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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 was taken 22nd among relievers in 2011 drafts. He finished first.|
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.
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:
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.
|And your 2011 major league saves leader was ... Jose Valverde.|
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.
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.
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).
|Speaking of players with big-time upside, Aroldis Chapman definitely has it.|
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.
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.
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.
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.