split-finger. Papelbon is younger (30) and has kept his strikeout rate solid while his walk rate has suffered. After avoiding the extra postseason work this last year, he might just be poised for a nice bounce back.
[Non-closer of the tier: Rafael Soriano. A former closer, MFIKY comes with the Mean Face and the strikeout rate of a closer. One of those things will score in your fantasy league.]
Cheap But Solid?
Francisco Rodriguez, Koji Uehara, Andrew Bailey, J.J. Putz, Huston Street, Ryan Franklin
Each of these closers comes with a major question mark, but are also veterans returning to the role with (relatively) little controversy.
Well, Francisco Rodriguez comes with trash bags of controversy, but keeping him from the closer’s role may incur the wrath of the union and ultimately sour the team for future free agents. He may be a sneaky value play – his stats are usually elite when he plays.
You could say the same of Andrew Bailey, but instead it’s health keeping him taking the mound. Health has similarly hurt J.J. Putz and Huston Street recently. Even with the difficulty in projecting playing time, this group (and the older Putz and Street in particular) deserves a demerit for the health tool.
Ryan Franklin? Well, one year all that smoke and all those mirrors will go poof.
[Non-closer of the tier: Mike Adams. Every year it seems Adams puts up great numbers to little fanfare. He’s not a threat for saves, but he’s solid.]
On The Way Up
Craig Kimbrel, Drew Storen, Chris Perez, John Axford
You could argue that this tier belongs higher on the list, and considering how much I love upside, I’ll probably be in the same checkout lane as you.
But not all Closers of the Future end up The Closer. Just ask Craig Hansen, Joey Devine, Chris Ray, Jorge Julio, Ambiriox Burgos, Tyler Yates, Eddie Kunz, Mike MacDougal, Ryan Wagner, Yhency Brazoban, Rich Garces and Royce Ring.
Craig Kimbrel could be the next Carlos Marmol, or maybe his control problems win out and he walks the lineup. Drew Storen does have three pitches, but hasn’t shown the strikeout rate of an elite closer yet. Chris Perez has fewer pitches but the same problem.
John Axford’s a little older (27), as you can tell from the mustache. But if he really can keep that walk rate around four instead of five per nine, he’ll establish himself as an elite closer and not only as a dashing young magazine cover.
[Non-closer of the tier: Daniel Bard. A Papelbon trade is not impossible, but the team will most likely keep him if they are competitive. And, well, they look like they might be a competitive team this year. So Bard will wait a year – but that’s about it – before joining the elite closers of the game.]
Be Aware of The Handcuff
Scott Downs (Jordan Walden), Brad Lidge (Ryan Madson), Jonathan Broxton (Kenley Jansen), Frank Francisco (Octavio Dotel), Francisco Cordero (Aroldis Chapman), Matt Thornton (Chris Sale)
This group doesn’t necessarily “need” the handcuff, but they will probably need some help this year.
A couple of guys look like they should close somewhat safely. Scott Downs has been steady Eddie, but he doesn’t own the elite strikeout rate of a closer and throws with his left hand. Jordan Walden is the smoke-throwing young dude behind him. Frank Francisco has less of a lefty split than his ancient handcuff Octavio Dotel. Matt Thornton has a plus-plus-plus pitch, some mixed results with closing in the past, and an exciting young lefty Chris Sale behind him.
Then there are those that may give way to depressing sagas. The story of Brad Lidge has already been told a million times, but Philadelphia is sure that Ryan Madson can’t close. Maybe a new coach will take the same brutal debate out of Jonathan Broxton’s world, but Los Angeles has been wondering what happened to their burly closer for a while now. Francisco Cordero is a flawed incumbent – his strikeout and walk rates were both below average last year – but the hot shot behind him (Chapman) may be better utilized in the rotation. And Dusty Baker likes familiarity.
[Non-closer of the tier: Hisanori Takahashi. Tak-2 was better than his overall numbers once he moved to the pen last year, and his new employers plan on using him there again this year. He’ll garner some match-up saves, too. But he doesn’t have a ton of upside.]
Comes With Handcuff Only
Joel Hanrahan (Evan Meek), Leo Nunez (Clay Hensley), Joel Peralta (Jake McGee), Brandon Lyon (Wilton Lopez), David Aardsma (Brandon League)
This group is for those of you that really don’t like to spend on closers. The problem with these closers is that they will most certainly cost you another roster spot for the handcuff.
Brandon Lyon may look like he doesn’t belong, but his strikeout rate makes him unattractive. Unfortunately his handcuff (Wilton Lopez) is a ground-baller with exceptional control. He won’t offer strikeouts either. In the same way, David Aardsma was an okay closer last year and may not look ‘right’ here. The problem is that he is recovering from hip surgery, won’t be ready until mid-April, and was rumored to be on the trade block last year anyway. Brandon League is a capable fill in with one exceptional pitch and meh rates.
The pens in Florida will probably be a mess. Leo Nunez has taken well to the bullpen, but had a bad couple of months late last year and may have lost the job to fellow former failed starter Clay Hensley. Hensley’s gains may have been real, but we know little about his true talent in the pen. We know almost nothing about the possible Rays closers. Smoke-tossing lefty Jake McGee would be in the catbird seat if the team decided he was a reliever long-term, but in the meantime we’ll have to consider if the extreme fly-ball inducing Joel Peralta can keep his strikeout rate as shiny as it has been the last couple of years. Otherwise it might be Kyle “Thunder Thighs” Farnsworth goggling up the saves for the Rays.
[Non-closer of the tier: Bobby Parnell. He cooks with gas but little else. He might even be the Closer of the Future. In order to do that, he’ll have to show a better second pitch, and also that last year’s major league walk rate (the best of his career) is sustainable.]
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