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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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