Shutdown Corner

Shutdown Corner: Handicapping the Tigers Bullpen

During our breakdown of the different divisions, I basically stated that the Detroit Tigers closer situation is a crapshoot. With incumbent closer Jose Valverde potentially out of baseball, the Tigers are looking to pull someone out of their bullpen morass and anoint a new closer. Given that the Tigers look to be very competitive again in the 2013 season, fantasy owners want to draft this team's closer, as they chase their saves.

In an attempt to give you the best shot at squeezing value out of the Tigers' relief situation, I'd like to provide my own odds as to who is the closer for the brunt of the season. Most of this info is based on a combination of projected effectiveness, as well as projected use.

5% chance of closing: someone not mentioned below already in the Tigers organization

You've always got to put some money on the field, in cases like this. The Tigers have a number of people who are competing for a long-relief bullpen slot (Drew Smyly, perhaps Rick Porcello) or toiling in Triple-A. I wouldn't bet on any of these folks garnering time at the back of the bullpen, but you never know.

5% chance of closing: Phil Coke

Coke has done a pretty okay job as a reliever for the Tigers, but he has a few strikes against him. First, he's a lefty, and lefties don't close very often. Second, Coke doesn't have the wipeout stuff most teams look for in a closer. What he does have is tenure, and that appears to be valued by some managers. But more than likely, he'll be the primary lefty setup man, and not a serious contender for saves. (Holds are another matter entirely.)

5% chance of closing: Brayan Villareal

Villareal did a very nice job over nearly 55 innings last season for Detroit, posting a 29.2% strikeout rate and a 2.63 ERA. The real reason I don't see him getting so much consideration is that he's been dealing with some elbow soreness during the offseason. He's still kind of a young guy, so I could see someone with more experience getting the job over him ... and the top contender for the spot is like an amped-up version of him at this point. We'll get to that in a minute.

10% chance of closing: someone currently outside the Tigers organization

Last year, the Tigers waited until the "last minute" to add Prince Fielder to an already-stacked team. Who's to say that the team doesn't do something similar during Spring Training of this season. There've been rumors linking the currently-unemployed Brian Wilson to the team recently, and while I'm not sure that'll happen, it's a possibility. There's also the possibility that the team will make a deal mid-season, and that this person will end up leading the team in saves. When in doubt, say "I don't know" and move on.

10% chance of closing: Octavio Dotel

Each of the next three guys brings something to the table: strikeouts. In truth, Dotel gets a ton of Ks, but not as many as the guys after him on the list. Beyond that, he's a wanderer, having spent his career with nearly a dozen teams, his K-rate has dropped a bit, and he's entering his age-39 season. While the Tigers are likely to go with whomever is the best pitcher as closer, I'd have a tough time imagining that Dotel will get the position for full season, and then the Tigers might have to look again for options for 2014.

15% chance of closing: Al Albuquerque

Albuquerque has one thing in particular going for him: a righteous career ERA of 1.59. His FIP (2.11) tells the story of someone who didn't *quite* pitch that well, but those rate stats in his limited action of 56+ innings speak to real talent. But Albuquerque hardly pitched in 2012, and though his strikeout numbers are great, he may not be considered reliable enough to hold down the ninth inning.

25% chance of closing: Joaquin Benoit

Yawn. Joaquin Benoit is actually pretty boring, especially for a guy who strikes out a bunch of guys (29.2% K-rate last season), and gives up more than a few homers (1.77 HR/9 in 2012). But he's boring because he's relatively consistent on a season-to-season basis, and he's been around for a while. Though he had a down 2012, Benoit brings the combination of capability and tenure to a Tigers team looking for both, and that makes him an attractive option as an early-season closer. If he can stay consistent and maintain his recent increase in strikeout rate, I could see him riding out the whole season as the stopper for the Tigers.

25% chance of closing: Bruce Rondon

The prohibitive favorite for the position, Rondon brings prospect shine and the unearthly stuff to the discussion. Going into Spring Training, he's considered by many to be the likely guy for the ninth, despite having never thrown a major-league inning. Rondon brings 100 mph heat, but the problem is that no one is quite sure where the ball will end up after he throws it. The catcher's mitt, the third row, Ann Arbor ... your guess is as good as anyone else's.

Personally, I don't think Rondon will open the season as closer, and that Benoit will. Bruce'scontrol just isn't there yet, something he demonstrated in his most recent Spring Training outing. I'd obviously much rather pick the field over Rondon, especially to start the season. Nevertheless, if he heats up in Triple-A, he'll find himself on the major league roster soon, and his electric stuff will shift him into a ninth-inning role eventually.

