FANTASY BASEBALL: Relief Pitcher Profiles

Fantasy Baseball owners: Time to roll out the 2011 draft kit at This is an excerpt from the Relief Pitcher Position Profiles. To read the whole column,  click here...

You know the approach here. Wait on closers. Just about every expert will avoid closers like an Aroldis Chapman fastball running up and in. I usually roll with that strategy. Usually. See, last year, in my 12-team mixed league, every owner had that same tactic. It was like a 12-way stare down. When it got to the 10th round, I blinked and drafted Jonathan Papelbon. Turns out, I really paid for that call. In the final MLB game of my head-to-head World Series, I needed Papelbon to register a save against the Yankees. Like much of the season, he was very hittable and he blew it, costing me the title. No way I’m taking a top-tier closer this season. Instead, I suggest you load up on the middle-of-the-road guys and even a few back-end options. I’m only profiling the pitchers who are reportedly in the closer’s role for their teams. Though, if there’s another name to know in a given bullpen, I’ll make note of it.

1. Brian Wilson, SF, RP – “The Beard” became the biggest personality during the World Series. Now, he rockets up to the top of the closer rankings after saving an average of over 42 games the past three seasons. Over that period, his strikeout rate has steadily increased, while his ERA has steadily decreased. Welcome to the top of the heap, Mr. Wilson.

2. Heath Bell, SD, RP – The Padres were the surprise team of 2010…until they flopped the last month of the season. Much of their success was due to a highly effective bullpen. Bell rang up 47 saves, shutting down offenses to the tune of a 1.93 ERA. Bonus: Heath raises the bar by being a solid source of victories too. He’s had 6 wins in four consecutive seasons.

3. Joakim Soria, KC, RP – The Royals’ perennial all-star is a solid as they come. So what if he’s on a bad team. Just means the leads will be that much closer when they come. The Royals may fail to top 70 wins yet again, but Soria will probably still save 40.

4. Carlos Marmol, CHC, RP – When considering Marmol, one number jumps out at you as if you were seeing the stats on one of those giant 3D TVs. He stuck out nearly 16 batter per 9 innings. That rate is unheard of. If your league counts strikeouts, it’s a big bonus to own a closer who can make a big contribution  every week.

5. Neftali Feliz, TEX, RP – If you’ve been following along with the spring training story lines, you’ve heard that the Rangers are stretching out Feliz to see how he fares as a starter. It’s true that MLB starters are more valuable than relievers. Though few relievers carry more value than Feliz. He was spectacular in his first full season. He has stated that he prefers the closer role, so watch the Rangers’ headlines until this situation is resolved. No matter what his role, Feliz is likely to make you happy. If he should stick in the Rangers rotation, look for Alexi Ogando to take over as closer. He had some eye-popping numbers in 2010.

6. Mariano Rivera, NYY, RP – Ol’ Man Rivera just keeps sawin’ off hitters with that cutter. They know what’s coming and they still can’t hit it. Last season, he baffled batters to record a 1.80 ERA and 0.83 WHIP, yet he only notched 33 saves. This season, I expect him to get more save chances, but to also allow more runs, as the inevitable decline sets in.

7. Jonathan Papelbon, BOS, RP – Ugh. Boston can’t hand the closer role over to Daniel Bard fast enough. Papelbon just didn’t have it last year, as he blew 8 saves. He’ll still be closing out games for the Beantowners, but a repeat of last season will surely spell the end of the road for Paps in Fenway. If you’re looking for the glass to be half full, he did have some rough luck with a 37% strand rate, which explains why his ERA made a dramatic jump.

8. Jonathan Broxton, LAD, RP – Here’s another struggling saver who’s getting another lease on life. Brox was his typical lights-out self at the start of the year. Then, for some mysterious reason Eric Gagne, the ghost of Dodgers past, possessed Broxton’s body and made him absolutely worthless. The job is Broxton’s to lose (again). If that happens Hong-Chih Kuo and/or Kenley Jansen will be in high demand.

9. Joe Nathan, MIN, RP – Some guys just recover from injuries better than others. Tommy John surgery has a 12-18 month recovery period and Nathan went down around this time last year. So it’s remarkable that he’s already pitching 1-2-3 innings in spring training. Watch him closely, and expect a little overall regression, but I have hunch Nathan will be just fine.

10. J.J. Putz, ARI, RP – After putting the Chad Qualls Era behind them, the Diamondbacks brought in an experienced closer who has come back strong from  his elbow surgery a couple of years back. Putz proved he’s ready for ninth-inning duties by striking out 65 in just 54 innings in 2010.

11. Andrew Bailey, OAK, RP – Bailey bailed on owners late last season when he succumbed to an elbow injury. He’s still a bit iffy to give 110% by Opening Day. He’s filthy when healthy, so track his progress up until your draft and grab him if he slips.

12. Matt Thornton, CWS RP – One of baseball’s best setup men now has a shot at more glory. Ozzie Guillen wants to see Thornton become his closer, but the mercurial manager will take his time deciding between Thornton and Chris Sale. I say Thornton lands the gig and is a great value.

13. Chris Perez, CLE, RP – Why do good closers happen to bad teams? So you can get them at a discount. Perez locked down the closer role as soon as the Tribe traded Kerry Wood to New York. Even though the bases on balls could be curtailed a bit, Perez should rock ‘n’ roll his way to 30 saves, no problem.

14. Jose Valverde, DET RP – He’s no lock to pitch in 65 games, yet Jose “Valveeta” still has enough cheese to whiff a batter per inning and give you a 1.1-something WHIP. He should be a solid draft-day value.

15. John Axford, MIL, RP – No closer has more potential for a great nickname. “The Ax” chopped down 76 batters on strikes in 58 innings. Personally, I pegged Zach Braddock to be the Brewers closer when “Hall of Fame” Hoffman finally stepped aside. Didn’t happen. Axford took the job and ran with it, as if he was a bratwurst in the Miller Park sausage race.

To see the rest of the top 30 Relief Pitchers, click here...

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