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Di Fino: Re-ranking the closer position

Senior Fantasy Writer
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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.

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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

11. Addison Reed, White Sox
12. Jose Valverde, Tigers
13. Jason Motte, Cardinals
14. Rafael Betancourt, Rockies
15. Joe Nathan, Rangers
16. Brian Fuentes, Athletics

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

17. Brandon League, Mariners
18. J.J. Putz , Diamondbacks
19. Jonathan Broxton, Royals
20. Matt Capps, Twins
21. Brett Myers, Astros

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

22. Frank Francisco, Mets
23. Rafael Dolis, Cubs
24. Fernando Rodney, Rays
25. Casey Janssen, Blue Jays

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

27-28. Rafael Soriano and David Robertson, Yankees

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.

29-32. Craig Stammen, Henry Rodriguez, Sean Burnett, and Tyler Clippard, Nationals

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.

33-35. Jordan Walden, Ernesto Frieri, Scott Downs, Angels

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.

36-38. Alfredo Aceves, Daniel Bard, and Andrew Bailey, Red Sox

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.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Nando Di Fino at @NandoCBS . You can also send our staff an e-mail at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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Player News
Brewers' Khris Davis to work on being a patient hitter in 2015
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) Brewers outfielder Khris Davis realizes he didn't show patience at the plate last year in his first full major-league season, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

"I built a reputation in the organization of being a patient hitter," Davis said. "I felt like I wasn't a patient hitter at all last year. I was a little eager, wanting to please too much, too early. I found out I'm human."

Davis drew just 32 walks in 549 plate appearances while posting a .299 OBP in 2014, a number far away from his career .392 OBP in the minors.

"He was different last year," manager Ron Roenicke said. "Everybody goes through different phases. Guys change. (His walk total) was too low. He's a guy I think should be fairly patient. He sees pitches well. When he starts getting anxious, he becomes more aggressive and chases more. He realizes it, which is the first step. If you don't realize it and don't listen to other people when they tell you that, then you have issues. You have to have good self-awareness to be a good player. Sometimes these players don't have good self-awareness. But if they had better self-awareness they'd be a better player."

Davis is determined to fulfill the potential that caused the organization to move Ryan Braun to right field before the 2014 season and plug Davis into the regular left-field role.

"I can't thank them enough for having patience with me," Davis said. "I'm going to work it out. When you get here, you want to stay. That's the toughest part at first. I don't think this league has seen the best of me yet. I'm ready to pull that out and prove it day by day. I learned so many lessons there are too many to name."

Davis hit .244/.299/.457 with 22 home runs and 69 RBI in 501 at-bats.


Indians' Francona keeping a close eye on Giovanny Urshela
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) Indians manager Terry Francona has been keeping a close eye on third-base prospect Giovanny Urshela, who was only recently cleared for a full range of activities after tweaking his knee during winter ball, MLB.com reports.

"He has a tremendous reputation of being a really good defender," Francona said. "I think I've been more wanting to watch his gait, just to make sure he's not favoring that leg. He promised us that, if he was, he'd let us know, but I also know he's a young kid in his first major-league camp."

Urshela suffered the injury on Nov. 15 and has rehabbed the injured knee at the team's spring-training facility in Goodyear, Ariz.

"He's worked really hard to get himself to where he can go through a normal spring," said Indians' director of player development Carter Hawkins. "We're very excited about the spot he's in right now, given the possible outcomes of the injury."

Urshela saw his first action at the Triple-A level in 2014, hitting .276/.331/.473 with 13 home runs and 65 RBI in 395 at-bats with Columbus.


Reds' Brennan Boesch to see time at first base this spring
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) Reds manager Bryan Price indicated Friday that outfielder Brennan Boesch would see time at all three outfield spots as well as at first base as he competes for a roster spot this spring, MLB.com reports.

"We already know he's a terrific player," Price said of Boesch, who has never played first base professionally. "He kind of got banged up and lost his way a little bit, but I think he feels -- and we feel -- that he's back on top of his game, and maybe his best days are ahead of him."

Boesch said he doesn't see the battle for a reserve outfield role as a "competition."

"I only care about the competition against the pitcher, and that's really as basic as I keep it," Boesch said. "You aren't competing against other players. We're all on the same side here. We're all wearing Red jerseys. Let the chips fall where they may."

Boesch struggled in limited time with the Angels in 2014 but hit .332/.381/.636 with 25 home runs, 85 RBI and 10 stolen bases in 374 at-bats with Triple-A Salt Lake.


Dodgers' Mattingly: Turner has 'put a lot of time in and it shows'
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) Dodgers infielder Justin Turner earned a nonroster invitation to the team's camp last year and ended up leading the team in batting average, and he's been working on his body like a fiend over the winter, MLB.com reports.

"Going into last year, we felt if he played every day, he'd get in trouble, and we found that out, but this year maybe he can handle more," manager Don Mattingly said Friday. "He's really been diligent about his work, been at Dodger Stadium almost daily. He's put a lot of time in and it shows."

Turner credited strength-and-conditioning coach Brandon McDaniel for his workout success.

