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Bullpen Report: The relief landscape

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Ranking closers is an inexact science. Are we ranking them for right now or the rest of the season? Are we talking Points or Roto leagues? Are we considering that some of them may be traded? Any concern here over competition or injury?

The short answer is ... yes.

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Just cherry pick all of the possible answers to those questions and you have this column. I'll try to introduce some headings to make it clearer what kind of value these closers bring to the table, what their roles may be, how fully you want to embrace them, and what you may need to be concerned about. But, overall, we're just talking about the best Fantasy closers, in an order that takes pretty much every one of those factors into account.

So, with that being said, I give you ...

The Untouchables

1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves
1a. Aroldis Chapman, Reds

There's a case to be made here for these two being neck-and-neck up top. I don't think many people would disagree with Kimbrel and Chapman being the cream of the crop, but I do believe Chapman deserves consideration as the top closer in the game because he has a year of closing under his belt and expressed a desire to want to do it again this year (and apparently blew up the Reds' offseason plans in the process). Additionally, Kimbrel had to work out some kinks in his delivery this spring, which gives just a little bit of pause in declaring him on a level all his own.

A handful of guys I want on my team

3. Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
4. Huston Street, Padres
5. Mariano Rivera, Yankees
6. Greg Holland, Royals
7. Joe Nathan, Rangers
8. Sergio Romo, Giants
9. Chris Perez, Indians

I've gotten a lot of backlash for elevating Street and Perez into this second echelon of closers, but the two main arguments against them are: "He's always hurt!" (Street) and "He's going to get traded so Vinnie Pestano can close!" (Perez) Once you wade past that white noise, however, you see some interesting arguments that work in their favor:

Street: In the eight seasons Street has pitched in the majors, he has never recorded fewer than 16 saves. Not a lot of players on this list can go back to 2005 and say that they've done that. Granted, the health issues have slowed him, but Street famously called out former manager Bob Geren for closer shenanigans when he was with the A's, and had to suffer through three years in Colorado after that. San Diego has a long track record of developing closers, and Street is locked in until at least 2014, with a 2015 option. If he can stay healthy -- and I am willing to gamble that he can -- he will produce for his owners.

Perez: The former first-round pick has 75 total saves over the last two years. And with the Indians looking like a team that could challenge for the wild card into the summer, there's no real sense in trading away your closer just because. Vinnie Pestano is great, but then who takes over the eighth inning role? And the Indians are set with their rotation (Carlos Carrasco and Daisuke Matsuzaka make for pretty solid insurance policies) and bench depth, so they don't even have any immediate needs forcing them to deal. My only worry here is the shoulder injury that sidelined Perez for part of spring training. Assuming he's over that, I see no reason why Perez can't get 35-plus saves again this year.

"We all are men, in our own natures frail, and capable of our flesh; few are angels."

10. John Axford, Brewers
11. Rafael Soriano, Nationals
12. Fernando Rodney, Rays

Here is your "flawed" group. Axford has some issues right now and Rodney had a 4.42 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in 266 2/3 innings pitched over the five seasons previous to his 2012 outlier. If one of these pitchers looks like he doesn't belong, it's Rafael Soriano. But here's the thing: Davey Johnson has a habit of throwing pitchers who aren't his primary closers into save situations. Go back to his days managing the Mets, and you see Jesse Orosco, Randy Myers, Rick Aguilera, and Roger McDowell in the saves mix over a four-year span. There are exceptions to the rule (the 1999 Dodgers, for instance), but if you scroll through Johnson's history, he has a tendency to mix more often than stand pat. With Drew Storen (43 saves in 2011) and Tyler Clippard (32 saves in 2012) at his disposal, Johnson may rest Soriano from time to time in favor of his other capable closers, which should result in six to eight fewer saves for Fantasy owners.

Three closers in search of a home

13. Jason Grilli, Pirates
14. Glen Perkins, Twins
15. J.J. Putz, Diamondbacks

Grilli is owned in 76 percent of leagues. Perkins is owned in 83 percent. Putz is owned in 86 percent. They're nice ownership numbers, but should be closer to 100 percent. Putz is a known commodity, and Perkins has the job locked down, so we'll worry about them later in the season and move on to Grilli, possibly the most interesting closer in the game. Bounced between starting and long relief for most of his career, Grilli had a 4.78 career ERA and 6.6 K/9 going into 2011, when he signed with the Pirates, mid-season. Since then, Grilli has put up a 2.73 ERA and 1.15 WHIP, striking out 129 batters in 92 1/3 innings. Last year's 13.8 K/9 bested the buzzy trio of Ernesto Frieri (13.25), Greg Holland (12.22), and David Robertson (12.02). And yet Grilli still got only begrudging/panicked picks in most drafts this year at the end of closer runs.

