Of the 30 closers projected to have the ninth-inning role for their respective clubs this time a year ago, eight failed to hold the job for most - if not all of the season. That group included: Joe Nathan (Tommy John), Brian Fuentes (traded), Trevor Hoffman (ineffective), Mike Gonzalez (injuries), Frank Francisco (ineffective), Kerry Wood (injuries/traded), Chad Qualls (ineffective/traded) and Octavio Dotel (traded).
There are a few common themes.
1. Small paychecks - It wasn't as much of a factor last season, but worth noting that most of the ineffective closers last season (Hoffman being an exception) had smaller paychecks than most of the other closers on this list. It's much more difficult for a team to pull the plug on a struggling closer when he's making $8-12M than it is if he's below say, $3M.
2. Limited experience in the closer's role - Dotel (83), Gonzalez (54) and Francisco (30) all had fewer than 100 career saves. Managers generally trust closers who have done it for a long time, so limited experience can lead to a quicker replacement when things go wrong.
3. Bad teams - The D-Backs, Indians, Pirates and Orioles all finished the 2009 season with 70 or fewer wins. The idea that "a closer is a luxury on a bad team" has become very common. In many cases, closers are dealt at the trade deadline in July into situations where they have to work out of a setup role for a contender.
The key to survival is simple: Weigh upside and draft-day cost against the risk appropriately and you're less likely to be scrambling for saves all season long. Using ADP data from Mock Draft Central, we're going to break down the investment cost against the potential risks and rewards.
In the table below, the following unfamiliar data is included. "Sec" or job security, the approximate likelihood of a player being his team's closer over the course of the entire season. ADP - average draft position for the two-week period prior to the original writing of this article in mid-February. Salary (in millions) for the 2011 season. FbV - average fastball velocity from 2010. K09 - 2009 K/9IP, BB09 - 2009 BB/9IP, cSV - career saves, cOP - career opportunities, cConv - career success rate, EXP - percentage of career saves recorded in 2010, and svP10 - number of career saves before the 2010 season.
Just as we did in this space last season, we'll use ADP to create tiered rankings in order to get a better feel for value within the pool of relievers.
-- Mariano Rivera, NYY, 59.8
-- Joakim Soria, KAN, 69.8
-- Brian Wilson, SFG, 76.2
-- Heath Bell, SD, 80.8
It should come as little surprise that Rivera remains the most highly coveted closer on the draft board, as his consistency and durability continue to impress. Last season, his strikeout rate dipped to 6.8 K/9IP, ending a streak of three straight seasons where he was above the 9.0 mark. That regression may not be permanent, however, as Rivera experienced a similar dip (6.6 K/9IP) in 2006 before the aforementioned run. Further, he had a 33:6 K:BB in 34.1 innings prior to the All-Star break and a 12:5 K:BB in 25.2 innings in the second half, and it's worth noting that Rivera elected to skip the All-Star Game last season with injuries to his left side and right knee. Ultimately, that could explain the weaker second-half numbers.
Compared to the closers on this list with 100 career save opportunities, Soria ranks second only to Rivera in conversion percentage (132-for-145, 91.0%). The Royals' offense is probably still a year away from the everyday presence of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, which should continue to afford him with plenty of tight games to close out. As far as trade concerns go, the Royals have club options on Soria through 2014 at $6M, $8M and $8.75M. Soria also has a limited no-trade clause that blocks deals to the Yankees, Tigers, Red Sox, Phillies, Cards and Cubs, so it's very unlikely that he would be moved to a team where he'd become a setup man.
You have to love the trends with Wilson. His 2008-10 strikeout rate has incrementally improved while his walk rate has dropped during that same span. Closing games for the defending World Series champs has ensured that he's no longer flying under the radar as the ADP now reflects his status as a top-five closer.
Somehow, Bell still feels undervalued. Sure, there is always the concern that the Padres will try to flip him for prospects as they continue their rebuilding effort, but we're approaching a point where he's probably good enough to close for all but a handful of teams in the league at this time. Philly fans would undoubtedly seem him as an upgrade to Brad Lidge, but there are other situations with uncertainty in the ninth inning. Ultimately, the slim chances of Bell getting forced into a partial season as a $7.5M setup man have prevented him from pushing Soria and Wilson as the second closer off the board in most drafts.
