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Mound Musings: Ranking the 30 Closers

David Regan

David Regan is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner, including the 2015 Baseball Article of the Year.

I'll be off next week, as my travails through Dodger spring camp in Glendale, Ariz., will prevent me from filing this piece.

This week, we'll take a pass through my closer rankings. Because I like to approach things differently on occasion, we are going to view the 30 projected closers from a slightly unique angle. As I've often said, the pitchers I like most aren't always the ones that finished the prior year with the most wins or saves, or even the best ERA. Pitchers who miss bats and avoid walks will have success more often than not. With that in mind, let's rank the 30 closers in five tiers, assigning each a score on the scale of 2-10, 10 being the best.

Scores are derived as follows:

Sort the 30 closers in descending order by K/9IP. Award five points to pitchers in the top 6, four points to spots 7-12, all the way down to the bottom six, who were awarded one point.

Repeat the procedure with BB/9IP.

Add the points awarded and sort in descending order. The top six combined scores rank in Tier 1 with the bottom six ranking in Tier 5.

As you can see, the maximum score would be 10 points with the lowest possible score two points.

Hopefully, that all made sense. Here are the results:


1. Rafael Betancourt, COL
(K/9: 10.5; BB/9: 1.2) - Total score: 10
2. Jonathan Papelbon, PHI (K/9: 12.2; BB/9: 1.4) - Total score: 10
3. Mariano Rivera, NY-A (K/9: 8.8; BB/9: 1.2) - Total score: 8
4. J.J. Putz, AZ (K/9: 9.5; BB/9: 1.9) - Total score: 8
5. Ryan Madson, CIN (K/9: 9.2; BB/9: 2.4) - Total score: 8
6. Huston Street, SD (K/9: 8.5; BB/9: 1.4) - Total score: 7

Seeing the likes of Jonathan Papelbon and Mariano Rivera in Tier 1 isn't much of a surprise, but seeing Betancourt with a score of 10 underscores how underrated he is. All Rafael Betancourt did in the season's second half last year was post a 39:1 K:BB in 27 innings, and he comes to camp for the first time in his career with a stranglehold on his team's closer job.

J.J. Putz would have scored "10s" for his work in 2006-2007, but after some injuries, he's nearly regained the form he showed back then. David Hernandez is waiting in the wings should Putz get hurt again, but as long as Putz is 100 percent healthy, he should be considered a top-10 or even top-5 closer; as long as that elbow doesn't pop.

Huston Street is another with a checkered medical past, but as you can see by his placement in this tier, he was quite good when healthy last year. Now he gets to move to Petco Park where his flyball tendencies will play well and where it can be expected that the Padres will play a lot of close games - 40 saves is within reach as long as he can appear in 65 games or so.

Ryan Madson took a one-year deal in Cincinnati where he'll look to post big numbers and cash in on the open market. He never saved more than 10 games in a season until last year's 32, a number he should have little problem approaching in 2012. The excellent control and ability to generate plenty of groundballs with an excellent changeup will help him as he transitions to yet another hitters' park.


7. Joakim Soria, KC
(K/9: 9.0; BB/9: 2.5) - Total score: 7
8. John Axford, MIL (K/9: 10.5; BB/9: 3.1) - Total score: 7
9. Craig Kimbrel, ATL (K/9: 14.8; BB/9: 3.7) - Total score: 7
10. Kyle Farnsworth, TB (K/9: 8.0; BB/9: 1.9) - Total score: 6
11. Brandon League, SEA (K/9: 6.6; BB/9: 1.5) - Total score: 6
12. Joel Hanrahan, PIT (K/9: 8.0; BB/9: 2.1) - Total score: 6

It's surprising to see Craig Kimbrel fall to Tier 2, as I have him as my top-ranked closer, but the walk rate brings him down a bit on this list. Don't be surprised, though, if he took another step forward and clocked in with a 3.2 BB/9 this year. John Axford is another surprise, but some have elite control (Mariano Rivera) and some have average control (Axford). He should again have no problem holding off Francisco Rodriguez in his quest for the lion's share of the Milwaukee saves.

Joakim Soria had some struggles last year and can no longer be considered a lock to keep the job all year. He did finish the year with six consecutive scoreless innings, so perhaps he's righted the ship. If that's not the case or if the Royals decide his trade value is at its peak, look at Louis Coleman as a possible replacement.

Joel Hanrahan got it done again last year, though his strikeout rate has taken a dive recently. If healthy, Evan Meek would seemingly be next in line should Hanrahan get dealt, but Meek's health issues open the door potentially for the likes of Jason Grilli, Chris Resop and Chris Leroux.

Brandon League and Kyle Farnsworth clocked in with sub-2.0 walk rates, offsetting the so-so strikeout totals. Chance Ruffin and Joel Peralta wait in the wings for the Mariners and Rays, respectively, though I don't expect either League or Farnsworth to get dealt.


13. Jason Motte, STL
(K/9: 8.3; BB/9: 2.1) - Total score: 6
14. Drew Storen, WAS (K/9: 8.8; BB/9: 2.4) - Total score: 6
15. Andrew Bailey, BOS (K/9: 8.9; BB/9: 2.6) - Total score: 6
16. Joe Nathan, TEX (K/9: 8.7; BB/9: 2.8) - Total score: 6
17. Grant Balfour, OAK (K/9: 8.6; BB/9: 2.9) - Total score: 6
18. Sergio Santos, TOR (K/9: 13.1; BB/9: 4.1) - Total score: 6

With Tony La Russa retired, perhaps the Cardinals will go with a more traditional bullpen arrangement rather than spreading saves between multiple relievers. Lance Lynn I like long term, but expect Fernando Salas to be next in line should Jason Motte struggle, with Eduardo Sanchez yet another option behind Motte.

