Each week, the Assembly will put together their positional rankings for keeper/dynasty leagues. Players are ranked with the next five years of 5 x 5 category production in mind, so when you see Trevor Rosenthal ranked ahead of Mark Melancon, that does not necessarily mean that we believe Rosenthal will be the superior short term option.
Relief pitchers are easily the most difficult to rank in a list like this. With all the volatility at the position, most of the players on this list will no longer be fantasy relevant five years from now. Don’t believe me? Check out one major fantasy baseball site’s top 10 closers heading into 2010:
- Joe Nathan
- Jonathan Papelbon
- Mariano Rivera
- Jonathan Broxton
- Heath Bell
- Carlos Marmol
- Joakim Soria
- David Aardsma
- Jose Valverde
- Andrew Bailey
While the top few names on the list certainly had a strong run, the only player on this list still relevant is Papelbon.
The point I am trying to make here is that it is unwise to look more than a year or two down the road when looking at relievers. Once you get past the top few, it is a total crapshoot trying to forecast the distant future. The best approach is probably to take the short-term view when looking at closers. That idea is certainly backed by this list as Dellin Betances is the only pitcher not currently with a secure closer role to be ranked. Talented pitchers like Andrew Miller, Wade Davis, Tyler Clippard and Ken Giles all missed the cut, as did established closers like Neftali Feliz, Sergio Romo and Fernando Rodney.
Our 6 experts, with over 100 years combined fantasy baseball experience, each ranked the RP position, and here are the results:
1. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Jim: The Clayton Kershaw of closers. You might find a closer to give you equal numbers each season, but you will not find someone who can put up those numbers EVERY season.
Ron: He will be just 27 in May, 2015 and his average fastball velocity was a career high of 97 MPH in 2014. Game Over!
2. Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Kevin: There are always saves to be had, so you really have to value the closers who put up 100+ strikeouts, and Chapman’s one of them.
Tommy: Chapman’s 2014 season was one for the ages. He struck out 52.5% of the batters he faced for a K/9 of 17.67! I did not think that was possible! His average fastball velocity for the season was 100.2. He walks too many, but the man is flat-out unhittable. The only reason I did not rank him number 1 is because I think he is more likely to break down over the next 3-4 years than Kimbrel is. I would draft Chapman ahead of Kimbrel in re-draft leagues.
3. Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Jim: Every bit as good as Kenley Jansen and just a notch below Aroldis Chapman. There is a chance he could be closing for someone else in the future if his contract becomes too high for the Royals.
Tommy: Holland was actually the number 1 fantasy reliever in 2014. He has all the tools you look for in a dominant closer. He stuck out 12.99/9, with a K/BB of 4.50, he has a high ground ball rate and he does not allow many HRs. The fact that he pitches for a winning club with arguably the best defense in baseball is just another bonus.
3. Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Kevin: He throws hard, and his swinging strike rate has gone up 1% the last three years. But if hitters do square up on his pitches, it results in hard contact, which is shown in his increasing LD%. Bear in mind that he had an unlucky BABIP, and remember that he had 101 strikeouts against only 18 walks for a 5.6 K/BB.
Ron: With Mariano retired, Jansen may own the best cutter in the game today. That cutter just got a 1.3 mph upgrade in 2014 and now checks in at a 93.5 MPH.
5. Sean Doolittle, Oakland Athletics
Ron: Doolittle is the Cliff Lee of relief pitchers. He doesn’t walk anyone! Okay, so he did walk 8 batters in 62.2 innings this past season but you get the point. Something that was a bit of a new trick for Doolittle was the ability to K near 90 batters in a full season. He struck out just 60 batters in 69 innings pitched in 2013 compared to 89 Ks last season. It remains to be seen if that’ll be a trend that continues and seems like it could be fool’s gold since he really didn’t seem to change anything in his repertoire from 2013 to 2014. There’s also that lefty factor working against him too.
Tommy: Doolittle had a K/BB of 11.13 last season and he struck out 37.5% of the batters he faced. His Ks have been up and down over the years and he is an extreme fly ball pitcher, so HRs will bite him from time to time. The difference between Doolittle and those ranked above him is job security and a shorter track record. His skills are potentially elite.
