Drum roll please. It's time for the opening closer rankings for the 2015 season. Today we'll cover every team's closer including where the water remains murky.
Earlier this spring, I completed a detailed analysis of all bullpens. We covered roughly 90 percent of opening day relievers. While a few high potential picks like Keone Kela, Miguel Castro, and Andy Oliver went unremarked, those articles offer detailed analysis of nearly all relevant closers and setup men. If you're looking for more detail than what you find below, I recommend you head to the NL East, AL East, NL Central, AL Central, NL West, and AL West
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Tier 1: Elite (3)
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Ah, the elites. Here we find the players with ridiculous strikeout rates, established track records, and strangleholds on their jobs. Unbelievably, Chapman ousted Kimbrel from the top spot by striking out 106 of 202 batters faced. The extreme strikeout total more than makes up for occasionally shaky control. He flashed an elite changeup early last season, but he dropped it from his repertoire later in the year.
There are tiny reasons to worry about Kimbrel and Holland, but even they feel forced. Kimbrel posted his highest walk rate (3.79 BB/9) since his debut. He'll probably rebound. Even if he doesn't, a sub-2.00 ERA is possible with last season's peripherals.
The concern with Holland is slightly greater. FanGraphs' Jeff Zimmerman reports that his spring velocity is down three mph from last season. That could be a symptom of an injury or normal spring noise. I'm not adjusting my expectations yet, but I am on high alert. Wade Davis' velocity is down two mph per reports, so we could just be seeing a slow gun. Luke Hochevar and Ryan Madson (both rehab) are also on the report.
Tier 2: Nearly Elite (5)
Cody Allen, Cleveland Indians
David Robertson, Chicago White Sox
Joaquin Benoit, San Diego Padres
Mark Melancon, Pittsburgh Pirates
Generally speaking, I tossed any remaining closer battles in the Roller Coaster Tier. Betances and Miller are an exception. Manager Joe Girardi is stubbornly refusing to commit to one man. Most fantasy owners assume the job belongs to Betances and are drafting as such. I read the situation a little differently.
Girardi's comments lead me to believe that the role of Adam Warren will affect who closes. That makes sense if Girardi is trying to assure the presence of a high quality, multi-inning reliever. If Warren starts, Betances might reprise the multi-inning role. In that event, Miller would close. With Warren in the pen, it's easier to build a bullpen where Betances has a one-inning role. On another club, contracts would also come into play. The Yankees probably don't care (much) if Betances makes more money through arbitration.
UPDATE: Betances velocity is down from the upper-90s to around 94 per reports.
Allen and Robertson both strikeout a ton of batters while limiting walks. They have all the elements of a top fantasy closer complete with safe jobs and 40 save upside. Melancon is a step behind this duo because he only strikes out a batter per inning. However, his elite command and control allows him to play up to this tier.
Benoit may have the best splitter in baseball, which is why I consider him the seventh best closer in baseball. Given that he'll turn 38 late in the season, there are additional health risks at play. He flirted with the disabled list late in 2014, so concern is definitely merited. You might want to reference his ADP in your fantasy drafts. He's the 18th reliever off the board per NFBC. However, his stuff is too good for me to bump lower. The Padres may have the deepest bullpen in baseball if something goes wrong.
Tier 3: The Upside Plays (7)
Hector Rondon, Chicago Cubs
Brett Cecil, Toronto Blue Jays
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Fernando Rodney, Seattle Mariners
Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles
Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals
Jenrry Mejia, New York Mets
Here we have the rest of the above average relievers. For the most part, these guys don't have the tools to reach the elite tier, but they're still great fantasy plays.
Initially, I was a Rondon skeptic. I felt Pedro Strop and Neil Ramirez would shoulder him aside. Instead, Rondon made good on a career season by featuring four strong pitches. As a fantasy owner, I'd like to see him drop his sinker. The pitch helps him shave a couple points off his ERA by inducing weak contact, but the strikeout rate suffers as a result.
