Here is a detailed look at each relief pitcher in the National League with fantasy baseball significance as a closer or one who could assume the job down the road. This analysis, along with similar work in the American League Tiers or Relief Pitching, helped form my final mixed league closer rankings.
Tier 1 ($20+)*
* Dollar values represent estimates for AL-only leagues
Heath Bell, SD – Since taking over the closer job prior to the 2009, Bell has done an amazing job. He’s been, arguably, the best fantasy reliever in baseball since then, posting 89 saves, a 12-5 record, 2.33 ERA, 165 Ks and 1.16 WHIP in the past two seasons. The key to Bell’s success has been a mid-90s fastball with excellent location as well as a knee-buckling curve that he’ll throw at any time. Before 2009, he didn’t posses a plus curveball, at least according to the pitch values that track its effectiveness. The highest it had registered was a 0.5 in 2005 when Bell was with the Mets and throwing primarily fastballs and sliders, but it’s been a 5.1 and 5.2 in 2009 and 2010, respectively. While there’s a chance his ERA beefs up a bit in 2011 (an unsustainably low 1.6% HR/FB rate probably means he’ll give up a few more homers this season), he’s still the best closer in the NL with the best home pitching backdrop there is – roomy Petco Park.
Brian Wilson, SF – Wilson’s another top-notch closer with an ideal makeup: high K/9, a relatively low (and declining) walk rate, and a FIP under 3.00. Like Bell, Wilson pitched extremely well in tight spots last season, stranding 86 percent of base runners. He struck out 93 hitters in 74.2 innings and posted a 1.81 ERA – both career-bests. As I mentioned, the FIP and xFIP don’t tell any contradictory tales, so it’s safe to assume Wilson will be among the top relievers once again this year.
Carlos Marmol – Were it not for a dangerously high walk rate, Marmol would be the number one closer in the NL, and the first reliever off the boards in fantasy drafts. The guy misses bats at an alarming rate – his 61.3% contact rate last season was the lowest in baseball by 4.3 percentage points (Jonny Venters was second with 65.6% and A’s reliever Michael Wuertz came in at 66.8%). He also fanned 138 hombres in 77.2 innings – one of the best K/9 rates (15.99) I’ve ever seen. That helped make 2010 memorable for Marmol – and erased most of the doubts that plagued him in 2009. Still, he’s only two years removed from a 7.91 BB/9 ratio, so it’s worth watching his command heading into 2011.
Tier 2 ($15-19)
Jonathan Broxton, LAD – After a spectacular 2009 season, Broxton struggled last year and lost his closer job as the Dodgers approached the end of the season. For the most part, it was a tale of two halves; he was his usual dominant self before the All-Star break, and even had a 0.19 FIP during April. In the second half, he began having problems spotting his fastball and as the walks piled up, his confidence (and his team’s) eroded. Unless he’s on his way toward a Steve Blass-like meltdown, it’s okay to assume he’ll be a bargain pick in 2011, as there will be plenty of fantasy owners who’ll shy away.
John Axford, MIL – “The Ax man” burst onto the fantasy scene in 2010 (his first full season) en route to a stellar 8-2 record, 76 Ks in 58 innings and a 2.48 ERA. The mustachioed Canadian pitched in 50 games and was 24 out of 27 in save attempts. The metrics were pretty solid too: 2.13 FIP, 2.89 xFIP, 2.81 K/BB. While Axford has struggled with control issues at times, he seems to have figured something out and should make an excellent mid-round RP selection in drafts. And in auction leagues, he’ll be a lot cheaper than a few of the Tier 3 and 4 guys I’ve listed below.
Tier 3 ($12-15)
Francisco Rodriguez, NYM – Last season K-Rod rebounded from a poor 2009 with stellar ratios, although his saves total (25) was the lowest it’s been since he took over closing duties in Anaheim during 2004. The veteran reliever was vocal about his frustrations, and he should be closer to 35-40 saves this season if he stays focused and off the DL. He’s still striking out about 10 guys per nine innings, and his 2010 BB/9 rate (3.30) was the lowest it’s been in his career. A year and a half ago, I’d have said K-Rod was beginning a steady decline, but featuring a nasty changeup to complement his lively fastball has been a huge development that bodes well for the next few seasons.
