More than ever before, ranking the closers takes a lot of "ifs" and theoretical questions into account. Closer X might be highly skilled and the obvious choice to close out games, but if his manager is married to the idea of mixing guys in, or brings up the idea of a committee, then we're at the mercy of one man's whims and ideas.
It's not that we question the moves -- as frustrating as it might be for us, the manager probably has a much better handle on things than we sometimes give them credit for -- it just makes it harder to peg down situations. It's like baseball's version of a Choose Your Own Adventure book: we add everything up, think about it, and have to turn to a certain page, but we're stuck on that scenario and have to see it through. The author is really the only one who knows how it all ends.
So keep that in mind as we look at the closer carousel. Skill, opportunity, manager whims, injury history, injured players coming back, and everything else in between has been taken into account. Some are ranked high because they're steady; others get a boost because if things break their way, the returns outweigh the risk. These are the stoppers, when all the dust settles, who could lead you to a Fantasy title.
The Top Ten
1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves: Kimbrel has 60 saves in just one and a half seasons of closing out games. He recorded 46 saves last year, while also picking up four wins, and has 13 already in 2012. He strikes out almost two batters per inning, registering 127 strikeouts in 2011 alone, registering more than Mark Buehrle (109), Bronson Arroyo (108), Rick Porcello (104), and Bruce Chen (97). You should be able to rely on your closer for 65-70 strikeouts. Getting more than pitchers who have thrown 200 innings -- with four wins on top of it -- makes Kimbrel the most valuable of Fantasy closers.
2. Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies: Papelbon has 231 career saves, all accrued in 2006 forward. He was one of the top closers in the game with Boston before signing with the Phillies in the offseason, where he's afforded lineups that will feature pinch hitters late in games, as opposed to designated hitters. So far this season he has 12 saves with 21 strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings pitched.
3. Jim Johnson, Orioles: I'll admit -- I had reservations about Johnson as the season began, foreseeing a world where Buck Showalter would lean more on either Kevin Gregg (who had saved plenty of games before as the closer for the Marlins, Cubs, Blue Jays, and Orioles) or Matt Lindstrom, who has 45 career saves. I wasn't alone -- Johnson was owned in just 39 percent of leagues in the first week of the season. But Jim Johnson proved 61 percent of us wrong, not only snagging the job, but posting a 0.87 ERA and 0.77 WHIP in the process. His 16 saves are a career high, and he doesn't look to be slowing down any time soon.
4. Chris Perez, Indians: Perez ranks high because Cleveland is winning. And as long as Cleveland is winning, or at least in contention for a playoff spot, the rumors of Perez getting traded to another team, paving the way for Vinnie Pestano to close, can be ignored. Perez really had just two bad games this year: a three-run debacle on opening day against the Blue Jays, and a two-run loss to the White Sox on May 8. He's given up runs in just three games this season.
5. Santiago Casilla, Giants: Casilla seems to have the closer role in San Francisco all to himself. For all the arguments that Dale Thayer or Fernando Rodney may be better, Casilla doesn't have a closer coming back from injury; Brian Wilson is out for the season, and Sergio Romo seems cemented in the eighth inning role. Casilla has two straight seasons of sub-2.00 ERA since joining the Giants and is currently on pace -- even with Wilson having pitched up until April 12 -- for 41 saves.
6. Kenley Jansen, Dodgers: It seems like Javy Guerra is buried in set-up duty and the job is Jansen's, but it'd be foolish to not subtract points from Jansen for Guerra's presence alone -- you just never know. Jansen has been as dominant as any pitcher in the last two years. He almost hit 100 strikeouts in 2011 (with 96), and is on pace for over 130. It might be tough to capitalize much on the three wins he already has (two of them came in early April, before he took over the closer's role), but the strikeouts and saves should more than compensate.
7. Aroldis Chapman, Reds: The only reason he isn't in the top three is a worry that Dusty Baker might give Sean Marshall a few more chances here or there, include Logan Ondrusek in more closer plans, or that the front office may decide -- and this is an insane longshot, but Chris Sale and anything that has to do with Boston have taught us that insane longshots are in play this year -- that Chapman should be a starter. He has been nothing short of dominant and could enter Kimbrel's atmosphere with the strikeouts and wins, given a full-time shot at the job.
8. Joel Hanrahan, Pirates: Hanrahan had 40 saves for the Pirates last year. You'd have to go back to Jose Mesa in 2004 for the last Pirates closer to hit 40. The team improved, and Hanrahan successfully slammed the door on a lot of close games. He missed some time this year with an injury but seems to have bounced back without incident. Even if he just gets the 37 saves he's on pace for, it'll still be one of the more successful closer campaigns in recent Pirates history.
9. Heath Bell, Marlins: Bell seems to have straightened out whatever problems he had earlier in the season, which caused him to cede his role as closer, briefly, to Edward Mujica and Steve Cishek. Bell now has four successful converted saves in a row and looks far more like the closer with three straight seasons of 40 saves than the shaky pitcher with a 7.16 ERA
10. John Axford, Brewers: Axford rounds out the top 10 through no fault of his own. The Brewers went two weeks without giving him a save opportunity, and, while he has proven to be one of the most talented closers in the majors, if this lack of save chances is a sign of things to come, it will eventually hurt his value. Still, Axford has struck out 26 batters in 15 1/3 innings pitched, giving patient owners a consolation prize while the Brewers try to get him more leads to protect.
