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2012 RotoRob MLB Draft Kit: Relief Pitcher Rankings

March 28, 2012 | By RotoRob | comment on this post
Jonathan Papelbon has jumped ship in Boston for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Jonathan Papelbon brings cigars, beer, saves and (hopefully) trophies to Philly.

By Tim McLeod and RotoRob

The 2012 RotoRob MLB Draft Kit wraps up the real meat today with the release of our final cheat sheet. We’ve got a few team previews to come, and the remainder of our Top 55 Prospects, but for the most part, this be it.

While you wonder if Magic Johnson and his pals can help turn the Dodgers around, let’s review the top 92 relief options in Fantasy baseball for 2012.

Relief pitchers are the bane of the Fantasy owner’s existence. How much time, effort, and FAAB do we spend each and every year chasing 10 per cent of our counting statistics? Many different strategies can come into play when seeking those elusive saves. The one that shouldn’t come into play is ignoring them and blowing off the category. It’s never a wise move to go into your season a leg down to your opposition.

There is no right or wrong strategy when approaching saves. Determine your comfort zone, execute your preferred strategy, and remember to save some of that FAAB for your in-season play, because this position – more than any other – is extremely dynamic, with constantly changing roles.

Opportunity knocks in both Kansas City and Cincinnati this spring thanks to season-ending injuries to Joakim Soria and Ryan Madson, and we rejigged our rankings at the very last minute to reflect these situations.

Last year’s rankings are in parentheses.

1. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves (16): Armed with a nearly unhittable rising fastball and an absolutely filthy breaking ball, Kimbrel put up a simply phenomenal NL ROY season as the Braves’ closer. His ERA was higher than his first taste of the majors in 2010, but considering it was an unsustainable 0.44 over that 21-game stretch, we’re not surprised. Still, no one is going to moan about a 2.10 mark, especially when it’s accompanied by 46 saves and a video-game like 127 Ks in 77 IP. Kimbrel was virtually impossible to take yard last season and while he may not get as many saves this year, it’s reasonable that he might eke out another win or two.

2. Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies (8): In November, Papelbon bailed out of Boston and headed to the NL and the Phillies, who gave him 50 million reasons over four years to make the switch. He cashed in on a big rebound season, lowering his hit rate to its lowest level since 2007 and his walk rate to its lowest since 2008. Paps washed up like people suggested last offseason? We think not. He’s already looking sharp this spring, and while we’d like to see him get more groundballs than he did last season, he should be money in Philly. However, why the Phils didn’t use that money to improve themselves elsewhere and give one of their many closer in waiting options a shot still puzzles us. But hey, we’re not real GMs… we just play one on TV.

3. Heath Bell, Miami Marlins (3): Miami signed Bell in an offseason spending spree, a move we discussed in greater detail in a recent Podcast. The new Marlin closer was touched up for more runs last year and he wasn’t quite as dependable closing the door as he had been in 2010. Still, he actually lowered his WHIP thanks to improved control. We know he’s left the safe confines of Petco, but we don’t know exactly how the Marlins’ new park will play – although it’s definitely going to hurt any pitcher coming from where Bell was. Thanks to his massive decline in Ks, Bell’s WAR plummeted from 2.4 to just 0.5 last year, making us wonder why any team would give him as much cash as they did. Think of grabbing him when Round 15 of your draft rolls around.

4. Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers (18): Valverde is entering his contract year, but a season after going 49-for-49 in save chances, what’s he going to do for encore? Uncharacteristically for a closer, he was a real workhorse last year, appearing in a career high 75 games and he did a better job of keeping the ball in the park. Unfortunately, that same level of success did not carry into the playoffs. Considering his FIP was 3.55 last year (over a run and a quarter higher than his ERA), Valverde could be in line for a higher ERA this season – especially with the Tigers’ infield defense being weakened (although he trended back to being a flyball pitcher last year after getting more groundballs in 2010). For a “top tier” closer, Valverde is on the shakiest ground, in our opinion – especially if Joaquin Benoit continues to be as lights out as he was in the second half last year.

