As promised, here is the player commentary to accompany my closer rankings. These are the National League guys. American League coming soon.
Jonathan Broxton, LAD—In 2009, Broxton struck out 114 batters in 76 innings for a 13.50 K/9 ratio, the best in baseball. But while strikeouts are a big reason Broxton is atop the closer rankings in the NL, it’s his impeccable control that clearly establishes him as the best fireman in the Senior Circuit. Last season’s 3.93 K/BB rate and otherworldly 1.97 FIP, coupled with a GB/FB rate over 2.00, mean he’ll be taking luck out of the equation in most contests. Dodger Stadium’s miniscule Park Factor of 0.857 (second-lowest in the NL) doesn’t hurt either.
Heath Bell, SD—Bell’s breakout as a top NL closer wasn’t completely unexpected—the signs were always there. An overpowering righty who last season featured a curve instead of his trademark slider, Bell is almost as effective at retiring lefties as he is right-handed batters, a telling split for any reliever. His metrics were solid across the board (10.21 K/9, 3.29 K/BB, 1.12 WHIP, 2.42 FIP), and he’s poised for another great season, especially in Petco, which boasts the lowest Park Factor (0.741) in baseball.
Francisco Rodriguez, NYM—Last season, I wasn’t too bullish on K-Rod’s chances at repeating his dominant 2008 season. His “jerky motion and flimsy ankles” were the main reasons I didn’t like his inclusion among the league’s elite closers. He got a lot of outs for the Angels with smoke and mirrors, and I had him pegged for either regression or injury because he lacked a repeatable motion. While he wasn’t terrible for the Mets, he did regress in every measurable sabermetric category and posted 27 fewer saves. While many consider him the second-best closer in the NL, I think Bell’s the far better bet.
Huston Street, COL—Street’s just not getting enough love in preseason closer rankings. His 2009 numbers were just as good as Bell’s and from May through July he was arguably the best closer in baseball, yielding just four extra-base hits (two were HRs) in 34 innings. Street threw the slider less frequently and with more efficiency (10.4 runs above average) and greatly improved his changeup, which he went to a lot more. The only downside to his prospects in 2010 is last season’s .257 BABIP, which is bound to trend closer to, if not exceed, his career mark of .278. Sure, he plays in Coors, but if he can keep guys off base, Street will be a great mid-round value.
Brian Wilson, SF—Despite seven blown saves in 2009, Wilson had a standout season marked by solid metrics (10.33 K/9, 3.07 K/BB, 1.20 WHIP, 2.50 FIP). AT&T may be a hitter’s yard, but Wilson did a good job keeping the ball in the park (4.5 HR/FB). His fastball/cutter combo proved far more effective than the slider he threw in previous seasons, and while there was word the God-fearing righty was working on a changeup, it was the mid-upper 90s fastball that was his best pitch in 2009. Look for fewer blown saves and similar peripherals this season.
Trevor Hoffman, MIL—Hoffman keeps getting it done despite his advancing age (he’ll be 43 in October), largely because he doesn’t rely on his fastball for outs. With his bevy of pitches, including his awesome palm-grip changeup, a late-breaking curve and solid slider, the future Hall-of-Famer got off to one of the best starts of his career last season. He started out throwing the changeup less frequently but with more effectiveness, and mixed in his slider a lot more. Hoffman may no longer be a Top 5 closer in any format, but he’s still worth a look in the middle rounds once the younger, more strikeout-happy dudes go off the board.
Billy Wagner, ATL—Wagner was very effective in limited duty as a setup man for the Red Sox last season and gets the starting closer job in Atlanta based on his prior dominance. I’m not convinced he’s worthy of the lofty ranking he’s getting on preseason boards, but he’s definitely a Top 10 guy in his league and can still strike out a ton of guys (26 Ks in 15.2 innings in 2009, career 11.79 K/9 rate). He’s been more of a flyball pitcher in recent years, and could get victimized by the dinger in 2010 if he can’t induce more grounders.
Chad Qualls, ARI—A little after mid-season last year, I was pimping Qualls despite his arm troubles. This year, I’m a little more cautious in my recommendations, but I’m standing by what I said last July: The guy was made to be a closer. His 2.86 xFIP was sixth in all of baseball for pitchers throwing more than 50 innings, and his stunning 6.43 K/BB ratio was even better than the 6.00 ratio Rivera posted in 2009. I may not put him ahead of a veteran like Wagner on my rankings, but he could provide similar value if he learns how to sit a few more guys down.
Carlos Marmol, CHC—If Marmol can control his walks, he’ll be a dominant closer before he turns 30. But last year’s 7.91 BB/9 rate will give me major pause before I draft him. He’s the quintessential wild closer, and he’s been compared by stats geeks from everyone from Mitch Williams and Ryne Duren, to fictional characters like Rick Vaughn. But as volatile as Lou Pinella is with umpires, he’s usually pretty level-headed (if not fiercely loyal to his guys) once he chooses a closer. With Angel Guzman set for surgery, there’s nobody banging down the door to finish off games should Marmol struggle. If you can live with a relatively high WHIP, Marmol will suffice in most formats.
