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Sunday, February 12, 2012
Updated: April 4, 2:32 PM ET
2012 Position Preview: Relief pitcher

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

Ah, saves. You fickle, fickle category, you.

Throughout the preseason, you're going to hear a lot of cautionary tales about paying for closers strewn across these pages. Matthew Berry annually warns: "Don't pay for saves." Now more than ever, that advice rings true.

To be clear up front, "don't pay for saves" shouldn't necessarily be taken literally. Saves are, after all, one of the 10 categories in standard rotisserie 5x5 scoring, so unless you make the decision to punt the category outright -- and, while valid, that is an all-or-nothing proposition, not a hedge-with-one-cheap-closer strategy -- you're going to spend on some closer at some point in your draft.

The point, rather, is not to overpay for saves, meaning investing premium draft picks or auction dollars on a position that is incredibly volatile.

Closer roles might be scarce -- at any given time, there are only 30 such jobs in the league -- but they also come with arguably the least job security of any position on the field. Managers can change closers on a whim; they don't always hand out the roles to the most skilled arms in their bullpens and they sometimes decide on a committee approach to the position, which is a nightmare in fantasy.

To demonstrate how volatile the life of a closer is, consider this: Only six teams in baseball project to have the same opening day closer this season that they did on opening day 2010. And only 12 projected opening day 2012 closers were also closers somewhere in the majors on opening day 2010. That was just two years ago. Two!

Craig Kimbrel
Craig Kimbrel was taken 22nd among relievers in 2011 drafts. He finished first.

Berry also makes this outstanding point in his Manifesto: Of the 10 closers drafted earliest, on average, in 2011 ESPN drafts, only three finished among the top 10 at their position on the Player Rater. In fact, the No. 1 closer selected overall, Brian Wilson, finished 23rd, while the No. 1 closer on the Player Rater, Craig Kimbrel, wasn't even selected among the top 20 at his position (he went 22nd).

The problem with that is that most of the time, when a closer is stripped of his role, he's stripped entirely of his fantasy value. This happens for two reasons: One, he has lost his job because of poor performance or injury, meaning he's either struggling in terms of ERA and WHIP or not pitching at all. Two, the simple fact is that saves are the driving force behind relief-pitcher value in fantasy, because relievers' limited innings totals don't make the impact in ERA or WHIP that starters can.

To demonstrate, let's take 2011 Player Rater numbers and strip the saves column from the formula. Doing that, the top 25 save-getters last season would have ranked an average of 98 spots lower on the Player Rater, which is the effective equivalent, in mixed leagues, of a 10-round drop in value directly tied to saves.

Furthermore, without saves in the 2011 Player Rater formula, the top relief pitcher would have ranked as the No. 40 pitcher (meaning he'd have trailed 39 starting pitchers), and only eight pure relievers would have ranked among the top 75 pitchers.

That is a substantial downside tied directly to role, and it should serve a gargantuan caution sign, reading in bold letters: "Don't overpay for saves."

But as saves remain one of those 10 primary rotisserie categories, analysis of the position is needed, right? So, caution offered up front, let's get to it.

