Finally! It's finally time for counting baseball. Sure, they played a few games last week, but if a bear craps in the woods and nobody hears it, it doesn't count. (That's how that saying goes, right?)
Anyway, it's a new day and we all have hope for the new season. Well, some of us have more hope than others. I'm sorry, Houston fans, the Astros probably aren't going to the postseason this year.
And so we'll name the tiers after the teams this week. The more likely the team to play October baseball, the better the closer.
We hope it helps.
Tier 1: Elite (5) (AKA: The "Red Sox, Tigers, Phillies and Yankees" Tier.)
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
Would you look at that. Two of the top four teams have two of the top four closers. Don't let that convince you that a top-tier closer is a prerequisite to a championship team -- fantasy or real. You'll need 600 innings from your top three starters, 2000 plate appearances from the middle of your order bats, and 60 innings from your closer.
That said, three of these four guys will provide you the double-digit strikeout rates that will help turn your mid-rotation starter into a more productive spot on your roster. If you get close to 100 strikeouts from your first closer, in other words, you'll be 30 strikeouts ahead of the rest in the bullpen.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The "Rays, Rangers, Angels, Cardinals" Tier.)
Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
Heath Bell, Miami Marlins
Jordan Walden, Anaheim Angels
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Sergio Santos, Toronto Blue Jays
Not too much reason to move anything around in this tier, and they're all good pitchers (and teams). The Rangers and Angels might hurt by having such great competition in their division -- something the Rays understand -- but the Cardinals should be able to take the Pujols loss in stride. And if you lose out on one of the top four closers, you should take one of these closers and remain on track.
Andrew Bailey will be out three or more months, so he drops out, but keep him around as long as you have DL space. Why not have Sergio Santos join this tier? There isn't an obvious competitor in the pen with him, and his strikeout rate has been excellent for some time. If starters usually strike out about seven batters per nine, the top 40 in saves last year struck out about 8.8 batters per nine. Santos? Try 13 per nine. Or, if you're a visual learner, from FanGraphs.com:
Tier 3: OK options (5) (AKA: The "Giants, Diamondbacks, Nationals, Braves, Indians, Brewers" Tier.
Brian Wilson, San Francisco Giants
Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals
Brandon League, Seattle Mariners
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Two or three of these teams will make the postseason. One of them could even win a postseason series. There's reason for hope in each of these cities, and more power to the front offices that built each squad: none of these cities is considered a large market.
San Francisco didn't have the Brian Wilson they knew and loved last year, but that wasn't why they fell short. That bad offense was the reason. Wilson was so erratic that it seemed like an injury might be on the way this year. Instead, Wilson has spent the spring whiffing batters like the beard of old. He has eight strikeouts in four and 2/3 innings, and has generally been untouchable. Most spring stats don't matter, but there's some evidence that component stats, like strikeout and walk rates for pitchers, are actually slightly predictive.
If so, Brandon League will be Brandon League (two strikeouts in five innings) and Huston Street will be Huston Street (nine strikeouts in nine innings).
But Jason Motte and Rafael Betancourt? Let's just say you should keep an eye on them. Motte has eight walks against six strikeouts in his twelve appearances, and that's not too great because part of his breakout last year was a career-low walk rate. Betancourt has a 6.43 ERA this spring, but if you look closer, he's less worrisome. He has eight strikeouts against two walks in seven innings, and that's exactly what he does, year-in and year-out.
Unfortunately, though this tier lost a player to injury, there are just too many question marks in the question marks tier to promote anyone. The solid options at closer are already starting to disappear. It's the yearly quickening.
Tier 4: Question marks (9) (AKA: The "Nationals, Marlins, Rockies, Twins, Dodgers, Blue Jays" Tier.)
Sean Marshall, Cincinnati Reds
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
Frank Francisco, New York Mets
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Brett Myers, Houston Astros
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Matt Capps, Minnesota Twins
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Sorta tough to find teams for this tier, in the end. A few of these closers will be great values, and useful all year. The team equivalent for that sounds like a team that will be near .500 and has an outside chance of competing for the postseason. That describes these teams, but not many more.
The best closer to fit that description from this tier might be Sean Marshall. He won't cost you much, but he has the underlying skills and the current situation in order to save some games and be a strong third closer for a competitive fantasy squad looking to finish in the money. Marshall has actually been lights-out ever since he moved to the bullpen and has 16 strikeouts in his 11 spring innings to boot. He could move up these rankings with a bullet.
Joe Nathan and Carlos Marmol both have bad ERAs in the spring so far, but it's Marmol that has six walks against his eight strikeouts, while Nathan has walked three against his seven strikeouts. That, along with the distinct chance that the Cubs unload Marmol the minute he strings together a good month, makes Kerry Wood a great pickup, and Mike Adams more of an ERA/WHIP boost than a future closer.
Frank Francisco is over 250 pounds, and has been bothered by his toe and his knee, but he pronounced himself fit… to start the season. He averages about fifty innings a year, though, so Ramon Ramirez or Jon Rauch will factor in at some point. Bobby Parnell, a.k.a. Captain Fastball, can hit triple-digits on the gun and has been good in the spring, so he has an outside chance at relevance.
Matt Capps and Chris Perez aren't great pitchers. Capps, at least, doesn't walk anyone, but both of them fail to strike guys out or keep the ball on the ground. On the other hand, they seem comfortable in their jobs… right now. Watch Vinnie Pestano and Glen Perkins closely.
Read more about the most volatile closer situations on the next page.