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2011 RotoRob MLB Draft Kit: Relief Pitcher Rankings

March 31, 2011 | By RotoRob | comment on this post
Craig Kimbrel will take over as the closer of the Atlanta Braves.
Will rookie Craig Kimbrel’s heater bring him success as the new co-closer in Atlanta?

By Phillip Heilman, Tim McLeod and RotoRob

The 2011 RotoRob MLB Draft Kit wraps up today with the release of our final cheat sheet. So while we sit back and enjoy the beginning of another long and exciting season of baseball, let’s take a look at the top 89 relievers in Fantasy baseball.

Dusty Baker will abuse his pitching, the Pirates won’t have any pitching, and Buck Davidson will forever be enamoured by Lady Gaga. Some things simply never change. The uncertainty of the relief pitching category and saves in particular can be added to the aforementioned list. Will Joe Nathan be fully recovered from last year’s Tommy John surgery? Is flame-throwing Craig Kimbrel the answer to replace Billy “The Kid” Wagner in Atlanta or is Jonny Venters the new kid in town? Does Leo Nunez or late-season waiver wire gem Clay Hensley hold down the fort for the Fish? Is Jake McGee and his scant five IP in the bigs ready to assume the role in Tampa? Do we really believe White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen when he says that Matt Thornton is the favourite over young Chris Sale in the Windy City? Is a bounce-back campaign in store for the Dodgers’ Jonathan Broxton? With nearly 50 per cent of the closer gigs up in the air heading into Spring Training, rolling the dice on that 10 per cent of our counting stats becomes a rather onerous task. Hell, let’s try something different this year and look at investing in a Brian Wilson, Carlos Marmol, or Joakim Soria. Gambling on saves is a risky venture and in 2011 acquiring one of the stalwart top-tier closers could prove to be the prudent approach in a rather unsettled category.

Last year’s rankings in parentheses.

1. Joakim Soria, Kansas City Royals (4): The Mexicutioner has not only become the best closer in the junior circuit, but arguably the best in the bigs. Last year, he stayed healthy and reduced his already miniscule WHIP. Soria really turned things on after the break, looking virtually untouchable, and that spurt (combined with Brian Wilson’s injury status) allowed him to ascend to the top of the heap in this year’s rankings. Expect him to go around the sixth round in your draft. – RR

2. Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs (13): To say Marmol was unhittable last year doesn’t really do him justice as opponents couldn’t even muster a .150 average against the Cubs’ closer. Because of his wildness, it’s always an adventure with him, but the fact that he struck out almost 16 batters per nine (no, that’s not a typo) translated into a much improved K/BB ratio. Marmol did blow five out of 43 save chances last year, but the addition of former Indian closer Kerry Wood should provide enough of a threat to his job to keep him honest this year. Marmol should also be plucked around the sixth round. – RR

3. Heath Bell, San Diego Padres (5): Bell is the All-Star, but collectively he’s part of a bullpen that was so fantastic last year that we gave the group some hardware. He was a workhorse last year, and even though his WHIP rose slightly, he was able to cut his ERA by giving up just one freaking homer all season long. Mr. Stingy doesn’t like when fans get a souvenir, apparently. Bell’s strikeout rate has risen the past two years, something Fantasy owners aren’t likely to complain about, but it’s also meant that it’s taking him longer to get through innings, and that’s something that could take a toll down the stretch. As good as Bell has been as a closer, he’s someone that could be traded and wind up in a less significant role on a contender. Food for thought. – RR

4. Neftali Feliz, Texas Rangers (23): It was back and forth all spring long, but the Rangers have finally decided to keep last year’s AL ROY as their closer instead of moving him into the rotation for 2011. All Feliz did as a rookie closer – a role he didn’t take over until a couple of weeks into the season – was save 40 games, average better than a strikeout per inning, hold opponents to a meagre .176 BAA and put up a WHIP that can only be viewed through a Hubble telescope. Fantasy owners that have already drafted him assuming he’ll be earning saves can breathe a sigh of relief. Whether the Rangers made a mistake by not putting him in their rotation this year is something that may not been known for a few months, but no one doubts Feliz’s ability to finish games. – RR

