It's the beginning of a brand new season and doesn't it just smell like freshly cut grass and that moment after the rain stops?
So let's spoil it by trying to predict the future. Twice! First, I'll be tiering up your closers in an effort to give you a shot at predicting which relievers will be worth the most this year, and then I'll name the tiers after my predictions for the teams this year. And then finally I'll pick my steals sleepers from my pick for the overall winner.
I'll say this, though: probably better to just ignore the team stuff. It's easier to pick a good reliever than it is to predict what will happen between two teams in a five-game series, and that one-game playoff just mucks it all up.
Tier 1: Elite (3) (AKA: The "Rangers and Braves" Tier.)
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Hey look at that. Our world series teams have elite closers. That don't mean squat about the value of relievers, it just means those two teams are good from top to bottom.
This is how last season ended, and nothing has changed to make these guys worse. Sure, Joe Nathan is another year older, and that means something at 38, but he had what you might call 'ligament rejuvenation surgery,' or Tommy John in the parlance of our times. He's probably good for another couple of seasons, and his swinging strike rate was at a five-year high last season. He featured one of his better ground-ball and strikeout rates, and he generally avoided everything but the occasional solo homer.
Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman are monsters. They perhaps deserve to be in their own tier without the old man. And they would be, if they didn't both have a history of being wild. Nathan's control is much better, so his strikeouts minus walks can hang with the dynamic duo in the elite tier.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (8) (AKA: The "Tigers and Nationals" Tier.)
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Joel Hanrahan, Boston Red Sox
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
By projected wins above replacement, it's these two teams that should be the two best in the bigs this season. But the best teams don't always win. Just like we know that even though these are some of the best closers in baseball, they might not make it to the finish line.
Speaking of the finish line, it's tempting to put Mariano Rivera in the elite tier even in his final season. But he didn't look great this spring, and barely cracked 90 on the gun in some of his spring tuneups. And he never looks great in spring, and velocity doesn't seem to be that important to him. Bottom line is this -- he's 43. He hasn't given elite strikeout rates in a long time. If the control is off after what amounts to a year away from baseball, then the entire package won't be elite.
Look at Rafael Soriano. He's ten years younger and only three years removed from an elite strikeout rate. As is, he'll probably strike out more guys than Mo, as long as he stays healthy. In two out of the last five years, his elbow has barked and he's missed significant time. He's still a better bet for more innings than old man J.J. Putz. The 35-year-old in Arizona hasn't cracked 60 innings since 2007, and one projection system has him down for 43 innings this season. Hold your David Hernandez close.
Ahead of veteran Rafael Betancourt -- who has only the Rockies falling out of contention and trading his expiring contract to fear -- there are two young phenoms that are hurling their way up these tiers. Neither has always shown great control, but Greg Holland and Tom Wilhelmsen have nasty stuff. Since they are so cheap, and their teams seem to both respectively be 'going for it' this season, they are less likely to get moved. Even if Betancourt has them beat in the control category thrice over.
Much has been made of Joel Hanrahan's bad control last season, and his three-year low in velocity. But we can't forget that he still threw 96 mph on average, and he still had a double-digit strikeout rate. It's really the good walk rates 2010 and 2011 that were more surprising, given his history of control problems. One of the best walk rate peripherals is first strike percentage, though, and he's been average or better the last two seasons. If he can continue to get strike one, he'll be fine this year.
Ah, Fernando Rodney. I've spilled much ink on this, but I'll just say this. Dude's 36, and in the 430 innings he'd compiled before last season, he'd never once had an average walk rate. And twice he actually had a walk rate that was *twice the league average*. So I'll take the 430 innings, and his backers can say that he made real changes in his 74 2/3 innings last season, and we'll see what happens. Oh, and the Rays have never had a closer last more than one season in the history of their franchise. They feel about closers like we should: they're fungible.
Tier 3: OK options (9) (AKA: The "Angels and Giants" Tier.)
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
These teams are great. These teams also have question marks. The back end of the rotation in both cities. Some health and power question marks in both lineups. These closers are good. Some could be great. But they have question marks.
