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2011 Position Preview: Relief pitcher

3/24/2011

Respect your elders.

There's no greater advice when it comes to evaluating the pros and cons of investing in saves. In 2010, two past-40 closers produced polar-opposite seasons, perfectly demonstrating that closers can, at their extremes, be one of two things: Totally reliable, or an utter nightmare.

Mariano Rivera was totally reliable.

Trevor Hoffman was an utter nightmare.

Rivera just completed his 14th season as the New York Yankees' closer, and in those, he has saved 40 or more games seven times, 30 or more 13 times and has never finished with fewer than 28 saves in a single season. He's almost robot-like with his level of efficiency, and even as a 41-year-old entering 2011, makes a flawless case to be selected first at his position in any fantasy draft.

Meanwhile, Hoffman, who completed the 2009 season as the seventh-most valuable relief pitcher per our Player Rater, blew five of his first 10 opportunities and registered a 13.15 ERA in his first 14 appearances last season, coughing up the closer's job, a gig he had held since 1994, before Memorial Day. He would finish with a 5.89 ERA and 1.44 WHIP, both of those his worst numbers in any single year, announcing his retirement following the season.

And here's the problem: Hoffman's worst-case scenario for a fantasy investment actually serves just as well to detract from Rivera's best-case scenario. After all, Hoffman was 42 when his career finally fell apart, and Rivera enters 2011 only one year younger than that. Don't you think there are fantasy owners out there who fear that what happened to Hoffman might soon happen to Rivera?

Hoffman wasn't alone in frustrating fantasy owners. Consider this: In addition to him, nine more of our top 25 relief pitchers -- the 10 total out of 25 resulting in a whopping 40 percent -- in our 2010 preseason rankings failed to last the season as closers: Jonathan Broxton (first), Francisco Rodriguez (fifth), Hoffman (11th), Chad Qualls (13th), Brian Fuentes (15th), Frank Francisco (16th), Bobby Jenks (21st), Octavio Dotel (23rd), Mike Gonzalez (24th) and Leo Nunez (25th).

Relief Pitcher Rankings

1. Heath Bell, SD, $13
2. Mariano Rivera, NYY, $13
3. Brian Wilson, SF, $13
4. Joakim Soria, KC, $12
5. Neftali Feliz, Tex, $12
6. Carlos Marmol, ChC, $11
7. Francisco Rodriguez, NYM, $10
8. Jonathan Papelbon, Bos, $10
9. Jonathan Broxton, LAD, $9
10. Joe Nathan, Min, $9
11. Chris Perez, Cle, $7
12. John Axford, Mil, $7
13. Huston Street, Col, $7
14. Jose Valverde, Det, $7
15. Andrew Bailey, Oak, $6
16. Francisco Cordero, Cin, $5
17. J.J. Putz, Ari, $5
18. Ryan Franklin, StL, $5
19. Matt Thornton, CWS, $4
20. Drew Storen, Was, $3
21. Craig Kimbrel, Atl, $3
22. Frank Francisco, Tor, $2
23. Brad Lidge, Phi, $2
24. Brandon Lyon, Hou, $2
25. Leo Nunez, Fla, $2
26. Kevin Gregg, Bal, $1
27. Fernando Rodney, LAA, $1
28. Brandon League, Sea, $1
29. David Aardsma, Sea, $1
30. Jonny Venters, Atl, $1
31. Joel Hanrahan, Pit, $1
32. Hong-Chih Kuo, LAD, $1
33. Jake McGee, TB, $0
34. Ryan Madson, Phi, $0
35. Daniel Bard, Bos, $0
36. Evan Meek, Pit, $0
37. Alexi Ogando, Tex, $0
38. Octavio Dotel, Tor, $0
39. Sergio Romo, SF, $0
40. Rafael Soriano, NYY, $0
41. Luke Gregerson, SD, $0
42. Jon Rauch, Tor, $0
43. Rafael Betancourt, Col, $0
44. Carlos Zambrano, ChC, $0
45. Brian Duensing, Min, $0
46. Mike Adams, SD, $0
47. Tim Stauffer, SD, $0
48. Joaquin Benoit, Det, $0
49. Aroldis Chapman, Cin, $0
50. Joel Peralta, TB, $0
Players listed at positions at which they are eligible in ESPN standard leagues. Rankings based on 2011 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Dollar values based on 10-team (one-catcher) mixed league with $260 budget.