Francisco Cordero, CIN—By all accounts, Cordero was a pretty lucky guy in 2009. He converted 39 of 43 save opportunities and finished with a brilliant 2.16 ERA, but those numbers belied a serious problem for the veteran closer—more walks and fewer strikeouts. His 4.06 xFIP was the highest of his career, and an obnoxiously low HR/FB rate (3.0 percent) will obviously trend closer to 6.0 in 2010. I’m only counting on 25-30 saves, a K/9 rate in the 8.00-8.50 range, and an ERA around 3.50 this season, which barely gets him among my Top 10 NL closers.
Brad Lidge, PHI—Let’s set aside the 0-8 record, 7.21 ERA and 11 blown saves. Having trouble doing that? I understand. In searching for positives in Lidge’s 2009 campaign, there’s not a lot to love. The 33 year old veteran posted the lowest K/9 rate of his career, walked 5.22 per nine innings, and allowed 14.7 percent of fly balls to leave the yard. In 58.2 innings, he gave up 11 HR—that’s four more than Clayton Kershaw allowed in 171 innings and the same number that Zack Greinke gave up in 229.1 innings. I’m not expecting a return to his unflappable 2008 form, but it can’t be as bad as last season. Can it?
Ryan Franklin, STL—Through the necromancy of pitching coach Dave Duncan and the intoxicating power of his bushy chin hair, Franklin was practically untouchable during the first half of 2009 (21-for-22 in save opportunities, 3 ER in 34 IP, 0.79 ERA, 0.79 WHIP). He even had a flawless August (11-for-11, 0 ER in 11 innings), before crashing down to Earth in September, blowing three saves en route to a 7.56 ERA, 2.52 WHIP and .382 BAA in 8.1 innings of work. I knew he’d implode eventually, and while he may be sick of talking about it, it’s important to remember this while you’re skimming the ’09 breakdown.
Octavio Dotel, PIT—Since 2004, he’s been with six teams. His home ERA last year for the White Sox was under 3.00—but was over 4.00 on the road. Basically, he was a good setup man that struggled versus lefties. The 75 K he posted in just 62.1 IP bode well for his future in a closing role, but he’s definitely going to blow some games and won’t post balanced L-R splits. Dotel’s a classic high upside-high risk guy that’s best to stay away from unless you’ve already nabbed a couple reliable closers.
Leo Nunez, FLA—Nunez had a problem with homers last year—something he’s dealt with throughout his career. A flyball pitcher with okay strikeout totals (60 Ks in 68.2 IP), Nunez must clamp down in 2010 or he’s at risk of losing his job down the stretch. His .256 BABIP in 2009 means he was actually kind of lucky, but with no obvious challengers in the Marlins’ bullpen and Spring Training crowded with ne’er-do-wells Derrick Turnbow, Mike MacDougal and Seth McClung all trying to make the team, he’s a pretty safe bet to open the season as the starting closer in Florida.
Brandon Lyon, HOU—Astros’ GM Ed Wade has been described as the patron saint of middle relievers, and with the deal the somewhat embattled Lyon signed this offseason (3 years/$15 million), Wade’s done nothing to abolish that moniker. Last season, a new cut fastball helped Lyon post a career-best groundball rate, a 1.56 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in 57.2 innings from June 1 onward. But a lucky BABIP (.231) and increased walk rate (1.8 K/BB) point to a regression in 2010. I’m not buying.
Matt Capps, WAS—Interestingly, only Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon had better K/BB ratios than Capps from 2006-08. I was high on him entering ’09 (and even made a trade for him in one league following his less-than-stellar start) but quickly soured as his peripherals wallowed. Most of Capps’ struggles last season can be boiled down to long ball issues (1.7 HR/9) and a bloated 1.66 WHIP, but he should rebound if he’s healthy and can keep the ball in the park. Capps walked just two batters over his last 19.2 innings and finished with a career high in saves with 27; he might have been really unlucky last year (.370 BABIP). In any event, he’s got to hold off Brian Bruney to keep the closer job in Washington.
Mike Adams, SD—Now we’re getting into the setup men. Adams isn’t just a Petco product—he had a 0.59 road ERA (0.73 total for 2009). In two seasons with the Padres, (91 games and 102.1 innings) Adams has a 1.85 ERA, 119 K and 4.41 K/BB. While he’s a great setup man and is worth decent bang for his RP buck in deeper leagues, he didn’t return from shoulder surgery until June 9. Both injury history and an emerging Luke Gregerson will keep him from getting saves even if Heath Bell hits the skids.
George Sherrill, LAD—He might be better as a setup man because of his lack of dominating stuff (1.08 WHIP and 0.65 ERA in 30 appearances for LAD), but he’s certainly valuable to any bullpen and will be among the league leaders in holds. He’s got to be more valuable than Lindstrom because of his ratios (1.12 WHIP and 1.70 ERA last year), and makes his bones in a great pitcher’s park
Matt Lindstrom, HOU—In 2009, he converted 15 of 17 save chances, but was shaky in crucial spots. Lindstrom never got his job back after returning from elbow problems and has limited value if he isn’t getting saves. Still—bullpen mate Lyon isn’t exactly the picture of sturdiness, so he’s worth a late-round shot in deeper leagues.
Drew Storen, WAS—The other first round pick in the June draft, Storen will probably open the year in AAA. The youngster blasted through the minors with great numbers last season and could see a promotion very quickly if the Nationals’ relievers struggle. He saved 9 out of 10 in the Arizona Fall League, and excels at getting hitters out with a mid-90s fastball, a hard slider and excellent control. He’s got a shot at being the Nats’ closer by mid-season and should get a shot to wrap things up by the end of this year.