The save can be a fickle, fickle statistic.
That said, it's not a completely unpredictable statistic. Although 19 of the 30 major league closer roles changed hands for a significant spell during the 2012 regular season, you could've successfully navigated the category had you taken the proper approach on draft day. That's what picking closers is all about: Understand how volatile the role is, set your draft-day prices accordingly, and you'll be in fine shape.
To that end, consider the following facts:
• Of the 30 pitchers we projected to lead their respective teams in saves, 20 have done exactly that, leading their teams in saves.
• Of our 15 projected team leaders in saves who were drafted in every ESPN league, 11 have led their teams in saves.
Now, we're not trying to state those facts to toot our own horns about successful projections. After all, included in each of the above groups is the Milwaukee Brewers' John Axford, who despite 28 saves has a ghastly 4.62 ERA and 1.46 WHIP, considerably higher than our 3.09/1.23 preseason projections. We're stretching the facts a bit, understanding that in standard ESPN leagues, it's saves that you want. Plus, we, and every fantasy owner, are going to get some preseason closer valuations wrong each year. For instance, consider these facts:
• Of the 23 pitchers we projected to save 30 or more games, only seven either have or are on pace to save at least that many.
• The truth is that only 12 of the 30 closers in baseball, or 40 percent, could truly have been termed "successful" draft selections.
It's fortunate, therefore, that fantasy owners are getting smarter when it comes to navigating the saves market. Some of it is predictable; some of it clearly is not. Go back to the preseason: Only six closers were selected, on average, among the first 100 picks in drafts and only 14 within the top 150. In 2011, seven closers went among the top 100 and 17 among the top 150. Let's not forget, too, that at the time we drafted this preseason, we had just witnessed one of the greatest all-time seasons by a closer when Craig Kimbrel saved 46 games with 127 strikeouts.
Kudos, fantasy owners, kudos. Now retain that lesson as you prepare for 2013.
To get you started, let's play the prediction game -- while still keeping an eye on the final days of 2012 -- and examine the 2013 landscapes of each of the 30 major league bullpens. Picked for each team is: A "2013 Projected Closer," the definition of which is somewhat obvious, although 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 "2013 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 (à la Addison Reed this year). Finally, a "Rest of 2012" pick, for those of you still in tight late-season races. Both the projected 2013 closer and rest-of-2012 picks are graded, to provide a sense of their expected value.
TOP 50 RELIEF PITCHERS FOR 2013
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 50 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance only for 2013. Teams are current teams, not projected teams, and "2012 P.R." refers to the pitcher's ranking on our Player Rater among relief-eligible pitchers.
Arizona Diamondbacks: In two seasons for the Diamondbacks, J.J. Putz has converted 74 of 83 save chances (89.2 percent conversion rate) with a 2.63 ERA and 0.99 WHIP, and he has made only one disabled-list stint of 25 days (July 1-26, 2011). Although primary setup man David Hernandez has excelled as well during that time, converting 14 saves and 45 holds in 68 opportunities (86.8 percent conversion rate) with a 2.95 ERA and 1.09 WHIP, could it be any clearer that the Diamondbacks should and will exercise the $6.5 million option on Putz's contract? Hernandez is also signed for an affordable price through 2014, $3.25 million combined, so this bullpen might again look as rock-solid as it did in 2012. And Hernandez should remain one of the better handcuffs in the game.
2013 Projected Closer: Putz -- B. 2013 Sleeper: Evan Marshall. Rest of 2012: Putz -- A.
Atlanta Braves: Kimbrel enjoyed the greatest rookie season by any closer in history in 2011, so what did he do for a follow-up? Simple: He got even better, with seasonal paces of 40 saves and 111 strikeouts while slashing nearly a run off his already-sparkling ERA -- it's at 1.18 this season. Perhaps most importantly, however, the Braves have been smarter with Kimbrel's workload during his sophomore season, as he's pacing for 60 games and 60 1/3 innings, 19 and 16 2/3 fewer than he had in 2011. That provides all the more reason for him to remain a candidate for No. 1 at his position again in 2013.
2013 Projected Closer: Kimbrel -- A. 2013 Sleeper: Jonny Venters. Rest of 2012: Kimbrel -- A.
Baltimore Orioles: To think, at this time one year ago, the Orioles were seriously considering converting Jim Johnson into a starter. Today, he is tied for the major league lead in saves (42). Johnson might not be your prototypical flame-throwing closer, but his heavy sinker makes him low-risk, and there's no doubt that his arsenal might play well as a starting pitcher if the Orioles dabble with a role change come spring training. Considering he's up for a hefty raise via arbitration, Johnson could conceivably be asked to do that as a method of maximizing his value. Still, without evidence of that, he's as smart a choice to close again as they come.