Welcome to the frustration of hunting for saves. We hope you enjoy the ride, but realize that some of you most certainly won't. Just ask Hoffman's 2010 owners.

Unfortunately, for all the evils of fantasy closers -- their often one-category nature, their propensity to disappoint, their ability to often spring from the least expected places -- they're necessary evils. (Unless, of course, you've formulated a brilliant, detailed "punt-saves" plan, but don't for a second assume that's an easy path to a league championship. Many fantasy teams have been undone by a faulty strategy; "punting" while rostering one closer is a common such trap.)

Here's why: At any given time there can be only 30 "closers" in baseball. Oh, sure, some teams might at times employ a closer tandem or closer-by-committee, but on any given (non-doubleheader) night, those teams cannot have two different relievers record a save. There's at most one save per game, period.

So, while fantasy closers are a volatile market, don't for a second forget that they're also a limited market. You can get ERA, WHIP and strikeouts help from a deeper pool of available relief-pitching talent, but saves come only from a select few, and only those deemed worthy enough for the job by their manager.

Does that mean you're better off picking a top closer, one with a proven track record like Rivera's? Or should you wait until late and scoop up the scraps, hoping to patch the category together in-season with finds like 2010's No. 10 fantasy closer John Axford? Either has proved a successful strategy when executed properly, and your decision should be based upon both your comfort level with spending the necessary picks/auction dollars at the draft table and how aggressive you tend to be pursuing trades and free-agent pickups during the season. An owner who doesn't like to watch the waiver wire like a hawk might prefer the former; an owner who prefers to invest resources in other areas on draft day, like power, speed or pitching strikeouts, might choose the latter. And there's room here even for the owner who picks the middle road, picking one elite closer and piecing together the rest.

A final note: Don't assume relief pitching in fantasy is all about the saves. Yes, in shallow leagues it's mostly about the saves, but even in those, an elite middle or setup man can make a valuable contribution in ERA, WHIP and K's. In deeper leagues -- think AL- and NL-only -- ratio-helping middle relievers can do wonders for stealing a few sneaky points in ERA and WHIP.

But -- here's where it gets tricky -- don't assume the most productive middle relievers from last season are the ones who will remain most productive this year. As with closers, middle- and setup-relief performance can shift rapidly from season to season. Stealing last year's Relief Pitcher Preview benchmarks for a quality ERA/WHIP relief pitcher -- 60-plus innings, 3.25 ERA or better -- only four pitchers met those criteria in each of the past three seasons: Rivera, Darren Oliver, Ramon Ramirez and Matt Thornton. Only 21 relievers, in fact, did it in two of the past three seasons, and of those 21, 11 will likely enter 2011 as closers.

That sure supports the notion that the most attractive ratio helpers are, very often, just as likely to be scooped up as in-season free agents as draft-day picks.

The elite

You'd think that Rivera, with his track record, would top our relief-pitcher rankings, but the Hoffman parallel is at least somewhat legitimate. Rivera might have the most job security of any closer in baseball, but as his age climbs, his risk of injury and/or meltdown increases slightly, and those who follow him closely realize that he's now locked in as a one-inning closer, as opposed to the four-, five- or six-out finisher he was during his prime. Rafael Soriano's arrival probably puts the ex-Tampa Bay Rays closer in the workhorse late-inning role, eating up four or more outs in the final third of the game, whereas Rivera might never appear before the ninth.

