Relief pitcher fantasy rankings, closer projections, best closers, best middle relievers, sleeper closers, sleeper saves, bust closers, rookie relievers, RP

Fantasy Baseball Preview: Relief Pitchers

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Francisco RodriguezWho’s the top relief pitcher in 2008? That’s one of the better debates in fantasy, although really, how bad a shape are you in if you land either Francisco Rodriguez or Jonathan Papelbon? Even though he’s getting older, any owner who winds up with the Twins’ Joe Nathan isn’t likely to complain much once the season gets underway.

Alas, the debate over who ranks as the best relief pitcher doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Like catchers, relief pitchers probably aren’t going to significantly set you apart from your competition, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to land one of the top guys. After K-Rod, Papelbon and Nathan, J.J. Putz, Trevor Hoffman, Bobby Jenks and Mariano Rivera should offer plenty of saves, coupled with a low ERA and WHIP.

If you’re the type of person who waits to snag a closer, no problem, because there are more than enough suitable fallbacks in this year’s class. Jose Valverde, Chad Cordero and Matt Capps should do the trick, although watch pitchers like Capps who close for non-contending teams. Their save opportunities are sure to be minimal.

Finally, d on’t forget about the young setup men. Rafael Betancourt, Jonathan Broxton and Hideki Okajima are sure to snag some save opportunities, and all three come equipped with solid strikeout totals and low ratios.

*NOTE: All analysis based on standard 5x5 roto leagues

The Studs

Francisco Rodriguez, Los Angeles Angels
40 saves, 5 wins, 2.81 ERA, 1.248 WHIP, 90 K, 34 BB, 67.3 IP

K-Rod was again dazzling in 2007, even though his ERA (2.81) and WHIP (1.25) were his highest as a closer. He notched 40 saves and 90 strikeouts again, giving him a slight edge over Jonathan Papelbon and Joe Nathan in our book. The Angels should once again be top contenders in a weak AL West, and with that K-Rod should have plenty of save opportunities. He should reach 40 saves again and another 90-plus Ks.

Jonathan PapelbonJonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox
37 saves, 1 win, 1.85 ERA, 0.771 WHIP, 84 K, 15 BB, 58.3 IP

The BoSox young, fantastic closer answered his highly productive 2006 campaign with another solid season in 2007. Amazingly, he has never allowed a run in the month of April. Given his talent and the team he plays for, Papelbon could put together his first 40-plus save season, while also keeping his ERA south of 2.00. If he can continue to stay healthy, he’s a sure thing, and you won’t get much of an argument from us if you feel he should be higher rated than K-Rod.

Joe Nathan, Minnesota Twins
37 saves, 4 wins, 1.88 ERA, 1.019 WHIP, 77 K, 19 BB, 71.7 IP

Nathan enters the season seeking an AL-record fifth straight year with 35 saves and a sub-1.10 WHIP. In the past four seasons, he’s 19-8 with 160 saves in 174 chances, which is a 92 percent close rate. He’s aging (33) and might not get a ton of save chances for the rebuilding Twins, but he’s still as steady as they come, and should top out at 35 saves and an ERA as low as 2.00.

The Stars
Take 'Em Trevor Hoffman, Padres
Sure, he’s old. He’s also one of the most consistent relievers and coming off his fourth consecutive season with at least 40 saves. Don’t age hate.

Takashi Saito, Dodgers
Time to give him his due. Despite his age (38) Saito is a solid reliever and nobody should have qualms taking him after the studs come off the board.

Jose Valverde, Astros
Yeah, we know – he probably won’t get as many save opportunities now that he’s in Houston. So what? He’ll probably still get 35-plus and he offers great strikeout potential and a low ERA.

Leave 'Em Huston Street, A’s
He’s still got plenty of upside at 24, but let's look at the facts. He’s coming off an injury-plagued season and he’s on a non-contender.

Eric Gagne, Brewers
Let’s see, he’s an injury risk, faces stiff competition to earn the closer job, and was lit up like a Christmas tree from late July through the postseason. Hmm…

Kevin Gregg, Marlins
How many opportunities do you think the Marlins are going to give him to save games? On top of that, he comes fully loaded with a high ERA and WHIP.

