Who’s next?

Saves speculation is a critical part of winning most fantasy leagues, as inheriting a closer gig is the most immediate way for a player to gain a profound boost in value. So, periodically, I’m going to chime in here listing my five most desired non-closer relievers.

While many top-flight middle relievers can have value to a team, their skill sets and production levels are largely replaceable on the wire. It is the path to closing that most significantly differentiates similar options. Here are a few things I consider when evaluating this.

  • Stability and skill of current closer. This is the most formidable obstacle facing a middle-reliever looking to close: Is the current closer likely to lose his job because of poor performance?
  • Skill level of middle reliever. Is this player actually better than, or at least comparable to, the player currently closing? If he gets the job, can he keep it? Is the player good enough to push for consideration as a closer even if current closer merely falters, but does not full-on implode? Is the player good enough to have value to your team without closing?
  • Injury history of current closer. Injuries are tough to predict, but all things being equal a pitcher behind Huston Street is more likely to inherit a job than one behind Jonathan Papelbon.
  • Competition within bullpen for inheritance. At times, a team may have a shaky closing situation, but it is unclear who is next in line for the job. The best situation for a would-be closer is to be the clear, single successor.
  • Likelihood of trades. This will become more important as the season progresses. If the incumbent is a trade candidate, that boosts the value the player next in line.

Ranking these players at any given time is not an exact science, so I look at these posts as an opportunity to promote discussion. Also as a disclaimer, I’m avoiding players on the disabled list (i.e., Ryan Madson). I will include a player currently involved in closer-by-committee situations only if I see his emergence as a singular owner of the job as likely. Remember, this column is about players most likely to see a drastic boost in value, not just options to vulture a handful of saves.

And, away we go.

1. Kyuji Fujikawa. Fujikawa averaged almost 12 K/9 in his career in Japan and hasn’t posted an ERA above 2.01 in the last eight seasons. Carlos Marmol is a disaster waiting to happen and failed to nail down the first save opportunity of the Chicago Cubs season. This is likely to be the first non-injury-related closing change this season.

2.Kenley Jansen. I know Brandon League has a big contract and Jansen has some heart issues, but my impression is that people are overthinking this one. The Dodgers are trying to win and they don’t care about money; talent will win out sooner than later. Additionally, Jansen’s ridiculous strikeout numbers make him among the most valuable non-closers.

3. Ryan Cook. I really like Ryan Cook. Grant Balfour is a quality pitcher, but at the age of 35, I don’t totally trust his health or performance. On the other hand, Cook is an emerging bullpen stud.

4. David Robertson The man with the high socks is stuck behind the greatest closer in the history of the game, but Mariano Rivera is 43 and coming off an injury. Rafael Soriano is in Washington, and Robertson is slated to be the man if Rivera goes down again. Robertson also has a multi-year record of production worthy of mixed-league ownership even without a closing gig.

5. David Hernandez. Here’s a relatively unknown K-monster with a smidge of closer experience situated behind a very good incumbent with an injury history. J.J. Putz has shed a bit of his injury-risk reputation over the past few seasons, so it’s possible that I am overestimating his risk, but Hernandez is a good bet for 85–100 punch-outs out of the bullpen regardless, so that’s a pretty solid base to fall back on.

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  1. TheTinDoor said...

    As a general strategy point, in what type of league format do you see holding a guy like Jansen? Of course he positively impacts ERA, WHIP, and Ks, but it’s not a huge impact b/c of IP.
    My scenario:
    13-team mixed roto, standard 23-man rosters but no bench and weekly moves. K/IP replaces Ks.

    Best starters on waivers are Jaime Garcia, Brandon McCarthy, Wandy Rodriguez, Mike Fiers, James McDonals, Dillon Gee.

    With Weekly moves, I can’t stream pitchers; holding a non-saves reliever impacts Wins. What’s your opinion?

  2. ManW said...

    Yeah, Doolittle likely has as good a shot as Cook at the A’s job, which is why I have both in one deep league—that plus we count Holds.

    And although Benoit can be good enough most nights, Leyland just doesn’t trust him to go consecutive games on a regular basis.  And as long as that situation remains unsettled, Brian Wilson’s growing availability probably complicates it further.

  3. the Flint Bomber said...

    How likely is Chris Perez to cruise through the early season as closer of for the Tribe?  Seems like people are optimistic about his sore elbow right now, but for a closer, a sore elbow seems like a sign that things aren’t going to go well.  Enough to get Pestano into that top 5?

  4. Jonathan Sher said...

    While Balfour may find himself on shaky ground he may find that it is Sean Dolittle and not Ryan Cook who overtakes him. Last year Doolitlle struck out more, walked fewer and was less prone to homers. While Doolittle is a southpaw he has been stronger against rich-handed batters.

  5. AJ said...

    I have Jansen, Fuji and Pestano on a few teams, two of which also give credit for holds. And while I wouldn’t mind them staying in their current roles, I drafted them because they’ll all be closers by July, the former two even sooner.

  6. Brad Johnson said...

    My concern with Doolittle is that his approach is similar to a right-handed Matt Thornton in that there really isn’t a second pitch.

    I agree with this list, although I think Benoit is going to end up as the Tigers closer and so I would have had him somewhere on the list.

  7. Jonathan Sher said...


    (1) Doolittle’s approach was also similar to that of Mariano Rivera.
    (2) Dollitle’s pitchFX value on that pitch per 100 innings was significantly better than that of Thornton’s; It was also two-thirds the value of Rivera, which isn’t bad when you consider that it was only Doolittle’s second year of pitching professionally.
    (3) Eno Sarris had an interesting piece recently on how Doolittle’s approach works. Not only does Doolittle has excellent velocity he has an extreme release point and at least Doolittle thinks that point makes it harder for batter to initially pick up the ball.

    Doolittle did work over the winter on a change-up and slider but I’m not sure the extent to which either is ready for prime-time.

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