2013 Position Preview: Relief pitcher

2/20/2013 - MLB

A whopping 19 of 30 closer situations changed hands at some point in 2012, helping to lend some credence to this common ESPN Fantasy refrain: "Don't pay for saves." It didn't help that Mariano Rivera, one of the "safest" saves options out there was done for the season in April because of a freak knee injury. Meanwhile, Fernando Rodney, who had more walks than strikeouts in 2011, had one of the best fantasy seasons ever for a closer.

So last year's top relievers came from all over the preseason rankings spectrum. Some were highly rated options who lived up to expectations (Craig Kimbrel, Jonathan Papelbon, Jason Motte), others were ranked lower but still were considered viable sleeper options (Jim Johnson, Joe Nathan), some were handcuff types who thrived once they got an opportunity (Rafael Soriano), and then there were the true surprises, such as Rodney and Tom Wilhelmsen.

Heading into this season, there appears to be a handful of "safe" options (based on skills and the likelihood that they'll keep their closer gigs), a bunch more guys with a potential opportunity for saves (i.e. committee closers, setup men behind shaky closers) and a group of pitchers with the skills but not necessarily a clear path to saves just yet.

It's that last class of relievers who make for intriguing prospects and solid values heading into the season. Remember, it's not always the team's "best" reliever who gets all the saves. And while saves are obviously a fantasy commodity, relievers who don't get them can still be useful if they pile up strikeouts and keep their ratios down (and in some cases pile up vulture wins, although you don't really want to chase those). Often those relievers end up with a bunch of saves anyway (or at least holds, for those of you in holds leagues). Get those guys while they're still on the ground floor on draft day, and they can help you down the line or even be good trade chips as the season progresses.

Cream of the Crop

The Atlanta Braves' Craig Kimbrel remains head and shoulders above everyone else at this position. He has recorded 88 saves over the past two seasons closing for a solid Braves team, he's coming off a whopping 1.01 ERA/0.65 WHIP season, and he struck out 116 batters (and walked just 14) in 62 2/3 innings. He even had more strikeouts than starters such as Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Clayton Richard.

After Kimbrel, there are a handful of seemingly solid closers with great ratios, decent strikeout numbers and a firm grasp on saves, such as Papelbon, Motte and J.J. Putz. The resurgent Nathan probably also falls into this category after a fine bounce-back season with the Texas Rangers.

A handful of top closers enter the spring with pressing questions: What will Rodney do for an encore after his insanely good 2012? Can Rivera, at age 43, return from his knee injury to be the same Rivera we've come to know and love? Can Soriano, who recorded 42 saves in Rivera's absence last year, be the saves guy all year for the Washington Nationals with Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard waiting in the wings?

And then there's the case of Aroldis Chapman, who currently is eligible only at relief pitcher but is slated to open the season as a starting pitcher. Chapman led all relievers with 122 strikeouts last season and ended up with 38 saves, but it remains to be seen if he can make a successful conversion to starting (such as Chris Sale and Kris Medlen last year). He's an elite option as a closer, but the jury is still out on him as a starter, so where to draft him is a tough call.

The Next Best Thing

Joel Hanrahan upped both his strikeout and walk rates in 2012 but enters the season as the Boston Red Sox closer after an offseason trade. He has the skills to remain a closer (as well as 76 saves over the past two seasons), but the Red Sox also have the talented but oft-injured Andrew Bailey lurking for saves if Hanrahan can't do the job.

Johnson racked up 51 saves in 2012 but doesn't have the same strikeout ability to join the truly elite fantasy closers. That said, he has put up solid ratios the past two seasons and doesn't have much competition behind him.

John Axford actually lost his closer's job for a stretch last season but regained the role and finished with 35 saves and 93 strikeouts in 69 1/3 innings. Of course, he did it with an unseemly 4.67 ERA and 1.44 WHIP, which can be partially explained by a crazy-high 19.2 percent homer-per-fly-ball rate. There's not much competition behind him at closer, though, and with the high K totals (career 11.4 K/9 rate), he's still quite usable.

Greg Holland is an example of a solid high-strikeout reliever who bided his time in the Kansas City Royals bullpen until a closer job was finally available for him. He struck out 91 in 67 innings (although he also had 34 walks) and is ready to build on his 16 saves from 2012. What can both help and hurt Holland is a strong bullpen in front of him; they'll help preserve save chances for him, but there could be competition for the closer job should Holland falter.

Sergio Romo had been used as a type of ROOGY (Right-handed One-Out GuY) in the San Francisco Giants' bullpen for a number of years before finally ascending to the closer's job late in 2012. Much like Holland, Romo has a lot of very good arms in the bullpen behind him who could either steal save chances or the closer's role completely if he stumbles.

Where's the Ceiling?

Addison Reed eventually settled in as the Chicago White Sox closer in 2012 and recorded 29 saves, though with a 4.75 ERA (including 5.63 in the second half). There's still plenty of room for growth, though, and for now he seems firmly in place as the closer to start the season.