J.J. Putz, Seattle Mariners
40 saves, 1.38 ERA, 0.698 WHIP, 82 K, 13 BB, 71.7 IP

Putz proved last year that he’s clearly one of the best at his position, but could he, his team and subsequently, fantasy owners, be due for a letdown? He reached career-bests in saves (40), ERA (1.38) and WHIP (0.698), but his strikeouts dropped a significant amount and it’s hard to believe the Mariners are going to give him as many save opportunities as they did last year. Don’t get us wrong, however – he’s still a great pick and at the very least should give you 35-plus saves and around 80 Ks again.

Trevor Hoffman, San Diego Padres
42 saves, 4 wins, 2.98 ERA, 1.116 WHIP, 44 K, 15 BB, 57.3 IP

Some are going to look at Hoffman’s age (40) and pass, but look at the stats – his production hasn’t slipped. He’s coming off his fourth consecutive season with at least 40 saves and has more saves than any other player in league history. Why would he slow this year? True, he’s not going to get you a ton of strikeouts, but there aren’t many more reliable in the saves department.

Bobby Jenks, Chicago White Sox
40 saves, 3 wins, 2.77 ERA, 0.892 WHIP, 56 K, 13 BB, 65 IP

Quick, raise your hand if you know how many batters Jenks walked after the All-Star break last year. Anyone? Five? Six? Sorry -- wrong. One. One freaking batter he walked. The hard-throwing Jenks made enormous strides in his second full season as Chicago’s closer, especially considering the Sox lost 90 games last year. At 27, one would think he’s a consistent 40-save pitcher (assuming he gets enough opportunities) and his ERA should hover around 3.20.

Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees
30 saves, 3 wins, 3.15 ERA, 1.121 WHIP, 74 K, 12 BB, 71.3 IP

There’s no question Rivera is still one of the best closers in the game, but he showed his age a bit last season. He no longer can be counted on for 40-plus saves, but owners will take 35-plus any day, especially if he can get his ERA back under 3.00 again. There will probably be younger and perhaps more intriguing closers available on draft day, but given his consistency and the team he plays for, Rivera is still a prime fantasy option.

Jason Isringhausen, St. Louis Cardinals
32 saves, 4 wins, 2.48 ERA, 1.071 WHIP, 54 K, 28 BB, 65.3 IP

That was more like it, wasn’t it? After having hip surgery in the offseason, Isringhausen looked like himself again, saving 32 games in 34 opportunities while also holding batters to a .179 average. His .941 save percentage led the NL by a wide margin, and if the Cards transform into a contender again, he should only get more opportunities. He’s still a small injury risk, but select him with confidence and assume 30-plus saves with an ERA around 2.70 and a WHIP of 1.100.

Value Alert
Takashi Saito, Los Angeles Dodgers
39 saves, 2 wins, 1.40 ERA, 0.715 WHIP, 78 K, 13 BB, 64.3 IP

Time to give Saito his due – his ERA (1.40) and WHIP (0.715) ranked him second among full-time closers to only J.J. Putz. He staved off a sophomore slump, and while he might be on a short leash because of promising young reliever Jonathan Broxton, Saito is a solid fantasy closer. The only drawback to Saito is his age (38), but that shouldn’t stop you from snatching him up after the more established closers are taken off the board. He should get you 30-plus saves and keep his ERA in the ballpark of 2.00.

Billy Wagner, New York Mets
34 saves, 2 wins, 2.63 ERA, 1.127 WHIP, 80 K, 22 BB, 68.3 IP

It appeared that age finally has caught up the flamethrower, who blew four saves and recorded a 3.90 ERA after the All-Star break last season. He’s still a top-10 closer and you won’t be disappointed in the final numbers, but don’t be surprised if his numbers continue to decline. Thirty saves and a 2.80 ERA is a safe projection for Wags in ’08.

