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2008 Pre-Season Relief Pitcher Rankings

January 27, 2008 | By Tim McLeod | comment on this post

Picking relievers is tricky business. We all crave closers, but really, how many are sure bets year to year? Every season ushers in a wave of new closers, many of whom will have the job in April, but give way to a top set-up man in May. It’s a volatile situation leading to many high-risk gambles.

In leagues in which holds are tracked – more and more common these days – top-notch set-up men who can help in wins, Ks, ERA, WHIP and holds are often as or more valuable than some closers, especially from a long-term perspective.

The sharp owner will stay on top of this constantly.

1. Jonathan Papelbon, BOS – Papelbon’s decision to forgo returning to the rotation and to continue closing was the best thing that happened (or didn’t happen as the case may be) to the BoSox last year. His owners are pretty stoked about it, too, no doubt. After all, pitching in short doses, this guy is as unhittable a pitcher as we’ve seen in a very, very long time. Papelbon certainly makes Boston manager Terry Francona’s job a lot easier.

2. Francisco Rodriguez, LAA – Although K-Rod slipped a bit last season, he is still one of the toughest pitchers in the game to make contact against. And even with a K rate that’s slipped three straight years, Rodriguez still whiffed better than 12 per nine innings. It looks like he’s headed for arbitration with the Halos and, rest assured, this won’t be a cheap settlement after he’s put up three straight seasons of at least 40 saves.

3. Jose Valverde, HOU – Houston’s new closer, dealt from the Snakes in December, is another closer headed for a big pay day in arbitration. He’s a workhorse, but note that his command has slipped the past two seasons. On the plus side, Valverde is entering his peak years and pitched better away from Arizona last season.

4. J.J. Putz, SEA – Putz has developed into an ace reliever the past two seasons, hitting the 40-save plateau for the first time in 2007, and on a bad team, to boot. I can’t see him coming close to duplicating his 2007 season, especially if his K rate keeps slipping, but Putz has definitely put himself among the elite closers in the game.

5. Joe Nathan, MIN – Shifting to the pen five years ago really kick started the career of Nathan, now one of the best in the business. He’s been almost impossible to score against the past couple of seasons, but if you’re the worrying type, I’d be mildly concerned about his substantial slip in command last season. Still, Nathan has emerged as one of the most popular Twins (although how long he’ll remain one is questionable), and with three sub-2.00 seasons in the last four years, he’s a popular pick among fantasy owners as well.

6. Bobby Jenks, CWS – Jenks was unhittable last year, chalking up a second straight 40-save season. But his K/9 was way down for a second straight year and his groundball rate slipped significantly as well, although it didn’t manifest itself in more homers allowed. I’ve been concerned about Jenks’ weight causing injuries for quite some time and I don’t think I’m alone, hence Chicago’s signing of Octavio Dotel.

7. Chad Cordero, WAS – Cordero was far more hittable last season, mostly thanks to a sluggish start and an awful August. Overall, however, he’s settled in quite nicely as a very consistent and durable option at closer once the studs are off the board. Note that he’s a good candidate to leave the Nats in a deadline deal, assuming they are once again sellers, and depending on where he lands, Cordero’s value could change dramatically.

8. Billy Wagner, NYM – Cracks are definitely starting to show in Wagner’s game with an ERA that’s risen two straight years and a declining K/9. However, he remains incredibly difficult to hit and is still a great source of strikeouts. In fact, since 1957, just three relievers have averaged more strikeouts per nine innings than Wagner has.

9. Mariano Rivera, NYY – At first blush, a look at Mo’s 3.15 ERA last season might suggest that the end is nearing for this aging closer. But consider that he enjoyed his highest K/9 since taking over the closing job in New York and that his second-half ERA was just a shade over 2.50. The Yankees, in giving him a new three-year deal, obviously don’t believe he’s close to being done. Neither should you.

10. Takashi Saito, LAD – Although he was more susceptible to the long ball last season, Saito’s sparkling command led to a ridiculous 1.40 ERA. Jonathan Broxton is standing by to take over as soon as Saito falters, but he’s shown no signs of it yet. In fact, Saito have proved to be one of the bigger NPB bargains yet.

