Mariano Rivera, NYY—There’s not much to say about Mariano that hasn’t already been said. He’s possibly the best position player in the history of professional sports, he’s 40 years old and shows few signs of regression, and his 2009 peripheral stats (9.77 K/9, 6.00 K/BB, .204 BAA, 0.90 WHIP, 91.8 LOB% 2.89 FIP, 2.46 xFIP) were about as good as any he’s had in his storied career. While I haven’t necessarily run out of superlatives, it’s probably not necessary to say more than once that he’s the top closer in my rankings. And that was even before the injury to Joe Nathan.
Jonathan Papelbon, BOS—Hitters got to Papelbon more often last year and the 29 year old power righty worked himself into (and luckily, out of) a bunch of jams. His deceivingly low 1.85 ERA belied a 3.05 FIP and 3.98 xFIP—the highest those numbers have been since his rookie season, and in his 66 appearances, he threw about 130 more pitches than in 2008, a season where he worked 67 games. The reasons could be fairly simple: he threw fewer first strikes, went to his slider more frequently, and got a little too fine. As a result, his unbelievable 2008 K/BB ratio of 9.63 dropped off considerably to a respectable 3.17, and his GB/FB rate plummeted from 1.58 to 0.51—a staggering difference. Still, he’s a top level closer who undoubtedly will work out the kinks in 2010, and with Nathan on the shelf, he’s probably the second-best closer in his league.
Joakim Soria, KC—Yep, Papelbon’s still the No. 2 horse in the AL, but the Mexicutioner’s coming on strong. In fact, it’s only the obvious lack of save opportunities that keeps Soria from being in the top tier. The Rivera clone missed some time last season because of a strained rotator cuff, but still managed to record 30 saves last season on a 97 loss team and with his extended absence. He spent the winter in Kansas City with the Royals training staff conditioning the shoulder, and at just 25, he’s entering his fourth season in the majors. Soria has already made a big mark with a 2.09 ERA in 172 career appearances and 89 saves in 99 opportunities—a 89.9 percent success rate that trails only Rivera (94.2) and Papelbon (91.3) over the last three seasons.
Andrew Bailey, OAK—Bailey’s rookie season was marked by sustained overachievement. Primarily a starter in the minors, Bailey immediately established himself as the club’s go-to guy once Joey Devine went down and Brad Ziegler proved incapable of carrying the load in the ninth inning. He was 26-for-30 in save opportunities with a 1.84 ERA and posted solid metrics (9.83 K/9, 3.79 K/BB, 0.88 WHIP, 2.56 FIP, 3.25 xFIP). His .234 BABIP portends a slight regression, but he’s the kind of pitcher who could easily maintain a career BABIP closer to .280 than .300 because of his effective fastball/cutter combo.
David Aardsma, SEA—Aardsma wasn’t atop the closer depth chart last season but stole the job with his outstanding fastball (his heater’s 18.6 pitch value was tops among AL relievers) and improved control (his 6.27 BB/9 rate in 2008 dropped to 4.29 in 2009). Aardsma blew just four save chances out of 42, struck out 80 batters in 71.2 innings, and posted a 3.01 FIP, the lowest of his career. He should be able to continue that success in pitcher-friendly Safeco.
Brian Fuentes, LAA—Fuentes isn’t my favorite closer, but he’s still among the best in the AL. While he finished with 48 saves, there were stretches where the veteran southpaw just couldn’t get outs. For one thing, he didn’t strike out batters with much frequency (his 7.53 K/9 was among the worst for closers), resulting in a weak 1.92 K/BB ratio, the worst of his nine year career. He wasn’t especially unlucky (.301 BABIP), and his 4.42 FIP and 4.94 xFIP in 2009 point to continued struggles if he can’t reestablish the dominant fastball/slider combo he possessed in Coors.
Rafael Soriano, TB—With the level of competition in the AL East and J.P. Howell a capable fill-in, Soriano’s not necessarily a lock to keep his closer’s job the entire season. The 30 year old fireballer is pretty nasty and has the fearless makeup of a closer, but he could struggle with the switch to the AL. Sure, he struck out 102 batters in 75.2 innings (12.13 K/9, 3.78 K/BB) for the Braves and righties hit only .167 against him (LHB hit .262), but the preponderance of power lefties in the division mean his 2.39 ERA posted last season will likely get a tad more bloated.
Jose Valverde, DET—While Soriano could have some problems with the move to the Junior Circuit, it’s nearly a lock that Valverde will regress. His 2.33 ERA with the ’09 Astros is unsustainable, especially considering the .267 BABIP and less-than-impressive 3.50 FIP and 3.92 xFIP. But since the Tigers seem to have given up on Joel Zumaya as a closer, it’s Valverde’s job to lose and he’ll be given a pretty wide berth.
Mike Gonzalez, BAL—Another NL transplant with his work cut out for him in a tough division, Gonzalez earned a two year, $12 million deal with the Orioles after having his best season since 2004. Primarily a setup man in the second half for Soriano, the much slimmer Gonzalez pitched a career high 74.1 innings and struck out a whopping 90 batters. His BB/9 rate, while still high at 4.00, was still lower than his 2005 and 2006 seasons with Pittsburgh. I’m estimating about 30 saves, an ERA around 3.00, and close to 100 Ks.