Huston Street, COL – When healthy, Street pitches like a premier closer. Shoulder inflammation sidelined him during the first half of 2010, and a rib injury plagued him down the stretch. But at his best, Street is capable of impressive streaks of dominance. He relied on a solid fastball almost exclusively (possibly because of the injuries) and nearly abandoned his changeup, which he had thrown about four times as much in 2009. If he can approach the extraordinary 5.38 K/9 rate he posted in 2009, I’m expecting another good year.
J.J. Putz, ARI – Putz, like Street, has had more than his share of DL stints. I’m not expecting anything close to his 2007 numbers for the Mariners (40/42 saves, 1.38 ERA, 0.698 WHIP, 82 Ks and 13 BBs in 71.2 innings), but the 2010 metrics were encouraging (10.83 K/9, 4.33 K/BB, 1.04 WHIP, and 2.83 ERA/2.52 FIP/2.87 xFIP). Putz could get you some major bang for your fantasy buck if he keeps it together in Arizona.
Brad Lidge, PHI – Which Brad Lidge will show up in 2010? It’s hard to say, but I’m leaning toward the good one. When he’s bad, he’s awful, and nothing seems to go right for him (see 2009: 0-8, 7.21 ERA, 11 blown saves), but when he’s good, he’s crazy good (2008: 41/41 in saves, 1.95 ERA). Last season, we got a bit of both versions, and by the time the playoffs came around, he was fine. I don’t think he’ll ever again be the pitcher he was in 2008 (the 3.9% HR/FB rate and 82.9% strand rate were fortuitous anomalies), but his slider is back in top form and the Phillies have confidence he can nail down ballgames.
Craig Kimbrel, ATL – The right-handed strikeout specialist hasn’t been announced as the Braves closer just yet, as there’s still talk of a time-share between him and fellow fireballer Jonny Venters. But the long-term plan for Venters is in the Atlanta rotation. This, coupled with the fact that Kimbrel’s L/R splits are a little more even, bodes well for Kimbrel getting more save chances in 2010. The only thing that concerns me is his penchant for wildness and the violent delivery that allows him to generate such tremendous velocity from his short-and-stocky frame. Stay tuned.
Drew Storen, WAS – The second he was drafted, Storen was labeled Washington’s “closer of the future,” and roughly two years later, he’s on track to take the ball in the ninth for the Nats. He was serviceable in limited duty last season after the Matt Capps trade, but he’ll need to miss more bats and learn to finish off hitters if he’ll be a successful closer anytime soon. There’s a chance he could yield opportunities to a veteran reliever if he encounters Spring Training or early season problems.
Tier 4 ($8-11)
Ryan Franklin, STL – Last season the old man came down to earth a bit, and his ERA (3.46) more closely reflected the fielding-independent metrics that he defied the previous year thanks to 2009’s 3.2% HR/FB rate and 85.7% strand rate. But he still got pretty lucky in 2010, considering the .249 BABIP and relatively low 8.8% HR/FB rate, so I’m not convinced he’ll hold onto the closer’s job all season. While he doesn’t walk too many batters, he doesn’t strike out nearly enough to be an effective closer – at least without the amazingly good fortune he’s had. Keep an eye on Jason Motte, who could take over by the All-Star break.
Francisco Cordero, CIN – Cordero’s declining K/9 rate is a major concern, and last season he posted the highest ERA of career since becoming a full-time closer in 2002. He also walked 4.49 batters per 9 innings, a figure that needs to come down if he plans on holding onto his job. He also posted an unimpressive 4.53 xFIP, which pales in comparison to the 1.76 xFIP posted by flamethrowing reliever Aroldis Chapman in 13.2 innings of late-season work. Cordero probably isn’t worth drafting unless he’s ignored until the later rounds of drafts, and there’s no way I’d spend more than $10 on him in a standard mixed auction.
