MLB Closers: Power Ranking All 16 National League Closers

Conner BoydCorrespondent IDecember 24, 2011

MLB Closers: Power Ranking All 16 National League Closers

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    Closing a baseball game is one of the most difficult jobs in sports. It requires a pitcher to come into a stressful situation, with every eye in the stadium anxiously watching every pitch. Closers are under extreme scrutiny, and a cold streak for a closer directly translates to losing games. 

    Pitchers who wish to close must have a special mentality. They must be able to separate themselves from the stress and the noise and mannerisms of the crowds they are pitching in front of to be successful.

    Keeping all of that in mind, none of these 16 pitchers are "bad." This is a list I've had an incredibly difficult time compiling.

16: Brandon Lyon, Houston Astros

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    2011 Stats: 13.1 IP, 11.48 ERA, 6 K, 4 SV, 4 BLSV

    Why He's Here:

    This is really not even close, and pretty much the only spot that I thought was easy to fill. Lyon is by no means the definite closer heading into 2012, but he is the leading candidate.

    Lyon didn't have a pretty season in 2011. He was sidelined for most of the season with an injury, and when he did pitch, he didn't pitch well. Lyon holds 78 career saves, and his career ERA is much lower at 4.22, but that's still high for a closer.

    Houston doesn't have a lot of hope this year, and even if Lyon is the closer in 2012, chances are he won't get many chances to save a game.

15: Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs

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    2011 Stats: 74.0 IP, 4.01 ERA, 99 K, 34 SV, 10 BLSV

    Why He's Here:

    There is obviously a big jump up from Lyon to Marmol. The reason Marmol is so low is because he didn't seem to do well under the pressure of being a closer in Chicago last year. 

    Wrigley Field is notorious for being friendly to the hitter, and perhaps that partly contributed to his lackluster 2011 campaign. Marmol also walks a ton of batters, having an alarming BB/9 of 5.8 last year.

    Marmol misses plenty of bats, and there's no doubt that he can pitch, but he needs to get his arm under control.

    Ten blown saves is simply unacceptable as a full-time closer, and Marmol is going to have to do a better job than that if he wants to keep closing in Chicago.

14: Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds

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    2011 Stats: 50.0 IP, 3.60 ERA, 71 K, 1 SV, 2 BLSV

    Why He's Here:

    Chapman is a lot like Marmol, and truthfully the two are interchangeable on this list.

    Chapman has a cannon of an arm, regularly registering pitches in the triple digits. Unfortunately for Chapman (and the Reds), last year it was feast or famine.

    He pretty much either struck a batter out with his ridiculous heat, or he walked the batter. And then another. And then another. His BB/9 of 7.4 is simply not good enough if he wants to pitch in the big leagues, much less close or start.

    Chapman is not the surefire closer for the Reds... a lot of people seem to think he might start. I definitely think he has a better chance of closing, just to give him another year in the bullpen to see if he can get some control. Chapman fits the profile of a closer better than a starter anyway.

    He has a ton of potential, and it's hard to give up on anyone who can throw as hard as him. It will be interesting to see if he can start to control his pitches better... if he does, he could be one of the best closers (or starters) in the game.

13: Frank Francisco, New York Mets

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    2011 Stats: 50.2 IP, 3.86 ERA, 53 K's, 17 SV, 4 BLSV

    Why He's Here:

    Francisco is a pretty good pitcher. He has a nice (albeit straight) fastball in the upper-90's, and he did a good job setting up, and eventually saving for Toronto in 2011.

    The biggest problem is that he gives up a lot of hits and home runs. This is probably due to his straight fastball, and the fact that he has pitched in hitter-friendly parks his entire career (with the Rangers and the Jays).

    He's this low on the list because he simply doesn't have a whole lot of experience closing, he has never pitched full-time in the National League, and like Lyon with the Astros, is going to be closing on what will probably be a horrible Mets team.

    Francisco had plenty of teams seeking him, mostly to be a setup man. He will probably grow nicely into a full-time closing position in a park that is much more pitcher friendly.

12: Javy Guerra, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    2011 Stats: 46.2 IP, 2.31 ERA, 38 K, 21 SV, 2 BLSV

    Why He's Here:

    This is really tough... I like Guerra a lot, and I think he's going to be a huge asset with the Dodgers. The problem is that he may not be the closer in 2012.

