Other positions: SP
The 2009 closer pool is a strong one. In recent years there's been considerable turnover in closer roles; this season, a lot of teams go into spring training with a very reliable arm in the role. You'll see this as we go through the rankings.
What does this mean on draft day? A couple things to keep in mind:
1. There's not as much need to draft an 'elite' closer who you can count on. There are a couple safe picks later on that you can rely upon to hold their jobs. In the past, you'd draft a Rivera not just for his great and ERA, K total, but for the fact that you could be sure he'd have the job all year, which was less than you could say for the Bobby Howrys and Armando Benitezes of the league. There is a large middle class this year that you're more than happy to pick from.
2. Less closer turnover will mean fewer saves available on waivers. While 2009 could very well turn out to be a regular year where half of closer jobs change hands at some point, you could get punished if you miss out. I highly recommend drafting at least two good (again, not elite) closers this year. It's always easier to trade away excess saves after draft day than it is to trade for them. Now, onto the rankings:
Jonathan Papelbon, BOS ($24) 5w, 41sv, 77k, 2.34 ERA, 0.95 WHIP
Most early rankings have Papelbon as the first closer off the board somewhere from the mid-4th round to early 5th. There's little doubt in my mind that he can deliver that kind of value for a fourth consecutive season. The question is, should your draft strategy include a closer this early?
Here's a little exercise. How much value does a closer deliver aside from saves, and how does it compare to an elite starter's value? To measure this, I'm comparing both with a late-round player.
Here's a theoretical Papelbon line for this year:
70IP, 5w, 40 sv, 80k, 2.00 ERA, 0.95 WHIP
And here's a projection for Brandon Webb, a similarly valuable 'Elite' starter:
200IP, 16W, 165K, 3.30 ERA, 1.20 WHIP
Our late-round starter and reliever:
200IP, 12w, 135K, 4.50 ERA, 1.40 WHIP
70IP, 5w, 15sv, 55k, 4.30 ERA, 1.30 WHIP
Note that I've kept the IP the same...this is for simplicity.
Now, the differences:
4w, 30k, 0.17 ERA points, 0.027 WHIP points.
0w, 25sv, 25k, 0.11 ERA points, 0.017 WHIP points.
Note: ERA and WHIP are represented as impact on your TEAM scores based on a 1500 IP pitching staff.
Let's cancel out a bit- now the difference is:
Starter: 4w, 5k, 0.06 ERA, 0.01 WHIP
Which is more valuable? Pretty much a wash. In a typical league, that starter will bump you up about four points in the standings, while the reliever will likely do the same. Of course, this assumes you're about in the middle rankings of these categories.
This year, I'm recommending that you pass on Papelbon and the other elite closers to take a bat, though. As I explained in my SP preview, there's a harsh dropoff in the quality of bats (especially outfielders) late in drafts. On the other hand, there are several very functional closers available from rounds 8-12. We'll get to them later. If you're in a league with smaller rosters (only 3 OF, for example) this is less of an issue. If you are, you can comfortably take Papelbon in the 5th round if available.
Mariano Rivera, NYY ($24) 6w, 39sv, 77k, 1.40, 0.67
In a stunning reversal, Rivera put up the best season of his career at age 38. If you can get him in the 6th or later, he's a good value, but no earlier.
Joe Nathan, MIN ($24) 1w, 39sv, 74k, 1.33, 0.90
Nathan now has 200 career saves. My, how the time flies. He's also now 34 years old! His ERA last year was a career best 1.33, but his strikeout total is slowing down. There's no reason to believe he'll lose much ground, but he's not going to be better than Papelbon. There's a decent chance, actually, that his ERA pops up over 3 and his WHIP clocks in at 1.20. If he's elite, it's by a thin margin. I'd avoid him because he's simply not going to be that much better than the field.
Francisco Rodriguez, NYM ($21) 2w, 62sv, 77k, 2.24, 1.29
K-Rod's record-breaking season was a downer in every other category as he gave up 34 walks and blew several saves. Even if his arm stays on, his control is slipping. Don't draft him.
Joakim Soria, KC ($21) 2w, 42sv, 66k, 1.60, 0.86
Soria's big save total and tiny ERA have made him a popular pick to be a regular member of the elite. He's terrific...but still only marginally better than some guys you can get later on. I'd take him in the eighth, but he'll go earlier than that in most leagues.