Mid-round sleepers:
Greg Holland, Addison Reed
Late-round sleepers:
Jason Grilli, Kyuji Fujikawa
Prospects: Bruce Rondon, Stephen Pryor
Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: J.J. Putz
Player to trade at All-Star break: Huston Street
Player to trade for at ASB: Kenley Jansen
Home heroes: Grant Balfour, Carlos Marmol
Road warriors: Jim Johnson, Glen Perkins
Player I inexplicably like: Tyler Clippard
Player I inexplicably dislike: Jason Motte

Jason Grilli takes over as the Pittsburgh Pirates closer following the trade of Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox. The journeyman reliever struck out a whopping 90 batters in 58 2/3 innings last year, picking up 32 holds in the process. He could be a nice bargain late in drafts as long as you don't overspend on him.

Meanwhile, Kenley Jansen likely won't open the season as the Los Angeles Dodgers' closer, but we currently give him the nod for overall value ahead of Brandon League, who is expected to have the job. Jansen, who did record 25 saves last season, has a career K/9 rate of 14.6 and solid K/BB rate of 3.75 in his short career. Even without saves, he can still have lots of fantasy value, and there's no guarantee League holds on to the job all season long.

Across town, the Los Angeles Angels' Ernesto Frieri is in very much the same situation. He saved 23 games after coming over from the San Diego Padres early in the 2012 season and finished with 98 strikeouts in 66 innings with the two teams. However, he might be pushed from the closer role from newly acquired Ryan Madson. But a year removed from Tommy John surgery, Madson might not be ready to start the season or may struggle once he is ready, so there still is hope for Frieri.

Bobby Parnell has gotten a handful of saves over the past two seasons and appears poised to be the New York Mets' closer. With Frank Francisco (who had 23 shaky saves last year) entering spring training with an elbow injury, this may finally be the time for Parnell to make the jump from setup man to closer.

Other solid setup men who have value even without saves and could easily be excellent closers if the opportunity arises: David Robertson, David Hernandez, Vinnie Pestano, Clippard and Storen.

Where's the Basement?

Huston Street had a stellar 1.85 ERA and 0.72 WHIP last year with 23 saves, and yet fantasy owners wanted more, as injuries limited him to just 40 games and 39 innings. The injury specter seems to loom over Street, depressing his value a bit. And there's also that potential that the Padres could trade him at some point, with no guarantee that he'd go to another team needing a closer.

Jonathan Broxton emerged as the Royals' closer after Joakim Soria went down, and he saved 23 games before joining the Reds late in the season as Aroldis Chapman's setup man. With Chapman expected to head into the rotation, Broxton assumes the closer role for now. However, his hold on that job is tenuous at best. First off, there's no assurance that Chapman will indeed be a starter the whole season. Secondly, Broxton's K/9 rate has really fallen off the past couple years -- it was 13.50 in his banner 2009 campaign, but just 6.98 last year -- which also doesn't portend a great future despite a 2.48 ERA/1.26 WHIP line in 2012.

Chris Perez racked up 39 saves last season and improved his K/9 and K/BB rates in the process, even though his ERA actually ticked up a bit. His performance has been all over the board throughout his career, and he had his share of shaky saves last year, so there's potential of a drop-off.

Thanks but No Thanks: Do Not Draft

Jose Valverde is still looking for a job at the time of this writing -- he was rumored to be close to signing with the Miami Marlins -- but unless he's given the closer's role upon signing with a team, it's best to avoid him, and even then he's a big risk. While he had 35 saves last year for the Tigers, he doesn't offer the same sense of security that many elite closers have.

Carlos Marmol is still currently the Chicago Cubs closer, and he did have a 1.52 ERA after the All-Star break last year (after a brief demotion from the role early last year). But he still walks way too many people to be considered reliable. Plus, the Cubs brought in Kyuji Fujikawa, who saved 202 games in six seasons for the Hanshin Tigers. He could be in the closer role sooner rather than later.

Talkin' Prospects

It's usually hard to target any prospects as immediate closer options since most of them spend time in some sort of middle-relief role (or even a stint as a starter) before getting save chances. However, we may have an exception this year, as the Tigers seem intent on making prospect Bruce Rondon the closer to open the season, even though he's yet to pitch in the majors. He did have a K/9 rate of 11.2 over three levels of the minors in 2012, but he also walked 26 in 53 innings, so that control still needs a little help.

Points Versus Roto

Focusing on high-strikeout closers is good for roto and points-based leagues, especially given how those counting stats can really boost point totals very quickly when you add the actual saves to the mix.

Ratios don't matter that much in points leagues; it's the counting stats that carry the day. As such, the most valuable points-league closers are the ones who can throw multiple innings on a regular basis (which is somewhat of a rarity these days). Those high-K middle men can have value, especially if they're close to a closer's job or if holds count in your league.

Otherwise, it's volume, saves and strikeouts that boost closers in points leagues. In fact, they can even come close to the value of many starting pitchers if they put up fine all-around numbers.

Bottom Line

Relief pitching is as fickle as ever, but focusing on strikeouts, ERA and WHIP, in addition to actual saves, can be the key to building a winning bullpen. You don't necessarily have to pay a pretty penny for saves, but you still have to find good pitchers who are in a decent position to get them in the first place. And while there appears to be a decent crop of potentially dependable closers, always be aware of the next big thing looming in the bullpen. Because in many cases, that's where leagues can be won or lost.