John Axford is one of several early season closer casualties.
By Tim McLeod and RotoRob
It’s time for our annual relief pitcher rankings. So while you bask in the emotional return of the Red Sox to Boston, let’s count down the top 106 relievers in Fantasy baseball.
Welcome to the wonderful and wacky world of the bullpen. It can be one of the most frustrating components of our game, but as much as those 10 per cent of the counting categories can drive us insane, they also provide opportunities. Will we see a repeat of the historical collapse and closer turnover that we witnessed last year? Hopefully not, but we probably we will to an extent and it will always be a highly volatile part of the game.
Already this season we’ve seen Jason Motte, John Axford, and Carlos Marmol lose their jobs because of either injury or ineffectiveness, while Greg Holland is on the bubble.
This year we have three basic levels of closers. There’s the elite, anchored by Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman, a middle tier that leads off with Jonathan Papelbon and then a whole series of question marks filling up that final tier.
When it comes to relievers, pick your poison, but blowing off the category is not usually a strategy that leads to success. One thing’s for certain: You can bet that your FAAB budget will be seriously employed chasing those elusive saves in 2013.
Last year’s rankings in parentheses.
1. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves (1): When we ranked him No. 1 in our Relief Pitcher Rankings a year ago, we talked about Kimbrell’s unhittable rising fastball. Well, his heater was even harder last year, leading to historic results. It will be interesting to see how Kimbrel fares early this year without his favourite set-up man, Jonny Venters. So far, so good. Despite reduced velocity, Kimbrel has been perfect so far, so if you’re chasing saves, there is no one better than the K-man. Last year, his WHIP was 0.65. Just think about that for a moment. No reliever is capable of racking up strikeouts like Kimbrel and while the low BABIP suggests he’ll likely regress somewhat this year, we’re hardly sweating. Over the last couple of years, very few closers have been sure things, but Kimbrel bucks that trend.
2. Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds (142 at SP): We all thought Chapman was going to be a starter last year; instead, he was sent back to the pen. And despite dead arm issues, the Reds again tried to add him to the rotation this year. And once again, the plan fell through when he said he prefers closing. Why mess with success? This dude is a shut down closer, so don’t screw with him by trying to make him a starter. He’s already racking up saves this year and bringing his near (or sometimes over) 100-mph heat. Chapman was ridiculously unhittable last year and although he’s having some control issues early this season, it’s not hurting him. There are still a lot of people that believe he should start, but given the durability issues, Cincy has made the right call in acquiescing to Chapman’s wishes.
3. Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies (2): Papelbon was in the news a couple of months ago because of his candid revelations about how the Red Sox treat their pitchers. He’s back bagging saves for the Phils this year after experiencing slight regression in Year One in Philadelphia. Papelbon worked hard, setting career highs in games and innings and he matched his personal best in wins (but that’s not necessarily a good thing from a closer). The fact is that this is one consistent closer at a position where finding consistency is about as easy as wrestling a bengal tiger to the ground. We love that Papelbon’s groundball rate was up last year — he’ll need more of that this year to keep the long balls in check.
4. Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees (8): As we discussed a couple of months ago, the Mariano Rivera Farewell Tour is underway. For instance, before the finale of the Yankees’ series in Detroit, the Tigers gave him a retirement gift (a framed set of photos). And why not? Let’s face it: there’s going to be a whole lot of hitters that will be overjoyed never to have to face Mo’s nasty cutter after he hangs ‘em up at the end of the season. Rivera started the season with a save as he continued his superhuman act into his 18th and final season. Last year, he had already bagged five saves before his season ended early with a knee injury. Rivera’s 43 now, so we shouldn’t expect much, right? Wrong. We trust him with a lead until he’s a rotting corpse. And just try to go yard off Mo. Including this season, he’s given up all of five dingers in the last four years.
5. Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays (NR): In a year of closing uncertainty, Rodney was one of the biggest surprises of the season last year. Well, as money as he was last year, he’s already blown a save this season, although at least he managed to earn the win in that game. In 2011, Rodney walked almost eight batters per nine innings and last year he was a legitimate Cy Young contender. Thank you, Jim Hickey. Does anyone still doubt that Hickey is a miracle worker and one of the best pitching coaches in the game? No one could score off Rodney last year as he set an ERA record for relievers. His BABIP was pretty low, so expect some regression all things being equal, but the fact is there is really no way Rodney will be able to duplicate what he did last year. No one could. The key for him last year was shifting his position on the pitching rubber to the extreme left, but early evidence this year suggests he’s shifted back — which could be disastrous. Keep an eye on this situation.
6. Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants (54): In a mid-January Podcast we talked about Romo’s injury risk (as a slider pitcher), but when he finally got his chance to close last year, he made no mistake, helping the Giants win another World Series title. He’s leading the majors in saves in the early going after managing to stay a bit healthier last year (although his K rate dropped in 2012). But if Romo keeps getting a big workload this season, we’re going to worry about his durability. Yes, he’s damn good, but don’t assume he’ll avoid the DL, so be prepared to be sitting on a disaster. Romo’s owners have had plenty of reasons to celebrate so far, but could easily be crying by season’s end.
7. Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals (70): An honourable mention for our 2012 Wire Troll All-Star Team, Soriano received a qualifying offer from the Yankees after his huge 2012 — mostly driven by Rivera’s injury opening the door for him. But Soriano said no thanks, departing to become the closer for Washington. The contract (two years, $28 million) surprised many given the Nats’ plethora of in-house closing options. Soriano nailed down his first couple of save chances this year, but then blew one and he’ll be hard-pressed to duplicate what was arguably the finest season of his career in 2012. He was very tough to hit last year and we love the reduction in his home run rate. Still, with both Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard capable of closing, Soriano better watch his back.
8. Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles (26): As we discussed in our Baltimore Orioles 2012 Season Review, Johnson was crazy good last year. He’s bagging saves again in the early going, but asking for a repeat of 2012 may be a bit overly optimistic. The O’s kicked ass in close games last year, allowing Johnson to rack up a crapload of saves. But it’s not as if he was lucky — he was very tough to hit, but nobody saw him leading the AL with 51 saves. Judging by his FIP, Johnson is unlikely to record another sub-2.50 ERA, but he’s proven he can get the job done, earning himself a ton of job security.
9. Huston Street, San Diego Padres (17): Street’s injury last season opened the door for Luke Gregerson and now that we know that Gregerson can do it, there was tons of speculation that Street would be dealt this winter. However, he remains the Padres’ closer for the time being (even as the trade rumours persist). This is his ninth year as a closer, but how many times has the injury-prone Street reached 30 saves? Just twice. His first save of 2013 was a shaky one, but the fact is when he’s healthy, he’s a damn good closer (successfully saving 23-of-24 chances last year). When you draft Street, it’s always a good idea to also add his setup man as a handcuff, and once again this year that means Gregerson. After all, injuries limited Street to a career-low 40 games last season, although you had to be stoked with the strikeout rate he provided when healthy.
10. Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers (20): Nathan was someone we wisely picked in the 2012 Fantasy Baseball Guide and we hoped you listened to us, as he wound up having a big-time comeback season. He recently racked up career save No. 300, so it’s pretty clear he knows how to finish up a win. Nathan tossed three scoreless outings this season before first getting touched up for a run, but one thing is crystal clear now: he is so past his Tommy John surgery in 2010. Nathan was a little easier to hit last year and he suffered more losses than ever, but he still shaved nearly two runs per game from his ERA.
11. J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks (12): After blowing just five of 37 save chances last year, Putz didn’t waste much time in coughing one up after just one successful save this year and he’s a putrid 2-for-4 early on (although we don’t think his job is in serious jeopardy). This dude’s command is off the charts good, although his hit rates were up slightly last year. The real issue with Putz is his ability to stay healthy and with both David Hernandez and Heath Bell also in town, an injury could see him get Pipped out of a job. Putz, who tied a career high in losses last year, has come a long way since his time at the University of Michigan and he’s now pulled within 15 saves of reaching 200 for his career.
12. Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners (NR): A candidate for 2012 Fantasy Rookie of the Year, Wilhelmsen — in his first full season in the bigs — took over as a closer in June, allowing the Mariners to peddle away Brandon League. Wilhelmsen is hardly dealing with a sophomore slump, nailing all six of his save chances so far this season, although he’s really struggled with his command and if that continues, it will be an issue. His homer rate was up ever so slightly last year, but hardly anything to worry about and the fact that he’s kept the ball in the yard so far this season is a good sign. After taking over the job last year, Wilhelmsen was pretty untouchable, recording a 1.76 ERA, but his strand rate was up and is even higher this year, suggesting there’s been some luck involved. So be aware that an ERA correction is coming. Still, you know this dude is going to work as hard as he can after getting a second chance at the game (originally a 2002 seventh rounder by Milwaukee, he worked as a bartender for a while before the Mariners inked him out Independant baseball).
13. Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox (35): The Hector Santiago as closer experiment didn’t last long last year before Reed took over the job and wound up saving 29 games as a rook. The ERA hurt (second highest among relievers that had at least 30 save chances), but he’s off to a much better start this year and is a perfect 5-for-5 so far. The White Sox babied Reed to an extent last year, but he’s averaging an inning per outing in the early going of 2013. Give this kid another year of experience, and he could easily be a top 10 closer, but the fact that his control keeps getting worse is worrisome. On the plus side, the second-year closer has already bagged a win this season.
14. Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians (21): We thought Perez was going to get spanked last year, but we were wrong and admitted it. Well, so far this season, he’s crossed up star catcher Carlos Santana, hurting Santana’s hand in the process, and suffered a blown save after just one successful conversion. Perez dealt with shoulder soreness in the spring (missing most of March) which is another reason to worry. He actually wound up giving up more runs last year, but his strikeout rate bounced back and his control was much better, suggesting that his skills were no longer eroding. Is Perez’s shoulder okay? For what it’s worth, his velocity is way down early in the season, so we suggest keeping a close eye on him.
15. Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins (44): As we discussed in our 2013 Minnesota Twins Season Preview, Perkins not only stayed healthier, but he proved he could finish games last year. Who says southpaws can’t close? Perkins nailed down 16 saves in 20 tries last year, and he’s 3-for-3 so far this season. In fact, through his first three appearances, no one even reached base against him. Perkins certainly doesn’t get the headlines, but there’s no denying he’s a capable closer. For a dude that is not considered one of the elite closers, he’s just as likely to lead the league in saves as pretty much anyone. Perkins dramatically improved his control last year and seems to have taken that to a new level so far this year. Assuming he remains healthy, he has some real job security, and that’s not an easy thing to find in the relief ranks.
16. Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates (NR): The Cubs failed to land Grilli, but division rival Pittsburgh did bag him. Finally given his first shot to close, Grilli is looking like an old pro at it, nailing his first five save chances to establish a tighter grip on the job. He’s not just replacing the traded Joel Hanrahan, he’s taking it a step further (third in the NL in saves).
17. Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics (28): In early August, we recommended Balfour as a waiver wire claim and it was a fine call as he reclaimed his closer job and was dominant in August before getting hit a tad more in September. He can bring the heat and has resumed his closer gig to start 2013, nailing down his first and only save chance so far. Balfour averaged nearly a strikeout per inning last year, but has just five in seven innings in 2013 — assumedly just an anomaly considering he’s throwing even harder this season. He’s faltered as a closer before, but sure looked good doing the job down the stretch last year, and that has to have bought him some rope. Balfour made a career high 75 appearances last year in what was an inconsistent season given that he lost the closer job and then regained it. All told, it was his best season since 2008, and at the age of 35, asking him to duplicate it might be a bit much. But it’s not impossible.
18. Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays (68): An honourable mention as a Wire Troll All-Star last year, Janssen was over 30 when he finally got his chance to close, but he really responded to the opportunity and has looked even more dominant so far in 2013. Offseason shoulder surgery? Whatever. Janssen is lights out right now.
19. Brandon League, Los Angeles Dodgers (19): A Wire Troll pick in September, League justified our faith with a brilliant final month that included six saves in as many chances. He proved he can close in 2011, and while last year was a rollercoaster ride, he’s been lights out so far in 2013. While he’s never been a huge K man, League’s strikeout rate is way down and he still has Kenley Jansen looming, but there’s no reason he can’t hold the job all year.
20. Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies (24): In a late-September Podcast we said how surprised we were by Betancourt’s ability to hold the closer job all of 2012. After all, he’s no spring chicken (38 later this month) and had never been a full-time closer before. Betancourt is 6-for-6 already this year, proving last season was no fluke. Just beware of him being moved at the deadline and shifting into a set-up role somewhere else.
21. Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals (31): Holland’s rough start already has us recommended Kelvin Herrera as an alternative. Holland was 16-for-20 when he took over the closing gig in KC last year, but his wildness has him in danger of losing the job. Manager Ned Yost has Holland’s back — but for how long? Holland spent two seasons as a top set-up man, so it seemed as if he was ready for the job, but he’s struggling with the mental aspects of closing right now. He has the dominance to blow hitters away, but unless he reins in the walks, it won’t matter. Holland’s strand rate last year suggests he was a tad unlucky, so if he can sharpen his command, there is upside here. Given that he’s looked better of late, expect him to get a bit more rope to get his shit together.
22. Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers (NR): We didn’t waste any time pimping Henderson after John Axford’s ugly start to 2013 and he’s already rewarded those of you that listened with three saves and a pair of wins. Henderson was so widely available at the beginning of the season that he’s looking like a candidate as a Wire Troll All Star and has likely bought himself a bit of job security in Milwaukee while Axford tries to work his way back into the mix.
23. Joaquin Benoit, Detroit Tigers (57): Another early-season waiver wire recommendation, Benoit vindicated our decision by converting his only save chance so far — even if it was a bit of shaky outing in which he failed to strike anyone out. He struck out over 29 per cent of the batters he faced last year and while that’s down slightly this season, he’s been even more unhittable in the early going.
24. Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins (50): Back in October, we expected Cishek to be the man saving games for the Fish in 2013 and sure enough, that’s the case. Unfortunately, he’s been touched up pretty good in the early going and a lot of Fantasy owners are pissed that he blew Jose Fernandez’s sweet debut. But as long as Cishek stays healthy, the Masschusetts native is going to get plenty of burn in Miami.
25. Bobby Parnell, New York Mets (86): In late-January, we expected Parnell to be a set-up man, but surprise of surprises — Frank Francisco is hurt to begin 2013 — so Parnell is getting another shot at closing. Parnell suffered from a lot of bad luck last year and that’s crept up again this season, and he’s not exactly racking up the saves (1-for-2), but his superb command early on is promising. He’ll keep the job after Francisco returns as long as he doesn’t totally implode again. Is this the season Parnell finally earns our trust?
Others to Consider
26. Joel Hanrahan, Boston Red Sox (7): In a December Podcast, we worried about Hanrahan based on a bad second half, and so far, our fears have proved justified as he’s been awful in the early going of 2013. He received a vote of confidence from Red Sox Manager John Farrell, but with their bullpen depth, there was no reason for the BoSox to suffer if Hanrahan keeps struggling. Sure enough, a hamstring injury landed Hanrahan on the DL. His control — so much better in recent seasons — was awful last year, and looks even worse so far this year. On the plus side, his hit rates were phenomenal last season, but he’s getting hit hard this spring. Hanrahan’s drop in velocity was a red flag last year, and while his heater is back up this year, the results from 2010 and 2011 are not returning with it. Before we overreact, Hanrahan has only had one awful outing, and with some of the other Red Sox relievers having troubles, he will likely get another crack at the gig once he returns.
27. Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels (NR)
28. Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals (73)
29. James Russell, Chicago Cubs (NR)
30. Jose Veras, Houston Astros (NR)
31. Santiago Casilla, San Francisco Giants (NR)
32. Ryan Madson, Los Angeles Angels (NR)
33. Mitchell Boggs, St. Louis Cardinals (NR)
34. Kelvin Herrera, Kansas City Royals (NR)
35. Andrew Bailey, Boston Red Sox (10)
36. Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers (33)
37. Vinnie Pestano, Cleveland Indians (36)
38. Luke Gregerson, San Diego Padres (66)
39. David Hernandez, Arizona Diamondbacks (62)
40. Kyuji Fujikawa, Chicago Cubs (NR) (We’re worried that his injury could be more serious than anticipated)
41. Sergio Santos, Toronto Blue Jays (13)
42. David Robertson, New York Yankees (34)
43. Jake McGee, Tampa Bay Rays (76)
44. Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers (4)
45. John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers (5): As we discussed early this season, Axford is struggling something fierce. He’s already lost twice and suffered a blown in save in four appearances as his ERA reaches the stratosphere. Last year, Axford dealt with control issues as he was unable to come close to duplicating his career year in 2011. He was worked hard last year and the cracks formed aplenty. Henderson has taken over the closing gig for the Brewers, and despite the fact that Axford has looked much sharper lately, the team is in no rush to give him his job back.
46. Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs (11)
47. Junichi Tazawa, Boston Red Sox (NR)
48. Frank Francisco, New York Mets (25)
49. Ryan Cook, Oakland Athletics (NR)
50. Mark Melancon, Pittsburgh Pirates (48)
51. Eric O’Flaherty, Atlanta Braves (74)
52. Pedro Strop, Baltimore Orioles (NR)
53. Al Alburquerque, Detroit Tigers (NR)
54. Drew Storen, Washington Nationals (6)
55. Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox (71)
56. Wilton Lopez, Colorado Rockies (59)
57. Jonathan Broxton, Cincinnati Reds (30): The Reds signed Broxton to close and then decided that Chapman wouldn’t be moving to the rotation after all, yet Podcast guest Ian Kahn still likes this deal (three years, $21 million) for Cincy. Obviously, shifting to a set-up role really burned Broxton’s Fantasy value and to make matters worse, he’s getting shelled so far this season (including surrendering a career-high tying six runs in his last outing).
58. Brandon Lyon, New York Mets (65)
59. Jared Burton, Minnesota Twins (NR)
60. Rex Brothers, Colorado Rockies (42)
61. Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals (14): Motte has started the season on the DL because of a mild strain in his flexor tendon, and there’s talk he could miss the entire season. Last year, he proved 2011 was no fluke, despite a career high in losses and an ERA that rose half a run per game. In the meantime, Mujica is the man in St. Louis, but Motte’s dominant strikeout rate cannot be ignored. There’s still no timetable for when he’ll start pitching again, but even with that uncertainty, Motte is too good not to rank at all.
62. Sean Marshall, Cincinnati Reds (29)
63. Mike Adams, Philadelphia Phillies (37)
64. Tyler Clippard, Washington Nationals (55)
65. Jonny Venters, Atlanta Braves (38)
66. Brian Wilson, Free agent (9)
67. Ronald Belisario, Los Angeles Dodgers (NR)
68. Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals (NR)
69. Jesse Crain, Chicago White Sox (40)
70. Wesley Wright, Houston Astros (NR)
71. Antonio Bastardo, Philadelphia Phillies (56)
72. Joakim Soria, Texas Rangers (NR)
73. Jeremy Affeldt, San Francisco Giants (83)
74. Jon Rauch, Miami Marlins (79)
75. Aaron Crow, Kansas City Royals (153 at SP)
76. Scott Downs, Los Angeles Angels (67)
77. Sean Burnett, Los Angeles Angels (NR)
78. Sean Doolittle, Oakland Athletics (NR)
79. Carter Capps, Seattle Mariners (NR)
80. Phil Coke, Detroit Tigers (NR)
81. A.J. Ramos, Miami Marlins (NR)
82. Javier Lopez, San Francisco Giants (77)
83. Matt Lindstrom, Chicago White Sox (47)
84. Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee Brewers (51)
85. Octavio Dotel, Detroit Tigers (61)
86. Steve Delabar, Toronto Blue Jays (NR)
87. Joel Peralta, Tampa Bay Rays (39)
88. Dale Thayer, San Diego Padres (NR)
89. Kyle Farnsworth, Tampa Bay Rays (16)
90. Brad Ziegler, Arizona Diamondbacks (NR)
91. Bruce Rondon, Detroit Tigers (NR)
92. Jordan Walden, Atlanta Braves (15)
93. Mike Gonzalez, Milwaukee Brewers (NR)
94. Tim Collins, Kansas City Royals (NR)
95. Matt Guerrier, Los Angeles Dodgers (88)
96. Heath Bell, Arizona Diamondbacks (3)
97. Tony Watson, Pittsburgh Pirates (NR)
98. Matt Thornton, Chicago White Sox (23)
99. J.J. Hoover, Cincinnati Reds (NR)
100. Jose Arredondo, Cincinnati Reds (NR)
101. Tanner Scheppers, Texas Rangers (NR)
102. Charlie Furbush, Seattle Mariners (NR)
103. Darren O’Day, Baltimore Orioles
104. Joe Smith, Cleveland Indians (NR)
105. Matt Belisle, Colorado Rockies (69)
106. Brad Lincoln, Toronto Blue Jays (NR)
RotoRob’s Fantasy Baseball Weekly Podcast
Crave more in-depth Fantasy analysis? Then join us every Thursday at 9 p.m. EST for RotoRob’s Fantasy Baseball Weekly Podcast on Blogtalkradio. Tim McLeod and I will entertain and edify you for a half hour or more each week. We’re off next week because of the NBA Playoffs, but will return on May 2. Tune in here.