Middle relievers are an underappreciated bunch.
Oh sure, as a whole, this group earned a collective $39.6 million worth of guaranteed contracts this past winter, not to mention earned four spots on 2011 All-Star rosters. But let's face it: Jonathan Papelbon fetched $50 million of guaranteed money this past winter, and Papelbon's closer brethren earned nine All-Star berths.
When it comes to relief pitching, the save is the "sexy" statistic. The hold is not.
Well, not necessarily so in fantasy baseball. Though not a statistic used in mainstream Rotisserie leagues, holds have their place in many custom scoring formats. The pitchers who collect them, meanwhile, also have some appeal in traditional Rotisserie: The best ones usually can bolster your ERA and WHIP, and sometimes, just sometimes, they can "graduate" into more prominent closer roles.
Today, let's shine the light upon those underappreciated middle men, those key contributors who bridge the gap from starter to finisher. Ranked below are my projected top 30 in holds, along with a 1-10 rating in three categories:
Skills: Self-explanatory, but since this is fantasy analysis, this specifically addresses the pitcher's ability in terms of ERA, WHIP and strikeouts.
Role: Specifically, where does the reliever fit in the team's pecking order? Is he the primary eighth-inning option, maximizing his potential for holds? Pitchers with higher rankings here are the most likely to finish with more holds.
Closer prospects: Again self-explanatory, this estimates the pitcher's chances at moving into the closer role this season. Consider a good rating here a positive, being that most owners in holds leagues also get points for saves.
1. Jonny Venters, Atlanta Braves (Skills 10, Role 10, Closer prospects 1): As obvious a pick as they come. He's in his third season, has a 1.81 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 10.3 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio and 63 holds so far in his career.
2. David Robertson, New York Yankees (Skills 10, Role 10, Closer prospects 2): It was so kind of Mariano Rivera to help teach Robertson a cutter; did Robertson really need another pitch to increase his level of dominance? Robertson is probably Rivera's eventual successor -- though that'd only happen the season following Rivera's retirement -- but he's also quite a handy ERA/WHIP/K's source.
3. Mike Adams, Texas Rangers (Skills 10, Role 9, Closer prospects 4): He has a 1.41 ERA since the beginning of the 2009 season, and his lifetime ERA at Rangers Ballpark is 1.29 in 21 games. Let those numbers sink in for a moment.
4. Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers (Skills 9, Role 9, Closer prospects 6): He has averaged 15. 1 strikeouts per nine innings in his first 88 big league appearances. Oh, and Javy Guerra's performance to date hasn't been spotless. Jensen's holds could soon become saves; would you complain if they did?
TOP 75 RELIEF PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 75 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
5. Joaquin Benoit, Detroit Tigers (Skills 9, Role 10, Closer prospects 1): There were more than a few chuckles when the Tigers signed Benoit to a three-year, $16.5 million contract following the 2010 season. So far, the Tigers are on track to have the last laugh: He has a 3.03 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 35 holds since.
6. Tyler Clippard, Washington Nationals (Skills 8, Role 10, Closer prospects 1): Only Adams has had more holds (75) than Clippard (66) since the beginning of 2010. When the Nationals were seeking a fill-in for injured closer Drew Storen, they selected a combination of Henry Rodriguez and Brad Lidge, showing that they much prefer Clippard locked into the eighth-inning role. If you're in a league that awards for holds, you couldn't be happier, because he's as consistent as they come.
7. Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds (Skills 10, Role 7, Closer prospects 3): Of the top 10 names on this list, Chapman might be the one least likely to actually finish among the top 10 in holds, and that's not because of the prospect of him changing roles -- to starter or closer -- either. It's because the Reds like to use Chapman for longer outings, perhaps putting a cap on his number of total appearances (and therefore opportunities for holds). That enhances his ERA/WHIP/K's appeal, however, and his skills rival anyone's on this entire list, so let's take a chance on him making a sneaky run at the categorical lead.
8. Alexi Ogando, Texas Rangers (Skills 9, Role 8, Closer prospects 2): This might seem like a generous ranking, but I've long admired Ogando's stuff, which has always had the look of a closer's. Counting the postseason, he has a 1.51 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 9.29 K's-per-nine innings ratio in 73 career relief appearances. Let's also not discount the fact that the aforementioned Adams is higher in the Rangers' bullpen pecking order, should 37-year-old closer Joe Nathan need to be replaced. If Adams moves into the ninth, Ogando might become a top-five setup man.
9. Vinnie Pestano, Cleveland Indians (Skills 8, Role 9, Closer prospects 6): He's a popular sleeper for saves, and until such time as he overtakes the incumbent, Chris Perez, he's as valuable a source of holds as you'll find. Pestano is not without his weaknesses, however, which is why he isn't ranked higher; left-handed hitters have a lifetime OPS 400 points higher (.831) off him than right-handers (.431) do.
10. Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox (Skills 8, Role 7, Closer prospects 7): Of anyone on this list, Reed has about the best chance at regular saves; if it's not Jansen, Reed would be the one I'd predict to lead these 25 relievers in that category come season's end. So far he has thrown 7 1/3 shutout innings with three holds and a 12.3 K's-per-nine ratio. Reed won't be able to be kept buried in the seventh inning for much longer.
11. Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee Brewers (Skills 7, Role 10, Closer prospects 2): He has 292 career saves to his credit, yet has settled in nicely as John Axford's setup man, a role he should remain in all season. K-Rod has a 2.82 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 20 holds in 42 games during his Brewers career.
