Keeping closers, to some degree, is a fool's errand.
I'll get straight to the facts, because they tell all: The top three fantasy closers in 2007 were J.J. Putz, Takashi Saito and Joe Nathan. They had 117 saves total, not to mention a 1.56 ERA between them, that season. Three years later, those three combined have a 2.53 ERA, but only four saves and 147 total days spent on the disabled list (albeit most of those Nathan's).
Of course, the next three closers on the 2007 list were Jose Valverde, Francisco Rodriguez and Jonathan Papelbon, and three years later all three are still closers (though two for different teams), and ranked 13th, sixth and seventh among relief pitchers on our Player Rater (excluding starters who qualify in relief).
What does that tell you?
Simple: Fantasy owners shouldn't stubbornly cling to the mantra, "Never pay for saves," but rather should understand the huge downside evident at the position, particularly evident over a span of several seasons. Some pitchers can perform well enough to retain the role over a half-decade or more. Others, unfortunately, have one great year and fade into oblivion. (Wherefore art thou, Dan Kolb?)
You'll see that, in my Monday keeper rankings, 19 current closers cracked my top 200, a number that might sound like a lot until you consider: Only 18 of them are really unquestioned closers, 18 of 200 is still only 9 percent and among top-100 players, only eight were closers. That means that in a 10-team keeper league in which each team keeps 10 players apiece, I see only eight closers being worth retaining. For a specific example, in my longtime, 12-team keeper league (keep 12 apiece plus a handful of minor league prospects), while a decade ago each team routinely kept two closers, these days we'd be lucky to see more than 10-12 total being carried over. The early rounds of our draft, of course, are populated with closers, often some names that might surprise you.
It's for that reason that, when it comes to closers, "rankings" isn't a fair way to judge keeper value. For example, I ranked Rafael Soriano 112th, and Pedro Alvarez 114th, but if I'm in either a position where I'm better off playing for 2012 and 2013, or where I've already got a higher-ranked closer and/or good starting pitching, there's absolutely no question I'm keeping Alvarez. My rankings are formula-based (and weight 2011 most heavily because I always believe in going for it sooner rather than later); there's no greater place you need to be flexible, therefore, than at closer.
To help you along your way determining the relative value of these ranked finishers, let's take a closer look at my feelings about the more notable ones:
Jonathan Broxton (No. 48): In spite of his 5.68 ERA since July 1, Broxton remains the class of the closer crop, if only because he's nearly 15 years younger than Mariano Rivera, and has as filthy stuff as any other stopper in the game. The statistics tell it all: Since 2006 he has a 2.81 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 11.79 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio, and since taking over as the Los Angeles Dodgers' closer at the 2008 All-Star break, he has converted 84.5 percent of his save chances. If you're going to build around a closer, he's the one you want first.
Mariano Rivera (No. 67): He'd be right in Broxton territory in the rankings if not for his age, and that's more a question of potential retirement before 2013 (when he'd be 43) than his ability to perform at a high level. Rivera's contract expires at season's end, and while he has given no hint at retirement plans, nor does he seem likely to ever leave the New York Yankees, what does he do in the winter? Retire? Sign a one-year deal, then call it quits? Sign a multiyear contract and remain the unquestioned top fantasy closer through 2013? Time will tell.
Neftali Feliz (No. 77): He's one of the safest keepers on this list, not because he's 22 years old but because his future could reside in one of two places, either the ninth inning or the Texas Rangers' rotation. His upside is immense in either role, and it's for that reason he ranks so high despite his current closer status.
Jonathan Papelbon (No. 89): You've probably heard the rumors that the Boston Red Sox might consider dealing him this winter, handing the closer role to flame-throwing setup man Daniel Bard. In Papelbon's defense as a keeper candidate, most teams likely would pursue him as a closer, meaning his chances at saves is as strong elsewhere as it is in Boston.
Francisco Rodriguez (No. 102): This might be too high a ranking for him, being that he's not quite the dominating force today that he was with the Los Angeles Angels about a half-decade ago. His average fastball velocity this season is 91.1 mph, per FanGraphs, a career low, and while his strikeout rate is up from last season, he's still generating fewer swinging strikes than ever (11.4 percent). But K-Rod's contract keeps him stable in terms of job security, so that's good.
Drew Storen (No. 193): He's the future for the Washington Nationals in the ninth inning, and while Chad Cordero, another college closer who was drafted into the role by the franchise, has had an unspectacular career, Storen's stuff and makeup are more distinguished than Cordero's. The Nationals will grant him plenty of chances to establish himself and their rotation has some intriguing young talents, so this is an upside play well worth targeting in keeper formats.
Evan Meek (No. 199): The Pittsburgh Pirates might currently be using Joel Hanrahan to nail down their leads, but Meek remains this team's future at closer. He has been a sensation this year, even earning an All-Star nod, and should head into spring training at least on equal footing in a competition for the job. It's a risky play, but one worth chancing.
