There are only 30 teams in baseball, which means there are a finite number of players who can pick up a bunch of saves for your team. There are some middle relievers who should be drafted before some of these closers, but they won’t get you the all-important saves. (Note: Rankings are based on 5×5 Rotisserie scoring).
1. Eric Gagne, Dodgers: He’s not just the best fantasy closer because he’s a dominant reliever who’s posted a 1.59 ERA, 0.78 WHIP and 251 strikeouts in 164.2 innings the last two seasons. It’s also because the good pitching/bad hitting combination in Los Angeles provides plenty of close games in which he can rack up saves, as his 111 save opportunities over the last two years indicate.
He should give you an ERA below 2.00, a WHIP of 0.75-0.85, more strikeouts than some starting pitchers (115-130) and at least 50 saves. Depending on your league’s setup, it wouldn’t necessarily be a reach to take him in the second round.
2. Billy Wagner, Phillies: He’s now gotten better each year since his injury-induced 2000 season, and he’d have a good case for the most dominant reliever in baseball if the Dodgers hadn’t decided to see what Gagne could do in the bullpen. Going from Houston to Philadelphia really shouldn’t affect his value at all.
He’ll still post an ERA in the 2.00-2.25 range with a sub-1.00 WHIP, 90-100 strikeouts and at least 40 saves. He probably won’t match last year’s 86 innings pitched, but neither should he slip all the way back to the 62.2 innings pitched total of 2001.
3. Keith Foulke, Red Sox: Foulke has been one of the most consistent relievers in baseball over the last five years, posting a 2.48 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 435 strikeouts in 438.2 innings over that span. His save totals have fluctuated, but that’s because the White Sox jerked him around a little bit.
Boston has talked about using him as often as possible and not restricting him to just save opportunities, so he may very well approach 100 innings. He should still get at least 40 saves, and he could win 8-10 games if he enters enough tied games.
4. John Smoltz, Braves: Smoltz would probably be second on this list if not for his age and injury history. His first two seasons as a reliever were good and last year he was having a season nearly as amazing as Gagne’s before injuries forced him to take some time off.
If he can make it through the season without losing too much time to injuries, he should post a 2.00-2.50 ERA, 0.90-1.00 WHIP, 70-80 strikeouts and 45-50 saves. If you’re going to take a closer really early in the draft, however, he should be a slam dunk for a great season and Smoltz isn’t.
5. Mariano Rivera, Yankees: Rivera had a 5.51 ERA in his rookie season for the Yankees. Since then, he’s posted an ERA of 2.15, which is just amazing. He’s 34 years old now, but he’s also coming off a season in which he posted the lowest ERA of his career. He may fall apart before too long, but it doesn’t look like he’s really losing much effectiveness.
Having said that, however, Rivera is past the time where he’s going to run up big inning totals. The Yankees know that they need him in the playoffs more than in the regular season, so they’re going to conserve him when they can. He should still give you an ERA around 2.00 and a WHIP around 1.00, but he’s not a lock to save 40 games.
6. Octavio Dotel, Astros: Dotel is nearly as dominant a reliever as the man he’s replacing, so there’s no reason to expect him to be unsuccessful. Some people point out that he struggled as Houston’s closer in 2000, but that’s not really fair.
In 31 relief appearances after the All-Star break that season, he did post a 4.75 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP, but that was because he threw hard and didn’t know where it was going. He struck out 45 batters in 30.1 innings and walked 15, and he still managed to save 15 games.
Since then, he’s developed some control and he should have no problem taking over as Houston’s closer. Expect an ERA near 2.50, a WHIP of 0.90-0.95, 100-110 strikeouts and around 40 or more saves. Rivera’s more of a known quantity, but Dotel will probably out-produce him this season.
7. Troy Percival, Angels: Percival’s a step below the six guys listed above. He’s still a good reliever, but he’s not quite as dominant. His ERA is usually around 3.50 (although it’s been as high as 4.50 and as low as 1.92).
He also doesn’t pitch as many innings as some other closers. The last time he reached 60 innings in a season was 1998. That limits his opportunities for saves, limits his strikeout total and limits the effect his ERA and WHIP have on your team.
He should be able to give you an ERA around 3.25-3.50, a WHIP of 1.12-1.14, 55-65 strikeouts and about 35 saves if he can stay healthy. If you do draft Percival, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to also take Francisco Rodriguez as health insurance.
8. Arthur Rhodes, A’s: After two tremendous seasons as a setup man for the Mariners, Rhodes struggled with an ankle injury and posted a 4.17 ERA last year. He should be healthy this season, and Tim Worrell and Joe Borowski both proved last year that you don’t need some magical quality to be a good closer.