Like Jonathan Papelbon, owner of the only down arrow in the inaugural Saves and Steals. He has question marks. Like why is his velocity down all the way to 90/91 mph now? He was down last year, to 93.8 mph though. And it is spring, but the difference -- across the population of all pitchers -- between now and peak velocity (August) is only on the order of a half mile per hour. Papelbon is 32 and he might be showing his age. He'll move up if it was just a spring hiccup, but Mike Adams is on my radar. Right now.
Sergio Romo seems fine, but he doesn't have the velocity of a normal closer -- he barely cracks 90. He's also had elbow troubles in the past and throws the slider more than almost anyone in baseball. Frailty was once cited as the reason he wasn't the closer before, and it could be the reason he doesn't end the season as a closer this year.
Chris Perez is probably fine. Most of these guys are. Samesies for Addison Reed -- even if he hasn't quite lived up to the promise of his minor league numbers just yet -- and Grant Balfour, despite his age and team (the A's seem ready to move on to new closers fairly quickly). Huston Street's question mark is health -- he's a younger Putz. Jim Johnson needs strikeouts to climb tiers, and Glen Perkins and Steve Cishek mostly need their teams to provide opportunities.
Tier 4: Question marks (7) (AKA: The "Jays and Reds" Tier.)
Bobby Parnell, New York Mets
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Brandon League, Los Angeles Dodgers
Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates
John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Mitchell Boggs, St. Louis Cardinals
It could totally be a Jays and Reds series, is how crazy the postseason is. And actually, you could get an elite reliever out of this group. Bobby Parnell just needs the confidence of his team and a few more strikeouts, Ernesto Frieri just needs to keep the job all year, and John Axford needs to find the strike zone. Even Sergio Santos could make some hay -- Casey Janssen's stuff and whiff rate suggests his upside is second-tier worthy.
Captain Fastball, Bobby Parnell, hits triple digits on the gun all the time. Not usually with the first pitch of the game. Maybe this year, he'll warm up a little harder and come in guns blazing. Another strange thing is that he's had double-digit whiff rates (average is high eights), but has only once struck out a batter per inning. Maybe he chose some ground balls over strikeouts. In any case, if it's a "good control" year, then he could really rise in the rankings.
Ernesto Frieri is going to get a head start on Ryan Madson, who needs more time to recover from TJ. That might really be all Frieri needs to lock down the role. The number one question of saves prospecting is always: "Who's closing now?" There's no real reason to hate on Frieri, unless you stare too hard at his walk rate. He has velocity -- over 95 -- deception, and the whiffs to be elite.
Brandon League gets some whiffs, but they don't turn into strikeouts. But he does throw 95, and burns worms like no tomorrow. If he didn't have Kenley Jansen behind him, he'd be copacetic. But Jansen is a killer setup guy and will be breathing down his neck the first time League hits a bad spot.
Jason Grilli had a velocity bump… at 36. John Axford couldn't find the plate last year and didn't debut that awesome, either, giving up a home run on the first day to send the game into extras. Mitchell Boggs might only be a short-term solution, depending on how Jason Motte recovers.
Casey Janssen. For the last two years, he's overperformed his combination of swinging strikes and velocity. That could continue for the next 100 innings, or it could fizzle when people figure him out. I mean, for the most part, it's just 91-92 on the fastball, a cutter, and a curveball, and other than his control, there's not an elite rate on his stat page. Sergio Santos is the guy with the crazy strikeout rates and the great velocity and the impressive stuff. I'm still interested in Santos, but it's Janssen for now and that's battle number one.
Mitchell Boggs is closing in St. Louis, supposedly, but if Jason Motte is out for an extended period of time, it's Trevor Rosenthal -- with the booming fastball and the setup-man position right now -- that might challenge for the title.
Read more about the most volatile closer situations on the next page.
Tier 5: Rollercoaster rides (3) (AKA: The "Marlins and Astros" Tier.)
Joaquin Benoit (first chair), Phil Coke (second chair), Al Alburquerque (third chair), Detroit Tigers
Jose Veras (first chair), Rhiner Cruz (second chair), Hector Ambriz (third chair), Houston Astros
Carlos Marmol (first chair), Kyuji Fujikawa (second chair), Chicago Cubs
We'll just name this tier after the two teams that should challenge for the worst records in baseball. The Cubs are not here -- they have some nice pieces at first, short, and in the rotation. But their bullpen is here.
