Top 50 Fantasy Relief Pitchers

By Tony Andracki

Tony Andracki Lead Journalist

1. Jonathan Papelbon BOS

Relief pitchers is one of the toughest positions to rank, because preseason, it’s near impossible to tell who will be best when the clock strikes midnight because so many things factor into the final decision—ERA, saves, strikeouts, wins, etc. It’s too hard to decipher whether a relief pitcher will have a great ERA or not because one bad outing can screw an entire year. As much as I like to think so, I don’t know everything and I am no Norstradamus. However, that being said, Papelbon is the clear No. 1 in my eyes. Barring injury, he has maybe the safest job on the planet for a team that is bound to get plenty of opportunities for wins. And wins=save opportunities and Papelbon just doesn’t blow saves. He just doesn’t. It’s more taboo than laughing at a funeral or invading somebody’s personal space. Pap will give you a low ERA (he always does), and though his walk total went through the roof last year thus inflating his WHIP (Walks + Hits/Innings Pitched), he should come back to his career norms in ’10.

2. Jonathan Broxton LAD

Had to go with the other Jonathan here, even if he is on the opposite coast and in a different league than Papelbon. No matter what happens, there is one guarantee in pitching in fantasy baseball—Broxton will get you strikeouts. He struck out 13.5 batters per nine innings last year for Pete’s sake! (Which, by the way, who was Pete and where did that saying come from? Why is everybody so worried about Pete and his well-being?) Anyways…Broxton also plays on a very good team that will once again get wins and provide him with plenty of save opportunities. The Dodgers don’t blow anybody out, so they should have plenty of close games, games that Broxton will close out with his dominant, near-unhittable ways.

3. Joe Nathan MIN

I was really tempted to put Nathan as the No. 1 reliever, but maybe for age alone, I had to drop him below the Jonathans. Nathan is 35 now, and no matter what my mom says, that is old, at least in baseball years. He will continue to put up dominant numbers as the closer for the Twins for the next three years or so, but he is bound to decline at some point. So, for those of you in deep keeper leagues, look into finding a replacement now. As for 2010, however, don’t bother. Fresh off an ’09 campaign in which he set a career high with 47 saves, Nathan once again posted a WHIP below 1.00, though his 2.10 ERA was by far his worst total in four years. Funny that a 2.10 ERA could be a negative, but it just was a slight disappointment for Nathan owners. The only constants in life are life, death, and the Twins challenging for the AL Central title with some quality pitching. Whoever pitches ahead of Nathan and whoever is in that lineup, Nathan will have plenty of opportunities and his job is as secure as Brink’s Home Security (man, I should really start charging people for advertising in these articles, I could make a killing).

4. Mariano Rivera NYY

Mo is 39, which seems about right, I guess, when I think about how long he has been around. But, considering the numbers the dude has put up the last two seasons, he seems more like 29. Mo will decline eventually, though there’s no telling when. You could see a slight downtick in his numbers, what after his 24th World Series run and all, but he still should be in line for plenty of saves with a real low ERA and a WHIP that’s so microscopic, you’d need a microscope to see it (hence the description, I guess).

5. Joakim Soria KC

Soria has rough luck. He doesn’t get the respect he deserves in real life because his team isn’t a big market club and he doesn’t get the respect he deserves in the fantasy world because he doesn’t have many save chances. I guess all that could be fixed if the Royals win a few games for the first time since George Brett left, but hey, that could be asking for too much. Despite an inflated ERA, WHIP, batting average against and a decreasing save total, Soria did post the best strikeout numbers of his career (11.7 K/9). And, hey, he did set a career high in wins, vulturing three, count ‘em—three, after garnering just two each the previous two seasons. That’s an extra 10 points in my points fantasy league, so I will take that, sir.

6. Francisco Rodriguez NYM

I was really tempted to put K-Rod lower just because everybody made so much hype about his 62-save season in ’08. I mean, that’s awesome, don’t get me wrong, but he signed a completely Chris Bridges contract (oh, that’s Ludacris’s real name by the way). But, the fact of the matter is, I think K-Rod is the next best option available on the list, for the right price, that is. Don’t overdraft because he’s not worth it, especially after his strikeout totals have decreased for three straight seasons while his WHIP and walk totals have gone up for four straight years. He is still very dominant at times, and the Mets should be much better overall in ’10, so he will have plenty of opportunities again. His ERA should come back to his career norm of 2.53, but then again, who knows anymore? He’s a risk, but 2010 should be less like 2009 and more like 2007, except for maybe the strikeouts.

7. Heath Bell SD

Bell is nothing flashy, especially considering he pitches for maybe the most boring club on the planet right now. His ERA is pretty good. Not top notch, but still solid, and he strikes out slightly more than a hitter an inning. Despite his low-quality club, Bell is in line for a lot of saves because when the Padres do win, it’s usually by just a run or two, so he is always on the hook for a stop. Nothing sexy, but he can help win you a fantasy championship because you’ll likely get him on the cheap because he is still somewhat of an unknown in fantasy circles.

8. Carlos Marmol CHC

This is only assuming Marmol is the surefire closer of the Cubs. I know that doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, but his 7.9 walks/nine innings doesn’t exactly make me want to jump for joy, either. I mean, that is just ridiculous. Eight walks per nine innings?! I could throw more strikes than that. I mean, I’d get lit up, but still. The thing is, though, Marmol is nearly unhittable. In the past three seasons, the 27-year-old from the Dominican Republic has only given up 124 hits in 230 innings, for an average that is on the right side of .200. He doesn’t compound his walks with hits, considering he handed out 65 free passes and just allowed 43 hits last year, which makes for his low ERA. Marmol also racks up the strikeouts and may be the only other closer besides Broxton that could actually reach triple digits in that category before the season ends. If he could just get that walk rate down to like five walks per nine, which is still awful, he would be one heck of a closer. The Cubs should rebound, too, so he should have plenty of opportunities.