I tend to ascribe a lot of goodness to Ray Searage, the Pirates' pitching coach. He made A.J. Burnett relevant again, fixed James McDonald for almost an entire season, and made Jeff Karstens into a solid starter. Discounting the work he did with Grilli and even Jared Hughes would be doing a disservice to him. The continued success of nearly every Pirates pitcher under Searage even has me bullish on Francisco Liriano and, to a degree, Jonathan Sanchez. But that's for a different column. For the purposes of looking strictly at closers, I think it would be foolish to dismiss Grilli as a fluke. Fernando Rodney, who has held the same position his entire career, is a fluke. But Grilli, who found his niche a little later in his career while working with Searage, is a revelation.

Limbo!

16. Tom Wilhelmsen, Mariners
17. Rafael Betancourt, Rockies
18. Joel Hanrahan, Red Sox
19. Jim Johnson, Orioles

This group has talent, mixed with opportunity, baked inside a warm pie crust of worry. Betancourt is an almost certainty to get traded, in the last year of his contract on a team that isn't going to be very good, with a solid option (Rex Brothers) ready to take over. Hanrahan had some elbow issues last year and has Andrew Bailey breathing over his shoulder. Johnson was solid last year for the Orioles, but doesn't fit the profile of your hard-throwing, overpowering closer, which could cause some batters to catch up to him this year. And Wilhelmsen is a huge enigma, as he pitched wonderfully last year after coming out of, essentially, nowhere.

Wilhelmsen is my favorite in this group because of how he turned it on, Rafael Soriano-like, when given the high-pressure closer reins. On June 2, Wilhelmsen had a 3.81 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. He recorded his first save two days later, and began a run that would see him put together a 1.76 ERA and 1.02 WHIP over his final 48 appearances, saving 29 total games. It's tough to wholly embrace him, because of his spotty track record, but he's worth a gamble based on what he did last year when handed the ball and told to shut down the other team to finish a game.

A bunch of closers looking up

20. Mitchell Boggs, Cardinals
21. Brandon League, Dodgers
22. Addison Reed, White Sox
23. Casey Janssen, Blue Jays
24. Steve Cishek, Marlins
25. Grant Balfour, A's
26. Bobby Parnell, Mets
27. Carlos Marmol Kyuji Fujikawa, Cubs
28. Ernesto Frieri, Angels

The best way to do this would be to take each closer individually and explain what they can do to rise and what they did to be in this low tier:

-Mitchell Boggs needs Jason Motte to be out at least a few months and Trevor Rosenthal to blow a few more bullpen chances. He's low because Motte may still come back and Rosenthal is just an electric arm who could nudge his way into saves.
-Brandon League needs to just pitch well and keep that job. Don Mattingly did everything he could to keep Javy Guerra as his closer last year, and he will probably extend the same long leash for League. He's low because Kenley Jansen may simply be the better closer.
-Addison Reed needs to get his ERA below 4.00 this season. He's low because he had a 4.75 ERA in 2012 and the bullpen has two solid lefties (Hector Santiago and Matt Thornton) who could steal some situational saves from him if he struggles.
-Casey Janssen needs to prove his shoulder is fine and then hope for Sergio Santos' not to be fine. He's low because of the injury and the presence of Santos, a pitcher the Jays traded for to close.
-Steve Cishek needs to produce an ERA below 2.30 over the first 15 games. He has to be absolutely dominant to make up for the fact that the Marlins may not get him a ton of save opportunities. He's low only because the Marlins look pretty hapless, he's a bit of an unknown, and we didn't get to see a ton of him as a pure closer last year.
-Grant Balfour needs to show he's healthy. He's only low because of that knee surgery in spring training.
-Bobby Parnell needs Frank Francisco to go the Jason Motte route and be declared out for a long stretch of time. It would also help if Brandon Lyon struggled a little. He's low because he's unproven as a closer. But Parnell has the best shot of any of these closers to shoot up about 10 spots if (when?) things fall into place, situationally.
-Ernesto Frieri needs Ryan Madson to take two months off to rest his elbow. He's low partially because Madson will likely take over as closer when he's healthy, but also because Frieri hit a rough patch last season and was removed as the closer in September, something many of his most vocal supporters have apparently forgotten about.
- Carlos Marmol is low because he is the most unpredictable pitcher in the universe and will ultimately lose his job. Well, that was quick. I'm not going to go ga-ga over Fujikawa just yet, and not just because of his 11.57 ERA and 2.14 WHIP. Marmol could straighten out his problems in middle relief and be re-installed as closer, especially if Fujikawa struggles. Plus, Dale Sveum seems like he'd be open to using James Russell in lefty situations, which would lower Fujikawa's save potential. This all isn't to say that I'm not going to add Fujikawa while he's available, as saves are saves, but I'm not attaching a ton of value to him just yet.

