Fantasy Keepers: Closers

It’s taken a bit longer than I wanted it to, but I’m almost done with my series of fantasy keeper rankings for each position. Just one more after this one and we’ll be done, hopefully in plenty of time for you to make your choices. So, here are my top 10 closers to keep.

1. Eric Gagne, Dodgers: Gagne wasn’t quite as good as in his Cy Young-winning 2003 season, but he still saved 45 games, posted a 2.19 ERA and 0.91 WHIP and struck out 114 hitters, which is almost a replica of his 2002 season (52 saves, 1.97 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 114 strikeouts). It was also good enough to make him the most valuable fantasy reliever once again.

When you consider that it was his worst season as a closer (if just barely) and that today is only his 29th birthday, there’s no reason to expect him to not stay in the top three (at least) among fantasy closers for at least the next two or three seasons. He’s a great reliever in his own right, but he’s aided by the fact that he pitches in a good pitcher’s park and he pitches for a team that doesn’t have a great offense, meaning there are likely to be more close games than an average team might expect.

2. Brad Lidge, Astros: Despite the fact that he wasn’t the closer at the start of the season and thus was only able to save 29 games, Lidge was just barely behind Gagne as the second-most valuable fantasy reliever in leagues that count strikeouts because he notched 157 of them to go with his 1.90 ERA and 0.92 WHIP. Because of that, you might expect that he’d be a better keeper than Gagne, since he’s likely to save more than 29 games in 2005. I wouldn’t be so quick to put him ahead of Gagne, however.

First of all, while Lidge hasn’t been in the majors long, he is 28 years old, so it’s not like he’s a lot younger than Gagne. Second, he’s only done this once, while Gagne’s done it three years in a row. Lidge was solid in his rookie season (he was great early before slumping late), but he needs to show that he can replicate his great season.

The main reason Lidge isn’t a better keeper than Gagne, however, is that the only reason Lidge was so close to Gagne in 2004 was because of his 14.93 K/9IP rate. Strikeout rates that high are very difficult to maintain, a point illustrated by the fact that Gagne had a K/9IP of 14.98 in 2003 and dropped to “just” 12.46 in 2004.

3. Francisco Rodriguez, Angels: Rodriguez only saved 12 games in 2004, but he was still a valuable fantasy reliever because of his 1.82 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 123 strikeouts. With Troy Percival departing for Detroit, Rodriguez is now the closer in Anaheim (or Los Angeles of Anaheim, if you prefer). If he comes close to matching his ERA, WHIP and strikeouts from last year, which I think he should, and he saves at least 35 games, which I think he will, then he’ll be one of the top three or four fantasy closers.

Even if Rodriguez reverts to his rookie level (3.04 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 95 strikeouts), he should save enough games to be a top five or six fantasy closer. And the fact that today is only his 23rd birthday and he’ll be able to do this for quite a few more years certainly doesn’t hurt his value as a keeper.

4. Billy Wagner, Phillies: When he’s healthy, Wagner gives you everything you want in a fantasy closer — an ERA below 3.00 (frequently well below), a WHIP around 1.00 or lower, well over a strikeout per inning and at least 35 saves. The problem is that he’s not always healthy. In 2004, he missed a lot of time with a wide variety of injuries. Before that, he had three mostly injury-free seasons after recovering from losing most of the 2000 season to injury.

There’s definitely a risk to Wagner, as he’s 33 years old and he does have that injury risk. However, there’s also a very big upside. He has the ability to save 45 games with an ERA around 2.00, a WHIP around 0.90 and about 100 strikeouts if he pitches 80 innings. In my mind, if you’re going to keep a closer, you should be trying to hang onto somebody who can be a stud. Wagner can be that. If you just want somebody who’s steady, you can probably find that in the draft.

5. Mariano Rivera, Yankees: There’s no question that Rivera is better than the fifth-best closer in baseball, but he’s only my fifth-best fantasy keeper at the position. For one thing, he’s 35 years old, so there’s no telling how long he’ll be able to keep performing at the top of his game. For another, he doesn’t strike people out like a lot of the other top closers do. Rivera had 66 strikeouts in 2004 and he’s only had more than 70 strikeouts once since 1997, when he pitched more than 100 innings.

Another problem with Rivera as a keeper is that he’s very unlikely to match his fantasy value from last year, when he was one of the three or four best fantasy relievers. He posted a 1.95 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP. The ERA will probably be a little bit higher, and the WHIP might be a little bit lower, so he might come close to matching those numbers. However, he also set a career high with 53 saves, in large part because the New York bullpen turned a lot of large leads into small leads, requiring the use of Rivera.