Still, Rivera's consistency, stuff and level of security keep him unquestionably in this group, even if we've got two National League West finishers ranked ahead of him: Brian Wilson of the world champion San Francisco Giants and Heath Bell of the San Diego Padres. Wilson, incidentally, has quietly transformed into arguably the most reliable finisher in baseball, and the Rivera parallels are legitimate: Wilson has modeled himself after the future Hall of Famer, adopting a nasty cutter. (Editor's note: Wilson suffered a strained left oblique late in spring training and his status for Opening Day is doubtful. As a result, we've dropped him to the rank of No. 3 closer.)

Bell and Joakim Soria, our No. 4 relief pitcher, belong in this group despite whispers either might be traded at some point. They're the only two pitchers in baseball with at least 40 saves and a sub-3.00 ERA in two of the past three seasons -- no one else has done it more than once -- so the teams acquiring them would almost assuredly be doing so with their sights fixed on either filling the ninth. While there's always a Soriano-like concern ( landing in an uber-deep bullpen with a rock-solid finisher), the prospects of that are slim, and you shouldn't adjust your draft sheets.

Tier 2: Minor questions

At first glance, there isn't a significant difference between the second tier of fantasy closers and the clear elite at the position. After all, Neftali Feliz of the American League champion Texas Rangers wasn't ranked much more than two rounds behind the No. 1 closer on our draft board, Brian Wilson, before he started talking about wanting to be a starter. His stuff is suited enough to close that he could, by all rights, top the leaderboard by season's end if Ron Washington keeps him in last season's role. (Editor's Note: The Rangers have closed the door to the starting rotation as of March 24 and Feliz is once more our No. 5 closer. See previous note in regards to Brian Wilson's status as the No. 3 closer).

But it's with this group, one that also includes Carlos Marmol, Jonathan Papelbon, Andrew Bailey and Chris Perez, where the minor questions begin to surface:

Marmol: His stuff is filthy but his command not, as he has averaged 50 walks per year at the big league level. Marmol will never be one of the top relief pitchers in WHIP, and a prolonged cold spell could ultimately cost him.

Papelbon: In addition to diminishing skills, Papelbon now has both Daniel Bard and Bobby Jenks pressing him for his job. Papelbon has potentially the least job security of anyone in our top 10, and if not for his contract -- he'll earn $12 million in 2011 -- he might have already been traded by the Boston Red Sox.

Bailey: Besides the Oakland Athletics' revamping of their bullpen, increasing competition in the late frames, Bailey's worry is his track record in the health department. He spent a month on the disabled list last year with an intercostal strain, then had elbow surgery in September and saw Dr. James Andrews in mid-March for what turned out to be a sprain.

Perez: It's his team that's of concern, because Perez boasts top-10 closer stuff but unfortunately closes for the Cleveland Indians, who might not win 70 games. Perez could suffer in terms of saves as a result.

Snapshot

Mid-round sleeper: Chris Perez
Late-round sleeper: Drew Storen
Prospect: Craig Kimbrel

Long-term prospect: Tanner Scheppers

Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: Jonathan Papelbon

Player to trade at All-Star break: Francisco Cordero

Player to trade for at ASB: Drew Storen

Home hero: Francisco Rodriguez

Road warrior: Mariano Rivera

Better in points formats: Carlos Marmol

Player I inexplicably like: Joe Nathan
Player I inexplicably dislike: Ryan Franklin

Tier 3: Major questions

Like the above group, this tier is populated by pitchers who, in terms of raw skill, could challenge for top-five -- or even No. 1 overall -- status among fantasy relievers, but it's also a group where questions surrounding them intensify. We ask:

Francisco Rodriguez: Are his off-the-field issues truly in his past, and will the New York Mets fully forgive him for them? We're taking a leap of faith that K-Rod is the Mets' closer, because in addition to being paid as one, he's one of the few relievers on the roster with the stuff to close, but that's a huge question mark.

Jonathan Broxton: Was his second half, one of the worst half-seasons by any relief pitcher in the decade (7.13 ERA, 2.13 WHIP, 21 walks in 24 innings), a sign that his stuff is no longer elite? The Los Angeles Dodgers do have alternatives.