-- Carlos Marmol, CHC, 95.5
-- Neftali Feliz, TEX, 113.8
-- Jonathan Papelbon, BOS, 126.6
The protection in terms of Marmol's contract comes in 2012 and 2013 when his salary jumps from $3.2M to $7M and $9.8M. At those prices, he'll really have to fail as the Cubs' closer in order to lose the job, so his job security is higher than it would be if he were still going year-to-year with his contract through arbitration. There may not be a more difficult pitcher to hit in the game right now, and Marmol's 16.0 K/9IP almost certainly pushed a few owners up in the standings with the 138 strikeouts he delivered over 77.2 innings. As always, walks are a concern (6.0 BB/9IP was an improvement from 2009, however) and his heavy workload over the last five seasons (385.1 IP, 77 IP/yr) may eventually catch up to him.
According to FanGraphs, Feliz had the second best fastball among all relievers in baseball last season. His curveball was one of the best in the league as well, and the Rangers are carefully weighing their options with him as they try to replace Cliff Lee in their rotation this season. In fact, it appears as though the Rangers are beginning to lean that way as they clearly understand that 175-200 IP from Feliz this season would be much more valuable than 70-75. With this ADP, he'd be slightly overpriced as a starter, but he's got the tools to succeed and is changeup refinement away from becoming a legitimate big league ace. If the Rangers convert him this spring, Alexi Ogando and Mark Lowe become the best short-term options to close, although prospect Tanner Scheppers could be a long-term sleeper for the role as well.
Papelbon is seeking a lucrative long-term deal in free agency at season's end, so 2011 will almost certainly be his final season in Boston with Bobby Jenks and Dan Bard around to eventually move into the ninth inning. Looking more closely at his numbers from a "disappointing" 2010, Papelbon did not lose any velocity on his fastball and he still maintained a K/9IP north of the 10.0 mark. He's a good bounce-back candidate and at his current ADP, a nice value given his chances of being a top-five closer at season's end.
-- Jose Valverde, DET, 143.0
-- Francisco Rodriguez, NYM, 144.4
-- Andrew Bailey, OAK, 147.5
-- J.J. Putz, ARI, 148.0
What happened to Valverde in the second half? Valverde was having a career year until the All-Star break came, carrying a 0.92 ERA and 0.821 WHIP over 39 innings. Perhaps his entire season was just a byproduct of random variance - instead of mixing six or seven bad appearances evenly throughout the six-month slate, he had them all in a span of eight weeks. Valverde also suffered an illness, abdominal strain, and tenderness around his pitching elbow during the final two-plus months of the season. Fortunately, none of those injuries are expected to be an issue for him looking ahead. His three-year averages - 2.86 ERA, 1.143 WHIP, 67:25 K:BB and 31 saves - suggest that he's one of the most consistent closers you'll find and job security shouldn't be a concern for him either.
More attention has been paid to Rodriguez's altercation with his girlfriend's father last August than his actual on-field performance. Year 2 in New York was once of his better seasons as a closer as his 3.3 BB/9IP was the lowest of his career and he still continues to miss bats at a very good clip (10.5 K/9IP). The Mets' starting rotation is weak, and the bridge to him in the bullpen isn't great either, so the biggest concern here will be save chances. In order to make the Mets' 2012 option ($17.5M) on his contract a guaranteed one, Rodriguez will have to finish 55 games in 2011. Don't count on that, but that avoiding the limit should still put him within reach of another 30-35 saves.
Injuries limited Bailey to just 28 save chances last season as he missed time with an oblique/back injury and was shut down early for the season in September with an elbow injury that eventually required a cleanup. With a good starting rotation and an improved offense, Bailey should get more chances - health permitting - as the bridge to the ninth inning has been rebuilt by general manager Billy Beane as well. The greatest concern now is competition, as Brian Fuentes is on the books for $5M/yr through 2012 and the A's could anoint him the new closer if Bailey misses more time. We'll chalk up the lost strikeouts (down to 7.7 K/9IP from 9.8 in 2009) to the injuries as his control actually took a small step forward last season.
Putz was a top-five closer during his time with the Mariners, but injuries derailed his final season in Seattle and his only one with the Mets in 2009. He fully rebounded with the White Sox last season, serving as a setup man for Bobby Jenks and Matt Thornton and pushing his strikeout rate back to 10.8 K/9IP. Further, he was able to cut back on the free passes after his control seemed to elude him in 2008 and 2009, and it now appears as though he'll reclaim his place among the league's better ninth-inning options.
