Just wait. Wait as long as you can.
Let closers fly bly -- practice restraint, hold it in, think about baseball stats, take a sip of water, jog around the room, change the channel, dreamcast your infield, do whatever it takes. But wait.
Because closers lose their job to injury or poor play about a third of the time. And, in 70 innings, despite their good work in ERA and WHIP, their impact is muted. How much would you pay for a starter that you were sure was going to be on the DL for 2/3 of the season?
So wait. And use these tiers to help you wait. It still makes sense to get a couple closers that are less likely to lose their job than others, so target a closer or two from the top two tiers. As the players disappear from the tiers, move the remaining closers up on your draft queue. Once you only see a couple left in a group, that's your time to strike.
You'll still like your bullpen, promise.
Tier 1: Elite (5) (AKA: The "Put them in the lineup and forget about them" Tier.)
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
This is exactly the same tier that ended the 2011 season on top.
Why should any of them change position? Even if it is Mariano Rivera's last season, he could probably throw that cutter into his sixties. Craig Kimbrel and John Axford strike out double-digit batters per nine -- and last season they both added a new wrinkle when they improved their control to about league average. Strike out more than four batters per walk and you're doing well.
Jonathan Papelbon went from one elite team to another, so he should be fie. The best news about Paps is that his velocity crept upwards towards the end of last season. Thanks to FanGraphs.com, we can see it in graph form:
Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Still smiling" Tier.)
Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
Heath Bell, Miami Marlins
Jordan Walden, Anaheim Angels
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Andrew Bailey, Boston Red Sox
You're still smiling when you select the pitchers in this group, but that doesn't mean that these closers are unassailable.
Joel Hanrahan has been an elite tier closer before, and he could be again. But, even as he showed great control -- he walked only two batters per nine last season, best in his career by far -- his strikeout rate fell precipitously. He didn't strike out a batter per inning for the first time since he moved to the pen for good. He focussed almost exclusively on his fastball -- which he threw at a career-high 97 MPH speed -- which might work for his real-life game, but does hurt his fantasy appeal. Then again, he still got above-average swinging strikes, so a strikeout boost could be coming this year. He's falling in drafts, and can absolutely play the role of your first closer, though, so call him a 'sleeper.'
Heath Bell? He put up career worsts in strikeout rate, swinging strike rate, and ground-ball rate, and now he's headed to to a park of undetermined nature. Jordan Walden? He's a young pup with a crazy jump-step delivery and a history of control problems in the minor leagues (albeit as a starter). Jose Valverde? He's 34 and coming off the worst strikeout rate (and second-worst swinging strike rate) of his career, and has always had below-average control. That's not to say that these guys aren't valuable, it's just to say that they aren't probably elite.
The last two guys are elite… when they are in the game. Health is the bogeyman to J.J. Putz and Andrew Bailey, so (especially in deeper leagues) think about keeping David Hernandez and Mark Melancon close.
Tier 3: OK options (7) (AKA: The "Should keep their jobs all year, right?" Tier.
Sergio Santos, Toronto Blue Jays
Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Brian Wilson, San Francisco Giants
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Brandon League, Seattle Mariners
Now we're hoping that the closer we pick here just keeps the job all year. If they do, you'll have come out a winner. If not, just make sure you're aware of the next guy in the pen.
There's a lot of upside in this tier. Each one of these pitchers could be a second-tier closer by the end of the year, and Brian Wilson, Sergio Santos and Rafael Betancourt have the peripheral stats to make them possible elite tier members with a healthy, successful work in the closer's role.
So why are they down here? They've got louder questions surrounding them than those in tier two.
The top trio just need to prove that they can do it again. All three of Sergio Santos, Jason Motte and Rafael Betancourt have excellent peripherals, great stuff, and the closer's role in hand… for now. If they prove to their organizations that they are fine, they will easily leap tiers by the end of the season. This is particularly true of Santos, who's the youngest of the crew and has the best strikeout rate.
Brian Wilson and Huston Street are healthy right now. But Wilson's already had some hiccups and Street hasn't managed 65 innings more than once in the past five years. Was Wilson's career-low velocity last year a harbinger of doom? Street had his second-worst velocity, too.
Brandon League is a good pitcher. He's on a bad team, though, and could get traded at any minute. Then you add in the lack of strikeouts, and he's like a slightly better Jim Johnson.
Tier 4: Question marks (7) (AKA: The "Should at least start the season as his team's unquestioned closer" Tier.)
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
Frank Francisco, New York Mets
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Brett Myers, Houston Astros
Kyle Farnsworth, Tampa Bay Rays
Matt Capps, Minnesota Twins
Day one, these closers will look just fine on your roster. Day 162? Who knows. If the last group included closers that had just one question, these closers have multiple questions.
Joe Nathan might even have three questions. One is his health -- will his gradually recovering velocity stand up in the new season? Related to that velocity question is one of performance -- can he be the old Joe Nathan without the old Joe Nathan's velocity? Third, if Neftali Feliz ends up back in the pen again (and his shoulder pushed him to a Minor League exhibition start this week), will Nathan lose the role to him?
Carlos Marmol and Frank Francisco both gave us both looks last year -- they were both dominant for portions of the season and they both lost their jobs at one point. Jim Johnson and Brett Myers have been closers before, but neither has managed it for more than a season, and both were starters at some point last year. Consistency and success will count a lot for these players, but it's also important that their teams are rebuilding, and if they do find success, they might find their way out of town on a trade. This is especially true for Marmol, who might have the most trade value.