12. David Hernandez, Arizona Diamondbacks (Skills 8, Role 9, Closer prospects 4): Though his ERA is 3.32 during his year-plus with the Diamondbacks, Hernandez's 1.12 WHIP and 10.4 K's-per-nine ratio put him right up there with the game's most valuable setup men. He's actually a bit underrated.
13. Scott Downs, Los Angeles Angels (Skills 8, Role 9, Closer prospects 2): He has recorded 24 or more holds in four of the past five seasons, and has quietly become one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball during that span.
14. Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants (Skills 8, Role 8, Closer prospects 3): Injuries have been his primary obstacle in the past, but when Romo is healthy, he's as sure a thing as an eighth-inning reliever can be.
15. Eric O'Flaherty, Atlanta Braves (Skills 8, Role 7, Closer prospects 1): He's no longer a LOOGY (Left-handed One Out GuY), having limited right-handed hitters to .233/.305/.294 triple-slash rates in 2011. Still, valuable as O'Flaherty has become, he's not the primary eighth-inning man.
16. Rafael Soriano, New York Yankees (Skills 7, Role 6, Closer prospects 1): He has slipped a notch on the "relief ladder" in each of the past two seasons, but even today the Yankees still trust him as their go-to seventh-inning guy and they do have the kind of offense that can hand him a close lead even that early.
17. Matt Thornton, Chicago White Sox (Skills 8, Role 6, Closer prospects 3): It's worth asking: If Thornton really has "closer stuff," why isn't he closing for the White Sox right now? He looks like your prototypical eighth-inning, left-handed setup man, as his 89 holds since 2008 attest.
18. Joel Peralta, Tampa Bay Rays (Skills 7, Role 6, Closer prospects 2): Though Peralta is off to a slow start, he remains one of their more reliable late-inning options. The question: Does he drop back to the seventh inning, or worse, mop-up relief, once Kyle Farnsworth returns to action?
19. Sean Burnett, Washington Nationals (Skills 7, Role 5, Closer prospects 1): LOOGYs do tend to rack up holds, and Burnett is one of the better ones in baseball. The Nationals pick his spots well; just expect fewer innings than last year.
20. Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners (Skills 5, Role 8, Closer prospects 2): He's the sleeper of the bunch, a ground-baller with genuine swing-and-miss stuff who might yet still be available in your holds league. Wilhelmsen's appeal is how solid his role is: He's a workhorse for a Mariners team lacking in eighth-inning options. He'll have a lengthy leash and could be a lock for 20-25 holds.
21. Tony Sipp, Cleveland Indians (Skills 6, Role 6, Closer prospects 2): Though third in the pecking order in the Indians' bullpen, Sipp might actually have stuff that could rival for the No. 1 spot. For now, he's the lefty the Indians can sneak into crucial late-inning situations, stealing you a hold or three.
22. Mitchell Boggs, St. Louis Cardinals (Skills 7, Role 6, Closer prospects 2): Hey, remember him? Boggs, a closer for an ever-so-brief time last season, has returned to form as a reliable late-inning weapon for the Cardinals this year. He appears to have nearly overtaken Fernando Salas as the team's No. 2 reliever.
23. Rex Brothers, Colorado Rockies (Skills 5, Role 7, Closer prospects 3): As soon as he polishes his command, Brothers should skyrocket in the middle-relief rankings, his mid-90s fastball/slider combination making him a potential league leader in holds in the future if he doesn't elevate to closer by then.
24. Ryan Cook, Oakland Athletics (Skills 6, Role 6, Closer prospects 1): He's the name on this list you might never have heard of, but Cook already has four holds and 9 scoreless innings, and has seemingly snuck ahead of Brian Fuentes in the Athletics' bullpen pecking order.
25. Luis Perez, Toronto Blue Jays (Skills 6, Role 5, Closer prospects 1): Another name with which you might be unfamiliar, but Perez has been outstanding so far for the Blue Jays, despite working in middle/long relief. He has 11 1/3 scoreless innings to date, and should move himself into the eighth-inning pitcher position before long, especially with that role wide open with Sergio Santos on the DL.
26. Bryan Shaw, Arizona Diamondbacks (Skills 5, Role 6, Closer prospects 2): Good teams can have three valuable sources of holds; remember that 90-win teams have a higher probability of late leads, and you can't get a hold without being handed a late lead. Shaw, who already has two saves in fill-in circumstances, has emerged as the Diamondbacks' primary seventh-inning option.
27. Matt Lindstrom, Baltimore Orioles (Skills 5, Role 6, Closer prospects 2): This spot could just as easily have gone to Pedro Strop as Lindstrom; I merely believe in Lindstrom's skill set and staying power more than I do Strop's. (Strop would likely have been the next reliever on the list, had it extended beyond 30.) Most importantly, Lindstrom has vastly improved his control since the beginning of last season, averaging 2.35 walks per nine innings during that span.
28. Aaron Crow, Kansas City Royals (Skills 5, Role 5, Closer prospects 3): Here's another case of "take your pick"; Greg Holland, once healthy, might be every bit as likely to lead the Royals in holds as Crow. Crow is off to another hot start, however, and the eighth-inning role for the team is currently wide open.
29. Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins (Skills 6, Role 4, Closer prospects 4): There's a reason Perkins ranks so low on this list and it's not his 8.53 ERA to date; it's that, in spite of a 2.48 ERA last season, he managed but 17 holds, and it's not like this year's Twins team is that much more competitive than 2011's. Holds aren't plentiful in Minnesota, though Perkins has excellent stuff.
30. Jon Rauch, New York Mets (Skills 4, Role 6, Closer prospects 3): He has a 0.00 ERA through 10 appearances and is the primary setup man to Frank Francisco. The problem with that, however, is that Rauch might have as good a chance at saves as holds, considering Francisco's injury history.