In the end, I wouldn't go deeper than a 25% chance that any of these guys wins out. We'll need to get deeper into Spring Training before my confidence rises in Rondon or anyone else. And even then, as we all well know, things will definitely change during the season.

If you want to keep up-to-date with everything closer-related, follow @CloserNews on Twitter. And don't hesitate to drop me any questions on the Twitter machine, as you can find me at @bgrosnick.

All data from FanGraphs.

Shutdown Corner: How To Identify Potential Closers

Greetings, RotoAuthority readers! Now that our division roundup is done, it's time to get a little meta. Speculation is a big part of picking up fantasy baseball players, and today I'd like to provide you with a few principles that might help you identify potential closers as Spring Training and the 2013 seasons go on.

Remember, last season, by June almost half the teams in baseball had turned over their expected closers. Being able to identify the next man up early, so you can add and stash him on your bench, can be extremely valuable. Use these tips to find the right guy.

Listen to the manager ... and the GM!

The biggest and best thing that you can do to identify a potential closer is to listen to what his manager, or failing that, his GM, is saying. If a manager is constantly calling one of his setup guys a "potential ninth-inning option" or a "shutdown guy," then that player might have first crack at the closer slot. Remember, the manager tends to make the on-field decisions, so listen to what they're saying. They're the decider.

Oh, but be careful when reading about the next potential closer ... there's a big difference between what the manager actually says and what a beat writer or blogger might be speculating about. Make sure that the information you get is from a trusted source or straight from the manager's mouth, rather than delving into someone's raw speculation.

Another corollary to this is the money issue -- if a reliever is getting paid like a closer (say, anything more than $3-$5 million per season), then they probably get first shot at the job. Trust me on this.

Keep an eye on "proven closers!"

They might not always be the "best" options to close, but managers have historically chosen to give former closers the first chance to close, rather than young pitchers without ninth-inning experience. If a team has a guy in the bullpen who formerly saved a hundred or two hundred games, expect them to get the first shot at the ninth.

A good example here is the situation in Arizona. J.J. Putz is an injury risk, and behind him are three very, very good relievers: David Hernandez, Heath Bell, and Brad Ziegler. Ziegler is something of a ground-ball specialist, so he's probably not going to close. But Hernandez has been phenomenal as a setup man for the D'backs, where Bell is a recent acquisition whose star has fallen over the past couple of seasons.

Nevertheless, Bell has a history of pitching in the ninth, with 153 saves in his back pocket. For this reason (as well as his closer-quality contract), I actually think that Bell might get the first chance to close instead of Hernandez, who is a better reliever. This sort of thing might also happen in New York (with Brandon Lyon over Bobby Parnell) or Cincinnati (Jonathan Broxton over Sean Marshall).

Stay away from left-handed relievers!

Quick, name all the left-handed pitchers who racked up ten or more saves in 2012. Go ahead, I'll wait.

If you're like me -- and I'm a closer expert, remember -- you probably thought "Aroldis Chapman, Glen Perkins ... uh, I don't know!" By my quick count, the only closers who managed that last season were those two guys and Sean Marshall. That's crazy, right?

The truth of the matter is that left-handed pitchers don't seem to get a lot of closing opportunities. Managers like to mix and match, using lefties more in situational roles ... and oftentimes lefties don't have the raw fastball power that managers look for in their closer. So in a situation like Oakland, where there are two nice options to close instead of Grant Balfour (Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle) ... I'd always err on the side of the righty. That means I'd be more likely to pick up Ryan Cook than Doolittle if Balfour isn't ready to go early in the season.

Performance is good, but strikeouts are better!

When looking for potential closers, it's certainly important to look for relievers who are pitching well. But at the same time, performance isn't everything. Look for guys who have a lot of strikeouts who are pitching well, before adding a guy who has good performance without the Ks.

Finally, if you want to keep up-to-date with everything closer-related, follow @CloserNews on Twitter. And don't hesitate to drop me any questions on the Twitter machine, as you can find me at @bgrosnick.

All data from FanGraphs.

Shutdown Corner: AL Central Closer Roundup

Baseball players are showing up at Spring Training sites, everyone! And as spring gets within reach, I'm posting closer roundups for every division in baseball. This week, it's the mysterious, murky, up-for-grabs American League Central on the hot seat. As always, you can check back in on our previous roundups: AL WestNL East, AL East and NL Central.

If you haven't been following along at home, here's our closer tiering system for the pre-season:

  • Tier 1: World-class reliever, capable of putting up a season for the ages.
  • Tier 2: Very good closer, both stable and effective.
  • Tier 3: Average closer, may be lacking either stability or effectiveness.
  • Tier 4: Poor closer, either completely ineffective but stable, or very unstable.