It’s possible that the New York bullpen will do the same thing again this season, but I don’t think Joe Torre will use Rivera as often because he needs Rivera more in the playoffs, and he saw Rivera wear down at least a little bit in October. Rivera made a career-high 74 appearances, and I give him no shot at matching that this year; he’ll probably be around 60-65. Because of that, I think it’s highly unlikely he reaches 50 saves again.

6. Octavio Dotel, A’s: After three seasons as a great reliever for Houston, Dotel was a disappointment for both the Astros and A’s as he had a 3.69 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. Even so, he was right around the top five for fantasy relievers because he was able to save 36 games and strike out 122 hitters. I know a lot of people don’t think Dotel has the qualities to be a closer, but I would bet that his ERA will be at least a half-run better and his WHIP will improve at least slightly in 2005.

If those things happen, he’ll almost certainly be one of the top five fantasy relievers because he’ll save 35-40 games and post at least 100 strikeouts. Basically, as long as he’s closing games — and I’ve seen no indication that the A’s plan on using him in a different capacity — he’ll be a valuable commodity for your fantasy team. In fact, I’m probably underrating him by putting him sixth, but there is a chance that he’ll struggle early and lose his spot at the end of the bullpen.

7. Keith Foulke, Red Sox: Foulke has been incredible consistent over the last six seasons. In each of them, he’s appeared in at least 65 games, pitched at least 75 innings, posted an ERA below 3.00 and a WHIP no higher than 1.00. He’s had at least 75 strikeouts in five of those six seasons. The only thing that’s fluctuated a lot has been his save totals, which have been low (9, 11), medium (32, 34) or high (42, 43) depending on how he’s been used.

With the Red Sox, Foulke is used as a closer most of the time. However, the Red Sox also want to use him as much as possible in important situations, even if it isn’t a save situation. While Foulke probably should have saved more than 32 games in 2004, he might not be a great bet for more than 40 saves in 2005. He’s a very good reliever, but the Red Sox may try to use him in the “Bill James Relief Ace” mold even more than they did last year, which would be good for them and bad for your fantasy team.

8. Joe Nathan, Twins: Nathan followed up a solid first season as a reliever with an outstanding first season as a closer. He saved 44 games and had a 1.62 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 89 strikeouts. Now, I have no doubt that Nathan’s a good reliever, but I really don’t think he’s that good. That was a premier season and even the best relievers in the history of the game pumping out those kinds of seasons one after another.

So, I think Nathan will be a very solid reliever, posting an ERA in the 2.25-2.50 range, a WHIP closer to 1.00 and maybe a few less strikeouts. As for the save total, that’s not going to be entirely under his control, but I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get at least 35 and probably 40. At age 30, he’s not that old and he seems to be just coming into his own as a reliever, so he should be good for at least a few more years.

9. Jason Isringhausen, Cardinals: Isringhausen is like Wagner in that he’s a very good closer when he’s healthy, but he has a very length injury history. The difference is that he might be an even bigger injury risk than Wagner is, and he doesn’t quite have the same upside that Wagner has. Isringhausen saved a career-high 47 games in 2004, and he still wasn’t one of the top six fantasy relievers because he only had a 2.87 ERA, a 1.04 WHIP and 71 strikeouts.

Isringhausen also set career highs as a reliever with 74 games and 75.1 innings. If he can’t replicate those numbers, and it’s always a question mark with him, then he definitely won’t match last year’s save total. Even if he does reach those totals again, he might drop into the 40-45 save range. Since he wasn’t one of the great fantasy closers when he did save 47 games, why would he be any better if he doesn’t save 47 games?

10. Francisco Cordero, Rangers: In his first season as a full-time closer, Cordero put up some very impressive numbers — 49 saves, a 2.13 ERA, 79 strikeouts. He also put up one very unimpressive number — a 1.28 WHIP. The only players with at least 35 saves who had a higher WHIP than Cordero were Jose Mesa, Danny Graves and Shawn Chacon, which isn’t exactly an inspiring group of pitchers.

It’s not like that high WHIP was a fluke either, as he had a 1.31 WHIP in 2003. Since he’s unlikely to have a great WHIP and he’s unlikely to save 49 games again — simply because it’s hard to do — he’s not likely to be much better than around the bottom of the top 10 among fantasy relievers. Of course, he’s not really likely to be much worse than that either, so there is some value there.

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