Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Keeper Closer Rankings

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


One more game and that's all she wrote. One more game and the season is over. One more game and your fantasy league standings will be final. Hopefully you won some of those leagues with our help here at Saves and Steals (and RotoWorld).

 

But for many of you the season is not going to be completely over tomorrow, either. Many of you are in keeper leagues, and you'll be trying to decide wether or not your closers are worth rostering into next season. Most of the time, it comes down to a comparison with a position player or starting pitcher. And most of the time, the closer should come up short. There's just so much variability from year to year. So much volatility in the position means you should take the player that will most likely still have his job next year, even if he isn't as good at it.

 

In order to help you make these keeper decisions, we'll name these tiers after players that are comparable keepers. That should help provide the context for this list, which is ranked not by how the closers did last season, but how likely they are to repeat their seasons next year (and the year after).

 

Because a true keeper closer is about as rare as Mariano Rivera.


Tier 1: Elite (5) (AKA: The "Pablo Sandoval" Tier.)

 

Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Jonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates

 

  • Pablo Sandoval had a good year at a position that took some serious injury hits. But he only hit 23 home runs, and he has a bad year on his resume as well. It probably still makes sense to keep the Panda over one of these closers, but it should make for a decent discussion.
  • Jonathan Papelbon's only demerit is the fact that he doesn't have a contract next year. There's very little chance that he doesn't end up a closer with that next contract in hand, but it's worth moving him down past a player who was excellent this year and is under contract next year with the same team. Otherwise Papelbon seems to be in his prime and is working on all cylinders.
  • The guy that moves past him? Only Craig Kimbrel and his rookie record saves total. And fifteen strikeouts per nine. And his blazing fastball. Yeah, that guy.
  • John Axford has now held his walk rate in check for two years in a row, and is back with the Brewers next year. He should be fine for at least the first half -- if they are terrible, it's worth mentioning that they might trade him at any moment. And Joel Hanrahan suffers under the same fate. He's also young enough, under control, and excellent enough to keep, but the Pirates might get a nice offer for him at some point.


Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Shane Victorino" Tier.)

Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Drew Storen, Washington Nationals
Ryan Madson, Philadelphia Phillies
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
Joakim Soria, Kansas City Royals
Jordan Walden, Anaheim Angels

 

  • The flying' Hawaiian has had a strong year and his real-life team is not complaining about having him at the top of their lineup. Fantasy teams even liked his near 20-20 season. But he didn't give a ton of steals, plays in the outfield, and ended up about the 20th-best outfielder. That's about where you should consider this group of closers. (But only if you don't have a tier one closer. It should take a little more for you to keep two closers.)
  • Yes, Mariano Rivera showed signs of his age this year. They weren't the most glaring signs -- he still had another sub-two-ERA, sub-one WHIP season -- but Mo had the worst ground-ball rate of his career this year. And he also has had his three worst swinging strike rates of his career in the past three years. And two of his three lowest innings totals have occurred since 2009. He's 42 and he could retire at any moment. Or he could string off another three years of awesomeness. That could happen too.
  • Drew Storen improved his game over the course of the season. Even if it was by dropping a pitch (he no longer uses a curveball), it's worked for him. Every peripheral stat was above average for Storen -- maybe not elite -- but above-average everywhere works. And he's under Nationals control for a long time.
  • Ryan Madson has been excellent this year but is a free agent. That's why Jose Valverde, who's getting older (34 next season) and had a control problem all year, is right with him. Valverde will be back with the Tigers next year.
  • So will Joakim Soria and Jordan Walden, the tier's riskiest pitchers. If Soria hadn't finished the season well (minus the hamstring blip at the very end), he might be more of a question mark. And if Mike Scioscia hadn't stuck with Jordan Walden through all those blown saves, then he might be a question mark. But both made it through the year with strong peripherals and should have the same place on next year's teams.



Tier 3: OK options (7) (AKA: The "J.J. Hardy" Tier.)

J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Andrew Bailey, Oakland Athletics
Brian Wilson, San Francisco Giants
Sergio Santos, Chicago White Sox
Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
Heath Bell, San Diego Padres
Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals

 

  • J.J. Hardy is a shortstop who hit 29 home runs this year. That alone makes him a valuable player. But he also hit 17 in 2009 and 2010 combined, so you can't consider him a lock to put up a repeat performance. And his batting average and frailty are also negatives. Still, with the risky closers in this tier, he might make for a safer keeper.
  • J.J. Putz is a closer who was dominant for large stretches of 2011. That alone makes him a valuable player. But he also missed huge chunks of previous seasons and doesn't seem like the most durable fellow. He'll be an underpriced late-inning option on the Diamondbacks next year, but the question is how many innings he'll put together.
  • Rinse and repeat for Andrew Bailey and Brian Wilson, making the beginning of this tier the M.A.S.H unit. Beard boy did make it back from his injuries, but his extreme wildness, paired with his missed time, seems to paint a risky picture. Andrew Bailey has pitched 89 and 2/3 innings over the past two years. He's a perennial injury concern.
  • Further down on the list come two players with different sorts of risk. Sergio Santos used to be wild, but it's Carlos Marmol that may find walks ending his run as a closer. He already gave up the role twice this year, and his outerworldly strikeout rate has become more worldly in the past year. Santos might actually be fine -- Ozzie Guillen is out of town -- but without an extensive track record (and no minor league stats to speak of), we can't be sure.
  • Heath Bell doesn't have a contract next year and was not traded somewhere to assume the closer role. He's coming off a year with reduced peripherals and it doesn't sound like the Padres will retain him any more. Still, he's been around longer than Jason Motte and doesn't have as crazy of a manager -- at least until he signs with a new team.