Chicago White Sox: Addison Reed

Last season, Addison Reed -- a guy who was highly hyped as a sleeper closer by many fantasy mavens -- made good on most of his promise and held down the White Sox closer job for most of the season. While he turned in 29 saves, the rest of his numbers weren't quite as stellar as owners would have hoped: a 22.7% strikeout rate was lower than anything he'd posted in the minors by a fair bit, and his ERA sat at an ugly 4.75, despite peripherals that gave him an FIP of 3.64.

On the bright side, Reed is still young for a closer at 24, and will have the ninth inning all to himself this season. He's ensconced in his position now, and he still projects to improve upon last season's rate stats and K totals. This is a guy who just doesn't have the actual performance to move up to Tier 2 yet, but is on the leading edge of Tier 3 closers. He could have a big season.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (needs more strikeouts / consistency to be a upper-echelon closer)

Next in line: Jesse Crain

Cleveland Indians: Chris Perez

After 2011, I swore I'd never draft Chris Perez again. The Cleveland closer has a history of cardiac saves, and Perez had more meltdowns in 2011 than the Springfield nuclear power plant. So you can imagine my surprise when 2012 was a pretty great season for Perez. Last year, Perez was actually pretty reliable, posting solid rate stats (3.59 ERA and 1.13 WHIP), watching his strikeout rate rebound (up to 24.4%) and grabbing a career-high 39 saves.

Nevertheless, I'm still a little wary about drafting Perez again this season. While he's a good bet to grab you saves, his performance is still a bit too up-and-down for my taste, without some of the upside of other closers. And, of course, the Indians don't look to be contenders this season, and could very likely trade their expensive closer to a team closer to the playoffs. When factoring in Vinnie Pestano's readiness to close, Perez might only be a closer for half the season.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (Perez is unstable, and always close to being traded)

Next in line: Vinnie Pestano

Detroit Tigers: Bruce Rondon

In truth, Bruce Rondon's name is here as a placeholder, because the Tigers are really giving no strong indication who will close for the team in 2013. With Jose Valverde (likely) leaving via free agency, Jim Leyland has yet to commit to a new stopper for the team in 2013. With plenty of decent-but-not-great options in the bullpen, trying to guess on the Tigers' closer before Spring Training kicks off seems like a fool's errand.

If we (as fantasy owners) are lucky, though, Bruce Rondon will be the guy for Detroit. Rondon has a big 10o+ mph heater, and if it plays up in Spring Training, the team may want to give him a shot at the ninth inning. We're still not entirely sure if Rondon can consistently get his big fastball over the plate, but if he can, he could be a huge strikeout machine in the mold of an Aroldis Chapman. And Rondon could certainly be a keeper for future years, provided he stays healthy.

But yeah, I wouldn't draft a closer from Detroit this year. I think it will take them a few months to figure out who owns the ninth, if they ever do.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (too unstable to call at this point)

Next in line: Brayan Villarreal, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Al Alburquerque, Phil Coke

Kansas City Royals: Greg Holland

Without too much fanfare, Greg Holland has been one of the best relievers in baseball over the past two seasons. Last season was the first in which Holland was a "real closer" for part of a season, but the 27-year-old hurler did himself proud. A 31.5% strikeout rate puts him in the top tier of late-game hurlers, and a 2.25 FIP means that we can continue to expect big things going forward. While he's still prone to too many walks and hits (1.37 WHIP last year), he's probably one of your best bets when it comes to mid-level closers.

I'd be comfortable drafting him in the 5-10 range among closers for next season. Don't break the bank to add him (he's not going to put up a Craig Kimbrel season, most likely), but he's probably going to be better than most other late-inning options next season.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (solid strikeout rate, not much competition, recent track record is great)

Next in line: Aaron Crow

Minnesota Twins: Glen Perkins

Many Minnesota fans must be breathing a sigh of relief that the Matt Capps era is over in the Twin Cities. Though Perkins was once another unremarkable Twins starter, he has reinvented himself as a reliever, one who features a solid fastball-slider combo able to get whiffs at an above-league-average rate. I know. It is weird to see that written about a Twins pitcher.

Perkins has posted very sharp rate stats over the past two years, with ERAs sitting right around 2.50 and a 2012 WHIP of just 1.03. Not too shabby. When you factor in the fact that the Twins don't have a strenuous competition for the job, and that the team doesn't seem likely to add another bullpen piece to oust him, Perkins looks to be sitting pretty for 2013.

The only tough question with Perkins is whether or not he'll get the number of save opportunities necessary to make him an upper-tier closer. My guess is that, well, that's tough to guess. But if Chris Perez got 39 saves last season for the lowly Indians, there's a pretty good chance that Perkins could get 30 for the Twins in 2013. Don't hesitate to draft him.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (good strikeouts, good rate stats, homers can beat him up)

Next in line: Jared Burton

As always, check out @CloserNews on Twitter for up-to-the-minute closer updates, and find me at@bgrosnick for everything baseball. Shutdown Corner will return next week with the last installment of the Closer Roundup series: a look at the NL West.