These bullpens are mostly in full-on crisis mode, and we're knee deep in the tea leaves here. The clearest winner of the tier might be the worst pitcher on the page -- Jose Veras might have to be a little bit lucky to keep his ERA under four and his WHIP under 1.4, but the rest of his pen is so terrible and/or unproven that he'll probably get some leash. He didn't look great in his first official outing as an Astro, but he did get three strikeouts in his inning, so at least the whiffs are still there. Rhiner Cruz is a former Rule 5 draft pick, but he has great velocity (95 mph) and had a good whiff rate in his first 55 major league innings. He also gave up a home run to Ian Kinsler yesterday. Most of the relievers that pitched yesterday gave up runs, so Wesley Wright has that going for him, as well as the fact that he's a LOOGY. Josh Fields is a dark horse, but Hector Ambriz didn't pitch. Maybe Ambriz was being saved for a close game!
Detroit already had a save situation, so we know they are doing the platoon thing. Phil Coke came on to get two outs -- a lefty (Justin Morneau) and as switch-hitter (Ryan Doumit). Odds are good that he'll get saves where the lefty is the final batter. But there are fewer lefties than righties, so who's the guy to get saves against righties? Coke's splits are not good. Al Alburquerque was a pre-season favorite, but he pitched in the seventh. So it looks like Joaquin Benoit -- even if he does have some problems with back-to-back days -- is the favorite for saves against right-handers in Detroit. Even against the "Who's closing now?" rule.
No idea who's closing in Chicago. But management there did tell Carlos Marmol to expect a trade, and then they removed him from his first save opportunity after he gave up a run on a walk and a hit in the ninth inning. The team was up 3-1 and they decided to go to the lefty (James Russell) for an out before going to their new closer, Kyuji Fujikawa, for the final out. We'll leave Marmol on top for now, but expect change here shortly. Fujikawa should be owned universally.
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Ryan Madson (elbow), Los Angeles Angels
Jason Motte (elbow), St. Louis Cardinals
Madson hopes to begin throwing in the next few days, but Motte won't even begin until mid-month perhaps. Maybe this is grimmer than the team let on at first.
Carlos Marmol?, Chicago Cubs
Any day now.
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The Steals Department
Look at the history of Andrelton Simmons with respect to speed, and you might not see it. He did steal 26 bags in 2011, but that was in High-A, and it was against 18 caught stealing. That 59% success rate wouldn't give you the green light in the big leagues, not on most teams. But things have changed a little since then. For one, Simmons is now on top of the Braves lineup. Despite not being the most patient hitter, he fits the high-contact, speedy profile the Braves were looking for in a leadoff guy, it seems. He'll get more chances to steal from the leadoff spot than the eighth, where National League teams are mostly content to move the runner over with a bunt. And if you watch Simmons, you know he is agile and fast. If he can turn that into the ability to steal bases, he could really add stolen bases in the future. For now, it's not outrageous to expect 20-25 steals along with barely-double-digit power, and plenty of runs. That's not worth a large investment, but it could turn a late pick into a very useful player. And if his team stays healthy all year and gets some good work from young pitchers, picking the Braves to win it all won't seem so crazy.
Jackie Bradley, Jr. is the helium sleeper, and he deserves to be. The Red Sox lefty outfielder made the team despite owning only 271 plate appearances above High-A, and then even got the start opening day despite a lefty being on the mound for the opposing team. That -- and the fact that he walked three times -- is great news for his owners, at least in on-base percentage leagues. He could hit anywhere from .260 to .300 depending on his batting average on balls in play. He does strike out a bit much, but the walks will give him a shot to steal more bases either way, and he's got some power. There aren't a lot of rookies that you could pencil in for .260/10/25 like this… other than maybe Simmons above. But if you missed out on the Bradley hype, you might be able to get 2/3 of his production from Leonys Martin. The Cuban is looking like he'll get the starts in center for the Rangers against righties. He also doesn't have a long track record in the minor leagues, and in the time he did have on the farm, his production oscillated greatly. He should actually strike out less than Bradley -- should -- and might have a better average. But he won't get on base as much and he won't steal as often.