Cecil was only recently named the Blue Jays closer, and he's a little behind this spring. He throws a borderline unhittable curve. Despite using the pitch 43 percent of the time, he managed a 30 percent whiff rate (57 percent whiffs per swing). In short, he has one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball, and it evaporated his previous platoon splits. The lefty could easily climb a tier. Fantasy owners are still hesitant to buy, although the helium is starting to set in.
Cishek and Rodney are “reliable” veterans in that we know what we're buying. They produce at predictable rates, although they're also prone to choppy stretches. Both the Mariners and Marlins have ready alternatives in their systems, so they aren't the safest pair.
By now, you know Britton's schtick. He's basically Brad Ziegler without the history of platoon splits. So long as he maintains the sky high ground ball rate, he should remain a viable closer. His stuff could support a much higher whiff rate. Unfortunately, fantasy owners will have to make do with a modest strikeout total.
Around this time last year, I was predicting Rosenthal to secure a place among the elite relievers in the sport. Had he maintained a tolerable walk rate, he'd be somewhere between Betances and Benoit. The strikeout rate remains elite, and the team is great for piling up saves. There is some room for optimism regarding the walk rate, just don't let it get out of hand on draft day. He's the ninth reliever off the board, which is too early for me.
I'm choosing to ignore the chatter around Bobby Parnell for the time being. I have trouble giving it any credit. Mejia is a very good, closer-quality reliever. In his best season, Parnell wouldn't have escaped Tier 5. Now he's a 30-year-old rehabbing from a major surgery. I could get a little egg on my face for my “stand,” but I'm willing to take that chance. Ignore Parnell until the end game. Even if he gets the job, he won't hold it for long.
Tier 4: The Mid-Tier (5)
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Huston Street, Los Angeles Angels
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Drew Storen, Washington Nationals
Tyler Clippard, Oakland Athletics
Perkins is a Tier 2 pitcher whose health has me thoroughly concerned. The Twins bullpen is gaping void after Perkins (Casey Fien). Last season's injury was called a “nerve issue and forearm strain,” neither of which sound good. He also dealt with an oblique injury earlier in the spring. If he gets on an early roll, I'll bump him up. I want to see him pitch back-to-back days first.
Street, Papelbon, and Storen are all reliable veteran types. They get the job done without elite velocity or big honking strikeout rates. They offer affordable saves, and occasionally fly under the radar. Be aware of the risk factors.
Clippard is an interesting stand-in for Sean Doolittle. He mostly works fastball-change with the occasional splitter and curve. The mix allows his 92 mph fastball to play up. He's always among the annual leaders for holds. This year, he'll add some early season saves.
Tier 5: Questions (4)
Neftali Feliz, Texas Rangers
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox
Santiago Casilla, San Francisco Giants
Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee Brewers
Regrettably, I do not have spring velocity readings for Feliz. He flashed his former elite heat late last season, but it was inconsistent. His ability to work in the upper 90's could affect his strikeout rate (and thus his fantasy value). No matter how he performs, he seems like a candidate for a midseason trade.
Not long ago, Uehara was included in the Elite Tier. He struggled with home runs down the stretch last season. We attributed the collapse to a big workload in 2013. If he was pitching well this spring, I would have put the whole episode behind us. Alas, reports speak of inconsistency. Who knows what the Red Sox will do if Uehara doesn't work out. A reunion with Papelbon seems exceedingly unlikely. He has a strained hamstring and could open the season on the disabled list. Edward Mujica is probably the man to own if it happens.
In many way, Casilla is an acceptable closer. He'll have the occasional rough patch. For the most part, he limits the quality of contact which allows him to outperform his peripherals. His fantasy stats are mediocre, and the Giants have a couple viable options if they choose to go in another direction. I'm not counting on a full season of saves.
K-Rod has one of the best changeups in the game. I really wish he signed with a team like the Giants. He's developed a home run problem since moving to Milwaukee, one I expect to continue this year. A larger ballpark could have offset the problem.
Tier 6: Roller Coasters (6)
LaTroy Hawkins, Colorado Rockies
While Jake McGee recovers from offseason surgery, the Rays will probably turn to one of Boxberger or Balfour. Other pitchers could also enter the mix. Fantasy owners want it to be Boxberger so they can take advantage of his excellent strikeout rate and ratios. Were the job definitely in his hands, he'd flirt with a Tier 2 ranking. Unfortunately, the Rays have to manage arbitration salaries, so I expect Balfour to get first crack. He was a mess last year, but a better walk rate could lead to a little value.
