Reality Check: Relievers are always a gamble
Of the 30 relievers who were expected to close entering 2012, only 16 finished with 20 or more saves.
The leader in saves -- Jim Johnson with 51 -- was widely considered the worst of those 30. Next in line -- Fernando Rodney with 48 -- wasn't even part of that group. And if he was, he would have been universally ignored as a 35-year-old with a career 4.29 ERA and 1.46 WHIP.
So naturally, he ended up being the top-ranked reliever in Head-to-Head leagues ... with a 0.60 ERA and 0.78 WHIP.
Of the top 12 closers drafted in Head-to-Head leagues, only six met the relatively low standard of finishing in the top 20. Five -- Mariano Rivera, Drew Storen, Brian Wilson, Andrew Bailey and Jordan Walden -- were good enough for 17 saves ... combined. The last of that group, Heath Bell, was so bad en route to his 19 saves that he's now in line to be a seventh-inning guy in Arizona.
I tell you this not so you'll begin to doubt our prognostication abilities, but so you'll realize just how flippin' unpredictable the relief pitcher position can be.
It's a crapshoot. A player's value is mostly dependent on whether or not he's in line for saves, and only 30 players can be in line for saves at any given time. If a team decides to make a change at closer, the player who loses the role immediately becomes worthless in standard mixed leagues, and the player who gains it is an instant stud off the waiver wire. Your hefty investment could be ruined by a manager's quick trigger -- or an injury or some other act of nature -- and if you're not the first to respond, the rewards could go to that guy who didn't even bother drafting a closer.
That's just the way it goes at the relief pitcher position. It bends the laws of Fantasy with its disregard for justice. Up is down. Down is up. The moon is made of margarine.
What a nightmare.
So as you peruse these rankings, remember to take them with a grain of salt. Don't feel like you need to be the one who drafts a top reliever at the expense of some other position, because chances are the bottom will actually be the top.
Johnson and Rodney, Class of 2012.
Top 12 relief pitchers for 2013:
1. Craig Kimbrel, RP, Braves
2. Aroldis Chapman, RP, Reds
3. Kris Medlen, SP/RP, Braves
4. Jonathan Papelbon, RP, Phillies
5. Jason Motte, RP, Cardinals
6. Fernando Rodney, RP, Rays
7. Mariano Rivera, RP, Yankees
8. Joe Nathan, RP, Rangers
9. Drew Storen, RP, Nationals
10. Jim Johnson, RP, Orioles
11. Ernesto Frieri, RP, Angels
12. Tom Wilhelmsen, RP, Mariners
The only two relievers who might be worth the extra dollar are Kimbrel and Chapman. Yes, the risk is the same for them as for any other reliever, but the reward isn't just a greater number of saves. Their percentages -- specifically ERA, WHIP and strikeout rate -- are in such a different class from every other reliever that they'd probably have a spot on a standard 12-team roster even if they had no chance for saves.
Some might prefer Chapman to Kimbrel, but I don't understand the logic there. Kimbrel edged Chapman in every statistical measurement but innings pitched, avoided those rough patches that Chapman endured from time to time, and has two years of closing experience instead of just one. In every way, he's safer, and in no way is he inferior. The threat of Chapman moving to the starting rotation should make the decision that much easier.
That's not to say a move to the starter role would ruin Chapman's Fantasy value. If that were the case, Medlen, who's now firmly entrenched as a starter, wouldn't be No. 3 on this list. Come season's end, he could conceivably be the top-ranking reliever. An elite starting pitcher easily outpaces an elite closer in standard Head-to-Head scoring, but of course, Medlen has yet to prove he's an elite starting pitcher. He has the makings of one, but Kimbrel and Chapman have slightly less potential to disappoint.
Medlen's dual eligibility also provides some context for when Kimbrel and Chapman should go off the board. Among starting pitchers, I rank Medlen 20th, so in relative terms, Kimbrel is about a Zack Greinke and Chapman a Johnny Cueto.
Moving on, the next real cause for debate is at pick No. 6, which is about as low as I'm willing to go on Rodney after the season he just had. (Kenley Jansen likely would have bumped him down a spot if the Dodgers hadn't paid $22.5 million to downgrade to Brandon League. Still fuming about that one.) Some might claim Rodney's 2012 is a fluke given his history, but judging by his dramatically improved walk rate, I'd say he's a changed pitcher. My biggest concern with him is that he'll be 36 in 2013.
