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Mariano Rivera, Yankees Mariano Rivera remains the safest bet in the closing ranks. He's the man in the Yankees' bullpen and that will only cease when he wishes it to end. While there is some concern with the Rivera's strikeout rate dipping significantly from his career average of nearly 9 per nine innings to less than 7, he is the closer on the most talented team in the land. Despite a low 33 save total in 2010 while being remarkably effective (.833 WHIP!), Rivera is going to be amongst the league leaders in saves, and there is no reason to expect otherwise in 2011.
Carlos Marmol, Cubs Carlos Marmol is a strikeout machine with his nasty slider and swinging fastball. That comes at the cost of some control, but Marmol is certainly up there with the elite closers already. I don't expect him to repeat his 16 K/9 rate of 2010, but he'll likely lead all closers by a sizeable margin again. The Cubs had some terrible luck last season, so I expect Marmol to have more save chances in 2011. If utilized correctly, Marmol's immense amount of strikeouts can be very valuable on your team. He also won't kill you in other areas, unless your league counts walks as a specific stat. If that's the case, then avoid Marmol like the plague.
Joakim Soria, Royals Joakim Soria would be the consensus No. 1 closer if fantasy baseball was purely based on performance. He is the elite combination of having control, and getting men out and strikeouts. Soria is a rare closer who uses many pitches, a true pitcher on the mound who creatively uses off-speed pitches against righties and an imposing curve that locks up lefties. Unfortunately, Soria is stuck on the crappy Royals. Soria did manage to get 43 saves last season somehow on a bad team, but I wouldn't bet on him continuing to save nearly 70 percent of the Royals' wins in the future. If you want a quality pitcher, or are in a league where singular performance is more heavily weighted, Soria is the guy you want.
Heath Bell, Padres Heath Bell has accrued 89 saves in the last two seasons, and had a great strikeout rate greater than 11 last season. However, there are some questions which remove Bell from my top spot. First, is he truly a quality closer? Bell's WHIP has been greater than 1.2 for the past three seasons - not a shutdown closer by any means. Also, how bad might the Padres be in 2011? They gave up Adrian Gonzalez for little. Their lineup looks putrid. Can Bell still rack up saves on a team that may win fewer than 70 games? I have some doubts, but Bell should still be effective with lots of strikeouts.
Neftali Feliz, Rangers Neftali Feliz broke on the MLB scene impressively in 2010 shutting down everyone with 40 saves and a sub-.89 WHIP. The question is if that continues. There are control doubts; in the minors, Feliz was terribly wild averaging more than four walks per nine. That immediately dropped in the twos when he hit the majors. Even if some wildness issues return, Felix can be effective on one of the best teams in baseball. But, there is some risk of a sophomore slump, as often happens when batters "catch up" to his fastball nearing 100 MPH.
Brian Wilson, Giants Brian Wilson had a spectacular 2010 campaign on the World Series champs. He led the NL with 48 saves, and was money the entire magical offseason. Wilson has been fairly erratic during his career, and relies heavily on throwing upper-90s heat, so I question if he can maintain the pace. My main reason for negativity toward Wilson is that he's likely to go earlier than he should due to his great 2010, and your average Joe Shmoe knows him and likes him because he's a goof. I expect Wilson to return closer to his 2009 performance. While that's still quite good, it does not make Wilson a elite closer.
Andrew Bailey, Athletics Andrew Bailey has been an extremely effective reliever since coming up to the majors in 2009 with a sub-1 WHIP. The question is if he can stay healthy as a full-time closer, accruing 25 saves last year before some elbow trouble. Bailey's elbow seems fine now, but those types of injuries are always a concern. Otherwise, he's on a mediocre Athletics team and his strikeout rate is not elite. His fantasy upside is limited, but Bailey just gets guys out.
Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox Jonathan Papelbon is regarded as one of the best closers in baseball, but he did not live up to that moniker last season. His control has inexplicably dropped the last 1.5 seasons which has significantly affected his performance. That being said, Papelbon is the sure closer on a great team and he strikes many men out. You can't go too wrong by selecting Papelbon, but don't take him too early.
Jonathan Broxton, Dodgers Jonathan Broxton has been mocked among the top closers since he obtained the Dodgers' full-time closing job in 2009, largely due to his exorbitant K rate (over 11 per nine for his career). However, he struggled mightily in the 2nd half of 2010. How much stock should you put into this? Broxton's .366 BABIP in 2010 was 50 points higher than at any point of his career. His K/BB rate did not significantly decline, so I do not assume Broxton is finished. Broxton should be great value in your draft, despite being fatter than JaMarcus Russell.
Jose Valverde, Tigers Jose Valverde doesn't strike one as a model of consistency. His control breaks down at times, he has that strange motion, and has been bounced around the league the last few years. But, he has been a solid closer since his horrific 2006 season in Arizona. Valverde gives you a consistent 1.1 WHIP and over a strikeout per inning, and he should be closing for one of the better teams in the league this season with the Tigers.
Huston Street, Rockies Huston Street is a closer with excellent control and uses placement with his slider and change to get hitters out, unlike most closers today who use pure power. The negative with this is Street does get hit around more than you'd like, and his K rate is not among the elite. There is some concern that Street could lose his job with recently obtained Matt Lindstrom and Rafael Betancourt. Huston Street is a safe option, however I would avoid him drafting him at the slot he is going in most leagues.
