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Thursday, September 8, 2011
Early preview of 2012 closer situations

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

Stability -- not a word typically used when describing the position -- was the name of the game among closers this season.

Relief Efforts

Thirteen relievers began the season as their team's closer and kept the job the entire season, recording at least 80 percent of their team's saves, and 10 of those 13 have at least 30 saves. Seven others, each of whom was projected to lead his team in saves, have notched at least 25, two of those seven recording at least 80 percent of their teams' saves.

That's 20 of the 30 teams whose saves have been almost entirely predictable. But perhaps most telling: The projected saves leaders by team -- we'll judge those predictions by the highest-picked relievers by team in ESPN Live Drafts -- have managed 722 of the 1,090 major league saves, or 66.2 percent.

When you look at the saves landscape, there were really only four "waiver wire" gems in 2011: Sergio Santos (29), Fernando Salas (23), Mark Melancon (17) and Javy Guerra (15). That's not to say you couldn't have patched together the category, but this was not the season where turnover ran rampant in big-league bullpens.

Turnover could run rampant during the offseason. After all, 14 of the 30 major league teams had a different reliever notch the team's first save of 2011 than the one who notched its final save of 2010. Change happens at this position. It's merely a matter of when. During the 2011 regular season, it didn't that often, but maybe that means we're overdue for widespread turnover?

That in mind, let's play the prediction game -- while still keeping an eye on the final days of 2011 -- and examine the 2012 landscapes for each of the 30 major league bullpens. Picked for each team is a "2012 Projected Closer," the definition of which is somewhat obvious, though I'll stress that it doesn't necessarily mean the Opening Day closer but rather one likely to be in that role the majority of next season; a "2012 Sleeper," which doesn't always mean the top handcuff choice but perhaps a pitcher with the skills to rise from nowhere and thrive in the ninth inning (a la Santos this year); and a "Rest of 2011" pick for those of you still in tight, late-season races. The projected 2012 closer and rest-of-2011 picks are graded to provide a sense of their expected value.

(Contract figures per Cot's Baseball Contracts.)

Arizona Diamondbacks: The architects of baseball's best bullpen makeover this season -- they have shaved nearly two full runs off their relief ERA (a major league-best drop of 1.91 to be exact) -- the Diamondbacks suddenly have stability at the back end that wasn't present a calendar year ago. Closer J.J. Putz is signed for an affordable $4.5 million next season and has the lowest WHIP (0.91) this season among closers with at least 20 saves, while setup man David Hernandez remains shy of his arbitration years and was a perfect 7-for-7 in save chances with a 0.96 ERA during the 27-day span Putz was on the disabled list with elbow tendinitis. This is as clear a one-two punch as can be, the primary question whether Putz, who has made five trips to the DL since 2008, will hold up another year. Even if he doesn't, Hernandez is a fine fill-in. 2012 Projected Closer: Putz -- B. 2012 Sleeper: Hernandez. Rest of 2011: Putz -- A.

Atlanta Braves: Craig Kimbrel, who possesses the rookie record for saves (42) and has the fourth-most strikeouts of any rookie reliever (113), is a virtual lock to be the No. 1 fantasy closer off the board in 2012. His setup man, Jonny Venters, is pretty good too and would probably close for several other teams. Venters, through his first 153 career games, has a 1.73 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 10.13 K's-per-nine ratio. Best yet: Both of these pitchers aren't close to their arbitration years, so they'll be here for a while. 2012 Projected Closer: Kimbrel -- A. 2012 Sleeper: Venters. Rest of 2011: Kimbrel -- A.

Baltimore Orioles: Incumbent Kevin Gregg is signed for 2012, albeit for $5.8 million. There isn't an obvious alternative on this roster, and the Orioles probably aren't contenders next season, either. It hardly makes sense for them to open their wallets for a Heath Bell or Jonathan Papelbon. Here's what's interesting: Gregg's $6 million option for 2013 vests with 50 games finished next year, and the Orioles might prefer to avoid that happening, a la the New York Mets and Francisco Rodriguez this summer. It's difficult to envision anyone but Gregg closing for the team next Opening Day, but it's comparably difficult to envision him closing for them next September. The problem is that his replacement -- Jim Johnson, a potential rotation option in 2012, is the closest thing to a candidate -- might not be in the system yet. 2012 Projected Closer: Gregg -- D. 2012 Sleeper: Dan Klein … but as a late, late-season option and assuming his rehabilitation from shoulder surgery goes spotlessly. Rest of 2011: Gregg -- C.

