Now that we have made our way through the outfield and the infield (C, 1B, 2B, SS, 3B), it’s time to start looking at pitchers. First we’ll take a look at the almighty Closer, the shepherd of the Save.
Last season saw tremendous change in the Closer landscape. Joe Nathan, a top three lock at his position, never made it to Opening Day. Jonathan Broxton, another talent that seemingly no one had concerns about, had a nightmarish season.
At least a third, if not more like half, of the Save Studs heading into the 2011 Fantasy season were not the names we began 2010 with.
Rolling into 2011, there sit five guys, any one of which an argument can be made as the first closer off the board. After that you’ve got a group of guys who could be in the top five. Then you’ve got guys who are decent, guys you can live with. Finally you get down to cheap saves and fat ERAs. So let’s get all tiery-eyed, shall we?
- Heath Bell, SD ~ As last season began, the rumor mill was already abuzz that San Diego closer Bell would be gone by the All-Star break. Fortunately that never happened. I put this guy at the top of the heap because of his history. Each of the last three seasons we’ve seen his K’s go up and his ERA go down. In 2011 it was 1.93. He’s had six wins three seasons in a row, and last year he matched his career WHIP of 1.204. Bell gave up only 15 earned runs all season, and no one had a better Save conversion ratio than his 47 of 50 chances. He plays on a team that should be in a lot of close games in a pitcher-friendly park.
- Brian Wilson, SF ~ Wilson could be 1B to Bell’s 1A. Like Bell above, Wilson allowed only 15 ERs in 2010, his ERA and WHIP went down and his Ks went up. On top of that he led all pitchers with 48 saves, out of 53 opportunities. He had an ERA of 1.81 and a WHIP of 1.179. He should have another 40-plus save season, and his job security is solid.
- Joakim Soria, KC ~ Shall we call him 1C? Career ERA of two and a career WHIP under one. His K’s have gone up each of the last three seasons, and in that time he’s never surrendered more than 13 earned runs in a year. He had 43 saves on a weak team. No reason to expect anything less than 40 saves and a great ERA and WHIP this year either.
- Carlos Marmol, CHC ~ The league leader in strikeouts among closers with 138. He also had a WHIP of 1.185. Both are enough to allow me to overlook his 2.55 ERA. He should have about 35-plus saves again this year with nearly twice the Ks of all other closers.
- Mariano Rivera, NYY ~ Some have the legend at No. 1 this year. I can see that. He had a sub-2.00 era and over 30 saves last year. His WHIP was a paltry 0.83. But he is getting long in the tooth, and while I won’t bet against him, he is one small injury away from Rafael Soriano. You might remember him—he was third in the league in saves with 45 last year, a sub-2.00 ERA and only 12 earned runs allowed. I think even if Rivera stays healthy, we’ll see Soriano get some opportunities.
- Neftali Feliz, TEX ~ You could argue, and rightfully so, that Feliz belongs in the previous tier. He doesn’t quite make the cut in part because he’s prone to youthfully erratic play at times, and because the team is considering him for a rotation spot. I don’t see it happening in 2011, but it does cause some stability concerns.
- Joe Nathan, MIN ~ He was one of the most dominant closers in the game prior to his preseason 2010 injury, which led to Tommy John surgery. His prior six seasons he never had less than 36 saves or a WHIP over 1.019. Obviously there is some risk here, but the team is confident in him. Matt Capps waits in the wings, but Nathan should once again be a top-tier closer. I’ve seen him ranked as low as 19th among relievers, which means you could get a real bargain with him.
- Chris Perez, CLE ~ We knew it would happen sooner or later, and as soon as Kerry Wood was away from the Cuyahoga, Perez proved his mettle, notching 23 saves with a 1.71 ERA and 1.079 WHIP. Let people overpay for the big five above. I’ll target a guy who can dominate on a team likely to give him ample opportunities.
- Andrew Bailey, OAK ~ His team doesn’t give him nearly as many chances as you’d like to see for your closer, but he had 25 saves last year and surrendered only eight total runs all season. His ERA was a paltry 1.47 and his WHIP 0.959. His job is secure.
- Jonathan Papelbon, BOS ~ Papelbon had a good number of saves in 2010 (37 to be exact), but he allowed a surprising 29 earned runs, and his ERA ballooned to 3.90. He’s got Daniel Bard nipping at his heels and Bobby Jenks in the wings as well, so expect J-Pap to tighten it up this season.
- John Axford, MIL ~ Axford took over for Trevor Hoffman last season and converted 24 of 27 save opportunities. His ERA was a palatable 2.48, and his fastball was only slightly more impressive than his wicked mustache. Did I mention he also added eight wins?
- Jonathan Broxton, LAD ~ Boy, did I eat crow last season. I pegged Brox as the top closer overall in last year’s rankings, and oh what a meltdown he had. His second half was a closer’s nightmare, but the team never took his job away, which tells you how much faith they have in the guy. He could once again prove to be top five worthy, but he carries a lot of risk heading into 2011.
