Rankings preview: Closers

BY foxsports • February 3, 2011

For 2011, I will make a mixed CD of all of the songs used to announce the arrival of a closer into the game.

I'll use it to get the day jumpstarted and shake the cobwebs off, as I trek through the box scores and review game footage. "Wake the neighbors. They need to be saved." The t-shirt slogans write themselves.

In this edition of the fantasy baseball 2011 preview, I'm turning my attention to the closer role. The player in the chair is celebrated when things are going well while the closer-in-waiting is sometimes the most popular guy in town.

30. Brandon League, Seattle

David Aardsma will eventually reclaim the closer role, as he recovers from injury. His availability for the early part of the season remains in question. In the interim, League takes the reins at the backend of the Seattle bullpen. He pitched to a solid 3.42 ERA while striking out two batters per walk issued in 79 innings last season. League isn’t overpowering, but he did keep opposing batters off-balance. He allowed 7.6 hits per nine innings.

I know. You’re asking about opportunities. Even the worst teams win 60 games, and there won’t be many blowouts among them.

29. Kyle Farnsworth, Tampa Bay

The well-traveled veteran reliever assumes the closer spot following the departure of Rafael Soriano for New York. Farnsworth’s strikeout potential is well-known (has one per inning during his career), but so is his propensity to walk batters (with 3.9 per nine IP) and surrender the big fly. He’s obviously in a spot in which he can pile up saves behind a strong team if he can hold onto the role. Fortunately, you won’t have to venture much to grab him as one of the final preseason closers to come off the board.

28. Brandon Lyon, Houston

Lyon remains an injury risk and always appears on the precipice of losing his job when installed as the closer. He did work well in the role last season, generating 20 saves in 22 opportunities with a strong 3.12 ERA (was nearly one full run better than his career mark). There are obviously several pieces of Lyon’s overall stat line that scream “Danger!” He is not a strikeout artist, having registered just 6.2 strikeouts per nine innings last season. Lyon also allowed 3.6 walks per nine innings, thereby opening himself up to sometimes disastrous outings.

27. Leo Nunez, Florida

Nunez improved his strikeout rate in his second year as the closer in Florida (with 9.8 per nine innings pitched in 2010) and converted 30-of-38 save opportunities. He also allowed less than one hit per inning pitched and improved his walk rate. Those improvements still yielded pedestrian numbers in the ERA (3.46) and WHIP (1.28) categories. It’s possible that he’s hit his ceiling, but the high-strikeout rate does offer hope that he’s still got some room to grow.

26. Fernando Rodney, Los Angeles Angels

Rodney isn’t going to offer much in the peripheral stat categories. He owns pedestrian career ERA and WHIP numbers (with 4.27 ERA and 1.44 WHIP), and his strikeout rate does not scream “closer.” In the past two seasons, Rodney struck out 7.1 batters per nine innings (with 1.5 strikeouts per walk issued).

He converted 37-of-38 save opportunities in 2009 before struggling in the role in limited opportunities during the 2010 season. Take the save opportunities. Just know that he’ll be a drag on your ERA and WHIP numbers.

25. Kevin Gregg, Baltimore

Gregg joins the Orioles, his fourth team in as many seasons, and will look to continue his recent run of high-save output (with 23 or more in four consecutive seasons). He strikes out nearly one batter per inning pitched, but his strong power numbers are beset by a high-walk rate (4.6 per nine IP in 2010).

Gregg did earn a decent 3.51 ERA in 63 appearances for Toronto last season and dramatically reduced his home run rate from his 2009 struggles in Chicago (declined from 13 to four). You shan't receive great help in the ERA and WHIP categories (with 4.03 ERA and 1.33 WHIP for his career), but you should see saves and strikeouts. You can insert your "How many saves in Baltimore?" joke here.

