Top 50 fantasy relievers for 2011by Jeffrey Gross
January 21, 2011
Other 2011 fantasy rankings by position:
Catcher || First Base || Second Base || Shortstop || Third Base || Corner and middle infield || Outfield || Starting pitchers
To remind everyone: These rankings are based on position eligibility. Players who are eligible at multiple positions will be ranked in comparison with others at each relevant position. You will also note asterisks next to the names of certain players. These indicate health risks. Health concerns have been taken into consideration, as have expected talent and expected playing time to yield expected production.
Position eligibility and evaluation criteria for these rankings are explained here. The "o" in front of ERA, WHIP and K/9 stands for Oliver-projected*.
*Oliver's 2011 projections have been updated since I wrote down all of the prospective pitching statistics for my pitcher rankings. Due to the sheer volume of time it would take to update my positional rankings for pitchers, I am going to keep the Oliver 2011 category listed as is. Most of the projections are essentially similar, but for the most up to date projections, subscribe to THT Forecasts by clicking here. If you are unsure of whether to subscribe to THT Forecasts, you can read about why I love THT Forecasts by clicking here
Rank Player Team oSV oERA oWHIP oK/9 Opening Day closer? 1 Joakim Soria Royals 38 3.20 1.12 9.1 Y 2 Neftali Feliz Rangers 36 3.36 1.18 8.6 Y 3 Mariano Rivera Yankees 35 3.00 1.08 7.4 Y 4 Brian Wilson Giants 38 3.41 1.23 9.4 Y 5 Heath Bell Padres 36 3.48 1.24 8.5 Y 6 Joe Nathan* Twins 36 3.43 1.16 8.5 Y 7 Carlos Marmol Cubs 36 3.52 1.31 11.4 Y 8 Drew Storen Nationals 32 3.47 1.20 8.9 Y 9 J.J. Putz Diamondback 38 3.84 1.31 7.8 Y 10 Jose Valverde Tigers 38 3.81 1.27 8.2 Y 11 Andrew Bailey Athletics 32 3.66 1.24 8.2 Y 12 Jonathan Papelbon Red Sox 36 3.48 1.20 8.9 Y 13 Francisco Rodriguez Mets 38 3.78 1.30 8.9 Y 14 Matt Thornton White Sox 36 3.22 1.17 9.3 Y 15 Chris Perez Indians 36 3.90 1.30 9.0 Y 16 Huston Street Rockies 26 3.47 1.20 8.8 Y 17 John Axford Brewers 40 4.15 1.45 9.0 Y 18 Brad Lidge Phillies 32 4.21 1.38 8.5 Y 19 Craig Kimbrel Braves 36 3.98 1.44 11.1 Y 20 Octavio Dotel Blue Jays 30 4.02 1.33 9.3 Y 21 Francisco Cordero Reds 38 4.06 1.40 7.3 Y 22 Jonathan Broxton Dodgers 30 3.40 1.22 10.1 Y 23 Koji Uehara Orioles 0 3.57 1.18 7.4 Y 24 Ryan Franklin Cardinals 32 4.08 1.32 6.0 Y 25 J.P. Howell Rays 6 3.79 1.26 8.7 Y 26 Brandon League Mariners 2 3.83 1.27 7.1 Y 27 Leo Nunez Marlins 36 4.04 1.29 7.3 Y 28 Brandon Lyon Astros 22 4.00 1.32 6.2 Y 29 Fernando Rodney Angels 18 4.55 1.50 6.9 Y** 30 Joel Hanrahan Pirates 30 3.70 1.27 9.8 Y** 31 Evan Meek Pirates 10 3.84 1.33 7.7 N 32 Aroldis Chapman Reds 0 3.89 1.34 10.4 N 33 David Aardsma Mariners 38 4.09 1.38 8.2 N 34 Kevin Gregg Orioles 34 4.14 1.39 7.6 N 35 Daniel Bard Red Sox 4 3.51 1.23 9.2 N 36 Mike Adams Padres 2 3.33 1.19 8.6 N 37 Hong Chi Kuo Dodgers 6 3.07 1.12 9.1 N 38 Ryan Madson Phillies 6 3.63 1.21 8.2 N 39 Jason Motte Cardinals 2 3.76 1.24 9.0 N 40 Rafael Soriano Yankees 36 3.37 1.20 8.5 N 41 Matt Capps Twins 4 3.90 1.24 7.0 N 42 Takashi Saito Brewers 0 3.65 1.25 8.1 N 43 Kerry Wood Cubs 2 4.04 1.32 8.5 N 44 Luke Gregerson Padres 2 3.43 1.20 8.9 N 45 Mike Gonzalez Orioles 36 4.19 1.32 8.7 N 46 Jonny Venters Braves 4 4.21 1.41 6.7 N 47 Sergio Romo Giants 2 3.34 1.15 8.7 N 48 Sean Marshall Cubs 2 3.54 1.23 8.3 N 49 Tyler Clippard Nationals 4 3.87 1.31 9.0 N 50 Jason Frasor Blue Jays 4 3.95 1.35 7.6 N*Assuming health, which means assuming the amount of health reasonably expected from them.
