Update Closer Rankings – Brian Wilson Injury Concerns

Here are my updated closer rankings for 2011 fantasy baseball. Players that moved from the prior rankings are shown with an up or down arrow, with relevant notes about the change. Also make sure to check out the AL Tiers and NL Tiers of Relief Pitching for detail on how I came up with the original rankings.

Rank Player Team
Tier 1
1 Heath Bell SD
2 Joakim Soria KC
3 Mariano Rivera NYY
4 Carlos Marmol CHC
5 Neftali Feliz TEX
  • Mariano Rivera is on schedule for another productive season, although the presence of Rafael Soriano could mean less work than in the past, and much fewer four and five-out saves.
  • Carlos Marmol is a risk because of his checkered history, but he’s still nasty. Hence, he’s worth the risk. And he’s looked good this spring.
  • Neftali Feliz is still unsure of what his role will be with Texas. The informed opinion is that a starting pitcher has more value than a closer (especially in fantasy), although some “classic” baseball minds might disagree. If Feliz ends up as a starter – a decision that could come later this week – Alexi Ogando is probably the best ninth-inning option for the Rangers. Either way, Feliz has plenty of fantasy value.
Rank Player Team
Tier 2
6 Brian Wilson SF
7 Jonathan Papelbon BOS
8 Jonathan Broxton LAD
9 Andrew Bailey OAK
10 John Axford MIL
  • Brian Wilson underwent an MRI on Saturday which revealed a mild strain of his left oblique muscle, a situation that could land him on the DL to start the season. He felt the injury during his most recent appearance Thursday against the Angels. I’ve dropped him to the second tier as a result. Stay tuned.
  • A week after Andrew Bailey walked off the mound clutching his elbow, the diagnosis isn’t nearly as bleak as first proposed. Dr. James Andrews, who cleaned up Bailey’s elbow in September, said it’s just torn scar tissue and a forearm strain. While it looks as if he’ll throw later in the week and could be ready by Opening Day, he’s clearly an injury risk in 2011. The A’s primary backup is Brian Fuentes, so… do with that what you want. I don’t like the guy.
Rank Player Team
Tier 3
11 Francisco Rodriguez NYM
12 Joe Nathan MIN
13 Jose Valverde DET
14 Matt Thornton CHW
15 Huston Street COL
16 J.J. Putz ARI
17 Chris Perez CLE
18 Brad Lidge PHI
19 Drew Storen WAS
20 Francisco Cordero CIN
  • Because of fears surrounding his return from last season’s Tommy John surgery and a possible closer time-share with Matt Capps, Joe Nathan could be the most underrated closer in baseball this season. He retired all six batters he faced during a minor league game Monday, and while there’s chatter about a split of the closing duties, I think that’s just speculative rubbish. Nathan’s the guy.
  • Francisco Cordero has thrown four consecutive scoreless innings in spring training, but he’ll have a tight leash with Aroldis Chapman in the same bullpen. The veteran reliever showed up to camp in much better shape, possibly because he knows his job hangs in the balance.
Rank Player Team
Tier 4
21 Ryan Franklin STL
22 Daniel Bard BOS
23 Rafael Soriano NYY
24 Brandon League SEA
25 Aroldis Chapman CIN
26 Craig Kimbrel ATL
27 Jonny Venters ATL
28 Joel Hanrahan PIT
29 Leo Nunez FLA
30 Frank Francisco TOR
31 David Aardsma (injured) SEA
32 Brandon Lyon HOU
33 Fernando Rodney LAA
34 Kevin Gregg BAL
35 Matt Capps MIN
  • Craig Kimbrel’s shaky start has led to speculation that the Braves will, in fact, split closing duties between Kimbrel, a righty, and Jonny Venters, a hard-throwing southpaw. If they were both righties, I’d think this plan was ridiculous, but I’m of the opinion that the best guy for the moment should be in the game in those situations, so a lefty-righty split makes sense. There’s still a chance one guy emerges and takes the job, but for now, it’d be wise to keep them close in your rankings, and down in this tier.
  • Kevin Gregg has struggled this spring, trying out some new mechanics that didn’t work out. He’s still the team’s closer, and with Koji Uehara battling elbow discomfort, the job could eventually go to Mike Gonzalez. Personally, I think Gonzalez is the best man for the job.
  • Aroldis Chapman will open the season in the bullpen, but the Reds still envision him as a future starter. Walt Jocketty admits that while the fireballer could be a top-of-the-rotation guy, he’s also a possible closer. He’s not a setup guy, so look for him to move in one direction or the other as soon as June.
Rank Player Team
Tier 5
36 Sergio Romo SF
37 Kyle Farnsworth TB
38 Hong-Chih Kuo LAD
39 Chris Sale CHW
40 Jake McGee TB
41 Evan Meek PIT
42 Luke Gregerson SD
43 Kenley Jansen LAD
44 Joaquin Benoit DET
45 Ryan Madson PHI
46 Koji Uehara BAL
47 Octavio Dotel TOR
48 Brian Fuentes OAK
49 Scott Downs LAA
50 Clay Hensley FLA
  • With the breaking news of the Brian Wilson injury, Sergio Romo vaults to the top of Tier 5. He’d be a great late-round snag in deeper leagues, and I’d spend a few extra bucks on him in NL-only leagues.
  • Kyle Farnsworth is still the apparent closer in Tampa Bay, but Jake McGee is listed on the World Wide Leader’s closer chart as the first-stringer. While I don’t trust ESPN, I do trust these guys.