Age is also a concern for the two pitchers behind them, but by now, I think we can trust Rivera and Nathan to do what they always do. Rivera I'm convinced can do it for as long as he wants. Word is he's at least considering retirement as he continues to rehabilitate his torn ACL, but as the rankings go, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. For the record, no one in the Yankees organization seems to be buying it.
Rounding out the top 12 is the sleeperific trio of Storen, Frieri and Wilhelmsen. All encountered some competition for their role in 2012, but by the end of the year, all three had put it to rest with the same kind of knockout stuff that could easily vault them to Papelbon-Motte territory in 2013. They may not be as established as some of the players behind them, but given that no pick is really safe at this position, you might as well gamble on the upside.
Some may feel like I've slighted Johnson by ranking him within that trio, but he's not getting 51 saves again. He only reached that astronomical number because the Orioles were winning a disproportionate number of close games in their miraculous march to the postseason. Reduce him to 35 saves or so, and his low strikeout rate makes him an unremarkable Fantasy reliever.
Next 12 relief pitchers for 2013:
13. J.J. Putz, RP, Diamondbacks
14. Joel Hanrahan, RP, Pirates
15. Alexi Ogando, RP, Rangers
16. Rafael Soriano, RP, Yankees
17. Huston Street, RP, Padres
18. Greg Holland, RP, Royals
19. Grant Balfour, RP, Athletics
20. Chris Perez, RP, Indians
21. Glen Perkins, RP, Twins
22. Shelby Miller, RP, Cardinals
23. John Axford, RP, Brewers
24. Casey Janssen, RP, Blue Jays
Putz and Hanrahan could have easily ranked in the top 12. They're safe and they're good. But I feel like their potential is limited to being just good and not great. Putz's percentages are terrific, but he hasn't thrown 60 innings in a season since 2007. His potential for injury only increases now that he's on the wrong side of 35. As for Hanrahan, he's on a team that can't decide if it wants to contend or not, which makes for some uneven save totals over the course of a season. Plus, the control problems from earlier in his career showed up again in 2012.
Soriano has the potential to be the biggest riser or faller at the position, depending on what happens to him this offseason. If he rejoins the Yankees to set up for Rivera, forget it. He doesn't belong in the top 24. If he signs elsewhere to serve as the closer, though, I'd be willing to bump him up to 10th on this list. Frankly, I could see it going either way. I don't suspect he'll get more on the open market -- at least per season -- than the Yankees' $13.3 million qualifying offer.
I like that Holland is low enough on this list to qualify as a sleeper still. I'm thinking the stigma of closing for the Royals will keep him there. His Papelbon-like strikeout rate has me believing he's poised for a big step forward this year. Joakim Soria isn't far enough along in his recovery from Tommy John surgery to pose a real threat.
Apart from Holland, Perkins might be my favorite "sleeper" closer. The only reason he ranks so low is because the Twins have been hesitant to commit to him in that role, presumably because he throws left-handed. They had more or less turned it over to him by the end of last year, and he did exactly what you'd expect him to do with it, posting a 1.93 ERA and 0.58 WHIP in 31 second-half appearances. Still, until their offseason is over, I'm not assuming he's the guy. Did I mention the Dodgers recently bumped Jansen for League? For shame.
Miller probably catches your attention. Of course, he'll be starting, not closing, which puts him, Ogando and Medlen in the same category. None of the other projected starting pitchers with relief pitcher eligibility -- a group that includes Dylan Bundy, Hisashi Iwakuma, Andrew Cashner and Garrett Richards, among others -- made the cut. Because starters tend to outscore closers, pitchers with dual eligibility are of great interest to Head-to-Head owners, who often target them two or three rounds earlier than they otherwise would. Miller's elite pedigree and strong September showing make him a candidate for that treatment and, in some people's estimation, an underrated option here. But Matt Moore reminded us last year why we should exercise caution when drafting those players. Just because he's pitched a dozen major-league innings doesn't mean he's a proven commodity.
Once Miller goes off the board, I'd advise picking your favorite from the rest of the bunch. Little distinguishes Axford or Janssen from Andrew Bailey, Addison Reed, Rafael Betancourt, Steve Cishek, a still-recovering Brian Wilson, or any of the other projected closers who just missed the cut. All come with some element of risk and some element of reward. I personally think Axford has a bounce-back season in him, and, as with Perkins, I'd love what Janssen brings to the table if I trusted the Blue Jays to commit to him in the role. That's me, though. To a certain extent, you just have to trust your instincts.
Want another name to consider? The Tigers have already nominated Bruce Rondon as a candidate to replace the soon-to-depart Jose Valverde. Check out his minor-league numbers and tell me you're not intrigued.
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