Fantasy: Top 20 Relievers for 2006

This time, my fantasy rankings will be a tad different, in that I’m going to forego dollar values. Otherwise, I’d receive a hundred emails telling me that there’s no way Matt Holliday is more valuable than Brad Lidge. Needless to say, I’m not the type to draft marquee closers early or pay big auction bucks for them in 5×5 leagues. One primary reason: a host of injury/implosion risks within the this top 20. I’ll also note up front that Armando Benitez misses this list, as I’ve ranked him 29th.

1. Eric Gagne: Gagne made his spring debut and his elbow is reportedly in good shape. I expect a return to dominance, with a 2.30 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, over 100 strikeouts, and 48 saves in 82 innings. Back before last year, such a season was pretty much a lock from him. Word of warning: I’m not sure whether the Danys Baez acquisition is tied more to Gagne’s impending free agency or his health.

2. Joe Nathan: Similar to Gagne, but with a few less saves and strikeouts. That’s mostly balanced by his superior health record of late. Nathan looked sharp so far in the World Baseball Classic and should once again be one of the game’s very best closers.

3. Billy Wagner: Wagner’s last two spring training ERAs: 6.75, 5.40. His last two regular season ERAs: 1.51, 2.42. This year, he bowed out of the WBC and has tossed two scoreless innings so far. He’ll get about eight more innings of spring work in, and it’s clear that the results will be meaningless. Look for something close to 40 saves with a 2.25 ERA and 0.91 WHIP. Even entering his age-35 season, Wagner is still one of the Big Four closers. The change in home ballparks should have little effect on his stats.

4. Mariano Rivera: Rivera is another pitcher who will sit out the WBC in order to prepare for the regular baseball season. His last three springs have been A-OK. Despite three consecutive seasons of sub-2 ERAs, I’ve projected Rivera at 2.57 this year. That’s to be accompanied by a 1.03 WHIP, as it seems Rivera was a little lucky with the hits allowed last year. It’ll still make for an excellent season with 40-plus saves, but don’t pencil in that 1.75 ERA this time.

5. Brad Lidge: Reliever ERAs are always tough to project, but I have Lidge floating up to 2.81 this season. He walks too many to be a member of the truly elite, but he’s still a consummate closer and can top 100 strikeouts. But beware: Will Carroll places his health at a red light, noting reduced velocity, a shaky elbow, and too many sliders. You might want to play it safe and take Chad Cordero in NL-only if you require a top-notch stopper.

6. Tom Gordon: I’m still assuming 73 innings for Flash, but early signs are less than encouraging. After blowing a save in his Phils debut, Gordon spoke of some elbow tightness. He hasn’t thrown a curve yet this spring. Of course his owners and prospective shoppers are praying for this nagging concern to go away, and it very well might. If he is able to snap off those hammers for yet another season, look for a 2.75 ERA and 1.05 WHIP with close to 40 saves.

7. Francisco Rodriguez: Yet another major injury risk. Will Carroll thinks his elbow is a ticking time bomb, so Scot Shields has a fair chance at some save opportunities this year. If K-Rod holds up, though, expect a 2.65 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, and 40 saves. You just have to decide if you want to roll the dice.

8. Huston Street: It’s safe to expect an ERA under 2.50 and a WHIP around 1 in Street’s sophomore season. He’ll top 30 saves given a full season, and has a good shot at 40. If you factor in injury risk in your rankings, Street should move up a few spots.

9. Chad Cordero: Another safe, young former college closer who joined the elite last year. Frank Robinson will cut down his workload a bit this year to keep him sharp. Look for numbers similar to Street’s although he won’t get 47 saves again for the Nationals. Look for more like 35 and consider anything else a bonus.

10. B.J. Ryan: Ryan’s first season as a closer coincided with his contract year, making him a rich man. His walk rate was a career best in 2005; will he regress? If so, you may get an ERA around 3 with a WHIP north of 1.15. That wouldn’t be bad, but just be mindful of the possibility before you pay full price.

11. Derrick Turnbow: Turnbow came out of nowhere to overtake Mike Adams for the Brewers’ closer job and nail down 39 saves with a 1.74 ERA. You can take it to the bank that his ERA exceeds 2 in 2006, and it’ll probably be over 3. But I think he’ll keep the role all year and turn in a solid if not spectacular performance.

12. Jose Valverde: A great buy for 2006 that may fly under the radar in some leagues despite 15 saves last year. He added a sweet new sinker to further assert his dominance. He hasn’t shown any ill effects of his labrum surgery and is one of the few success stories of that procedure. Pencil him in for 30 saves and an ERA close to 3. He’ll add 85 strikeouts if he gets more than 70 innings.

13. Scot Shields: Even with just six projected saves, Shields ranks above all sorts of closers. You already heard about K-Rod’s elbow. Shields may yet get 20 saves. Otherwise, he’s the game’s best vulture, and I don’t say that because he has dark plumage and a featherless head. He’ll prey on tie games and snag 8-10 wins, more than many starters. Expect an ERA around 3 and a 1.20 WHIP in over 90 innings.

14. Mike Gonzalez: After years of lying in wait to close games for the lowly Pirates, this dog will finally have his day. If he overcomes knee problems he should fend off bums like Roberto Hernandez for the save opps. The only wild card is his control, which has been spotty at times. Still, an ERA of 3 and a 1.20 WHIP are entirely within reach for the southpaw.

15. Justin Duchscherer: Is Duch is the new Shields? 90 innings of a sub-3 ERA plus solid Ks and a low ratio seems to be his line. He’ll probably snag runner up for the MVV (Most Valuable Vulture) and pick up 6-7 wins. Unlike Shields’ associate K-Rod, Huston Street isn’t a health risk. Duchscherer has fought some groin problems this spring and has been used fairly heavily the last two seasons, so you should exercise a little caution. The A’s have a deep bullpen, so someone else could swoop in if he falters.

16. Bobby Jenks: The big guy created some lasting memories last October, but is he a top fantasy closer for 2006? I’m going to vote no. Jenks’s walk rate in 39 innings with the Sox was better than anything he managed in the minors. If Major League hitters show some patience it could be the death of him. My projection takes a middle ground: 3.56 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 38 saves. But a few untimely home runs with runners on and we could be seeing Dustin Hermanson or someone else closing games.

17. Chris Ray: The 24 year-old inherits the closer role with B.J. Ryan’s departure. His lack of a track record should make him a bargain, and I know the Orioles would prefer not to turn to LaTroy Hawkins. If he keeps his walks down, he can snag you 30 saves with a 3.30 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. Pick him up for cheap or else hold out until something better comes along.

18. Francisco Cordero: He’s been racking up saves for several years now despite a mediocre WHIP. His ERA caught up to him last year, and now it should hold steady around 3.40. A sore shoulder kept him out of the WBC, so keep an eye on that. Joaquin Benoit or Akinori Otsuka could get some save opportunities if he misses time.

19. Trevor Hoffman: Though his ratios are as good as the players ranked above him, Hoffman is more of a 55 inning pitcher these days. The ability to rack up 40 saves makes up some, but not all of that difference. Even at 38, he still has great control and a pretty good strikeout rate. Just don’t overpay based on memories of 1998.

20. Chad Orvella: Despite competition from Shinji Mori and various other wannabes, I can’t see how Orvella doesn’t get more than 20 saves this year. His control and strikeout rate should improve over 2005, so expect tolerable ratios.

Just missed: Brian Fuentes, Jason Isringhausen, Eddie Guardado, Ryan Dempster, Scott Linebrink, Todd Jones.

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