-- Huston Street, COL, 152.3
-- Chris Perez, CLE, 164.5
-- John Axford, MIL, 169.5
-- Jonathan Broxton, LAD, 174.7
Street battled injuries again in 2010, after teasing fantasy owners by staying healthy for 127 appearances in the previous two campaigns. Still, you have to like the productivity when he's been on the mound. Over the last three seasons, Street has compiled a 3.47 ERA, 1.056 WHIP and a 9.2 K/9IP. His flyball tendencies at Coors and the long balls he'll cough up at Coors are the only "weakness" in his skill set. Because he broke into the big leagues as a 21-year-old with the A's in 2005, it's overlooked that he's still just 27 years old. Don't worry about the acquisition of Matt Lindstrom - he's not competition for Street's job, just a volatile insurance policy. If he would have made 60 appearances last season, there's a good chance Street would be coming off the board 50 picks sooner. Buy in.
Perez took over the closer's role permanently after Kerry Wood was traded to the Yankees at the deadline last season. The transition was a smooth one, and it actually started at the beginning of the season when Wood was on the DL. Plagued by control issues earlier in his career, Perez trimmed his BB/9IP from 5.7 in 2009 to 4.0 last season. He still has some work to do before completely solidifying his place as a top-15 closer, but one of the benefits of owning Perez is that the Indians don't have a veteran option with that "proven" label lurking to take away the job if he struggles.
Last season, it was believed that Trevor Hoffman was a "safe" closer even with diminishing skills because the Brewers simply didn't have anyone else ready to take over the job. Axford is proof that the closer's role is more about getting an opportunity than anything else. As you'll notice in the table above, few can match Axford's average fastball velocity (94.9 mph) and his 11.8 K/9IP was elite. Axford has to miss bats an elite clip to overcome his walk rate (4.2 BB/9IP) and control has been an issue throughout his professional and collegiate career. This time around, the Brewers have an established veteran fallback option in Takashi Saito, but Axford will need to go through a long stretch of turbulent outings in order to lose the job.
Remember this time last year when Broxton was in the first tier? Everything was going according to plan until former Dodgers manager Joe Torre took the concept of closer abuse to an entirely new level. Torre let him throw 48 pitches against the Yankees in late June (following a stretch of four appearances in five days) and Broxton just wasn't the same after that. Prior to that outing, Broxton had a 49:7 K:BB in 33.2 innings while going 16-for-18 in save opportunities. Unless there's a previously unreported injury in play here, he's an outstanding bounce-back candidate and is worth gambling on well before his current ADP.
-- Drew Storen, WAS, 202.2
-- Brad Lidge, PHI, 208.0
-- Francisco Cordero, CIN, 212.2
The Nats' "other" first-round pick in 2009, Storen was called up for good in May and went on to deliver good overall numbers over 54 appearances out of the Nats' bullpen in his rookie season. In addition to a 52:22 K:BB in 55.1 innings, Storen secured 5-of-7 save opportunities during the final two months of the regular season and he's in position to handle that role full time heading into the season. The lack of experience could ultimately give him a short leash if he struggles out of the gates, which could open up opportunities for the likes of Tyler Clippard or Henry Rodriguez, but Storen was a closer at Stanford in college and is the best bet to secure the role in the long run.
If you're into loyalty ... Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has been very consistent in his support of Lidge throughout the last two seasons. Even after a disastrous 2009 season (7.21 ERA), Lidge received 32 save opportunities in 2010 and converted 27 of them. He still walks too many batters (4.8 BB/9IP over the last three seasons), but that's been the story for the last five years now. He should be as healthy as ever entering 2011, finally going into a season without having to rehab back from offseason surgery, and there's actually reason to think he's got another good strikeout-per-inning, 35-save season left in him.
Cordero is entering the final year of a four-year, $46 million deal with the Reds and it's safe to say that he won't be cashing in with a similar deal again on the open market at season's end regardless of how things turn out in 2011. Since signing with the Reds after his dominant 2007 in Milwaukee (86:18 K:BB in 63.1), Cordero's strikeout rate has tumbled in each of the last three seasons in Cincinnati, bottoming out at 7.3 K/9IP last season and his control has regressed to a three-year mark of 4.4 BB/9IP. Aroldis Chapman is lurking as a potential replacement, but the Reds are considered to be the favorites in the NL Central this season as Dusty Baker's loyalty to veterans could certainly work in Cordero's favor if he's motivated and able to regain something resembling his last walk year with the Brewers.
-- Ryan Franklin, STL, 233.7
-- Matt Thornton, CHW, 237.7
-- David Aardsma, SEA, 242.8
-- Joe Nathan, MIN, 244.2
This isn't supposed to happen. Franklin has a career 5.0 K/9IP, but he converted 93 percent of his save opportunities for manager Tony La Russa last season and his ability to limit his walks and keep the ball in the park make him a passable ninth-inning option. Already 38, it seems likely that he'll reach a point where he's no longer able to hit his spots and his mediocre stuff will get hit. Jason Motte seems like the best bet as far as insurance goes, but considering Franklin's hold on the job over the better part of three seasons, it's becoming clear that La Russa doesn't necessarily think a hard-throwing closer is a necessity.