John Axford, Brewers John Axford may not be a household name, but he came on strong in the 2nd half of 2010. Axford has earned the closing job for the Brewers, who seem poised to make a run this year. Axford provides a strong K rate, although his lack of control is concerning. If things go bad, the Brewers could turn the newly signed and ancient Takashi Saito. However, the upside is quite high with Axford, and he may be available late in your draft.
Chris Perez, Indians Chris Perez finally emerged as a closer last season in Cleveland after the stubborn Tony La Russa wasted him in St. Louis. Perez may have been fortunate with 1.71 ERA last season, but he has quality stuff. Perez' K/BB rate may not be impressive, but he is the solid closer for the Indians in 2011. At this point in your draft, you're just looking for the best bets to get saves.
Joe Nathan, Twins Joe Nathan was a mainstay at the top of the closer rankings every season until Tommy John surgery after the 2009 season. Nathan has impressed thus far in Spring Training, but the Twins spent $7M to keep Matt Capps in their pen after a fine 2010 campaign as the closer with 42 saves, so Ron Gardenhire can afford to be cautious. If Nathan gets the full-time closing job, he'll likely be great again, but that's a big IF for the entirety of the season.
Brad Lidge, Phillies Brad Lidge is a risky pick to make every year. He lives and dies with the location of his unhittable slider. He can be dominating one month then get destroyed the next. So far this spring, Lidge has been on the bad side. The ceiling is so high for Lidge that the risk is worth it at this range, though. His K rate is high, and he's currently the closer on the best team in the NL. Have your finger on the waive button, though.
J.J. Putz, Diamondbacks J.J. Putz is another power closer that relies on high-90s heat and a splitter. He had one great year as a closer in Seattle, and has struggled with injuries and inconsistency since then. It appears Arizona has given Putz another chance at a solid closing job this year. If Putz can remain healthy, he figures to be a good option for saves and Ks.
Francisco Cordero, Reds Francisco Cordero has long been one of the most undeserving closers in the league. His 4 year/$46M contract with the Reds is a joke, but he gets saves year after year. The question is if that continues in 2011. Aroldis Chapman known for his 100+ MPH fastball waits in the wings, and he likely will be a while longer. Cordero won't give you pretty stats, but he gets saves.
Matt Thornton, White Sox Matt Thornton was the long-time set-up man for Bobby Jenks, and his time to close may have finally arrived. Thornton relies entirely on locating his fastball, and he's done so quite well for years; he's been among the best middle receivers in the league for the last few years. If Thornton can maintain the closer role over Chris Sale, I like him plenty. But, you just never know with Ozzie Guillen.
CP Dad Hitter, Mets CP Dad Hitter (a.k.a. Francisco Rodriguez) is a pile of garbage who will likely play a limited amount this season because the Mets would be forced to keep him in 2012 for $17M if he pitches in 55 games. There is also a high probability he'll assault someone again. CP Dad Hitter isn't worth the headache; there's no upside in save potential. Let someone else take him earlier than they should.
Brandon Lyon, Astros Brandon Lyon is a mediocre reliever with meager save experience, thus he's likely to hold the Astros' closing job despite struggling this spring. Lyon is only useful for collecting saves.
David Aardsma, Mariners David Aardsma has been a surprisingly effective reliever for the Mariners during the past two seasons. He doesn't have overpowering stuff - mainly throwing a low-90s fastball - but he's been getting the job done. Aardsma is coming off a hip injury, so he may be eased back into the closer role.
Joel Hanrahan, Pirates Joel Hanrahan throws in the upper-90s and strikes many men out. The problem is that he's not very good, and gives up a bunch of homers. He also has Evan Meek and Sean Gallagher on his tail, and the Pirates are a waste of a franchise. If Hanrahan can maintain the closer's job, he becomes valuable with his strikeout rate.
Craig Kimbrel, Braves Craig Kimbrel is a hard-throwing righty who is in competition with lefty Jonny Venters for the closing role. Kimbrel has more upside as he's had a stunning strikeout rate thus far in his early career, along with major control issues.
Leo Nunez, Marlins Leo Nunez has been the Marlins' closer for two years, but he allows a fair amount of men on base. Florida traded for hard-throwing side-armer Ryan Webb last season, who figures to earn his chance eventually. Not a great situation for saves here.
Jake McGee, Rays Jake McGee has the potential to be a fine closer with his blazing fastball that seems like it shoots out of his hand. But he's just a one-pitch guy at this point in his career. JP Howell and Kyle Farnsworth (yuck) could take the role. McGee is a player to watch.
Kevin Gregg, Orioles Kevin Gregg was a desperate signing for the Orioles in a reach for saves. Japanese star Koji Uehara projects to be a better closing option with his phenomenal control, but he continues to have elbow problems. Looks like the crappy Orioles are stuck with Gregg. Stay away.
Fernando Rodney, Angels Fernando Rodney looks to be the Angels' closer for now, but he sucks. He throws a low-90s fastball with poor control, doesn't strike guys out, and that's about it. The Angels have Scott Downs and Kevin Jepsen who could take the job, but they're not good either.
Octavio Dotel, Blue Jays The Blue Jays' closer situation is a mess. It could be Dotel, Frank Francisco or Jason Frasor getting the job. I'm expecting a closer by committee situation. Dotel has the most upside as he has an impressive strikeout rate.