    Guerra is young. His first appearance in the majors was in 2011, and obviously according to those stats, he pitched really well, filling in for what was an extremely turbulent closing situation with the Dodgers.

    Guerra will probably close full-time at some point in his career, and it very well may be next year, but with the addition of LaTroy Hawkins, and the possible competition for the job from Hong-Chih Kuo, his role as closer in 2012 is far from certain.

    Regardless of his role in 2012, he will be a vital part of a rebuilding Dodgers club.

11: Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies

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    2011 Stats: 62.1 IP, 2.89 ERA, 73 K, 8 SV, 4 BLSV

    Why He's Here:

    Betancourt has been one of Colorado's better relievers since he joined the team in 2009. The Rockies seemed to already know they were going to have Betancourt close before Huston Street was even traded.

    The Rockies aren't exactly in a bad position, but it could definitely be better. Betancourt was less than dominant when he was given the opportunity to close last year, only converting two-thirds of his save opportunities in 2011.

    Betancourt has excellent stuff, a high K/9, and excellent control. Pitching in Coors Field will probably inflate his numbers a little bit, but he should do fine as the closer with the Rockies.

    He is probably not as good as Street, but he is earning roughly half of what Street earned, and that is important on a Rockies team that looks like it may be entering a rebuilding phase.

10: Huston Street, San Diego Padres

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    2011 Stats: 58.1 IP, 3.86 ERA, 55 K, 29 SV, 4 BLSV

    Why He's Here:

    Don't let his somewhat pedestrian (for a closer) ERA or his low position in these rankings fool you; Street is an excellent closer. Last year was a bit of a hiccup with the Rockies, but he has proven over the years that he can definitely be a major league closer.

    Street gave up a ton of home runs in hitter-friendly Coors Field last year, but moving to what is probably the best ballpark for pitchers will likely be a fine remedy to that problem.

    Street's biggest challenge next year will be making sure that he can put a semi-poor year behind him, and fill the pretty big shoes left for him by Heath Bell and Trevor Hoffman.

    The Padres have had two of the best closers in all of baseball for nearly two decades, and it will be interesting to see if Street can continue that dominance. 

9: Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals

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    2011 Stats: 68.0 IP, 2.25 ERA, 63 K, 9 SV, 4 BLSV

    Why He's Here:

    The split of nine saves and four blown saves doesn't look all that impressive, but Motte was only a full-time closer for the last month of the regular season and the full postseason.

    Three of his four blown saves came over the course of the year as a back-end reliever, and when he earned the closing job, he pitched very well.

    He also pitched well in the playoffs, posting a 2.16 ERA with five saves over the course of the three series. He didn't pitch as well against Texas as he did against Philadelphia and Milwaukee, but he got the job done and didn't blow a single save in October.

    Motte will probably be the full-time closer at the start of the season in 2012, and it's well earned.

    The Cardinals will be one of the favorites to win the NL Central in 2012, and having Motte closing games is going to be a valuable asset.

    His stock could rise if he proves he can be a full-time closer for the entire season.

8: Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies

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    2011 Stats: 64.1 IP, 2.94 ERA, 87 K, 31 SV, 3 BLSV

    Why He's Here:

    Papelbon just might be the most overpaid closer in baseball right now. Averaging $12.5 million per year over four years, Papelbon is going to have the weight of the world on his shoulders, as the relentless Phans in Philadelphia will tolerate very few missteps for such a massive contract.

    The reason I am skeptical is because I don't really consider Papelbon to be an elite closer. He posted excellent peripherals in 2012 with a K/9 of 12.2 and a BB/9 of 1.4, but he still has an ERA near three, and crumbled at the end of the season when Boston needed him most.

    He was able to get away from Boston after that, but if that happens in Philly next year, he's going to be on the hook for three more seasons, and the fans will not be happy.

    Papelbon will probably do well in Philadelphia. I would say moving away from notoriously hitter-friendly Fenway will help, but Citizens Bank Park isn't too much better. Papelbon is still a good pitcher who is capable of finishing games.

    I just have a hard time picturing him living up to the massive contract he signed with the Phillies.

7: Brian Wilson, San Francisco Giants

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    2011 Stats: 55.0 IP, 3.11 ERA, 54 K, 36 SV, 5 BLSV

    Why He's Here:

    Let me go ahead and say it here, this is when the list really starts to get hard. Like I mentioned on the first slide, I had a hard time compiling these rankings, and the decision to place Wilson this low was pretty difficult.