Boston Red Sox: There might not be a closer job under greater scrutiny this winter than the Red Sox's, as hometown hero Jonathan Papelbon, who earns $12 million in 2011, is a free agent at season's end. Setup man Daniel Bard has long been hailed the team's closer of the future, and he has certainly shown his worthiness, with a 2.76 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 9.37 K's-per-nine ratio this year. The problem: Papelbon has been even better, with 2.75, 0.93 and 12.13 numbers in those categories, and he has been untouchable since the All-Star break. Money might dictate this job. If Papelbon's price becomes exorbitant, the Red Sox might let him go and hand the ball to Bard. I think it -- and they -- more than likely will. 2012 Projected Closer: Bard -- B. 2012 Sleeper: Michael Bowden. Rest of 2011: Papelbon -- A.

Chicago Cubs: Before the Cubs consider giving up on the often-unpredictable Carlos Marmol, they should keep in mind that they already have him under contract through 2013 ($7 million in 2012, $9.8 million in 2013), and since they're unlikely to contend, they might as well not invest more money in a finisher. Marmol might always be an adventure -- we fantasy owners prefer lower WHIPs from our closers but love the K's -- but he's 14-for-16 in save chances with a 4.26 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 12.79 K's-per-nine ratio since July 31. 2012 Projected Closer: Marmol -- B. 2012 Sleeper: Jeff Samardzija. Rest of 2011: Marmol -- B.

Chicago White Sox: Though there has been some closer controversy for the South Siders recently, with Sergio Santos and Chris Sale battling for the gig, manager Ozzie Guillen already provided fantasy owners some insight to the team's 2012 plans when he told the Chicago Tribune, "They might move Sale to the rotation, then [Santos] will be the closer." Note the they. If you're among those who believe Guillen might be on the outs -- perhaps headed to Miami -- it's possible that he's hinting that the decision to move Sale into the rotation, leaving Santos to close, comes from above. It's a strategy that makes a heck of a lot of sense. 2012 Projected Closer: Santos -- B. 2012 Sleeper: Addison Reed. Rest of 2011: Santos -- C (due to Sale's presence).

Cincinnati Reds: The chances of the Reds picking up Francisco Cordero's $12 million option are slim to none, especially with Aroldis Chapman as a perfectly capable replacement at a $10 million discount. Here's the grand question: Is the smarter move to graduate Chapman into the closer role or move him into the rotation where he can affect a far greater number of innings? The answer, at least as far as 2012 is concerned, might be a proverbial coin flip. I'm guessing he's rotation-bound since the Reds' starting five isn't overflowing as it was a calendar year ago. The Reds are probably going to look for the most affordable option on the market. 2012 Projected Closer: Francisco Rodriguez -- B. 2012 Sleeper: Brad Boxberger. Rest of 2011: Cordero -- B.

Cleveland Indians: Chris Perez has been somewhat of a disappointment during his first full season in the role, his strikeout rate dipping from 8.71 in 2010 to 5.80 per nine this year, but he's 25 years old and has rebounded with nine saves in 10 chances and a 0.00 ERA in his past 14 appearances. The Indians are comfortable with him. 2012 Projected Closer: Perez -- B. 2012 Sleeper: Vinnie Pestano. Rest of 2011: Perez -- B.

Colorado Rockies: They have paid Huston Street handsomely to close since 2009 and, health willing, continue to close he shall, being that he is owed $7.5 million next season. His injuries -- four DL stints since 2006 -- are becoming increasingly bothersome, however, and it's possible the Rockies will let him walk after the 2012 season rather than allow him to exercise his $9 million option. Rex Brothers has long been the Rockies' closer of the future, but his command this season -- 4.67 walks per nine in 41 games -- isn't polished enough for the role at this stage of his career. But by 2013 … 2012 Projected Closer: Street -- C. 2012 Sleeper: Brothers. Rest of 2011: Rafael Betancourt -- B.