24. Ryan Franklin, St. Louis

Franklin has grown into the closer role nicely following previous runs as a starter and middle reliever. In 2010, his ERA regressed based on a rise in his home runs allowed (increased from two to seven). However, he reduced his walk rate markedly, surrendering only 10 free passes in 65 innings pitched (he'd walked 24 batters in 61 innings during the 2009 season). That is a big help when you possess less than dominant "stuff." Franklin has struck out opposing batters at a rate of 6.1 per nine innings as the full-time closer in two seasons. He's always flirting with danger by pitching to contact.

23. Frank Francisco, Toronto

Francisco was dealt to Toronto in the trade that netted the Rangers Mike Napoli. The former Texas closer enters spring training as the favorite for the closer role in a retooled bullpen that includes longtime set-up heroes and sometimes closers Jon Rauch and Octavio Dotel.

Francisco was tremendous in the closer role during 2009, as he converted 25-of-29 save opportunities while demonstrating dominant strikeout punch (with 10.4 per nine innings). Most importantly, Francisco also limited the number of walks he issued (had 3.8 strikeouts per free pass). He’s no stranger to pitching in a difficult park for pitchers. My main fear is that his ERA and WHIP totals suffer because of the frequent matchups with the power-laden lineups of the AL East.

22. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta

The 22-year-old hurler takes the reins from Billy Wagner. He pitched to a scintillating 0.44 ERA in 20 2/3 innings pitched last season while demonstrating overwhelming power. Kimbrel struck out 40 batters in his 20 2/3 innings pitched (recording 17.4 strikeouts per nine IP). That is not a misprint.

21. Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh

Hanrahan enters spring training with the edge in his competition with Evan Meek. He posted an absurd strikeout rate in 2010, setting batters down at a clip of 12.9 per nine innings pitched. Hanrahan appeared in 72 games last season and earned six saves (with four blown opportunities).

If you break down his game log further, Hanrahan had three terrible performances that dragged down his ERA total. In those three games, he allowed 12 earned runs in 3 1/3 innings pitched. Remove those from his overall totals, and you're looking at a 2.17 ERA in his other 69 appearances.

I would like to see his walk rate reduced (3.4 per nine IP in 2010), but you can't argue with the power output.

20. Brad Lidge, Philadelphia

We know this much. The combination of a potent lineup and a rotation that is already being cast on a baseball "Mount Rushmore" will present opportunities for Lidge. It's just a matter of what he delivers in those chances.

He posted a tremendous bounce-back season from his 2009 implosion last year. Lidge pitched to a 2.96 ERA with 27 saves in 32 opportunities. He also struck out 10.3 batters per nine innings. Of course, Lidge also walks the high wire, as he walked 24 batters in his 45 2/3 innings of work. That leaves the door open for a major regression in his numbers for 2011.

19. Jonathan Broxton, Los Angeles Dodgers

Insert your Broxton joke here. I live in the greater Los Angeles area, so I guarantee that I've heard them all. He was out of shape, and his concentration and effectiveness waned in what became a mighty disappointing season in Los Angeles overall.

Broxton blew seven of his 29 save opportunities, while his hit rate soared and his walk rate reached dangerous levels (with 9.2 hits and 4.0 walks per nine innings). He was definitely on the "All-Bust" team for 2010. Owners may shy away this spring given the uncertainty in Los Angeles and his 2010 failures. The strikeout punch is still there behind a strong rotation in a great home park, so a bounce-back season may be in the offing.

18. Drew Storen, Washington

The former first-round pick out of Stanford made his way to Washington and exhibited the strikeout punch that owners had anticipated. He was wild in spots, thereby boosting his ERA and WHIP numbers (of 3.58 ERA and 1.27 WHIP). Storen struck out 8.5 batters and walked 3.6 batters per nine innings.

He allowed less than one hit per inning and surrendered three home runs in his 55 1/3 innings pitched. Storen stands on the verge of a breakthrough 2011 behind an improved offense.

17. Matt Thornton, Chicago White Sox

There's a lot of momentum for Chris Sale to unseat Thornton for the closer role, but he's also still in consideration for a spot in the rotation. That leaves the rock-steady Thornton in line as the first chair following Bobby Jenks' departure.

