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Tiering Contenders and Closers

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Tiering Contenders and Closers
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The tiers are back -- all of the closers, with a bonus of ranking the contenders

It’s a new season, time to break out the tiers. These tiers are named after the contenders for the World Series this year.

Hey, it’s the first edition, it’s novel enough to put the tiers out. Plenty of time left in a long season to be strange.


Editor's Note: For the latest rankings, projections, Tiers and more, get Rotoworld's Draft Guide.

Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The “Dodgers and Red Sox” Tier.)

Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox

I’m of the camp that thinks that *something* will find a way to derail this Dodgers team, despite all the cash that’s been pumped into it. After all, their starting second baseman on their Opening Day was released by the Mets, and their starting third baseman was Juan Uribe. But, in a league where the average team uses ten starting pitchers, their depth pieces now include Paul Maholm and Chad Billingsley behind Josh Beckett, and then ready youngsters Zach Lee and Matt Magill. That’s decent depth where it counts most, and their bullpen has three former closers in it… and the first or second-best closer in the game.

It’s just a coincidence, perhaps, that the other contender has their closer on this list. And I’ll admit to a little worry about Koji Uehara, too. He threw 86 innings last year and his previous career high in America was 68 in 2011. Oh and the last time he was coming off a career high in innings, he spent two months on the disabled list for a shoulder strain. There was always some worry about his ability to stay healthy, and some worry about the damage that the split finger does on your arm. If he goes down, it’s Junichi Tazawa that has more gas and more strikeouts than Edward Mujica, and he would be a competent fill-in closer himself. If there’s any worry about Greg Holland, it’s that his old control issues come up to bite him, but as long as he keeps throwing strike one (league average in his good years), he should be elite once again.

Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The “Nationals and Rays“ Tier.)

Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals
David Robertson, New York Yankees
Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Jim Johnson, Oakland Athletics
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates

This space was probably owned by the Texas Rangers before every Texas Ranger fell down the stairs and hurt themselves. That’s not to say the Rays aren’t a great team — with one of their better lineups in recent history and the customary good pitching — but there was something exciting about the Rangers when they actually had five good starting pitchers. The Nationals needed depth and signed one of the better fourth outfielders in baseball (Nate McLouth) and acquired perhaps the best fourth starter in baseball (Doug Fister). They might be ready.

On talent alone, Trevor Rosenthal should be in the elite tier. Already that makes him a good investment, because he’s got the talent to be elite but won’t cost the same as the top guys. But this ranking reflects the (perhaps small) risk that comes with investing heavily in a closer with three career saves. I mean, at least David Robertson has eight (!) career saves, and he’s been putting up double-digit strikeout rates with great command for a while now. Well, the command has been great for two seasons. No matter, there’s no *real* reason to doubt these two young closers atop the pile, but a lack of track record keeps them out of the elite tier for now.

Joe Nathan is still great, but there has been some degradation in the numbers. Not surprisingly, the 39-year-old showed his career-worst fastball velocity last season. Only once before had he gotten fewer swings and misses per pitch, too. And last year was the worst walk rate he’d had since he moved to the bullpen full time. He’s good, but 39 is awfully old, wrote the 34-year-old.

These “good, buts” continue into the bottom of the tier. Glen Perkins is good but his team may not give him much more than 35 save chances this season. Jim Johnson is good but he’ll strike out about twenty less batters than your average closer. Sergio Romo is good but struggles against left-handers and usually has a tender elbow period. Jason Grilli is great, but a late-career velocity spike, paired with missed time due to a forearm strain, that doesn’t speak well of his health. After all, nothing predicts future DL time for a pitcher like past DL time.

Tier 3: Okay Options (7) (AKA: The “Cardinals and Athletics” Tier.)

Grant Balfour, Tampa Bay Rays
Ernesto Frieri, Anaheim Angels
Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers
Addison Reed, Arizona Diamondbacks
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins

The National League seems a little tighter at the top, no? The Cardinals could be in the top spot, and they are perennial contenders based on their ability to develop arms like a factory. Seriously, pick a favorite between the Cardinals, Nationals and Dodgers, and you’ll be better off than trying to guess the second-best team in the American League. That team could be the Athletics despite the early injuries to their pitching staff. They, also, have a good supply of young arms and might be built to withstand the injuries.