5. Brian Wilson, San Francisco Giants (6): As great as Wilson was in the 2010 regular season, he was even better in the playoffs. He set a career high in appearances while blowing his fewest saves since becoming the full-time closer in 2008. Wilson was extremely difficult to hit and did a better job of getting through innings quicker. Let’s face it, this dude may look like a lumberjack, but when it comes to cutting down the opposition late in the game, there’s no one better in baseball right now. The only reason he’s not No. 1 on this list is because the Bearded One will begin the season on the DL with an oblique strain (so if you draft Wilson, you may want to also pick up Sergio Romo as a handcuff), but his stay on the sidelines should be brief. – RR

6. Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees (3): Rivera enjoyed another brilliant season last year and was again untouchable in the playoffs. He’s been sporting high socks this spring, but other than his new look, you can expect the same old Mo – that is to say, near flawless performances. His workload continues to decrease over the last half-dozen seasons, and that’s definitely helped keep him fresh. The fact that Rivera’s strikeout rate plummeted last year is a warning sign, but experts have been predicting his demise for years and I’m tired of trying to find hints that the end is near for this dude. The Yankees obviously believe he has plenty left, re-signing him to a two-year deal this winter. Just assume Mo will be magnificent until… well… until he isn’t. – RR

7. Francisco Rodriguez, New York Mets (7): The Mets definitely don’t want K-Rod’s huge 2012 option to kick in, so keep an eye on the situation this season as Rodriguez could be moved. In the meantime, he was brilliant last season before suffering a season-ending injury after beating up his child’s grandfather. Before succumbing to that, K-Rod racked up 25 saves for the sixth straight season while putting up his lowest WHIP since 2006. The Mets’ bullpen is not deep, and that’s going to be somewhat of a consideration of whether he’s moved or not, even though it’s all about money for New York. – RR

8. Jonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox (2): We ranked Papelbon as the second-best reliever to own a year ago, but after a shaky season, he’s clinging to his spot as a top 10 reliever. His workload decreased slightly for the second straight season and while he matched his career high in wins (not necessarily a good thing for a closer), Papelbon’s ERA soared to its highest ever. His problems were apparently mechanical, and that caused him to fall behind too many hitters, never a good idea regardless of how good your stuff is. Let’s hope he can work these kinks out, because Daniel Bard looks like a fine replacement should Paps continue to struggle. – RR

9. Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians (27): Perez celebrated his new big-money deal from the Indians by buying a $20,000 sports card. That’s a sports card, not a sports car. Yes, he’s a geek, and you’ve got to love it. Perez was nearly unhittable last year – especially in the second half. In fact, from July on, he gave up just two earned runs. Perez’s strikeout rate dipped last year, but he’s proven that he’s capable of averaging well over a K per inning, and assuming the Indians are improved this season, he should be in line for more save chances (especially now that Kerry Wood is no longer breathing down his back). Once the elite closers are off the board, Perez makes a fine choice somewhere around the 12th round. – RR

10. Joe Nathan, Minnesota Twins (NR): The Twins did a great job of plugging the hole opened last year when Nathan was hurt during Spring Training and lost for the season. As he continues to get back in the groove from his elbow surgery, Nathan will cede the odd save opportunity to Matt Capps at the outset of the season, but don’t doubt Nathan’s ability to rack up another season of at least 30 saves. In 2009, this previously durable reliever pitched at least 70 games for the third time in his career and was money in the bank, blowing just five out of 52 save chances. Don’t be deterred if the righty’s not earning every single save to begin the season; he’s still the man in Minny and should be drafted as such. His recovery this season is a key factor in the Twins’ ability to again win their division. – RR

11. Jonathan Broxton, Los Angeles Dodgers (1): Broxton entered 2010 at the top of the closer list, but he imploded in the second half and wound up losing his job for a spell. He had to labour harder to get through innings than ever before and he was never easier to hit. Still, Broxton was excellent in the first half, earning an All-Star appearance, so don’t you dare write him off, especially if his fastball velocity recovers. Is Broxton as automatic as he was a year ago? Absolutely not. But is he chopped liver? Negative. He still makes for a decent low-end No. 1 reliever for your Fantasy team. There’s an injury risk as well, but if you can grab him in the middle rounds, say, Round 14 or so, he could deliver a fine return. – RR

12. John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers (NR): This Canadian’s emergence as the Brewer closer in the wake of Trevor Hoffman’s suckitude was a great story last year and his 22-save showing earned him a spot on our All Wire Troll team. Given the proliferation of great rookie performances last year, Axford’s freshman effort was not hyped enough, but his numbers were very impressive, and we love the fact he upped his groundball rate. Axford has again looked strong this spring, allaying fears that he could be headed for a sophomore slump. – RR

