Fantasy: Closer Rankings, Part One

Now that the hitters are all out of the way, let’s look at the pitchers. Here’s the first part of my rankings of all 30 closers for fantasy baseball. In parentheses is the pitcher (or pitchers) who you should keep an eye on in case something happens to the closer. (Note: Rankings based on 5×5 Rotisserie scoring.)

1. Eric Gagne, Dodgers (Yhency Brazoban): Gagne’s recent injury makes him less of a sure thing, but he’s still the man at this position. He’s had three straight superb seasons, and there’s no reason to think he won’t have another one if he’s healthy.

I think he’ll be fine, and you should expect 45-50 saves, 5-7 wins, a 1.80-2.20 ERA, 0.85-0.90 WHIP and 110-125 strikeouts in 80-85 innings. Brazoban is an insurance option because of Gagne’s injury, but he’ll have value in some leagues anyway as a setup man because he should be good.

2. Brad Lidge, Astros (Chad Harville): After a good rookie season, Lidge was great last year with a 1.90 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 157 strikeouts in 94.2 innings. He won’t have those strikeout numbers again and his ERA will probably go up a bit, but there’s no reason to think he can’t be a dominant closer again.

I’m expecting Lidge to save 35-40 games (and he could easily save more than that) with 5-7 wins, a 2.25-2.50 ERA, 0.95-1.00 WHIP and 120-135 strikeouts in 80-90 innings. Harville doesn’t seem to have much value to me because he’s not a great pitcher, Lidge isn’t a big risk and I don’t even know if Harville will definitely take over if something does happen to Lidge.

3. Mariano Rivera, Yankees (Tom Gordon): Rivera is a great closer, but he doesn’t belong ahead of Lidge on this list for three reasons. First, he’s not going to save 53 games again. That was his career high and he’s only had more than 45 saves one other time in his eight years as a closer. Second, he’s more of a risk than Lidge because he’s 35 years old and has some injury concerns. Third, he doesn’t strike out even close to as many people as Lidge.

Still, Rivera has been great for eight years now, and while the risk goes up every year that he’ll start to slip, he hasn’t shown it yet. He should give you 40-45 saves, 3-5 wins, a 1.90-2.25 ERA, 1.00-1.05 WHIP and 55-60 strikeouts in 65-70 innings. Gordon is probably the most valuable non-closer reliever, so he’d get drafted in many leagues even if he didn’t have any shot at getting saves.

4. Keith Foulke, Red Sox (Matt Mantei): Foulke is about as consistent a closer as you could hope for, and you shouldn’t be too worried about the fact that he only had 32 saves last year. The important thing is that he’s had an ERA below 3.00 six years in a row, and below 2.35 four of those six seasons.

Foulke’s also not much of an injury risk, as he’s pitched at least 77.2 innings each of those six seasons. This year, he should give you at least 35-40 saves with 6-10 wins, a 2.25-2.50 ERA, 0.90-1.00 WHIP and 75-90 strikeouts in 80-90 innings.

Mantei’s actually a bigger risk than Foulke, but he could be very good if he’s healthy. If something happens to Foulke and Mantei’s healthy at the time, he’ll definitely have value picking up the slack.

5. Francisco Rodriguez, Angels (Brendan Donnelly): Rodriguez is similar to Lidge in that he impressed people a lot his rookie season (and obviously, the October before that season), but he was much, much better last season. He dropped his ERA from 3.03 to 1.82, thanks in part to upping his strikeouts from 95 to 123 and cutting his homers allowed from 12 to two in about the same number of innings.

This will be his first season as the regular closer, and I think he’ll do just fine. I’m expecting 35-40 saves, 5-7 wins, a 2.00-2.25 ERA, 1.00-1.05 WHIP and 100-115 strikeouts in 80-90 innings. Donnelly has some value even if Rodriguez is fine all season, but not a lot.

6. Joe Nathan, Twins (Jesse Crain): Nathan was better than the Twins ever could have hoped for after trading for him last offseason, as he saved 44 games with a 1.62 ERA and 89 strikeouts in 72.1 innings. I obviously think he’ll be good again, but not quite that good.

The nice thing about Nathan is that even if he loses a few saves and sees his ERA rise a bit, some of that lost value will be offset by the fact that he’s not likely to win just one game again this year. I’d expect him to have 35-40 saves, 4-6 wins, a 2.25-2.50 ERA, 0.95-1.00 WHIP and 80-90 strikeouts in 70-80 innings.

Juan Rincon might seem like the better choice to close if something happens to Nathan, but the 23-year-old Crain is the closer of the future and I think the Twins will want to see how he looks in the role if Nathan’s out of commission.

7. Octavio Dotel, A’s (Huston Street): Dotel definitely struggled last year, posting a 3.69 ERA while blowing nine saves, but he still saved 36 games and racked up 122 strikeouts and was one of the top five or six fantasy closers. This year, he should be just as valuable.

I think his ERA will probably drop a bit, but that he might not strike out quite as many people as last year. He should be good for 35-40 saves, 5-7 wins, a 2.75-3.00 ERA, 1.00-1.10 WHIP and 100-115 strikeouts in 80-90 innings.

When it comes to Dotel’s backup, you know Billy Beane doesn’t mind having young players in important roles. If something happens to Dotel and Street’s pitching well — and it looks like he will pitch well — I think the A’s will throw the 21-year-old right into the mix.

