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Position Profiles: Relief Pitcher

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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. Should Feliz stick in the Rangers rotation, look for Alexi Ogando to take over as closer. He had some eye-popping numbers in 2010. I’d rank him just outside of the top 15.

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. 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.

12. 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.

13. 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.

14. 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.

15. Brad Lidge, PHI, RP – Well, save chances shouldn’t be a problem for Lidge on that staff, unless everyone’s throwing complete games. After an abysmal 2009 season, Lidge proved his skills are fine. Now, you just have to worry about his health.

16. Francisco Rodriguez, NYM, RP – K-Rod not only got back to punching out hitters, but also tried to punch out his girlfriend’s father. As a result, he tore a ligament in his thumb and hit the shelf for the rest of ’10. He’s straightened out his off-the-field matters and will get back to closing out games for the Mets. But I’ve been avoiding Rodriguez for a few years now, and, while he put an end to his declining trends, I’m not convinced I should give him another chance.

17. Frank Francisco, TOR, RP – Ever wonder if Frank is really short for Francisco? These are the things that pass through The Geek’s head on a daily basis. Francisco got lit up early last season, which led to the sudden emergence of Neftali Feliz. In middle relief, Francisco got his act together and he’s now the leading name to close out games in Toronto. I’m confident he’ll fare much better than he did as Texas’ stopper.

18. Francisco Cordero, CIN, RP – Ooh, look, we have a run on Franciscos! One relatively poor season (despite saving 40 games) and everyone’s looking past Cordero, including Reds fans. That’s what happens when the guy behind you on the depth chart chucks it 105 mph. Cordero’s not going anywhere in 2011, provided he stays healthy and doesn’t blow leads. 2012? Now that’s another story.

19. Andrew Bailey, OAK, RP – Bailey bailed on owners late last season when he succumbed to an elbow injury. Looks like he may be at it again. Bailey left the mound holding his elbow this week, and he will now head off to a dreaded meeting with Dr. James Andrews. Uh oh. That name is pure poison for fantasy owners. Bailey’s filthy when healthy, so track his progress up until your draft and grab him if he slips. But should bad news break, you’ll want to grab Brian Fuentes or Grant Balfour out of Oakland’s bullpen. I’d avoid this situation if there is no resolution by your draft.

20. Huston Street, COL, RP – Last season, owners had to wait much longer than the announced timetable for Street to take the mound. Their patience paid off for the most part, as Street saved 20 games. He did blow 5 chances though, and he was fairly hittable. I’m going to pass this year, because it wouldn’t be surprising at all if Huston had more problems.

21. Ryan Franklin, STL, RP – Franklin proved he’s no fluke by recording 27 saves in his 29 opportunities. He doesn’t dazzle anyone with lots of Ks or a sub-1.000 WHIP, but he gets the job done. Dynasty leaguers, take note: Franklin has announced that 2011 will be his final year, so take a long look at Jason Motte, who is the closer-in-waiting in St. Louis.

22. Leo Nunez, FLA, RP – Leo was a lion for much of 2010…until he hit a wall in August. The Marlins pulled him from the closer role down the stretch, but they plan on re-inserting him for the 2011 season. There’s some risk here, and there’s also few better candidates to get you 30+ cheap saves.

23. Craig Kimbrel, ATL, RP – Because he’s more of a fireballer, Kimbrel seems to be the preferred closing option to Jonny Venters. That written, it wouldn’t take much for Venters to overtake ninth-inning duties. Kimbrel has had a rocky spring thus far, so he’s not exactly a sure thing. Chief Knockahoma is shrugging his shoulders and I’m recommending a Kimbrel/Venters handcuff.

24. Kevin Gregg, BAL, RP – No one likes owning Kevin Gregg. He just goes from team to team, becoming the closer by default and saving in the neighborhood of 30 games. Now, the same thing’s about to happen in Baltimore, Gregg’s fourth team in four years. He’ll make a nice, affordable third closer for your staff.

25. Drew Storen, WAS, RP – If a big season is in store for Storen, he’ll have to persevere the initial closer-by-committee. Few teams actually draft pitchers with the idea of grooming them to be their closer. So despite the chatter that Storen may not be handed the role exclusively at first, I believe Storen will be the Nats’ ninth-inning guy most of the time. Could be a few bumps in the road though.

26. Joel Hanrahan, PIT, RP – Gotta hand it to Hanrahan. He threw it by 100 batters in 69 2/3 innings. That was enough for the Pirates to trust him to finish games for them this season. Notice I wrote “finish” instead of “save.” The Pirates won’t have many leads to protect.

27. Brandon Lyon, HOU, RP – Lyon has inherited many a closer role when Plan A hasn’t worked out. Now, he enters the season as the main man in the Astros ‘pen. He’ll give you good, not great, stats with a very small price tag.

28. Jake McGee, TB, RP – Here’s a top sleeper candidate among the closers. He’s big, young and talented. And he’s the reason the Rays let Rafael Soriano go to New York. Kyle Farnsworth may break camp with the closer role, so that’s why McGee is way down here. Give me the dice, because I’m going to roll ‘em in McGee’s direction if I get the chance.

29. Fernando Rodney, LAA, RP – Rodney should come with one of those airsickness bags in the front pocket of your airline seat. He’ll make you more nauseous than four hours of choppy in-flight conditions. Pass, if possible.

30. David Aardsma, SEA, RP – Clearly, these rankings aren’t alphabetical. Aardsma was fine last year, performance-wise. Health-wise, not so much. He had hip surgery in December and will start the season on the DL. He could miss a month or more, which is why you need to grab Brandon League if you’re investing a dime in Aardsma.

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