Addison Reed claims he'll be ready for the season. I'll believe it when I see it. Marshall was considered the early favorite to grab a few saves, but Delgado is on the rise. Delgado has the raw stuff of a closer, he just hasn't put it all together yet. This could be the year. After Reed scuffled with home runs last season, he could be traded once he proves himself healthy. Remember, Reed was a Kevin Towers acquisition.
Presumably, the Astros signed Gregerson to closer Or if not Gregerson, then Neshek. However, Qualls is still in the picture too, and no announcement has been made. Gregerson is probably a Tier 4 or 5 talent. The other two would remain down here.
The Dodgers don't have an obvious closer candidate with Kenley Jansen on the shelf. Joel Peralta is the presumed favorite, although he's a little behind schedule. Of the options, Chris Hatcher had the best 2014 season. He's young and could be ideally suited to an eighth inning role. He's also relatively untested in high leverage situations.
Hawkins' job is secure as he heads towards retirement. Adam Ottavino impresses many with his grasp of the game and multifaceted approach. I want to see him eliminate his large platoon splits before clamoring for a change. Hawkins offers saves and little else.
Oof. I'm convinced Nathan is done, the Tigers just have to reach the point where they can swallow the sunk cost. Hopefully, that's before he blows a bunch of games. I could be wrong, but I'll have to see a distinct change from last season. Soria is first in line, but Bruce Rondon could also enter the picture. It seems the fireballer is back to full health.
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Sean Doolittle, Oakland Athletics
Jake McGee, Tampa Bay Rays
Addison Reed, Arizona Diamondbacks
Bobby Parnell, New York Mets
For the time being, nobody from this group is expected to miss more than a month. Doolittle is probably the most likely to need an extended stay on the disabled list, although a relapse is possible with anyone. Jansen's foot injury is the least worrisome.
Last season, 15 relievers were deposed. As yet, nobody has been officially unseated. A few of the injured pitchers could lose their jobs to talented replacements, but we'll cross the bridge later. Qualls could be the first to “lose” his job. Gregerson was seemingly acquired to oust him. We'll see.
The Steals Department
Last week featured analysis of 30 steals targets. Several players fell through the cracks by virtue of the format I chose. Readers reached out to ask why Leonys Martin, Christian Yelich, and Rajai Davis weren't included, so let's discuss them today.
Martin has already cropped up on a couple of my rosters. He seems like the kind of player who could fly under the radar, but fantasy owners are all over him. Per NFBC, he's the 39th outfielder off the board with pick 143. That price is reasonable, but it isn't a bargain.
The 27-year-old has already been tabbed as the Rangers' everyday leadoff man. He should set a new career high in plate appearances and score upwards of 90 runs. A healthy season could easily result in over 40 stolen bases. His power numbers are underwhelming, but he can put a charge in the ball when he tries. Look for 10 home runs as his upside. Overall, he's a typical speedster who is a little more well-rounded than Ben Revere.
Yelich missed the cut last week because I see him as a 15 to 20 steal guy. As the Marlins leadoff, his job is to reach base for Giancarlo Stanton. Part of that job is not making an out before Stanton is done at the plate. Yelich has the raw ability to swipe 30 bags, I'm just not sure he'll be cut loose. He's a much more rounded hitter than most speed guys, so he's still well worth an investment.
Davis is a fantastic platoon hitter if you have the flexibility to roster such a player. He hit .356/.382/.557 against left-handed pitching last season, which is only slightly inflated from his .304/.358/.446 career line. He's not a good play against right-handed pitchers. Unfortunately, those platoon splits eat into his value for fantasy owners.
Due to injuries to the Tigers' outfield, he started for a long stretch of 2014. He seems likely to platoon with Anthony Gose this year. If you can afford to roster both players, you'll get fantastic stolen base production for pennies. Don't expect much else from Gose.