Kyle Farnsworth and Matt Capps are decent pitchers. Glen Perkins and Joel Peralta sit behind them and aren't really knocking the door down for the first chair. So why are they down here? Well, Farnsworth had a below-average strikeout rate last year, but it's more about control with him -- can he keep putting up such a great walk rate after he spent a whole career with a below-average walk rate? And Matt Capps always had a bad strikeout rate for a closer, and last year he pushed it to ridiculous extents with fewer than five strikeouts per nine… and a below-average ground-ball rate to boot. So here are two older gentelmen relievers dependent upon control who don't have an extended career of success to fall back on should they struggle in the coming season. They still make fine third closers, provided they are cheap.
Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (5) (AKA: The "Handcuff or hope you picked right" Tier.)
Drew Storen (first chair), Tyler Clippard (second chair), Brad Lidge (third chair), Henry Rodriguez (fourth chair), Washington Nationals
Chris Perez (first chair), Vinnie Pestano (second chair), Cleveland Indians
Sean Marshall (first chair), Nick Massett (second chair), Cincinnati Reds
Greg Holland (first chair), Jonathan Broxton (second chair), Kansas Ciity Royals
Matt Thornton (first chair), Addison Reed (second chair), Hector Santiago (third chair), Chicago White Sox
Grant Balfour (first chair), Brian Fuentes (second chair), Joey Devine (third chair), Oakland Athletics
Javy Guerra (first chair), Kenley Jansen (second chair), Los Angeles Dodgers
Drew Storen is already hurt, and may miss opening day. Its a mess behind him, though, and he could still make the team on Opening Day. Tyler Clippard is the second-best pitcher in that pen, but Nationals manager Davey Johnson is talking about keeping him in the setup role and going to Brad Lidge or Hendry Rodriguez. Oh Henry! has gas, but no idea where the ball is going, while Lidge has veteran guile, a strong slider, and a fastball with less and less gas every year. It's pretty much a pick's.
Chris Perez seems safe-ish, but he's already hurt. And, among the thirty top relievers by saves last year, he was ranked 25th-30th in strikeout rate, walk rate, and ground-ball rate. That's bad, y'all. Pestano was lights-out with one dominant pitch, and will be ready to do that in the closer role once given the chance.
Dusty Baker says a lot of things. He says that Sean Marshall is the closer, but that he's not comfortable using him many days in a role. He says that he's going to use a committee. He says he doesn't like committees. With the team still trying Aroldis Chapman in the rotation -- and paying him like a starter -- the best bet is that Marshall takes the role and runs with it all season. He has the peripherals to stand up to the task.
Joakim Soria went down and left the door open. Greg Holland is the youngster with the wipeout slider and the vicious strikeout numbers. Jonathan Broxton is the veteran with Closer Experience. A rebuilding team would probably be best served going with the guy that they have under control past this season, but you never know with the Royals. Still, until Broxton proves he's Broxton again, Holland is the front-runner.
The White Sox solved this situation last year with Sergio Santos, and then they jumped right back into this situation. Seems about right for a rebuilding team, actually. They've got Addison Reed on the way up, and Addison Reed absolutely destroyed every level that was presented to him last year. He's probably the Closer of the Future. But right now, Matt Thornton is ready to go, and they might be inclined to pump up his value by having him close now and then trading him later. And lefty Hector Santiago has been cooking with gas since he moved to the pen, so he might factor in later. If Robin Ventura is anything like Ozzie Guillen in bullpen management, they could all get saves this year. Good luck hunting.
Brian Fuentes probably wasn't going to close after all of his comments last year, so Balfour being named closer probably wasn't such a surprise. But it is worth noting that his strikeout rate (and swinging strike rate) are in the midst of a four-year decline. While his walk rate has finally gotten better than average, it's not elite, and his ground-ball rate is poor. He can probably get the job done. But there's a crack in the door thanks to those declining peripherals, and someone like Joey Devine or Fautino De Los Santos can maybe slither through that crack.
Javy Guerra has only given up one run this spring and is the unquestioned closer going into the season! Job's done. Nope. Look closer. He's walked four against five strikeouts in fewer than seven innings. And this is a guy that had a walk rate over five per nine innings before last year. He also managed a sub-par strikeout rate with a sub-par walk rate and an average ground-ball rate. Oh, and Kenley Jansen, with his fireball and insane strikeout rate, is breathing down his neck. This role should change hands this season, and sooner rather than later.
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We'll wait on official word from the clubs before populating this list. Do watch out for Drew Storen and Chris Perez, though.
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The Steals Department
If there was a Juan Pierre Jr. out there, his name would be Ben Revere. Like Pierre before him, Revere has absolutely no power. He hit one home run in 2011 and one in 2010. He might also not be a center fielder, despite his wheels, so he has that in common with his predecessor. But Pierre Redux does have wheels. He stole 34 bases in only 481 plate appearances last year and could easily get 600 this season. That puts him on pace for 40-plus stolen bags. That'll do.
Dude is pretty small, but he's got wheels, and a regular job. That's right, the 5'7" (generously listed), 170-pound Jose Altuve is the Astros second baseman for sure. He probably won't give you a ton of runs in that lineup, and his power upside is no better than league average, but he did steal 31 bases across three levels last year, and 42 in 2010. He's also showed an ability to make enough contact to threaten a .300 batting average. That makes for late-draft sleeper material in deeper leagues.