Rankings preview: Middle Relievers

BY foxsports • February 3, 2011

They are the forgotten ones.

Sure, you can name the guys coming out of the pen for your favorite team. Odds are that you've cursed them upon their exit from a game following a walk or big hit.

They are the middle relievers. In the fantasy realm, they're often tabbed as "closers-in-waiting." Although they don't get the glory of the heavy metal entrance and pomp and circumstance, they're no less important to the fantasy realm and the sizable contracts being tendered tell you what they mean to the "real" world.

I'm reviewing the top 30 middle relievers from the fantasy world. Some offer superior strikeout numbers with a potentially dangerous ERA or WHIP level. Some give you three or four categories. Others are just waiting for the revolving door that is the closer role to start spinning.

30. Jon Rauch, Toronto

Rauch pitched well as one of the closing options in Joe Nathan's absence last season in Minnesota. The longtime set-up man had previously served as a closer with great success in Washington during the 2008 season. He then returned to middle relief in Arizona and struggled before joining the Twins in 2009. Rauch doesn't possess the closer "stuff" in terms of strikeout rate, but could serve in the role in a pinch.

29. Bobby Jenks, Boston

The former White Sox closer becomes an insurance card for the Red Sox this season. His ERA ballooned to a career-worst 4.44 last season, even though he cut down on his home runs allowed (declined from nine to three) and improved his strikeout rate.

He always makes things interesting and may cause Red Sox fans some heartburn this summer. But given the opportunity to close things out, Jenks is usually effective. Jenks converted 27-of-31 save opportunities last season.

28. Jesse Crain, Chicago White Sox

Crain posted a fine final season in Minnesota, registering his best ERA and WHIP numbers since 2005 (recording 3.04 and 1.18, respectively) with an improved strikeout rate (of 8.2 strikeouts per nine IP). Crain allowed seven hits per nine innings pitched in 2010.

27. Kerry Wood, Chicago Cubs

Wood becomes the latest pitcher to go home to his roots by rejoining the Cubs in 2011. He appeared in 24 games for the Yankees in 2010 following a dismal start to the season in Cleveland. Wood thrived in New York, generating a miniscule 0.69 ERA in 26 innings of work with an improved strikeout rate in line with his 2008 and 2009 efforts. The oft-injured veteran hurler opens the season in middle relief for Carlos Marmol.

26. Wilton Lopez, Houston

Following a dismal eight-game introduction to Houston in 2009, Lopez found a place in the bullpen for 2010. He pitched to a strong 2.96 ERA and demonstrated fantastic control. Lopez walked five batters and surrendered just five home runs in his 67 innings of work. His strikeout rate isn't overwhelming, but limiting free passes is a huge key to success in Minute Maid Park. Another look inside Lopez's numbers reveals one of the key components to his breakthrough. Lopez induced 1.3 groundballs per flyball allowed in 2010.

25. Joaquin Benoit, Detroit

Benoit was positively brilliant in his single season in Tampa Bay, generating a miniscule 1.34 ERA with a 0.68 WHIP. He struck out 75 batters while walking only 11. As Benoit was returning from rotator cuff surgery, those numbers are even more eye-popping.

Benoit was terrible as a starter for Texas, but seemed to find his way out of the bullpen. I don't anticipate a follow-up effort to match his 2010 totals, but owners can try to catch lighting in a bottle given his high-strikeout rate.

24. Hisanori Takahashi, Los Angeles Angels

Takahashi joins the Angels following a single season in New York. He pitched from the rotation and the bullpen last year, producing strong strikeout numbers while allowing a shade less than one hit per inning pitched. Takahashi's main issue in 2010 was his control. He walked 43 batters in his 122 innings pitched.

23. Mike Gonzalez, Baltimore

Gonzalez appeared in 29 games for the Orioles last season after being brought in as the presumed closer. He still struck out 31 batters in his 24 2/3 innings of work, but never got on track following early injuries. Gonzalez will help in the strikeout column, and may present solid ERA and WHIP totals if sound. That's long been the question for the 32-year-old reliever.

22. Matt Capps, Minnesota

Capps converted 42-of-48 save opportunities between Washington and Minnesota in 2010. He's on the radar to start the season in the closer role once again, but likely cedes the job to Joe Nathan in short order.

Capps' hit rate has always been problematic (allowing one per inning in his career), though he does well to offset that rate by cutting down on walks (permitting 1.8 per nine IP). He does not overpower hitters as we thought he might upon breaking through in Pittsburgh in 2006. Capps pitches to contact and has been able to negotiate that effectively through his career, with the exception of his 2009 struggles.