Their former closer, Grant Balfour, was the average closer last year, so he’s got that going for him. But complaining of a dead arm in spring (after Baltimore nixed your deal for health reasons) doesn’t make for a great case for a better ranking. Ernesto Frieri struck more batters out than Balfour, but had a little bit of trouble holding onto his job at one point in the season. Ditto Jim Henderson, but Henderson is older and on a team that might provide fewer save chances. Addison Reed has the command to make him a bit better than average, but until he strikes out double-digit guys per nine, he won’t move up just yet.

And then you have the two veterans that should be ranked higher if their arms are fine. But I’m on record as being worried about both and their health. If they recover some of their lost velocity or whiffs — both had career lows in both of those categories last season — then maybe they’ll remind us of their excellence. But I need to see a little bit of health from them first.

Steve Cishek? Just an average closer on a really bad team with a little bit of trade risk if the team finds a buyer.

Read about the more volatile closer situations on the next page.

Tier 4: Question Marks (5) (AKA: The "Pirates and Rangers” Tier.)

Joakim Soria, Texas Rangers
Nate Jones, Chicago White Sox
John Axford, Cleveland Indians
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Rex Brothers, Colorado Rockies
Fernando Rodney, Seattle Mariners

You know, I actually like the Pirates to win their division and be really good this year. Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco are great backup plans, and we know that team already had a bunch of great pieces in place. But it’s always good to rein in your irrational exuberance (I use team projections for this) and just nudge the Pirates up a bit further than other people have them. The Rangers are broken but not done, not yet. If they can find a pitcher or two in their organization — I like Colby Lewis and Luke Jackson has some upside — they’ll be right there in a thick American League West race.

Joakim Soria was named the closer in Texas, and he has been good when healthy in the past. Perhaps he should be higher. But! Only once has he pitched more than 50 innings and had a double-digit strikeout rate, which are the harbingers of an average closer these days. He’s not projected to have a strikeout per inning (he is turning thirty and coming off his second Tommy John) and even though Neftali Feliz is in the minors and Tanner Scheppers is in the rotation (probably), there are some guys on that team that could step in should he falter.

Nate Jones? Mancrush. I touched on this in the AL Central writeup, but he’s one of two guys to have double-digit strikeouts per nine innings, above-average control, and a ground-ball rate over 50% last year. The other was David Robertson. I love these guys. Daniel Webb is interesting, Matt Lindstrom has closed before, but Jones should run with the job.

After a couple years of doubting Casey Janssen for over performing his swinging-strike rate, I’ll switch to doubting him for his health. We’ll see how this one goes. I’ve loved Sergio Santos for so long it seems wrong. I do count him as one of the better non-closers to pick up — along with Danny Farquhar, because I just don’t see Fernando Rodney’s walk-the-lineup crooked-hat crossbow thing really going over well if it includes a lot of early blown saves. And I *guess* Rex Brothers is only part of a tandem in Colorado, but let’s just say I don’t believe in a 41-year-old reliever that hasn’t struck out a batter per inning for a full season, ever. Hawkins has improved his ground-ball rate, but Brothers has the strikeouts you want from a closer, even if he’s left-handed.

Tier 5: Rollercoaster Rides (6) (AKA: The "Braves and Indians" Tier.)

Huston Street (first chair), Joaquin Benoit (second chair), San Diego Padres
Bobby Parnell (first chair), Gonzalez Germen (second chair), New York Mets
Tommy Hunter (first chair), Ryan Webb (second chair), Baltimore Orioles
Jose Veras (first chair), Pedro Strop (second chair), Chicago Cubs
J.J. Hoover (first chair), Manny Parra (second chair), Cincinnati Reds
Chad Qualls (first chair), Josh Fields (second chair), Houston Astros

The Braves and Indians have different flaws — the Braves have had some bad injury news this spring, while the Indians seem to lack star talent — but both are decent teams with a shot of getting into the playoffs and making some noise.