Rhodes should be able to provide a 2.50-2.75 ERA, 0.95-1.05 WHIP, 65-75 strikeouts and 35-40 saves. His age and the potential for injury are more of a concern to me than the fact that he hasn’t been a closer before.
9. Eddie Guardado, Mariners: If you want another reason to believe that Rhodes can succeed, look no further than Guardado. “Everyday Eddie” was just another reliever, and one who didn’t even have an impressive track record, before the Twins made him their closer in 2002. He responded with a 2.91 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 130 strikeouts and 86 saves in 133 innings over the last two seasons.
Now in Seattle, Guardado was expected to set up Kaz Sasaki, but Sasaki’s defection left Guardado as the closer. You can expect a 2.80-3.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 60-70 strikeouts and around 40 saves from him.
There is only one thing that worries me about Guardado. If he struggles or gets injured and the Mariners insert Rafael Soriano as the closer, Guardado may never get the job back.
10. Trevor Hoffman, Padres: Hoffman had saved at least 37 games in seven consecutive seasons before injuries limited him to just nine innings last year. If he can stay healthy, you know he’ll be a good reliever. But at 36 years old and coming off a season in which he barely pitched, you don’t know how healthy he’ll be.
If you want to be safe, you should only expect him to pitch around 50 innings and save 30-35 games. He should also give you an ERA around 2.75 with a 1.00-1.05 WHIP and 55-60 strikeouts.
Unfortunately, with Rod Beck away from the team dealing with personal issues, there’s no one player you can take who will definitely provide insurance if Hoffman has problems.
11. Jason Isringhausen, Cardinals: Over the last three seasons, Isringhausen has posted a 2.52 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 9.22 K/9IP. His problem has been staying healthy, which is part of the reason those impressive numbers have only led to 88 saves in that time. He hasn’t thrown more than 72 innings since he was still a starter in 1996, and shoulder problems limited him to just 42 innings last year.
He appears to be healthy this spring and if he can give you 60-70 innings, you can expect a 2.50-2.75 ERA, 1.00-1.05 WHIP, 60-75 strikeouts and 30-35 saves. The problem is counting on him to not get hurt again.
12. Joe Borowski, Cubs: If you drafted Borowski last year based on his 2.73 ERA and 97 strikeouts in 95.2 innings in 2002, you were handsomely rewarded. He succeeded quite nicely in his first shot at being a closer and gets to keep the job for at least another season.
He only pitched 68.1 innings last year, but he’s shown he can handle a larger workload and injuries don’t appear to be a big concern. There’s no reason he can’t once again provide a sub-3.00 ERA, 1.05-1.10 WHIP, around a strikeout per inning and 30-35 saves.
The only concern would be that Dusty Baker may eventually decide to go with a more typical, hard-throwing closer such as Kyle Farnsworth or LaTroy Hawkins, but that doesn’t seem very likely at this point.
13. Matt Mantei, Diamondbacks: Another reliever who’s good when he’s healthy, but has trouble staying healthy, Mantei’s performance has varied from seven innings to 65.1 innings and a 2.57 ERA to a 4.73 ERA over the last five years. It doesn’t look like he’ll ever rack up a high inning total, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be an effective closer.
The only thing that’s bothered him this spring is a split fingernail, but that doesn’t seem to be a concern. If he pitches 60 innings, he should have a 2.75-3.00 ERA, 1.05-1.10 WHIP, 70-75 strikeouts and around 30 saves. Jose Valverde impressed as a rookie and will fill in as the closer if Mantei gets hurt.
14. Armando Benitez, Marlins: Benitez is the closer everybody loves to hate, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense. He’s posted a 2.81 ERA over the last seven seasons and his 84.9-percent career success rate on saves is rather good.
His ERA can fluctuate from year to year and he walks more people than you’d like, but he’s still a good reliever. His strikeout rate has been declining steadily, but last year was by far the worst rate of his career and he still struck out more than a batter per inning.
If the Marlins stick him in the closer role for the season and leave him alone, he should provide a 3.00-3.25 ERA, 1.25-1.30 WHIP, 70-80 strikeouts and around 35 saves.
15. Robb Nen, Giants: Nen is probably the biggest question mark of all. If he can pitch, he’ll at least be good and could be great. However, he missed all of last season and a few weeks ago it sounded like his career might be over. Even if he’s ready to pitch by Opening Day or shortly thereafter, it probably isn’t smart to expect him to make it through the entire season without missing any time.
The other difficulty is figuring out which Nen will show up when he is healthy, as 2002 was the first season since 1994 that his ERA was between 2.00 and 3.00. His ERA was below 2.00 in 1996, 1998 and 2000, but was above 3.00 in 1995, 1997, 1999 and 2001.