5. John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers (12): One of our better picks from the 2011 Fantasy Baseball Guide, Axford set a new Brewer record by nailing down 46 saves last year. The Canadian hurler improved his control and wound up shaving over half a run off his ERA. Even the mid-season arrival of Francisco Rodriguez – and the inherent pressure of having to fight to keep his job – couldn’t slow Axford down. Pretty much the only blemish on his stat line was that his HR/FB rate rose, so no wonder the Brewers are currently working on a contract extension with their closer.

6. Drew Storen, Washington Nationals (17): When we last checked in on Storen in mid-August in our NL bullpen report, he was seriously rolling. He’s in a division that is mostly filled with top closers, but in his first full season as the closer, Storen really made a name for himself, proving he could handle a heavy workload and dramatically improving his control. He did blow a few more saves than you’d like to see, but his bottom line results were better than his rookie effort. The 10th overall pick in 2009, Storen’s low BABIP last year will probably translate into a higher ERA this season, so don’t reach for him too soon.

7. Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates (24): Hanranhan struggled somewhat in August, but was money the rest of the season, enjoying a career year in his first full campaign as a closer. He was a workhorse, and wound up saving 40 games despite closing for a crappy club and having never even reached double digits in saves before. He set new personal bests in WHIP and ERA and is already looking untouchable this spring. Hanrahan’s K/9 plummeted last year, but Fantasy owners weren’t complaining as he nailed down save after save. The key to his success last year was in relying more on his fastball – he threw it 83 per cent of the time (with increased velocity, to boot) last year, compared to just 61 per cent of the time in 2010. Hanrahan got through at-bats quicker and innings as well. The results speak for themselves.

8. Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees (6): Could 2012 be Rivera’s swan song? If is it, he’s not saying. Now 42, Rivera has been remarkably healthy over his career, and he’s looking great already this spring. Last year, his strikeout rate bounced back but he blew five saves for the second straight season (although he did convert 11 more last year). Rivera allowed a few more baserunners, but has now recorded a WHIP of 0.90 or better in each of the last four seasons, so clearly we’re quibbling. One of the last remaining pieces from the Yankees’ phenomenal 1990s run, Rivera’s BABIP was a bit on the high side for him last year, so who knows? He may be even better in what could be his final season. In fact, most experts think Rivera will still be a top five reliever this season, but we think that might be a tad optimistic. Then again, we wouldn’t be surprised by anything Mo does.

9. Brian Wilson, San Francisco Giants (5): The Bearded One dealt with elbow woes in the second half, and while he finally did make it back, he shut it down again just a week and change later. This has to be worry for Wilson owners this season. Even last year, it was clear he was being babied somewhat, as he averaged less than an inning per outing, and was touched up by opponents far more often. Wilson only blew five saves, but out of just 41 chances compared to 53 the season before. He’s done a brilliant job of limiting homers the past couple of seasons, but it wouldn’t surprise us to see a few more long balls surrendered this year. If Wilson’s elbow blows up, that two-year, big-money extension the Giants gave him before the 2010 season might not look so wise.

10. Andrew Bailey, Boston Red Sox (21): Bailey was shipped to the Red Sox as part of Oakland’s pitching purge, a deal we analyzed in a recent Podcast. He’s a reliever that really came into his own once he added a cutter to his repertoire, however opponents had an easier time hitting that offering last year. As a result, he was touched up much more than usual; in fact, he gave up almost twice as many earned runs as he did in 2010, despite pitching just 7 1/3 less innings. Bailey’s WHIP, while still exceptional, rose to career worst levels and he’s still getting touched up early this spring. He was still stingy with long balls, but did yield them more often last year. The big issue for Bailey is the trouble he had against lefties last year; he’ll need to address that if he has any chance to move up this list.

11. Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs (2): When we last checked in on Marmol in late-August, we were worried about his velocity drop (his average fastball was down 2.3 mph last season). And despite an ERA that soared and his typical wildness, he remains the Cubs’ closer to start the season. No reported injury would explain his results; in fact, the durable workhorse pitched at least 75 games for fourth straight season. Homers were more of an issue for Marmol last year and partially attributed to a whopping 10 blown saves in 44 chances (compared to just 5 in 43 chances in 2010). His BABIP was higher than usual last season, but still not at a level which anyone would consider high, so our guess he was simply easier to hit. It’s really hard to get a read on whether Marmol can return to elite closer status, or whether he’ll continue to regress and become a bottom of the barrel closer. We’ll split the difference and call him a low-end No. 1 closer in standard formats.

12. J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks (13): As we discussed previously, Arizona’s signing of Putz turned out to be one of the best free agent moves of 2011. He’s stayed healthy the past couple of years, and really improved his bottom line results last season, setting a new career high in saves along the way. Putz turned 35 last month, so he’s no spring chicken and his high strand rate last year portents a slight regression this year, but as long as he again avoids the DL, he has a chance to be a top 10 reliever, although we’re hedging our bets a bit on that outcome.

13. Sergio Santos, Toronto Blue Jays (NR): The White Sox locked up Santos with a new multi-year deal, assumedly giving him job security, and then turned around and dealt him to Toronto. Uh, okay. Yet another head scratcher from Kelly Williams. Toronto’s biggest offseason acquisition, Santos will be asked to shore up a closer situation for the Jays that was muddled last year. Santos was actually touched up more often last year, and wound up suffered more losses, but he proved he can finish by reaching 30 saves after taking over the job fairly early in the season. The rise in his homer rate was a tad worrisome, and after a blazing start, Santos went through a rough patch in June and was downright brutal in September. Still, he’ll get more save chances in Toronto than he would have on the rebuilding Pale Hose, so consider him a very nice No. 2 reliever.

14. Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals (63): While Fernando Salas was the early star of the Cards’ pen in the wake of Ryan Franklin’s implosion, Motte – long considered to be a closer-in-waiting — ultimately grabbed the gig and ran with it. His performance, which included a career-best five wins, nine saves and a 2.25 ERA, earned him a sweet-ass raise in arbitration from $435,000 to $1.95 million. After a solid 2010 in which he enjoyed a WAR of 0.6, Motte put up a 1.5 last year and new Manager Mike Matheny wisely had earmarked him for the closer job again this season. Motte’s command just keeps getting better and is now at a truly elite level, and as long as that remains strong, he’ll be a successful closer.

15. Jordan Walden, Los Angeles Angels (69): Because Walden didn’t grab the closer job in Anaheim until mid-April, he was available on the wire, making him one of the top AL wire choices of the year. He got touched up more than he did in his impressive, but brief look in 2010, and the fact that Walden is having a rough spring isn’t exactly filling the Angels with confidence. Last year, Walden set a career high in wins, but also in losses, and those 10 blown saves in 42 chances really stick out. And while he’s looked good for the most part this spring, when he’s looked bad, he’s looked real bad. We love the fact that Walden kept the ball in the park, so if you can snag him around the 16th round, consider it solid value.

16. Kyle Farnsworth, Tampa Bay Rays (37): Farnsworth surprised the hell out of a lot people last year, by actually more or less excelling as the closer of the Rays. He’s got the job again this year, but with the addition of equally uninspiring Fernando Rodney, he may have a bit less rope. The former Yankee reliever (and about a dozen other clubs), was extremely hard to hit and even harder to score against last year. Farnsworth gave up more dingers, but he allowed so few baserunners that he wasn’t burned by the long ball. He matched his career high in wins and wound up almost doubling his career save total – in his 12th season in the bigs. Farnsworth missed a couple of weeks with an elbow problem last year, but still handled the bulk of the Rays’ save situations – 31 out of 44. His BABIP was very low last year, so don’t expect Farnsworth’s hit rates and ERA to be as sterling this season. The Rays have gone through closers like underwear in recent seasons; who would have thought that Farnsworth would be the answer to bring stability to this situation?

