Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Tiering Contenders and Closers

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


It’s a new season, time to break out the tiers. These tiers are named after the contenders for the World Series this year.

 

Hey, it’s the first edition, it’s novel enough to put the tiers out. Plenty of time left in a long season to be strange.


Editor's Note: For the latest rankings, projections, Tiers and more, get Rotoworld's Draft Guide.

 

Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The “Dodgers and Red Sox” Tier.)

 

Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox

 

I’m of the camp that thinks that *something* will find a way to derail this Dodgers team, despite all the cash that’s been pumped into it. After all, their starting second baseman on their Opening Day was released by the Mets, and their starting third baseman was Juan Uribe. But, in a league where the average team uses ten starting pitchers, their depth pieces now include Paul Maholm and Chad Billingsley behind Josh Beckett, and then ready youngsters Zach Lee and Matt Magill. That’s decent depth where it counts most, and their bullpen has three former closers in it… and the first or second-best closer in the game.

 

It’s just a coincidence, perhaps, that the other contender has their closer on this list. And I’ll admit to a little worry about Koji Uehara, too. He threw 86 innings last year and his previous career high in America was 68 in 2011. Oh and the last time he was coming off a career high in innings, he spent two months on the disabled list for a shoulder strain. There was always some worry about his ability to stay healthy, and some worry about the damage that the split finger does on your arm. If he goes down, it’s Junichi Tazawa that has more gas and more strikeouts than Edward Mujica, and he would be a competent fill-in closer himself. If there’s any worry about Greg Holland, it’s that his old control issues come up to bite him, but as long as he keeps throwing strike one (league average in his good years), he should be elite once again.

 

Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The “Nationals and Rays“ Tier.)

 

Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals
David Robertson, New York Yankees
Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Jim Johnson, Oakland Athletics
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates

 

This space was probably owned by the Texas Rangers before every Texas Ranger fell down the stairs and hurt themselves. That’s not to say the Rays aren’t a great team — with one of their better lineups in recent history and the customary good pitching — but there was something exciting about the Rangers when they actually had five good starting pitchers. The Nationals needed depth and signed one of the better fourth outfielders in baseball (Nate McLouth) and acquired perhaps the best fourth starter in baseball (Doug Fister). They might be ready.

 

On talent alone, Trevor Rosenthal should be in the elite tier. Already that makes him a good investment, because he’s got the talent to be elite but won’t cost the same as the top guys. But this ranking reflects the (perhaps small) risk that comes with investing heavily in a closer with three career saves. I mean, at least David Robertson has eight (!) career saves, and he’s been putting up double-digit strikeout rates with great command for a while now. Well, the command has been great for two seasons. No matter, there’s no *real* reason to doubt these two young closers atop the pile, but a lack of track record keeps them out of the elite tier for now.

 

Joe Nathan is still great, but there has been some degradation in the numbers. Not surprisingly, the 39-year-old showed his career-worst fastball velocity last season. Only once before had he gotten fewer swings and misses per pitch, too. And last year was the worst walk rate he’d had since he moved to the bullpen full time. He’s good, but 39 is awfully old, wrote the 34-year-old.

 

These “good, buts” continue into the bottom of the tier. Glen Perkins is good but his team may not give him much more than 35 save chances this season. Jim Johnson is good but he’ll strike out about twenty less batters than your average closer. Sergio Romo is good but struggles against left-handers and usually has a tender elbow period. Jason Grilli is great, but a late-career velocity spike, paired with missed time due to a forearm strain, that doesn’t speak well of his health. After all, nothing predicts future DL time for a pitcher like past DL time.

 

Tier 3: Okay Options (7) (AKA: The “Cardinals and Athletics” Tier.)

 

Grant Balfour, Tampa Bay Rays
Ernesto Frieri, Anaheim Angels
Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers
Addison Reed, Arizona Diamondbacks
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins

 

The National League seems a little tighter at the top, no? The Cardinals could be in the top spot, and they are perennial contenders based on their ability to develop arms like a factory. Seriously, pick a favorite between the Cardinals, Nationals and Dodgers, and you’ll be better off than trying to guess the second-best team in the American League. That team could be the Athletics despite the early injuries to their pitching staff. They, also, have a good supply of young arms and might be built to withstand the injuries.

 

Their former closer, Grant Balfour, was the average closer last year, so he’s got that going for him. But complaining of a dead arm in spring (after Baltimore nixed your deal for health reasons) doesn’t make for a great case for a better ranking. Ernesto Frieri struck more batters out than Balfour, but had a little bit of trouble holding onto his job at one point in the season. Ditto Jim Henderson, but Henderson is older and on a team that might provide fewer save chances. Addison Reed has the command to make him a bit better than average, but until he strikes out double-digit guys per nine, he won’t move up just yet.

 

And then you have the two veterans that should be ranked higher if their arms are fine. But I’m on record as being worried about both and their health. If they recover some of their lost velocity or whiffs — both had career lows in both of those categories last season — then maybe they’ll remind us of their excellence. But I need to see a little bit of health from them first.

 

Steve Cishek? Just an average closer on a really bad team with a little bit of trade risk if the team finds a buyer.

 

Read about the more volatile closer situations on the next page.


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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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