Who are the top middle relievers?
The life of a relief pitcher isn't always fair.
Case in point: Though he was hardly the team's most valuable reliever in that season, it's John Wetteland's image that graces most of the celebratory photographs of the New York Yankees' World Series championship in 1996. Wetteland was the team's closer that year, and therefore the man who got the glory, including the final out of the World Series.
Not that Mariano Rivera should complain. In 14 years since, he has made quite the name for himself (at this point, it's hard to argue against his being a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer). Though somewhat hidden as Wetteland's setup man, Rivera earned the chance to close with his astonishing 1996 campaign, becoming one of the best fantasy options at his position for the past decade-plus.
That's the injustice, yet the reality, of life in the bullpen. Many relievers deserve a chance to close, to occupy the attention-grabbing spot, but not everyone gets that chance. There isn't always a rhyme or reason as to how managers pick their finishers. The best we can do as fantasy owners is zero in on talent and hope, just hope, for a transition as clean as the Wetteland-to-Rivera handoff.
(As an aside, it's worth pointing out that in that stellar 1996 as a setup man, Rivera actually got the chance to close ever-so-briefly in both May and August. It wouldn't be until 1997 that he'd have the gig full time, which demonstrates how deserving candidates don't always get their chance immediately.)
Our "Closer Chart," which is updated regularly, lays out the current closer and who is next in line for each team. That's a valuable resource for fantasy owners, but while it tells you where the handcuff values lie or who to nab if a closer gets hurt, demoted or traded, it doesn't necessarily address the topic of relievers who are most deserving of a chance to close.
So let's take a look at those skilled relievers. None of these pitchers is necessarily the next in line to close, and some reside on teams where the closer has as much job security as a finisher could have. Still, such a list has its values. Besides hinting at who might be next in line to close, be it tonight, next week or two years from now, it also highlights pitchers who are about as rock solid as they come in holds, ERA, WHIP and strikeouts.
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.
1. Luke Gregerson, San Diego Padres: Few relievers have done as much to improve themselves from a year ago as Gregerson, and let's point out that in 2009, he finished fourth in the majors among relievers in both holds (27) and strikeouts (93). Two things have changed. His command has been impeccable; his 0.97 walks-per-nine innings ratio is a significant improvement upon 2009's 3.72, and he has issued just two free passes in his past 122 batters faced. He also hasn't had problems with left-handed hitters, limiting them to .091/.153/.109 (AVG/OBP/SLG) this season. It's difficult to explain how Gregerson could have made such huge strides in the latter department, but one major difference, per Inside Edge, is that lefties have just .050/.095/.050 rates against his fastball this year (he has thrown 98 of them) compared to .452/.507/.629 in 2009 (in 300 fastballs thrown), not to mention he's relying a bit more on his slider in those at-bats. Chances of closing: The Padres are currently in first place, half a game from the National League's best record, so a Heath Bell trade isn't likely. At least Gregerson looks like the go-to guy in the event the Padres do need a Bell replacement.
2. Tyler Clippard, Washington Nationals: He's another reliever who has made huge strides in recent seasons. Except, unlike Gregerson, Clippard was every bit as lights-out last year as he has been in this one. His fastball/slider/changeup (with an occasional curve tossed in) combination has been lethal in short outings. He had the fifth-best swing-and-miss percentage among relievers last year (68.5) and ranks eighth in that category this year (69.5). He's also high in the rankings because his fastball has been death against left-handers since the beginning of last year. They have .153/.230/.242 overall rates against him during that span. Chances of closing: Good, one would think, since Matt Capps is a big-time trade candidate, but bad in that the Nationals might think it's better to turn things over to their future closer, Drew Storen, first. I still think Clippard this year, Storen next.
3. J.J. Putz, Chicago White Sox: He might not have been pitching as effectively for as long as some of the other relievers on this list, but he has a closer's pedigree and peripherals this season that look similar to those he had during his best years with the Seattle Mariners in 2006 and 2007. Let's compare: 11.16 K's per nine in '06 and '07, 11.57 this year; 1.56 walks per nine in '06 and '07, 1.40 this year; 47.9 percent ground-ball rate in '06 and '07, 52.5 this year. Plus, Putz's splitter has been about as filthy this year as during his prime. Chances of closing: Bobby Jenks' recent resurgence aside, Putz's prospects seem quite good. He appears to have leapt ahead of Matt Thornton in the pecking order.
4. Evan Meek, Pittsburgh Pirates: One thing to be pleased about with Meek is that his fastball velocity has experienced a noticeable uptick in each of his three big-league seasons, to the point where FanGraphs lists his average at 95.1 mph, among the five highest in the game. Interestingly enough, his strikeout rate has failed to reach a batter per frame in any of his first three big-league seasons, but his ground-ball rate has been at least 50 percent in each. That's quite a combination and should help diminish the risk of future implosions. Chances of closing: Excellent, being that Octavio Dotel is a top trade candidate and Meek has been the Pirates' most effective reliever all season while setting Dotel up.
5. Daniel Bard, Boston Red Sox: He can hit 100 mph on the gun, and per FanGraphs, his average fastball velocity is 97.9 mph. So he fits the mold of a closer. Lefties can't touch him; he has limited them to .103/.208/.118 rates this season. So it's no wonder rumors are circulating that the Red Sox might look to shop closer Jonathan Papelbon during the offseason. Chances of closing: Poor this year, barring a Papelbon injury, but might this bullpen be one of the most ideal parallels of any to the 1996 Wetteland/Rivera combination? Hmm
6. Mike Adams, San Diego Padres: While his experience might have seemingly placed him next in line to close in San Diego, Gregerson appears to have leapt ahead of him on the depth chart. But let that be a credit to Gregerson's improvement rather than a knock on Adams. He continues to rank among the game's most effective relievers and has stayed healthy all year. Adams has averaged 10.3 K's per nine in his three years in San Diego, so he can help you even if he never sniffs a save chance. Chances of closing: Unfortunately, he truly might never sniff a save chance.