Letdown Alert
Francisco Cordero, Cincinnati Reds
44 saves, 0 wins, 2.98 ERA, 1.105 WHIP, 86 K, 18 BB, 63.3 IP

Cordero had a fantastic contract year, posting his best numbers in three seasons. The only knock to his game was that while he had a 1.09 ERA in Milwaukee last year, he had a 6.55 mark on the road. Don’t know how that’s going to translate in Cincinnati, but he should be a solid option nonetheless. He probably won’t get as many save opportunities playing for a bad Reds team, but he should come close to 35 saves while keeping his ERA around 3.00 again.
The Fallbacks

Jose ValverdeJose Valverde, Houston Astros
47 saves, 1 win, 2.66 ERA, 1.119 WHIP, 78 K, 26 BB, 64.3 IP

Valverde exploded onto the scene last year, recording a league-best 47 saves and 2.66 ERA. His previous high for saves was 18, which might indicate that last year was a bit of a fluke. We’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, however, and claim him as the real deal. Now, that’s not to say he’s going to save 47 games again this year. He might not get as many chances for saves in Houston, but he should stop around 35 and hopefully improve on his seven blown opportunities from a year ago.

Chad Cordero, Washington Nationals
37 saves, 3 wins, 3.36 ERA, 1.387 WHIP, 62 K, 29 BB, 75 IP

While Cordero did save 22 of his final 25 opportunities in 2007, he’s clearly regressed since a breakout campaign in 2005. He led the majors with nine blown saves, plays for a bad Nationals team and his strikeout numbers probably won’t top 60. He’s still young (26), so maybe he can still turn it around, but chances are he is what he is at this point – a closer who will top out at 35 saves, 3.30 ERA, 60 Ks. That’s certainly not bad, but wouldn’t you rather have a closer on the upside?

Letdown Alert
Huston Street, Oakland A’s
16 saves, 5 wins, 2.88 ERA, 0.940 WHIP, 63 K, 12 BB, 50 IP

Street is still one of the more promising young closers in the game, but he’s also one of the most frustrating from a fantasy standpoint. He has the lowest WHIP (1.02) of active pitchers with 175-plus games of work, but he also has serious health issues and plays for a non-contender in Oakland. Given what he did two years ago (37 saves), some might overvalue him and place him in the same group as Bobby Jenks, Takashi Saito and even Mariano Rivera -- but don’t be that person. He’s a bigger risk than you think.

Matt Capps, Pittsburgh Pirates
18 saves, 4 wins, 2.28 ERA, 1.013 WHIP, 64 K, 16 BB, 79 IP

Capps is the type of player who gets fantasy owners frustrated, but in a good way. He’s a great young talent who proved last year that he could close at the big-league level, but he also plays for a team that’s not going to give him a ton of save opportunities. Even given his talent, he probably won’t save more than 20-plus games this year, but he should keep his ERA around 3.10 and his WHIP around 1.100. Maybe the Pirates will trade him and fantasy owners can all rejoice.

Manny Corpas, Colorado Rockies
19 saves, 4 wins, 2.08 ERA, 1.064 WHIP, 58 K, 20 BB, 78 IP

Yes, Corpas did convert 19 of 20 save opportunities after taking over for Brian Fuentes midseason. But he also plays in Colorado where there’s a revolving door for closers. He’s definitely worth a look because he has 30-save potential and he should keep his ERA south of 3.00, but he’s still a slight risk.

Todd Jones, Detroit Tigers
38 saves, 1 wins, 4.26 ERA, 1.419 WHIP, 33 K, 23 BB, 61.3 IP

Jones has received plenty of criticism for making things interesting when he comes in to close out games, but he did finish with 38 saves in 2007 after converting 37 opportunities in 2006. There are major question marks surrounding his game, however, none bigger than his bloated ERA and weak strikeout totals. Another potential issue for Jones’ owners is Joel Zumaya. The Tigers eventually want the young flamethrower to take over at closer whenever he can get healthy. If he can hold off Zumaya, Jones should rack up another 30-plus saves, but his ERA and WHIP will no doubt be high again.

Letdown Alert
Kevin Gregg, Florida Marlins
32 saves, 0 wins, 3.54 ERA, 1.226 WHIP, 87 K, 40 BB, 84 IP

Gregg saved a career-high 32 games last year, but be careful about overvaluing him. The Marlins aren’t likely to give him many save opportunities this year, and given his high 1.226 WHIP, his ’07 season might have been a little fluky. The good news is that he’s a decent option late in the draft and shouldn’t have any competition to keep the closer role.

