There aren’t many closers worth keeping in traditional fantasy leagues, where keeper spots may be limited and are saved for the best of the best. Once you move beyond the game’s elite closers, you start to run into guys that carry greater risk, perhaps more risk than you’d be willing to assume with a keeper spot. Those are the guys you’ll find in Tier Two of our keeper rankings, including the two pitchers who started last year as the top fantasy closers in baseball.
I’ve included Zach Sanders’ end of season value rankings for reference, but they’re weren’t the only criteria used to put together the rankings/tiers.
Ryan Madson – $7
It’s funny how quickly a narrative can change. At this time last year, there were a lot of people wondering if Madson had what it takes to close (not necessarily FanGraphers, but the sentiment was certainly out there), and now he’s the best free agent closer on the market after the Phillies decided to let him walk in favor of Papelbon. Madson went 32-for-34 in save chances and ended the season with dynamite peripherals — 9.20 K/9 (25.2 K%) and 2.37 BB/9 (6.5 BB%) with a 48.8% ground ball rate — that were right in line with his 2009-2010 performance. At 31 years old and with no significant injury history, there’s little reason to expect a significant drop-off from Madson next season. Now, if we only knew what uniform he was going to be wearing…
Brian Wilson – $5
Wilson was a World Champion and the top fantasy closer at this time last year, but an injury-plagued and walk-heavy 2011 season slides him down the rankings. He missed most of Spring Training and the early part of the season with an oblique strain, then missed more than a month later in the season due to a flexor strain and inflammation in his elbow. When he was on the field, Wilson walked more than one out of every eight batters he faced (12.8 BB% and 5.07 BB/9) while his strikeout rate dropped from 10+ K/9 in 2009-2010 to 8.84 K/9 (22.2 K%). He still prevents homers with the best of them (0.38 HR/9 in four of the last five years) thanks in part to his home ballpark, and his low-scoring teammates means lots of close games and appearances. Hopefully a winter of rest and improved health moves Wilson up the rankings and back into the realm of fantasy’s elite closers. This ranking is based on reputation more than 2011 performance, obviously.
J.J. Putz – $11
Three years removed from utter dominance during the 2006-2007 seasons, Putz returned to the closer’s role full-time in 2011 and very quietly had one of the best seasons of any reliever in the game. His strikeout (9.47 K/9 and 26.6 K%) and walk (1.86 BB/9 and 5.2 BB%) numbers were as good as it gets, and all four of his blown saves came in June, just before he hit the disabled list with elbow inflammation. That’s the big concern with Putz, his spotty health track record. He was day-to-day with back spasms a few times in addition to the elbow problem this year, and he’s been on the DL five times since the start of 2008. There’s a lot of risk here, but also a lot of upside.
Jose Valverde – $11
Perfect seasons can be misleading, mostly because they tend to mask something other than high-end performance. Valverde was very good this past year, but he continued to battle control problems (4.23 BB/9 and 11.3 BB%) and his strikeout rate (8.59 K/9 and 22.9 K%) has declined every year since peaking at 12.59 K/9 and 30.9 K% in 2006. The Tigers figure to win a lot of games in a weak division next year, and Valverde will be the guy to eat up all those save chances in the ninth inning. At the some point though, the 33-year-old’s perpetual shakiness will catch up to him and he’ll have one of those ugly 30+ saves, 4.00+ ERA, 1.40+ WHIP seasons.
Heath Bell – $8
Another guy without a team at the moment, Bell’s strikeout rate (7.32 K/9 and 19.9 K%) dropped off in a big way this past season, down from 10+ K/9 and 28+ K% in recent years. His walk (3.02 BB/9 and 8.2 BB%) and homer (43.3% grounders and 0.57 HR/9) numbers stayed steady, but expect the latter to spike a bit if he leaves the Padres and Petco Park. It’s worth noting that Bell’s velocity didn’t drop at all, and he did experience a somewhat similar drop in strikeout rate back in 2008, his second year in San Diego. He recovered from that perfectly fine, but he’s now 34 years old and could be moving out of baseball’s best pitchers’ paradise. Bell’s a safe bet for saves next season, but he’s no longer a slam dunk elite performer in some of the other scoring categories.