My annual reliever awards are pretty easy choices really:
NL Fireman of the Year: Craig Kimbrel, Braves
NL Rookie Reliever of the year: See above
NL Best Draft Day Value: See above, part deux
AL Fireman of the Year: Mariano Rivera, Yankees
AL Rookie Reliever of the year: Jordan Walden, Angels
AL Best Draft Day Value: Brandon League, Mariners
Last week, we looked at the top-100 starting pitchers for 2012. This week, we'll tackle the top-50 relievers. Of course, this list will change (many times) between now and Opening Day, but for now, here's a snapshot.
THE ELITE SIX
1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves (45 saves, 14.8 K/9, 3.5 BB/9) - When you consider the saves, the 124 strikeouts and the thought last spring that Jonny Venters could share/steal his job, Kimbrel has provided by far the most return on owners' investment. No reason not to expect strong sophomore season.
2. Mariano Rivera, Yankees (43 saves, 8.7 K/9, 1.1 BB/9) - One blip as usual, great numbers as usual and now he's the all-time saves leader. By now we can only forecast elite numbers, as he's an alien.
3. John Axford, Brewers (43 saves, 10.5 K/9, 3.2 BB/9) - He wasn't about to let Francisco Rodriguez take saves away from him. Safe to say the Brewers won't be shopping for a closer next year.
4. Heath Bell, Padres (40 saves, 7.1 K/9, 3.2 BB/9) - At this point, I expect Bell to return to the Padres, either by accepting arbitration or via a three-year deal. His K-rate has taken a big dip, but in that ballpark and the Padres playing a lot of close games, he should remain among the elite closers next season.
5. Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox (30 saves, 12.1 K/9, 1.5 BB/9) - Like Heath Bell, Papelbon is a free agent this winter, and like Bell, I expect he'll stick with his current team. Dan Bard would probably be a solid replacement, but he's struggled at times, and Bobby Jenks isn't much of a safety net.
6. Joel Hanrahan, Pirates (39 saves, 8.0 K/9, 2.0 BB/9) - Strikeouts are way off last year's double-digit K/9 rate, but he's still racking up tons of saves with a great ERA and WHIP.
7. Drew Storen, Nationals (40 saves, 8.7 K/9, 2.5 BB/9) - He could be in the top tier, but the worry is the team's willingness to deal him to a contender that could potentially use him as a setup man. Unlikely, so draft him with confidence.
8. Brian Wilson, Giants (35 saves, 8.9 K/9, 5.1 BB/9) - Injuries and a lack of control drop him down the list, but he's still young enough to rebound and be a top-5 closer.
9. Jose Valverde, Tigers (46 saves, 8.3 K/9, 4.4 BB/9) - A lot of saves and a lot of walks. He's seemingly set to return to Detroit next year, so expect more of the same.
10. Carlos Marmol, Cubs (34 saves, 11.9 K/9, 5.3 BB/9) - Has driven his walk-rate from astronomical to abnormally high, so that's nice. Still wouldn't be surprised to see him lose the job for a time next year, but he should get most of the Cubs' saves.
11. J.J. Putz, Diamondbacks (42 saves, 9.2 K/9, 2.0 BB/9) - He can't really do it again next year, can he?
12. Joakim Soria, Royals (28 saves, 9.0 K/9, 2.5 BB/9) - Lost his job to Aaron Crow and now has to compete with Greg Holland. A trade is possible, but expect to see him closing for the Royals for most/all of 2012.
13. Jordan Walden, Angels (31 saves, 10.1 K/9, 3.7 BB/9) - All in all a successful rookie season. Now just needs to be more consistent and confident in his fastball.
BORDERLINE SECOND-TIER CLOSERS
14. Jason Motte, Cardinals (7 saves, 8.1 K/9, 1.8 BB/9) - I think he'll close next year, but with the uncertainty between he and Fernando Salas, Motte drops a bit. He's been fantastic and I think there's room for growth in that K/9 rate.
15. Francisco Cordero, Reds (34 saves, 5.4 K/9, 2.3 BB/9) - Aroldis Chapman looms, but by all accounts, the Reds will bring back Cordero after a successful season. The good: his 2.3 BB/9 is the best mark of his career. The bad: he's 36 and his strikeout rate has dropped each of the last four seasons.
16. Brandon League, Mariners (36 saves, 6.8 K/9, 1.5 BB/9) - A godsend for the Mariners after David Aardsma's array of injuries, League has thrived in his first year as a closer. The strikeout rate is a little low, but he appears to be a safe bet to close next year given the lack of alternatives.