Rafael Soriano, Atlanta Braves
9 saves, 3 wins, 3.00 ERA, 0.861 WHIP, 70 K, 15 BB, 72 IP

In 12 appearances in September last season, Soriano posted an ERA of 0.69 and held batters to a .093 average. He’s an excellent sleeper candidate who could essentially record 30-plus saves on a contending Braves team. The only drawback to his game is that he probably won’t get you a ton of strikeouts, and he’s never been a full-time closer. Still, he’d make a nice late-round addition and could really surprise.

Value Alert
Joakim Soria, Kansas City Royals
17 saves, 2 wins, 2.48 ERA, 0.942 WHIP, 75 K, 19 BB, 69 IP

Soria was a pleasant surprise for the Royals last year and might turn out to be a pleasant fantasy surprise this season, too. His value takes a hit since he pitches for K.C., but he could reach 20-plus saves and 70 Ks this season, which is certainly nothing to scoff at.
The Gambles

Brad LidgeBrad Lidge, Philadelphia Phillies
19 saves, 5 wins, 3.36 ERA, 1.254 WHIP, 88 K, 30 BB, 67 IP

Wait, isn’t the old Lidge back after regaining the closer role from Dan Wheeler last year and inking a new deal with a contending Phillies team? Well, yes and no. While he should get more save opportunities in Philadelphia, he’ll also pitch in one of the most home run-friendly parks in the ML. He also had knee surgery in late February and it’s uncertain at this point if he’ll even be ready for Opening Day. He’s a top-15 closer when healthy and probably the reliever most worth the risk, but he’s still a risk nonetheless.

Joe Borowski, Cleveland Indians
45 saves, 4 wins, 5.07 ERA, 1.431 WHIP, 58 K, 17 BB, 65.7 IP

The good: Borowski lead the AL in saves with 45. The bad: His ERA was a ridiculous 5.07. The ugly: Even though he was the 2007 save leader, he might not even hold onto the closer role all season with Rafael Betancourt in the picture. Borowski should open the season as Cleveland’s closer, but Betancourt (currently the setup man) might bump him at some point during the season. Borowski is a nice option, but understand you might be looking for a closer midseason if Betancourt steps up.

Letdown Alert
Eric Gagne, Milwaukee Brewers
16 saves, 4 wins, 3.81 ERA, 1.346 WHIP, 51 K, 21 BB, 52 IP

So which Eric Gagne do you believe will show up in Milwaukee? The one who was having a comeback year in Texas or the one who imploded under the pressure-packed playoff race in Boston? Gagne definitely proved that he still has some game left in the first half with the Rangers, but after July 22, batters hit .340 against him. Considering Francisco Cordero saved 44 games last year in Milwaukee, owners might view Gagne as a sleeper. But don’t forget he has injury concerns, and more importantly the Brewers have other closer options in Derrick Turnbow, David Riske and Salomon Torres.

B.J. Ryan, Toronto Blue Jays
3 saves, 0 wins, 12.46 ERA, 2.538 WHIP, 3 K, 4 BB, 4.3 IP

Ryan had Tommy John elbow surgery last May and might not even be completely healthy by Opening Day. He’ll also have to stave off youngster Jeremy Accardo, who pitched well in Ryan’s absence last season. If Ryan can show the Jays he’s healthy, he might assume the closer duties at some point during the season, but he’s a risk at this point.

The Top Setup Men

Rafael Betancourt, Cleveland Indians
3 saves, 5 wins, 1.48 ERA, 0.756 WHIP, 80 K, 9 BB, 79.3 IP

Sleeper alert – Betancourt will start the season as the Tribe’s setup man, but he has a great chance to leapfrog incumbent closer Joe Borowski at some point during the year. Given Borowski’s injury history and flair for the dramatic while trying to close out games, it’s likely Betancourt will get a shot at some save opportunities. And even if he doesn’t, he’s sure to keep his ERA below 3.00 and his WHIP around 1.000, so he makes a good relief option either way.

Hideki OkajimaJonathan Broxton, Los Angeles Dodgers
2 saves, 4 wins, 2.85 ERA, 1.146 WHIP, 99 K, 25 BB, 82 IP

Takashi Saito is the Dodgers’ closer, but given his age and immense talent, the team might give Broxton some save opportunities throughout the season. Broxton has a nasty fastball and his attitude shouts closer. Draft him as a reliever, but keep an eye on his progress because he might become a closer by the end of the year.