17. Huston Street, San Diego Padres (14): After the emergence of Rafael Betancourt, the Rockies felt they could part with Street this winter, trading him to the Padres in a deal we discussed in a recent Podcast. On the one hand, Street moves from a crappy pitcher park to one of the best, but he’s very injury prone, so tread carefully here. Last year, his ERA rose for the second straight season and he was more susceptible to the long ball than ever before. Street’s strikeout rate has also dipped in back-to-back seasons. His HR/FB rate isn’t likely to be as high again – especially in Petco, so that will help, but we still worry about his ability to stay healthy. Just sayin’…

18. Brett Myers, Houston Astros (44 at SP): Houston’s decision to convert former ace Myers back into a closer had us scratching our heads, as discussed in a recent Podcast. His strikeout rate dropped quite a bit last year, but that should bounce back out of the bullpen. Myers’ xFIP suggested that he pitched much better than last year’s ERA (4.46) would indicate. We wouldn’t look at him until at least the 20th round – there are just many more dependable closer options.

19. Brandon League, Seattle Mariners (28): As we discussed late last season, League’s 2011 performance ensured he’d carry on with the closer role for the Mariners this year. He was supposed to hold down the job early last year while David Aardsma recuperated, but Aardsma never made it back, and League never looked back, finishing third in the AL in saves. Not surprisingly, League didn’t make as many appearances as he had as a set-up man, but he really improved his bottom line results and dramatically sharpened his control while increasing his strikeout rate. League’s FB/HR rate was incredibly low, so we expect a few more long balls against him this season.

20. Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers (10): Texas’ new closer Nathan hasn’t looked overly sharp this spring, but he’s starting to round into form. Last year, he was hit harder than at any time since becoming a reliever a decade ago. And you can’t blame it on his BABIP, which was pretty much right in line with his career numbers. Injury-prone Nathan got hurt in May, but he enjoyed a solid second half. As long as he can stay healthy, he should be an effective closer, but he’ll never be among the elite in this department again.

21. Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians (9): Perez’s oblique injury clouded his spring (a situation we discussed in a recent Podcast), but it sounds like he’ll be good to go to start the season. Now, whether he survives the season with his job is another story, especially if he doesn’t address the gopheritis and command issues he dealt with last year. Perez’s strand rate was on the low side last year, so there’s definitely room for improvement. Who knows? Maybe he’ll keep the job all season. You have to draft him assuming he will and prepare yourself for the possibility he won’t.

22. Javy Guerra, Los Angeles Dodgers (NR): The Dodgers finally tired of the on-again, off-again struggles of Jonathan Broxton, so they took a flier on Guerra last spring and the young righthander didn’t disappoint. The hard-tossing Guerra finished the 2011 season with 21 saves in 23 chances while posting a sparkling 2.31 ERA and 1.18 WHIP.  He fought off the challenge of the strikeout machine known as Kanley Jansen and has been named the Dodgers’ ninth inning man entering 2012. Jansen is still lurking in the shadows, so some caution is warranted but based on Guerra’s outstanding 2011, he has manager Don Mattingly’s confidence and he has the gig — for now. – TM

23. Matt Thornton, Chicago White Sox (22): Thornton was the closer in Chicago to begin 2011, but quickly lost his job to Santos, who became a waiver wire darling in the process. Well, Santos has been dealt to Toronto, so Thornton is getting another shot to do the job – or at least he’s competing for the gig. Last year, he was much more hittable, leading to a career high in losses and he actually wound up with less holds than the season before. However, Thornton looks dynamite this spring, pitching shutout ball so far to separate himself from his competition, Addison Reed and Jesse Crain. Thornton’s strikeout rate dropped to its lowest level since 2007, so we’d definitely like to see that bounce back before jumping on his bandwagon. He’s got the stuff to retain the job, though, so don’t be shocked if Thornton winds up having a stellar year and racks up a crapload of saves.

24. Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies (NR): Betancourt’s got the closing job in Colorado, but we’re not super optimistic about his chances of holding it, hence our identification of Rex Brothers as one of our Top 10 Sleepers. You have to draft Betancourt because he’s getting his chance, but he’s a prime bust candidate. In fairness, he was much better last year, and went undefeated for the first time in his career. Betancourt hasn’t exactly shined this spring, so there’s already reason to worry, but we do like the fact that his groundball rate was up significantly last year. Shocking stat: the only relievers with a higher WAR than Betancourt since 2009 are Sean Marshall, Papelbon, Rivera, Thornton and Wilson.

25. Frank Francisco, New York Mets (23): Bobby Parnell had his opportunity in 2011 and simply couldn’t get the job done, forcing the Mets to search elsewhere for a ninth inning man in 2012. Enter the oft-injured Francisco. The skill set is there, but unfortunately he simply can’t stay off the DL long enough to display those skills consistently. Francisco has the job entering 2012, but is at best a late-round gamble and handcuffing him with another former Jays’ reliever (Jon Rauch) would be a prudent move. — TM

26. Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles (NR): While Johnson is getting the first crack at the Orioles closer job, newcomer Matt Lindstrom has far more experience saving games. Even so, 29-year-old Johnson will still be one of the better Orioles to own – at least to begin the season. Last year, he was much harder to hit, helping really trim his ERA. Johnson also cut his homer rate, but the five blown saves in 14 tries didn’t exactly portent great success as a full-time closer. Johnson’s strand rate has been a tad on the high side the past couple of years, but not so much to raise a red flag. More of a groundball specialist than a strikeout dude, Johnson is nonetheless worthy of attention if for no other reason than opportunity is everything, and he’s got it.

27. Matt Capps, Minnesota Twins (38): With the departure of Joe Nathan, 28-year-old righty Capps is going to get another shot to close for the Twinkies. Capps stayed more or less healthy last year, but didn’t see as much action and wound up averaging less than an inning per outing. Gopher balls were a serious issue and after saving 42 games in 2010, Capps managed just 15 before losing the job. Still, his WHIP was actually better last year, even though his ERA didn’t reflect that. Long balls will do that to you. Minny re-signed Capps for $10 million, but judging by his FIP last year, the ERA could be even worse this year. Could Glen Perkins take his job at some point this year? It’s a situation to monitor.

28. Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics (60): The 34-year-old Balfour has never really had a chance to close, but now that the A’s have dealt Andrew Bailey to Boston, he’s getting a shot. Last year, Balfour walked a few more batters, but his control was still solid and he provided value with his mix of wins, holds, strikeouts, WHIP and ERA. He’ll still have to deal with Brian Fuentes, Fautino De Los Santos and possibly even Joey Devine, but for now, Balfour is the top reliever to own in Oakland. Bear in mind that Balfour’s strand rate was abnormally high last year, so expect a few more runners to score on him this season. Another 2.50 or lower ERA may be a tough task.

29. Sean Marshall, Cincinnati Reds (NR): The Reds addressed their bullpen this winter by signing free agent Ryan Madson and acquiring Marshall from the Cubs. Madson’s season is over before it began, which leaves Marshall as the frontrunner for saves in Cincy, although we can’t rule out the possibility that the Reds will shift Aroldis Chapman back to the pen and let him compete for the gig. Marshall’s been one of the game’s top set-up men in the past couple of years, and a real workhorse. He did manage to bag five saves last year while enjoying his lowest WHIP ever. Marshall hasn’t officially been anointed closer, but this southpaw is the best option the Reds have even if his strikeout dipped last year.