When he can pitch, he’ll probably give you a 3.00-3.25 ERA and a WHIP around 1.15, but his save total could be anywhere from five to 35. Matt Herges will get the first shot if (when) Nen misses time, so make sure you get him if you gamble on Nen.
16. Francisco Cordero, Rangers: The Texas pitching staff is pretty brutal, but Cordero is one of the few bright spots. He’s posted a 2.53 ERA the last two seasons and has done well when given a chance to close games.
You might think that converting 15 saves in 25 opportunities is pretty bad, but some of those blown saves came when he was a setup man, so they weren’t truly opportunities for him to get a save anyway. After Ugueth Urbina was traded on July 11, Cordero saved 13 games in 17 opportunities.
With Jeff Zimmerman having problems with his elbow again, Cordero has almost no competition for the job and should give you a 3.25-3.50 ERA, 1.20-1.25 WHIP, 80-85 strikeouts and around 30 saves.
17. Danny Kolb, Brewers: Although he’ll turn 29 before the season starts, Kolb has only thrown 120.1 innings in the major leagues. After an up-and-down minor-league career and a few unimpressive major-league stints, he was absolutely lights out last year.
First, he posted a 1.37 ERA with 46 strikeouts in 39.1 innings at Class AAA Indianapolis. Then, he became Milwaukee’s closer and put up a 1.96 ERA and struck out 39 hitters in 41.1 innings while saving 21 games.
He’s probably not really that good, but he shouldn’t be bad either and he’s definitely the closer. You can expect a 3.50-3.75 ERA, 1.30-1.35 WHIP, 50-60 strikeouts and 25-30 saves.
18. Joe Nathan, Twins: Nathan is also 29 years old and also didn’t have much success in the major leagues before last season. The difference is that Nathan began his major-league career as a starter before moving to the bullpen last season. The move seems to have worked, as he posted a 2.96 ERA and 83 strikeouts in 79 innings.
With the departure of Guardado and Hawkins, the Twins will gave Nathan the first chance to be the closer and he should hang onto the job if he can pitch almost as well as he did last year. Expect an ERA around 3.75, a WHIP around 1.25, 65-75 strikeouts and about 30 saves.
19. Braden Looper, Mets: Looper has been solid, but certainly not spectacular the last three years, posting a 3.45 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP with 163 strikeouts in 237.2 innings. Looper had an excellent 2.33 ERA with 17 saves after Florida’s game on July 11 last year, which is the day the Marlins traded for Urbina. From that point to the end of the season, he had a 5.93 ERA. I guess it’s a lot harder to pitch when you’re looking over your shoulder.
At any rate, Looper’s in New York now and he should be serviceable if he can keep his head on straight. Expect an ERA around 3.50, a WHIP around 1.25, 50-55 strikeouts and about 30 saves.
20. David Riske, Indians: With Bob Wickman likely out until at least the All-Star break, Riske will likely get to close for the entire season. After dominating the minor leagues for most of five seasons and then having an unsuccessful first full season in the majors in 2002, Riske was lights out last year.
He posted a 2.29 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 82 strikeouts in 74.2 innings. He’s probably not quite that good, but he should still give you a 3.00-3.25 ERA, 1.15-1.20 WHIP, 75-85 strikeouts and 25-30 saves.
21. Jorge Julio, Orioles: Julio has had two full seasons in the major leagues — one dominant and one disappointing. After posting a 1.99 ERA as a rookie, he slumped to a 4.38 ERA last year. His true talent level is probably somewhere in between.
The nice thing about Julio is that the Orioles seem to really want him to be their closer, so he won’t lose his job unless he completely falls apart. He should provide a 3.50-3.75 ERA, 1.25-1.30 WHIP, 55-60 strikeouts and 30-35 saves.
22. Shawn Chacon, Rockies: Considering where he was pitching, Chacon did quite well as a starter last year before injuries sidelined him after 137 innings. Now, he’s the closer with the hope that pitching out of the bullpen will help him stay healthy.
It’s tough to know what to expect from a converted starter, especially in Colorado, but pitching out of the bullpen should help Chacon keep his ERA around 4.00. He’ll likely have a WHIP around 1.30, 60-65 strikeouts and 25-30 saves.
23. Danys Baez, Devil Rays: Baez’s three-year run with the Indians ended because they couldn’t get away with cutting his salary as much as they wanted to, so he’s now in Tampa where he should be a much better option at the end of games than All-Star (unbelievably) Lance Carter.
Baez should be able to post an ERA around 3.75 and a WHIP around 1.20, while striking out 65-70 batters. However, don’t expect him to save more than 25 or 26 games playing for the Devil Rays.
