One of the loudest responses I received to any column last season was the outcry over my omission of Jonathan Broxton from my National League closers-in-waiting list. Here I am a year later ready to make up for it. Not only did I remember to include the big man in my list this year, but I'll lobby for all NL-only owners to make him the first reliever taken. In fact, if you want the NL's best closer badly enough, you should plan on taking Broxton early. There are a number of closers in the league who can pile up similarly insane strikeout totals, but of this group, Broxton possesses the best combination of low walk and home run rates. That blend of skills will make him the most productive NL Fantasy closer in '09.
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There are some other pretty fair closers on this list of elites, though I've included the most recognizable name with some reluctance. Francisco Rodriguez might be K-Rod, but he's also BB-King. He walked more batters than any other closer in the American League last year. According to his 3.06 ERC, Rodriguez' ERA should have been almost a full run higher than it was last year, but his less-than-spectacular 1.29 WHIP was very much for real. That said, if you don't mind taking on his mediocre WHIP ratio, K-Rod has proven to be an elite closer despite all of the walks, because of his ability to miss lots of bats and keep homers to a minimum.
NL saves champ Jose Valverde is also among this esteemed group, despite the likelihood of a mid-3.00s ERA. He compensates for it with strikeouts aplenty and great command that keeps his WHIP under 1.20. Brad Lidge will almost certainly give up more than a pair of homers this year, but he should keep enough balls in the park to maintain an ERA near 3.00. Chad Qualls doesn't have the firepower of Broxton, K-Rod, Valverde or Lidge, but he generates a ton of worm-burners. With a groundball rate that could go as high as 60 percent, Qualls can be a highly effective closer despite a strikeout rate that falls short of double digits. Matt Capps will be absolutely no help with Ks, but how good is his control? He has 33 walks in three full seasons, which is fewer than the number granted by Lidge or Rodriguez last season alone. If you can afford the hit in strikeouts, Capps is an excellent source of low WHIP and ERA.
The rest of the NL closers are standing on shakier ground due to a flaw or two in their statistical profiles. Carlos Marmol's inclusion here may be a surprise to some, but there is no way he will be hiding his control problems behind a .174 BABIP again this season. Mike Gonzalez' astronomical HR/9 rate from '08 might have been an aberration, but if that doesn't make owners wary, health concerns should.
While Marmol may come into this year's drafts a bit overrated, Brian Wilson and Manny Corpas are sure to be underappreciated by many owners. Both are due for BABIP drops, which will lead to improvements in ERA and WHIP. Since both are groundball pitchers, both could also see improvements in HR/9, which would further deflate their ERAs. Though Wilson and Corpas are better than last year's stats make them appear, drafting them is not without its pitfalls. Wilson's wildness and Corpas' inconsistency have landed them on this list, and should they falter, able replacements are waiting in the wings. And Corpas might not even get a chance to fail as a closer, since he first must beat out Huston Street for the job.
With so many vulnerable closers, the question isn't whether any will lose their jobs, but rather how many and which ones. Joel Hanrahan, Francisco Cordero and Matt Lindstrom all lack the command you'd like to see from a closer, yet all could remain closers due to the lack of superior alternatives (barring a trade, of course). Underrated though he may be, Brian Wilson may actually be one of the NL closers most susceptible to a demotion. If his struggles with control continue, Bruce Bochy could always call upon Jeremy Affeldt. The free agent arrival can out-Wilson Wilson, chucking more groundballs while posting a more respectable WHIP. Whoever emerges from the preseason as the Rockies' closer -- Street or Corpas -- could eventually face competition from Taylor Buchholz. The former starter has thrived in the bullpen, succeeding through a low HR/9 rate. The main threat to Heath Bell's job security is a walk rate that has crept higher in every year of his major league career. If the trend continues, Mike Adams could be a superior in-house alternative.
While Hong-Chih Kuo may not have a shot at closing games ahead of Broxton, he adds to the embarrassment of riches in the Dodgers' pen, which also includes Cory Wade and Ramon Troncoso. The Cards have just the opposite situation: lots of competitors for the closer's role but none with a sterling skill profile. Though he has just 11 innings of major league experience, Jason Motte may eventually emerge as a stable presence in the ninth inning.
| Runs Created per 27 Outs (RC/27) -- An estimate of how many runs a lineup would produce per 27 outs if a particular player occupied each spot in the order; ex. the RC/27 for Miguel Cabrera would predict the productivity of a lineup where Cabrera (or his statistical equal) batted in all nine spots; created by Bill James |
Component ERA (ERC) -- An estimate of a what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based solely on actual pitching performance; created by Bill James
Base Hits per Balls in Play (BABIP) -- The percentage of balls in play (at bats minus strikeouts and home runs) that are base hits; research by Voros McCracken and others has established that this rate is largely random and has a norm of approximately 30%
Isolated Power -- The difference between slugging percentage and batting average; created by Branch Rickey and Allan Roth
Walk Rate -- Walks / (at bats + walks)
Whiff Rate -- Strikeouts / at bats
Al Melchior was recently a Fantasy columnist and data analyst for Baseball HQ and will be providing advice columns for CBSSports.com. Click here to send him a question. Please put "Melchior" in the subject field.