Detroit Tigers: Considering Jose Valverde is in the midst of one of the best seasons of his nine-year career -- 40-plus saves for the third time in his past five seasons -- there's little doubt that the Tigers will pick up his $9 million option. It's all about health with Valverde, but for the most part, he has been reliable in that department in recent years. 2012 Projected Closer: Valverde -- A. 2012 Sleeper: Joaquin Benoit. Rest of 2011: Valverde -- A.

Florida Marlins: Leo Nunez is quietly developing into a younger version of Kevin Gregg, his ratios mediocre and his propensity for bad outings a frustration. The Marlins are in a unique position. They should be willing to inject more money into the team in their first season at their new ballpark, but it's not necessarily smarter to absorb Nunez's salary increase via arbitration. They should have traded him in July when they had the chance and should shop him this winter, replacing him with any of the more productive alternatives on the free-agent market. 2012 Projected Closer: Francisco Cordero -- B. 2012 Sleeper: Steve Cishek. Rest of 2011: Nunez -- D.

Houston Astros: They're a non-contender, period, and should not spend a penny on relief help. General manager Ed Wade can never resist chasing last year's relief stats, meaning I could completely see Mike Gonzalez being the Astros' closer come Opening Day 2012. Mark Melancon, who is a respectable 17-for-22 in save chances with a 3.18 ERA, is more than deserving of another shot. 2012 Projected Closer: Melancon -- C. 2012 Sleeper: David Carpenter. Rest of 2011: Melancon -- D.

Kansas City Royals: If Joakim Soria finishes nine of the Royals' final 18 games, his $6 million option for 2012 vests, but that's an affordable enough price that it's a no-brainer for them to exercise it even if he doesn't. Though he's not quite the unstoppable force he was from 2008-10, Soria is 19-for-21 in save chances with a 2.72 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 9.41 K's-per-nine ratio since June 1, plenty reliable numbers. His affordable price tag might make him a winter trade candidate, considering the Royals have burgeoning alternatives in Louis Coleman and Greg Holland, but the most likely scenario has Soria staying put until the 2012 trade deadline, serving as a mentor to the two. 2012 Projected Closer: Soria -- B. 2012 Sleeper: Coleman. Rest of 2011: Soria -- B.

Los Angeles Angels: Will the Angels open their wallets a la Fernando Rodney in 2010, or will they recognize that their three all-time best closers were all homegrown products … exactly the description the incumbent, Jordan Walden, fits? Walden has "closer stuff" and has long been hailed the team's future finisher. This shouldn't be a contest. 2012 Projected Closer: Walden -- A. 2012 Sleeper: Scott Downs. Rest of 2011: Walden -- B.

Los Angeles Dodgers: One of the two messiest bullpens this season -- the Cardinals being the other -- the Dodgers aren't likely to address their closer position on the free-agent market, not with the team's financial future still in question. Besides, they have two closer-caliber arms on the roster: Javy Guerra (2.15 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 7.88 K/9) and Kenley Jansen (3.30/1.12/15.05). The Dodgers might bring in a veteran contender who could fall back into a setup role, perhaps Rafael Betancourt, but one of those youngsters is probably going to score the gig. 2012 Projected Closer: Jansen -- B. 2012 Sleeper: Josh Lindblom. Rest of 2011: Guerra -- B.

Milwaukee Brewers: John Axford has lowered his walk rate from 4.19 per nine in 2010 to 3.34 this year, maintained a 10.44 K's-per-nine ratio and managed a near-50-percent ground ball rate (49.7 percent, up from 48.5). Is there any question he's a capable, top-shelf fantasy closer? 2012 Projected Closer: Axford -- A. 2012 Sleeper: Brandon Kintzler. Rest of 2011: Axford -- A.