2013 Projected Closer: Johnson -- B. 2013 Sleeper: Pedro Strop. Rest of 2012: Johnson -- A.
Boston Red Sox: The Red Sox haven't had many bright spots this season, and trading 2012 breakout performer Josh Reddick for Andrew Bailey, who missed the team's first 116 games after thumb surgery, certainly wasn't one of them. But Bailey has pitched well in 11 appearances since activation, nine of them scoreless, and his ERA is 4.15 and WHIP is 1.27 in those contests. Perhaps this is a bright spot: Bailey's lengthy absence should suppress his arbitration price tag, making him an affordable finisher for 2013. Just hope he can stay healthy, because he has had a hard time doing so throughout his career.
2013 Projected Closer: Bailey -- B. 2013 Sleeper: Junichi Tazawa. Rest of 2012: Bailey -- B.
Chicago Cubs: Carlos Marmol is under contract for 2013 for a virtually unmovable $9.8 million, and considering how much of the budget he eats up, he'll probably again be closing for the team to begin the year. Not that Marmol is anything close to the dominating closer he was two years ago; a carbon copy of his 2012 might be in order. You know the drill: plenty of walks, an ugly stretch of blown saves, perhaps a brief loss of the gig, but at season's end 20-25 saves and approximately 75 strikeouts.
2013 Projected Closer: Marmol -- D. 2013 Sleeper: James Russell. Rest of 2012: Marmol -- D.
Chicago White Sox: Addison Reed, a 23-year-old rookie, has been one of the sleeper saves picks of 2012 that has gone completely right, and there's no reason to think that's going to change in 2013. While his 4.73 ERA might be aggravating, let's not forget the difficulty of a young pitcher breaking in at a home ballpark as homer-friendly as U.S. Cellular Field. He has a 6.22 ERA there, compared to 2.82 on the road, but those should draw closer together and his overall ERA should decline during his sophomore year. Buy Reed as one of the better up-and-coming closers in baseball.
2013 Projected Closer: Addison Reed -- B. 2013 Sleeper: Nate Jones. Rest of 2012: Reed -- C.
Cincinnati Reds: Here's where things get interesting. Loyal "Relief Efforts" readers read my take about Aroldis Chapman's 2013 in last week's edition, but to summarize, I believe the Reds will dabble with him as a starter during spring training, if only because that's the decision that makes the most sense when attempting to maximize his value. If the Reds keep Chapman in the bullpen, he's the obvious choice to close. But if he starts, as I project, who closes? Sean Marshall, who in February signed a three-year, $16.5 million extension through 2015 and who since June 1 has a 2.17 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 16 holds? He'd make the most sense, but I see the Reds, managed by Dusty Baker, seeking a more "experienced" closer. Hence
2013 Projected Closer: Jose Valverde. 2013 Sleeper: Jose Arredondo. Rest of 2012: Chapman -- B.
Cleveland Indians: You'd think a team with a 35-save, 3.62-ERA, 1.07-WHIP closer, and one aged 27 and still under team control for three more seasons wouldn't remotely consider a change at closer. But in the case of Chris Perez, he's far from a lock to be back. He'll be due a hefty raise via arbitration, and he has been outspoken about his displeasure with management. On a team that probably won't be a prime playoff contender, he's an obvious candidate to be shopped
and I say he'll be shopped with a successful result. After all, the Indians wouldn't be any worse off with Vinnie Pestano, who made tremendous strides against left-handed hitters as a sophomore, as their closer.
2013 Projected Closer: Pestano -- C. 2013 Sleeper: Cody Allen. Rest of 2012: Perez -- B.
Colorado Rockies: This one is fairly straightforward, as the incumbent, Rafael Betancourt, has an affordable $4.25 million salary for 2013 and should again serve as a productive bridge to the team's closer of the future, Rex Brothers. That's assuming Brothers ever realizes his potential; he has averaged more than five walks per nine innings this season and doesn't appear ready.
2013 Projected Closer: Betancourt -- B. 2013 Sleeper: Brothers. Rest of 2012: Betancourt -- B.
Detroit Tigers: Jose Valverde's contract expires this winter, and while he provided plenty of value for the $23 million they invested in him these past three seasons, it's time for the team to move on. The Tigers have a few in-house options who could vie for saves: Joaquin Benoit, Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal immediately stand out. But as this is a team that should again fancy itself a contender, and one that has never been afraid to open its wallet, a free-agent pickup makes a lot of sense. My guess: Rafael Soriano opts out of his contract with the New York Yankees and darts for a payday in Detroit.