All data from FanGraphs.

Shutdown Corner: NL Central Closer Roundup

It's another week closer to Opening Day, so that means that it's time for another edition of Shutdown Corner. As you know, I'm grinding out closer roundups for every division in baseball. This week, it's the National League Central that gets the spotlight. And, of course, if you're interested ... here's our previous roundups: AL West, NL East, and AL East

If you haven't been following along at home, here's our closer tiering system for the pre-season:

  • Tier 1: World-class reliever, capable of putting up a season for the ages.
  • Tier 2: Very good closer, both stable and effective.
  • Tier 3: Average closer, may be lacking either stability or effectiveness.
  • Tier 4: Poor closer, either completely ineffective but stable, or very unstable.

Chicago Cubs: Carlos Marmol

I'm not sure any reliever combines high highs and low lows as much as Carlos Marmol does. Marmol, the long-time Cub closer, struck out 29.2% of batters faced last season, but walked a ridiculous 18.2% of batters faced. That's a huge amount of walks, more than just about any prospective closer in baseball. Marmol's dealing with challenges from other pitchers on his team (notably Japanese import Kyuji Fujikawa), a likelihood that he could be traded (he was almost traded to the Angels this offseason), and an imminent meltdown that's only a few walks away. Stay away from the guy unless you're brave.

Carlos Marmol is beyond all expectations. Marmol could strike out every batter he faces for three full weeks. Carlos Marmol could walk every batter he faces for two full weeks. Carlos Marmol could throw a pitch that hits his left fielder in the face. Everything is in play.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (all the strikeouts, ALL the walks, trade or demotion imminent)

Next in line: Kyuji Fujikawa

Cincinnati Reds: Jonathan Broxton

Broxton is a very interesting case, as he's almost definitely no better than the third-best reliever on his team, yet he still got a three-year, $21 million contract in this offseason to close for Cincinnati. And while Brox used to leverage his massive frame to get huge strikeout numbers, since 2011, he's been posting K numbers more like a #4 starter than a high-leverage reliever. In addition, pitching in homer-happy Cincy makes Broxton very risky from a performance standpoint.

Sean Marshall has a much better track record as a reliever than Brox, and as such, is likely to take over when and if Broxton struggles. Regardless, I wouldn't want Broxton as a bullpen option on my fantasy squad unless I was very desperate for a few saves.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (low strikeout totals, presence of Sean Marshall / Aroldis Chapman)

Next in line: Sean Marshall

Milwaukee Brewers: John Axford

While Broxton is a good example of a pitcher who got good results despite middling peripherals in 2012, Axford might be viewed as an opposite case. Despite being one of the better closers in baseball during 2010 and 2011, Axford fell apart (along with the rest of his bullpen) in 2012, posting a 4.67 ERA and 1.44 WHIP. But the underlying peripherals tell the story of a guy who struggled a little, sure, but could be expected to bounce back in 2013.

Axford and his mustache still struck out a tidy 30% of batters faced. And he certainly had more trouble with walks, walking a worrying 12.6% over the past season. But Axford suffered the most thanks to the long ball, as he gave up a homer on nearly 20% of all of his fly balls. This number is pretty unsustainable, and I wouldn't expect this poor luck to continue. Axford may not be an elite-level closer in 2013, but I wouldn't be surprised if he reverts back to his solid self, with strikeouts and 30-40 saves.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (huge strikeout rates, no serious competition in the 'pen)

Next in line: Jim Henderson

Pittsburgh Pirates: Jason Grilli

The Pittsburgh Pirates were comfortable dealing Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox this offseason due to the emergence of veteran Jason Grilli as a frightening late-inning option. Grilli, who was out of the bigs in 2010, re-emerged with stronger-than-ever strikeout totals in 2011. His Ks rose even further in 2012, where he struck out an astonishing 36.9% of batters faced.

The main concern with Grilli is his advanced age. At 36, he's not exactly a spring chicken. When you combine that with the fact that he's actually peaking in terms of performance at this point in his career, that's a major red flag. Instead of looking at a new normal, perhaps 2012 was the dramatic outlier before his production drops back off. But even if that is the case, and Grilli's strikeout rate falls off, it's high enough at this point to shoulder a drop back to earth. He could still be effective if he's only striking out 25% of hitters.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (big strikeouts, not a lot of history + age issue, good competition)

Next in line: Mark Melancon

St. Louis Cardinals: Jason Motte

To me, Jason Motte is one of the more sure things in late-inning relievers this season. A fixture in the Cardinal 'pen since 2009, Motte finally became the team's full-time closer for a full season in 2012, and responded with 42 saves and a 30.8% strikeout rate. Despite the emergence of Trevor Rosenthal and a host of live arms in the St. Louis bullpen, Motte owns the ninth, and should be consistent force in 2013 as well.