11. Jason Isringhausen, STL – Despite the occasional injury concern, Isringhausen has really established himself as an excellent closer since landing in St. Louis in 2002. He stayed healthy last season and avoided the home run trouble that plagued him in 2006, suggesting he has plenty left in the tank.

12. Francisco Cordero, CIN – Cordero enjoyed one of his finest seasons just in time to cash in with a big money free agent deal from the Reds. However, this one has warning lights all over it. There’s a reason he’s bounced around so much in the past three years – the dude is inconsistent. Of greater concern is the fact that his home ERA was 1.09 compared to 6.55 on the road last season. With him heading to one of the best hitter’s parks in the majors – especially for home runs – I’d be worried if I owned him. Expect results closer to 2006 (or worse) rather than 2007.

13. Trevor Hoffman, SD – Much has been made of Hoffman’s high profile, late-season blown saves, but it may be premature to write him off completely. While I’m a tad concerned over his slipping control, the fact remains that only K-Rod has more saves over the past three years.

14. Brad Lidge, PHA – For all the flak he’s taken, Lidge actually had a much better season in 2007, improving the control issues that wrecked his 2006. He was also better on the road (2.89) last season, a promising sign with him leaving Houston. However, pitching in Philly will be no picnic. It’s a good hitter’s park and is especially prone to the long ball, something that worries me greatly with Lidge given his history of allowing psychologically-damaging dingers and the fact that his groundball rate slipped significantly last year.

15. Huston Street, OAK – The 2005 AL ROY ran into his first serious injury problems last season, missing over two months with an elbow issue. When healthy, he was a bit more susceptible to the long ball, but compensated for that with improved command. Street is very difficult to hit, and if healthy, he could easily be a top 10 closer.

16. Matt Capps, PIT – This “closer of the future” inherited the job at the beginning of June last season and had an extremely solid 2007. Superb control has been one of the keys to Capps’ success; he’s limited opponents to a mere 28 base-on-balls over 160 innings pitched in his short MLB career. Anyone that can intentionally drill big Prince Fielder clearly also has the desired “no fear” mentality – something that all closers need – down pat.

17. Manny Corpas, COL – A combination of ineffectiveness and a rib cage injury to Brian Fuentes opened the door for Corpas in 2007 and he never looked back. That stellar 2.08 ERA and 1.06 WHIP bode well for him heading into 2008. Do be aware that if Corpas does struggle in 2008, the Rockies have a proven closer in Fuentes waiting in the wings.

18. Rafael Soriano, ATL – We’ve seen back-to-back great years from this former uber-prospect out of the Mariners’ system. With those two lost years (2004-2005) now well behind him, the closing gig’s all his heading into 2008. When healthy, Soriano has the potential to be totally dominating. Quite possibly, 2008 could see Soriano making a rapid ascent in the overall closer rankings.

19. B.J. Ryan, TOR – It was a lost 2007 for the Jays’ stopper, having undergone Tommy John surgery at the beginning of May. Ryan is currently on schedule to be ready early in the 2008 season, but as we all know, it is a long road back from this surgery. One should temper their expectations for this coming year.

20. Joakim Soria, KC – This former second overall pick in the 2006 Rule 5 draft came out of nowhere to post some truly outstanding numbers in his 2007 rookie campaign. With the Dotel trade at the beginning of August, Soria stepped into the closer role and didn’t look back. He represents another perfect example of why we don’t overspend for saves come draft day.

21. Carlos Marmol, CHC – It looks like a three horse race for the closer gig with the Cubbies this spring and those 96 Ks in 69 1/3 innings pitched look awful solid. If Marmol can keep those bases on balls down, he has the skills to be a top notch closer given the opportunity. And really, does anyone think Kerry Wood will be healthy come mid-March?

22. Tony Pena, ARZ – Arizona has another closing job up for grabs this spring. Pena certainly has the stuff to be a top closer and is the current favourite to win the job. For those drafting early I’d certainly want to make every effort to tie Pena with Brandon Lyon, just in case.