Aroldis Chapman, CIN – There are no plans to add Chapman to the starting rotation anytime soon, so there’s an excellent chance he’ll get a shot to close out some games. Even if he remains a setup guy, he’ll help you enough with ERA, WHIP and Ks that he’s worth adding before some of the bums who already have closing jobs. Chapman has surprising command of his 100+ mph fastball and nasty slider, and in a small 2010 sample, he induced a ton of ground balls – a promising combination of abilities.
Leo Nunez, FLA – Nunez was serviceable in 2010 as Florida’s closer, but Clay Hensley is knocking on the door and could be better suited for the job. Don’t waste a pick until the draft is nearing its close.
Joel Hanrahan, PIT – Hanrahan improved in just about every way in 2010. He struck out more guys (a whopping 12.92 K/9, to be exact) and walked just 3.36 per 9 innings. He’ll get competition from Evan Meek, but Hanrahan could be a huge bargain if he holds onto the gig.
Jonny Venters, ATL – Like I said before, Venters is a great young pitcher and he’s likely to get a crack at closing. Truth be told, I’d take a long shot with him before banking on the final reliever in this tier.
Brandon Lyon, HOU – Another guy who’s got the job until he loses it, Lyon hasn’t engendered much confidence in his history as a ninth-inning stalwart. He got it done last season with smoke and mirrors; a 2.1% HR/FB rate and .271 BABIP obscured some terrible ratios (6.23 K/9, just 1.74 K/BB and a 4.65 xFIP). Fortunately for Lyon, the other closing options are largely unknown, untested scrubs. Mark Melancon, Alberto Arias, Wilton Lopez – none of these guys miss bats. Gustavo Chacin and Fernando Abad have the makeup as “wild thing” closers, but Chacin might not even make the team and Abad is a huge question mark since he spent less time in AAA (5.1 innings) than the bigs (19.0 innings).
Tier 5 ($3-7)
Hong-Chih Kuo, LAD – When Broxton crashed and burned last season, the Dodgers turned to Chih-Kuo, who has a solid fastball/slider combo and can fill just about any bullpen role they need. If Broxton falters again and Jansen doesn’t pan out right away, we could see big fantasy numbers from Chih-Kuo.
Evan Meek, PIT – Meek is a groundball pitcher who came into his own last season for the Pirates. If he continues to develop, he could squeeze out Hanrahan for ninth-innings duties, so stay tuned as the season approaches.
Luke Gregerson, SD – Gregerson is worth considering as insurance for Heath Bell. Should Bell get injured or traded before the deadline, Cool Hand Luke and his filthy, filthy slider will probably get first crack at closing. He was a pretty valuable non-save reliever in 2010, and should provide similar worth this season.
Kenley Jansen, LAD – Jansen was super-nasty in 27 innings of work for the Dodgers last season, racking up 41 Ks and posting a 0.67 ERA. His .129 BAA was helped by an unsustainable 92.9% LOB rate and .231 BABIP, but he’s got the goods to repeat (or at least come close to) last season’s 13.67 K/9 rate.
Ryan Madson, PHI – Madson hasn’t pitched well in the closer’s role, but he’s still valuable insurance for Lidge and puts up decent numbers as an eighth-inning guy. You know what Charlie Sheen calls that? You got it – Bi-Winning.
Sergio Romo, SF – Romo gets it done, and will be the guy should something terrible befall Brian Wilson – and I’m not talking about debilitating psychological problems and/or drug addiction. I’m just talking about a strained rotator cuff or run-of-the-mill elbow inflammation.
Clay Hensley, FLA – He’s the main competition for Nunez’ job, and since sporting a much-improved curveball and changeup, he’s probably got more upside than Leo in that role.