This early in the offseason, relief pitchers and closers are hard to rank. You know the reliable big names—Joakim Soria, Neftali Feliz, Mariano Rivera, etc. through Jose Valverde—but even within this tier of elite reliables with strong grasps over ninth inning duties, history shows that anything from preseason injury (Joe Nathan 2010) to loss of control (Carlos Marmol 2008) to seeking money over role (Rafael Soriano 2011) could limit a reliever's prospective value.
With this in mind and knowing that an elite closer will likely cost you big, despite largely being valuable for just one category (saves), is drafting an elite closer for big money really worth doing?
Most experts will tell you the answer is no. The winner of the THT Fantasy experts competition, Dave Chenok, will argue in a future THT article that you should invest in an elite reliever.
My view, as I explained a couple of years ago, is that relievers are a poor return on your investment. While an elite reliever will undoubtedly help pad your team's ratios and add to its strikeout totals, a poor reliever will still get you those saves without hurting your team's bottom line when you spend elite-reliever money on your starting pitchers. Keep in mind, a medley of three or four closers will accrue only 200-250 innings for your team. Even with a low 1,400 innings pitched maximum (I usually play 1,600), that accounts for less than 18 percent of your team's total innings.
I also have a theory for Roto leagues that closers on worse offensive teams tend to accrue better saves totals. Teams like the Royals with poor offenses are going to win 60-75 games and it is unlikely they are going to routinely blow their opposition out by four or more runs. In my view, such closers get more chances and those chances are more spread out (less likelihood of long winning streaks), meaning closers on bad teams ultimately get solid saves totals. I have never proven this theory and obviously this strategy will not work in H2H leagues, which require consistency, but it is how I operate and how I have finished in the top third of my league in saves for three seasons running without spending big on closers.
Keep in mind one thing: saves are just one category in fantasy. You can place at the top of a rotisserie league without them. Last year, the winner of one of my primary money leagues (Roto Auction, standard 12-team 5x5) won despite placing last or second to last in the saves category. In an H2H league, you can even punt saves and focus on the other nine categories.
This all in mind, let's break down the rankings.
My first 10 listed players are those with the best stuff and who likely have the best holds on their jobs. Most of the reliever rankings here are based on likelihood of accumulating saves, not the underlying peripherals. That is why Leo Nunez and Fernando Rodney are listed ahead of better pitchers such as Mike Adams and Hong Chi Kuo.
The Pirates have not announced whether Evan Meek or Joel Hanrahan will be their closer for 2011 and the team's use of the two in wake of trading away Octavio Dotel hardly gave much of an indication to how the Pirates are likely to lean. Hanrahan ended up accumulating more saves last season (six to Meeks' four) and has better numbers in every major peripheral category (FIP, xFIP, tERA, K/9, BB/9, K/BB), with Meeks having the ERA advantage in 2010. I've ranked Hanrahan ahead of Meeks because he's a better pitcher who got more chances in 2010, but if you draft either pitcher this preseason before the Pirates announce their closer, make sure you grab the other. I would not be shocked to see either start the year closing (though I believe Hanrahan will ultimately end the season with the job).
