The closer is the strangest fantasy position. Closers provide some value with their (usually) great ERA and WHIP, as well as high strikeouts-per-inning numbers, but because they pitch maybe a third of the number of innings of a starter, this impact is hardly noticed on a fantasy squad. Instead, the lion’s share of their value is from saves. Saves, in traditional fantasy baseball, carry the same weight as any other category, but at any time just 30 pitchers – the closers – will get the vast majority of those precious commodities. Those closers will change over the course of the season – due to injuries, trades, or ineffectiveness – and when this happens players lose or gain almost all of their value.
Because closers get almost all of their value from saves, even if they post great ratios and strikeout numbers, the best fantasy closers are the ones who have the best likelihood of maintaining that role for the whole season. This likelihood depends on a number of factors: his skill, his durability, and his reputation weighted against how fast his manager will replace him, which, in turn, depends on the quality of his replacement.
Here, I assess the probable closers based on the above factors. Instead of a strict ranking, I break them up into three groups: the best nine closers, which I then slice into two sub-groups; a large middling group, from which I highlight a handful of closers; and the four team-closing situations that I see as the worst.
The Top Closers
Tier 1: Jonathan Broxton, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, and Mariano Rivera
These guys are undisputedly the class of the closer crop: none has ever posted an ERA above 3.15 in a full year of closing. All four have been very healthy over the past couple of years and have the closer’s roll locked down as tightly as possible. It is hard to argue for any one of these guys over the others. Broxton will probably give you the most strikeouts – his 13.5 K/9 in 2009 was the highest by any pitcher since Brad Lidge in 2004. On the other hand, Papelbon’s performance was down a little last year by giving up more walks and fly balls than normal. But all of these guys should provide at least 30 saves and have a shot 40 or more.
Tier 2: Jokiam Soria, Heath Bell, Huston Street, Brian Wilson, and Andrew Bailey
Outside of the Tier 1 closers, these are the guys I would be most confident in holding the closer’s job for all of 2010. Soria and Bell are the class of the group: outside of Tier 1, they have the best three-year average FIPs amongst relief pitchers. They play for small-market teams that probably won’t win a ton of games in 2010, but still should provide the opportunity for a good number of saves (thanks to playing in a lot of close games). The only concern is that either pitcher could get traded as their teams continue to rebuild, but even if one is traded, he will, most likely, retain his closing role.
Street and Wilson also have a number of years of very good performance behind them, and each has a firm hold on the closing duties for their NL West teams. Street is an extreme fly-ball pitcher in Colorado, which is a slight concern, but his strikeout and walk numbers are solid. Wilson walks more batters than any closer mentioned so far, but he gets enough strikeouts and ground balls to compensate.
Finally, Bailey does not have as long of a track record as the rest of this group and is definitely due for some regression (his ERA of 1.84 was in spite of a xFIP of 3.25, because of a lucky .234 BABIP and a 5.6% HR/FB), so I think he is right on the boundary of the top closers and the middling groups. Still, his youth, the patience of the A’s management with brief periods of poor performance, and underlying skills (an xFIP of 3.25 is still quite good) pushed him over as the last member of the top-closers group.
The Middle Tier
I put the majority of closers in the not the best, but not the worst group. Instead of explicitly ranking all closers in this group I will highlight two groups: one I think will be undervalued in some leagues and the other that I would be wary of drafting.
Potentially Undervalued: Rafael Soriano, Mike Gonzalez, and Frank Francisco
Soriano is a very good pitcher, posting ERAs of 3.00 or less in every year since 2006. But he has done so quietly and even last year shared closing duties with Mike Gonzalez. Now with the Rays, though, he should get almost all save opportunities to start the season. Gonzalez is a solid reliever with a career ERA of 2.57. He will start the year first in line for saves for the Orioles, his new organization. Both of these guys have a history of great numbers, but have never really had the starting closer’s job as firmly as they do now. This could make them undervalued.
Frank Francisco is also a solid reliever with xFIPs of 3.34 and 3.53 the last two years. He should have a solid shot at 30 or more saves for the Rangers, but he also tends to fly somewhat under the radar.
Guys I would be wary of: Francisco Rodriguez, Brian Fuentes, Ryan Franklin, and David Aardsma
Absent from my best closers list are Rodriguez and Fuentes. Both of these guys have a history of posting large numbers of saves for big-market teams, but each pitcher has had very poor performances as of late. Fuentes has only once had a FIP under 3.00, and in two of the last three years, he had a FIP over 4.00. Last year, his strikeouts fell to a career worst 7.53 K/9, while he still gives up a lot of walks (3.9 BB/9) and does not get many ground balls (36%). Rodriguez’ strikeout rate has fallen every year since 2004, while his walk rate last year was a career high 5.00 BB/9. Both of these guys could rebound in 2010, and maybe they are better pitchers than their 4.00+ FIPs of 2009 would suggest. With that said, they could very well keep the end-game jobs on their teams based on their history. Still, I would be wary of both of these guys, as they will be overvalued in many drafts.
Franklin and Aardsma were the beneficiaries of some serious luck in 2009. Franklin had an ERA of 1.92, but an xFIP of 4.27 (thanks to a BABIP of .269 and a HR/FB of 3%), while Aardsma had an ERA of 2.25 versus a FIP of 4.12 (BABIP of .271 and a HR/FB of 4%). They are both okay closers, but don’t expect – or pay for – an ERA below 2.50 from either of these guys in 2010.
The Bottom Group
Finally, we have the bottom group of closers and the team closing situations that include the worst closers and poor late-game options. These closers are most likely to lose their closing jobs due to ineffectiveness. To be clear, these are not bad pitchers, but bad when compared to their peer group of other closers.
Guys I would avoid: Brandon Lyon/Matt Lindstrom, Joel Zumaya/Ryan Perry/Daniel Schlereth, Leo Nunez, Chad Qualls/Juan Gutierrez
Nunez is not a particularly good pitcher; he has a career ERA of 4.66, which is in line with his xFIP of 4.79. He had an ERA under 3.00 in 2008, but that was the result of a lucky 3% HR/FB. In every other year his ERA has been above 3.90.
Lindstrom and Lyon are the most likely candidates for the Astros’ closer’s job: both have career xFIPs above 4.00. Either pitcher could very easily have an ineffective month, then blow some saves and lose his job.
For the Tigers, Zumaya, Perry, and Schlereth will compete for the job. All three get tons of strikeouts, but each also gives up too many walks. Even the one who emerges from spring training with the job will be far from a lock to hold it for the season.
In Arizona, Qualls is a solid pitcher, having had two straight years with xFIPs under 3.00 on the strength of his low-walk, high-ground-ball ways. However, he had serious knee surgery in September and will not be at full strength for spring training. Gutierrez received Qualls’ save opportunities after the latter’s surgery, so the younger pitcher figures to be the other option going into spring training. Gutierrez is not a great pitcher for a closer, thanks to a career xFIP of 4.22. The combination of a big health question mark in Qualls and relatively poor expected performance from Gutierrez makes this a dangerous closing situation.