While Motte's home run rate jumped up in 2012, it probably sat higher than it will in 2013. Motte has a history of giving up long balls, but the strikeout rate and his uncanny ability to strand runners and limit walks will help him keep things at an even keel.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (solid strikeout rate, "proven closer")

Next in line: Trevor Rosenthal

As always, check out @CloserNews on Twitter for up-to-the-minute closer updates, and find me at@bgrosnick for everything baseball. Shutdown Corner will return next week with a look at the AL Central.

All data from FanGraphs.

Shutdown Corner: AL East Closer Roundup

Welcome back to Shutdown Corner, folks. We're rolling through closer roundups for every division in baseball, this week focusing on the five teams in the AL East. We've previously reviewed the AL West and NL East, if you're interested in that sort of thing.

And, if you haven't been following along at home, here's our closer tiering system for the pre-season:

  • Tier 1: World-class reliever, capable of putting up a season for the ages.
  • Tier 2: Very good closer, both stable and effective.
  • Tier 3: Average closer, may be lacking either stability or effectiveness.
  • Tier 4: Poor closer, either completely ineffective but stable, or very unstable.

Baltimore Orioles: Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson was the major-league leader in saves for 2012, racking up 51 for the surprising Baltimore Orioles during their playoff run. But despite the gaudy save numbers and 2.49 ERA, Johnson's a nice candidate to turn into a pumpkin next season. Johnson doesn't strike out nearly the amount of hitters that a closer needs to in order to be effective. Johnson had just a 15.3% strikeout rate, not an exciting number, and the fourth-worst of all qualified relievers. He was almost the worst strikeout reliever in baseball. Don't draft him for Ks.

Fortunately for Johnson and the folks who draft him, Pedro Strop isn't exactly banging down the door to take Johnson's job. Buck Showalter is probably locked into Johnson, so he'll get all the rope in the world with which to hang himself. If you want saves, and care less about strikeouts and rate stats, Jim Johnson's your man.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (low strikeout rate, settled into role)

Next in line: Pedro Strop

New York Yankees: Mariano Rivera

I know, I know, he's the greatest closer in baseball history. His peripheral stats are phenomenal, and he's racked up nearly 40 wins above replacement despite only throwing 1219 and 2/3 innings over his career. Then you can toss in about 15 more RA9-Wins because the guy gets weak contact and can bear down with runners on.

This year, Mo is coming off a missed season, thanks to a brutal knee injury. Word is that he's about ready to return, and he's likely to be elite when he comes back. He's basically always been elite. However, if there's any chance that Rivera is still dealing with injury, or if the knee trouble causes an injury cascade, then Mo may not be as effective as we're used to ... or he may be out and David Robertson will be owning the ninth.

That having been said, Mariano is still an elite closer, based on prior body of work. Actually, I'm only giving out one Tier 1 grade this pre-season, and it's going to Craig Kimbrel. But, if anyone else was close, it was Mo. He is a monster, and while his K-rate dipped in 2010, it rebounded nicely in 2011 and what little 2012 he pitched.

Respect Mariano, everyone. Ignore him at your own risk.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (phenomenal skill, injury risk)

Next in line: David Robertson

Toronto Blue Jays: Casey Janssen

Important news: Casey Janssen is probably better than you think. More than a few roto heads got a nice boost in the middle of the season thanks to Casey's solid performance and 22 saves as the closer after Sergio Santos flamed out before the season even started. Janssen checked all the boxes for solid closer performance, with only a few blown saves (three all season), high strikeout totals (27.7% k-rate), and a sparkly 0.86 WHIP.

So why aren't I rating Janssen higher?

The important thing about Janssen's status as closer is that the Jays have other options in the 'pen. Esmil Rogers, Brad Lincoln, Sergio Santos, all these guys could have strong seasons, and the Jays may be looking to make a quick change if the team isn't getting good closer production. If Janssen were on a different team, he'd probably be up a tier, maybe even two. But on the win-now Jays, the team may look to add another reliever, or move Janssen out of the ninth if he hits a rough patch. Plus, it's not like he has the track record that would give his skipper irrational confidence in his abilities going forward. There's always the possibility of performance decline, especially on the wrong side of 30.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (small room for error, doesn't have "proven closer" title, only two years of above-average performance)

Next in line: Sergio Santos

Boston Red Sox: Joel Hanrahan

Do you want to know a secret? Joel Hanrahan was actually pretty terrible in 2012. I know, the guy had a 2.72 ERA and stacked up 36 saves for the Pirates. But when you dig a little deeper, a few very concerning peripherals speak to a poor season. Hanrahan walked 14.2% of the batters he faced, which is a HUGE number. That's more than five walks per nine innings, and completely unacceptable.

