We wrap up the top 24 series today with closers, Ohh the position we all love to hate. Nobody likes to spend a high draft pick on a closer. The really good ones will cost you that third baseman or starting pitcher you may covet, the stable ones could cost you the outfielder or second baseman that will be off the board if you don’t act now, and the bottom ones might not even be a closer come September. In H2H leagues you can do without a closer if you draft correctly, but in roto and points leagues they are more important as every number counts.
Going into 2014 there are a few closer controversies, but a good number of the teams are set at this position. The closer position for the Astros and Cubs is up in the air. The Mariners aren’t too happy with their current closer situation so anything can happen there. The Tigers and Rays each have some internal options to choose from, but who they ultimately go with probably won’t be decided until spring training. The Rangers, Rockies and Blue Jays each have an option year left for their current closer, but will they exercise that option or seek relief elsewhere.
There are a plethora of relief pitchers that will be on the move this winter, but I’m just going to list the few that have had closer experience and could make some kind of impact in 2014. Not all of them are pretty, but they can get you saves if given a job. Joe Nathan (signed with Tigers), Rafael Betancourt , Frank Francisco, Joaquin Benoit (signs with Padres), Brian Wilson, (re-signs with Dodgers), Grant Balfour (signed with Baltimore), Edward Mujica (signed with Red Sox), Fernando Rodney, Jose Veras, Francisco Rodriguez, Chris Perez and Keven Gregg. I expect everyone on this list to sign someplace, but there is no guarantee they will be placed in the closing role for their new team. As for the players with club options, I’ll speculate more on that below along with their potential replacement.
As always, feel free to disagree in the comments section below
1. Craig Kimbrel (Braves): Kimbrel came within 2 strikeouts of having his third straight 100 strikeout season. He was tied with Jim Johnson for the league leader in saves this year, tied for third in 2012 and was tied for second in 2011. That’s the kind of consistency we want in a closer. Combine the consistent strikeout number and saves with a whip under one for the second straight year and an era of 1.21 & 1.01 this year and last and there is no question why Kimbrel is the top ranked closer. Some may come close to his numbers, but few have put them up every single year. Kimbrel is the best and he will cost you come draft day, but you might not want to overpay given the three players listed next.
2. Aroldis Chapman (Reds): I’m sure the fantasy community was happy that the Reds scrapped their plans to move Chapman to the starting rotation. For the second straight year Chapman lead all relief pitchers in strikeouts. He only had 38 saves this year which is what he totaled last season, and for the past two seasons he’s finished 8th in saves. His ERA was up this year, his WHIP snuck above one, and he’s not the top dog for saves, but that’s nothing to worry about because the overall package is tremendous. He’ll have to step up his game next year as there are several other 100 strikeout closers out there that will be breathing down his neck to take that number two ranking away. Expect Chapman to go off the board one round after Kimbrel.
3. Kenley Jansen (Dodgers): Here’s one of those 100 strikeout guys I mentioned above. Jansen didn’t start out the closer but it wasn’t because he didn’t deserve the job. He was a little shaky to start the season, but once they handed him the ninth inning he turned into a machine. The strikeouts are for real as he racked up 99 last season and 96 in 2011. His WHIP, ERA and base on balls have all improved each of the past two years and his highest BAA was .177. He’s capable of giving you the same numbers of either of the above players and you’ll probably be able to get him a few rounds later (but this will be the last year that happens). There’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Kenley Jansen.
4. Greg Holland (Kansas City): It used to be that closers that can get 100 strikeouts were a rare thing, but in 2013 they were growing on trees. Holland actually had a better season than Jansen. Given his minor league track record I’m not ready to put him next to Jansen as far as talent goes, but he deserves to be here. His strikeouts have improved the past two years going from 74 to 92 to 103 so he should be in the upper 90’s next season if not higher. He has had a problem with walks in the past but seems to have corrected that problem, and if this is the case then he will safely join the ranks of elite closers. Because of his numbers he might be taken before Jansen. Regardless of who you believe should be ranked where from 2 through 4, you can’t go wrong with any of them.
5. Glen Perkins (Twins): The failed starter turned closer made some positive and encouraging steps this year. He increased his strikeout rate for the second straight year while lowering his walk rate, ERA, WHIP, BAA and HR/9. His 36 saves this year rank him in the middle of the pack and they might never go over 40 given the team he plays for, but when you combine those totals with the rest of his numbers along with his record of improvement you can see why Perkins is one of the top choices for closers. I’m not willing to say he’s better than the next three players ranked below him, but he is the safest as far as what you can expect. At the very least he should be able to repeat his 2013 numbers.