23. Todd Jones, DET – Joel Zumaya, the “closer of the future” in Tiger Town, keeps moving the date farther back and good old Jones just keeps on getting one more curtain call. He allows too many hits, walks a few too many and averages a strikeout every other appearance. But the gig is his until Zumaya returns healthy or that 40-year-old arm finally falls off.

24. Eric Gagne, MIL – It was a tale of two cities for Gagne in 2007. He was a very effective closer in Texas, but had a total meltdown in Beantown. Gagne still managed to parlay that lack of success in Boston into a one-year, $10 million deal with Milwaukee for 2008. Adding to the constant health concerns with Gagne, being named in the Mitchell Report could result in a possible suspension to commence 2008.

25. Kevin Gregg, FLA – A strained forearm in September put a bit of a damper on an otherwise excellent season for Gregg. He has to cut down a bit on the free passes, but enters 2008 owning the closer gig. In an interesting side note here, Gregg recently re-upped for $2.5 million, making him the highest paid Marlin heading into 2008 and probably trade bait by mid-season.

26. Joe Borowski, CLE – Eventually, his propensity for turning three-run saves into one-run saves will cost him his job in Cleveland. The job is still Borowski’s to lose, but with Rafael Betancourt and Masahide Kobayashi both waiting in the wings (not to mention several other great arms in the Indians’ pen), don’t be at all surprised to see a change before the end of 2008.

27. Troy Percival, TB – Percival turned in one of the feel-good stories of 2007. After a nearly two-year hiatus, he turned up in St. Louis and performed remarkably well. Percival converted that into the full-time gig in Tampa on a two- year deal for $8 million. Health will always be an issue here so potential fantasy owners should have Al Reyes handy, just in case.

28. Brian Wilson, SF – A rough Spring Training led to a demotion to Triple-A Fresno to start the 2007 season. A sore arm and appendectomy delayed his return until mid-August. A solid September has positioned him as the pre-season favourite to close for the Giants in 2008.

29. C.J. Wilson, TEX – The 27-year-old lefty had a decent 2007, filling the void when Gagne was traded at the deadline. The Rangers plan on entering the season with Wilson, Eddie Guardado, Joaquin Benoit, and Kaz Fukumori all battling for late inning duties, so Wilson’s perch at the top of the heap entering 2008 is a most precarious one to say the least.

30. Jeremy Accardo, TOR – The “back” injury to Ryan and subsequent Tommy John surgery thrust Accardo into the closer role for the Jays in 2007. Thirty saves with an ERA of 2.14 certainly proved he was up to the task. With Ryan on schedule to return early in 2008, Accardo will be returning to his former set-up role. Expect some early saves until Ryan proves he’s game ready.

Best of the Rest

31. Brandon Lyon, ARZ
32. Jonathan Broxton, LAD
33. Scot Shields, LAA
34. Kerry Wood, CHC
35. Bob Howry, CHC
36. Derrick Turnbow, MIL
37. Yasuhiko Yabuta, KC
38. Masahide Kobayashi, CLE
39. Pat Neshek, MIN
40. Joel Zumaya, DET
41. Rafael Betancourt, CLE
42. Tyler Walker, SF
43. Jamie Walker, BAL
44. Chad Bradford, BAL
45. Heath Bell, SD
46. Hideki Okajima, BOS
47. Aaron Heilman, NYM
48. Brandon Morrow, SEA
49. Octavio Dotel, CWS
50. Jon Rauch, WAS
51. Alan Embree, OAK
52. Al Reyes, TB
53. Joaquin Benoit, TEX
54. Kazuo Fukumori, TEX
55. Eddie Guardado, TEX
56. Matt Guerrier, MIN
57. James Hoey, BAL
58. Justin Speier, LAA
59. Chad Qualls, ARZ
60. David Weathers, CIN
61. Brad Hennessey, SF
62. Scott Linebrink, CWS
63. Armando Benitez, FA
64. Tom Gordon, PHA
65. Brian Fuentes, COL
66. George Sherrill, SEA
67. Matt Lindstrom, FLA
68. Carlos Villaneuva, MIL
69. Keith Foulke, FA

Cheat Sheet Archives

2008 Preseason

Starting Pitchers


Third basemen
Second basemen
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2007 Preseason


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