    Wilson showed chinks in his armor last year. He was nearly invincible in 2010, leading the Giants to a world championship, and being one of the best closers in baseball. In 2011 he missed time due to injury, and wasn't nearly as dominant as he was in 2010.

    Don't get me wrong, Wilson has a ton of talent, and I am certain he will continue to be one of the best closers in baseball. 2012 will be an important season for Wilson.

    Many critics believe that he is paying too much attention to life outside of baseball, and while I am certainly fond of his antics with "The Machine," his outrageous beard, and his skin-clad leotard tux... thing...I think the critics may have a point.

    I'm not asking or expecting Wilson to be any less weird or outspoken. I'm just hoping that if he does continue to maintain his bizarre and fun personality, he will be able to pitch like he did in 2010. If he does, he could potentially be near the top of this list at season's end.

6: Drew Storen, Washington Nationals

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    2011 Stats: 75.1 IP, 2.75 ERA, 74 K, 43 SV, 5 BLSV

    Why He's Here:

    Drew Storen's first full season as a closer was definitely a success.

    The kid has talent, and he is now pitching for what is all of a sudden a really good Nationals team. He earned 43 saves on a sub-.500 team, and given a team with a drastically improved rotation, and possibly a drastically improved offense (pending Prince Fielder and Bryce Harper), Storen will probably have more chances to save next year.

    He's still very young at 24, and as he enters his prime as a pitcher, the Nationals might have a very special closer in Storen.

    He will be vital to the Nationals moving forward, as having a solid, reliable closer is one of the first steps to contending. Unfortunately, Washington is in probably the hardest division in baseball this coming year.

    That shouldn't stop Storen from emerging as one of the game's best closers.

5: Heath Bell, Miami Marlins

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    2011 Stats: 62.2 IP, 2.44 ERA, 51 K, 43 SV, 5 BLSV

    Why He's Here:

    Heath Bell was arguably the best free agent closer on the market this year, and the surprisingly free-spending Miami Marlins swooped in and signed him to a three-year, $27 million contract.

    Bell has been dominant since he took the closing job over from the legendary Trevor Hoffman. 

    The reason Bell isn't higher on this list is because he has pitched in the best pitcher's park in baseball at Petco. Bell's K/9 dipped drastically from 2010 to 2011 (11.1 to 7.3), and he relied pretty heavily on flyball outs last year.

    In Petco, that was fine, but we have no idea how the new Miami Ballpark is going to hold the ball.

    Bell's success is contingent on how he handles pitching in the toughest league in baseball, and how favorable Miami Ballpark is to pitchers. He could go either way in 2012, but it's hard to imagine Bell being unsuccessful in Miami.

4: Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    2011 Stats: 68.2 IP, 1.83 ERA, 61 K, 40 SV, 4 BLSV

    Why He's Here:

    Another really tough decision. Hanrahan had an excellent season in 2011, and had the best ERA on this list.

    It was his first full season as a closer, and the Pirates couldn't have asked for much more out of him. Over the months of May, June and July, Hanrahan was completely untouchable, and was a big part of the reason that many commentators and observers believed Pittsburgh may be on their way out of the doghouse. 

    Hanrahan stumbled at the end of the season, showing signs of fatigue. As the Pirates started losing, it seemed like Hanrahan started losing it.

    Granted, he still pitched well. In August he had an ERA of 3.86 and in September, an ERA of 2.70...both respectable numbers, but certainly not the sub-1.00 ERA he had posted for three months.

    Before anyone questions the reason I decided to put Hanrahan in fourth, let me go ahead and say that any of these top four pitchers could be in first. Hanrahan had a breakout season, and I expect him to continue his success next year.

    The Pirates have quietly put together a pretty decent team, and while they are still not contenders, they are definitely on their way to a .500+ season, something Hanrahan will directly contribute to.

3: Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves

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    2011 Stats: 77.0 IP, 2.10 ERA, 120 K, 46 SV, 8 BLSV

    Why He's Here:

    The Atlanta Braves have found their closer of the future.

    Uncertainty after Billy Wagner left was quickly put to rest when Craig Kimbrel proved to the baseball world that he has an elite arm.

