Reality Check: Early look at relief pitchers

2014 Early Positional Rankings

C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | OF | SP | RP

It's fun, isn't it?

Projecting the relief pitcher position this time of year is a bit like trying to bluff your way through a chemistry exam. Only one pitcher can close for each team. Pick the wrong one, and the whole school is on fire.

Particularly in an offseason when so many incumbent closers -- from Grant Balfour to Joaquin Benoit to Fernando Rodney -- are entering free agency, all you can do is take your best guess.

Redeeming the situation somewhat is a group that colleague Nando Di Fino has termed "SPaRPs," hoping to save everyone the trouble of spelling out "starting pitchers as relief pitchers" time and time again. Because a good starting pitcher tends to outscore even the best closers, SPaRPs are usually in high demand in Head-to-Head points leagues.

Of course, not all SPaRPs become good starting pitchers. Only so many are deserving of top-24 status, particularly with the quality of closers in the game today.

Top 12 relief pitchers for 2014:
1. Craig Kimbrel , RP, Braves
2. Aroldis Chapman , RP, Reds
3. Greg Holland , RP, Royals
4. Kenley Jansen , RP, Dodgers
5. Joe Nathan , RP, Rangers
6. Jason Grilli , RP, Pirates
7. Koji Uehara , RP, Red Sox
8. Sergio Romo , RP, Giants
9. Glen Perkins , RP, Twins
10. Jonathan Papelbon , RP, Phillies
11. Addison Reed , RP, White Sox
12. Jim Johnson , RP, Orioles

Remember the way relief pitcher looked coming into 2013? It was basically Craig Kimbrel , Aroldis Chapman and everyone else.

But a funny thing happened over the course of the year. In a departure from conventional wisdom, which had always said those who haven't done it shouldn't do it, one team after another turned its closer role over to its most overpowering reliever, making the position as deep as it's ever been in Fantasy.

So while Kimbrel and Chapman are still at the top heading into 2014, "everyone else" begins with a pitcher who actually outperformed Kimbrel in WHIP (0.87 to 0.88) and strikeout rate (13.8 per nine to 13.2 per nine) while equaling him in ERA (1.21) in 2013.

And Holland is just the tip of the iceberg. Jansen trailed only Chapman in strikeouts among true relievers while compiling a 0.86 WHIP of his own. Uehara, who also broke the century mark in strikeouts, led everybody with a 1.09 ERA and set a record for pitchers with at least 50 innings with a 0.57 WHIP. And Grilli was actually the most productive of the bunch before battling injuries in the second half.

So why keep Kimbrel and Chapman at the top? Well, reliability still counts for something. Neither disappointed in 2013, and both have performed at that level for multiple years now while some of those others are just getting started. Or just finishing up, perhaps. Given his extensive injury history, Uehara is no lock for a repeat performance at age 39, and Grilli, who did finally return from his strained forearm in September, is also in the twilight of his career at age 37. Both deserve some measure of caution even if the potential rewards are great.

In short, Kimbrel and Chapman remain the safest of the bunch, and if you're going to shell out for a top-tier closer, you want to make sure you get your money's worth.

Of course, looking at the quality among the second and third tier, shelling out may not be the most advisable strategy. In terms of peripherals, Perkins is actually closer to the top tier than not coming off a year in which he produced a 2.30 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings, but on a rebuilding club with little in the way of a pitching staff, he'll struggle to get another 36 saves. I give the edge to Romo, who'll get save chances by the bushel if the Giants bounce back as expected and whose previous years as a setup man suggest he's capable of even better than the 2.54 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings he compiled in 2013.

Those who owned Papelbon in 2013 are sure to pass him up at No. 10 after he did his best to sabotage them with only nine saves and a 3.91 ERA after the All-Star break. With his stuff on the decline at age 33, I'll admit he's something of a risk here and am willing to drop him as low as 15th depending on how things shake out in spring training, but a better bridge from the starting pitchers to him would make a big difference. Reed, despite his potential, continues to underwhelm in ERA and now finds himself in the unfortunate position of closing for a rebuilding club.