Brad Lidge, PHI ($21) 2w, 41sv, 92k, 1.95, 1.23
Lidge's confidence, so long the target of doubt, can't be higher now that he has his World Series ring. He's always had the amazing strikeout rate to be an elite closer, and there's reason to believe he can do it again this year. I'll take him if he's there late 6th or 7th round.
Jose Valverde, HOU ($18) 6w, 44sv, 83k, 3.38, 1.18
A reliable option in the middle rounds. I wouldn't take him in the 7th or 8th, but he may fall because he's not overhyped. If you can get him in the 9th or 10th, you'll get decent value.
Brian Fuentes, LAA ($16) 1w, 30sv, 82k, 2.73, 1.10
Fuentes is my gold-key lock at closer to outperform his draft price in 2009. He put up an 82:22 K/BB in Colorado last year to rebound from a messy April. In Anaheim, he'll be getting a ton of save opportunities thanks to a strong supporting cast. Check your draft pre-ranks to see where he's projected to go, and plan ahead. He's a strong value as early as the eighth round, but you can probably get him in the ninth or tenth.
Kerry Wood, CLE ($16) 5w, 34sv, 84k, 3.26, 1.09
It's hard to know what to make of the guy. He'll go off the board around the tenth round, which is reasonable, but health is a concern. I'd rather pass on him and take one of the starters I like instead. Buyer beware.
B.J. Ryan, TOR ($13) 2w, 32sv, 58k, 2.95, 1.28
I love the guy, but he's not a top closer anymore. His control and velocity have fallen off, and while the trickery's still there, you'll tear your hair out if you ever have to see him pitch. He was living on a knife edge all year in 2008, constantly squeezing out of 1-run situations with runners on. The wheels could come off in dramatic fashion at any time. You can't afford to risk owning him.
Bobby Jenks, CHW ($13) 3w, 30sv, 38k, 2.63, 1.10
Don't let the ERA fool you; Jenks is slipping. His velocity is down and so are the strikeout totals. Though he might still hold the job all season, his numbers won't be strong. Avoid.
Francisco Cordero, CIN ($12) 5w, 34sv, 78k, 3.33, 1.41
Coco had a bit of an off year as his walk total increased and strikeouts slipped. He's an ok option, but I'd rather only have him if he drops to the 12th.
Jonathan Broxton, LAD ($12) 3w, 14sv, 88k, 3.13, 1.17
That he's ranked this low is a joke. Broxton has as much talent as the elite closers and will perform just as well. He'll be available at a discount because he's only been in the job for half a season; like Fuentes, check your preranks. Take him somewhere between the tenth and twelfth round.
Carlos Marmol, CHC ($11) 2w, 7sv, 114k, 2.68, 0.93
Marmol's true strikeout rate was actually held back by the fact that he only gave up 4o hits in 87 innings in '08. His draft round projection has been all over the place, because it's still not clear if he'll be the closer. With Kevin Gregg in the fold, the Cubs may feel they prefer keeping Marmol in the set-up job so he can pitch more games. Here's a key fact, though: Gregg is fading fast, so even if he somehow gets the job, he'll probably give it to Marmol before long anyway. Check your league's preranks and plan accordingly. In the eleventh , he's good value, but if you can wait until the 13th or so and he's still a ways down on the preranks, you might want to wait.
Brian Wilson, SFG ($11) 3w, 41sv, 67k, 4.62, 1.44
He got the job for lack of better options on the Giants. You will have better options. Pick a different closer.
Matt Capps, PIT ($11) 2w, 21sv, 39k, 3.02, 0.97
An amazingly consistent pitcher who is hurt by the fact that the Pirates don't win much. Draft him anyway - though you may only get 25-30 saves, he'll be a plus in the other categories. Don't reach for him...if he's available in the 14th, go for it.
Trevor Hoffman, MIL ($10) 3w, 30sv, 46k, 3.77, 1.04
After the failed Gagne experiment, Hoffman will have a long leash in Milwaukee because of track record and a lack of other options. He may slip in your draft because of his age, but he's worth owning if you can get him late. Look for him to fall to the 15th or later.
Frank Francisco, TEX ($10) 3w, 5sv, 83k, 3.13, 1.15
He ended the season as closer and is the best pitcher (83:26 K/BB) in the Texas 'pen. That said, this is also the guy that threw a chair into the stands after being harassed by fans--actually, maybe that's a good thing for a closer.
