From the 21st of January to the 20th of February, the writers at TDG will be taking you through our rankings position-by-position. As I mentioned in the primer, this year we’re doing things a little differently. Instead of having my personal rankings up on this site, like last year, these rankings for 2014 are of the consensus variety and being brought to you by all of the TDG staff. Everyone put a lot of work into this project, so we hope you enjoy the end result. And if you are looking for my personal dynasty league rankings, you can find them this off-season at Baseball Prospectus.
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At last we’ve reached the final position of the series. And it’s a bit of a let down since it’s the least important position in dynasty leagues. You’ve likely heard me or many of the other writers at the site say this ad nauseum, but closers are the most fungible commodities in fantasy leagues outside of prospects. If you have an elite one, great. If you have a decent one, that’s fine. But if you have find yourself with depth at closer, don’t hold your cards for too long–it’s like holding a penny stock at $1.50 because you think it can reach $3. And if you’re in a head-to-head league, I advocate trading all of your closers always–assuming you can get good value for them (which you usually can)–unless you are so dominant in the category that it’s nearly a guaranteed win each week.
Now the 20 best relief pitchers in dynasty leagues, starting with a closer who is so good that there’s now a term named after him which essentially means being super awesome at your job:
1) Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves (Age: 26, Previous Rank: 1)
Sure he’s the best reliever in the game, both fantasy and reality, but let’s be real here – he struck out fewer batters in more innings compared to the year before. He saw his hits per nine jump by 1.3, and his strikeout rate drop by 12 percentage points and his walk rate jump by almost two percentage points. If that’s not the start of a downhill trend, I don’t know what is. Get out while the getting is go- what’s that? He was only the best reliever in the league instead of the best by ten miles? Oh, ok then.
2) Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds (Age: 26, Previous Rank: 23, SP)
Chapman’s transition from reliever to starter was shorter-lived than the FOX series LoneStar (look it up), so he winds up back in the reliever rankings and 21 spots higher. There was mention again of a transition when new Reds manager Bryan Price took over, but Chapman once again expressed his preference to shut the door. He walked more batters than in 2012, and allowed more home runs per nine innings, but it’s hard to argue with his scalding fastball and venomous slider continuing to experience success.
3) Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers (Age: 26, Previous Rank: 15)
Finally entering a season without any competition for the job, Jansen receives a noticeable bump in rank. We also finally reach someone trending in the right direction, as the converted catcher cut down on the free passes while retaining his sublime strikeout rate. Jansen notched 25+ saves for the second straight season despite not opening the year as closer, making his impending full season assignment droolworthy when it comes to save totals. On a team that should contend for most wins in the league, Jansen should have plenty of opportunities to turn out the lights.
4) Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals (Age: 28, Previous Rank: 11)
The fact that Holland was grouped with Jim Johnson and Tom WIlhelmsen in last year’s rankings says less about Bret being wrong and more about relievers, and their volatility, as a whole. Holland has proven himself to be one of the elite four closers and should be drafted as such. Keep in mind though that another 40% strikeout rate is unlikely, and a bit of regression, even in a good season is due. The Royals have one of the deepest bullpens in the majors, and Holland reigns king. He’ll face no competition in KC when it comes to drawing the blinds.
5) Trevor Rosenthal, St Louis Cardinals (Age: 24, Previous Rank: 17)
It’s not often you get a player with three career saves in the top five of a relief pitcher ranking, but Rosenthal presents us with that very opportunity. While he was stuck behind a surprisingly good Edward Mujica for much of the year Rosenthal dominated the league over 75 innings. He enters spring training with the closers job in tow, and only a recovering Jason Motte to pose any sort of threat. He might not have the track record of the players above, but he’s absolutely their match in talent, and playing for St. Louis, should get to to fold the laundry as much as anyone in the league.
6) Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins (Age: 31, Previous Rank: 19)
Perkins logged his third consecutive season with an ERA under 3.00 and his first with over 16 saves (he had 36). On a rate basis, Perkins ranks with the best of them, effective against righties and lefties but the question will be how many chances he’ll get to return his tray to it’s upright and locked position playing on the hapless Twins. We’ve seen bad teams have plenty of saves before, but the statistic is still a function of a winning team in the end.
7) Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox (Age: 39, Previous Rank: NR)
Always an effective pitcher when healthy, Uehara put together a full season in Boston, waiting out a long line of relievers to grab hold of the closers job and notch 21 saves. He was used prudently by the Red Sox, allowing him to accrue 74.1 innings of 1.09 ERA ball. He is unlikely to manage an ERA that low again, but he’s put together sub 2.00 ERA seasons before, so it’s not entirely out of reach. At 38 it’s hard to have faith in Uehara beyond a year-to-year valuation, but as long as he’s dusting the ruffle, he’ll be valuable.
8) Addison Reed, Arizona Diamondbacks (Age: 25, Previous Rank: 5)
It’s not often that a pitcher getting traded to Arizona sees a bump in value – just due to the high octane environment of Chase Field. Fortunately for Reed, he arrives in Phoenix coming from a place just as brutal on pitchers, making this a lateral move at worst, if not an improvement. Reed hasn’t produced the peripherals in his career to warrant this type of placement, but he gets the benefit of the doubt for a few reasons. 1) We’re ranking for dynasty 2) Relievers are extremely volatile 3) Despite reliever volatility, Reed seems to have a secure closers job well into the future. It’s hard to quibble with a 25 year old with a 40 save year on his record, but don’t expect elite ERAs from Reed.
9) Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers (Age: 39, Previous Rank: 6)
The second of the old guard in the top ten, Nathan returned from a year off in 2010 with a mediocre 2011. Since then he’s been back to his old self, striking out more than a batter per inning on his way to to scrambling the eggs 37 and 43 times in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Nathan moves from the bandbox of the Ballpark at Arlington to a more spacious Comerica Park, which should bode well for his flyball tendencies. Nathan has dealt well with having two first names thus far in his life, but it’s almost impossible to know when that could overwhelm him. (Consider this a warning to young master Reed above, as well).
10) Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants (Age: 31, Previous Rank: 33)
While there were questions as to whether Romo could hold up over a full season, he’s managed 115.2 innings over the last two years, amassing a 2.18 ERA and 121 strikeouts in the process. He’s incredibly reliant on the slider, a pitch that has damaged many an elbow, but it’s hard to argue with the results right now. He’s only had one season with an ERA above last year’s 2.54, so it seems his dominance has been somewhat underrated. Perhaps it’s questions about health that keep his value down over the long term, but as a short term investment, I’m not sure it gets significantly better.
11) David Robertson, New York Yankees (Age: 28, Previous rank: 24)
One thing we can say for sure about Robertson’s 2014 season is that someone will say he’s a disappointment for not being Mariano “Freaking” Rivera. So, enjoy that David. On the other hand, Robertson will probably get lots of saves with very good ratios. Two things to note are that both Robertson’s K rates and velocity are coming down over time from their peak in 2011. That shouldn’t deter you from investing, but be cautious because he will probably come at a premium over some other guys with more warts who may be just as effective.
12) Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals (Age: 34, Previous rank: 4)
Soriano was disappointing in 2013, despite saving 43 games, because his ratios went up, his K rate dropped, and he missed some time. Don’t forget that the Nats also have some other guys who can close. In fact, play all that up in your league and see if you can get Soriano cheaply, because if the Nats wanted someone else closing they would be now.
13) Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays (Age: 32, Previous rank: NR)
Janssen is not going to blow you away, but did a good job closing for a disappointing Blue Jays team in 2013. He’s probably only going to hit he 55-60 appearance mark, however, so it’s not apparent he has 40 save upside. Since he plays in Toronto, he might come cheaper than some despite his lofty ranking here. Janssen was in line to use “Shove It Like Hentgen” as his walkout music, but royalty negotiations got in the way. That song would have been a much bigger hit if we had used the rhythm to “Move Like Jagger” instead of “Walking In Memphis.”
14) Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins (Age: 27, Previous rank: 37)
Everyone kept waiting for Cishek to get traded, because why the heck would the Marlins keep him, but not Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, and Josh Johnson? Fair question. Anyway every kept waiting and in the meantime Cishek saved 34 games with strong ratios and a solid K rate. Lesson: who the eff knows what the Marlins are doing. What’s different this year? Not much. He still might get traded, but if he stays a closer all year he should have a shot at 30 saves. One note of caution, Cishek cut his walk rate a lot in 2013, which makes it unclear where he stands long term as a low WHIP guy.
15) Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies (Age: 33, Previous rank: 3)
Papelbon can’t help the fact that the Phillies stink and his saves dropped from 38 to 29 in 2013. That’s chemistry. Look it up. He also can’t help the fact that his fastball velocity is dropping year after year and getting fewer whiffs when hitters swing. That’s nature. Look it up. He could help being a douche, but that may also be nature. You’re not buying his Boston peak because you’re not an idiot, but you probably shouldn’t be buying the 2012 renaissance either. If you remember that, you should be able to enjoy around 30 saves with mediocre ratios.
16) Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates (Age: 37, Previous rank: 31)
Who doesn’t love the Jason Grilli story? Jerks who think that 37 year-olds who have made more than 50 appearances twice in six years (with a full missed season in the mix) aren’t likely to be able to hold up to the rigors of closing duties for a long time. That’s who. Sorry. Grilli was awesome last year posting 33 saves and striking out more than 36% of batters for the second consecutive year. Maybe Grilli can do it again in 2014, but someone else will be raising the Jolly Roger before too long.
17) Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels (Age: 28, Previous rank: 39)
Frieri picked up a bunch of saves and struck out a bunch of guys again in 2013, but he also walked a bunch and seemed to lose Mike Scoscia’s confidence. Walks and a tentative manager are not a good combination for a closer. For the upside Frieri has shown picking up strike outs he has always walked too many (career 4.4 BB/9) and so his hold on the job may last just as long as it takes for the Angels to find someone they like better.
18) Huston Street, San Diego Padres (Age: 30, Previous rank: 14)
Street is like Steve Cishek, but in triplicate. Everyone has been waiting for his “inevitable” trade from San Diego while he just keeps saving games – he picked up 33 more in 2013. Meantime, the Padres said goodbye to Luke Gregerson long considered Street’s likely successor. Street’s talents for not walking people and keeping the ball in the yard are well suited to 81 games in Petco Field. You know about his durability concerns. You need to watch his strikeouts which dipped in 2013.
19) Bobby Parnell, New York Mets (Age: 29, Previous rank: 52)
Taking seriously adults who go by Bobby is always tough, but with Parnell we’ll forge ahead because he looks like he’s going to keep getting the ball at the end of Mets games again in 2014. He’s got two years of not walking guys, which is important because he doesn’t strike out a ton either. He only managed to get into 49 games in 2013 and given his somewhat high work load before he became the closer, it’s not unreasonable to worry if he’s up for a long stint of good health.
20) Grant Balfour, Tampa Bay Rays (Age: 36, Previous rank: 32)
Here’s what we know: something weird happened between Balfour and Orioles before he signed with the Rays. He may have crossed a Barksdale or maybe his accent sent the wrong signals, maybe he called a bullfrog a “chazzwazzer” – we just don’t know. We probably shouldn’t care very much, as Tampa has said he’s their closer heading into 2014 and he picked up 62 saves over the last two years in Oakland with strong ratios and decent strikeout rates, so let’s assume he can handle the job. He’s still in a good pitchers park with a good team behind him. So what’s not to like besides “chazwazzers?”
Commentary by Craig Goldstein, Noel Baldwin and Bret Sayre.