Cream of the crop

Relief Pitcher Rankings

1. Craig Kimbrel, Atl, RP (62)
2. Mariano Rivera, NYY, RP (72)
3. Jonathan Papelbon, Phi, RP (86)
4. John Axford, Mil, RP (91)
5. Brian Wilson, SF, RP (101)
6. Rafael Betancourt, Col, RP (109)
7. Joel Hanrahan, Pit, RP (114)
8. Jose Valverde, Det, RP (121)
9. Cory Luebke, SD, SP, RP (126)
10. Jason Motte, StL, RP (132)
11. Neftali Feliz, Tex, RP (136)
12. J.J. Putz, Ari, RP (137)
13. Heath Bell, Mia, RP (144)
14. Drew Storen, Was, RP (148)
15. Jordan Walden, LAA, RP (157)
16. Huston Street, SD, RP (168)
17. Chris Sale, CWS, RP (169)
18. Javy Guerra, LAD, RP (173)
19. Carlos Marmol, ChC, RP (176)
20. Daniel Bard, Bos, RP (178)
21. Brandon League, Sea, RP (185)
22. Joe Nathan, Tex, RP (195)
23. Matt Capps, Min, RP (199)
24. Sergio Santos, Tor, RP (207)
25. Kyle Farnsworth, TB, RP (214)
26. Grant Balfour, Oak, RP (223)
27. Frank Francisco, NYM, RP (225)
28. Kenley Jansen, LAD, RP (228)
29. Chris Perez, Cle, RP (233)
30. Sean Marshall, Cin, RP (235)
31. Jim Johnson, Bal, RP (237)
32. Jonathan Broxton, KC, RP (241)
33. Alfredo Aceves, Bos, RP (246)
34. Tyler Clippard, Was, RP (247)
35. Matt Thornton, CWS, RP (249)
36. Aroldis Chapman, Cin, RP (254)
37. Mike Adams, Tex, RP (262)
38. Addison Reed, CWS, RP (270)
39. Joel Peralta, TB, RP (273)
40. Jonny Venters, Atl, RP (276)
41. David Hernandez, Ari, RP (284)
42. Sergio Romo, SF, RP (286)
43. Vinnie Pestano, Cle, RP (287)
44. Mark Melancon, Bos, RP (295)
45. Joaquin Benoit, Det, RP (296)
46. David Robertson, NYY, RP (315)
47. Greg Holland, KC, RP (322)
48. Fernando Salas, StL, RP (336)
49. Francisco Cordero, Tor, RP (343)
50. Luke Gregerson, SD, RP (356)
Players listed at positions at which they are eligible in ESPN standard leagues. Rankings based on 2012 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Overall position ranking is indicated in parentheses.

One and only one closer belongs in this class, the only guy who finished among the top 40 players overall on the 2011 Player Rater and the only one who can be found ranked among our top 70 overall for 2012.

And he is not -- surprise, surprise -- Mariano Rivera.

No, he is Craig Kimbrel, coming off the greatest single year by a rookie closer in the history of baseball. Kimbrel's 46 saves set a new first-year standard and ranked among the 30 greatest single-season totals in history overall. His 14.84 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio was sixth-best all-time among relievers, and, to back up that it was no "luck"-driven fluke, his 1.54 fielding independent pitching was fourth-best all-time among relievers.

Whether Kimbrel can repeat the performance is the question, but there is precedent for a pitcher doing so. Two pitchers in the past decade have managed consecutive seasons of at least 30 saves, a 12 K/9 ratio and a sub-3.00 ERA: Eric Gagne (2002-04) and Francisco Rodriguez (2005-07). So it can be done.

Cream of the crop: 1A

Kimbrel's status in his own class above shouldn't be interpreted as any knock on Mariano Rivera, a certain Hall of Famer. Like Kimbrel, Rivera warrants his own tier, his ranking within the top 75 overall making them the only two closers to earn a ranking within the top 80.

While Rivera's prospects of earning the No. 1 spot at his position on the Player Rater are no longer great -- he has ranked fourth, ninth and third among relief pitchers working backward the past three seasons -- his strength is in safety and reliability. No closer in baseball today, and probably in the history of the game, represents a more stable investment in saves than Mariano Rivera.

That's a bold statement to make about a 42-year-old. Only two closers in baseball history have saved 20 or more games at age 42: Dennis Eckersley (36 in 1997) and Hoyt Wilhelm (20 in 1965, before the save became an official statistic).

But the supporting facts speak volumes:
• Rivera's 44 saves in 2011 are a record for pitchers aged 40 or older.
• He has saved 30 or more games for nine consecutive seasons, while no other closer has an active streak of greater than six years.
• He has four consecutive seasons of 50 or more innings pitched with an ERA less than 2.00 and WHIP less than 1.00. No other pitcher in baseball has had more than one such season in the past four (2008-11). • Rivera has seven such 50-2.00-1.00 seasons in his career, which is the most of any pitcher during the saves era (since 1969).

Cream of the crop: 1B

Now the tiers blur, but when you're talking about the game's "cream of the crop" among saves-getters, the "after-Kimbrel-and-Mo" first tier, you want the strongest combination of recent performance and job security. It's a group of five guys: Jonathan Papelbon, Drew Storen, John Axford and Brian Wilson.

What this group has in common is the best mix of the following traits:

• Saves production: Axford, Storen and Wilson finished among the top 11 in the category last season, and Wilson and Papelbon rank second (122) and fifth (106) in the category over the past three years combined.
• Stable ratios: Using FIP, this group includes the Nos. 2 (Papelbon, 1.53) and 11 (Axford, 2.41) qualified relievers of 2011, a hint that their skills back up their ERA.
• Job security: Papelbon signed a winter deal that guaranteed average annual salaries of at least $8.5 million, while Storen was widely regarded as the Washington Nationals' long-term closer at the time he was selected 10th overall in the 2009 amateur draft.