Thornton is virtually unhittable at times and produces big strikeout numbers to aid the bottom line as well. In the past three seasons, Thornton has pitched to a strong 2.69 ERA with a 1.02 WHIP while striking out 11 batters per nine innings. He has the goods to excel in the role (with eight saves in 2010), but the team's decision on Sale is obviously something to watch this spring.

16. Joe Nathan, Minnesota

Nathan threw a bullpen session at the end of January and is pacing to be ready for opening day following Tommy John surgery in March of 2010. He had become one of the steadiest closing options in the game prior to his injury, having posted six consecutive seasons with at least 36 saves, a sub-2.00 ERA and a sub-1.00 WHIP.

The Twins are always in the hunt and play to many close games. As a result, Nathan sees ample opportunities to support fantasy owners in four categories. The Twins do have the luxury of Matt Capps working out of middle relief. Capps may pick up a few saves early before Nathan ramps up to his full workload.

15. Chris Perez, Cleveland

Perez was the heir apparent to Kerry Wood in Cleveland, and he did not look back once he received his shot to close. He produced mind-blowing numbers in his first full run with the squad, generating a smallish 1.71 ERA with 23 saves in 27 opportunities.

Perez offsets his dismal walk rate (with 28 in 63 innings) by going on stretches during which he was virtually unhittable (40 hits allowed altogether). Take the strong peripherals and let the save number fall where it may.

14. John Axford, Milwaukee

Axford contributed to all five standard pitching categories in 2010. He vultured eight wins out of the bullpen, in addition to the standard relief contributions. Axford converted 24-of-27 save opportunities with a strong 2.48 ERA and accompanying 1.19 WHIP.

He definitely has closer make-up with his high-strikeout rate (11.8 per nine innings) and surrendered just one home run in 58 innings pitched (allowed 6.5 hits per nine IP). Axford's one potential issue in his quest to become a household name is his walk rate. He walked 4.2 batters per nine innings last season. That high rate opens the door to potential disaster.

13. J.J. Putz, Arizona

When physically sound, Putz puts up huge strikeout numbers and overpowers opposing batters (he struck out 65 batters in 54 innings in 2010). He returns to the closer role in Arizona, a slot that he last filled full-time as a member of the Mariners in 2008. The key to his success is quite simply his control. When his walk rate soars, Putz falls apart. When he's around the plate, owners get stellar four-category production. You pay for mistakes in Arizona, so there's risk associated with his selection. I'm encouraged by his 2010 totals in Chicago (2.83 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and rate of 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings).

12. Francisco Cordero, Cincinnati

Cordero remains a save machine for the Reds. He's averaged 37.7 saves and 43.7 save opportunities in three years as the Cincinnati closer. During this stretch, Cordero has produced strong strikeout numbers (8.4 per nine IP), though his WHIP (1.39) leaves you wanting and nervous. However, he does keep the ball in the park, and the Reds have stuck with him.

11. Jose Valverde, Detroit

Valverde produced a strong, though not overwhelming, entry to Detroit in 2010. He saved 26-of-29 games. He pitched to a nice, round 3.00 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and averaged one strikeout per inning. His walk rate is always troubling (has 4.6 walks per nine IP in 2010), but his low-hit and high-strikeout rates more than compensates and keeps him out of harm's way (has a 3.15 career ERA accompanied by a 1.17 career WHIP).

The Tigers bolstered the offense in the offseason and are looking for former stud Brad Penny to offer quality innings alongside Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. The 32-year-old Valverde qualifies as a quasi-sleeper.

10. Francisco Rodriguez, New York Mets

Rodriguez rebounded nicely from his disappointing 2009 season. He generated his best ERA and WHIP output since 2006. He reduced his walk rate while maintaining a high-strikeout rate (10.5 per nine IP). Rodriguez converted 25-of-30 save opportunities last season before getting shut down because of a thumb injury.

It's hard to argue with his complete body of work, and his 2009 season is but a blip on the radar. I know he doesn't blow batters up as he did early in his career and that his strikeout rate has dipped. Rodriguez still knows how to get outs.