Two "closers" without a category

29. Jose Valverde, Tigers
30. Jose Veras, Astros

Remember that fun fact earlier about Huston Street having no fewer than 16 saves in any season since 2005? Valverde has no fewer than 15 since 2005. And he has 44 or more in three of the last six seasons. He has 84 in the last two years combined. His strikeouts may have dropped a bit, but he's far from washed up, and I'm not sure the Tigers or Scott Boras would have agreed to let bygones be bygones if there wasn't near-certainty that Valverde is back and closing soon.

I'm not sure Veras will remain the Houston closer all year. But here's a fun fact: Drew Smyly and Erik Bedard have more saves (two, total) than all the other Detroit and Houston would-be closers combined.

The injury list

Jason Motte, Cardinals
Ryan Madson, Angels

Madson will probably be back closing games before Motte, who has yet to be re-evaluated, much less start a throwing program. But it's all essentially guesswork, and I wouldn't pass on other possibilities (like picking up a discarded Marmol) just because you're banking on one of these two coming back.

The next best things

A. Kenley Jansen, Dodgers
B. Sergio Santos, Blue Jays
C. Drew Storen, Nationals
D. Josh Fields, Astros
E. Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals

Not only will everyone in this group be the next in line on their teams for saves, but they can help some deeper teams by offering strikeouts and low ratios in the meantime. Jansen, Storen, and Santos are popular closer handcuffs, and Rosenthal is a popular add for owners who think Motte may be out for a while and Boggs won't be able to handle the duties. The interesting one here is Josh Fields, a Rule 5 pick from the Red Sox who can strike out a lot of batters and has a pretty clear path to saves for the Astros, with the untested Jose Veras ahead of him. This is deep league territory we're talking about, but if anything happens with Veras, or if he implodes early, it might be wise to at least familiarize yourself with Fields.

Three darkhorse candidates

X. Tommy Hunter, Orioles
Y. Brian Wilson, FA
Z. Jordan Walden, Braves

We get a ton of questions about backup closers here, and when we suggest some of the "next best thing" players, we usually get a response saying that they're all taken. So here are three wild gambles that I can get behind. Hunter was a blah starter, but upped his fastball velocity into the high-90s when switched to the bullpen late last year, seeing a huge jump in strikeouts and lowering of ERA and WHIP. He found his niche, Jason Grilli-style. Wilson is the best floater out there with Valverde off the market. He may be ready to pitch by May 15, could be on a team by June 1, and will likely be in the saves mix somewhere by the All-Star Break. Walden had 32 saves in 2011 with the Angels and finished last year with a 3.46 ERA after an ugly start. I think people are focusing too much on Eric O'Flaherty in the Atlanta bullpen and overlooking Walden, who has experience and is my bet to be called on if something happens to Kimbrel.

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
Dodgers' Friedman on Juan Jaime: 'He can really miss bats'
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:46 am ET) Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman spoke Wednesday about pitcher Juan Jaime, who was acquired from the Braves along with three others players in a six-man deal earlier in the day and assigned to extended spring training, MLB.com reports.

"He can really miss bats," Friedman said. "The limiting factor with him is the control. So we'll send him to Camelback and really attack the problem. If he can harness that even a little bit, we feel like we've added a really good player."

Jaime has posted a 5.93 ERA and 19:13 K:BB ratio in 13 2/3 innings with the Braves over two seasons. He has also walked nine batters in 5 1/3 innings in the minors this season after dishing out 36 walks in 41 innings with Triple-A Gwinnett in 2014.


Angels' Collin Cowgill likely headed to disabled list Thursday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:39 am ET) Angels outfielder Collin Cowgill is expected to be placed on the 15-day disabled list on Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Cowgill is dealing with a joint sprain in his hand after sustaining an injury during batting practice on Sunday and a subsequent MRI. He has hit .180/.231/.295 with one home run, two RBI and one stolen base in 61 at-bats. The Angels added a replacement bench outfielder in a trade Wednesday, acquiring Kirk Nieuwenhuis from the Mets.


