Top 50 fantasy relievers for 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 5×5) 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.

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  1. Will said...

    Storen isn’t at all a sure thing as far as role goes. I may be missing something, but I follow the team and it still seems as though Burnett and Clippard are going to see a good bit of time in the ninth this year… but I’m curious as to what you’ve heard differently.

  2. rbt said...

    You don’t consider JP Howell an injury risk?  He missed all of 2010 and had labrum surgery in May.  In my mind his 2011 projected peformance should be very far from a sure thing, and he’s not even going to be ready for Opening Day.

  3. Jim G. said...

    Having watched Axford 1st hand last year, he was quite remarkable. While his stats weren’t as great as some others, he was dominant in most games. Granted, he’s had a history of off-the-charts wildness in the minors. As long as he keeps that in his past, he’ll be the Brewers closer for the long-term. Saito is exactly a “plan-B” signing. He’s getting up there in age, and his health problems from last year are more concerning than Axford’s control or inexperience.

  4. Chris Sale said...

    Am he not included because of the uncertainty surrounding his role? If he’s not in the rotation, Guillen has indicated he’s a definite closer candidate.

  5. Michael said...

    Disagree about Axford.  He is a fan favorite in Milwaukee and is more marketable that any other reliever on the team.  People will come to games with the hope of seeing him close it out, so he would really have to screw up to lose the closing job.  I would expect him to given a pretty long leash

    Papelbon isn’t going anywhere.  The dude makes $12M per year, so there is pretty much no chance he gets traded since no team is going to be able to take on that kind of salary.  I don’t think Boston has much confidence in Dan Bard as the closer of the future, given his massive platoon splits.  Bobby Jenks would be the closer if something happened to Papelbon.

  6. Hizouse said...

    Your numbers are off, or at least they don’t match up with the Oliver projections as currently shown on this site.  E.g., Soria’s Oliver ERA is 2.95, not 3.20, and Feliz’s is 3.11, not 3.36, and Mariano is 2.68, not 3.00.

  7. Jeffrey Gross said...


    Storen’s job, in my mind, is a lot safer than most credit him for. He may lose the occasional save by situation, but the job is his to keep.

  8. Jeffrey Gross said...


    Can you link me to info? I had seen nothing regarding that and while I personally like and probably prefer and Adam Russell type over Howell, some of my friends who follow closing situations much more closely have assured me that Howell is the Rays’ 9th inning man.

    Honestly, of the above guys, Howell, Axford, and Leo Nunez are the guys I have the most doubts (aside from the Pirates pen) have a closing job by May. Toss Franklin and Rodney up there pretty high too….

  9. Jeffrey Gross said...


    To use the word “control” to describe Axford’s control in the minors would be an insult to Daniel Cabrera. In the majors, it’s been no better, and a 4.19 BB/9 mark is not pretty, though granted he boosted his F-strike% considerably last season. I realize Marmol also walks a ton of batters, but he also has a better strikeout track record.

  10. Jeffrey Gross said...

    On second thought, Axford is only 27. For some reason I though he was early 30s, a sub-10 K/9, and a poo SwStr%. Chalk that one up to me not doing proper research on Axford (who I did own on my fantasy squad last season).

    Accordingly, I will bump Axford up 2 slots past Kimbrell and Lidge. Still love Street, however, and I would not rather have Axford over anyone above his new ranking. Thank you for bringing my mistake to my attention.

  11. Jeffrey Gross said...


    I have no clue as to how the White Sox plan to use you and they have not yet made it clear. That is why you are absent. Are you a starter? Reliever? Like Andrew Cashner, your actual best and team-thought-best role has a lot of question marks surrounding it for 2011. I think that the Sox plan to use Thornton as their man for 2011, but again, as I note, the Sox have shown a strong willingness to use their less elite relievers to close over Thornton and use him where he belongs—high leverage situations.

    I bumped Axford up a few spots. Re: Papelbon, I do not think the Red Sox are nearly that worried about Bard’s splits. They may use Jenks to ease Bard into the role initially if they decide they do not need Papelbon (who will start off the season with the closer gig, but won’t have as long of a lease as in years past when the Sox had years of control ahead of him), but it’s Bard’s job

    Papelbon isn’t going anywhere.  The dude makes $12M per year, so there is pretty much no chance he gets traded since no team is going to be able to take on that kind of salary.  I don’t think Boston has much confidence in Dan Bard as the closer of the future, given his massive platoon splits.  Bobby Jenks would be the closer if something happened to Papelbon.

    True, the vs. lefty numbers were a bit alarming last season by xFIP terms, but ER peripherals are a terrible measure of single season reliever performance. We’ll need a few more seasons of sample before we can conclude anything reliable and I think some combination of Theo Epstein and Bill James (does he still work for the Sox?) know that.

  12. Jeffrey Gross said...

    Can you send me a screen shot via comments? I double checked the Forecasts page and my numbers are what are currently reflected. Something could be wrong and I will make sure it gets fixed for you.

  13. Kevin L. Wiley said...

    I’m wanting some clarification on your view of the Orioles bullpen and closer situation.

    First the team signed Uehara for 2011 at 3 million, and then a month later signed Gregg for 2 years 10 million.  It seems obvios to me that they see Gregg as their top closing option committing over 3 times the money to him.  What am I missing here?

  14. Collin said...

    What does everybody think of Brad Lidge? Coming off of a mediocre season but regaining strength from injuries the season before, he could be poised for a huge bounce back in his contract year with the starting rotation the Phillies have assembled.

  15. Jeffrey Gross said...

    Keep in mind Uehara’s deal also has a vesting option for 2012. Gregg might just be the backup to Uehara’s health.

  16. Scott Tuckman said...

    The above ranking and numbers for Fernaldo Rodney indicates how little faith you and other have in him as a closer, yet you have not even included Jordan Walden in your top 50?

  17. Jeffrey Gross said...

    He’s one of the better closers in the lower tier. Personally, I like Kimbrell more, but right now, Lidge for sure has a job and we have some expectation of what he’ll do in 2011, while, again, Kimbrell is kind of a wild card. If I were to rank the releivers here by perceived talent alone, Lidge would probably rank 23/24, behind Broxton and Uehara.

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