6. Trevor Rosenthal (Cardinals): Rosenthal wasn’t the Cardinals closer in 2013, but he did take over for Edward Mujica near the end of the season and in the playoffs. Since Mujica is a free agent and Jason Motte’s status is in the air after undergoing Tommy John surgery, this is the most logical choice. Rosenthal looked to be a promising starting pitcher and still could be one day, but after striking out 108 batters with 32 holds and 5 saves the Cardinals may rethink things. He has 5 pitches in his arsenal but relied on his 96 mph fastball about 88% of the time this year. I might scale back his strikeout totals for next year as I don’t see him getting 75 innings as a closer, but he should still be able to repeat the rest of his numbers.
7. Koji Uehara (Red Sox): It was a record-breaking season for Uehara, literally. According to Fangraphs, Koji had the lowest WHIP among qualifying relievers EVER. His 0.57 WHIP Beat out Dennis Eckersley who set the record in 1989 with a 0.61 WHIP. Combine that with a 1.09 ERA, 101 strikeouts and 21 saves and Uehara also wins the waiver wire pickup of the year award. But we’re not here to discuss what he’s done, we’re here to discuss what he can do next year. His 1.09 ERA was aided by a zero ERA for July and August and a .64 in September, so expect an ERA closer to 2.0 in 2014. The WHIP will obviously come up some but it will still be under 1.0, and probably closer to .80. He’ll have the closer role for the entire year so at minimum he’ll have 30 saves, but I see more. Finally I don’t see another 100 strikeout season in his future unless he surpasses 70 innings. A more conservative number would be somewhere around 80 with a chance for more. Koji will be 39 in April (the same age as Joe Nathan). After looking at what he’s done the past 2 years and his track record since arriving in the states; there shouldn’t be any regression here.
8. Rafael Soriano (Nationals): Soriano has had 40+ saves in three of the past four seasons on three different teams. He hasn’t bounced around because he’s a bad pitcher, it just up until 2010 he’s never been a full-time closer and relief pitchers rarely stay in one place very long. His strikeouts were down this year, but he has average between 8.5 and 9 K/9 for most of his career. The same can be said for his higher than normal ERA this year which usually sits in the low to mid two’s. Soriano also gave up a few extra hits this season putting his whip above a 1.2. Normally when the numbers start to slip on a 33-year-old pitcher you worry, but relief pitchers don’t age the same way that starters do so I wouldn’t read too much into this. Next year I expect Soriano’s numbers to be closer to his 2012 line but with a slightly lower WHIP.
9. Addison Reed (Diamondbacks): His pedigree says future top 5 closer and while his major league numbers aren’t there yet, they are inching that way. In his second year he lowered his ERA by almost a full point and took 50 points off his BBA. While his walk total only came down a tick, his hits per 9 came down to the level they were in college and the minors. His strikeouts per 9 haven’t come close to his minor league numbers, but as long as it’s over 9 nobody is going to complain. One more year of growth and Reed could join the upper echelon, and one more year of growth is what I predict for next season. Expect improved numbers across the board with an ERA closer to (if not below) three.
12/16: Reed has been traded to the Diamondbacks
10. Joe Nathan (Tigers): Texas exercised their $9 million dollar option, but Nathan opted out and decided to go the free agent route. Nathan may or may not be with the Rangers next season, but he’s good enough that if he goes elsewhere he’d still rank here as long as he’s the closer. Nathan turned back the clock this year posting numbers we haven’t seen since 2008. With the exception of 2011, he has posted an ERA in the 2 range with a good WHIP and strikeout numbers. For someone who will be 39 in December he remains a good closing option. For 2014 you can probably expect numbers closer to what we saw in 2012 with a slightly lower ERA.
That is the good news on Nathan, but now for the bad news. With the exception of Detroit maybe wanting a buffer until Rondon is ready, the only teams that might be shopping for a closer that could afford to pay his price would be Tampa Bay, Milwaukee and maybe Seattle. The Cubs and Astros are in need of a closer but I don’t see them paying big money for one. If the Rangers don’t exercise their option I expect them to attempt to renegotiate a deal for Nathan, restructuring his option year into an extended contract. Nathan is no longer elite but he is too good to be just a middle relief guy.
Edit: 12/03 – Nathan signed with the Tigers so his value doesn’t change and just as I suspected, they aren’t ready to hand the 9th inning over to Rondon.