You'll notice that we've conservatively ranked this group, placing the players within the Rounds 9-11 range in a standard, 10-team ESPN mixed league. As a group, we recommend a conservative approach to filling your saves column, for all the reasons described above. But depending on your league's format, you might need to target this elite group several rounds earlier; shallow mixed leagues that afford daily moves without weekly transaction caps typically see closers from this group begin to fly off the board in the Rounds 3-5 range. Perhaps your league is more aggressive when it comes to drafting closers, forcing you to consider a Papelbon type in the Rounds 6-7 range.

It's a smart move to ask your league's commissioner to provide a list of last season's draft results, if only to give you a sense of your ownership group's valuation of the category. It's our recommendation that closers belong in the Rounds 9-11 range, and we advise you don't get caught up in a position run, something that applies as much to this position as any other, but we're prepared for the possibility that certain leagues might require you to address the position sooner.

The next best thing

Here's where we get to the potential values of the closer class, but where we also arrive at a group of increasingly risky investments. These are closers who could be selected as early as the eighth round of mixed-league drafts or as late as Round 15, and their value is often a matter of personal opinion.

Jose Valverde
And your 2011 major league saves leader was ... Jose Valverde.

In this group are two names you know: the major league leader in saves in 2011 (49), Jose Valverde and the No. 1 save-getter of the past three seasons combined (132), Heath Bell.

What keeps this duo out of the upper tier is the question about potentially eroding skills, specifically their strikeout rates. Each experienced a decline in K/9 ratio, and each tallied more innings than strikeouts in 2011, and Valverde's K/9 ratio dropped for the fifth consecutive season. That's not to say either of them is a candidate to completely collapse, as adjustments could have contributed. But it's generally not a positive thing when a closer's K rate declines.

This group also includes a pair of breakout candidates whose hot finishes to the 2011 season portend possibly greater things in 2012: Rafael Betancourt and Jason Motte. Motte's eight saves in September were fifth most in the majors, and he tacked on another five during the St. Louis Cardinals' championship playoff run. Betancourt, meanwhile, had a 0.30 WHIP -- seriously, that was his WHIP -- plus eight saves the second half of last season.

A pair of injury risks also graces this group: new Boston Red Sox closer Andrew Bailey and J.J. Putz, whose 45 saves last season were fourth most. It's better than even money that either will make another trip to the disabled list this season, but if you can accept that possibility, they present two of the stronger sets of skills, as well as closing for two of the game's more competitive teams.

Finally, two of the most underrated closers belong here, not that they're equivalent in value to one another. Joel Hanrahan, whose 26 saves and 1.34 ERA the first half of last season earned him a place on the All-Star team, is a stronger choice on the high end of this tier. Meanwhile, Kyle Farnsworth, whose mastery of a cutter earned him a No. 14 ranking among relief pitchers on the 2011 Player Rater, is a pitcher you shouldn't scoff at on the lower end of this tier.

Where's the ceiling?

Taking chances is a perfectly valid strategy among closers and often encapsulates a fantasy owner's approach to the position. The pitchers in this tier have the skills, and perhaps the opportunity, to break out in somewhat Kimbrel-esque fashion (although it should be remembered that seasons as unexpectedly dominant as Kimbrel's don't come around annually).

Brandon League, Sergio Santos and Jordan Walden finished back to back to back -- 16th, 17th and 18th -- on last year's Player Rater, and each of the three has a skill set that, while unique, could spawn greater things in the season ahead. Santos and Walden are strikeout artists who strike most as obvious closers; League's ability to generate a ground ball rate that annually contends for the league lead, as well as his status as a Safeco Field pitcher, makes him a surprisingly stable investment.

The Los Angeles Dodgers' closer battle, featuring the team's 2011 leader in saves (21), Javy Guerra, and the pitcher who had the eye-popping 16.10 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio, Kenley Jansen, might be one of the most important to watch this spring training. The comparisons between Jansen, both in terms of skills and opportunity, and Kimbrel a year ago at this time are eerie. Still, Guerra is the one with the track record, and the one who indeed might grab the role and run with it.