Bobby Jenks, CHW—Jenks only notched 29 saves and struck out just 49 batters in 53.1 innings—clearly his worst season for the Sox. Still, he kept his BB/9 rate low (2.70) and induced enough groundballs (1.47 GB/FB rate, down from his career average of 1.88) to finish with a 3.71 ERA. If he can rely less on his fastball, which he threw way too much last season en route to a corresponding, tumultuous drop in the heater’s pitch value, he’ll rebound with better numbers and once again approach 40 saves.
Frank Francisco, TEX—The hot-tempered Francisco didn’t have any major meltdowns in 2009, but he did miss some time with a biceps injury and struggled down the stretch. Francisco began 2009 as the closer and got off to a hot start, not allowing any runs over his first seven innings of work and just three hits and one walk, while garnering two saves. Through the end of April, Francisco maintained a perfect 0.00 ERA with one walk and nine strikeouts, as well as six saves. He posted impressive 10.40 K/9 and 3.80 K/BB rates, and a as a flyball pitcher, he should be just as effective in 2010 if he can keep the HR/FB rate down under 10.0.
Jason Frasor, TOR—Frasor’s first in line for saves in 2010 after a solid June-August stretch of 26.2 innings where he gave up just three earned runs. He solved many of his control issues (the 2008 BB/9 rate of 6.08 came way down to 2.50) and both his fastball and slider improved dramatically, helping him to post career low 1.02 WHIP and 2.99 FIP. He should have plenty of value as a late-round pick, even with the crowded bullpen.
Kerry Wood, CLE—Wood’s 4.25 ERA and 4.15 FIP tells much of the story regarding 2009. His fastball lost nearly all of its effectiveness (-4.0 pitch value) and he walked too many batters (4.58 BB/9). Sure, he continues to post strikeouts (10.31 K/9 in 55 innings) but he’s clearly on the decline, and I’m avoiding him in most formats. Wood remains a high injury risk, and the reward doesn’t justify adding him considering where he’ll go in most drafts.
Jon Rauch, MIN—Rauch has some closing experience (he snagged 18 saves in ’08 for WAS/ARI), but obviously pales in comparison to the eerily consistent Nathan. The monstrous right-hander (6-11, 291 lbs.) pitched well in a set-up role for the D-backs and then in Minnesota last year (1.72 ERA in 15.2 innings/17 appearances for the Twins). He’s a workhorse with at least 75 games in three of the past four seasons, but his IP have dropped in three straight seasons—a sign he’s being used more effectively. While it’s a concern that his K/9 rate dropped to 6.30 last year, he doesn’t walk a ton of batters and could be useful as a late-round pickup.
J.P. Howell, TB—Howell was the fifth of nine pitchers who took at least one turn as the closer for the Rays last year. But he fell apart down the stretch with a 5.25 August ERA and 7.20 the rest of the way (final 20 appearances: 5.82 ERA, 1.76 WHIP, 1.19 K/BB ratio). Fewer innings led to a career high K/9 rate, but he also saw his walk and home run rates go up, along with his ERA. Howell compensates for his average velocity by getting a lot of movement on his pitches. He may get a few platoon-advantage save chances with Soriano on board and could be useful in any bullpen role.
Neftali Feliz, TEX—Feliz Joba’d the AL last year (11.3 K/9, held batters to a .210 slugging percentage), but his future may be as a starter. It’s uncertain what his role will be in 2010. He could open in the minors as a starter or remain in the majors in the bullpen and become the closer by midseason. His fastball was clocked at 103 MPH during a major league game last season and there are crazy rumors he hit 109 in the minors.
Daniel Bard, BOS—Another guy who possesses a triple-digit fastball (that he threw 73 percent of the time) and had a strong debut (11.5 K/9, 63 Ks in 49.1 innings/49 games). He had control issues away from Fenway, which must be addressed as more high-leverage situations come his way. The question is when he’ll be closing (Papelbon trade/injury or Bard trade), not if.
Scott Downs, TOR—When B.J. Ryan lost his velocity and went down for the count, Downs took the closer title from Ryan, but lost six weeks to a toe injury. He had a rough second half (1.95 ERA in the first half/nearly 5.00 after the All-Star Break) that opened the door for Jason Frasor. Downs is a capable reliever, a groundballer with a strong strikeout rate (8.4 K/9 last year) who’s generally effective against both righties and lefties. He’s a valuable set-up man with saves potential.
Kevin Gregg, TOR—Gregg had a roller-coaster season—a 5.59 ERA and just one save in April, a strong three-month stretch (20-of-22 saves, 2.79 ERA, 1.09 WHIP), then a homer-heavy August lost him the closer gig. But the Blue Jays saw his 84 saves in three seasons and had to have him. Now he’s at odds with the Frasor/Downs logjam for saves and vultured wins.
Matt Guerrier, MIN—Guerrier bounced back from a sub-par 2008 to become one of the top set-up men, largely by cutting his homer and walk rates. His .214 BABIP indicates a lucky year, but his overall numbers are solid. His dropping K/9 rate and value as a set-up man may give Rauch more save opportunities.