13. J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks (38): We’ve wondered for some time whether Putz is the best answer at closer for Arizona. He enjoyed a fine recovery last year, staying moderately healthy and showing tremendously improved control after the nightmare that was 2009. Putz’s strikeout rate was back to its usual dominant levels, another great sign. A wonky back this spring has slowed him, but Putz is beyond that, declaring himself ready for the season, and he should offer solid value as a No. 2 reliever as long as he’s earning saves in the desert. – RR

14. Huston Street, Colorado Rockies (33): Street hit a real rough patch in August that made us wonder if he’d lose his job, but he righted the ship and finished the season strong. Overall, the former University of Texas star cut his homer rate, but his strikeout rate dropped as well and his saves plummeted thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness (he was just 20-for-25 last year after converting 35-of-37 save chances in 2009). There’s a risk here with his injury history, but Street’s command is top shelf and as long as he can stay healthy, he’ll be a strong No. 2 reliever, with the potential upside of being a low-end No. 1 man in your Fantasy team’s bullpen. – RR

15. Francisco Cordero, Cincinnati Reds (8): Although he reached 40 saves for the third time in his career and now ranks third among active save leaders (behind only Rivera and Jason Isringhausen), Cordero was hardly immune to struggles last year. So much so, that we are officially worried about his ability to retain his closing gig with flamethrower Aroldis Chapman lurking. Cordero saw plenty of action last year, but was more susceptible to the long ball and his command continued its shocking deterioration of recent seasons. Still, the Reds are paying him $12.1 million, so you’ve got to figure his leash will be pretty long. Just don’t say we didn’t warn you. – RR

16. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves (NR): The Braves’ bullpen has undergone another major change this offseason, and with the retirement of Wagner, rookie Kimbrel is going to get a chance to earn saves for the Braves. He’s going to act as co-closer with lefty Jonny Venters to begin the season, but if Atlanta is going to play the match-up game, the right-handed Kimbrel will likely get the majority of the save chances. Control is a question for him, but Kimbrel’s dominating stuff (40 strikeouts in just 20 2/3 IP with the Braves last year) should propel him into the job on a full-time basis before long. – RR

17. Drew Storen, Washington Nationals (98): We’ve been projecting Storen to close for the Nats for a couple of months now, but there is word that Washington may go to the closer-by-committee route. As anyone that has ever followed the game knows, that approach never really sticks, so smart money is on drafting Storen as if he’ll be earning the lion’s share of saves by season’s end. The Nats drafted this dude with the idea that he’d ultimately be their closer, so he’ll be given every opportunity to succeed in this role. After his promotion to the majors last year, it wasn’t long before Storen ascended to a major role in Washington’s bullpen; this year, he’ll take that a step further. Yes, he’s had an inconsistent spring, but don’t be deterred by talk that he’ll have to share save chances. – RR

18. Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers (11): After posting back-to-back 40+ save seasons in 2007 and 2008, Valverde has only compiled 25 and 26 saves in the past two seasons, respectively. However, his numbers have been pretty consistent in these years. His strikeouts per nine innings have been down the past two years, but his ERA has been similar to his career numbers. The Tigers will again be in the thick of the AL Central race this season, and more wins could mean more opportunities for Papa Grande to raise his save total this season. Still, even though he’s been a fairly reliable closer, it’s difficult to recommend him as anything more than a mediocre No. 2 reliever. – PH

19. Ryan Franklin, St. Louis Cardinals (16): After rumours of his retirement were dispelled in the offseason, Franklin comes into 2011 closing once again for the Cardinals. St. Louis is another team that underperformed last season, and Franklin posted only 27 saves. However, he showed unprecedented control, which lowered his WHIP to levels we haven’t seen since his stellar 2007 campaign. At 38, Franklin’s days are definitely numbered so a handcuff with Jason Motte (or maybe even potential closer of the future Mitchell Boggs) could prove to be a wise move. – PH

20. Brandon Lyon, Houston Astros (48): After taking over closer duties in Houston last year, Lyon managed to convert 20-of-22 save opportunities. The 31-year-old starts the year as the undisputed closer, but his injury history and prolonged bouts of ineffectiveness make him a low end gamble at best who should be paired with Wilton Lopez. – PH