11. Jim Johnson (A’s): His overall numbers aren’t anything to write home about, but it’s hard to ignore a guy who puts up back to back 50 save seasons. Johnson blew 9 save chances this year and a 2.94 ERA is something we expect from a starter and not a closer. A large part of that was due to a horrendous May where he blew 4 saves and posted a 9.75 ERA. His numbers for the other five months were good overall despite a BBA over .300 for a few of them. His walks remain low as does his home run rate so control isn’t an issue here, but for a guy who doesn’t have a high strikeout rate he has to be virtually perfect when he takes the mound. You may want to pull your hair out at times when he blows up, but he will deliver 40+ saves.
Edit: 12/03 – Johnson was traded to Oakland which should help his ERA & WHIP but kill the Cook.
12. Jason Grilli (Pirates): The career relief pitcher got his first chance close out games full-time and he didn’t disappoint. Grilli put up numbers in line with his 2012 season to go with his 33 saves, and he could have reached 40 had an injury not taken him out of action for 6 weeks. He has been fairly consistent the past 3 years so baring a meltdown; expect him to split the difference between the last two seasons with a few more saves. Grilli is 37 years old and has had multiple injury years so there is a chance he might miss some time again. If that happens Pittsburgh has shown confidence in Mark Melancon to step into the role, so if you do draft Grilli, keep Melancon on your short list of players to watch in case of an emergency.
13. Jonathan Papelbon (Phillies): Pap’s isn’t the same guy we remember for years ago in Boston, but he is one of the more reliable and healthy options in the closer game. His strikeout numbers were down a little this season and his BBA was up, but with his track record I’ll take that with a grain of salt. His walks were down this year but that doesn’t mean much as his walks fluctuate from year to year. For the first time in his career he failed to reach 30 saves, but it’s not like Philly was giving him a lot of opportunities. Philly should be a little better next season and so should Papelbon. The ERA will be anywhere between 2.5 and 3.0, but he will deliver a solid WHIP, at least a strikeout an inning and 30+ saves. He’s not pretty but he’s pretty dependable.
14. Sergio Romo (Giants): Romo has done well as the Giants closer, but there are a few things to be concerned about here. His ERA, WHIP and BAA have all inched up the past two years, although they are all still very good. His innings have increased in each of the past 2 years but his strikeouts are going the other way. His fastball velocity has dropped 2 mph since 2011 from 89.5 to 87.6, and the velocity dropped on all of his other pitches as well. Romo will be 31 next year so it’s not like age is the cause of this, and while I don’t see him falling apart next year it’s still something to monitor. Unless the decline continues look for a repeat of last year’s numbers with a chance to possibly rebound, but be prepared for the bottom to fall out as well.
15. Casey Janssen (Blue Jays): The Blue Jays exercised their 4 million dollar club option on Janssen, so he should again be closing games out for the Jay’s. His numbers have been very stable the past few years with an ERA around 2.5 and a WHIP under 1.0. He also strikes out a batter an inning and has only 5 blown saves over the last two seasons. The Blue Jays have Sergio Santos waiting in the wings in cae of emergency, but I think they want to give Santos another year given he’s coming off an injury. Santos makes a good handcuff and is the future closer for the Jays, but Jannsen is the player to have for 2014.
16. J.J. Putz (Diamondbacks): Heath Bell and Brad Ziegler did their job of holding down the fort while J.J. recovered from an injury, but Arizona isn’t going to pay Putz 7 million to pitch middle relief. Putz’s ERA usually sits in the 2.5 range give or take and the WHIP is close to 1.0. He’s averaged over a strikeout an inning for most of his career so he’ll give you good strikeout numbers. He’s had some problems with walks, but the years he’s had problems his innings were limited due to injury. As long as he’s healthy the walks will be low. He pitched well in the second half so come spring time; J.J. should be ready to go. Putz will give you a low WHIP, 35-40 saves and about 60 strikeouts. Due to the injury and the fact he’ll be 37, he may slip down in the rankings so you could be able to get him at a discount.
12/16: with Reed now on the Diamondbacks, Putz’s value sinks, but he could still have value in holds leagues or as a filler to help your ratios.
17. Ernesto Frieri (Angels): Of all the closers mentioned capable of throwing 100 strikeouts, Frieri would be the weakest link. His 3.8 ERA was over a full point off of his career norm, and while a 1.2 WHIP isn’t horrible it’s not what we want to see from a closer. He did slightly lower his BB%, but 30 walks in 68.2 innings is still way to high, and while he only gave up 55 hits 11 of those were for home runs. He needs to keep a few more off those hits inside the park for him to be useful on our fake team. There were a few positives as he saved 37 games with only 4 blown and he struck out 98 batters. Normally I’d call for some improvement, but walks and home runs have been a problem for Frieri his entire major and minor league career. He could lower his ERA to the 3.5 range, but it could also go the other way and go up to or above 4.0. He’ll get you big strikeouts and saves, but I can’t guarantee anything else beyond that.