As much as he has the talent, a couple bad outings may cost him the job. He'll go very late- think 17th round or later. A strong option for your #3 spot.
Chad Qualls, ARI ($10) 4w, 9sv, 71k, 2.81, 1.07
Qualls is a chronically underrated pitcher who gets almost a strikeout an inning. He's first in line to be the Arizona closer this year after finishing the season in the role. There's some speculation that Jon Rauch will compete for the job, but Rauch stank after being traded to the D-Backs last year because he's been badly overworked in the past two seasons. Like Francisco, Qualls is an excellent guy to own as a third or fourth closer.
Heath Bell, SD ($10) 6w, 0sv, 71k, 3.58, 1.21
Bell has been a star set-up man for two years and is ready to take over for Trevor Hoffman. His numbers will be good thanks to pitching in Petco, and though the Padres won't win a ton of games, you can be sure they'll be winning by the small margins necessary to get Bell his saves. Another good option after the 16th round.
Mike Gonzalez, ATL ($9) 0w, 14sv, 44k, 4.28, 1.19
Gonzalez has always had the talent but can't stay healthy-what's more, he's got Rafael Soriano waiting to take the job if he slips or gets hurt. If you have deep rosters, he's worth a shot but otherwise you'll go insane shuffling him on and off the DL.
Joel Hanrahan, WAS ($8) 6w, 9sv, 93k, 3.95, 1.36
Hanrahan is sure to start the season with the job but walks 4.5 men per nine. It seems unlikely that he'll bring that down because he walked 6.7/9 in 2007. Draftable only as a last-ditch option. The Washington bullpen could be a bloodbath this year.
Chris Perez, STL ($7) 3w, 7sv, 42k, 3.46, 1.34
He had a decent rookie year, and as 'closer of the future' on a weak team, he'll be given every chance to succeed, which means you'll get your saves. He may be just OK like last year, or he may improve his command and put up a great year. A very low-downside risk worth taking in the late rounds.
Matt Lindstrom, FLA ($7) 3w, 5sv, 43k, 3.14, 1.45
His strikeout rate wasn't good last year and he could lose the job with a bad week or two. Not much upside, either.
Brad Ziegler, OAK ($6) 3w, 11sv, 30k, 1.06, 1.16
He might be able to keep it together. The underarmer is fun to watch, but he'll be a serious drag on your strikeout totals. No one can sustain a 1.06 ERA with this low a strikeout rate. With Joey Devine in the wings, he's not one to count on.
George Sherrill, BAL ($5) 3w, 31sv, 58k, 4.73, 1.50
Sherrill had a cinderella start, then cratered in the second half. Chris Ray will be back early on, but the fact is neither of them are good. Don't draft.
Manny Corpas/Huston Street, COL ($4) 3w, 4sv, 50k, 4.52, 1.46, 7w, 18sv, 69k, 3.73, 1.21
It's still unclear who has the leg up in this pen unless one guy gets traded. They're both good pitchers and the guy with the job is worth owning if you need saves. No need to draft too high, you'll get the guy with the job in the 19th or later.
Troy Percival/Dan Wheeler/Grant Balfour, TB ($1)
The closer job is up in the air here- after Percival wore out at the end of the season, the Rays went to a bullpen by committee with David Price as the leader. With him likely in the rotation, there's no doubt that Balfour is the best of this group, but until a closer is named, you can't count on any one guy. Wheeler is also worth owning if he's the closer, but Percival will hurt you if you draft him.
Brandon Lyon/Fernando Rodney, DET ($1)
The Tigers brought in Lyon in a desperate attempt to fill their pen, but the fact is he's just not that good. His strikeout rate isn't good enough, and the move to the AL could be a rude one. Rodney's no better, as he has control problems. If Joel Zumya gets healthy, he may be worth a look, but barring a trade, there's not Detroit reliever worth owning on draft day.
There you have it. As I mentioned in the introduction, there are fewer unattractive options this year than most, and very few where a clearly better pitcher is waiting in the wings to take over. For this reason, don't count on the waiver wire to give you strong bullpen options early in the season; you're best off getting a few guys you can be sure of. With that in mind, it'll also be easier this year to get three good closers on draft day- you could very happily assemble a trio of Fuentes in the 10th, Francisco in the 16th and Qualls in the 18th and have your top picks available for a badass offense.
There are of course a number of middle relievers worth owning, which I'll cover in my Holds league post after I've worked through the position players. I'll be covering catchers next.