17. Chris Perez, Indians (35 saves, 5.9 K/9, 4.1 BB/9) - Not much to like here other than the 35 saves and the fact that he's still young. Perez will enter 2012 as the closer, but he's likely to be pushed by Vinny Pestano (more on him later) at some point.
18. Sergio Santos, White Sox (29 saves, 13.0 K/9, 3.9 BB/9) - Santos opened the season with 20 consecutive scoreless innings, but since – a 5.13 ERA in 40.1 innings. Santos, though, has nice peripherals and throws in the upper-90s, so he'll enter spring training as the overwhelming favorite to close. Chris Sale should return to the rotation next year, leaving Jesse Crain and Matt Thornton as backup options. Deep sleeper option: check out Addison Reed.
19. Andrew Bailey, Athletics (20 saves, 9.3 K/9, 2.6 BB/9) - Bailey is going to fail to top 50 innings for the second consecutive year, so he's getting downgraded significantly not based on skills but more on the added risk of his medical chart. His skills are still intact when healthy, but injuries and the possibility Brad Pitt ...err, Billy Beane ...will trade him to a contender with an established closer bumps him down this list.
20. Mark Melancon, Astros (19 saves, 7.9 K/9, 3.3 BB/9) - On the plus side, Melancon has little in the way of competition, and with the Astros in rebuilding mode, they aren't going to go spend on a high-priced free-agent closer. Melancon, though, has been shaky at times and is no lock to hold the job all year. More on his likely successor Wilton Lopez below.
21. Kenley Jansen, Dodgers (4 saves, 15.9 K/9, 4.4 BB/9) - When Jansen is on and throwing strikes, his stuff is right up there with the best in the game. I'm not sure whether this is a record, but in his last 10 appearances, Jansen has struck out at least two batters. If you raise an eyebrow at his walk rate, check out his last 8.1 innings – zero walks. It will be a spirited battle between Jansen and incumbent closer Javy Guerra next spring, but I'd lean toward Jansen based on pure stuff.
22. Neftali Feliz, Rangers (28 saves, 7.6 K/9, 4.3 BB/9) - All in all, it's been a disappointing season for Feliz, who hasn't seen his pure stuff translate to results. He has the potential to top 100 strikeouts, but command issues have prevented that from being a reality. At this point we don't know what role Feliz will have next year, but I'm leaning toward the Rangers using him as a starter.
23. Kyle Farnsworth, Rays (23 saves, 7.5 K/9, 1.7 BB/9) - Amazing what giving up the booze will do for a guy. Farnsworth blew his last two saves before going on the DL with an elbow injury, but it doesn't appear serious. He's under contract for one more year and should close next year.
24. Rafael Betancourt, Rockies (6 saves, 10.4 K/9, 1.2 BB/9) - Huston Street is paid more, but he's been hurt and Betancourt has come up huge for Colorado. He's expected to enter 2012 as the team's closer according to manager Jim Tracy.
25. Javy Guerra, Dodgers (19 saves, 7.4 K/9, 3.3 BB/9) - We touched on Guerra earlier, as though he's filled in admirably as the team's closer, Kenley Jansen's stuff is just plain filthy.
26. Leo Nunez, Marlins (36 saves, 7.8 K/9, 2.7 BB/9) - The saves are nice, but it's been far from smooth-sailing for Nunez this year, who once flirted to losing his job to Edward Mujica or Steve Chisek.
27. Joe Nathan, Twins (13 saves, 8.9 K/9, 2.8 BB/9) - I think he'll return on a one-year incentive-laden deal based on games finished. The numbers here are enough for me to project him as the team's 2012 closer, but yes, he's aging.
28. Mike Adams, Rangers (2 saves, 9.3 K/9, 1.8 BB/9) - With Neftali Feliz possibly moving to the rotation, Adams is the obvious in-house choice to close. The Rangers have payroll needs elsewhere (C.J. Wilson's free agency, Josh Hamilton's arbitration case, etc.) and are unlikely to spend big on a closer.
29. Francisco Rodriguez, Brewers (23 saves, 9.7 K/9, 3.3 BB/9) - He'll probably sign somewhere as a closer as long as a team doesn't mind the baggage that comes with him.
30. Ryan Madson, Phillies (31 saves, 8.9 K/9, 2.5 BB/9) - It will be very interesting to see whether Madson (free agent) is paid like a closer this winter. I can see a 3/20 type deal from a team that loses out on Jonathan Papelbon and Heath Bell.