18. David Robertson (Yankees): With Mariano Rivera moving onto greener pastures, Robertson seems to be the heir apparent for the closer role. In the past 3 years he has put up an ERA of 1.08, 2.67 and 2.04 so it’s kind of hard to predict where that will be. His WHIP should be in the 1.15 range but has a chance of being a little lower than that. He’s had problem with walks in the past but seems to have gotten that under some control the past two years. As for the strikeouts his average is usually in the mid 70’s with a chance for more. Overall he could be a very solid closer going forward and while I don’t see him being one of the top closers; his final line could be good enough for him to finish outside of the top 10. He won’t be overlooked come draft day, but he might be undervalued.
19. Steve Cishek (Marlins): Other than Jose Fernandez the Marlins didn’t have many bright spots on their pitching staff this season except for Cishek. In college he struck out 7.22 batters per 9 innings and that number went up to 8.2 in the minors. His K/9 in the majors stands at 9.3. He has strikeout potential and it continues to get better as he ages. He’s also good at keeping the ball in the park, giving up only 7 home runs in 193 innings. Unfortunately just like Rex Brothers, Cishek has had problems with walks in the past. Unlike Brothers he’s actually improved his numbers this year. His BB/9 this year was a 2.84 which isn’t great but it’s lower that the 3’s and 4’s he’s put up in previous years. It would be nice if he could lower that number a little more but if he keeps his hits per 9 under 7.5 he could get away with his current walk total. He’s not a bad guy to draft, but considering the strikeout potential of many of the closers above, the lower save totals make him look average. There’s mid to late round potential here.
20. Huston Street (Padres): He doesn’t rack up the strikeouts and like Cishek will have limited save opportunities, but will give you better than average numbers in WHIP and ERA. This year Street had a problem with home runs, but fortunately for him most of those 12 homers were solo shots. He does a good job at limiting walks, and combined with a lower than average hit total his WHIP is usually around 1.0. I couldn’t say that in the past, but since he’s moved from Colorado to San Diego he’s a changed man. He’s a steady pick to fill in your bullpen with, but not someone who will carry you.
21. Bobby Parnell (Mets): In the minors Parnell struggled as a starter, so the Mets moved him to the pen. He still struggled in the beginning, but he’s made very good strides the past few years. His BAA, ERA, WHIP, walks and hits allowed have all come down steadily since 2011. His K/9 has leveled off at 8 the past few years but there could be a couple of surprise years where he surpasses that number. He underwent surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck but should be 100% come spring time. Like Street he’s a steady pick to fill in your bullpen, and he’ll probably be around a few rounds longer with the injury scare.
22. Ryan Cook (A’s): He was supposed to be the man this year, but Grant Balfour just wouldn’t go gently into that goodnight. Balfour is now a free agent so if he doesn’t resign, Cook should be the new closer. His story is similar to Bobby Parnell; a mediocre starting pitcher turned relief pitcher being groomed to be a closer. He took a few steps back from his rookie season. His strikeouts dropped but his k/9 was still close to 9.0. His BAA went up but was still at an acceptable level. His BB/9 is still in the 3.3 range and his h/9 was 8.29. He doesn’t give up many home runs so the damage is limited from the high hit and walk totals, but one of them has to start coming down or it will eventually become a problem. He could repeat his 2013 ERA, but the WHIP is up in the air until further notice.
Edit: 12/03 – With Johnson now in Oakland, Ryan value in fantasy is cooked. Drop him from your draft board unless you play with holds.
23. Jim Henderson (Brewers): His minor league career began in 2003 with the Montreal Expos. After 10 years in the minors and several organizational changes Henderson arrived in 2012. His 13.21 K/9 impress the Brewers enough to get a job out of spring training, and one year later he’s the closer on a major league team. Henderson BB/9 this year was 3.6 and his minor league average was 3.81. At 31 years of age I don’t see this changing. His K/9 improved at each level in the minors so it is possible he can maintain a rate of 11.87 K/9, but not probable. The 9.19 he posted in AAA is more than likely what he’ll deliver each year. His BB/9 the past two seasons was 3.66 which is close to the 3.81 he accumulated in the minors. Players with a big WHIP and high walk rates don’t usually have a long shelf life in the closer role. Given his minor league walk numbers I don’t see much changing so it’s just a matter of time before Cinderella turns back into a pumpkin. He may be able to surprise everyone for another year, but given his age and salary he could get a quick hook if he falters too much. He will/should begin the year as the closer, but don’t be surprised if Milwaukee looks for another closer this winter.