Hanrahan also gave up a host of homers (1.21 HR/9), and that works out to a 4.45 FIP. By FanGraphs' WAR metric, Hanrahan was actually worse than a replacement-level reliever. That's not what anyone wants from a closer.

Now, I don't think Hanrahan will be quite as bad as he was last season, his BB% and HR/FB numbers should regress closer to his true talent level. At the same time, Fenway isn't exactly the best place to try and 

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (big strikeouts, high walks and home runs, huge potential for performance variance)

Next in line: Andrew Bailey

Tampa Bay Rays: Fernando Rodney

Probably no player -- and definitely no closer -- was as much of a surprise last season as Fernando Rodney. Rodney really hadn't been a good reliever since the '06 and '07 seasons, but in his first season in Tampa, Rodney was the best reliever in the AL. The strikeouts jumped up (27% strikeout rate), the walks dropped down (5.3% walk rate), and he stranded almost every runner who hit the bases. The result: an otherworldly 0.60 ERA.

But let's be real, this had to be somewhat of a mirage.

First of all, Rodney is entering his age-34 season, and has literally no history of performance at this level before this big season. Second, his peripherals led to a 2.13 FIP, which is still great, but doesn't reflect 48-save, under-one-ERA performance for next season. I just can't imagine he'll have another elite season, and the Rays have a whole host of solid relief options surrounding him (Jake McGee, Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta), so don't draft him too early.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (lots of competition, 2012 performance doesn't appear to reflect prior performance)

Next in line: Jake McGee and Kyle Farnsworth

As always, check out @CloserNews on Twitter for up-to-the-minute closer updates, and find me at@bgrosnick for everything baseball. Shutdown Corner will return next week with a look at the NL Central.

All data from FanGraphs.

Shutdown Corner: NL East Closer Roundup

Last week, we started rolling out closer roundups for every division in baseball. This week, we're heading to the National League East, to look over the projected closer situations for all five teams. If you missed last week's review of the American League West, here's a link.

We're rating each closer on a tier, and here's the tiering system for the pre-season:

  • Tier 1: World-class reliever, capable of putting up a season for the ages.
  • Tier 2: Very good closer, both stable and effective.
  • Tier 3: Average closer, may be lacking either stability or effectiveness.
  • Tier 4: Poor closer, either completely ineffective but stable, or very unstable.

Washington Nationals: Rafael Soriano

The big closer news from the past week is Rafael Soriano (finally) signing a two-year, $28 million deal with the Washington Nationals, ostensibly to be their new closer. Soriano had been linked to the Tigers and a few other teams, but the Nationals ponied up the big bucks to bring him on. It's very likely that he displaces former closers Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard ... in fact GM Mike Rizzo said as much when introducing Soriano in a press conference.

Soriano brings closer experience and, best of all, real skill to the Nationals, who now have a pretty scary bullpen. After a dismal 2011 with the Yankees, one that included DL time, Soriano did well as the only non-Mariano Rivera full-time closer for the Bombers since about 1996. He saved 42 games, and did so posting a 2.26 ERA and 24.7% strikeout rate. Not too bad.

The minor problem here is that Soriano probably wasn't as effective as he looked in 2012. FIP (or Fielding Independent Pitching) says that Soriano didn't do the strikeout-walk-homer thing quite as well as his ERA indicated, giving him a 3.32 FIP for the season -- a big difference. Soriano benefitted from a great LOB% (88%), which helped him limit runs despite a high walk rate.

Still, Soriano was paid a lot of money to be the last line of defense for the Nationals, and we should expect him to thrive in the ninth. He's not a top-tier closer at this point, but he is likely to have a good season, especially outside of the tough environment of Yankee Stadium and the AL East.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (moderate-to-high effectiveness, high cost to bring in / stability)

Next in line: Tyler Clippard or Drew Storen

Atlanta Braves: Craig Kimbrel

I wrote quite a bit about Craig Kimbrel in an earlier edition of Shutdown Corner, and the news hasn't changed in the past two weeks.

He's the best closer in baseball.

He's coming off what may have been the best season by a closer in modern history.

He strikes out everybody.

The only question with Kimbrel is whether he'll look like a "normal" closer in 2013, or if he's got another season of sheer dominance left in his right arm. I'm guessing that it will be something in between 2012 and a regular elite closer season. But it's unlikely, especially with Aroldis Chapman moving to the starting rotation, that any closer is as good a bet as Kimbrel.

