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Shutdown Corner: Old Closers

Hello, fantasy players and baseball fanatics. I'm Bryan Grosnick, and you may remember me from last season's Injury Watch column here at RotoAuthority. I also write about non-fantasy baseball at a host of other sites, including Beyond the Box Score, The Platoon Advantage, and Amazin' Avenue. But, enough about me. I've been tasked with filling the impressive shoes of the talented Dan Mennella, who handled the Closer Watch updates with aplomb at RotoAuthority last season.

On Fridays, now you can expect a new closer-focused column: Shutdown Corner. At SC, I'll be breaking down the fantasy implications for all late-inning relievers, and I'll be taking a slightly sabermetric tack. We'll use observation, inside info, and the best advanced stats to help you make the best decisions about who to draft, trade, add, and drop for your fantasy bullpen.

So, to get us started, I'm going to pick the top five closers who hold the same position they did last season, with the same team. These are the guys that you (probably) can rely on to give you a host of saves, just as long as they stay healthy and effective. But I see these five as pretty safe bets.

#5 - Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners

You can consider this my "dark horse" candidate, but Tom Wilhelmsen was quite a revelation as the Mariners' closer in 2012. The former bartender logged 29 saves in 73 games, posting a 2.50 ERA and 2.89 FIP. A major contributor to his success: a nifty 26.7% strikeout percentage.

So why Wilhelmsen as a solid pick for 2013? Well, that strikeout rate played in both his limited 2011 and in 2012. And I don't see any reason for the Mariners to replace him. Perhaps they could move him in a trade if the price is right, but Wilhelmsen is both cheap and effective, someone that the Mariners would enjoy keeping. He'll be a nice fit for any fantasy squad.

#4 - Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals

I don't know about you, but to me it seems that Jason Motte has been the Cardinals' closer for years now. In truth, 2012 was the first full season with Motte working the ninth inning, and it was his best to date. Motte scored 42 saves while striking out over a batter per inning, posting a 2.75 ERA. Homers were his downfall, as Motte gave up nine in just 72 innings of work. But even so, they didn't kill his fantasy line, and his rate of fly balls to home runs was high enough that it could drop for the upcoming season. If so, he could be even better than before.

Despite the Cardinals having other live arms (such as fireballer Trevor Rosenthal) in the bullpen mix for next season, Motte has done everything he's needed to do to hang on to his spot as stopper. His combination of relative youth, strikeout stuff, and cost control make him a valuable real-world closer, and one who's likely to be very solid in fantasy for next season.

#3 - Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers

Did you expect Joe Nathan to return to his pre-Tommy John form so quickly? Or ever? Me neither. During the first season back from TJ, a pitcher usually struggles to regain command and control. And Nathan wasn't exactly his old self in 2011, striking out fewer, walking more, and giving up a host of homers. 

But 2012, Nathan's first as a Ranger, was a different story. His control was stellar, walking just 5.1% of batters faced, a career low. His K% rebounded as well, to 30.4% in his 64 1/3 innings. So despite his advancing age, Nathan looks as sharp as he's had in years. He managed 37 saves in 2012, and I think that you could expect more of the same this season.

#2 - Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies

When the Phillies laid out $50 million over four years to sign Jon Papelbon away from Fenway Park, they were expecting someone consistent (and excellent) to hold down the ninth inning. One year into the deal, initial returns are very good. Papelbon had a season very much in line with his career norms and the Phillies' expectations, notching 38 saves.

It's worth noting that, while Papelbon has managed over 30 saves in every season since 2006, this season was a slight improvement over most of his career numbers. Almost everything seemed to break his way, from K% (32.4%), to ground ball percentage (41.5%), to left-on-base percentage (83.8%).

The only real concern for JP is the longball, especially in cozy Citizens Bank Park. In his first year with Philadelphia, Papelbon gave up homers on 12.1% of fly balls, which is a career high. So long as Jonathan can keep the ball in the park at this rate or lower, while still racking up the Ks and limiting walks, he'll be worth that massive contract.

... at least for one more year.

#1 - Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves

It's rare for a closer to have a "historical" season, but that's exactly what Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves did in 2012. In addition to posting over 40 saves for the second straight season (42 if you're counting, and I am), Kimbrel struck out an unreasonably large amount of hitters. To be specific, Kimbrel fanned 116 in just a hair under 63 innings. By strikeout percentage, that means Kimbrel fanned 50.2% of the batters he faced, or just over half!

Here's a quick list of all the relievers who've put up better strikeout percentages in baseball history:

That's right, no one. The next guy up on the leaderboard is Eric Gagne's 44.8% K-rate from his otherworldly 2003 season. Kimbrel just annihilated the old record. And when you post a strikeout rate like that, the other stats just fall into place. 1.01 ERA? Check. 0.65 WHIP? Check.

You cannot stop him. You can only hope to contain him. Craig Kimbrel probably won't be this good again in 2013, because, really, no one ever has been this good before. But he'll still likely be the best closer in baseball for a second straight season. The only question you should have is will he be worth a premium pick in your draft, even though he's only a closer.

Throughout the 2013 season, you'll be able to find all sorts of articles about late-inning relievers here at Shutdown Corner, posting each Friday. But if that isn't quite enough for you, don't forget to check out the @closernews Twitter feed. I'll be helping to manage that feed, which will help you stay up-to-date on all news related to your favorite stoppers. Oh, and you can also follow me at @bgrosnick, if you're so inclined. 

All stats come from FanGraphs.

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