24. LaTroy Hawkins (Rockies): Looks like Rex Brothers is back to being a setup man once again with the Rox signing of Hawkins. It’s probably for the best as he needs to learn some more control and cut down on his walks. As for Hawkins, he broke into the majors in 95 when I started playing fantasy baseball. I find it hard to believe they will rely on the 41-year-old to be their closer, but that is where it stands as of today. despite his age, his fastball still clocks in at 92.6 MPH. He does a good job with limiting home runs with a GB rate close to 50%. His low walk rate will help keep his WHIP in check which he will need as Hawkins can be very hittable for a relief pitcher. He doesn’t get a lot of strikeouts, his ERA will be league average and his WHIP will be on the high side but acceptable. Adding on to his mediocre stats and age are the fact that the Rockies have left hander Rex Brothers, so it’s possible he could lose some save chances depending on the matchups. Hawkins is worth a late round flyer, be be prepared to dump him at the first sign of trouble.
Now I could just leave things here, but instead we’ll take a look at the few remaining teams not mentioned and what the closer situation looks like for them.
Indians: Chris perez has been released, and I can’t say that I’m surprised. For three straight years his ERA, BAA, hits and home runs allowed have all gone up. Bryan Shaw, Danny Salazar and Cody Allen all had a better year than Perez and it wouldn’t surprise me to see one of them emerge from spring training as the closer. Given their inexperience it also isn’t out of the question that Cleveland might do a little shopping this winter and bring someone in to handle the job. Until we know who is going to be the closer, I don’t think it safe to pick anyone from The Indians right now. If I were to pick one it would be Cody Allen, and if he claims the closers role this spring I move him up to 19 right below David Robertson.
Rays: Fernando Rodney is a free agent and while his numbers the past few years will get him a job someplace, many of us aren’t going to forgive (or forget) the five years prior when he delivered an ERA over 4.0 and a WHIP of 1.32 or higher. So who will be the man in Tampa next season? If I had to guess I’d say it’s between Joel Peralta and Jake McGee. Peralta’s ERA is on the high side but he has solid strikeout numbers and will put up a good WHIP. McGee is very similar to Peralta but has the potential to give you a better ERA. If Tampa doesn’t go out and sign an established closer expect the job to be up for grabs right up until the end of spring training.
Edit: 12/03 – The Rays have acquired Heath Bell from the Padres, so throw his name into the closer carousel.
Cubs: Newly acquired Pedro Strop was the front-runner here, but recently Hector Rondon’s name has been thrown into the mix. neither one is an encouraging option for 2014. This could be the landing spot one of the free agents I listed in the beginning, but look for the Cubs to sign the cheapest option.
Astros: There aren’t too many reliable choices in-house, so Houston is going to have to either bring somebody up from the minors or create a closer from one of the dozens of free agent middle men. Unless they sign somebody with somewhat decent ratios, I don’t see anybody on this staff worthy of a roster spot.
Mariners: Tom Wilhelmsen was a nice surprise last year but couldn’t get the job done this year. Danny Farquhar was given the job in August and while his overall numbers weren’t much better than Wilhelmsen, they were for the time he was closing out games. Other than Yoervis Medina (who needs to control his walks), I don’t see anyone else on the current staff who could be of any help.
Tigers: With Joaquin Benoit leaving the door is open for Bruce Rondon, but are the Tigers ready to trust him in the 9th. Other than signing a free agent the only other viable option I see would be Drew Smyly who put up very respectable numbers in his first year in the pen.
Rangers: There still is a chance the Rangers could come to an agreement with Joe Nathan, but we have to consider other possibilities. Neal Cotts hasn’t been the most stable reliever during his career but the veteran did well last year. Tanner Scheppers seems like the obvious choice looking at last year, but his numbers prior to 2013 weren’t anything special. Neftali Feliz is another option who has closing experience, but will Texas abandon their plans of having him in the rotation. Alexi Ogando doesn’t seem to be able to get through a season starting, so giving him a try in the 9th could be a solution for the team and Ogando’s arm.
While I would prefer Feliz and think Scheppers will get the first crack, there are too many options in play here, and that’s without discussing who Texas may still bring in.
Be sure to check out the entire Top 24 for 2014 Series.