Projected Tier: Tier 1 (coming off an world-class season, no sign of slowing down)

Next in line: Jonny Venters

Philadelphia Phillies: Jonathan Papelbon

Again, I waxed poetic about the power of Papelbon two weeks ago, and precious little has changed since then. Jon was very consistent (for the most part) in his time with Boston, and little changed in a move to Philly. He threw 70 high-quality innings, striking out a beastly 32.4% of batters faced and racking up just a 2.44 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. While a higher percentage of his fly balls left the park, he's dealt with pitching in hitters' parks before, and this didn't seem to slow him down much in terms of FIP (2.89).

Papelbon already has 257 saves in just seven years closing, which is remarkable. It speaks to his consistency and durability in a position not known for either. Homers and age threaten to bring down this bastion of beatdowns, but I think there's at least another high-end season waiting in the wings for Paps.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (high reliability, high performance, age could be an issue)

Next in line: Antonio Bastardo

New York Mets: Frank Francisco

Last season, the New York Mets bullpen was pretty ugly. Frank Francisco, who suffered through injuries and ineffectiveness, was pretty ugly too. Frank^2 did score 23 saves in just 48 games, which isn't too shabby, but his ERA of 5.53 and WHIP of 1.61 made things pretty scary. Worst of all, Francisco had surgery in December to remove a bone spur from his pitching elbow, so he may need time to recover from the surgery.

Dan Syzmborski's ZiPS projection system sees Francisco as a reasonable option, posting a 3.78 ERA with a 25.6% strikeout rate, which would be a nice improvement from his 2012. Me, I'm not quite so bullish. Bobby Parnell is probably the better reliever at this point, and he isn't dealing with elbow surgery issues. Much like Ryan Madson in Anaheim, I think that Francisco will get the manager's benefit of the doubt if he starts the season healthy, but by the end of the season the younger arm (in this case Parnell) will own the ninth.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (low reliability, low-to-medium performance, stiff competition)

Next in line: Bobby Parnell

Miami Marlins: Steve Cishek

Though the Marlins are projected to be one of the worst teams in baseball history next season, they actually are pretty set at the closer position. Steve Cishek inherited the job last season, and acquitted himself fairly well. He only notched 15 saves in his 68 appearances, but he posted a 2.69 ERA and a career-high 24.7% strikeout rate.

Cishek has a career 2.57 ERA and 2.85 FIP, and does two things very, very well. Cishek gets strikeouts at a serious clip (24.3% over his career), and he keeps the ball in the park (0.29 HR/9 over his career). Walks can be an issue -- I know, stop me if you've heard this before about a closer -- but if his walk rate is closer to his 2011 performance than his 2012 performance, he'll be a very solid option in the ninth.

He, along with Giancarlo Stanton, might be the only solid pieces on this Marlins team.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (moderate performance, little competition, awful team)

Next in line: Ryan Webb (?)

As always, check out @CloserNews on Twitter for up-to-the-minute closer updates, and find me at @bgrosnick for everything baseball. Shutdown Corner will return next week with a look at the AL East.

All data from FanGraphs.

Shutdown Corner: AL West Closer Roundup

For the next six weeks, Shutdown Corner will be reviewing the closer situations for each division in baseball, one by one. I'll give you a brief breakdown of who the likely stopper is for each team, a little bit of statistical info, a projected tier to consider when drafting your stopper, and a name or two of who might be in line to pick up saves should the projected fireman falter.

And for what it's worth, here's the tier system I'll be using, pre-season:

  • Tier 1: World-class reliever, capable of putting up a season for the ages.
  • Tier 2: Very good closer, both stable and effective.
  • Tier 3: Average closer, may be lacking either stability or effectiveness.
  • Tier 4: Poor closer, either completely ineffective but stable, or very unstable.

Texas Rangers: Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan revitalized his career with a powerful 2012 performance in Texas, during which he saved 37 games and re-established himself as a top-tier closer. Nathan's command seems to have come back following a 2010 out of baseball and a weak 2011, and the veteran struck out 30.4% while only walking 5.1%, which is actually a career low. He is entering his age-38 season, which means that his skills could fall off in a hurry if his arm goes, but recent performance says that he could still be solid.