The Nationals still without a true center fielder, Drew Storen could be trade bait, leaving Tyler Clippard worthy of a pick in deeper leagues. The rest of this group also has questions.

Can Joe Nathan stay healthy, and if so, can he hold off the better pitcher in Mike Adams? Answer: Nathan allowed seven homers in 44.2 innings last year and now he gets to pitch in Texas. He's also 37, so I could see this year not ending well for him.

Can Andrew Bailey stay healthy and handle the pressure in Boston, and if not, is Mark Melancon a worthy replacement? Answer: I can't predict injuries, but Melancon racking up a dozen saves wouldn't surprise.

How will Sergio Santos fare in the NL East? Answer: he misses too many bats to not have success, but there will be some bumps.

When will Billy Beane trade Grant Balfour? Answer: as soon as he gets a solid offer. Brian Fuentes is next in line, but he could be dealt too. Next up: Joey Devine? Maybe, but I really like Fautino De Los Santos (11.61 K/9IP last season) as a sleeper for saves.


19. Jim Johnson, BAL
(K/9: 5.7; BB/9: 2.1) - Total score: 5
20. Matt Capps, MIN (K/9: 4.7; BB/9: 1.8) - Total score: 6
21. Jordan Walden, LA-A (K/9: 10.0; BB/9: 3.9) - Total score: 6
22. Frank Francisco, NY-N (K/9: 9.4; BB/9: 3.2) - Total score: 6
23. Carlos Marmol, CHI-N (K/9: 12.0; BB/9: 5.8) - Total score: 6
24. Jesse Crain, CHI-A (K/9: 9.6; BB/9: 4.3) - Total score: 5

A lot of contrast in this tier, with closes who don't strike out a lot of batters but have excellent control (Jim Johnson, Matt Capps) to closers who miss bats but also miss the strike zone frequently (that's you, Carlos Marmol). If you're looking to sell on any of these, here are six more names to consider:

Baltimore The Orioles have no obvious long-term answer at closer unless they decide to eventually transition the likes of Chris Tillman to the bullpen. Short term it has to be Matt Lindstrom, owner of 45 career saves.

Minnesota With that strikeout rate, Matt Capps could implode at any point this year. If that happens, the pitcher to own would be Glen Perkins. Perkins has taken to the bullpen in a big way, posting a 2.48 ERA and 65:21 K:BB in 61.2 innings a year ago with a fastball that averages 94 mph. With a weak Capps ahead of him, Perkins ranks highly on the list of non-closer relievers to own.

Los Angeles Jordan Walden is the most talented reliever on the roster, but he's also inexperienced. Should Walden falter at all this year, the Angels could turn to a Scott Downs/LaTroy Hawkins committee situation.

New York With a 2.62 ERA and 8.7 K/9 last year, Ramon Ramirez might be the most talented reliever on the roster. Assume he takes over should Frank Francisco implode or perhaps start tossing chairs into the stands again.

Chicago Cubs Perhaps the new Cubs regime will tire of Carlos Marmol's utter lack of control. If that happens, it might open the door for Kerry Wood. Wood could compete with Jeff Samardzija for the job, but the Cubs view Samardzija as a potential starter.

Chicago White Sox A hot name in fantasy circles is Addison Reed, the impressive rookie and owner of a 111:14 K:BB in 78.1 innings in the minors last year before an noteworthy September debut. Should Reed not be quite ready, Matt Thornton is next in line after Jesse Crain.


25. Brett Myers, HOU
(K/9: 6.7; BB/9: 2.4) - Total score: 4
26. Heath Bell, MIA (K/9: 7.3; BB/9: 3.0) - Total score: 4
27. Brian Wilson, SF (K/9: 8.8; BB/9: 5.1) - Total score: 4
28. Javy Guerra, LA-N (K/9: 7.3; BB/9: 3.5) - Total score: 3
29. Jose Valverde, DET (K/9: 8.6; BB/9: 4.2) - Total score: 3
30. Chris Perez, CLE (K/9: 5.9; BB/9: 3.9) - Total score: 2

I've written about Brett Myers in this space already, so we won't rehash that too much. Myers should eventually be traded, opening the closer role for Wilton Lopez, David Carpenter (the future?) or, gulp, Brandon Lyon. Lyon could get the job solely on experience, but with the Astros in line for 100 losses, they may look to Carpenter.

Heath Bell is the owner of 132 saves the last three years, so why the appearance in the bottom tier? Chalk it up to a K/9 that fell off the cliff from 11.1 to 7.3 last year while his walk rate remained average. Bell seems likely to rack up a ton of saves again, however, so figure he's a top-15 closer unless his component numbers take another dive. Should that happen, Steve Chisek appears to be next in line, though Edward Mujica may also be in the mix.

All Jose Valverde did last year was convert all 49 of his save opportunities, so it's unfair to rank him this low. That said, the K/9 rate dipped below 9.0 for the first time in his career, and he still walks far more than he should. This is also Valverde's age-34 season, so a big drop is possible. Should that happen, Joaquin Benoit is your guy.

The rest of teams in this group seem to have far better options slated for setup roles. For the Giants, it's Sergio Romo (1.50 ERA, 70:5 K:BB in 48 innings last year). In Los Angeles, Kenley Jansen is the all-time single-season record holder (minimum 50 innings) with a 16.1 K/9 last year. For the Indians, Vinnie Pestano is coming off a 2.32 ERA, 12.2 K/9 season.

Regan, a five-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner, was named the 2010 Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.

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