Tier 4: Question marks (7) (AKA: The "Adam Lind" Tier.)

Brandon League, Seattle Mariners
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Neftali Feliz, Texas Rangers
Mark Melancon, Houston Astros
Joe Nathan, Minnesota Twins

 

  • Okay, if you're considering keeping a first-baseman-slash-designated-hitter that hit .253 this year and didn't manage 30 home runs, then you can maybe consider keeping a rookie closer that's only been on the job three months. Or a 37-year-old closer that has only recently looked like a shell of his former self. Yeah, that's about the same.
  • This is a tough tier to be in. You're hovering above the closers that are obviously not keepers, but you also have some flaws keeping you from being reliable year-in and year-out.
  • Brandon League doesn't have the strikeout rate of a traditional closer. He had the second-worst strikeout rate among the top thirty pitchers in saves this year and was more than two batters per nine worse than your average closer. He also has a returning closer on his team in David Aardsma. But he was really good this year, and you never know what might happen. It's still a risky decision.
  • Rafael Betancourt has been excellent this year, and really his whole career. But he's going to be 37 before next season starts, and he's never made it through a season as the closer. That might be as strange as continually handing the closer job to Neftali Feliz, but that seems to be what the Rangers are doing. Both pitchers are probably better than Mark Melancon, but M&M had a decent season and is on a team that needs a cheap closer. Joe Nathan is 37 years old and is a free agent coming off a mediocre season in which he never quite showed the old stuff he once had. Hopefully you are in a deeper or dynasty league if you are considering keeping these less-than-insipiring options.



Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (5) (AKA: The "Probably Not a Keeper in Any Format" Tier.)

Kyle Farnsworth, Tampa Bay Rays
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Javy Guerra, Los Angeles Dodgers
Francisco Cordero, Cincinnati Reds
Frank Francisco, Toronto Blue Jays
Juan Carlos Oviedo, Florida Marlins
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Manny Acosta, New York Mets

 

  • Nope, it's just not a good idea. None of these guys has any semblance of job security going into next year. This is a flawed, flawed group of pitchers.
  • Maybe Kyle Farnsworth performed well enough this year to consider him a keeper for next year… but then there's still the issue of his tender elbow. And can we really forget his career 4.25 ERA and 1.36 WHIP when it comes in almost 900 innings? Sure, his last two years have been okay. And he's shown better control, but believe the last 900 innings before you believe the last 90.
  • Jim Johnson is interesting. He has a ton of ground balls and finally took the job away from a terrible Kevin Gregg. But the team has talked about using him as a starter, and they still have to pay Gregg next year. Those two facts alone make him a late-round draft pick next year rather than a keeper.
  • Javy Guerra had a good year. And he'll be back with the Dodgers next year. But his control, which was good at the beginning of the year, began to move towards his career rates as the season went on. He ended up with slightly-worse-than-average walk rate -- and his minor league walk rates were terrible. So there's your range for his control. And don't forget that Kenley Jansen has wicked stuff and strikes out twice as many batters per nine innings. Jansen is the dark horse for saves next year in that pen, and both are late-round picks at best.
  • Francisco Cordero is declining. Co-Co is going to be 37 before the season next year, and his peripherals are in a free-fall. His strikeout rate took a four-year decline into a career-worst number this year. His walk rate was good, but he's no known for his control. And his team has Aroldis Chapman chomping at the bit behind him. Pass.
  • Frank Francisco didn't have a great year, probably won't be back with the Blue Jays, and is therefore an arm without a home. The artist formerly known as Leo Nunez, Juan Carlos Oviedo, is a man without a name. Maybe one of these guys will close next year. Maybe.
  • Chris Perez. Looks like Jesus but pitches like… never mind. Seriously, his strikeout rate was worst among closers, and instead of making up for that with a good ground-ball rate, he has the worst ground-ball rate among closers. That leaves control, where he was mediocre and has never shown a good walk rate. Yeah, leave Perez out there. Remember Joe Borowski.
  • Manny Acosta? Is he even the closer right now?

* * * * * * * * * *


The Deposed:

Fernando Rodney, Los Angeles Angels
Ryan Franklin, St. Louis Cardinals
Brandon Lyon, Houston Astros
Matt Thornton, Chicago White Sox
Vicente Padilla, Los Angeles Dodgers
Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee Brewers
David Aardsma, Seattle Mariners
Jason Isringhausen, New York Mets
Jon Rauch, Toronto Blue Jays
Jonathan Broxton, Los Angeles Dodgers
Kevin Gregg, Baltimore Orioles

 

  • Could any of these come back from the dead? You never know if Matt Thornton ends up getting traded -- he's been up and down but has a wicked fastball and is left-handed. Francisco Rodriguez should probably close next year, but it also seems like folly to keep a guy that doesn't have a job yet. David Aardmsa may also reclaim his job in Seattle, but Brandon League did pretty well. Jonathan Broxton may have to prove to a team that he's healthy before he gets a closer jacket.


Eno Sarris is an editor and writer at FanGraphs.com. You can find his work gathered in one place at and enosarris.com. Follow his misadventures in writing on Twitter as well.
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