6. David Robertson, New York Yankees (Free Agent)
Jim: I don’t think he’ll maintain the high strikeout rate from 2014, but it will still be good enough to keep him in our around the top 10 if he signs with a good team. His ERA could land anywhere, but I expect it to be below 3.0.
Ron: You might be surprised that Robertson will actually be 30 in April. Like Jansen he also heavily relies on his cutter. One thing you can be sure of is that he’s going to get huge closer money this off-season and he should be locked in as the closer for whoever he signs with.
7. Dellin Betances, New York Yankees
Jim: Even if he isn’t named the Yankees new closer in 2015, his high strikeout rate, high innings and low ratios make him playable in all league formats. As a closer, he might lose some value not pitching as many innings.
Tommy: I would move Betances up into the elite tier if Robertson signs with another club. If he enters 2015 as the closer, he may be slightly undervalued because he is every bit as good as the top dogs. If he does not, he will likely be too expensive given the plethora of middle relievers with excellent ratios. Betances is really awesome though.
8. Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals
Jim: His minor league numbers and 2013 season suggest he’s better than what we saw in 2014. I still might look to move him if I owned him as the Cardinals have other options should he falter again.
Kevin: He has pretty good stuff, and he’s young enough that he makes a sensible investment for keeper leaguers, but 40 walks as a closer doesn’t cut it, and neither does a low 2.0 K/BB. There are safer options.
9. Cody Allen, Cleveland Indians
Jim: Two straight years of improvement with a rising strikeout rate. My only hesitation is Cleveland’s commitment in keeping him in the closer role.
Kevin: He’s young and seems a sure thing for the next few years. It seems the Indians are going to give him a few more games to save in the future, too.
10. Mark Melancon, Pittsburgh Pirates
Ron: Except for a rocky 2012 season in Boston, Melancon has been quite solid in three of the past four seasons. The Pirates aren’t likely to dish out big money for a new closer any time soon and Melancon doesn’t hit free agency until after the 2016 season.
Tommy: Melancon only gets about a strikeout an inning, which is a little low for a closer, but he only allows 1.39 BB/9 and has an elite ground ball rate (57.4% in 2014). Melancon is an excellent pitcher with a high level of job security heading into next season.
11. Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Jim: He’s not a great closer to own, but he is a solid one. Cishek was showing steady improvement before last years setback. Expect more good years than bad ones (and consider 2014 a bad one).
Kevin: He had a slightly high ERA for a top closer, but that should come back down without much changing. His odd delivery will keep hitters guessing, and reached 11.0 K/9 in 2014.
12. Jake McGee, Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Kevin: Lefties actually do better against him, partly due to luck (high BABIP) in 2014. He’s had solid skills for a few years, and now he’s got a good opportunity.
Tommy: There is a lot to like with McGee. His K rate is just a notch or two below the elite closers with a K/9 of 11.36 and his K/BB is 5.63. His batted ball profile shows a slight fly ball tilt, but he does a pretty good job avoiding the HR. He is as good an option as any outside the elite tier.
13. Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Kevin: The drop in K/9 from a career high was mitigated by a career best BB/9. His BABIP was a bit high, which partly explained the jump in WHIP and ERA, but he has the skills to get back under 3.00 and 1.10 to be a solid option for a few more years.
Ron: The rare lefty closer Perkins has slid under the radar for years now. He’s a solid closer, pitching for a boring team and tends to get forgotten at times. The fact he changed his pitch repertoire a bit in 2014 could be a red flag. Perkins blended his four-seamer, two-seamer, and a slider fairly evenly in 2012 and 2013 with tremendous success. Last season he relied far less on his two-seamer than ever before and relied on the more easily controlled four-seamer. It isn’t surprising to see that this allowed Perkins to get his BB/9 under the 2.0 mark for the first time in his career. Unfortunately the four-seamer has far less movement and it led to a significant increase in the BABIP against him. Hopefully an undisclosed injury wasn’t the reason Perkins changed his previously effective repertoire.
14. Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles
Jim: He never fulfilled his promise of being a top starter, but he proved he can be an excellent closer with top stuff potential. My only concern here is the same one I have for Sean Doolittle, will the team stick with a left-handed closer?