At a time when overpowering closers are the norm, Johnson is sort of an odd fit for the role and may have even cost the Orioles a playoff spot with a couple of meltdowns in 2013. They may look into replacements this winter, but if they stick with him for this one last year before free agency, he should deliver another big saves total. The Orioles are seemingly built for close games.

Next 12 relief pitchers for 2014:
13. David Robertson , RP, Yankees
14. Trevor Rosenthal , RP, Cardinals
15. Rafael Soriano , RP, Nationals
16. Steve Cishek , RP, Marlins
17. Grant Balfour , RP, Athletics
18. Joaquin Benoit , RP, Tigers
19. Alex Wood , SP/RP, Braves
20. Tyson Ross , SP/RP, Padres
21. Brett Anderson , SP/RP, Athletics
22. Casey Janssen , RP, Blue Jays
23. Rex Brothers , RP, Rockies
24. Hector Santiago , SP/RP, White Sox

Again, I'll remind you that projecting closers at this stage of the offseason is little more than a guessing game, which only works against Robertson and Rosenthal here. Both have the potential to perform like top 10 relievers, with Rosenthal making a good first impression this postseason, but with so many closers available in free agency, I'll curb my enthusiasm for now.

Robertson, as any Yankees fan will remind you, lost out to Rafael Soriano when Mariano Rivera suffered a torn ACL in 2012. I'm of the belief he deserves a longer look than he had then, especially given his work in a setup role, but if any team has the luxury of spending on a "proven" closer, it's the Yankees. Even if the Cardinals don't go that route, they have a few internal options that could give Rosenthal a run next spring, particularly if the Cardinals consider moving the young right-hander to the rotation again.

Balfour and Benoit are kind of in the same boat. They don't have as much potential as Robertson and Rosenthal at this stage of their careers, but I'd be higher on them if I knew where they stood heading into 2014. Both are free agents, and while both have shown the ability to close, both have spent most of their careers as setup men and may find more of a market for that role.

Of course, taking the middle ground with them doesn't make much sense. Either they're in and worth drafting, or they're out and not worth drafting. But the two guys ahead of them aren't exactly space-fillers. Soriano I'm convinced is on the decline, but with a big contract on an expected contender, he's a good bet for 40 saves regardless. Cishek dominated with a 0.96 ERA after the All-Star break. He obviously suffers from a poor supporting cast, but it's more likely to get better than worse in 2013.

Finally, the SPaRPs come into play with Wood, who had a Tony Cingrani -like minor-league career and some definite high points as a part-time starter for the Braves in 2013. If Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm both sign elsewhere, he has a job to lose. He's certainly not as proven as Anderson, but let's not forget why Anderson is eligible at relief pitcher to begin with. It was the only role available for him after he missed most of 2013 with injuries, which has become all too common for him. Ross and Santiago also flashed some potential in 2013, but Wood has them beat in terms of upside.

Here's the most telling sign of just how prevalent the dominant closer has become in today's game: Janssen, coming off back-to-back seasons with a WHIP below 1.00, ranks only 22nd among relief pitchers. Look, not everybody can be in the top 10. His recent shoulder issues are reason enough to downgrade him, given the competition. Brothers, a swing-and-miss lefty, might also seem undervalued at No. 23 given how long everyone has waited to see him closing games, but when you consider all who didn't make the cut -- such as Fernando Rodney , who finished No. 1 in Head-to-Head leagues in 2012, Huston Street , who's a lock to close in a pitcher's park, Ernesto Frieri , who averaged 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings in 2013, and Danny Farquhar , who had a 2.38 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings after taking over as Seattle's closer in August -- it's hardly a slight.

Also, think of some of the SPaRPs I had to exclude. Obviously, if Kevin Gausman and Carlos Martinez win rotation spots this spring, they'll be in the top 24 on upside alone. Tyler Thornburg had a 2.16 ERA in four starts for the Brewers down the stretch. Brandon Workman , after some fine relief work this postseason, should get a look for a rotation spot in spring training. I'd keep a close eye on them, particularly in the Head-to-Head leagues where SPaRPs are so valuable.

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