    Kimbrel tied for the National League lead in saves, led all closers with 120 strikeouts and an overwhelming 14.8 K/9, and set a rookie record for saves in a season at 46.

    His record-breaking season earned him significant recognition after the season when he won the NL Rookie of the Year Award (unanimously), was ninth in Cy Young voting, and 23rd in MVP voting.

    Kimbrel was the best closer in baseball. Until September.

    A lot of what Kimbrel did in 2011 will be overshadowed by his late-season collapse, which contributed to the overall collapse of the Braves who were 10+ games ahead in the wild card race with weeks left, eventually losing it to the St. Louis Cardinals on the last night of the season...a game where Kimbrel would blow his eighth save of the season.

    Kimbrel isn't at the top of this list because he has a lot to prove next season. We all know the kid can pitch, and he has the potential not just to be the best closer in the game, but to be one of the best closers of all time.

    His resilience will be tested next season as he tries to shake off a horrible September, and avoid a sophomore slump.

    The Braves are going to need every bit of his talent next season, as they attempt to stay afloat in a division that suddenly features four legitimate contenders.

2: J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    2011 Stats: 58.0 IP, 2.17 ERA, 61 K, 45 SV, 4 BLSV

    Why He's Here:

    Putz was one of many pleasant surprises for an Arizona team that was picked to finish last in the NL West by virtually everyone. 

    Instead, Putz and the D-Backs would go on to win their division over the defending world champion Giants, and just narrowly miss upsetting the Brewers in a five-game NLDS.

    No one thought Putz was going to be bad. He has a well-established career as a closer, including an astounding 2007 season with the Seattle Mariners when he owned a 1.38 ERA and 40 saves. Those numbers are impressive, but in many ways, his 2011 season was even more accomplished.

    Putz followed his fantastic 2007 campaign with one decent year, one mediocre year and one bad year.

    He appeared to be on the rebound in 2010 when he posted a 2.83 ERA as a late reliever for the Chicago White Sox, but I think anyone who said they expected the guy to have what might have been the best year of his career is lying.

    Putting Putz this high up on the list is sort of risky for me. If he pitches like he did last year, he is definitely deserving of a top three spot, but his track record shows that he just might dip off. He is also 34 years old now, so his age may be a concern moving forward.

    Nevertheless, I think Putz is going to be an excellent closer next year, and probably for several more years. The Diamondbacks are only getting better, and having Putz closing games is going to be invaluable.

1: John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers

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    2011 Stats: 73.2 IP, 1.95 ERA, 86 K, 46 SV, 2 BLSV

    Why He's Here:

    It's obvious, isn't it? John Axford was just incredible in 2011. 

    Axford's 2011 season saw him break Milwaukee's franchise record for saves in a season, as well as the franchise record for most consecutive saves.

    He tied for ninth in Cy Young voting (with Craig Kimbrel), was 17th in MVP voting, and so far this offseason has won many awards for his contributions to the game of baseball on and off the field.

    Quite simply, he had the best season a Milwaukee closer has ever had, and he firmly established himself as one of the three or four best closers in the game.

    He gave Brewers fans a scare at the start of the season, when he started out of the gates limping. He blew a three-run lead on Opening Day to the Cincinnati Reds, a painful loss that I am still having a hard time coming to terms with.

    Three weeks later he blew another save, this time to the Philadelphia Phillies. The Brewers ended up winning the game, and after that, Axford hasn't been stopped.

    His 43 consecutive regular season saves streak is the second longest active streak behind Jose Valverde's 51 consecutive saves, and it is the fifth longest streak in MLB history.

    Axford's 98-mph fastball simply overpowered opposition, and his curveball and slider consistently buckled his opponents. His success is tied directly to how well he is able to control the ball now, compared to when he tried to break through the league with the Reds and the Yankees.

    All of this from a guy who has been cut from two other teams, and had only one team (Milwaukee) willing to travel through the snow to see him pitch in an open tryout in Canada? Not bad at all.

    Axford is an invaluable member in the bullpen, and along with Francisco Rodriguez, is accountable for one of the best 8-9 inning pitching tandems in baseball. He is a likable guy, and he is the glue to a rotation that seems to see a lot more changes than most Brewers fans would like.

    Look forward to seeing Axford and his legendary moustache continue to blow past hitters in the National League.