21. Andrew Bailey, Oakland Athletics (10): Bailey owners have every reason to worry about the health of their man. He landed on the DL last August, and will begin this year on the DL because of a right forearm strain. Still, in between injuries the All-Star managed to reach 25 saves for the second straight season while again looking filthy good in doing so. If you’re going to take him, it might be wise to handcuff him to Brian Fuentes, the likeliest benefactor while Bailey is out. – RR

22. Matt Thornton, Chicago White Sox (39): Manager Ozzie Guillen named Thornton the closer this spring, thereby upping the southpaw’s Fantasy value immensely. Thornton has been a steady reliever out of the pen for Guillen, showing the ability to make batters swing and miss consistently. Thornton will look to continue the momentum of a strong spring, and should be considered a low-end number two or strong number three reliever. However, if he struggles, keep Chris Sale on your radar, because we all know that Ozzie isn’t shy about mixing things up. – PH

23. Frank Francisco, Toronto Blue Jays (36): Because of injuries to his pectoral and biceps, Francisco will miss the start of the season, but it should not cost him his job. First year manager John Farrell is on record as saying Francisco will be the closer when he returns. Nagging injuries like these can linger, especially with someone as brittle as Francisco is, but word is that could be back as soon as mid-April. If you draft him, stash him on your DL and hope to reap the benefits upon his return. – PH

24. Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates (102): Hanrahan was named the Pirates’ closer early on in the spring, and has had an up and down exhibition season. Still, a closer with the ability to strike guys out has solid value, especially in the later rounds of drafts. Hanrahan will be on a relatively short leash with Evan Meek around, but for now he is a safe bet as a third reliever and is worth drafting as such. – PH

25. Fernando Rodney, Los Angeles Angels (26): After trading Fuentes last August, the Angels turned to Rodney in the late innings and will continue to do so, at least to start this year (keep on eye on Jordan Walden’s development as the season progresses). Rodney’s talent is unquestionable; the only concern is wildness. So far this spring, he has corrected many issues that have plagued him in his career, walking only three. He should still be around in the last tier of closers, and has the potential to produce like a top 15 or 20 reliever. – PH

26. Leo Nunez, Florida Marlins (21): As the Marlins’ closer last season, Nunez was doing fine until he began to struggle in August and he was replaced by Clay Hensley for a while. Nunez blew eight saves in total and at times appeared to have confidence issues. However, he has had a very successful spring and heads into 2011 as the closer once again. But how long will the leash be with Hensley still with the Fish and newcomers Ryan Webb and Edward Mujica both intriguing options as well? If Nunez avoids the shakiness he showed late last year and pitches like he has in the spring, he’s worth a shot as a number three guy. Just be ready for some headaches with him as well. – PH

27. Kevin Gregg, Baltimore Orioles (25): Gregg has been anointed the closer for the Orioles, but he had an ugly spring, so you need to keep an eye on Koji Uehara as well. The Orioles will be more competitive this season, but being in the AL East is never a picnic, so that won’t help Gregg owners. Gregg could still pick up a fair amount of saves, so he’s worth consideration as your number three closer (he racked up a career high 37 in Toronto last year); just don’t be shocked if he loses the job to Uehara at some point. – PH

28. Brandon League, Seattle Mariners (52): With David Aardsma out of commission to start the season, for the time being Seattle has pegged League as the guy to take over the closing duties. At this point in the relief pitcher pool, the ability to have a closing job for any amount of time is something that will provide value. Picking up League could give you an advantage early in the season, and then you could look to pick up Aardsma when – or if — he gets healthy. – PH

29. Jonny Venters, Atlanta Braves (NR): Venters is coming off an amazing rookie campaign and has been named the co-closer in Atlanta. The southpaw has allowed a scant three hits and two free passes with no earned runs in 10 IP this spring. He’s definitely ready for his role as co-closer in the Braves’ pen. If Kimbrel’s control issues get out of hand, Venters is ready and more than capable of carrying the load in Atlanta this summer. — TM