Minnesota Twins: Though the Twins might decline Joe Nathan's $12.5 million option, there's little reason to think they wouldn't want to bring him back at a cheaper rate. His first season back following Tommy John surgery hasn't gone entirely smoothly, but he's still 10-for-11 in save chances with a 2.82 ERA and 0.85 WHIP in 24 appearances since July 1. The Twins have a history with him, they'll potentially lose Matt Capps to free agency, and they might be able to squeeze one more productive season out of the soon-to-be 37-year-old. Nathan might be one of 2012's fantasy bargains. 2012 Projected Closer: Nathan -- B. 2012 Sleeper: Glen Perkins. Rest of 2011: Nathan -- C.

New York Mets: As with the Dodgers, there are financial concerns with the Mets, and a non-contending team shouldn't be opening its wallet on a high-ticket closer like Bell or Papelbon. Bobby Parnell is the closest thing to a "closer of the future" on the roster, but he's a volatile option, at least on a 162-game basis. The Mets are going to have to sign somebody to provide competition, and that somebody might yet be more trustworthy on a long-term basis, like … 2012 Projected Closer: Matt Capps -- C. 2012 Sleeper: Parnell. Rest of 2011: Parnell -- C.

New York Yankees: Mariano Rivera will be 42 years old come Opening Day 2012, and he might set the all-time saves record on that day -- if he doesn't before 2011 comes to a close, which seems fairly likely. Amazingly, he's every bit as effective at 41 as he was at 31, and after so many years of success, are you really going to doubt him? 2012 Projected Closer: Rivera -- A. 2012 Sleeper: David Robertson. Rest of 2011: Rivera -- A.

Oakland Athletics: Andrew Bailey might have missed 53 games with an arm injury and hasn't been quite as effective since his return as he was during his first two big-league seasons, but there's a reason he wasn't traded this July. It's that he's still an above-average closer signed to an affordable contract. The Athletics historically move their closers only once their prices soar, and Bailey's arbitration price tag shouldn't be exorbitant. 2012 Projected Closer: Bailey -- B. 2012 Sleeper: Fautino De Los Santos. Rest of 2011: Bailey -- B.

Philadelphia Phillies: Assuming the Phillies decline Brad Lidge's option -- at $12.5 million, it'd be shocking if they didn't -- Jose Contreras enters the winter the Phillies' most experienced closer under contract. Ryan Madson is a pending free agent, and Lidge almost certainly will join him, so the question will be, will the Phillies attempt to bring either back or pony up for one of the big-ticket items? Despite their opinion of his "closer experience" entering the year, Madson has been one of 2011's most effective closers. Barring a surprise Heath Bell move, Madson should be back, with Contreras his caddy. 2012 Projected Closer: Madson -- A. 2012 Sleeper: Antonio Bastardo. Rest of 2011: Madson -- A.

Pittsburgh Pirates: He'll be due a huge raise in arbitration for his breakout performance this season, but Joel Hanrahan should remain a bargain in the $5 million-$6 million range considering his skill set. He has had only one month of an ERA above two (August, 3.86), is 36-for-39 in save chances and has shaved his walk rate from 4.78 in 2009 to 2.01 this season. Hanrahan is a fantasy stud. 2012 Projected Closer: Hanrahan -- A. 2012 Sleeper: Ryan Beckman. Rest of 2011: Hanrahan -- B.

San Diego Padres: Despite the rumors swirling, Heath Bell remained in San Diego beyond the July 31 trade deadline, and whispers shortly thereafter indicated that Bell might thwart the Padres' plans to recoup two compensatory draft picks in the event he departed as a free agent by accepting any potential arbitration offer. So now we enter the winter asking, would Bell really turn down a more lucrative contract elsewhere to remain in San Diego on a one-year arbitration deal? I think he might, considering his comfort level there, but his keeper-league owners shouldn't sweat the prospect, being that Bell isn't going to pull a Rafael Soriano and accept a setup role elsewhere. 2012 Projected Closer: Bell -- A. 2012 Sleeper: Ernesto Frieri. Rest of 2011: Bell -- A.