Thornton has been one of the most consistent setup options in baseball over the last three seasons with 205 appearances out of the White Sox's bullpen with a 2.70 ERA during that span. His fastball has graded out as the best in the league (according to Fangraphs) and Thornton may finally be in line to handle the closer's role with Bobby Jenks now in Boston. In addition to missing plenty of bats (10.9 K/9IP since 2008), Thornton has good control (2.6 BB/9IP) and does a good job limiting the long ball despite working in a very hitter-friendly home park. Chris Sale could be a threat in the short term to take away save chances, but it's believed that he'll eventually be moved into the rotation and Thornton's recent two-year, $12 million contract extension could very well be a sign that it's going to be his job in the ninth inning for the next few seasons.
Aardsma's return from hip surgery has been very slow this spring as he hasn't been cleared to throw after having the operation in early January. Previous timetables suggested a mid-April return, but that's certainly not going to happen and the Mariners haven't even gone as far as to update just how long they expect to be without their closer. At this price, he's one to avoid because the absence could linger on into May or even June. Brandon League is expected to handle the save opportunities while Aardsma is unavailable, while blast from the past Chris Ray could enter the mix as well.
Nathan is returning from Tommy John surgery, but everything is in line to this point for him to be ready for Opening Day. Considering that he was able to make his Grapefruit League debut on March 1, and that Nathan's velocity has been encouraging this spring, he may not need long to take the closer's role back from Matt Capps. Even if he's not initially available to close on back-to-back days, Nathan could follow an arc similar to that of Billy Wagner with the Braves last season. Wagner returned from Tommy John surgery late in 2009 and was very effective as the ninth-inning option in Atlanta last season before opting to retire.
-- Fernando Rodney, LAA, 256.1
-- Craig Kimbrel, ATL, 266.2
-- Joel Hanrahan, PIT, 275.9
-- Kevin Gregg, BAL, 277.1
At this stage, you might as well be standing at a roulette wheel on the Las Vegas Strip, crossing your fingers that the ratios aren't bad and that you're able to secure cheap saves from one of these options. Rodney is the early favorite to open the year as the Angels' closer, but that's not even a guarantee and there are plenty of interesting alternatives should Mike Scioscia find himself uncomfortable with Rodney's skill set. Don't be tempted by the 37-save season he had with the Tigers in 2009, Rodney's three-year averages are a much better reflection of the risk you're taking in owning him - 4.40 ERA, 1.516 WHIP - and the Angels proved for the last season and a half that they're not against using a left-hander in the ninth, so free-agent addition Scott Downs could overtake him before Opening Day.
In a perfect world, Billy Wagner would have pitched one more season for the Braves and given the organization another year to develop Kimbrel as his replacement. Unfortunately for Atlanta, Wagner is already out of the picture and now the 22-year-old is the favorite to handle the job this season. Manager Fredi Gonzalez suggested at the possibility of using co-closers, however, which would give the Braves flexibility because they could use Kimbrel in tandem with left-hander Jonny Venters. You might recall a similar arrangement under Bobby Cox a few seasons back when Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez shared the duties (Soriano had 27 saves while the left-handed Gonzalez collected 10). Kimbrel has been brought through the minor league system as a closer and his strikeout rate has been excellent including a 17.4 K/9IP in 20.2 innings with the Braves last season. Control is a concern, but Kimbrel has drawn comparisons to a young Brad Lidge (the late-20s version).
Prior to the start of spring training, it appeared as though Hanrahan would have to battle Evan Meek for the opportunity to serve as the Pirates' closer to begin the season. Instead, manager Clint Hurdle named Hanrahan the closer on the heels of his breakout 2010 (12.9 K/9IP, 3.4 BB/9IP). If you punted on saves to this point, Hanrahan is a good late investment because of the improved control and his reliable double-digit strikeout rate (10.3) over 269 MLB innings. The greatest concern here is that Hanrahan could easily be dealt to a contender midseason and wind up getting moved right back into a setup role as he's only commanding a $1.4 million salary and there's little financial incentive for the acquiring team to think of him as an upgrade to their ninth-inning situation.
Koji Uehara seemingly had a chance to become the Orioles' primary closer, but the addition of Gregg in January was an early reminder of Uehara's durability concerns and sure enough, he was shut down in early March with soreness in his pitching elbow that quickly resulted in a cortisone shot. Gregg can miss bats, but he also has issues locating his pitches and keeping the ball in the park. Because he's hittable and he gives out a decent number of free passes, Gregg is typically a liability in the WHIP department. The Orioles are the fourth team in as many seasons to make him a closer, but he's averaged 22 saves per year since 2008 despite concerns about his job security on a yearly basis. Once again, he comes with a "use with caution" label.
