Closer Chronicle: Week 1

Hello, baseball. I’ve missed you. Despite your attempts to decimate every starting rotation this spring (sorry Braves and A’s fans), your arrival is an uplifting reminder — amidst busted brackets everywhere — that you truly are the only sport for me. I left off last year with a way-too early edition of the Closer Chronicle for 2014; looking back and now looking forward, I didn’t deviate too much from my late September rankings, but some new faces in new places I didn’t see coming left some of my best guesses looking foolish. Now that the closer landscape is set, let’s take a look at the first (real) edition of the Closer Chronicle for 2014.

Tier 1

Craig Kimbrel, Braves
Kenley Jansen, Dodgers
Greg Holland, Royals

A familiar fire baller is missing from the elite group of closers, making this tier a three-reliever affair. Aroldis Chapman suffered the spring’s scariest injury, taking a line drive off the head that will keep him out of action for at least 4-6 weeks. He would normally follow Kimbrel in the closer hierarchy; for now, he’s one of fantasy’s most valuable stashes. Kimbrel, Holland and Jansen all have the stuff to stick here for 26 weeks. Kimbrel and Chapman were the only two closers to accomplish that feat in 2013, and only an injury could knock Kimbrel from his perch. He’s still plenty young at 25 and just signed a four-year commitment to stay in Atlanta. He’s. Good. At. Baseball. It’s almost hard to believe that Jansen wasn’t the Dodgers closer to start 2013 — that honor went to Brandon League. Yes. That Brandon League. It didn’t take long for Don Mattingly to see the error of his ways, as Jansen collected 28 saves with 111 strikeouts and a 1.88 ERA. That’s elite. Holland was 2013’s American League version of Kimbrel; after a rocky start, he finished with a career-best 5.72 strikeout-to-walk ratio and finally looked comfortable in the ninth-inning. The only concern here is if past control issues resurface, but there’s every reason to believe that last year was no fluke.

Tier 2

Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals
David Robertson, Yankees
Koji Uehara, Red Sox
Jason Grilli, Pirates
Glen Perkins, Twins
Joe Nathan, Tigers

Rosenthal and Robertson have the shortest track records of any two closers in the second tier. Why are they ranked at the top? Because they can bring it, that’s why. Rosenthal struck out 108 in 75-plus innings in 2013, and the 23-year-old had the seventh highest swinging-strike rate (14.6 percent). His talent should propel him to Tier 1 sooner rather than later. Robertson waited patiently for the retirement of future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera, and now looks to be the next great stopper in New York. Those are some mighty big shoes to fill, but he strikes out better than 10 batters per nine and his walk rate has been solid for two years. You might have expected to see Uehara in the first tier, but last season’s numbers will put unfair expectations on the soon-to-be 39-year old. He threw 88 innings a year ago, including the postseason, and that much of a workload from a split-finger pitcher worries me. Grilli is old, too, and he hurt fantasy owners down the stretch by missing all of August with a right forearm strain. He’s as risky as they come in the health department, but before his DL stint Grilli was dominant with 30 saves in 31 attempts. You can always handcuff the Pirates closer with Mark Melancon. Perkins is the perfect example of waiting on closers, as he was consistently money (e.g., good) for the Twins. Even though he played for a bad team (and still does), he converted 36 save chances. Unfortunately, the secret is out and you won’t be able to get Perkins at a discount any longer. The Tigers’ offseason has been a head scratcher, from jettisoning Doug Fister to the Nationals and mishandling the Max Scherzer extension; Nathan takes over in Detroit, but he’s 39 and wasn’t the same guy in 2013. The velocity was down, the walks were up, and he’s not getting any younger.

Tier 3

Addison Reed, Diamondbacks
Sergio Romo, Giants
Jim Johnson, Athletics
Grant Balfour, Rays
Ernesto Frieri, Angels
Steve Cishek, Marlins