Two American League closers whose teams pitch in hitter-friendly ballparks belong in this group: Joe Nathan and Jim Johnson. Nathan is another year removed from Tommy John surgery and scored a two-year, $14.5 million deal with the Texas Rangers, an investment that strengthens his job security on a competitive team. Johnson, meanwhile, converted all seven of his save chances with a 2.76 ERA in the final month of last season, seemingly stealing the 2012 job from Kevin Gregg, and Johnson's ground ball-inducing arsenal appears eerily similar to League's.

Where's the basement?

Every one of the six names in this group should find a place on your draft board … but late. Their downside exceeds that of any closer listed in the higher tiers, and if you're going to place bets on which of them might not have a closer's job come May 1, these six would have the best odds.

Injuries are a primary reason to be concerned about closers such as Huston Street and Frank Francisco; their track records in that department effectively toss cold water on possible buzz surrounding their having landed in pitching-friendly parks this winter. Yes, Street and Francisco, with some J.J. Putz-like luck in the injury department, could match Putz's No. 5 ranking among relievers on the 2011 Player Rater. Yes, at the same time, they both could get hurt, miss more than half the season and be a waste of your draft-day resources. And in Street's case, he's a potential free agent at season's end, meaning his San Diego Padres might consider trading him by midseason, threatening to relegate him to setup duty elsewhere.

Walks are a persistent problem for Carlos Marmol, one of the most enigmatic closers in fantasy of the past decade. At his best, Marmol has the kind of swing-and-miss stuff that could earn him a Kimbrel-like ranking on the Player Rater. At his worst -- which is where he was for lengthy chunks of 2011 -- he is not remotely deserving of save opportunities, and is a threat to ruin your fantasy team in ERA and WHIP.

Chris Perez shares a trait with the aforementioned Bell and Valverde: His K/9 ratio plummeted last season. But unlike those three, Perez's slipped to a troubling 5.88, which contributed to a 4.44 second-half ERA, and any further erosion in his skills could earn him a permanent demotion to the middle frames.

The final two in this group are "closers" more in title than skill set. Matt Capps and Grant Balfour almost assuredly wouldn't close for 27 other major league teams, counting both of their teams as well as the Houston Astros as the only three likely places they'd man the ninth. As spring training dawned, both appeared to be their teams' top options, but neither represents his team's future, so while each warrants a final-round draft pick on the possibility of saves alone, both will be risks to lose their jobs almost every week of the season.

Thanks but no thanks: The 'do not draft' list

Among the other fantasy team-killing closer candidates are pitchers who have lengthy track records in the saves column but who aren't guaranteed those gigs on Opening Day and whose contributions in the ratio categories tend to be overrated. This group includes AL East setup men Francisco Cordero and Kevin Gregg, ex-Toronto Blue Jays closer-turned-New York Mets setup man Jon Rauch, and "I-used-to-be-Leo Nunez" Juan Oviedo, who might not even throw a pitch for the Miami Marlins.

Both of the following statements are equally true: Every one of those pitchers could save 20 games and warrant fantasy consideration while doing so. And every one of those pitchers could save exactly zero and be the first player you cut.

Talkin' prospects

Craig Kimbrel spoiled us, as the track record of closer prospects from a historical perspective isn't especially pretty. Although an arbitrary year and a small sample, the lessons of the 2003 amateur draft ring true: That was the season college closers David Aardsma, Chad Cordero and Ryan Wagner were all selected in the first round.

Every one of those three has been a career disappointment.

Addison Reed of the Chicago White Sox and, to a lesser extent, the Astros' Abreu are the two most notable closer "prospects" entering 2012. The White Sox's decision to trade Sergio Santos to the Blue Jays created an opportunity for Reed, whether that's as early as Opening Day or later in the season, as Matt Thornton affords him some time to earn experience in middle relief. Abreu, meanwhile, is the Astros' most logical long-term option, although his ascent to the role might be slow and rocky. (Watch out for that WHIP.) Bradley Boxberger also could be one of the midseason prospects to watch, should Huston Street be traded.

That's why, when it comes to "prospects" among relief pitchers, fantasy owners tend to treat the term as the equivalent of "handcuffs": current setup men, albeit ones who no longer have rookie major league eligibility, who could move into closer roles at some point this season. Among this season's top candidates are two National League West setup men pitching behind a pair of injury-prone closers, David Hernandez and Sergio Romo, and a reliever who has 291 career saves to his credit in Francisco Rodriguez (the one on the Milwaukee Brewers).

Aroldis Chapman
Speaking of players with big-time upside, Aroldis Chapman definitely has it.