Hideki Okajima, Boston Red Sox
5 saves, 3 wins, 2.22 ERA, 0.971 WHIP, 63 K, 17 BB, 69 IP

Okajima will again set up closer Jonathan Papelbon – a role he had great success with last year as a rookie. Okajima will get the occasional save opportunity, but draft him for his low ERA and WHIP. Not to wish harm on any player, but if Papelbon were to ever fall victim to injury, Okajima could pay off huge as a late round pickup.

The Rest Value Alert
Jeremy Accardo, Toronto Blue Jays
30 saves, 4 wins, 2.14 ERA, 1.114 WHIP, 57 K, 24 BB, 67.3 IP

Accardo stepped into the closer’s role last year when B.J. Ryan was shelved due to reconstructive elbow surgery. While he should assume the closing duties again, would a healthy Ryan send Accardo back to a setup role? He’s a nice, young pitcher with plenty of potential, but his stock takes a hit with the uncertainly of Ryan’s status.

CJ Wilson, Texas Rangers
12 saves, 2 wins, 3.03 ERA, 1.215 WHIP, 63 K, 33 BB, 68.3 IP

After Eric Gagne was dealt to the Red Sox at the trade deadline last year, Wilson assumed the closer role in Texas and went 2-0 with a 3.07 ERA while saving 12 of 13 opportunities. He has the potential to toss 50-plus Ks and save 25 games, although he doesn’t play for a contender, so his opportunities will be limited. Consider him a deep sleeper.

Brian Wilson, San Francisco Giants
6 saves, 1 win, 2.28 ERA, 0.972 WHIP, 18 K, 7 BB, 23.7 IP

Wilson is actually one of the more intriguing fantasy prospects, although he might be another year or two away from emerging as a good option. He’s got a good fastball and definitely has the tough mentality to be an effective closer, but he pitches for the lowly Giants and is likely to see some ups and downs in his first full season. Much like CJ Wilson, consider him a deep sleeper.

Troy Percival, Tampa Bay Rays
0 saves, 3 wins, 1.80 ERA, 0.850 WHIP, 36 K, 10 BB, 40 IP

Completely written off because of retirement and elbow surgery, Percival quietly re-emerged as a solid reliever again in 2007. He might not become the Rays’ Opening Day closer, but he’s certainly a candidate to earn the role later in the season. He should only be considered a reliever at this point, but he’s a potential late round sleeper candidate.

Kerry WoodKerry Wood, Carlos Marmol, Bob Howry, Chicago Cubs
0 saves, 1 win, 3.33 ERA, 1.274 WHIP, 24 K, 13 BB, 24.3 IP
1 saves, 5 wins, 1.43 ERA, 1.096 WHIP, 96 K, 35 BB, 69.3 IP
8 saves, 6 wins, 3.32 ERA, 1.168 WHIP, 72 K, 19 BB, 81.3 IP

This one gets tricky. Truth be told, all three of these Cubs’ pitchers would make a sleeper closing candidate, especially Marmol, who has excellent strikeout potential. But which one will emerge in spring training? Chances are you won’t know by draft day, so grab another closer, but keep your eye on which pitcher Chicago settles on, because chances are, he’s going to get plenty of save opportunities on a contending team.

Brandon Lyon, Arizona Diamondbacks
2 saves, 6 wins, 2.68 ERA, 1.243 WHIP, 40 K, 22 BB, 74 IP

Lyon is an intriguing prospect, but the Diamondbacks are likely to use him primarily as a setup man, at least to start the season. He’ll compete with Tony Pena and Chad Qualls for the closer job, but as of right now, he’ll likely lose out to Pena in spring training. Keep an eye on Lyon throughout the spring and especially if he makes your free agent pool. He might be a sleeper in the second half of the season.

Value Alert
George Sherrill, Baltimore Orioles
3 saves, 2 wins, 2.37 ERA, 0.985 WHIP, 56 K, 17 BB, 45.7 IP

Sherrill has already missed some time this spring with a strained left hamstring, but he’s still the favorite to close in Baltimore. Obviously he’s a bit of an injury risk, but he has decent strikeout potential and he’s lowered his ERA in each of the past three seasons.