Here’s a look at my 2011 closer rankings. I’m going to do my Middle Reliever article soon so the top 7th and 8th inning guys will get their coverage there. I mentioned a few in here, but none of them are ranked unless they are in a committee to close.
Stat consideration in order of importance: Strikeouts, Saves, ERA, WHIP. I would take a few less saves for a ridiculous strikeout rate. Closers can impact ERA a decent bit (at the truly elite levels), but their WHIP impact is often insignificant (even at its worst, more on that later).
Joakim Soria – He has an incredibly rock solid skills profile over the past four seasons and yet he is still just 27 years old. His inferior team hasn’t prevent him from two 40+ save seasons and in non-40 save season he struck out 69 in 53 innings (he wasn’t the full time closer in the first of his four seasons).
Carlos Marmol – Too many outlets greatly overrate the impact of a reliever’s WHIP (and ERA for that matter) on your team’s bottom line. Take Marmol’s awful 1.46 WHIP in 2009 and add it to a standard team with 1250-1300 innings and it increases the WHIP by 0.01. You can’t tell me that his otherworldly strikeout rates for a reliever don’t more than cancel out that negligible impact.
Heath Bell – Similar to Wilson, he’s on a team that can win, but when they do it’s close because they aren’t powered by offense. This has led to 42 and 47 save seasons the last two years for Bell. He’s also notching better than 10 strikeouts per nine with elite ERA and WHIP totals to boot.
Neftali Feliz – After a back-n-forth Spring Training and rampant speculation about whether or not he was going to start or close, he has finally been locked down as the closer again. He was brilliant last year and I expect no different in 2011. He has devastating starter’s stuff which plays pretty well in one-inning bursts. Remember that with the tiers, I see everyone within a tier relatively similarly. So if you wanted to take Feliz first in an AL-Only (or mixed for that matter), I support that. I ranked them how I prefer them, but there’s little difference one to the next.
Mariano Rivera – He’s a freak, even at 41. The Ks dropped last year (6.8 K/9), but ratios remained absurd and I’m not betting against him. K rate dropped to 6.6 in 2006 and then he reeled off three straight seasons above 9.0 at ages 37 through 39, so don’t let the 41 years make you believe he can’t bounce right back again. He almost deserves his own second tier because there is a little risk with anyone his age, but I’ll give him the T1 respect.
Brian Wilson – He’s just on another level right now delivering near-Marmolian strikeout rates (10.3, 11.2 last two years) with great ratios and high save counts (on a team that wins, but not with offense meaning more close games). Update: Injuries move him down, but still worth drafting pretty high.
J.J. Putz – Last year Putz looked a lot like the guy who notched 36 and 40 save seasons back in 2006 and 2007. Once an elite closer, Putz quickly earned a closer’s role this offseason and there is no reason to believe he won’t once again become a big time stopper. He’s being a little overlooked so far this draft season. If you want to skip the first wave, jump on Putz a few rounds after.
Matt Thornton – Rightfully given the job to start the season, Thornton has been an elite reliever for three years now though many might not realize it as he has just 13 saves in that time. Posted a ridiculous 12.0 strikeout rate last year, but even if he’s “only” at the 10.6 he averaged the two years before, he is still an excellent investment.
Jonathan Papelbon – For all his issues (ascending walk rate, ERA and WHIP; dropping save totals), his strikeout rate is actually ticking up yearly since 2008 (10.0, 10.1, 10.2) and at 29, he’s still well within in his prime. As annoying as Papelbon can be personally, he could be an undervalued fantasy asset this year as his demise is being overrated.
Francisco Rodriguez – We are seeing a lot risk in this tier which says a lot about the state of closers in the 2011 preseason. K-Rod is no different, but it’s hard to deny the talent. The main concern is that if the Mets don’t trade him, they might game his playing time to avoid a vesting option for 2012 (needs to finish 55+ games).
Jonathan Broxton – He is inexplicably being written off for three bad months. He was brilliant through June 26th with a sub-1.00 ERA and 48 Ks in 33 innings. The wheels came off the next day with a 4-run outing and he was never the same the rest of the year. No way I’m going to write off a 27-year old with as much talent as Broxton just yet.
Jose Valverde – An up and down season in 2010 that was essentially four great months and two horrible ones. Elbow soreness likely caused some of the issues that led to 8.25 and 7.00 ERAs in July and August, but he bounced back with eight strong innings in September. He looks good so far in Spring Training so I’d be comfortable investing in a standard Valverdian season.
Andrew Bailey – He might have crept into Tier 1 if it weren’t for the major injury scare a few days ago during a spring outing. We are being told he’s fine for now and doesn’t need surgery, but the uncertainty of his elbow plus his injury track record make him a frightening investment. Handcuff Brian Fuentes here.
Joe Nathan – He might ease into the role for a few weeks in April, but I think he will be the full-time closer no later than May given health. Like Putz, I think we’ll see a quick return to form and Nathan will once again be a reliable premier asset.