But there's one other intriguing name who belongs in this class, whether his future is in the rotation or bullpen: Aroldis Chapman. The Cuban import has one of the filthiest fastballs in the game and could make a significant fantasy impact if he cracks the Cincinnati Reds' starting five.

Middle men

Setup men tend to be an unappreciated bunch in the real game, and that opinion is unfortunately mirrored in many fantasy baseball leagues.

That's not to say it's right.

Statistically speaking, middle relievers can contribute to a fantasy team, not only by virtue of their walking into the occasional wins or saves, but primarily by their contributions in the ERA and WHIP categories. Our Player Rater demonstrates this; you can sort it to see a player's category-specific contribution.

Sorting the Player Rater by solely ERA, 22 of the top 50 performers in the category were relief pitchers, with only five of those being full-time closers. Sorting by WHIP, 20 of the top 50 were relievers, and five of those were full-time closers. Nine relief pitchers ranked among the top 50 on both lists; Mariano Rivera and Craig Kimbrel were the only two of those who were full-time closers.

If there's a case to be made against middle relievers, it's once again volatility. The shelf life of a middle reliever isn't especially lengthy, punctuated by this fact: Only four relievers have managed at least 50 innings pitched with an ERA of 3.00 or better and a WHIP of 1.25 or better in each of the past three seasons, but three of those were closers in all three of those years. The only middle reliever to do it: Darren Oliver. (To be fair, 14 pitchers who spent the bulk of the past three seasons as middle relievers achieved those benchmarks in two of those years.)

Ultimately, you want to pick the most talented middle reliever, and those tend to be the ones who eventually graduate into closer roles. But what's so bad about spending a late-round pick -- more so in AL- or NL-only leagues -- on a ratio helper and scoring an unexpectedly healthy number of saves from him instead?

These ratio helpers tend to be the same ones who top the previous season's Player Rater: Mike Adams (19th among relievers), Tyler Clippard (20th), Jonny Venters (24th), David Robertson (40th) and Sergio Romo (45th). By the way, three of them -- Adams, Clippard and Venters -- were among the 14 to achieve those 50-3.00-1.25 benchmarks twice, each of them doing so in 2011.

Points versus roto

Strikeouts, strikeouts, strikeouts.

Strikeouts make the difference between points-based leagues and rotisserie scoring, those ratios of greater importance in the latter. It's for that reason that, while Carlos Marmol threatens to unravel a rotisserie team's ERA and WHIP, he's well worth the investment for his K's in points-based scoring … with the caveat that his ERA/WHIP struggles could lead to an untimely demotion.

A reliever's innings total also has a bearing; it helps explain why a pitcher such as Mariano Rivera earns a healthier ranking in a rotisserie than points-based league, because the New York Yankees, accounting for his age, tend to cap his innings at 60.

But the most significant difference in the two fantasy formats when it comes to relievers is that, in a points-based league, drafting a quality closer is significantly more important. Our No. 1 relief pitcher is the same in either format: Craig Kimbrel. But it's telling that, while Kimbrel is only our No. 63 player overall in rotisserie scoring, he's 22nd in points-based scoring. Kimbrel also ranks nearly 25 spots higher than our No. 2 closer in points-based leagues, whereas in rotisserie leagues, we have him rated a mere one-round difference in value.

Save-getters are also imperative; remember that since there are no ratios in a points-based league, ratio helpers are nonexistent. Those pitchers must contribute in terms of innings pitched, strikeouts, vulture wins, and saves and holds, should your league award points for the latter. It's for that reason that, in our points-based and rotisserie rankings, setup men have extremely similar rankings, whereas closers tend to be ranked multiple rounds higher in points-based leagues.

Spring training update

Ryan Madson and Joakim Soria have both been lost for the season to elbow injury. Expect Sean Marshall and former top closer Jonathan Broxton to be the top contenders for saves in their stead, with Aroldis Chapman and Greg Holland giving them competition should they falter.

Bottom line

A fantasy owner needs a deeply researched, detailed strategy when it comes to filling the saves category. Position runs can persuade you to stray from your plan, resulting in wasted draft-day resources, and an unprepared owner could be taken by surprise when he or she has misread the saves market in his/her league. Whether it's following our advice not to overpay for saves, targeting one or two specific closers of your choosing or punting the category altogether, make sure to make that decision in advance.

And be firm. The last thing you want to be is wishy-washy, wavering or volatile.

You know … like a major league closer.

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 e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.