Oh closers, that fickle bunch of one-inning “specialists.” As many in the sabermetric community have noted, the “save” is a bit of a myth. How can the 9th inning be any more difficult than the other 8, especially when you consider these guys, closers, always pitch with a lead? Anyways, fantasy owners still value them, so you should draft one. Or two. Or three. Four? Maybe that’s a stretch, maybe not. Where to start? Here’s part one of my reliever rankings:
1. Craig Kimbrel: in his first year closing games for the Braves, Kimbrel was straight up filthy. He led the Majors in strikeouts per nine innings and showed the moxy to work through the ninth with ease. He walks a few more batters than you’d like to see, but that comes with the nastiness of his pitches. Atlanta appears poised again to make a strong run at the NL East and Kimbrel will get a large number of save opportunities.
2. John Axford: if you’ve kept up on things, you’ll note that Ryan Braun just got his suspension overturned. What does that have to do with the Brewers’ closer? They should win more games with Braun in the lineup and that should give Axford a few more save opportunities this season. With a fantastic k/bb ratio, Axford is a workhorse who should find himself near the league leaders in saves again in 2012. He’s also a fantastic twitter follow, fyi.
3. Jonathan Papelbon: he’s not in Boston anymore, but will still get a ton of save opportunities in Philadelphia. He was unlucky last season and should regress to the mean, in a good way, in 2012. With perhaps the best combination of high strikeouts and low walks of the bunch, Papelbon is still on top of his game.
4. Mariano Rivera: the ageless wonder, Rivera will keep closing out games with his cutter for the Yankees. He’s not an elite strikeout guy, but he keeps his walks as low as anybody and can get the groundball outs when he needs them. Plus, how can you discount his experience? All told, he’ll save a boatload of games for the in the Bronx once again.
5. Ryan Madson: another change of scenery for a closer, Madson is now in Cincinatti. Sporting a good k/bb rate, Madson avoids the big inning by getting groundballs and limiting his allowance of homers. The Reds play in a hitter’s park, but so did the Phillies, so I don’t see much of a change coming. He’ll get a lot of opportunities for the Reds as they’re expected to be a strong NL Central contender.
6. JJ Putz: the Diamondbacks will likely win a lot of games again and Putz will lock down the ninth. In 2011 he finally got right, health-wise, and looks to continue in 2012. His strikeouts are good and he keeps his walks way down. The only knock on him is that he surrenders a few too many homeruns (the ball carries in the desert) and doesn’t have the groundball rate to bail him out all of the time. He’s still very good, but not in the same category as those above.
7. Sergio Santos: the Blue Jays have a completely revamped (and overpriced) bullpen. Santos was a true wonder last season and racks up the strikeouts. Of course, he allows too many walks and was unlucky with the longball in 2011. He’ll have to improve on that this season in order to live up to his billing.
8. Jordan Walden: the Angels’ closer will have a ton of chances, as LA (of Anaheim; that still bothers me) should win a bunch of games in the AL West. The second-year closer throws some serious heat, but lacks the control to be elite. He blew quite a few saves in 2011 and he’ll likely be a little more reliable in his second go-round.
9. Drew Storen: as the Nationals' game-saver, he will receive more chances in 2012 than he did last year. He lacks the strikeouts numbers to be rated higher but he also keeps his walks at a manageable level. He really needs to cut down of his allowance of homeruns this season. Some people are higher on him than I am, but his 2011 ERA was uncharacteristically low, especially when you view his peripheral stats.
10. Heath Bell: the new-look Marlins have new closer in Bell. He doesn’t strikeout many batters, but he gets groundballs with his heavy sinker and finds his way out of innings. One interesting thought is how much benefit Bell received from the park factor in Petco. The new Miami stadium will not be so pitcher-friendly and Bell does get a lot of his outs via the flyball. That’s something to watch out for.
11. Andrew Bailey: making the move to Boston, Bailey will try to prove that he can close games under more pressure than he received in Oakland. He’s also coming off an injury-shortened season in which he’ll try to prove he’s durable enough to make it through an entire season. His k/bb ratio was almost identical to Storen’s above, but Bailey doesn’t get the groundballs to get out of innings the way Drew does. Instead, he’s a bit of a flyball pitcher and while the Red Sox have outfielders that can go get it, the ball flies out of Fenway more often than in the Coliseum.
12. Joakim Soria: despite sporting one of the best nicknames in baseball, the “Mexecutioner,” Soria has some work to do to get back on top of his game. Recently considered one of the elite players at the position, he’s dropped some due to decreased strikeout rate and too many homeruns allowed. Opportunities to save wins for the Royals are somewhat limited, but not improbable.
13. Joel Hanrahan: the Pirates closer is one consistent machine. He doesn’t walk batters often and almost never allows the longball. He doesn’t strikeout many batters either, and that keeps him from being ranked higher. He’ll get his chances for the Buccos and he’s a safe bet, but lacks the ceiling of those above him.
14. Jose Valverde: the demonstrative Tiger will be pounding his chest again in the Motor City in 2012. Detroit should win a lot of games giving “Papa Grande” a lot of save chances. He got lucky in 2011, so don’t read into last year’s ERA too much. He walks way too many batters and doesn’t have the greatest defense behind him.
15. Brian Wilson: while he’s still a complete maniac, Wilson lost a little bit on the hill last year. His walk rate was atrocious and his strikeouts were down. Fortunately for him, he plays in a park that suppresses offense and he rarely allows a homerun. He’s got a lot of work to do before opponents fear the beard in earnest again.