This tier, similarly, is full of two kinds of flaws. The first is health. Huston Street never pitches more than 50 innings these days, and last year showed his career-worst strikeout rate and career-worst fastball velocity, so age is coming for the 30-year-old. (And so is Joaquin Benoit, who provides a possibly better solution as a backup plan.) Bobby Parnell at 96+ mph should be up at least a tier. Bobby Parnell is throwing 89/90 right now. But with Vic Black in the minors and Gonzalez Germen struggling, there isn’t an obvious alternative. Jose Valverde was just added to the 40-man! This might be relevant!

Then there’s the Tommy Hunter situation. Maybe he should be in the ‘question mark’ tier because he’s most likely the closer in Baltimore, just one full of question marks. Hunter has been great in the pen — his fastball jumped more than your typical converted starter, and along with his curve made him a great eighth-inning guy — but he doesn’t really have a weapon against lefties. All of his homers last year were hit by lefties, and homers have actually plagued him his entire career. Given his home park, he’s iffy. Ryan Webb is a ground-ball dude in the Jim Johnson mold, they may end up giving him a shot if Bud Norris doesn’t need to move to the pen. If Norris does move to the pen, he has the skills to be a good closer.

And then you have your part-time closers. Well, Jose Veras should be fine for three months at least, but this ranking reflects the reality that his team will trade him as soon as someone is interested. He’s half a closer when seen in the context of the full season. J.J. Hoover is the bet here for closing for the Reds — Jonathon Broxton is hurt and Manny Parra is a lefty — but even if he takes over, he might only close for a month in the regular season. And a healthy Jesse Crain is the favorite for saves in Houston, unless Chad Qualls does well while he’s out and takes control of the role.

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Injured

Aroldis Chapman (face), Cincinnati Reds
Bobby Parnell (neck), New York Mets
Jesse Crain (calf, biceps), Houston Astros

Maybe we’ll see Chapman, ready to dominate again, in early May. Could happen, as gruesome as that looked. Parnell will probably make the roster, there’s no talk of him hitting the disabled list, but he belongs here as an asterisk. Jesse Crain needs to get healthy so that the Astros don’t have one of the worst bullpens in the history of baseball again.

The Deposed

Nine closers lost their jobs over the course of the season last year, and that didn’t quite count the guys that were out with injury. More than a third of the saves in your league will come off the wire. Don’t spend too much on closers, in related news.

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The Steals Department

Steals are down a bit across baseball, but if you hate getting speed-only guys as much as I do, you’ll have to find your steals where you can get them. The ultimate risky all-speed guy is Billy Hamilton, and he’s an enigma to project. He learned switch-hitting in the minor leagues, and his on-base percentage in Triple-A last year (.308) suggests that there’s more learning to be done. But he’s had better walk rates in the past! He may not hit for much power, but if he can walk 10% of the time, he could steal 100. It takes a perfect throw to get him, after all. Projections have Billy Hamilton at a .301 OBP and 67 steals (most in baseball), something that would probably be worth his fifth-round price in many leagues, but the risk has me reaching for alternatives. Cheaper alternatives in mixed leagues might be guys like Leonys Martin and Brett Gardner — get these guys much later in the draft and you’ll get your 60 steals with a little more power even. Maybe platoon a guy like Will Venable with one of them, and take advantage of their platoon splits for your benefit. Even Norichika Aoki — now with the go-go Royals — could steal 30 this year.

Deeper leaguers always have a harder time with this, but there are some speedsters than can help you even on the back-end of an ‘only’ draft. Robbie Grossman looks like he’ll start in Houston, and he could steal 20 easily. Abraham Almonte looks like the starter in Seattle’s centerfield, and he’s projected for 20. Aaron Hicks could still win the center field job in Minnesota, and he has speed if you can swallow the bad batting average. And, depending on how the Rockies’ outfield sorts out, Corey Dickerson and Drew Stubbs both have speed and are worth rostering until we know more.

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