2013 Projected Closer: Soriano -- B. 2013 Sleeper: Bruce Rondon. Rest of 2012: Valverde -- B.
Houston Astros: Does a team unlikely to win more than 70 games need a closer of significance? The Astros' moves since the conclusion of the season provide their answer: Between Dec. 1, 2011, and the July 31, 2012, trade deadline, the Astros traded the players responsible for 44 of their 45 saves from the beginning of 2011 through the 2012 trade deadline. Xavier Cedeno (June 18, 2012) is the only one remaining. Wilton Lopez, who has four saves since Aug. 1, might return initially in the role, being that his first year of arbitration eligibility shouldn't lead to an unmanageable salary. But this bullpen might be up for grabs all year
and fantasy owners might not need to care.
2013 Projected Closer: Lopez -- D. 2013 Sleeper: Kevin Chapman. Rest of 2012: Lopez -- D.
Kansas City Royals: Depending upon how Joakim Soria recovers from April 3 Tommy John surgery, as well as whether the team decides to exercise his $8 million team option, the Royals might have an intriguing little spring battle for saves, what with Greg Holland faring so well in the closer role since Aug. 1. This team has a deep bullpen, and if its cards fall right, it could be a borderline contender in the American League Central come 2013. My guess is that Holland gets the ninth and Soria is working his way back on an incentive-laden contract elsewhere.
2013 Projected Closer: Greg Holland -- B. 2013 Sleeper: Aaron Crow. Rest of 2012: Holland -- B.
Los Angeles Angels: Can Ernesto Frieri continue the magic for another season? Even if he can't, former closer Jordan Walden seems to be on the right track for a turnaround, with a 2.70 ERA and 10 K's in 6 2/3 innings since his return. The Angels should have two young, affordable options, perhaps setting up one of the spring's more compelling position battles.
2013 Projected Closer: Frieri -- A. 2013 Sleeper: Garrett Richards. Rest of 2012: Frieri -- A.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Let's hope Kenley Jansen's heart condition turns out not to be a long-term issue, both personally for his health and for fantasy because of how electric a closer he can be. To put his potential into statistical perspective, he has a 14.61 career K/9 ratio, which is the second-highest rate in history among pitchers with at least 100 career innings. This is the kind of pitcher who makes the rare case for retaining in a keeper league, one who would by all rights be a top-five pick at his position if healthy. I choose to be optimistic about his chances.
2013 Projected Closer: Jansen -- A. 2013 Sleeper: Ronald Belisario. Rest of 2012: Brandon League -- C.
Miami Marlins: Surely the Marlins cannot turn back to Heath Bell, one of their big winter signings, again next season, can they? Believe it. Eighteen million -- that's the amount remaining on his contract through 2014 -- goes a long way toward molding organizational decisions, especially when it's being paid to a reliever who has a 3.63 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 9.27 K/9 and 3.29 K/BB ratio in 25 appearances since the All-Star break. Bell's contract is an albatross, but it also gives him an excellent chance of wresting the role back from Steve Cishek come spring training.
2013 Projected Closer: Bell -- C. 2013 Sleeper: A.J. Ramos. Rest of 2012: Cishek -- C.
Milwaukee Brewers: John Axford might be arbitration-eligible this winter, but considering he earned only $525,000 this season, has only three years' experience as a closer and will be 30 years old next April 1, perhaps his price tag won't skyrocket to the point that the Brewers would seek to trade him. You can be sure, however, that they will not re-sign Francisco Rodriguez, meaning some freed up cash to perhaps bring in more viable setup insurance. You'll see my pick in the "Sleeper" section
2013 Projected Closer: Axford -- B. 2013 Sleeper: Mike Adams. Rest of 2012: Axford -- C.
Minnesota Twins: Although Glen Perkins has done an adequate job closing games for the Twins, with seven saves and a 1.59 ERA since the All-Star break, I can't see the Twins choosing to enter another season with merely him as their finisher. After all, Jared Burton's occasional save opportunities hint that manager Ron Gardenhire prefers a right-hander to close, given the choice. So who might come cheaply and could fit here?