- Francisco Cordero, CIN ~ Talk about your ugly source of saves. Cordero was tied for fourth in 2010 with 40 saves, but his ERA approached 4.00. But he’s averaged 40 saves the last four years. A reminder that it doesn’t have to be pretty to count.
- J.J. Putz, ARI ~ This guy’s been on the edge of a closer gig for more seasons than I can count, and this year the Diamondbacks are going to give him the opportunity to become a true game stopper. I envision a 30 to 35-save season.
- Francisco Rodriguez, NYM ~ K-Rod’s saves were off last year, but I blame much of that on the poor play of the team. Look for an improved 2011 with 30-plus saves.
- Jose Valverde, DET ~ He likes to make it interesting, but he gets his saves and whiffs guys at a K per inning. His 40-plus save seasons appear to be behind him, but 25-30 are within reach.
- Brad Lidge, PHI ~ Lidge looked a lot more like the closer we once loved in fantasy last season after a horrifying 2009. Who will we get this season? He’ll get plenty of chances if he can stay healthy and focused.
- Matt Thornton, CHW ~ In limited action as a closer he converted eight of 10 chances and whiffed 81 guys in 60.2 innings with a sub-3.00 ERA.
- Drew Storen, WAS ~ In his limited opportunity Storen converted five of seven opportunities. He certainly didn’t give us much to go on, but we still think he’s a sleeper pick heading into 2011.
- Huston Street, COL ~ He missed time last season, limiting him to only 20 saves with a fat ERA. He should get closer to 30 this year and slim that ERA a bit.
- Joel Hanrahan, PIT ~ Manager Clint Hurdle announced last week that Hanrahan is his man in the ninth. Only Papelbon and Marmol had more K’s among relievers than Joel’s 100.
- Leo Nunez, FLA ~ He’s not making art out there on the mound, but he’ll get you 30 saves.
- Kevin Gregg, BAL ~ His ERA is never pretty, but regardless of what team he’s pitched for the last three seasons, he’s averaged 30 saves each year.
- Craig Kimbrel, ATL ~ This guy is another possible sleeper. Many think he’ll split the workload with Jonny Venters, who looked extremely sharp, but Venters is a lefty and better suited to the setup role. Still, watch them in spring training.
- Ryan Franklin, STL ~ 25 cheap saves.
- David Aardsma, SEA ~ This guy is like that 2 A.M. Coyote you banged. It felt good at the time, but you had nothing but regrets in the morning.
- Frank Francisco, TOR ~ He was brought in to close, but if he struggles, Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch are in the wings.
- Brandon Lyon, HOU ~ I’m not a fan of guys who use finesse instead of raw power in the ninth.
- Fernando Rodney, ANA ~ He converted only 66 percent of his save opportunities in 2010. He’s a heartbeat away from losing his job.
- Kyle Farnsworth, TB ~ At the moment the Closer job seems to be his, but that could change in an instant, so keep a close watch on the Rays situation. A trade is not out of the question.
10 more names to know
- Daniel Bard, BOS ~ If you own Papelbon, you know he has a short leash in 2011. Bard had three saves last season with a 1.00 WHIP, a 1.93 ERA and more than a K per inning. A guy who can help regardless of whether gets saves or not.
- Aroldis Chapman, CIN ~ Some guys are ranking him like he’s already got the closer’s job. He’s got the stuff, and he’s their closer of the future, but for now Cordero is still the guy.
- Hong-Chih Kuo, LAD ~ If Broxton doesn’t regain his dominance and with quickness this season, Kuo is waiting for his opportunity. He had 12 saves last season with a 1.20 ERA. If you have the bench, handcuff him to Broxton.
- Rafael Soriano, NYY ~ As I mentioned above, age or injury are the only things between Soriano and fantasy domination. His ERA and WHIP are worthy of consideration anyway.
- Jake McGee, TB ~ Kyle Farnsworth is likely to start the season at closer, but sooner or later McGee will get the nod. Our own Erik Annett thinks he’ll get the job straight out of camp, so keep a close eye this spring.
- Scott Downs, ANA ~ The way Rodney plays, there’s a real good chance the team is going Downs at some point.
- Evan Meek, PIT ~ Hurdle has given Hanrahan the gig, but the Meek shall inherit the save. Many thought he’d get the job this season, but despite a 2.04 ERA last season, he only converted 40 percent of his save opportunities.
- Koji Uehara, BAL ~ You seriously have to wonder what the Orioles were thinking when they took on Gregg’s bloated ERA. Koji has a much better ERA and K’s more than a batter an inning.
- Chris Sale, CHW ~ He converted all four of his save chances for the White Sox last season, and he’s a K machine. His era was 1.93. Thornton is not proven at closing, so keep this guy on your radar.
- Ryan Madson, PHI ~ If Lidge gets hurt or relives 2009, Madson will step in, and he’ll be a beast.
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