American League Tiers of Relief Pitching

Here is a detailed look at each relief pitcher in the American 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 National League Tiers or Relief Pitching, helped form my final mixed league closer rankings.

Tier 1 ($20+)*

* Dollar values represent estimates for AL-only leagues

Joakim Soria, KC – Even with the shoulder soreness he experienced last spring, Soria saved a career-high 43 games and struck out 9.73 batters per 9 innings – compiling a 1.78 ERA and 1.05 WHIP. Perhaps most significantly, he induced groundballs 48% of the time and kept his xFIP under 3.00 for the second straight season. There will always be concerns about drafting a closer on a poor team, but the only reason that’s a real concern is that stinky teams often have rubbish closers. Soria is a special pitcher who demonstrates his dominance whenever he gets the ball.

Mariano Rivera, NYY – Rivera didn’t post elite closer metrics in 2010, and his overall numbers, while decent, were buoyed by a 3.6% HR/FB rate and .222 BABIP – the third lowest of his career. Because he was relatively lucky when it came to keeping the ball in the park and getting a few more fly ball outs than normal, Rivera’s 1.80 ERA and 0.83 WHIP look a little better than they actually were. Most surprisingly, “Old Man” Rivera struggled to get batters out via the strikeout – and hitters made more contact with his darting cutter outside the zone (75.7%) than at any time in his storied career. He also threw fewer first strikes. Still – the 6.75 K/9 rate was in line with his modus operandi from 1998-2000, when he only whiffed about 6.38 hitters per 9 innings. I’m a little worried about last year’s 3.65 xFIP, but not enough to drop him out of the top tier.

Tier 2 ($15-19)

Neftali Feliz, TEX – Since Feliz is still being considered for a spot in the starting rotation, I’m wary of putting him in the top tier. While his overall fantasy value will improve if that’s the case, it’s always dangerous to mess with a guy’s head in Spring Training when it comes to the bullpen/rotation arm-lengthening process, especially when a pitcher is briefly considered then thrust right back into the closing role. There’s no denying his effectiveness; only Matt Thornton had a better fastball (20.3 >19.3) among relievers in 2010 – when Feliz posted 40 saves, a 2.73 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 9.22 K/9 and 3.94 K/BB. There’s a chance Feliz will get beat up a bit more this season, as he’s been remarkably lucky with regard to balls in play; his 2009 BABIP was .169 and last season, the figure was a still-low .224. I’m anticipating that number to trend closer to .275, and the ERA to bump over 3.00 this season. He’ll still get a lot of Ks and saves, but if pitching in Arlington half the time hasn’t caught up to the youngster yet, it promises to in the near future.

Jonathan Papelbon, BOS – Jonny Pap’s 2010 season was a disappointment; his 3.90 ERA and 1.27 WHIP were largely a result of an increased walk rate (3.76 BB/9 compared to his career rate of 2.59) and a HR/FB rate (9.1%) a few clicks above normal. In the past, Papelbon did an excellent job with runners on base, but his career LOB rate of 81.6% looks brilliant considering he only stranded 68.7% of base runners in 2010. With Daniel Bard beating down his door and Bobby Jenks in town to close games if needed, Papelbon will be on a short leash and could help yield a quality starter as the Sox approach the trading deadline. The good thing is that he’ll probably close out games wherever he ends up going, so he won’t lose too much value, but I can’t consider him an elite closer until he stops walking so many dudes.