-- Frank Francisco, TOR, 297.0
-- Brandon Lyon, HOU, 307.7
-- Leo Nunez, FLA, 378.0
-- Jacob McGee, TAM, 390.3
Without Francisco's early-season struggles, Neftali Feliz may have had a more difficult time seizing the AL Rookie of the Year Award last season. Entering 2011, and he's getting another opportunity as a closer, this time on a Toronto club that has plenty of alternatives with varying degrees of experience in the role including Octavio Dotel, Jon Rauch and Jason Frasor. Francisco has steadily provided a double-digit K/9IP in each of the last three seasons, while his walk rate has actually been quietly improved over the last two campaigns (2.7 and 3.1 BB/9IP). The Blue Jays quickly flipped Michael Napoli to Texas in exchange for Francisco this winter when they already had the aforementioned trio at their disposal, so perhaps he'll finally settle in as a closer permanently for his new club.
Much like Ryan Franklin, Lyon chugs along without a high strikeout rate, relying on his ability to keep the ball in the yard and average control to get outs. It's hard to look past his 91 percent success rate from last season when he locked up 20 of his 22 save opportunities. The Astros don't have much in alternatives at the ready, especially after the trade of Matt Lindstrom to Colorado in the Clint Barmes deal. If you can deal with the limited whiffs (6.4 K/9IP 2008-10), you may actually be rewarded with 15-20 saves from an endgame investment. Mark Melancon, acquired from the Yankees in the Lance Berkman deal last summer, is a sleeper to eventually take over the role should Lyon struggle or suffer an injury.
In addition to reaching the 30-save mark for the first time in his career last season, Nunez increased his strikeout rate to a career-high 9.8 K/9IP and shaves his walk rate down to 2.9 BB/9IP. Further, he kept the ball in the park more consistently, giving up just five homers in 65 innings last season after allowing 13 in 68.2 innings in 2009. As is often the case with Marlins closers, Nunez could eventually become too expensive for the payroll, but he's got one more year of arbitration eligibility after collecting $3.65 million in 2011. Clay Hensley will be the primary setup option (and fallback for the ninth) after going 7-for-7 in save chances down the stretch last season, but it's Nunez's job to lose.
Has anybody seen Al Reyes? The Rays lost closer Rafael Soriano to the Yankees in free agency and they haven't announced their plans regarding a replacement. Instead, it's a guessing game as to who they'll give the ball to in the ninth inning this season with McGee leading a list that includes Kyle Farnsworth, Adam Russell, Joel Peralta, J.P. Howell, and perhaps even Juan Cruz. In addition to being left-handed, McGee is in experienced and the Rays may be reluctant to thrust him into a high-pressure role right out of the gate. Still, his conversion to the bullpen went very well at Triple-A last season where he delivered a 14.2 K/9IP and 1.6 BB/9IP over 17.1 innings. Skills wise, he's the candidate with the most upside in the competition, but the Rays have evolved into one of the smarter organization's in baseball and it could wind up being an acquisition like Russell who gets the job.
1. Joe Nathan (244.2) - I'm just not afraid of relievers in Year 1 back from Tommy John surgery.
2. Matt Thornton (237.7) - Really sticking to my guns that Chris Sale won't leapfrog him.
3. Joel Hanrahan (275.9) - Only concern is midseason trade; Bucs have blueprint for flipping closers.
4. Jonathan Broxton (174.7) - Convinced Torre broke him in late June. Skills are still there.
5. Leo Nunez (378.0) - Love K/9IP increase and not overly impressed by Clay Hensley.
1. Ryan Franklin (233.7) - Just doesn't miss enough bats for long-term success. Far too risky.
2. Andrew Bailey (147.5) - Elbow issues + more proven alternatives on the roster now.
3. John Axford (169.5) - Look at the control trouble he's had throughout his career at levels.
4. Drew Storen (202.2) - Love him in the long run, think the Nats could baby him in Year 2 though.
5. David Aardsma (242.8) - Mariners have no timetable for him to throw again, out until June/July?
1. Carlos Marmol (95.5) - The extra K's are wonderful, but 6.0 BB/9IP terrifies me at this price.
2. Ryan Franklin (233.7) - Would rather gamble on Motte or even Mitchell Boggs in deeper leagues.
3. Fernando Rodney (256.1) - This one is obvious. May be replaced before Opening Day.