21. Scott Downs, Los Angeles Angels

Downs finished his extended run in Toronto with another strong season in middle relief. He pitched to a 2.64 ERA with a 0.99 WHIP, fueled by a low-hit rate (allowing 6.9 per nine IP). In fact, Downs has recorded an ERA of 2.64 or lower in three of his past four seasons while vastly improving his WHIP total from the early part of his career.

He moves to a better pitchers' park this season in Anaheim and won't face the juggernaut AL East lineups with regularity. That bodes well for three or four-category (he vultured five wins last season) production.

20. Darren O'Day, Texas

O'Day bounced around before settling in Texas. The 6-foot-4 righty appeared in 72 games last season and was unhittable in long stretches (allowing 6.2 hits per nine IP overall). He does not possess dominant strikeout punch (with 6.5 per nine IP) and his groundball-to-flyball ratio (0.65) leaves something to be desired. Still, he got the outs he needed en route to a dominant 2.03 ERA.

19. Rafael Betancourt, Colorado

Betancourt posted an intriguing stat line in 2010. He struck out 89 batters in 62 1/3 innings, allowed less than one hit per inning and allowed only eight walks. That would normally be enough to produce phenomenal ERA and WHIP marks. He did register a sub-1.00 WHIP (of 0.96), but Betancourt allowed nine home runs to boost his ERA to 3.61.

Still, it's had to overlook his strikeout production (more than one strikeout per inning pitched during his career). Just beware of flyballs sailing into the Denver night.

18. Tyler Clippard, Washington

Clippard has found his place in middle relief for the Nationals, producing superior strikeout numbers (recording 10.6 per nine IP) with a low hit rate (allowing 6.2 per nine IP) in the past two seasons. He also won 11 games out of the bullpen in 2010 (with four in 2009). It took awhile, but the former prospect in the Yankees organization has found his niche.

17. Takashi Saito, Milwaukee

The former closer for the Dodgers has rebuilt himself into a fine middle reliever in stints with the Red Sox and Braves. He'll now join the back-end of the Brewers bullpen to set up John Axford. Saito still strikes out batters in bunches (with 69 in 54 innings last season) and has allowed less than one hit per inning pitched in his five major league seasons (has a 1.02 composite WHIP).

16. Sergio Romo, San Francisco

Romo was a key, and often overlooked, component of the Giants' success in 2010. He appeared in 68 games, generating five wins, 21 holds and a smallish 2.18 ERA. Romo possesses closer-like strikeout punch (with 10.2 strikeouts per nine IP) and limits opposing batters to 6.7 hits per nine innings.

The lone hole is in his game is that Romo is a flyball pitcher. It portends to disastrous consequences (he allowed six home runs in 2010), although pitching in the expansive AT&T Park certainly helps to limit the damage.

15. Brian Fuentes, Oakland

The former Colorado and Los Angeles closer joins the A's as the set-up man for Andrew Bailey. Fuentes was quick to point out in his introduction to Oakland that Bailey stood alone in the closer role. Bailey owners might do well to handcuff Fuentes for their bench as injury insurance.

Fuentes pitched well in his final years in Colorado, reducing his ERA and WHIP numbers to more palatable levels before leaving for Anaheim. In his time with the Angels, Fuentes still presented strong save and strikeout totals, but his ERA and WHIP numbers regressed markedly. The spacious home park helps to negate his propensity to keep the ball up and allow flyballs.

14. Hong-Chi Kuo, Los Angeles Dodgers

Kuo has been a dominant middle reliever for the Dodgers in the past three seasons and served as a closer for a long spell last year during Jonathan Broxton's struggles. He has pitched to a composite 2.06 ERA in the past three years while averaging 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings.

13. Evan Meek, Pittsburgh

Joel Hanrahan is expected to open the season as the closer, but don't close the door on Meek altogether. He took a dramatic leap forward in production last season, pitching to a fantastic 2.14 ERA with a 1.05 WHIP. You merely need to look at the hit rate. Meek allowed 53 hits in 80 innings last season (with six per nine IP) while striking out 70 batters. His time will come very soon.

12. Koji Uehara, Baltimore

Uehara was in line to claim the closer role before the Orioles signed Kevin Gregg. Instead, owners will need to settle for his high-strikeout rate (11.3 per nine IP), strong ERA contribution (2.86) and outstanding WHIP (0.95) from middle relief. Uehara also struck out 11 batters per walk in 2010.

11. Mike Adams, San Diego

Adams has established himself as a fine middle reliever during the past three seasons in San Diego. He possesses great strikeout punch (with 10.2 per nine IP) and a low-hit rate, and takes full advantage of the spacious confines of PETCO Park. In Adams' three seasons of extended work, he's pitched to a stellar 1.81 ERA.