"Brandon did everything. He's been a one-man wrecking crew," said Turner. "He and his family deserve the credit. I've been able to establish a routine and train consistently. Before I signed a year ago, I was on my own, going to 24 Hour Fitness, had to coordinate everything myself."

Turner added that he lost 18 pounds this winter through a healthier diet. Mattingly said that he intends to use the infielder at the corner-infield positions and also potentially up the middle.


Nationals' Matt Skole: 'I'm eating healthy and working hard'
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) Nationals first baseman Matt Skole missed most of 2013 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and struggled at the plate in 2014 but showed up to camp in better shape and will look to rebound in 2015, MLB.com reports.

"This offseason, I had a little more time to work on my body," Skole said. "I really got after it in the weight room. I ate right. I ate healthy. I think that was probably the biggest difference for me. I'm about the same weight as I was. I just leaned out a little bit. I'm eating healthy and working hard."

Skole worked with hitting coordinator Troy Gingrich for a month after the season and learned to keep his hands up in order to hit the ball consistently after having his hands too low during his down 2014 season.

"After taking a year off, it was more difficult than I thought it would be," the left-handed-swinging Skole said. "But coming back, I turned some corners, made some strides as far as getting to know myself as a player and know the things I need to fix. I think everything I did last year was a stepping stone for this year."

Skole hit .241/.352/.399 with 14 home runs and 68 RBI in 461 at-bats with Double-A Harrisburg last season.


Report: Dodgers sign center fielder Travis Witherspoon
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) The Dodgers signed center fielder Travis Witherspoon to their organization, according to a report from Baseball America

Witherspoon has previously been in the Angels and Mariners organizations. In six years of minor-league ball, Witherspoon has posted a career batting average of .252 with 68 home runs. He hit a minor-league single-season best 15 home runs in 2014 with the Mariners' Single-A affiliate High Desert Mavericks. 


Phillies' Buchanan 'working on being a complete pitcher'
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) Phillies pitcher David Buchanan is "working on being a complete pitcher," manager Ryan Sandberg said, per the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The team's coaches spoke with Buchanan in the fall about command and pitch sequencing, executing bunts and thwarting would-be base-stealers, and Sandberg noted while examining the players that arrived early that the pitcher had taken the advice to heart.

"My biggest goal [this spring] is to show our front office and our coaches that I can throw the ball over the plate," Buchanan said. "That's one thing I had success with last year. I wasn't walking guys. I was throwing strikes, and that's what I'm known for. That's why I succeeded in the minor leagues; I was throwing strikes. So that's what I want to do this spring training, is continue to do that, pound the zone, force early contact and keep the ball on the ground."

Buchanan is scheduled to pitch the team's Grapefruit League opener Tuesday against the Yankees.


Giants' Bochy: Hunter Strickland 'needs to get a little smarter'
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) Giants pitcher Hunter Strickland is ready to learn from his mistakes from the tail end of his 2014 season.

Starting strong once he was called up from Double-A Richmond, Strickland gave up six home runs in the postseason. Giants manager Bruce Bochy said the remedy to put Strickland back on track is simple. 

"He needs to get a little smarter," Bochy said, per MLB.com.  

Strickland will be competing for a spot in the bullpen during spring training. His fastball is a strength, though it's a matter of his command improving on the mound. 

"The failures are what make guys better, I feel like," Strickland said. "I feel like they made me better. Just being in tune with yourself and knowing who you are and what you've got to do. In this game, you're not going to make it too far if you don't have confidence. If you don't believe in yourself, who else is going to believe in you?"


Mets' Nieuwenhuis, den Dekker competing for roster spot
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) Mets left-handed hitters Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Matt den Dekker will be battling for one roster spot this spring, MLB.com reports.

While Nieuwenhuis is out of options, manager Terry Collins indicated that den Dekker has responded to the team's request that he reduce his strikeouts when sent to Triple-A last season.

"We'll just see how it translates this spring into what kind of an offensive player he can be," Collins said of den Dekker. "We know he's got the defensive skills."

Collins said that whichever outfielder shows the most promise will make the initial 25-man roster.

"He plays the game right. He's fearless," Collins said of Nieuwenhuis. "But right now, we've got to get some offense from one of those two guys. Which one of those two guys is going to be able to come off the bench as a pinch-hitter? The best closers in our division are all right-handed, so the left-handed hitter off that bench is going to be a big piece."


Stephen Strasburg wants to stay with Nationals
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) Though Stephen Strasburg's agent Scott Boras denied a report that he wanted to be traded in January, the right-handed pitcher said himself that he wants to remain with the Nationals and has no issues with the organization. 

"I haven't said anything like that," Strasburg said in an interview with MLB.com. "I don't feel like that. You have to accept it because that's how the system works. It's like they pick up on any little thing and they twist it. Some people want to turn it to see how many clicks they can get on the webpage."

Strasburg is set to be the ace of a deep rotation that looks to be on of the best in baseball this coming season. With the Nationals winning their second divisional title in the past three seasons, Strasburg said he's happy with the organization. 

"It's the team that drafted me. I love the players here, I love D.C. Winning cures everything, that's for sure," Strasburg said. "I'm excited to be part of the resurgence so far. It's great to see the type of players we bring in here every year. The expectations keep going up and up. Hopefully, we can do big things this year."


 
 
 
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