Andrew Bailey, OAK – The 2009 AL Rookie of the Year dealt with an oblique strain last year and had a clean-up surgery on his elbow in September. The early word is that he’s approaching 100 percent and about 10 to 12 pounds lighter than last year after seeing some extra chunk on his frame in wedding photos. Along with the extra poundage, Bailey must have been toting around a horseshoe last season; despite a 3.80 xFIP and relatively low (7.71) K/9 rate, he posted a 1.47 ERA, albeit with just 25 saves in 49 innings. Despite the injury issues and one glaring red flag (.225 career BABIP), I’m still bullish on Bailey’s prospects this season because he’s got excellent command of his three pitches – a four-seam, mid-90s fastball, an effective curveball, and a solid cutter that treads about 89-92.

Tier 3 ($12-15)

Joe Nathan, MIN – Nathan is back from Tommy John surgery and looks good; he pitched a scoreless inning in his spring debut and said he felt fine. His fastball was running about 86-90 mph, only a few clicks below where it was in 2009 (93-94) before the elbow injury. While he’ll be the closer barring any setbacks, nobody’s expecting an immediate return to the dominant form he showed from 2004-09 with the Twins. Where he’ll go on draft day is anybody’s guess, but you shouldn’t have to reach for him before the fifth or sixth round in most formats.

Jose Valverde, DET – A strange thing happened to Valverde last season: he induced ground balls at an alarmingly high rate (54.7%), and his GB/FB ratio (1.69) was nearly twice that of his 2009 ratio (0.88). Whether this is a case of an old dog learning new tricks, or just a statistical anomaly will probably be settled this season, but career-highs for overall contact rate (74.7%) as well as zone contact rate (86.8%) indicate the veteran reliever is making a significant effort to pitch to contact. The .231 BABIP portends somewhat of a regression from last season’s 3.00 ERA, but since his career figure is just .265, it’s not a huge problem.

Matt Thornton, CHW – I really like what I’m seeing from Matt Thornton’s metrics: a gradually improving K/9 rate, acceptable BABIP levels, and ERA/FIP/xFIP lines under 3.00 (in every circumstance) for the past three seasons. As I mentioned before, his fastball is the best among major league relievers (20.3 in 2010), and he throws it almost exclusively (90.1%). Being a one-pitch closer doesn’t work for everybody, but when your fastball is as good as Thornton’s, it’s okay to forget the curveball… and give ‘em the heater!!!

Chris Perez, CLE – The man who was developed as the Cardinals’ “closer-of-the-future” became the man for the Tribe when he was dealt in June 2009 and Kerry Wood got injured in Spring Training last season. He got the job done in 2010, but there are some reasons to be cautious heading into another full season. First, his 1.71 ERA belied some sinister figures, including an xFIP of 4.30 and .222 BABIP. His HR/FB rate was also unsustainably low at 5.5%, which means that some of those line drives and fly balls are bound to find gaps and escape the yard in 2011. He’ll probably cost you a pretty penny based on last years numbers, so don’t be too freaked out if you miss out on him and end up with a few of the more save-challenged but no more uncertain bargains in the next tier.

Tier 4 ($8-11)

Daniel Bard, BOS – I thought the Bosox would have dealt Papelbon last season before the trading deadline, but he’s still the closer. That leaves Bard, along with the guy that’s next in this tier, among the best two setup men in baseball, let alone the AL East. It just doesn’t get much better than Bard’s fastball/slider combo, and it’s a safe bet that his K/9 rate will be over 10.0 again this season.

Rafael Soriano, NYY – I have a feeling that Soriano will be tough to acquire in many drafts, but if folks over think the fact that he’s no longer a closer, you might be able to get him for a song. With talent like this, the Yankees will be using him frequently to give Rivera some extra time off, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a few two-inning saves after some late Yankee scoring counterfeits the necessity of Rivera.

Brandon League, SEA – With David Aardsma just getting off crutches, League will be the front runner to close out games for the Mariners. With his velocity, you’d expect League to miss more bats, but the secret to his success lies in getting mostly ground balls (career 3.09 GB/FB rate). If he can raise his K/9 a bit, he could hold onto the job for a while.

Frank Francisco, TOR – He’s the closer for the Blue Jays, and he’s still capable of striking guys out. Francisco has some competition if he struggles, namely Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch, but his blown saves over the past few years have largely been due to bad luck; his ERA/FIP/xFIP have all remained under 4.00 since 2007.