9. Huston Street, Colorado

Street missed extended time in 2010 with several ailments, but he remained effective when on the hill. He averaged nearly one strikeout per inning pitched and effectively limited his walks (with 11 in 47 1/3 innings pitched) while successfully converting 20-of-25 save opportunities.

The offense is there. Now it's time for De La Rosa and the rest of the staff to support Jimenez and serve up prime opportunities for Street.

8. Andrew Bailey, Oakland

What else is there to say about Bailey? When he's on the hill, the 6-foot-3 righty dominates opposing batters. He's produced a mind-blowing 1.70 ERA with a sub-1.00 WHIP (0.91) in two major league seasons. Bailey has also successfully converted 51-of-58 save opportunities while striking out nearly four batters per walk issued.

7. Neftali Feliz, Texas

Feliz has the "stuff" to be a dominant closer, as he demonstrated quite capably in the 2010 season. He converted 40-of-43 opportunities while being virtually unhittable for long stretches (5.6 hits per nine innings pitched). Feliz struck out just less than four batters per walk issued and limited opponents to a .176 composite batting average against him (with a 0.88 WHIP).

The only question concerned Feliz is that there's still talk about him potentially moving into the rotation, something that was bandied about frequently in 2010. However, the trade that shipped former Texas closer Frank Francisco to Toronto probably makes that move far less likely.

6. Jonathan Papelbon, Boston

Papelbon experienced a nightmare season in 2010. He matched his strikeout rate from 2009, but his WHIP rose (ahd moderate increases in both his hit and walk rates), and he surrendered more big hits. Papelbon blew eight save opportunities and saw his ERA balloon to a career-worst 3.90 mark. Still, he saved 37 games for the Red Sox, his fifth consecutive season of at least 35 saves.

I am moderately concerned, however, by the depth in the Red Sox bullpen. Should Papelbon falter, Daniel Bard and Bobby Jenks are waiting in the wings.

5. Heath Bell, San Diego

Bell was fantastic in his first season as the San Diego closer in 2009. He was even better in his follow-up season. Bell pitched to a career-low 1.93 while saving 47-of-50 opportunities. The 33-year-old righty has also vultured six wins in four consecutive seasons. Bell is a truly a five-category contributor for a team that plays in a lot of close games.

4. Brian Wilson, San Francisco

With a beard that separates him from the rest of the sporting landscape (except for the Steelers' Brett Keisel), Wilson became a folk hero during the Giants’ run to the Super Bowl. He converted 48-of-53 save opportunities and improved his ERA by nearly a full run to a career-best mark of 1.81. Wilson’s walk total remains problematic, but he’s been able to effectively slam the door with a huge strikeout rate in the past. The stellar San Francisco rotation will keep Wilson steeped in save chances in 2011.

3. Joakim Soria, Kansas City

Soria serves as a fantastic reminder that fantasy owners need to look beyond the insignia on the cap. He’s been a rock for the Royals in three-plus years as the closer, saving a total of 132 games in 145 chances.

In fact, Soria owns a career 2.01 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP while striking out 4.0 batters per walk. He loses former ace Zach Greinke, but I don’t suspect that his production drops off markedly. Soria’s peripheral numbers are off the charts.

2. Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs

Marmol came into his own as the full-time closer for the Cubs in 2010. He successfully converted 38-of-43 attempts with tremendous peripheral numbers. Marmol pitched to a 2.55 ERA and struck out opposing batters at an eye-popping rate of 16.0 per nine innings pitched. Amazingly, Marmol only surrendered one home run in his 77 2/3 innings pitched.

That is the one question on the slate for Marmol. He’s appeared in at least 77 games in three consecutive seasons.

1. Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees

The time may come when the Yankees have to find a new closer, and they may have done so by signing Rafael Soriano to serve as the setup man in 2011. Rivera converted 33-of-38 save opportunities last season while producing a sub-2.00 ERA for the seventh time in the past eight years. He allowed 5.9 hits per nine innings while striking out 4.1 batters per walk.

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