30. Jonathan Broxton, Kansas City Royals (11): Broxton’s awful 2011 season ended early thanks to surgery. He landed in KC, and suddenly – with the season-ending injury to Joakim Soria – he’s got a chance to close again. Broxton will have to beat out Greg Holland and Aaron Crow for the job, but he has by far the most extensive pedigree of the trio. As mentioned, last year was a nightmare for Broxton as he missed most of the season with injuries and was hit hard when active. His strikeout rate dropped substantially, but he was an All-Star as recently as 2010. Still, Broxton’s low strand rate last year suggests that his numbers could have been even worse last year. He’s definitely the favourite to close, but long-term, Holland looks like a better bet.

Others to Consider

31. Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals (NR)
32. Brian Fuentes, Oakland Athletics (35)
33. Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers (NR)
34. David Robertson, New York Yankees (79)
35. Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox (NR)
36. Vinnie Pestano, Cleveland Indians (NR)
37. Mike Adams, Texas Rangers (55)
38. Jonny Venters, Atlanta Braves (29)
39. Joel Peralta, Tampa Bay Rays (51)
40. Jesse Crain, Chicago White Sox (68)
41. Brad Lidge, Washington Nationals (41)
42. Rex Brothers, Colorado Rockies (NR)
43. Fernando Salas, St. Louis Cardinals (NR)
44. Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins (NR)
45. Nick Masset, Cincinnati Reds (66)
46. David Carpenter, Houston Astros (NR)
47. Matt Lindstrom, Baltimore Orioles (73)
48. Mark Melancon, Boston Red Sox (NR)
49. Andrew Cashner, San Diego Padres (NR)
50. Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins (NR)
51. Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee Brewers (7)
52. Kerry Wood, Chicago Cubs (62)
53. Francisco Cordero, Toronto Blue Jays (15)
54. Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants (44)
55. Tyler Clippard, Washington Nationals (58)
56. Antonio Bastardo, Philadelphia Phillies (NR)
57. Joaquin Benoit, Detroit Tigers (54)
58. Henry Rodriguez, Washington Nationals (NR)
59. Wilton Lopez, Houston Astros (57)
60. Shawn Kelley, Seattle Mariners (NR)
61. Octavio Dotel, Detroit Tigers (46)
62. David Hernandez, Arizona Diamondbacks (52)
63. Fautino De Los Santos, Oakland Athletics (NR)
64. Ramon Ramirez, New York Mets (NR)
65. Brandon Lyon, Houston Astros (20)
66. Luke Gregerson, San Diego Padres (40)
67. Scott Downs, Los Angeles Angels (76)
68. Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays (NR)
69. Matt Belisle, Colorado Rockies (NR)
70. Rafael Soriano, New York Yankees (47)
71. Koji Uehara, Texas Rangers (33)
72. Joey Devine, Oakland Athletics (84)
73. Edward Mujica, Miami Marlins (NR)
74. Eric O’Flaherty, Atlanta Braves (NR)
75. Hong-Chih Kuo, Seattle Mariners (39)
76. Jake McGee, Tampa Bay Rays (32):
77. Javier Lopez, San Francisco Giants (NR)
78. Chance Ruffin, Seattle Mariners (NR)
79. Jon Rauch, New York Mets (34)
80. Tony Sipp, Cleveland Indians (67)
81. Eduardo Sanchez, St. Louis Cardinals (NR)
82. Kevin Gregg, Baltimore Orioles (27)
83. Jeremy Affeldt, San Francisco Giants (77)
84. Evan Meek, Pittsburgh Pirates (45)
85. Jeff Samardzija, Chicago Cubs (NR)
86. Bobby Parnell, New York Mets (57):
87. Brad Boxberger, San Diego Padres (NR)
88. Matt Guerrier, Los Angeles Dodgers (80)
89. Jose Contreras, Philadelphia Phillies (30)
90. Chris Resop, Pittsburgh Pirates (NR)
91. Takashi Saito, Arizona Diamondbacks (65)
92. Kevin Jepsen, Los Angeles Angels (74)

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