David Aardsma, SEA – Nobody knows for sure when Aardsma will begin throwing after receiving hip surgery this December, but he could battle for the closer’s job once he comes off the DL in 2011. He wasn’t as spectacular in 2010 as his ’09 breakout, but his status is worth watching, as most expect him to be back at some point after April and before the All-Star break.

Fernando Rodney, LAA – Despite a career WHIP of 1.44, Rodney continues to get opportunities to close games, but if he can’t cut down on his walk rate, his days working the ninth are numbered. An additional concern is that Rodney’s K/9 rate is declining. Scott Downs offers a better option than Rodney.

Matt Capps, MIN – Capps doesn’t get a lot of strikeouts (career 6.97 K/9), but last season he induced more ground balls and pitched more effectively with runners on base. He’ll be the Twins eighth-inning guy unless there’s a problem with Nathan.

Kevin Gregg, BAL – Gregg has jumped around a lot since 2006, and he’s now pitching for his fifth team in six seasons. There’s nothing in his career numbers to indicate he can be elite, and since 2007 when he became a closer for the Marlins, he’s racked up 26 blown saves. I’d prefer the battle to be between strike-out heavy lefty Mike Gonzalez and Koji Uehara, but there’s no word on whether or not Buck Showalter understands sabermetrics.

Tier 5 ($3-7)

Kyle Farnsworth, TB – It looks like Joe Maddon is leaning toward a closer-by-committee situation, which might be the best approach considering Tampa’s list of shaky bullpen options. A whopping seven of the eight pitchers who worked the bulk of relief innings for the Rays are gone, and while team officials claim to be pleased with the likes of Farnsworth, Joel Peralta and Adam Russell, there’s still a lot of question marks. Farnsworth is the closest they have to a proven closer, but lefty Jake McGee will probably inherit the job at some point.

Koji Uehara, BAL – Uehara was scratched from his scheduled appearance Thursday after receiving a cortisone shot in his elbow and seems to have lost his lead on the closer battle. He’s struggled through injuries the past couple years but was incredibly effective last season out of the bullpen (11.25 K/9, 11.0 K/BB, 0.95 WHIP, 2.86 ERA, 2.91 xFIP).

Chris Sale, CHW – Kenny Williams and Ozzie Guillen might want to consult with Brian Cashman on how to deal with Sale, as they’ve already started pondering some Joba-like questions regarding his use in the bullpen or as a starter. For now, he’ll be in the bullpen competing with Thornton for the closing job. Expect about a strikeout per inning and a solid ERA, but don’t plan on any saves unless Thornton implodes.

Jake McGee, TB – McGee is worth watching as the season approaches, but don’t spend too much money on him. He’s largely untested and hasn’t been named the closer.

Joaquin Benoit, DET – He was unhittable last season pitching for the Rays, and the Tigers have invested a lot in his future in Detroit. If Valverde encounters any trouble, he’ll be the first they turn to.

Scott Downs, LAA – Downs should get first crack at the Angels’ closer job if (when?) something goes wrong with the volatile Fernando Rodney. It’s either him or Kevin Jepsen. Stay tuned.

Brian Fuentes, OAK – Andrew Bailey isn’t the healthiest guy in the world, and Fuentes has a lot of experience as a closer. If you’re grabbing Bailey, Fuentes makes sense as a handcuff.

Octavio Dotel, TOR – Dotel’s still got bat-missing ability and could get the nod in the ninth should Francisco and/or Rauch not work out. He’ll give up a few more homers this season, but he’s easily worth a couple bucks in auction leagues.

Fantasy Baseball Injury Update: Pitchers

Not surprisingly, because it happens every year, many baseball players finished the 2010 season with injuries. Players coming off injury will generally make fantasy owners question whether they should stay away or not, which could result in us finding a great buy low candidate.

We already looked at the status of key hitters coming off injury. Here is a look at some pitchers who lost time to injury last season and what we should expect for 2011.

Good Value

Brandon Webb was one of the best pitchers in the game from 2006-2008, but had his 2009 season cut short after pitching four innings on Opening Day, sustaining a shoulder injury. Webb never saw the field in 2010. His target is to be on the Texas Rangers’ active roster for Opening Day this season, but the team is being cautious with him and that may not be realistic.

Regardless, assuming he is healthy and starting again before long, pitching in the American League in Texas is always a risk to your ratios. A late round pick could be rewarded with early-to-mid round performance considering Webb’s talent if he can recapture his old form.

Joe Nathan was considered an elite closer going into 2010 before he blew out his elbow during Spring Training last March. Nathan looks good to go this spring and should resume where he left off for the Minnesota Twins. He is likely to slide in your draft, so pounce when the time is right on a bargain top closer.