Chris Perez – He came into his own last year and started paying dividends on his top 100 prospect status from 2008 (97) and 2009 (91). Control is the missing element in his game to this point (4.3 BB/9 in 162 career IP), but at 25 years old there is still plenty of time. His stuff is undeniable and he should feel secure in the job. You should feel secure when investing.
Huston Street – The skills are there, always have been, but it’s hard to rely on him being there for you all season. That lack of consistent health is why he has just two 35+ save seasons in his six years in the majors. Each of the other four has yielded 23 or fewer.
John Axford – Burst onto the scene last year for a huge rookie season taking over for Trevor Hoffman with nearly 12 strikeouts per game and 24 saves in 27 chances. His control needs work (4.2 BB/9), but that and a deep track record are the only missing ingredients for an elite closer.
Joel Hanrahan – You may be shocked to learn that Hanrahan has improved his strikeout rate each of his four seasons in the big leagues and had a career-best 3.4 BB/9 last year. He’s been given the job for now, but Evan Meek looms if he fails. The skills are there, but does he have the fortitude to closer? I’d bet yes.
Leo Nunez – He had a career year in his first as the full-time closer which is enticing, but can it last? He makes a strong secondary or tertiary closer on a team with a T1 in mixed leagues. I also like him as a cheap option in an NL-Only if you don’t like investing a ton in saves. I like him a lot more than most and I think he’s being a bit underrated.
Brad Lidge – A sore biceps tendon has caused a preseason scare, but Lidge asserts it’s something he has dealt with before and writes it off as no big deal. Even still, he’s far from “Lights Out” these days despite the still impressive strikeout totals. Tread cautiously. Update: Injuries also move him down as he’s now set to start the season on the DL.
Frank Francisco – He’s closed before and posted 3.2 K/BB rates or better each of the last three years, but a sore pectoral has cast some doubt over him, especially in light the depth of competition in Toronto. If healthy, he could be a cheaper option that pans out very nicely.
Francisco Cordero – His eroding skillset belies the gaudy save totals (79 the last two years) as his strikeout rate has dropped in each of the last three seasons coming in below 8.0 each of the last two seasons. Mix that in with his age (36) and legitimate competition behind him (Aroldis Chapman and Nick Masset) and Cordero becomes a risky proposition.
Craig Kimbrel/Jonny Venters – Listing them together because they are set to share the job for now. I think one will emerge, but who knows who? Venters was brilliant in 83 innings so it seems like he’d be more reliable, but Kimbrel really impressed with 40 strikeouts in 21 innings. I wouldn’t be afraid to invest in either or both if the prices weren’t out of whack. They only rate this low because saves are the guiding factor of these tiers. From a pure skills standpoint, both can be elite relievers.
Kevin Gregg – Middling skills combined with legitimate competition on hand (namely Koji Uehara) make Gregg a risky option. Throw in a mediocre at best team in the league’s toughest division and this could get ugly. That said, he held on for 37 saves in the same division last year.
Ryan Franklin – Regression popped his ERA last year, but he tightened up the control a lot yielding an even better WHIP than 2009. Still, I don’t like closers with lame strikeout rates especially if I can’t count on excellent ERA and WHIP.
Alexei Ogando – My main concern is that Ron Washington seems to lack much confidence in him and this whole Neftali Feliz melodrama might not be over yet, either. Buying Ogando while things remain pretty uncertain could represent a nice bargain as I think he is the clear choice behind Feliz if he does end up a starter (which he should if Texas is smart… and they generally are…)
Jake McGee/Kyle Farnsworth – Manager Joe Maddon is firm on going with a committee marginalizing the value of both of these guys, who would otherwise be pretty valuable if they were the lone closer. Their skills and team situation is better some of the other committees found in T6 so they still rate above them even as a tandem.
Fernando Rodney – I can’t envision a scenario where he keeps the job all year long. Any one of Jordan Walden, Kevin Jepsen or Scott Downs would be better options. Of course, they will probably get their shot in reverse order of how I listed them. Downs is on the DL right now, but Rodney should at least hold it through April.
Brandon League/David Aardsma – League is a placeholder until Aardsma is healthy after having hip surgery in January. I loved League heading into last year after his 2009 season, but he pretty much flopped and made his 2009 skills (9.2 K/9, 3.6 K/BB) look like an outlier. Don’t buy both. If you buy one, it should only be as a third option regardless of league format.
Drew Storen – A rough spring is putting his grasp on the job in serious doubt as manager Jim Riggleman obviously doesn’t realize how worthless Spring Training numbers are in the grand scheme. Add in the myriad of options (none particularly good) behind Storen and he becomes a serious risk.
Brandon Lyon – A lesser version of Ryan Franklin on a much lesser team. Wilton Lopez lingers, too, but I’m not sold he keeps the 0.7 BB/9 he displayed in 67 innings last year.