Relievers are typically seen as one-category guys. When saves were brought into fantasy baseball, there was plenty of controversy as it brought value to a guy who only did one thing, and with one or two exceptions each season, that has been the case. It no longer is, however. My projections that I’ve done has 8 closers topping 20 saves and 80 strikeouts. Not one closer in my top 15 has a projected ERA over 3 or WHIP over 1.15. Yes, they’re only giving you 50-80 innings, but the elite guys are having a drastic effect on your team, so much so that coming into this season, multiple rankings sources have finally caught up to the value changes in pitching. With the modern improvement of average starting pitchers’ lines, the value of an elite closer has climbed into the the top 10-15 of overall pitchers in fantasy baseball. Right now, there are 3 of those guys in that “elite” category, with 3-4 knocking on the door just behind them and a load of middle relief arms able to step up to that elite category if given an opportunity.
1. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves – Not even close for #1. He’s consistently good over the last three years, and he has as many saves as anyone in baseball in the last three years as well. Experts leagues typically undervalue closers, but Kimbrel has topped $25 in every one of them that has been mock drafted or drafted thus far, and he’s been as high as a 2nd round pick in those drafts. He’s worth solid spending, but don’t get caught up too bad in the hype and overspend, either.
2. Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds – Strikes out more than Kimbrel, but does such with an extreme velocity fastball that straightens out at times. 104 coming in straight is tough to get to for a lot of hitters, but the ones that can get it will hit it a mile. Chapman was used by previous management in odd situations that only added innings to his arm, and he seemingly gave up a run every time he was in those situations (or so it seemed to this 2013 Chapman owner!). New manager should hopefully mean Chapman’s innings are utilized better and could mean even better numbers.
3. Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers – If not for a heart condition, Jansen may have been in this class two years ago. Thankfully for him, he’s healthy enough to be here now. Closing for one of the deepest teams in all of baseball has its perks in that you rarely get used in situations that are meaningless, and your team is going to hand you a number of leads. Jansen is good for 30+ saves and 100+ K’s. He could even leapfrog Chapman this season if he takes another step toward dominance.
4. Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals – The first guy after the “big three” isn’t really that far off statistically, but he’s really got one situation the other guys don’t – competition. When Holland faltered a very little bit a the start of 2013, there were no shortage of young power arms in the Royals bullpen who could step up. Holland could outperform any of the top 3 guys, but that risk of losing the job is actually present for him and keeps him just behind them.
5. Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins – Maybe it’s because I wish he was a Brave so badly or that he pitched in college at my alma mater, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Perkins, and as a closer, he’s not hurt that loyalty at all. Perkins is on a team with a mediocre offense currently but a team that has improved their pitching. That sort of recipe on a bad/mediocre team often leads to lots of saves, and Perkins’ 36 saves in 2013 showed that. His contract is very desirable, so if the Twins are looking to make a big splash in July, Perkins might be the guy to use, but as a local guy who’s performing at an elite level, he’s likely to remain in Minnesota.
6. Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals – Rosenthal took over the closer role late in 2013 and thrived. He does have a mixed arsenal that would possibly lead the team to returning him to the rotation, but from all reports, his 2014 will be spent entirely in the bullpen. He’ll give you a ton of strikeouts, though he’s still working on the whole command and control part of his game and can go into fits where he walks a few guys or gives up good contact to hitters, but he could jump up this list as well if he can stabilize that area of his game.
7. Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox – One of my favorite relievers for some time simply because he doesn’t walk ANYONE, Uehara finally got a chance to close, and it happened to be for the World Champions in 2013. Because of that, he could be slightly overrated in your drafts this spring, but watch for him, because I’ve seen him going from a top 10 closer to as low as the 17th closer off the board in drafts, so if people in your league are seeing his 2013 as a fluke, jump on board with him fast and enjoy the benefits.
8. Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants – For all the hype around Brian Wilson in his time as the Giants closer, Romo has actually had better numbers. He isn’t a high strikeout pitcher, so don’t look for him to move up significantly from this ranking, but he also rarely walks anyone and his stuff gets pounded into the ground, leaving him with a low WHIP and ERA along with good save numbers.
9. Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers – When he’s done as a player, Nathan may go down as a top 3-5 closer of the modern (starting with Dennis Eckersley) era. He’s simply been a consistent force at the back of the Twins bullpen for years, then recovered from Tommy John to post a very good 2013 for the Rangers. He now joins a Tigers team with a very solid rotation and good offense that should hand him plenty of leads.
10. David Robertson, New York Yankees – The heir apparent to Mariano Rivera the last few years, Robertson has been consistently good in his setup role. He has a ridiculous curveball for a late inning guy, and he uses it well to keep hitters off-base and produce weak contact. His strikeout rate could lead him to being a top 5 guy going into 2015, but for now in his first year on the job full-time, we’ll hedge our bets a bit here.
11. Jim Johnson, Oakland Athletics – Many in the baseball world were surprised that when Oakland finally spent money on a reliever it was on THIS reliever. Johnson has racked up huge save numbers in Baltimore the last few seasons, but his strikeout rate is very low, mainly due to a bowling ball style sinking fastball that induces ground out after ground out. Oakland emphasizes defense, especially on the left side of the infield, so look for his success to continue. That said, also be aware that Oakland has put together a stable of very good young arms that could step in quickly if Johnson falters.
12. Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays – He may not wow you with strikeout rates, but Janssen has very good control from the bullpen, and he makes batters go after his pitch. Pitching in Toronto’s ballpark means most any of his mistake pitches get hit hard, but even then, he’s been a guy with around a 1.00 WHIP, so saves and low WHIP numbers will carry you a long way in your #2 closer.
13. Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies – Nicknamed Papelblown by rival NL East fans the last couple of seasons, Papelbon has seen a big drop in his underlying skills, even though the numbers haven’t quite caught up yet. He’s got the highest projected ERA in my top 15, and the way things are going with his velocity rates and command numbers, I may be optimistic in that number. The one thing carrying Papelbon right now is the lack of a true next-in-line in the Phillies bullpen, so he should be able to continue to rack up saves, even if he’s back tracking on other statistics.
14. Grant Balfour, Tampa Bay Rays – On any other team, I might not have Balfour in my top 15, especially after the mess that was his contract with the Orioles this offseason, but the Rays have a way of taking veteran relievers and maximizing what they do well and keeping them away from situations that they don’t excel in. The major worry on Balfour for me in 2014 is not his numbers, which I think will be fine, but Joe Madden enjoys mixing and matching his bullpen at times, and that could mean a few less saves for Balfour.
15. Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins – Cishek was the anchor of a very young Marlins bullpen in 2013, and he excelled in the role. He had some bumps as any young pitcher in any role does, but by the end of the season his rate stats were exceptional, and he has the stuff to be a 90-100 strikeout per season closer along the way as he grows into the role. The biggest question is how many leads he will get to protect, but otherwise, his numbers should make you a very happy owner.
Position strategy: Matthew Berry has famously coined the line, “don’t pay for saves.” There’s some truth to that remark in that many people go overboard trying to ensure they have their closers once the first couple of guys go off the board. That phrase may be going out of style, though, as the elite closers are reaching the point where they’re worth the money/draft pick spent on them early. There are typically 5-10 closers that come into the league each year, and injuries to your closer can quickly leave you scrambling for the relief pitcher backup. I will also suggest pursuing the amazing middle relievers as well as they will give you good rate stats and strikeouts with no saves. Go after the top guys and then stack up a number of guys to keep you safe. Just don’t chase the save as it’s only one category.