2013 Projected Closer: Brandon League -- C. 2013 Sleeper: Perkins. Rest of 2012: Perkins -- C.
New York Mets: Now how do you think the Mets feel about tacking on a second year, at $6.5 million at that, to Frank Francisco's deal? The Mets sought to replicate the Toronto Blue Jays' 2011 bullpen when comprising theirs for 2012, and so far they've gotten largely the same results the Blue Jays did: Francisco and Jon Rauch combined have 26 saves and a 4.14 ERA for them, whereas in 2011 they had 28 saves and a 4.21 ERA combined. Rauch's contract will come off the books, and while "future closer" Bobby Parnell might again join the mix, it's possible the Mets might open up their wallet and add a low-priced candidate, be it by trade or free agency.
2013 Projected Closer: Chris Perez -- B. 2013 Sleeper: Parnell. Rest of 2012: Francisco -- D.
New York Yankees: Mariano Rivera will be back. You can count on that. When he tore his ACL in May, he admitted almost immediately afterward that he wasn't retiring, ending weeks of speculation to the contrary, and whispers even began circulating that he might attempt a late-season recovery this year. Rivera doesn't want to go out this way, so expect him back on an incentive-laden deal for 2013. The better question: Will he be the Rivera of old? He'll be 43 years old come Opening Day, and no pitcher in the history of baseball has saved more than 15 games in a season at that age or older. But if anyone can do it, it's Rivera. What I'll say is that next season will be one season in which a handcuff would be mandatory, but even that's difficult to gauge, being that Rafael Soriano has an opt-out clause on his contract this winter. It might be a pitcher not currently in the organization -- Joakim Soria?
2013 Projected Closer: Rivera -- C. 2013 Sleeper: David Robertson. Rest of 2012: Soriano -- A.
Oakland Athletics: They've had two fantasy-worthy closers this season, Grant Balfour and Ryan Cook, and might by all rights have the same two to begin 2013. Balfour, after all, has an affordable, $4.5 million team option, and Cook will be in only his second full season, at low cost. This is a brilliant combination as the team attempts to set Cook up as its 2014 finisher; Balfour might not cede the job all next year, but these would be smart pitchers to handcuff.
2013 Projected Closer: Balfour -- C. 2013 Sleeper: Cook. Rest of 2012: Balfour -- B.
Philadelphia Phillies: Jonathan Papelbon will be beginning the second season of his four-year, $50 million contract, and the first year has gone reasonably well considering the early-season struggles of his team. He's on pace for the second-most saves (38) and third-best strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio (11.24) of his career, and he has a 89.2 percent save conversion rate. That contract gives him a long leash, and it's not like the Phillies have significant competition on the horizon. Their middle-relief corps has been a mess all summer, with only recent surges by Josh Lindblom and Phillippe Aumont warranting our attention. Expect this team to add a setup man, though probably not one who would be a significant threat for saves.
2013 Projected Closer: Papelbon -- A. 2013 Sleeper: Aumont. Rest of 2012: Papelbon -- A.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Would the Pirates consider trading their closer, Joel Hanrahan? Don't be shocked if they do. He makes $4.1 million this season and, as the closer with the third-most saves since the beginning of 2011 (74), might double that salary through arbitration. Still, this Pirates team is now a legitimate, on-the-rise contender, and a lockdown closer like Hanrahan might yet remain in the plans, even if it requires the Pirates to sink $8 million-plus in a relief pitcher.
2013 Projected Closer: Hanrahan -- B. 2013 Sleeper: Jason Grilli. Rest of 2012: Hanrahan -- B.
San Diego Padres: The Padres penned a surprising script change at the trade deadline this season, signing Huston Street to a two-year, $14 million extension (plus a $7 million option for 2015), assuring that he'll be back as their closer to begin 2013. But considering Street's injury history -- he has six career disabled list stints, including one in each of the past three seasons -- his handcuff is a discussion of note. To settle that, how about some more stability in San Diego? Luke Gregerson, the Padres' current Street stand-in, shouldn't see his salary rise through arbitration to the point where their new management would trade him.
2013 Projected Closer: Street -- B. 2013 Sleeper: Brad Boxberger. Rest of 2012: Gregerson -- C.
San Francisco Giants: Brian Wilson had his second career Tommy John surgery on April 19, making his 2013 outlook entirely uncertain. He should be ready on or near Opening Day, but will he be close to the pitcher he was in 2010-11? The Giants might prepare for the year as though he'll contribute while adding another low-priced arm to the stable that includes Sergio Romo, Javier Lopez and Santiago Casilla but might lose Jeremy Affeldt to free agency. This might be a bullpen that has three or more pitchers save five or more games, every one of the individuals fantasy-worthy during his time in the role. Let's take a guess at a prospective free-agent candidate: Jonathan Broxton.