Joe Nathan: Now 36 years old, can Nathan make a successful comeback from Tommy John surgery? He was one of the game's best before going under the knife, and while the track record of success stories coming off that surgery is lengthy, there are no guarantees. Matt Capps lurks as an insurance policy.

Drew Storen: Are the Washington Nationals prepared to hand him the closer's job right from the start? Storen has the stuff and makeup to close, but he also has only one year's big league experience under his belt.

Craig Kimbrel: As with Storen, will the Atlanta Braves hand Kimbrel the job, or would they prefer the slightly more experienced Jonny Venters? Kimbrel's numbers were filthy in limited action, and he'll be a favorite sleeper if he emerges.

Where's the downside?

Now we're into the more questionable choices, albeit ones who have been somewhat steady, at least in the saves category, the past few seasons. You might notice an immediate link between these five:

Jose Valverde: $7 million
Francisco Cordero: $12 million
Ryan Franklin: $3.5 million
Leo Nunez: $3.65 million
Fernando Rodney: $5.5 million

That's right, this quintet is paid to close and therefore should continue to close, or at least receive chances to do so unless their performance ultimately unseats them. The problem, however, is that each one has another, almost equally deserving competitor for saves behind him. Valverde has Joaquin Benoit, Cordero has Aroldis Chapman, Franklin has both Kyle McClellan and Jason Motte, Nunez has Clay Hensley, and Rodney has both Scott Downs and Jordan Walden.

This is the point where handcuffing your closers becomes a viable -- and often critical -- strategy, and in a shallow mixed league, that means spending another late-round pick (plus a bench spot) on a pitcher you might never use. Don't dismiss any of these five simply because they could lose the job, but be prepared for the possibility that any of them might.

Steady as he goes

They're the middle-of-the-road, mid-to-late-round selections, the kinds of closers who hardly excite you but could be bargain candidates if picked late enough in drafts. No one will mistake a John Axford or Huston Street for a top fantasy closer, but both have job security and skills that make them viable bets to contend for top-10 status at the position. Matt Thornton, one of the aforementioned four relief pitchers with 60-plus innings and a sub-3.25 ERA in each of the past three seasons, also has the skill set to close, and if he emerges over hotshot prospect Chris Sale or free-agent signee Jesse Crain, could make a surprise run at the top 10.

Four other pitchers, two from the National League and two from the American League, also belong in this group. Neither Brad Lidge nor Brandon Lyon faces a significant threat to his job, and while neither feels like an attractive fantasy closer, both finished the 2010 season on a high note. Lidge had 21 saves, a 2.10 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 32 appearances after the All-Star break, while Lyon had 19 saves, a 2.56 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 38 appearances during the same time span.

Over in the AL East, projected closers Frank Francisco of the Toronto Blue Jays and Kevin Gregg of the Baltimore Orioles should prove adequate enough ninth-inning options for their new teams. Francisco will first have to fend off spring challenges by fellow winter acquisitions Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch, but he has the stuff and the makeup to be a top-20 fantasy closer given the chance. Gregg, meanwhile, might never have registered a sub-3.00 ERA or sub-1.20 WHIP in any full big league season, but he has four consecutive years of 20-plus saves, has averaged 30 per year during that span and has done it despite pitching for three different teams. Experience might be all he needs to hold this job, despite the presences of both Koji Uehara and Mike Gonzalez in the late innings.

Must-have handcuffs

As hinted earlier, certain setup men are necessary handcuffs, be it on raw skills, the volatility of the men ahead of them in the pecking order or an actual opportunity to claim closer jobs during spring training. Here's a list of the best bets:

Evan Meek: The Pittsburgh Pirates have let it be known that Joel Hanrahan is their Opening Day closer. Meek, however, is available should Hanrahan slips for even a second, and that job could quickly change hands.

Jonny Venters: He might be the Braves' Opening Day closer, but even if he's not, he has quickly developed into one of the most effective left-handed relievers in baseball. One slipup by Kimbrel could put him back into the closer picture.