The Second Tier
Reed would be in the top tier, but the Chris Sale Debacle gives pause on two levels: 1. Sale could always be sent back to the closer role, and, 2. That line of thinking opens the door for Jake Peavy, Gavin Floyd, or any other starter to be bumped to the bullpen for saves. Reed has the stuff to be in the Top 10, but the situation still has aftershocks of insanity that, if this were a movie, might have crowds shouting, "don't go in there!" ... Valverde had 49 saves last year and has two additional 40-plus save seasons in his career. He has an ugly 5.51 ERA right now and hasn't pitched since May 15 thanks to a back strain. But he declared himself good to go this week, if needed. ... Motte is solid as a closer, but the presence of other closer-types in the St. Louis bullpen and the lack of any record on how Mike Matheny handles relievers is a bit of a worry. ... Nathan is one of the more reliable closers in the game, but he's still just a year removed from Tommy John surgery. ... And while Fuentes has had success as a closer before, there's always the chance the lefty is used in a situational role here and there, giving a save to Grant Balfour from time to time.
The Third Tier
If there was trade cloud hanging over League's head, he would be borderline first-tier. ... While Putz has been pretty terrible this year, a look at his game log shows that much of the damage was done in a low-profile, non-save situation against St. Louis. ... As good as Broxton has been, he has the threat of a trade over his head as Kansas City slips out of contention (especially with Aaron Crow and Greg Holland as ready replacements in the bullpen). ... Capps has a 42-save season under his belt, but he was unusually shaky in 2011 and could revert to that pitcher at any given time (although he does get a bump for Minnesota not having a ready replacement for him). ... Myers has been nothing short of great, but there's always the chance that he, too, gets traded. and, continuing with the trade theme, if you can get past any of these trade worries, feel free to bump the closers up a tier -- League would be first, followed by Broxton and Myers.
Four Who Don't Inspire The Most Confidence
Francisco always has the threat of his job being taken away; amazingly, for the second year in a row, pitching for a totally different team in a different league -- in a different country, it could be Jon Rauch who seizes his gig. ... Dolis was pushed into closer duties thanks to Carlos Marmol's ineffectiveness. He's averaged just about 95 mph on the radar this year with his fastball, and that's basically the only element of his game that is attractive to Fantasy owners (outside of the fact that he apparently has the job locked down). Dolis has a 4.74 ERA and 1.34 WHIP, with 13 walks against 10 strikouts in 24 2/3 innings pitched. Additionally, he has just one season with an ERA under 3.00 in his minor league career. ... Janssen and Rodney are essentially holding the closer roles until Sergio Santos and Kyle Farnsworth return. They rank below Francisco and Dolis because there's always the chance that -- as unexciting as they are -- Francisco and Dolis could hold onto the jobs for the entire season, without looking over their shoulders at closers returning.
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Dale Thayer Stands Alone
26. Dale Thayer, Padres
Thayer had 173 career minor league saves across 10 seasons, with three organizations. He's played as a Wizard, a Biscuit, and a Beaver. He has the distinction of being a Player To Be Named Later in a trade. And now -- right now -- he is one of the best closers in baseball. Unfortunately, it's likely to be ephemeral, as Thayer is serving as a replacement for Huston Street. But it's a marvelous stint. Five saves in 10 games. He has not walked a batter. He has not given up a run. Heath Bell had three straight 40-save seasons as San Diego's closer; low-scoring teams sometimes have the best save opportunities. Thayer is a great short-term pickup, but he's likely to go back to setup duty once Street returns, which could happen in the next two weeks.
The Closers Who Are In Really Weird Situations
The smart money here may be on Soriano, who is currently serving as the closer for the Yankees. There are two reasons for this: 1. Soriano has the job, and although the save opportunities seem to have dried up in New York, there's something to be said for not rocking the boat and sending a pitcher who wants to throw in pressure-packed situations at the end of games back to setup duty. And, 2. Robertson has 10 times as many multi-inning appearances since 2009, giving manager Joe Girardi the freedom to use Robertson's flexibility in jams in the seventh and eight innings, while using Soriano to slam the door in the ninth. A bonus reason for Soriano: Robertson's return could always get complicated and pushed back.
The smart guess would be Clippard, who says he wants it and has the skill to be a really effective closer. But all four have two major problems: not only is Drew Storen expected back around the All-Star break, but Davey Johnson has said he wants to close by committee. The last time he said that, earlier this season, it resulted in the Lidge-Rodriguez rotation of saving games. If nothing else, he is a man of his word.
Your guess is as good as any. But, interjecting the annoying first-person here for a moment, I'm personally going with Walden. First, you have Frieri, who immediately entered the saves conversation upon being traded from San Diego. A former starter, Frieri excelled as a strikeout-heavy reliever after making the conversion full-time in 2010 in the minor leagues. Next, you have Downs, who initially grabbed the job when Walden was sent to middle relief. But his value may lie more in middle relief. Finally, there's Walden, an All-Star in 2011 who had five wins and 32 saves last season. In fact, after giving up runs in just two games this year, Walden is sporting a 2.77 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. He's finished seven games and has one save on the season. It's likely going to come down to Walden and Frieri for the season lead in saves, with the edge going to Walden because he excelled as closer last year. Regardless, if one of these two closers are named the closer by Mike Scioscia, they are immediately in the top tier.
Bailey, even though he hasn't thrown a pitch yet this season, is probably the closer you want here. Aceves has turned out to be a solid closer for the Red Sox, but he's proven in the past that he also has value as a middle reliever and swingman. Bard, meanwhile, has a 4.69 ERA and 1.56 WHIP this season as a starter. He has walked more batters in 48 innings than he did last year in 73 innings. In short, with the Red Sox proving to be a team of fluidity and moving parts in 2012, it's not insane to think that Bard and Aceves could be swapped, especially with Mark Melancon sporting a 0.56 ERA (with 24 strikeouts in 16 innings) in Pawtucket. Eventually, Andrew Bailey will come riding into town to sort this all out, but plenty could happen between now and late July, when Bailey is expected to return.
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