31. Huston Street, Rockies (29 saves, 8.5 K/9, 1.4 BB/9) - The peripherals look great, but he's been hurt (again) and less effective than Rafael Betancourt. Look for Street to get shopped this winter.
32. Fernando Salas, Cardinals (24 saves, 8.9 K/9, 2.5 BB/9) - Could compete with Jason Motte for the closer role in spring training, but for now, he's second in the pecking order.
33. Frank Francisco, Blue Jays (16 saves, 9.4 K/9, 3.3 BB/9) - Decent ratios, but he'll be a free agent, so we don't have an idea as to his role just yet.
34. Luke Gregerson, Padres (0 saves, 5.6 K/9, 3.2 BB/9) - Leading candidate to close should Heath Bell wind up elsewhere next year.
35. Dan Bard, Red Sox (1 saves, 9.4 K/9, 2.7 BB/9) - 10 runs allowed in his last 5.1 innings, and it seems unlikely the Red Sox would turn the closer role over to him next year, Papelbon return or not.
36. Jonny Venters, Braves (5 saves, 9.9 K/9, 4.3 BB/9) - Limping to the finish a bit with seven runs in his last 11 innings. Should still be an elite setup man with the ability to approach 100 strikeouts.
37. Kevin Gregg, Orioles (20 saves, 8.1 K/9, 6.4 BB/9) - He's under contract, so in theory Gregg could be the team's closer next year.
38. Jim Johnson, Orioles (8 saves, 5.8 K/9, 2.0 BB/9) - Current closer, but reportedly the Orioles are looking to move him to the rotation given the struggles of starters like Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman. Troy Patton and Pedro Strop are potential sleepers, but it's possible the team's 2012 closer is not yet on the roster.
39. Sergio Romo, Giants (1 saves, 12.5 K/9, 1.0 BB/9) - Elite numbers, but missed time due to an elbow injury. If Brian Wilson gets hurt again in 2012, Romo could be a top-10 closer immediately.
40. Bobby Parnell, Mets (5 saves, 10.0 K/9, 4.5 BB/9) - Probably still the leading in-house 2012 closer candidate, but that role is very much up for grabs.
41. Sean Marshall, Cubs (5 saves, 9.4 K/9, 2.1 BB/9) - A top lefty setup man, Marshall has the goods to close, but Carlos Marmol will again get first crack at the gig.
42. Greg Holland, Royals (3 saves, 10.9 K/9, 2.8 BB/9) - 97:29 K:BB in 79.1 innings between Triple-A and the Royals, with 70 of those K's coming at the big-league level. He may be the team's closer of the future, but when that future comes is the question.
43. Tyler Clippard, Nationals (0 saves, 10.8 K/9, 2.7 BB/9) - Elite setup man will provide Drew Storen insurance. Handcuff him to Storen in NL-only leagues as a hedge against a potential trade or sophomore slump.
44. David Hernandez, Diamondbacks (11 saves, 9.6 K/9, 4.1 BB/9) - Too many walks, but could be a future closer given J.J. Putz has just one year left on his contract.
45. Antonio Bastardo, Phillies (8 saves, 10.8 K/9, 3.9 BB/9) - Ranked here for the strikeouts and a few potential save poaches, but it's unlikely we'll see him as a full-time closer.
46. Joel Peralta, Rays (5 saves, 8.2 K/9, 2.5 BB/9) - Insurance in case Kyle Farnsworth regresses, but look at Jacob McGee as a future option as well.
47. Jon Rauch, Blue Jays (11 saves, 6.2 K/9, 2.4 BB/9) - He's an uninspiring closer who may or may not return to Toronto (team option), but former closers always seem to get the occasional closer stint based not on merit, but on "experience."
48. Casey Janssen, Blue Jays (2 saves, 8.3 K/9, 2.4 BB/9) - No word on Janssen being considered for the 2012 closer gig, but the numbers suggest he could be an option.
49. Matt Capps, Twins (15 saves, 4.6 K/9, 1.7 BB/9) - He'll get another one-year deal at a drastically reduced rate, but Capps getting more than a handful of saves the rest of his career would be a surprise.
50. Brian Fuentes, Athletics (12 saves, 6.3 K/9, 3.2 BB/9) – Could close if Andrew Bailey departs or gets hurt. Grant Balfour would be another option, but Fuentes has that "experience."
Regan, a four-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner, was named the 2010 Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.
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