I believe that at this point, the rankings for relief pitchers are somewhat a shot in the dark. From the time I started writing these profiles a couple of weeks ago, the closer's roles on 4 different teams changed. I have to imagine that there's at least a few that will change again between now and Opening Day, so these rankings are based on the assumption that I am drafting as of today.
1. Craig Kimbrel - Braves
Kimbrel should, and will be in almost all leagues, the first closer off the board. He struck out nearly 15 per 9 innings last year, and finished with 127 strikeouts. There were starting pitchers who threw 3 times as many innings as Kimbrel who had that many strikeouts. While the walk rate is higher than a lot of relievers, the strikeouts more than make up for it. Add in that he has a lock on the Braves' closer job despite the presence of Jonny Venters, and he's easily my top ranked reliever.
2. Mariano Rivera - Yankees
Another year, another great season for the Yankees' closer. 44 saves, nearly a strikeout per inning, an ERA of 1.91, a sub 1.00 WHIP. Just another year for Rivera. I'm not sure when the bottom finally falls out for Rivera, but I doubt it's going to be this season. For me, the consistency makes him my #2 closer. I would probably have him down a notch or two for keeper leagues, but not very many.
3. Jonathan Papelbon - Phillies
Papelbon was given the biggest contract for a closer this offseason at 4 years and $50 million, and he may have managed to find an even better situation than the one he had in Boston. The Phillies still come into the 2012 season as one of the top teams in the National League, and are likely to provide a ton of save chances. Move him out of the AL East and get to face the National League for a majority of appearances, and there's a lot to like.
4. John Axford - Brewers
Axford repeated his excellent performance in 2011, recording 46 saves and a 1.95 ERA for the Brewers. Despite the acceptance of arbitration by Francisco Rodriguez, Axford has shown himself to be the Brewers man for the 9th inning. He averaged over 10 strikeouts per nine for the second straight season, while also lowering his walk rate from 4 to 3 per nine as well.
5. Joel Hanrahan - Pirates
Hanrahan established himself as a top-flight closer last year after recording 40 saves for a team that only won 72 games. While his strikeout rate was down substantially (12.9 in 2010, 8.0 in 2011), his walk rate also dropped (3.3 to 2.10). He was a bit lucky with regard to home runs, as he only allowed one all season. Despite the potential for a bit of regression related to that, I still think Hanrahan comes in as one of the safer bets amongst closers.
6. J.J. Putz - Diamondbacks
Putz showed the skills that made him an elite closer while he was in Seattle in 2011, saving 45, striking out 61, and walking just 12 in 58 innings pitched. If you could guarantee that he would be healthy for the full season, he'd probably be up at #3 on this list. However, he is probably going to miss some time at some point during the 2012 season, and you probably want to make sure to have David Hernandez as a handcuff if you draft Putz.
7. Drew Storen - Nationals
Storen comes into the season locked in as the Nationals' closer, and I think honestly that he can post a season with similar numbers again in 2012. He provides almost a strikeout per inning, a lower walk rate, and should provide solid ratios as well. I could see another 40-save season from him in 2012.
8. Brian Wilson - Giants
Wilson was near the top of these rankings coming into last season, but injuries and control problems derailed his season in 2011. He only ended up making 2 appearances after August 15th last year, and I am a bit concerned that he may suffer some lingering effects in the 2012 season. If he is healthy, he's a top 5 closer, capable of 40+ saves, a K/9 rate over 10, and solid ERA/WHIP numbers. But that remains a big if.
9. Sergio Santos - Blue Jays
Santos wasn't supposed to be the guy that took the closer's job in Chicago last year, but that's what happened anyway. Santos posted a great K/9 rate last year (13.0), but also had his share of wildness (4.1), and I am slightly concerned what happens with that in the AL East. That said, Santos will be the closer in Toronto without the competition like he had in Chicago, and should see quite a few save opportunities regardless.
10. Heath Bell - Marlins
Bell saw his strikeout rate drop to a career low last year of 7.32, but most of his other peripherals remained similar to his career numbers. We don't really know yet how the new stadium in Miami will play, but odds are that it will provide slightly more offense than Petco does. Regardless, I think Bell has the potential to return to form in Miami, and could be a nice value pick in a lot of drafts.
11. Joakim Soria - Royals
It seems like every offseason, we hear that the Royals are contemplating either moving Soria into the rotation or trading him somewhere else entirely. It sounds like Soria will be staying in the bullpen for 2012, and he should be a great bounce-back candidate. He posted career worsts in strand rate, HR/9, and HR/FB% in 2011, all of which should normalize back towards his career numbers in 2012. Unfortunately, I don't see the Royals giving him a lot more save chances this season than last, and he may only be good for around 30-35 saves this year.
12. Jose Valverde - Tigers
Valverde was the only closer last season not to blow a save, and I doubt highly that will happen again for Valverde in 2012. His walk rate is concerning (4.2 last year), especially given that his strikeout rate is not very high to go with it (8.6/9). His peripherals point to a candidate for regression, as his FIP was a run higher, and his xFIP was a run and a half higher. He has a lock on the job, and should still be good for 35+ saves. Just be aware that his ratios could be painful at times.