2013 Projected Closer: Wilson -- C. 2013 Sleeper: Heath Hembree. Rest of 2012: Lopez -- C, Romo -- D.
Seattle Mariners: Let's first state that Tom Wilhelmsen, barring the team making a winter free-agent acquisition, likely will be the Mariners' closer next Opening Day. The question here, however, is will he be in the role come season's end
or let's say even by May? Nothing against Wilhelmsen's skills, but rookie Stephen Pryor has that prototypical look of a closer: He's got a high-90s fastball, a slider that needs some refinement, but also a 3.48 ERA, 1.35 WHIP and 13.06 K/9 ratio since his call-up in early August. Some of these calls need be bold; I see the Mariners as a bullpen that could be in flux in 2013. In a situation like that, give me the flame-throwing youngster, if we're speculating seven months ahead.
2013 Projected Closer: Pryor -- D. 2013 Sleeper: Carter Capps. Rest of 2012: Wilhelmsen -- C.
St. Louis Cardinals: To think, a few short seasons ago, Jason Motte was a pitcher with one pitch, a fastball as straight as an arrow. He has improved himself by leaps and bounds since; the addition of a slider/cutter to handle left-handed hitters making the difference. He's still relatively young (30), and his salary, while due to rise in arbitration, should remain manageable (it's $1.95 million this season). Expect more of the same in 2013.
2013 Projected Closer: Motte -- B. 2013 Sleeper: Edward Mujica. Rest of 2012: Motte -- B.
Tampa Bay Rays: What do the names Rafael Soriano, Danys Baez, Troy Percival, Al Reyes, Lance Carter and Kyle Farnsworth have in common? Simple: They're the six Rays closers who recorded seasons of 25 saves or more from 2001-11 -- Baez did it twice -- and they paid them roughly $20.3 million combined to do it. Let's face it, Joe Maddon and his coaches are closer wizards, and they'll find another gem on the cheap if they need to. Incumbent Fernando Rodney has an affordable $2.5 million option, so he's the logical choice, but let's remember two things: A) Farnsworth was signed for this year, too, then got hurt. B) This team is one of the few with an extremely intriguing sleeper in former starter Wade Davis, who has a sparkling 0.44 ERA and 12.63 K's-per-nine ratio since the All-Star break.
2013 Projected Closer: Rodney -- C. 2013 Sleeper: Davis. Rest of 2012: Rodney -- A.
Texas Rangers: The incumbent, Joe Nathan, will be 38 years old come Opening Day, but he's under contract for $7 million for 2013 with a $500,000 buyout of a $9 million 2014 option. In other words, Nathan's 32 saves plus his guaranteed salary make this look like an obvious bullpen to project. But is it? The veteran right-hander has appeared in only three non-save chances since Aug. 3, a span of 14 appearances, as the Rangers have remained mostly true to their word that he'd pitch only in save chances. That the team has been so concerned about Nathan's health has me wondering, will his eventual replacement receive an audition next year, be it due to injury to or poor performance by Nathan? The Rangers have a brilliant young arm in Tanner Scheppers (25) and another brilliant arm in the prime of his career in Alexi Ogando (28). Ogando needs more exposure, be it as a starter or closer. Meanwhile, Neftali Feliz (24), whose arsenal might be most suited to close long-term, might make a late-season appearance following recovery from Tommy John surgery. Unfortunately, he might be auditioning for only a 2014 role.
2013 Projected Closer: Nathan -- B. 2013 Sleeper: Scheppers. Rest of 2012: Nathan -- B.
Toronto Blue Jays: Casey Janssen is one of the most underrated relievers in the American League, and his statistics since taking over as Blue Jays closer are outstanding. Since tallying his first save on May 9, he's 20-for-22 in save opportunities with a 1.83 ERA, 0.77 WHIP and 5.88 K-to-walk ratio. He's also signed for an entirely affordable $3.9 million, meaning he'd even make sense as a one-year stopgap if the team ultimately views midseason acquisition Steve Delabar its closer of the future.
2013 Projected Closer: Janssen -- C. 2013 Sleeper: Delabar. Rest of 2012: Janssen -- B.
Washington Nationals: Drew Storen's closer career is not finished. In fact, he might be right back in the role come next April, considering that manager Davey Johnson probably just didn't want to alter a bullpen arrangement that was working when he kept Tyler Clippard in the role following Storen's return from elbow surgery. Storen has a 3.05 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 26 games since activation, with comparable velocity to pre-surgery, and a winter's rest might only further help his cause in the health department. Expect him to be given a long look for the role come spring training.
2013 Projected Closer: Drew Storen -- A. 2013 Sleeper: Christian Garcia. Rest of 2012: Clippard -- B.