30. Jose Contreras, Philadelphia Phillies (NR): Yes, he’s as old as dirt, but Contreras has been selected as the man to hold down the closer job while Lidge recuperates. Since news of the extent of Lidge’s injury hit the wires, Contreras has been flying off the waiver wire like cupcakes at a fat farm. Last year was Contreras’ first spent entirely as a reliever, and he did a pretty good job, cutting his home run rate and putting up his highest strikeout rate since his first season in the majors back when he was a spry 31-year-old kid. The old guy’s done pretty well when asked to relieve, so don’t be shy about grabbing him off your waiver wire and milking him for two-to-three months or however long Lidge will be sidelined (there are varying timetables on this one). — RR

Others to Consider

31. David Aardsma, Seattle Mariners (9)
32. Jake McGee, Tampa Bay Rays (NR)
33. Koji Uehara, Baltimore Orioles (75)
34. Jon Rauch, Toronto Blue Jays (20)
35. Brian Fuentes, Oakland Athletics (31)
36. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox (NR): Sale showed dominant stuff in the minors and continued to shine after his promotion to the majors last year. He will start the year in a set-up role in Chicago, however, there is always the chance he will take over as the closer at some point. Unless your league counts holds, Sale’s value will be low initially, but he’s a real sleeper that could be quite useful later on this year if he is able to steal the closer job from the unproven Thornton. – PH
37. Kyle Farnsworth, Tampa Bay Rays (110)
38. Matt Capps, Minnesota Twins (18)
39. Hong-Chih Kuo, Los Angeles Dodgers (83)
40. Luke Gregerson, San Diego Padres (45)
41. Brad Lidge, Philadelphia Phillies (34): Shoulder woes could derail Lidge until the All-Star break, and that’s a worry, especially since he also dealt with injury issues last year. Still, when he was healthy, he was much better last year, dealing with his gopheritis issues from 2009 and blowing just five of 32 save chances. Lidge’s strikeout rate also bounced back last year. If your league allows adequate DL slots, stash him until the second half. – RR
42. Clay Hensley, Florida Marlins (NR)
43. Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds (NR)
44. Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants (NR)
45. Evan Meek, Pittsburgh Pirates (89)
46. Octavio Dotel, Toronto Blue Jays (22)
47. Rafael Soriano, New York Yankees (12)
48. Ryan Madson, Philadelphia Phillies (28)
49. Daniel Bard, Boston Red Sox (43)
50. Sean Burnett, Washington Nationals (103)
51. Joel Peralta, Tampa Bay Rays
52. David Hernandez, Arizona Diamondbacks (NR)
53. Alexi Ogando, Texas Rangers (NR)
54. Joaquin Benoit, Detroit Tigers (NR)
55. Mike Adams, San Diego Padres (42)
56. Jason Frasor, Toronto Blue Jays (37)
57. Bobby Parnell, New York Mets (NR)
58. Tyler Clippard, Washington Nationals (NR)
59. Wilton Lopez, Houston Astros (NR)
60. Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics (85)
61. Juan Gutierrez, Arizona Diamondbacks (40)
62. Kerry Wood, Chicago Cubs (35)
63. Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals (41)
64. Bobby Jenks, Boston Red Sox (19)
65. Takashi Saito, Milwaukee Brewers (47)
66. Nick Masset, Cincinnati Reds (60)
67. Tony Sipp, Cleveland Indians (78)
68. Jesse Crain, Chicago White Sox (NR)
69. Jordan Walden, Los Angeles Angels (NR)
70. Hisanori Takahashi, Los Angeles Angels (NR)
71. Jeremy Jeffress, Kansas City Royals (NR)
72. Rafael Perez, Cleveland Indians (NR)
73. Matt Lindstrom, Colorado Rockies (24)
74. Kevin Jepsen, Los Angeles Angels (68)
75. Robinson Tejeda, Kansas City Royals (NR)
76. Scott Downs, Los Angeles Angels (53)
77. Jeremy Affeldt, San Francisco Giants (66)
78. J.P. Howell, Tampa Bay Rays (50)
79. David Robertson, New York Yankees (54)
80. Matt Guerrier, Los Angeles Dodgers (44)
81. Peter Moylan, Atlanta Braves (64)
82. Ryan Perry, Detroit Tigers (58)
83. Darren O’Day, Texas Rangers (NR)
84. Joey Devine, Oakland (106)
85. Joba Chamberlain, New York Yankees (49)
86. Zach Braddock, Milwaukee Brewers (NR)
87. Mike Gonzalez, Baltimore Orioles (32)
88. Ryan Webb, Florida Marlins (NR)
89. Adam Russell, Tampa Bay Rays (NR)

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