7. Joel Zumaya, Detroit Tigers: Another pitcher who can top 100 mph on the radar gun, his 99.4-mph average fastball velocity suggests the lightning fastball of his breakout 2006 campaign has officially returned. Zumaya is hardly your blow-'em-away flamethrower these days, though. He has improved his command to the point where he has a 2.29 walks-per-nine ratio, more than two-and-a-half walks per nine below his career mark in the category (4.81). Chances of closing: None, unless Jose Valverde suffers a catastrophic injury, but Zumaya appears to have recaptured the skills to be useful in every category but saves.
8. Brandon League, Seattle Mariners: He's more of a ground-ball pitcher than a strikeout artist, and lefties do give him a little trouble, but when a reliever has a ground-ball rate greater than 60 percent (64.1 this season) and his level of command in a spacious ballpark such as Safeco, good things are going to happen. He might be the sneakiest saves sleeper of the lot. Chances of closing: Better than you think; David Aardsma has been rumored to be on the trading block.
9. Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals: Remember this name? Fantasy owners were abuzz with thoughts that Motte might close at the onset of the 2009 season, but concerns that his fastball was straight as an arrow pressed him into a middle-relief role, where he has settled in rather nicely in the year-plus since. That fastball has presented some real problems for opponents; he has afforded them just .200/.360/.350 rates with the pitch this season. Chances of closing: They hinge on Ryan Franklin's history of sluggish finishes, but even if Franklin struggles in the coming weeks, he did hold the job through them all of last year.
10. Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates: This ex-Nationals closer began the season on the disabled list and got off to a somewhat rocky start, but all that has done is concealed the fact that he has a 2.70 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 13.5 K's-per-nine ratio in his past 23 appearances. He's another pitcher who lacks a dominant pitch versus lefties, but Hanrahan does miss a lot of bats and has made improvements with his command this season. Chances of closing: It wouldn't be completely shocking if Hanrahan's past closer experience earns him a chance once Dotel is traded. But Meek deserves first crack at the role.
The next 10:
11. Frank Francisco, Texas Rangers
12. Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
13. Joaquin Benoit, Tampa Bay Rays
14. Fernando Rodney, Los Angeles Angels
15. Takashi Saito, Atlanta Braves
16. Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
17. Matt Guerrier, Minnesota Twins
18. Jose Contreras, Philadelphia Phillies
19. Kyle McClellan, Cardinals
20. Drew Storen, Nationals
Middle reliever spotlight: Santiago Casilla, San Francisco Giants
If this name sounds familiar to you, it's because it should. This is the former "Jairo Garcia" who was seemingly a candidate to take over as the Oakland Athletics' closer at the time of his big league debut about half a decade ago. Things didn't pan out so well for him across the bay, though. In parts of six seasons with the Athletics, he had a 5.11 ERA and 1.58 WHIP, battling his share of injuries along the way.
Now with the Giants, Casilla looks like a remade pitcher. He's throwing harder -- his average fastball velocity is a career-high 96.6 mph, compared to 94.3 for his career -- and his offspeed offerings have posed nothing but problems for opponents, whose well-hit average against his offspeed strikes is a nice, round .000. All told, he has 18 strikeouts in 10 2/3 innings of work.
The Giants have noticed. They've afforded him two save chances in the past three weeks, though one was an extra-inning appearance, and in the other he was summoned in the eighth inning only to see the Giants score enough runs to remove a save opportunity for typical closer Brian Wilson. Still, Casilla has appeared in the eighth inning or later in seven of his 14 appearances, so he's a clear factor in the late innings for the team. He's not necessarily next in line to close -- that honor presumably belongs to Romo -- but Casilla can be of help in NL-only formats, and his role in the bullpen might be expanding.
Upgrade your roster
Only owners in deeper leagues -- NL-only in particular -- might find either of these relievers valuable, but many people tend to cling to the past. In this case, it's the memory of Morales serving briefly as the Rockies closer both late in the 2009 regular season and in the early stages of this year. In his most recent go-around, he wasn't particularly effective, blowing two of five save chances and posting a 4.09 ERA and 1.64 WHIP in 12 appearances. Turns out Morales' flaws began to catch up with him, the most obvious being that he has significant problems with right-handed hitters (.276/.277/.399 career rates, compared to .182/.274/.323 against lefties).
These days the Rockies are smarter about Morales' usage -- at least as smart as they can be without again trying him as a starter (preferably in Triple-A) -- saving him for specific situational spots versus lefties. Unfortunately that means future save opportunities are less likely, and today it appears Manuel Corpas, Huston Street and Matt Belisle -- Matt Belisle! -- are all seemingly ahead of him in the pecking order.
That's right, even Belisle has sneaked into the late-inning mix, thanks to his tremendous performance since his conversion to the bullpen midway through last season. He has a 3.07 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 32 appearances this year, but the most pleasant surprise is his strikeout rate; he has 48 of them in 44 innings, or a 9.82 K's-per-nine ratio. Belisle even picked up a save in a tough assignment Tuesday versus the Red Sox, mainly to provide the inconsistent Corpas a breather and allow the veteran Street more time to get up to full speed in middle relief.
Accounting for those relievers' risk factors, Belisle might not have seen his last save chance in 2010. He's hardly "the closer," but in a column that discusses the most deserving candidates for the role, he at least warrants a mention. At the bare minimum, he'd be a handier ERA/WHIP/K's helper than Morales.
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.