Fantasy Focus: American League closers

Mariano Rivera (42) and David Robertson (30) are the best 1-2 punch in the American League. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Closers are always the riskiest position when it comes to fantasy baseball. While there are the elite closers who produce year in-year out, many can’t be counted on for consistency. To make matters worse this season, the AL lost two of its elite closers as Jonathan Papelbon signed with the Phillies, and Neftali Feliz of the Rangers is now in the starting rotation. Whatever your strategy is on closers, here is a breakdown in the AL, including spring battles as well as a handy guide to help you at your draft.

For-sure pick – It means you’ll get consistency, nothing less, nothing more.
Sleeper – Underrated in drafts; can get in later rounds but might produce above-average stats.
Overrated – Might not produce at the hype he’s supposed to produce at.
Long-term value – Might not be the best bet for this year but excellent for keeper leagues.

Top-five closers

1. Mariano Rivera, Yankees — 2011 stats: 1.91 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 60 K, 44 SV

2. Jose Valverde, Tigers –2011 stats: 2.24 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 69 K, 49 SV

3. Joakim Soria, Royals — 2011 stats: 4.03 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 60 K, 28 SV

4. Andrew Bailey, Red Sox — 2011 stats: 3.24 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 41 K, 24 SV

5. Joe Nathan, Rangers — 2011 stats: 4.84 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 43 K, 14 SV

Baltimore Orioles

Closer: Kevin Gregg — He is a veteran closer, just not a very reliable one. Had a 4.37 ERA, 1.64 WHIP with 53 K/40 BB over 59.2 innings in 2011. Walking 40 guys in 59.2 innings will get a lot of starting pitchers, as well as managers, cursing your name in the dugout. He had 22 saves, but blew seven. Grab him late if you are desperate, but don’t count on much.

Set-up: Jim Johnson — Appeared in 69 games for the O’s last season, going 6-5 with nine saves. He also had a tidy 2.67 ERA and 1.11 WHIP over 91.1 innings. Not a strikeout pitcher, getting just 58 on the season, but those other numbers are more than solid in deeper leagues, and if Gregg falters, he is the closer.

Boston Red Sox

Closer: Andrew Bailey — Didn’t get many chances in Oakland, but when he did, he delivered. Has saved 79/84 career games, ranking among the best all-time in save percentage. Has a career 2.07 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 9.0 K/9 and has held opponents to a .188 average over 174 innings. Should get way more chances in Boston and join the elite. For-sure-pick.

Set-up: Mark Melancon — Acquired by the Sox from Houston in the off-season. Appeared in 71 games for the Astros in 2011, going 8-4 with 20 saves. Had a 2.78 ERA, 1.22 WHIP with 66 K/26 BB over 74.1 innings. Will be setting up Bailey and should be a good source for holds if your league uses them. Otherwise, could get a couple of saves but should only be considered in deep leagues.

Chicago White Sox

Closer: Matt Thornton — Looks to be the closer out of spring training, but with no extended experience in the role, could be shaky at times. A strikeout pitcher, 9.8 K/9 over his eight-year career, has great value if he can stick. Again, his lack of experience comes with risk, so don’t draft him until the end.

Set-up: Addison Reed — Another reason why Thornton owners will worry. Across four leagues last season in the minors, he had a 1.26 ERA, 0.73 WHIP with 111 K/14 BB over 78.1 innings. He held opponents to a .154 average, and his 12.8 K/9, 8 BB/K ratios show how dominant he is. Has a high-90s fastball with great movement, and his slider is a filthy wipe-out pitch. Struck out 12 over 7.1 innings for the White Sox last season, walking just one. Will most likely end the season as the closer. Long-term-potential.

Cleveland Indians

Closer: Chris Perez — Owns a career 82 percent save percentage so he can be counted on to get the job done. Had 36 saves last season with a 3.32 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. His 39 K/26 BB over 59.2 innings are a cause for concern, however, as those numbers don’t really bode well for long-term success. Grab him late as he is still a decent option.

Set-up: Vinnie Pestano — Had 84 strikeouts over 62 innings last year, good for 12.2 K/9. Also doesn’t walk a lot of people as evidenced by his 1.05 WHIP. Held opponents to a .184 BAA and picked up two saves last year. If Perez struggles, snatch him up. If your league counts holds, he had 24 of them last year.

Detroit Tigers

Closer: Jose Valverde — Hasn’t blown a save since September 2, 2010, recording 51 straight. Had a 2.24 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 49 saves with 69 K/34 BB over 72.1 innings last season. Has saved 242/272 saves over his career, making him one of the most efficient all-time. He is elite and should get another 40+ in 2012. For-sure-pick.

Set-up: Joaquin Benoit — Had 63 K/17 BB over 61 innings last year, picking up 29 holds. Was dynamite after the break, posting a 1.33 ERA, 0.67 WHIP and 32 K/8 BB over 27 innings. Won’t get many saves with Valverde as the closer, but is a solid option in deeper leagues as he can get you strikeouts while maintaining a low ERA and WHIP.

Kansas City Royals

Closer: Joakim Soria — Had a down year by his standards posting a 4.03 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 60 K/17 BB over 60.1 innings. Had 28 saves, but blew seven of them. Still, he owns a career 89 percent save percentage so he should bounce back. Finished strong, saving four games in September, striking out eight over five scoreless innings. A for-sure-pick.

