Commentary

Faith in closers

How do relief pitchers stack up in mid-May re-rankings?

Updated: May 19, 2011, 12:35 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Apparently, I'll pay for saves.

Relief Efforts

We rolled out our updated top 250 rankings Wednesday, and, in case you didn't notice, as a group we ranked 27 relief pitchers, not one of them better than 75th. I, by comparison, ranked 33, my highest (Brian Wilson) 51st, six within my top 75 and 11 within my top 100 players overall.

None of this should be surprising. We as a group have historically been anti-closer; I, as stated in Tuesday's "60 Feet 6 Inches," believe that pitching investments become safer once the season gets under way. That's especially true with closers: The best ones tend to only increase their job security by beginning the season strong, and the bad ones tend to have already shown us all the warning signs we'll need.

That's why I'm completely comfortable with a saves investment in-season. In fact, I've been known to go cheap with the category at the draft table only to make a midseason trade for a top closer, sometimes two. Remember, nine closers finished among the top 100 players on the 2010 Player Rater. Wouldn't it therefore stand to reason that at least that many should rank among our in-season top 250?

Given that every relief pitcher on the list was apparently "overranked" by me, at least comparative to the group average, let's look at some of the pitchers I ranked awfully close to the group rank -- meaning I'm iffier about them -- as well as those I ranked considerably better than the group did.

I ranked them considerably better

Jonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox (ESPN rank: 117th, Me: 71st): For all the doubts this past offseason about his ability to keep his job all season, Papelbon hasn't offered any hints that he's in jeopardy of losing it. He has corrected two specific problem areas: He has shaved a 3.76 walks-per-nine-innings ratio, the second-highest of his career, in 2010 to a career-best 1.02 this season; and he hasn't allowed a home run in 17 2/3 innings after serving up seven in 67 innings in 2010. Papelbon also benefits from what has been inconsistent Red Sox middle relief for much of the year; he's not clearly being outpitched to the point that the team would seriously consider trading him. Maybe I'm ranking him too high, but I can't see how the closer for what should be one of the five winningest teams in baseball come October won't be a lock for the top 10 at his position.

Huston Street, Colorado Rockies (ESPN: 143, Me: 79): How can you argue with the results? He's the No. 10 relief-pitcher-eligible guy on our Player Rater -- ninth if you exclude starter Alexi Ogando -- and No. 89 player overall, and -- in his last injury-free season in 2009 -- finished ninth among relievers and 73rd overall. Yes, the injuries are a concern. He has made three trips to the disabled list in his career, including for groin (2006), elbow (2007) and shoulder (2010) injuries, and was used liberally by the Rockies the first month of the season. Street made 15 appearances of 16 1/3 innings in 25 Rockies games in April, converting all 10 save opportunities with a 2.20 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. But he hasn't really paid a steep price since, the Rockies preserving him more carefully in May; he has appeared in seven of 16 Rockies games totaling 6 1/3 innings, has converted four of five save chances and, in spite of a 5.68 ERA, has a respectable 1.26 WHIP. Street's command is sharp as ever -- he's averaging 5.50 strikeouts per walk -- so there's no reason he shouldn't remain a top-10 fantasy closer.

Vicente Padilla, Los Angeles Dodgers (ESPN: 296, Me: 227): Ah, how quickly things change. When I ranked Padilla, word hadn't yet broken that the reason for his Tuesday absence was forearm stiffness; now, the Dodgers' bullpen is once again in disarray, with Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo and Padilla now ailing, and perhaps all bound to wind up on the disabled list together. If Padilla gets through this quickly, I still see the skills of what could be a second- or third-tier closer. But if he doesn't, who might close? Matt Guerrier is my pick, being that when you're down to the No. 4 option in your bullpen, you might as well take the guy with the historically strong ERA/WHIP track record (3.37 ERA, 1.25 WHIP in his career). Kenley Jansen might seem to have the stuff but lacks the numbers (5.71 ERA, 1.50 WHIP), and Mike MacDougal might have the numbers (1.84 ERA, 1.43 WHIP) but has a sketchy track record.

Jonny Venters, Atlanta Braves (ESPN: 277, Me: 221): He's the top-ranked, non-closer relief pitcher on our Player Rater, and he's probably going to finish the year with that honor … assuming he doesn't emerge as the Braves' closer. Craig Kimbrel has done little to deserve a demotion, but Venters isn't going to provide the rookie much breathing room. Venters has a 3.71 strikeout-to-walk ratio, boasts an absurd 84.5 percent ground ball rate and has been generating almost as many swings and misses (14.7 percent, per FanGraphs) as he did as a rookie (14.9 percent). He'll remain a handy ERA/WHIP/K's helper, especially in NL-only leagues, and don't overlook the value of the vulture wins and saves he might provide.

I apparently share the group's opinion

Andrew Bailey, Oakland Athletics (ESPN: 193, Me: 183): His was the closest of my relief pitcher rankings to the rest of the group's, and I still ranked Bailey 10 spots better than the group average. Consider that a negative, though, as every other reliever ranked considerably higher than the average. The concern with Bailey is that he's recovering from a forearm injury, one that has cost him the entire season to date and one that could return at any time. He's a member of a deep bullpen, the Athletics' 2.67 relief ERA is fourth-best in baseball, so there are plenty of alternatives, from Brian Fuentes to Grant Balfour to Michael Wuertz to Brad Ziegler. There isn't a lot of room for error here, and that's all the low rank is.

Sergio Santos, Chicago White Sox (ESPN: 214, Me: 200): I like Santos, or I wouldn't have ranked him as a clear mixed-league option. That said, he cannot possibly sustain this absurd a pace. He has yet to allow a run in 20 innings over 16 appearances, despite affording 17 baserunners (8 hits, 9 walks); in other words, his BABIP is .190 and his strand rate a perfect 100 percent. Santos has the skills to close, but that 4.05 walks-per-nine ratio is a bit troublesome, especially given that he calls a homer-friendly environment his home. Perhaps he can make a run at the top 10 closers; more likely, he'll be in the teens from today forward.

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.

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