TOP 75 RELIEF PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 75 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward this season only, and are not to be confused with the keeper rankings for 2011-13.
Interesting just-missed names
Daniel Bard: The problem with the Papelbon trade rumors is that the veteran has one more year before he becomes eligible for free agency, and if the Red Sox don't like the deals they're offered this winter, they might as well keep their formidable one-two punch at the bullpen's back end. Bard's value would soar into the No. 150 range in the event of a Papelbon trade, however.
Luke Gregerson: As hinted in "60 Feet, 6 Inches" on Wednesday, the San Diego Padres might once again be looking to shed salary this winter, and closer Heath Bell, who earns $4 million for this season, could be a top candidate to go. Not that anyone would be surprised; a Bell trade has been rumored for years now. Mike Adams might be the Padres' primary setup man as things stand today, but he's injury prone and now past 30. Gregerson, meanwhile, has made huge advances this season and seems the future for the team in the ninth.
The curious case
Billy Wagner: I wanted him on my list and did, in fact, have him in my initial draft, but his insistence that he's retiring at season's end, obviously, kept him off in the end. But while I'm not about to endorse him as a quality keeper, even for 2011, here's a thought: Wagner's owners in such formats might as well keep him on hand for their pennant push, and who's to say he might not reconsider should his Atlanta Braves reach the postseason but fail to win it all? The lure of the ring, especially if you get close, has a way of drawing you back to the diamond.
Middle reliever spotlight: Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Some fantasy owners became familiar with this name when he earned the save in only his second big league appearance, snatching him up in the hopes that closer Jonathan Broxton's recent struggles might pave the way for some cheap saves. That's not necessarily Jansen's immediate future; he's here to help strengthen the setup crew, and only got the ball in the ninth inning on that day because neither Broxton nor Hong-Chih Kuo was available.
Jansen can, however, help owners in NL-only or deep mixed formats looking to bolster their ratios with a handful of strikeouts. Through seven appearances with the Dodgers, he has thrown seven shutout innings with a 0.86 WHIP, 14.14 K's-per-nine ratio and .167 opponents' batting average.
What makes Jansen's such an intriguing story: He's a converted catcher, having made the switch midway through the 2009 season, and breezed to the majors in a calendar year behind the strength of a 1.50 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 14.00 K's-per-nine ratio in 11 appearances for Class A Inland Empire, and 1.67/1.15/16.67 numbers in 22 appearances for Double-A Chattanooga. And, before you ask, those strikeout rates are not misprints. Jansen can hit 97 mph on the radar gun with his fastball, and he mixes in a filthy slider.
In a way, Jansen's story is a lot like Sergio Santos' with the Chicago White Sox earlier in the year, except that Jansen has the advantage Santos had in the early weeks of opponents being unfamiliar with his arsenal. Remember, Santos had 0.48/1.02/11.09 numbers in 20 games in the season's first two months, tearing through American League lineups. Could Jensen match that in August and September? With his stuff, it's possible.
(Also check out Jason Grey's profile of Jansen just after he got called up.)
Upgrade your roster
Two names fantasy owners know, both closers at earlier stages of the season who subsequently lost their jobs, Hoffman due to atrocious performance in the season's early weeks, Wood due to a trade to the Yankees, who have ageless Mariano Rivera firmly implanted in their ninth-inning role.
Hoffman, however, has apparently recaptured at least a share of the closer duties for his team, according to a report on the Brewers' website this past Sunday. A day after Hoffman received his first save opportunity since May 18, manager Ken Macha said that the all-time saves leader would share chances with John Axford going forward. The specifics of the partnership are unknown; the team's site went on to speculate that Axford might continue to get multiple-inning save opportunities as well as be called to protect tighter leads, while Hoffman might get "easier" saves with multiple-run leads or on Axford's days off.
The numbers don't entirely support the decision: Axford is 16-for-18 in save chances with a 3.38 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, .252 batting average allowed and 10.41 K's-per-nine ratio in 29 appearances since notching his first save on May 23. Hoffman, meanwhile, has a 3.24 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, .228 BAA and 6.48 K's per nine ratio since that date, statistics that are indeed similar but hardly support the notion that the incumbent deserved to cede even a share of his job.
Still, there's speculation abound in Milwaukee that Hoffman's installation as co-closer is a move designed to help him get the necessary three saves for 600 in his career, a strategy the team might be employing to sell more tickets. Let's put aside the silliness of such a decision -- if true -- because regardless of how they're accrued, saves are saves, and this presents an opportunity for Hoffman owners. He might not be any more valuable than Axford in his co-closer role and he might be a thorn in Axford's owners' sides, but if you play in an NL-only or deep mixed leagues, he's well worth a pickup. Hey, cheap saves!
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.