Hong-Chih Kuo: The Dodgers probably prefer Broxton as closer because of Kuo's checkered injury history, but Kuo was far more effective in the role to conclude last season. A repeat of what happened in 2010 is not unthinkable.

Daniel Bard: Rumors abounded all winter that the Red Sox wanted to trade Papelbon and install Bard, whose stuff is even filthier, as their ninth-inning guy. It might yet happen during the season, though Jenks' presence might make the Red Sox's bullpen a two-handcuff situation.

Rafael Soriano: So long as Mariano Rivera is healthy and not Hoffman-like awful, Soriano will not close in pinstripes. But Rivera's age is creeping up and the Yankees realize they can't push him for long outings. Could a DL stint, however brief, be in order, and might Soriano get some chances on Rivera's nights off?

Luke Gregerson: Heath Bell trade rumors alone paint Gregerson one of the smarter handcuffs entering 2011. Gregerson made huge strides in shutting down left-handed hitters last year (.180/.237/.303 rates), and if he's needed to close, the Padres might not get much less production out of him than their incumbent.

Aroldis Chapman: The Cincinnati Reds have designs on him being a dominant late-inning stopper this season, and Chapman's stuff completely blew Francisco Cordero's out of the water during his 2010 cup of coffee. How long can the Reds stick with Cordero if his WHIP is more than a quarter-point higher?

Don't ignore any of these seven handcuffs as potential ERA/WHIP/K's helpers, either, even if not a single one of them ever sniffs a save chance. One of the reasons that each is a handcuff consideration is that he possesses elite talent in those three categories; you'd be just as smart to bet on any as the relief-pitching leader in any of those departments as a current closer.

Meaningful middle men

These six relievers could wind up as handcuff considerations, especially in a deeper (AL- or NL-only) league, but the primary reason you should draft them is their contributions in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts.

Ryan Madson: He roared back with a 1.50 ERA, 0.88 WHIP and 10.50 strikeouts per nine innings in 44 second-half games last season after returning from a broken big toe in July. Madson will be the Phillies' primary setup man, and those ratios demonstrate that he's not adversely affected by their hitter-friendly venue.

Sergio Romo: One of the more underappreciated setup men in baseball, Romo already has a 2.63 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 9.97 K's per nine in three seasons at the big league level. He'll return as the Giants' top setup man.

Mike Adams: If it's not Luke Gregerson next in line to close, it's Adams, who has been lights-out for the Padres since rescuing what had once been an injury-plagued career. He has a 1.81 ERA and 0.95 WHIP the past three seasons combined.

Rafael Betancourt: Manager Jim Tracy claims that he prefers Betancourt locked into a setup role, despite the stuff that might make him a dominant closer. Here's another lights-out reliever who doesn't seem bothered by his hitter-friendly home venue; Betancourt has a 3.08 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in his Rockies career.

Joaquin Benoit: Criticize his contract all you wish, but Benoit was one of 2010's most effective setup men. Among those with 60-plus innings, he had the majors' best relief WHIP (0.68), second-best ERA (1.34) and sixth-most holds (25).

Tyler Clippard: He could emerge as the Nationals' closer, but why would they want to lock him into only a ninth-inning role? Clippard was a workhorse for them last season, and he throws enough frames to make those sparkling ratios count.

Bottom line

There is no "right" or "wrong" answer to filling out your fantasy bullpen, unfortunately; teams that pick two top-10 closers aren't any less likely to win than the ones who mix and match to fill the saves category. That's the fun -- or the aggravation, depending upon your perspective -- that is drafting saves. When formulating your strategy, ask yourself two questions: Are you patient enough to troll the waiver wire daily for the "next big thing" at closer? Or do you have enough trust in a closer -- and perhaps more importantly his manager -- to make a hefty investment at the draft table?

Regardless of your answers, expect the unexpected at this position. Hoffman certainly showed us that last season; and if this is the year that Rivera's performance drops steeply off the table, don't say you weren't warned!

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.