With Billy Wagner retired and Craig Kimbrell likely to close in Atlanta (sorry Jonny Venters), can you name any other lefty closers out there besides a possible Matt Thornton? White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen has previously shown his willingness to use less elite relievers to keep Thornton in the real life role he deserves—the high leverage reliever—and the White Sox recently signed Jesse Crain to a three-year contract. I'm not saying that Crain is the closer, only that Thornton is not guaranteed a closing job. That is not to say that Thornton will not be one of baseball's best relievers again next season, just that his role is not a guarantee.
Some random random thoughts on relievers:
- Jonathan Papelbon is ranked so low because I have a feeling he gets traded or removed from the role before the end of the season to make way for closer-of-the-future Daniel Bard. If and when this happens is speculative, which is why Papelbon is still ranked in the top 15 and Bard is not even ranked in the top 35. Take note of Papelbon's recently declining peripherals, however.
- I really like Drew Storen for next year. A lot.
- I also love Carlos Marmol, as reflected by his ranking and my being a die-hard Cubs fan, but if Marmol's walk rate does not improve, things could look a lot more like 2009 than 2008 or 2010 for the Cubs closer. Do not expect him to touch his major league record K/9 of 15.99 next season, but 1.5 is entirely plausible.
- I like Joe Nathan, if healthy, and he's progressed back from injury well according to reports, but I'm avoiding him. I hate high-cost closers, let alone ones carrying injury risks. Still, he might come cheap compared to what he can do if you can stomach the risk.
- I'm guessing 2008-2009, not 2010, was the fluke for J.J. Putz, who was injured over that period. Still, the 34-year old's velocity is about a full mph down from where it was in his glory days for Seattle.
- The only reason Huston Steet is ranked so low (No. 18), is that he is a perpetual injury risk. In terms of talent, he ranks on par with modern-day Papelbon.
- I hate Francisco Cordero for 2011, let alone in general. He is in the final year of his contract, has awful control, and was completely unreliable at times last season. With the Reds finally in their window to compete and with Aroldis Chapman in the fold as a reliever for 2011, I expect CoCo to have a short leash this season.
- The relievers ranked 32-40 represent the 10 I think best positioned to poach saves in 2011, by reason of shaky jobs, health concerns or split-duties. Matt Capps (No. 42) could be valuable for a periodic save and will close for the Twins if Nathan's health does not hold up, while Rafael Soriano gives the Yankees a reliable option to give Mariano Rivera adequate rest from time to time.
- Andrew Cashner should not be a reliever and the Cubs should not have spent more for Matt Garza than the Brewers did for Zack Greinke. That's more a rant than a reliever note.
- The Orioles have Kevin Gregg and Mike Gonzalez in the fold should Koji Uehara flounder in the closing role in 2011. I do not expect this to happen and think the Orioles ninth inning this season will be much more stable than it was in 2010. Somewhere in the world, Andrew Bassan can sigh in relief.
- Jason Frasor could be a dark horse to close, ahead of Jon Rauch. You didn't hear that from me.
I hope everyone has enjoyed these ranking posts. I will continue to update the rankings throughout the preseason to reflect free agent signings, roster moves and team announcements, but the analysis will remain unchanged. Some time in February, I will post an article with updated rankings and comments/feedback/criticism/concerns regarding my rankings from other Fantasy writers from The Hardball Times and around the internet.
That said, my fourth semester of law school begins this week and runs through mid-May. I will try to write fantasy articles as often I have time, but forgive me if I don't have time. For now, enjoy, as promised, the beta version of the xWHIP 2.1 calculator (note: 2.1 beta uses 2008 runs/outs values per Stat Corner's tERA primer, rather than the four-year data from the xWHIP 2.0 post).
As always, leave the love/hate in the comments.
Jeffrey Gross is an attorney (and die-hard Cubs fan) who currently resides in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In addition to writing for The Hardball Times, he also reviews tasty adult beverages as part of a side project titled "saBEERmetrics." He previously worked for The Daily Illini and Northern Star newspapers as a film critic and sportswriter (respectively). You can reach him by email at saBEERmetrics AT gmail DOT com.
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