San Francisco Giants: Brian Wilson's keeper-league owners are rooting for his elbow to heal to the point that he'd be able to return to action before the season ends, but there's a chance we've already seen his final pitch of 2011. His value will therefore be in flux entering spring training, though not because his job is in jeopardy. It's more whether a winter's rest will heal him more effectively than an operation with a lengthy rehabilitation period would. Wilson is rock-solid when healthy, so stay tuned … 2012 Projected Closer: Wilson -- B. 2012 Sleeper: Sergio Romo. Rest of 2011: Committee -- C.

Seattle Mariners: Other than what has been a substantial home/road split -- 21-for-21 in save chances, 1.19 ERA, 0.73 WHIP in 31 home games; 12-for-17 in save chances, 5.09 ERA, 1.39 WHIP in 26 road contests -- Brandon League has been an entirely effective, and affordable, closer for the Mariners, which is why he stayed put at the trade deadline. He'll earn a hefty raise via arbitration from this year's $2.25 million -- think more like $6 million -- so perhaps he'll be on the winter trade market, but the Mariners aren't going to find much more bang for their ninth-inning buck. 2012 Projected Closer: League -- C. 2012 Sleeper: Chance Ruffin. Rest of 2011: League -- B.

St. Louis Cardinals: If Bell leaves San Diego, this is one of two probable destinations (Philadelphia being the other). The Cardinals have squeezed quite a bit out of fill-ins Fernando Salas and Jason Motte, but neither necessarily fits the bill as a long-term solution. Something to consider: If the Cardinals don't re-sign Albert Pujols, they'll have a wad of cash to spend to upgrade elsewhere, and they still have enough talent on the roster to believe they can make a 2012 run. That in mind … 2012 Projected Closer: Jonathan Papelbon -- A. 2012 Sleeper: Eduardo Sanchez. Rest of 2011: Motte -- B.

Tampa Bay Rays: Is there a more brilliant closer contract -- I'm talking beyond-the-free-agent-years, veteran contracts -- than Kyle Farnsworth's? He's a lock to have his $3.3 million option picked up, and depending on your opinion of his career resurgence, he'll likely repeat his effort as a solid second-tier fantasy finisher or be a potential late-round gem. The cutter has transformed this 35-year-old from enigma to late-inning stalwart, his ERA and WHIP declining and K-per-walk ratio increasing in each of the three seasons he has used it. Maybe 2012 will be the season Jake McGee finally adapts to the big leagues. Farnsworth will surely afford him as much time as he needs. 2012 Projected Closer: Farnsworth -- B. 2012 Sleeper: McGee. Rest of 2011: Farnsworth -- B.

Texas Rangers: Are we destined to enter another spring training engaging in debate about Neftali Feliz's role? With the affordable Mike Adams in tow, the Rangers can more easily shift Feliz into their rotation, a strategy that would have made a heck of a lot of sense this spring. I think the time has come. Feliz hasn't been overwhelming in Year No. 2 as closer, and if he's not moved now, he might never be. 2012 Projected Closer: Adams -- B. 2012 Sleeper: Tanner Scheppers. Rest of 2011: Feliz -- B.

Toronto Blue Jays: Though they could always bring back Jon Rauch, who has a $3.75 million club option, the Blue Jays more than likely will hit the free-agent (or trade market) again. The 21st-century Blue Jays seem comfortable chasing "closer experience." They've struck affordable deals with B.J. Ryan and Kevin Gregg in recent years and will probably do the same again. Maybe this is the year they finally place a deep investment in a familiar foe in Papelbon or someone like Francisco Rodriguez. More likely they'll look to hook a Brad Lidge or Francisco Cordero, each of whom will come cheaper, and have him go head-to-head with Rauch for the gig. 2012 Projected Closer: Lidge -- D. 2012 Sleeper: Casey Janssen. Rest of 2011: Frank Francisco -- C.

Washington Nationals: Drew Storen's time has arrived. Though he did not begin the year as Nationals closer, Storen notched his first of 34 saves on April 17. Only Jose Valverde (39), John Axford (38) and Craig Kimbrel (38) have more since that date. This has been the Nationals' plan since they spent the 10th pick of the 2009 draft on the Stanford product, and it's not changing now. 2012 Projected Closer: Storen -- A. 2012 Sleeper: Tyler Clippard. Rest of 2011: Storen -- A.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality experts league. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.