The third tier is the final tier where I feel 99.9 percent comfortable. As a Chicago native, I’ve seen the good and the bad from Reed. His bad just so happens to be over-the-top bad. A couple of stinkers, including this doozy against the Mariners, contributed to Reed’s season-ending 3.79 ERA. The move from Chicago to Arizona isn’t much of an improvement, but he’s reliable overall. Don’t let the bad times overshadow the good times. Romo is still very good. Consider this: Romo’s 2.54 ERA was his highest mark since 2011. It’s been under two twice and his peripheral numbers pretty much support it. He may not offer elite strikeouts anymore, but his control, ERA and WHIP more than make up for it. I always have a hard time ranking Johnson, but relocating to Oakland increases his value. Johnson has 101 saves since 2012, and that’s what it’s (mostly) all about. Balfour moves from the Bay to close out games for Joe Maddon’s Rays, but there’s real risk here — the ex-Athletics closer had a deal wiped away with the Orioles before signing with the Rays. Frieri should probably get more love and attention than he actually does; out on the west coast, he quietly picked up 37 saves to go along with 98 punchouts in 68-plus innings. His walk rate has declined in three straight seasons, so it will be interesting to see if the trend continues. I can see Cishek being this year’s Perkins. He pitches just as well, but playing for the Marlins deflates his perceived value. Sound familiar?

Tier 4

Jim Henderson, Brewers
John Axford, Indians
Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
Rafael Soriano, Nationals
Joakim Soria, Rangers

This is where it gets interesting for me. I’m a big fan of Jim Henderson and John Axford. It’s not a popular opinion, but I see too many fantasy owners ignoring the Brewers and ex-Brewers closer as viable end-game options. They are. Henderson doesn’t have a ton of competition for the job, and he should be a great source of strikeouts and saves for a team getting back its offensive firepower. Axford was not a fantasy factor in 2013; he stunk for Milwaukee and was overtaken by Henderson before ending up with divison rivals. In St. Louis, Axford reinvented himself — albeit for just 16 innings, including the postseason — and he has history (46 saves in 2011) on his side. Investing in Axford isn’t easy on the stomach, but I think he holds off Cody Allen. I don’t own a single share of Jonathan Papelbon or Rafael Soriano across eight leagues, and that’s by design. Both lost velocity in 2013, and I’m worried that their arms won’t hold up. I like Papelbon slightly better; if Soriano struggles, the Nationals have other options (Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard) to turn to. Soria emerged as Texas’ closer after Neftali Feliz gave Ron Washington no other choice. Feliz will start the season on the farm, and Soria’s leash should be fairly long. He hasn’t closed full time since 2011, but he was one of the best at it. Soria has a chance to shoot up these rankings; I just want to see it first.

Tier 5

Fernando Rodney, Mariners
Nate Jones, White Sox
Sergio Santos, Blue Jays
Bobby Parnell, Mets

Rodney saddened Danny Farquhar owners everywhere when he agreed to a two-year, $14 million contract to close for the new-look Mariners. I doubt Lloyd McClendon will be as patient with Rodney if he struggles initially, but I do see him yo-yoing was way to another 30 saves one way or another. He has 85 handshakes bow and arrows over the last two seasons, which helps make up for everything else (kind of). Jones has a chance to emerge as this year’s biggest draft-day bargain. He’s a safe bet for nine Ks per nine, and he keeps the ball on the ground at a 50.5 percent clip — that will work. Santos should fill in for Casey Jannsen, who will start the season on the 15-day DL. I’m not alone in thinking that he can keep the job with a quick start; if your mates aren’t paying attention, he is a must-add. Steve Delabar is another name to monitor in Toronto. Parnell’s velocity has been down all spring and Jose Valverde will step in to relieve him if needed. It’s a real bummer because Parnell is perfect for the job when healthy, but he can’t be totally trusted right now.

Tier 6 (next in line)

Huston Street (Joaquin Benoit), Padres
LaTroy Hawkins (Rex Brothers), Rockies
Jose Veras (Pedro Strop), Cubs
Tommy Hunter (Darren O’Day, Ryan Webb), Orioles
Chad Qualls (Josh Fields, Jesse Crain), Astros
J.J. Hoover (Manny Parra, Jonathan Broxton), Reds

Maybe I’m not giving Street enough credit, but the team’s signing of an elite set-up (Benoit) is a reminder of what we all know: Street is a banana peel away from landing on the disabled list… again. If you own Street, owning Benoit is a necessity. Hawkins surprised me last year; he’s not a conventional closer, but he has something left. It remains to be seen just how much of that something he has left, with Brothers ready to pounce. Watching Veras in the spring was an uncomfortable experience, but Chicago signed him to be the guy for 2014, and that’s worth something. I think Hunter is the first closer to lose his job with O’Day next in line — but it’s a very fluid situation in Baltimore. I don’t like Qualls all that much, but he’ll try to calm the storm before Crain returns from injury. Maybe he gets 5-10 saves… maybe. The Reds ninth inning is a mystery better left unsolved; expect a committee with a handful of bullpen arms getting save opportunities.

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