The Rangers did go out and sign another once-mighty closer coming off injury: Joakim Soria. Soria won't be back until May, at the earliest, and will look to recover his command after Tommy John surgery. If Soria's very sharp AND the Rangers are out of contention (not too likely), then the Rangers may look to move Nathan at the trade deadline. But I expect Joe to be a powerful weapon at the end of the Rangers' 'pen for the entire season, and a nice pickup for any fantasy squad.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (high effectiveness, minor concerns about age, park and competition)

Next in line: Joakim Soria

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Ryan Madson

Before the 2011-2012 offseason, things were looking pretty good for Ryan Madson. Coming off a very effective 2011 as closer for the Phillies, in which he saved 32 games, posted a 2.37 ERA, and proved that performance was no fluke with an underlying 2.25 FIP. But as the offseason wore on, Madson wound up with one a one-year contract with the Reds, for what was perceived to be much less than his market value. Then, before appearing in a single regular-season game, Madson blew out his UCL and missed the whole season with Tommy John surgery.

Madson may be ready to return at the beginning of the 2013 season, but he also may not. But when he's ready, I expect him to get the first look at closing for the Halos. While Ernesto Frieri, last year's closer, is still on the roster and lurking, I expect Mike Scioscia to give Madson first crack at the ninth, given his past resume. Frieri struck out a host of hitters in 2012, posting a sick 36.4% strikeout rate, but he gave up too many homers (nine) to make the Angels very comfortable.

Unfortunately, pitchers like Madson who return from Tommy John surgery tend to struggle in their first season back. Command, especially, can be tough to recover in the first season, so I'd expect that Madson won't pitch anything like his 2011 self right away. Given this -- and the fact that the fireballing Frieri is waiting in the wings -- you'd either want to handcuff Frieri to any draft of Madson, or avoid him altogether, in my book.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (coming off major surgery, stiff competition from Ernesto Frieri)

Next in line: Ernesto Frieri

Oakland Athletics: Grant Balfour

Boy, oh boy, did Ryan Cook look good in his 71 games in 2012. But when 2013 starts up, it's most likely that Grant Balfour will be back as the first option to close in the Oakland bullpen. Balfour, a veteran strikeout artist, has been pretty consistent since his 2008 return to a full-time bullpen role with the Rays. Balfour has a career strikeout rate of 26.4%, a critical skill for a high-leverage reliever.

And yet, I really don't expect Grant to finish the season as A's closer. If the Athletics repeat their 2012 winning ways, the team might hold on to him and keep their 'pen strength high going into the playoffs. But, more likely, I see the team dealing Balfour before his contract expires at the end of season, with young fireballer Ryan Cook assuming the ninth inning duties. If you draft Balfour, have Cook on standby, in case of a slump or deal.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (moderate-to-high effectiveness, moderate likelihood of eventual trade)

Next in line: Ryan Cook

Seattle Mariners: Tom Wilhelmsen

One of the best bullpen stories in 2012 was the emergence of Mariners closer Tom Wilhelmsen. Despite being out of baseball entirely between 2005 and 2009, Wilhelmsen climbed through the Mariners organization to become the team's closer in 2012. He posted 29 saves despite not even earning the full-time closer position until early June. He even got in on a six-pitcher no-hitter, putting a nice bow on his narrative.

The Bartender serves up a nasty fastball-curveball combination, and it helps him get the strikeouts that are so critical to a closer's success. In 2012, Wilhelmsen logged a 26.7% K-rate, buoyed by a decent 8.9% BB-rate, which isn't half bad. Best of all, Wilhelmsen is cost-effective and isn't really challenged by any other arms in the Seattle bullpen -- meaning that he's likely to keep his closer status all season long.

While some draftniks may be put off by Wilhelmsen's late-career rise to stopper status, I'm not one of those people. I expect him to be very solid in 2013.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (high stability, high-to-moderate effectiveness)

Next in line: Carter Capps (?)

Houston Astros: Jose Veras

There's not much in the way of proven late-inning relievers these days in Houston, which isn't a great sign. Sure, the bullpen is probably the last concern of a rebuilding club, but the Astros' impending move to the AL West means tougher competition, and shorter outings for their admittedly weak rotation. The Astros will lean on their young bullpen, and especially new recruit Jose Veras, who's in line to close.

Veras has been pretty good these past two seasons, spending 2011 with the Pirates and 2012 with the Brewers. In each season, Veras's performance was pretty similar: huge strikeout numbers (25.9% and 26.3% strikeout rates), terrible walk rates (11.2% and 13.3%) that led to pretty decent ERA totals (3.80 and 3.63). 2013 will be Veras's age-32 season, so while it's unlikely we'll see big-time improvement, there are no outstanding indicators that his performance will tank either.

But if Veras is as good as he could be, he'll have a "proven closer" tag to him, and that will make him an attractive trade target by the deadline. The Astros aren't a competitive team yet, and they'll look to move him for value, the same way they have with Mark Melancon, Brett Myers, and Wilton Lopez in the past. Don't expect him to finish his season in Houston.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (high strikeout totals, high initial stability, high likelihood of eventual trade)

Next in line: Josh Fields (?)

All stats from FanGraphs.

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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