13. Ryan Madson - Free Agent
Madson lost one potential closer's job when the Phillies signed Papelbon, but I believe that Madson will end up pitching somewhere as a closer. He showed that he can handle the job very well last year for the Phils, and I believe that he will be able to repeat that performance regardless of locale. He posted extremely similar numbers in each of the last two seasons, with a strikeout rate over 9 per nine, and a walk rate of just over 2. His strand rate concerns me a bit, as it has been 80% in each of the last two years, but any regression there should be minimal in my opinion.
14. Huston Street - Padres
Street was on the outside looking in for saves in Colorado after struggling last year with home runs, among other things. However, his strikeout rate and walk rate were both consistent with his career numbers. As a result, his trade to San Diego looks to me like a perfect fit for Street. He should almost definitely benefit from pitching half his games in Petco. While he may not get as many save chances depending on the quality of the team, he should still be in line for 30-35 regardless.
15. Daniel Bard - Red Sox
After failing to resign Jonathan Papelbon, the most likely candidate at the moment to become the Red Sox' closer is the man who was pitching the 8th inning last season, Bard. It remains to be seen whether or not the team will go through with the suggestion of converting him back to the rotation, but as of now, he remains a high-strikeout reliever who will most likely be closing out games for a good team.
16. Carlos Marmol - Cubs
If you've owned Marmol in the past, you know you're playing with fire. He could strikeout all three batters en route to a perfect save. Or he could give up 4 earned runs, 6 hits, earn a blown save, and not manage to get an out. There's more upside with him than a lot of closers, as he could post numbers similar to Kimbrel if he can keep his control.
17. Francisco Cordero - Free Agent
It sounds like Cordero is unlikely to head back to the Reds, and as such his value could drop rapidly if he ends up without a closing job. His control improved last year (2.84 BB/9), but at the cost of his strikeout rate (a career low 5.43). If he can't get his strikeout rate back up, he will end up much further down this list even if he does get a closing job.
18. Jordan Walden - Angels
Walden emerged last year in the Angels' bullpen, and never let go of the job. His walk rate is concerning for his long-term outlook, as he has consistently posted rates around 4 through much of his career. But with the new big-name acquisitions, I could see Walden getting to 40+ saves this year, although his WHIP might hurt your team a bit.
19. Brandon League - Mariners
League's name continues to be bandied about as a trade candidate, but for now he is the closer in Seattle. This team is likely to provide a lot of save opportunities, as they are highly unlikely to score enough runs to blow out teams. However, League doesn't get strikeouts at the same rates as some of the higher closers, which depresses his value some. Odds are that if he is traded, it will likely be to a setup role, which would further drop his value.
20. Andrew Bailey - Athletics
This, of course, assumes that Bailey is not traded between now and the start of the season. His value could go way up if he goes to a better team than the Athletics, but it could drop off a cliff if he ends up in a setup role somewhere. He also remains an injury risk, which keeps his value down as well.
21. Jason Motte - Cardinals
Motte emerged as the closer by the end of the postseason last year, and will go into 2012 with that role in hand. However, there are still plenty of pitchers in the St. Louis bullpen who could close if Motte fails, so there is some risk here as well. If Motte can solidify his role throughout the Spring (he's already been named the closer as of the start of Spring Training), he could jump a lot higher on these rankings very quickly.
22. Joe Nathan - Rangers
It was a bit of a surprise to see Nathan leave Minnesota, but he provides a good late value in a lot of drafts. He comes into Texas as the named closer, and will likely have to fail multiple times before the team considers replacing him. I think he could very well show the skills that made him an elite closer for years while in Texas, but his flyball rate is a bit concerning in Texas. Throw in the health concerns, and he looks like a high-risk, high-reward type reliever.
23. Chris Perez - Indians
Perez held onto the closer's job for all of 2011, despite poor strikeout and walk rates (5.92 and 3.92, respectively). He will likely need to blow more than a few save opportunities to lose that job, but there are pitchers in the Indians' bullpen who have shown the skills to close. I would say that his job security is fair at best, and if he loses his job provides almost no value to fantasy owners.
24. Javy Guerra - Dodgers
Guerra ended up with the closer's job by the end of the season last year, but it remains to be seen if he will hold onto it for 2012. He posted solid numbers across the board for 2011, but I wonder if the team will make it an open competition in Spring Training between Guerra and Kenley Jansen. This one will be one to monitor, as Jensen could be a top-5 closer if he wins the job.
25. Rafael Betancourt - Rockies
Betancourt finished last year closing for the Rockies, even after Huston Street returned from the disabled list. Betancourt should provide saves, and he has shown elite-level control and strikeout rates. Unfortunately, I'm not sold that the team will stick with him all season, as they will eventually look to groom Rex Brothers for the role long-term. As long as you are aware that is a possibility, he should be a nice late-round pick.
Up tomorrow: Profiles on Relievers 26-50.