Ron: Another lefty reliever makes the cut. Once looked at as a starting pitcher, Britton is clearly more cut out to pitch an inning at a time. Simply going from being asked to get through six innings to being asked to shut down one has allowed Britton to add over 3 MPH to his average fastball velocity. There are still some rough patches for him and the K/BB rate isn’t that impressive, so maybe 2014 will prove to be more luck than skill.
15. Huston Street, Los Angeles Angels
Jim: Good numbers most years with slightly better than average strikeout numbers, but health is always a concern. This is someone I would want in a redraft league, but not someone I want to own long-term.
Ron: There’s always a nagging injury looming for Huston Street. Still, it’s hard to ignore how solid he’s been for years. With Street, it’s always a good idea to roster the next guy in line for when he needs a two-week stint to get over whatever ails him. Otherwise, he’s a reliable source of ERA and WHIP, rarely blows a save, and tends to offer around a K per inning.
16. Drew Storen, Washington Nationals
Ron: Storen really needs to up his K-rate in order to become more appealing. Otherwise, this is a quality arm that could be closing for a solid team for years to come.
Tommy: Many think that the closer job is up for grabs in Washington. I am not buying it. The Nats love Clippard in the 8th, and that is where I expect him to stay. Storen does not get enough Ks to climb higher on this list (7.35 K/9), but he does not walk anybody and he does a great job keeping the ball on the ground. He is a solid pitcher.
17. Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox
Kevin: He’s getting saves for a few more years, barring a meltdown, and you can’t pass up a 10.0 K/BB.
Tommy: I am not sure what happened to Koji in August and September, but I am willing to give him another shot given his amazing peripherals. At age 39, he could pull a Joe Nathan like collapse, but given his talent I would not be surprised if he rode off into the sunset like Mariano Rivera either.
18. Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee Brewers
Kevin: Some gopheritis ruined an otherwise stellar season. He’s getting “old” but he’s been doing this for a long time, he posted his best K/BB of his career, and he’ll keep figuring out ways to save games.
Tommy: KRod is not the overpowering closer that he once was and his HR rate has had an alarming 3 year rise. Do not expect ERA and WHIP numbers as good as what he posted last season, but he is good enough to keep the closer job if he can avoid so many long balls.
19. Addison Reed, Arizona Diamondbacks
Jim: His closer dreams may get crushed come spring time with new management in Arizona. That said, he could be a solid closer if he turns things around, but he will never be an elite arm to own.
Tommy: Reed has a nice K rate (27.4% of batters faced) and he does an excellent job limiting walks. The trouble is, he gives up a ton of hard contact. Last season, he allowed a 23.5% line drive rate and a HR/9 of 1.67. Closers who give up that many HRs don’t usually keep their jobs for very long.
19. Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Kevin: He proved he’s not done yet, but there are warning signs, such as the drop in velocity and the loss of K/9 in the last two seasons. Long-term, there are safer options in dynasty leagues, but because the closer market is so volatile anyway, I’d use in 2015.
Tommy: Papelbon is no longer the dominant closer he once was, but he still sports a 4.20 K/BB ratio and has the skills to get outs. He is easily capable of holding a 9th inning job for a couple more years.
Clearly the top four pitchers on this list have the talent and the staying power to be relevant for the next five years. There is no guarantee that they will, but they are the most likely to do so. Remember though, when once dominating closers lose a tick or two on the radar gun, they can quickly turn into mediocre seventh inning guys.
Outside of the top four, owners are advised to treat the closer position in the same manner that they would in re-draft leagues. You would be well served by stashing talented non-closers like Andrew Miller and Wade Davis in case they ever earn 9th inning gigs, but focusing on the long-term is likely a waste of time given high turnover on the closer carousel.
Additionally, owners who are not in contention to win in 2015 might want to consider taking a page out of the playbook from the real MLB teams. Trade your closers, or consider not even drafting them at all. If you are trying to build a strong keeper core for the future, trading today’s promising ninth inning man could be a great way to accumulate future core pieces at other positions. Remember that while players like Steve Cishek, Cody Allen and even Sean Doolittle have plenty of value today, there is a good chance that they will be irrelevant in a couple of years when your team is ready to contend.
Still need more rankings, head on over to Fantasy Rundown where Goose will be compiling rankings for the 2015 season as well as prospect rankings and the best baseball links available this off-season.