24. Aquilino Lopez, Blue Jays: After posting very solid numbers in the minor leagues for six seasons, the Blue Jays took Lopez in the Rule V Draft last year and he showed that he can pitch in the majors too. Now, he’s the definite frontrunner to close for Toronto.
He should give you a 3.50-3.75 ERA, 1.25-1.30 WHIP, 60-65 strikeouts and 25-30 saves if he can keep the job. The other person Toronto seems to be considering as a closer is Justin Speier, who pitched pretty well for the Rockies the last three years.
25. Billy Koch, White Sox: Koch has been alternating good and bad seasons for the last four years. He went from 33 saves and a 2.63 ERA to 36 saves and a 4.80 ERA to 44 saves and a 3.27 ERA to 11 saves and a 5.77 ERA. His velocity appears to be down this spring, but he will open the season as Chicago’s closer. How long he holds the job will depend on how well he pitches.
I’d expect a 4.50 ERA and 1.35-1.40 WHIP, but I don’t know if that’s good enough to keep his job. The White Sox could give Japanese import Shingo Takatsu a shot or turn the job over to their best reliever, Damaso Marte, who had a 2.12 ERA and 1.04 WHIP the last two seasons.
26. Danny Graves, Reds: After the starting pitcher experiment failed marvelously, Graves is back to being the closer. He was never that good as Cincinnati’s closer, but he wasn’t bad either, posting a 3.21 ERA and 1.28 WHIP while saving 121 games from 1999-2002.
He still won’t strike out enough hitters and he’ll allow too many baserunners, but he should be able to provide a 4.25-4.50 ERA and 1.30-1.35 WHIP.
The problem with projecting Graves to save 30 games is that the Reds also have 21-year-old Ryan Wagner, who had a 1.93 ERA and 148 strikeouts in 79.1 innings at the University of Houston before getting drafted 14th overall. He then pitched five innings in Class AA, four innings in Class AAA and struck out 25 hitters in 21.2 innings with a 1.66 ERA in the majors. Cincinnati probably doesn’t want to rush Wagner, but he’s the closer of the future and the future will probably begin sometime this season.
27. Mike MacDougal, Royals: The good thing about MacDougal’s performance last season is that he saved 27 games and his 4.08 ERA wasn’t terrible. The bad thing is that he walked 32 batters in 64 innings. If he doesn’t improve his control at least a little bit this year, he’ll have trouble keeping his job as Kansas City’s closer.
I don’t expect him to improve his control, so he should provide a 4.50-4.75 ERA, a 1.45-1.50 WHIP and 15-20 saves before he loses the job. Curtis Leskanic would be the leading candidate to take over, as he’s posted a 2.84 ERA over the last three seasons, although his 1.35 WHIP in that time isn’t very impressive.
28. Rocky Biddle, Expos: The only player Montreal has left from the horrible Bartolo Colon trade, Biddle surprisingly became the closer last year and was pretty solid except for August, when he had a 9.53 ERA in 11.1 innings. He’s already been named the closer for this season as well, but he’s not the best pitcher in the bullpen and certainly could lose the job.
Whatever role he has, he should provide an ERA around 4.75 and a WHIP of 1.50-1.55. He could save 30-plus games again, but he seems more likely to get replaced before he reaches 15 saves. Luis Ayala was impressive last year in his first shot at the major leagues and 21-year-old Chad Cordero made it to the majors and struck out 12 batters in 11 innings after the Expos took him with the 20th overall pick in the draft. Either of them is more likely to finish the season as Montreal’s closer than Biddle.
29. Fernando Rodney, Tigers: Rodney’s 47.2-inning major-league career has been unimpressive, but he’s been very good at almost every level in the minor leagues. Despite having tendonitis in his elbow, he’s the favorite to close games for the Tigers over Matt Anderson and Franklyn German.
None of the three are going to be a great value even if they are closing games, but Rodney could provide a 4.25-4.50 ERA, 1.40-1.45 WHIP and around 20 saves. If you’re going to try one of the other two, I’d go with German, but that says more about how washed up Anderson appears to be than it does about German.
30. Ugueth Urbina, unsigned: All you need to know about the closer situation in Pittsburgh is that a player who doesn’t have a team to play for and may very well end up in Japan is more valuable than anybody the Pirates have to offer.
Urbina’s saved 72 games over the last two seasons, but he seems to want more money than anybody’s willing to give him. His name’s been connected to the Pirates, Twins, White Sox and Tigers, but nothing has come of any of those rumors.
There’s also a chance that he could re-sign with the Marlins after May 1, in which case either he’d be a setup man or Benitez would be a lot less valuable. Unless he’s already in Japan by the time you draft, Urbina’s worth taking late just in case he does end up as somebody’s closer.