8. Billy Wagner, Phillies (Tim Worrell): Wagner has tremendous ability, but he’s also an injury risk. He missed most of the 2000 season due to an arm injury, and after working his way up to 86 innings in 2003, he was limited to 48.1 innings last year by injuries. He’s 33 years old now, so he’s not getting any safer in the injury department.

If he’s healthy, though, he’s great. I’d draft him counting on 30-35 saves, 3-5 wins, a 2.40-2.60 ERA, 0.95-1.00 WHIP and 80-90 strikeouts in 60-70 innings, knowing that he’ll give me more than that if healthy, but that he could also be a bust if something goes wrong.

As for Worrell, he’s been a very solid reliever the last five seasons and he has 57 saves over the last two. If you take Wagner, it would be wise to handcuff him with Worrell.

9. Armando Benitez, Giants (Matt Herges): I expected Benitez to bounce back from his not-as-bad-as-people-thought 2003 season, but what he did last year was ridiculous. He posted a miniscule 1.29 ERA while saving 47 games despite pitching only 69.2 innings.

I think Benitez will be good again, but there’s no way he’s even coming close to those numbers again. He’ll probably save 35-40 games with 3-5 wins, a 2.25-2.50 ERA, 1.05-1.10 WHIP and 65-75 strikeouts in 60-70 innings.

If something happens to Benitez, well, it’s better not to think about that. Combining the words “Herges” and “closer” might produce ugly reactions from Giants fans.

10. Francisco Cordero, Rangers (Frank Francisco): Cordero was impressive with his 2.13 ERA and 49 saves last year, but he wasn’t as good a fantasy closer as you might think because he also had a 1.28 WHIP. This year, I think he’ll be even less impressive as the saves go down and the ERA goes up, but he’ll still be very solid.

He should give you 35-40 saves, 4-6 wins, a 2.50-2.75 ERA, 1.25-1.30 WHIP and 75-85 strikeouts in 70-80 innings. His backup is either Francisco or Carlos Almanzar, neither of whom has fantasy value in most leagues if Cordero’s healthy and closing.

11. Jason Isringhausen, Cardinals (Julian Tavarez): Isringhausen set a career high in innings as a reliever last year while also setting a career high in saves. In fact, his 47 saves were 13 more than his next-best total. Isringhausen’s 32 years old and has definite injury risks, but he should be a good closer again this year.

That said, don’t expect a repeat of last year, because it’s probably not coming. He should be good for 30-35 saves, 3-5 wins, a 2.40-2.60 ERA, 1.00-.105 WHIP and 60-70 strikeouts in 60-70 innings.

Tavarez was very good last year, but he hadn’t been nearly that good since 1995, and I wouldn’t bother with him except as injury insurance for Isringhausen.

12. Trevor Hoffman, Padres (Akinori Otsuka): Hoffman’s no longer the amazing closer he once was, but he can still get it done. After missing almost all of 2003, Hoffman posted a 2.30 ERA and 41 saves last year, although he only pitched 54.2 innings.

At 37 years old, Hoffman’s a risk for injury and just natural decline, but last season shows that he can still help your team. I’d expect 30-35 saves, 3-5 wins, a 2.25-2.50 ERA, 0.95-1.00 WHIP and 50-60 strikeouts in 50-60 innings.

Otsuka was very impressive last year, posting a 1.75 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 77.1 innings. Even if you don’t draft Hoffman, you might want to grab Otsuka because he’s a good reliever, and Hoffman’s high-risk status means he could turn into a great value.

13. B.J. Ryan, Orioles (Jorge Julio): Ryan has gone from being a mediocre reliever in 2001 and 2002 to a solid reliever in 2003 to an excellent reliever last season. He posted a 2.28 ERA with 122 strikeouts in 87 innings, and he’s earned the closer’s job for this season as a result.

I don’t think Ryan will be quite that good this year, but he’s only 29 years old and this will probably be the second-best season of his career so far. I’m looking for 30-35 saves, 4-6 wins, a 2.75-3.00 ERA, 1.15-1.20 WHIP and 90-100 strikeouts in 70-80 innings.

Julio’s been the closer before and, while he’s not that great a reliever, he can get the job done if Ryan struggles or gets hurt. That’s assuming Julio doesn’t get traded first, of course.

14. Guillermo Mota, Marlins (Antonio Alfonseca): Another pitcher who is getting the opportunity to close for the first time, Mota was excellent in 2003 and the first part of last year before really struggling after the trade to Florida. His ERA with the Marlins was 4.81, but it was only 33.2 innings.

Mota posted a 2.04 ERA in 168 innings with the Dodgers in 2003 and 2004, and I think he’ll do very well for the Marlins this year. He should be able to give you 30-35 saves, 5-7 wins, a 2.50-2.75 ERA, 1.10-1.15 WHIP and 75-85 strikeouts in 80-90 innings.

Alfonseca posted a very nice 2.57 ERA last year, but his strikeout to walk ratio (45-28) was not good and his ERA probably should have been higher. You don’t want to be using him unless you’re sure he’ll be getting you saves.

15. Braden Looper, Mets (Mike DeJean): Looper was very respectable in his first season in New York last year, posting a 2.70 ERA with 29 saves (he only had 34 opportunities). He’s now posted a 3.25 ERA over the last four years, so there’s no reason to expect him to fall apart as a reliever.

This year, I’d expect him to provide 30-35 saves, 4-6 wins, a 3.00-3.25 ERA, 1.20-1.25 WHIP and 55-60 strikeouts in 80-90 innings. As for his backup, DeJean’s honestly just a guess. The Mets don’t have anybody I’d really be comfortable with as the closer after Looper.

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