Set-up: Jonathan Broxton — Looking to bounce back from a surgically repaired elbow, he could get another shot at closing if Soria’s struggles continue. Owns a career 11.6 K/9 but that number should decrease with the elbow injury. Probably will be on a limit as far as innings go and might not have much value. Someone to keep on eye on, however, if things go smoothly, as he can step in as a closer.

Los Angeles Angels

Closer: Jordan Walden — Had 32 saves last season, but he also blew 10 of them, so he can be very shaky at times. It was his first year as a closer, however, and he should be better this season with the experience. Had 67 strikeouts over 60.1 innings, but also walked 26 batters. With the pitching staff, and offense the Angels have, he could get a ton of chances in 2012.

Set-up: Scott Downs — One of those crafty-lefties who had a banner year for the Halos last season. He posted a 1.34 ERA, 1.01 WHIP with 35 K/15 BB over 53.2 innings. Not going to overpower anyone, but could get some cheap saves if Walden struggles.

Minnesota Twins

Closer: Matt Capps — Has the experience of a closer but struggled in 2011, converting just 15 of 24 save opportunities. Not a strikeout pitcher either, just 34 over 65.2 innings last year. I wouldn’t waste a pick on him, but he is a closer, so, whatever. Overrated.

Set-up: Glen Perkins — May be a better option than Capps, but he doesn’t have any experience closing out games. Posted a 2.48 ERA, 1.23 WHIP with 65 K/21 BB over 61.2 innings last year. He keeps the ball down, which is vital for a closer. I would just stay away from the Twins as far as closers go this year.

New York Yankees

Closer: Mariano Rivera — One pitch. That is all Mo needs. Seems to get better with age, and could probably keep doing it for another 10 years if he wanted to. Last season, at age 41, he had a 1.91 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 44 saves with 60 K/8 BB over 61.1 innings. The best there ever was and usually the first closer taken. For-sure-pick for over a decade now.

Set-up: David Robertson — Was brilliant last year in the set-up role. Posted a 1.08 ERA, 1.13 WHIP with a ridiculous 100 K/35 BB over 66.2 innings. His 13.5 K/9 show how dominant he was. He also allowed just one home run all season and held opponents to a .170 BAA. Even if he doesn’t register a single save, he has great value in deeper leagues thanks to his high strikeout totals and low ERA and WHIP. With Rivera possibly retiring at the end of the season, he could have some long-term-potential as a dominant closer for the Yankees.

Oakland Athletics

Closer: Grant Balfour — Not much experience closing out games. He will give you a strikeout per inning with good ERA and WHIP numbers. Shouldn’t be drafted in standard leagues until the way later rounds.

Set-up: Fautino De Los Santos — He has a live arm, registering 43 strikeouts over 33.1 innings, but he also walked 17 batters so control is a concern. With only one year of major-league ball under his belt, he shouldn’t be counted on for a closer role. Much like the Twins, you should stay away from A’s closers unless you are desperate.

Seattle Mariners

Closer: Brandon League — Converted 37 of 42 save opportunities last season, proving a terrible team can still produce high save totals. Not overpowering as he had just 45 strikeouts over 61.1 innings, but he only walked 10 batters and allowed just three home runs all season. A good option in all formats.

Set-up: Shawn Kelly — Doesn’t have any closing experience and shouldn’t be counted on in 2012. If League falters, look for saves on another team.

Tampa Bay Rays

Closer: Kyle Farnsworth — His first year as a closer was a success. Posted a 2.18 ERA, 0.99 WHIP with 51 K/12 BB over 57.2 innings, registering 25 saves. The Rays have a great pitching staff, along with a solid offense, so Farnsworth should get plenty of chances in 2012. A very solid option in all formats.

Set-up: Joel Peralta — Can step in for some cheap saves and will give you about a strikeout per inning. If your league counts holds he is useful, otherwise, not much value unless Farnsworth struggles, or gets injured.

Texas Rangers

Closer: Joe Nathan — With Neftali Feliz moving into the rotation, Nathan will be the man at the end of games. Averaged 41 saves with a 1.87 ERA and 0.94 WHIP from 2004-2009 before Tommy John surgery forced him to miss all of 2010. Fully healthy, he should return to being one of the more dominant closers in the game. Don’t take him too early, however, as there is still some risk involved.

Set-up: Mike Adams — One of the best relievers in the game, he posted a 1.47 ERA, 0.79 WHIP with 74 K/14 BB over 73.2 innings for the Padres and Rangers last season. If Nathan struggles, pick him up as he could be an elite closer. Sleeper.

Toronto Blue Jays

Closer: Sergio Santos — Acquired from the White Sox in the off-season, he had a 13.1 K/9 ratio over 63.1 innings last year while converting 30 of 36 save opportunities. While he does walk a lot of batters (29 last year), he held opponents to a .181 BAA, so they cancel each other out. With only one year of closing under his belt, I am not ready to call him a sure bet, but he is on the right path. He does have long-term-potential.

Set-up: Francisco Cordero — Could very well end up the closer out of spring training as his experience far out weighs Santos’. Rank 12th on the all-time saves list with 327. Posted a 2.45 ERA, 1.02 WHIP with 37 saves last season for the Reds. Whoever ends up as the closer, either will be a very good option in all formats.

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