Angels option Marc Krauss to Triple-A
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:37 am ET) The Angels optioned first baseman Marc Krauss to Triple-A Salt Lake after Wednesday's loss to the Padres, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Krauss loses his 25-man roster spot to outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who was added in a trade earlier in the day. The first baseman was just 5 for 35 with one home run and five RBI with the Angels. He returns to a .281/.405/.458 line with two home runs and 17 RBI in 96 at-bats with Salt Lake.


Diamondbacks' Brad Ziegler blows save, takes loss Wednesday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:33 am ET) Diamondbacks closer Brad Ziegler was saddled with his second blown save and first loss of the season on Wednesday, allowing two runs (one earned) on two hits and two walks in two-thirds of an inning in his team's 4-3 loss to the Cardinals.

Ziegler entered the ninth inning looking to protect a one-run lead but opened the frame by serving up a game-tying home run. He gave up a single before recording the first out of the inning, then walked two batters (one intentionally) to bring up Jhonny Peralta. The shortstop grounded into a fielder's choice, with the lead runner getting thrown out at home, but a throwing error by the catcher trying to record a double play brought the winning run home.

Ziegler owns a 1.25 ERA and 14:8 K:BB ratio in 21 2/3 innings.


Dodgers' Alex Guerrero knocks ninth home run Wednesday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:21 am ET) Dodgers left fielder Alex Guerrero went 1 for 4 with a solo home run in his team's 3-2 loss to the Braves on Wedensday.

Guerrero was hitless on the day before connecting on a ninth-inning homer off closer Jason Grilli, but his shot only reduced the lead to one run before the Dodgers eventually fell. It's the third home run in four games for Guerrero, who has hit .310/.344/.701 with nine homers and 21 RBI in 87 at-bats.


Braves' Cameron Maybin slugs fifth home run Wednesday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:18 am ET) Braves center fielder Cameron Maybin went 2 for 4 with a solo home run in his team's 3-2 win over the Dodgers on Wednesday.

Maybin put his team up 1-0 with his homer to center field in the third inning, his first home run since May 2. He has hit .261/.361/.435 with five home runs, 19 RBI and six stolen bases in 115 at-bats.


Braves' Jason Grilli surrenders homer, earns 14th save
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:16 am ET) Braves closer Jason Grilli served up a homer on Wednesday but was able to record his 14th save in his team's 3-2 win over the Dodgers.

Grilli needed 24 pitches to escape the outing, getting a quick out before surrendering a solo home run to cut his team's lead to one run. He then gave up a single and recorded another out to bring pinch-hitter Alberto Callaspo, making his Dodger debut after opening the season with the Braves, to the plate. The closer got Callaspo to fly out to end the game.

Grilli owns a 4.41 ERA and 23:7 K:BB ratio in 16 1/3 innings.


Angels' Matt Joyce slugs second homer Wednesday vs. Padres
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:12 am ET) Angels left fielder Matt Joyce went 1 for 3 with a walk and a solo home run in his team's 5-4 loss to the Padres on Wednesday.

Joyce was able to tie the game with his sixth-inning homer, though the Angels would immediately fall back in a hole by giving up two runs in the top of the seventh. The outfielder has hit .176/.253/.282 with two home runs and 13 RBI in 131 at-bats.


Cardinals' Matt Holliday reaches base in 43rd consecutive game
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(1:10 am ET) Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday reached base in his 43rd game played in a row during Wednesday's 4-3 win over the Diamondbacks. 

Holliday hit a single in the fifth inning, which vaulted him ahead of Albert Pujols for the club's record of consecutive games reaching base to start a season.

It also set a National League record in the same category, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

"Yeah, that’s cool," Holliday said. "A lot of players have played in the National League. That’s pretty good, I guess."

Only five players have started a season reaching base in more consecutive games — Derek Jeter (Yankees, 53, 1999), Frank Thomas (White Sox, 52, 1996), Mark McGwire (Athletics, 48, 1996), Alvin Davis (Mariners, 47, 1984), Harry Heilmann (Tigers, 44, 1923). 


Dodgers' Zack Greinke strikes out nine in no-decision vs. Braves
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:08 am ET) Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke wasn't a factor in the decision on Wednesday, allowing one earned run on three hits and two walks in six innings while striking out nine in his team's 3-2 loss to the Braves.

Greinke, whose only run allowed came on a third-inning homer by Cameron Maybin, also went 1 for 2 at the plate and stole a base for the first time this season and the fourth time in 244 career at-bats. He has yet to be caught on the basepaths.

Greinke owns a 1.48 ERA and 58:14 K:BB ratio in 67 innings. Although he's allowed just one run in each of his last four outings, he hasn't recorded a win since May 5. Greinke's next start is slated for Tuesday against the Rockies in Colorado.


 
 
 
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