10. Jonny Venters, Atlanta

The 6-foot-3 lefty is most definitely a closer-in-waiting in the revamped and youthful Atlanta bullpen. Venters struck out 93 batters in 83 innings last season while limiting opponents to 61 hits (6.6 per nine IP). He also only allowed one home run. The lone part of his stat line that makes you take pause is his high-walk rate (4.2 per nine IP). I shan't complain when he's offering a 1.20 WHIP and sub-2.00 ERA.

9. Luke Gregerson, San Diego

Gregerson nearly replicated his 2009 season for the Padres last year. He registered a ridiculous total of 40 holds while matching his ERA and strikeout numbers. The difference in his overall game is that Gregerson dramatically reduced both his hit and walk rates to lower his WHIP to 0.83. Opposing batters have compiled an anemic .196 batting average against Gregerson in his two seasons in San Diego. The only blip on the radar from him last season is that he allowed eight home runs.

8. Jason Motte, St. Louis

Motte has yet to unseat Ryan Franklin for the closer role as many owners had anticipated prior to the 2009 season, but he did break through with a tremendous second full season in middle relief last year. He struck out one batter per inning pitched (with three strikeouts per walk) while allowing 7.1 hits per nine innings. Most importantly, Motte reduced his home run rate in half.

7. Ryan Madson, Philadelphia

Fantasy owners and some Phillies fans wait for the day that Madson receives an extended look in the closer role. In the interim, they'll ride it out with his high strikeout, and solid ERA and WHIP contributions. Madson had pitched well in his first three seasons out of the bullpen (his second stint followed a shot in the rotation in 2006). But he broke through with his best season in 2010 with a 2.55 ERA and 1.04 WHIP, fueled by a reduction in his hit rate.

The Phillies' winning ways have also provided owners with many victories out of the bullpen. Madson has vultured 15 wins in the past three seasons.

6. Clay Hensley, Florida

Hensley produced a breakthrough season for the Marlins in 2010 after shuttling between the rotation and bullpen for years in San Diego. He pitched to a fantastic 2.16 ERA, while averaging one strikeout per inning and a greatly reduced hit rate (6.5 per nine IP).

Hensley could challenge Leo Nunez for the closer role before all is said and done, but he'll serve owners nicely from the middle relief slot for ERA and WHIP help in a spacious home park.

5. Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati

Chapman, like Chris Sale, is a man whose 2011 destiny is fraught with questions. Is he a starter, a closer or does he toil in middle relief to get acclimated to Major League Baseball? Whatever the case, we know that Chapman possesses superior strikeout punch (with 125 in 95 2/3 minor-league innings). The main cause for concern, all fears about his arm in Dusty Baker's hands aside, is that Chapman is still learning to work the strike zone and pull back on the reins. He uncorked 14 wild pitches last season and walked 52 batters.

4. Octavio Dotel, Toronto

Dotel does not offer support to the ERA and WHIP categories as he did for the Astros in the early 2000s. However, he still posts a strong strikeout rate (10.5 per nine IP) and can close out a game when called to do so. Dotel serves as the first in line should Frank Francisco falter in his new home.

3. Rafael Soriano, New York Yankees

Soriano was hand-picked by Mariano Rivera to join the staff following a fine season as the closer in Tampa Bay. He pitched to a career-best 1.73 ERA with a dominant 0.80 WHIP (allowed 36 hits in 62 1/3 innings pitched).

Soriano strikes out one batter per inning and issues few walks. He's a welcome addition to the bullpen as the heir apparent for Rivera.

2. Daniel Bard, Boston

Bard intrigued owners with his huge strikeout total in 2009 (with 11.5 per nine IP). He didn't quite match that rate in 2010 (with 9.2 per nine IP), but Bard improved his game across the board. He pitched to a fantastic 1.93 WHIP and lowered his WHIP markedly because of a stingy hit rate. The 25-year-old reliever allowed just 5.4 hits per nine innings. The only cause for concern is Bard's walk rate (3.6 per nine IP in 2010). He's first in line should Jonathan Papelbon get hurt or extend his late-season slide from 2010.

1. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox

Sale is one of the most interesting players on the board for 2011. Is he a starter? Will he become the closer? I feel like I'm doing the voice-over work for the 70s sitcom "Soap."

Seriously, Sale will dominate from wherever he pitches on the staff in 2011. In 21 games last season, he struck out 32 batters in 23 innings pitched while allowing 15 hits (5.9 hits per nine IP). The sky is the limit for this 6-foot-6 southpaw. Did I mention that he was the first-round pick by the White Sox in 2010?

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