High Risk, High Reward

Florida Marlins’ Josh Johnson was shut down for the season in early September with back and shoulder problems. The back is a small reason for concern, but the shoulder is a major one. Johnson is one of baseball’s elite pitchers when health permits. Johnson indicated in early February that he, “feels great” physically, but one or both of these injuries may linger into this season. Considering that it will probably take a relatively high pick to land Johnson, let someone take on the downside risk and go with a more sure thing.

New York Mets’ Johan Santana had elbow surgery in September 2009 and shoulder surgery in September 2010. Santana was baseball’s best pitcher from 2004-06, but those days are behind him. Elbow injuries are not so worrisome these days, but shoulder problems are hard to shake and tend to spell the beginning of the end of careers. He will not pitch until June at the earliest. Let him take up room on someone else’s roster in 2011.

Josh Beckett had a very untypically poor 2010 season for the Boston Red Sox. He suffered a lower back injury and when he returned, he lived somewhere between awful and worse. Although many consider his down year a one-off and expect a big bounce back, I recently decided to take a more conservative approach by reducing my original projections for him. He is still worth a mid-round pick as he will be solid at the worst on the powerful BoSox, but Beckett’s best days may be behind him.

Jake Peavy didn’t pitch after July because of a shoulder injury that required surgery in September. Like Santana, Peavy’s shoulder woes are reason for concern, especially after only 33 starts in the last two seasons. Even though he’s ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation, the White Sox have no timetable for his return. The White Sox were looking at Chris Sale as a possible starter until Peavy is healthy enough to return to the rotation, but the hope is Peavy is healthy with Sale slated for the bullpen. Peavy is worth a flier at the end of your draft, but don’t invest anything serious here. He could be dead weight on your roster for some time.

David Aardsma did a great job closing games for the Seattle Mariners during the last two seasons. Unfortunately, they didn’t give him a lot of save opportunities last year and likely won’t again this year. On the injury front, Aardsma had hip surgery in December and is still on crutches to help him get around.

He isn’t going to do much through Spring Training and is expected to miss the first few weeks of the season. His hip injury is something that might linger, or there could be some rust just getting back into shape even if the rehab goes well. He might be a good late round source for saves, but you’ll need to be patient to see any production, and be ready to cut bait if Aardsma can’t shake the injury.

Tread Carefully

Erik Bedard should be ready to start the season following shoulder surgery. He threw his first bullpen session of the year a week ago and reported no issues. Bedard has been hampered by injuries throughout his career, so tread carefully. When healthy, Bedard is very good, but those days seem few and far between as Mariners fans know all too well. He has nice value if you can get him late in your draft, but it is still a risky pick because Bedard has a habit of coming up lame and disappointing.

Rich Harden was injured again last season. That line has been used almost every year of Harden’s eight year MLB career. He’s only started more than 26 games in a season once and the safe bet is that he never will again. No one doubts that Harden has elite talent when healthy, but those days are rarely seen and a dinged up Harden is not quite like the real thing. Harden is returning for a third stint with the Oakland Athletics. Spend a late round pick on him, but don’t invest anything significant. Also, if your league doesn’t have a DL slot on your roster, just avoid Harden all together.

Chris Young is somewhat of a reclamation project for the New York Mets. After battling injuries for the past three seasons, including shoulder problems most recently, he looks like a low-risk bet for the Mets and maybe for your fantasy squad. If he remains healthy and comes even close to his career ratios of 3.80 ERA, and 1.21 WHIP, he would be a steal. The big question is whether he can return to pre-injury form.

Stephen Strasburg lived up to the hype by striking out 14 batters in his MLB debut. He went on to strike out 41 batters in his first four starts and the legend was being written. Then tragedy struck with an elbow injury that required elbow ligament replacement (Tommy John) surgery that ended his 2010 season. He isn’t due back until late this season at the earliest. The Washington Nationals have a 12 to 18 month timetable on his rehabilitation, and expect them to take it easy on him once he does return. Expect nothing from Strasburg in 2011, but look for a great bounce back in 2012.

Chien-Ming Wang missed all of the 2010 season with an injured right shoulder. The Nationals would like nothing more than for Wang to return to the form that saw him post back-to-back 19-win seasons for the New York Yankees in 2006-07. The encouraging news is that Wang pitched in the Instructional League without any problems, but remember this is a pitcher on the wrong side of 30 that has shoulder problems. He’s worth a late flier, but nothing more.