9. Trevor Hoffman MIL

The man with the best changeup in the game really threw the world a changeup last season. After an unusually pedestrian ’08 season (in which he posted an ERA of 3.77, oh the horror) by his standards, Hoffman up and left San Diego, where he was more entrenched than John Mayer is in the music world (come on, enough already John), for Milwaukee. Many people thought he was done and just going there to ride out his career.  Instead, he turned in the second-lowest ERA and WHIP of his career while blowing just four games for the Brewers. Now that everybody thinks he’s one of the top closers in the game again, he may just up and go back into decline mode, but that’s about the only risk that this point. His whiff numbers are nothing to write home about, either, but he should be consistent and may come cheap if other owners are wary of his advanced age (42).

10. Brian Fuentes LAA

Below Marmol, things get really slim here as for top notch closers. Every one of these guys, Hoffman included, has a major flaw. Fuentes’ is his regression across the board in ’09. Sure, he led the Majors with 48 saves, which is great, but the rest of his numbers were nothing like what anybody expected. It was his worst WHIP, ERA and strikeout totals since he became a closer in 2005 and he blew seven save chances. However, his job is secure at the moment and you could do worse than his final ’09 numbers. The Angels will once again contend and once again need somebody to act as a stopper because they won’t be blowing anybody out that often, so chances will be aplenty for Fuentes.

11. Francisco Cordero CIN

Coco Cordero, as he is sometimes known, rebounded from a couple of somewhat down years to post a 2.16 ERA while converting on 39 of 43 save chances in ’09. The problem is, he somehow lost his ability to strike batters out, posting by far his worst strikeout rate in the past decade. His WHIP (1.32) was relatively high by comparison to his ERA and his batting average against was the highest it’s been in three years. It appears that the only reasons for his low ERA total was a little luck and the fact that he only surrendered two home runs. He is still a solid No. 1 closer because he is cemented into his spot at the end of the bullpen and will always convert his chances, but he isn’t what he used to be.

12. Brian Wilson SF

Wilson was barely an afterthought as a closer in ’08, but improved across the board in 2009. He did blow seven saves, but did so with five wins, a 2.74 ERA, 38 saves, 83 Ks in 72.1 IP, a .223 batting average against and a 1.20 WHIP. He isn’t the safest option, considering he has just one successful season under his belt, but his job seems pretty secure, even if Jeremy Affeldt is flourishing in the setup role. I would say make him put up another season just like last year before jumping the gun and ranking him in the Top 10.

13. Frank Francisco TEX

F Dubs had an up and down 2009, but mainly because of injuries. However, his job is secure because it was waiting for him whenever he got off the DL last year and the best option for Texas right now besides F Dubs is C.J. Wilson, and he isn’t exactly the best closing option out there. Assuming Francisco is healthy, he will strikeout more than a batter per inning with a solid save conversion rate, a decent ERA and a good WHIP.

14. Andrew Bailey OAK

The reigning AL Rookie of the Year will not repeat his awesome ’09 numbers in 2010. I repeat: he will not repeat. Bailey may be good, in fact, he may be awesome. But last year was just too successful for a young kid to maintain back-to-back seasons. He will, however, still rack up some strikeouts and should have a pretty good ERA and WHIP.

15. Ryan Franklin STL

Franklin is a good reliever. But, is he as good as he was in 2009? Hell to the no! Pitching for the Cardinals, he will continue to get plenty of saves. Pitching under Tony LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan, he will continue to have success pitching. But, he will not have a 1.92 ERA again, especially not with a 1.20 WHIP. He doesn’t strike out many batters, either, so if he does struggle, that’s not a fallback option. Franklin will be a good No. 2 closer on your fantasy team, but he will not be great. Don’t pay for last year’s season.

16. Rafael Soriano TB—Underrated, will get lots of Ks and saves with a good club

17. Jose Valverde DET—Move to AL may drop his numbers slightly, but still good option

18. Kerry Wood CLE—On a rough team, but if he starts hot could be traded by deadline

19. Mike Gonzalez BAL—Good strikeouts, not many opportunities on Baltimore though

20. Chad Qualls ARI—Secure job on a pretty good team=lots of opportunities

21. Bobby Jenks CWS—Will post lots of saves, but decreasing Ks a worry

22. Octavio Dotel PIT—Should close, but Joel Hanrahan could vulture saves, lots of Ks

23. Huston Street COL—Great ’09, but his job is not as secure as it may seem

24. Matt Thornton CWS—Closer in waiting, lots of holds, great Ks, ERA and WHIP

25. Billy Wagner ATL—High risk because of injury and age, but could pay off big time

26. David Aardsma SEA—Don’t draft based on career ’09 statistics

27. Brad Lidge PHI—Could there be a more inconsistent closer in the history of the game?

28. Phil Hughes NYY—Really came into his own pitching out of the ‘pen last year

29. Jason Frasor TOR—Will close to start the season, but Downs hot on his heels

30. Matt Guerrier MIN—Led MLB in holds last season, should garner a lot again

31. Michael Wuertz OAK—Lots of Ks, with a good ERA and WHIP and could pick up some holds

32. Jeremy Affeldt SF—Another real good setup man who should post good ERA

33. George Sherrill LAD—Should act as primary setup man to Broxton

34. Matt Lindstrom/Brandon Lyon HOU—Battling for closer role

35. Scott Downs TOR—Very good setup man and could vulture some saves from Frasor

36. Leo Nunez/Dan Meyer FLA—Both in the mix for the closer role

37. Matt Capps/Brian Bruney WAS—Vying for closing duties on a bad team, stay away

38. Ryan Madson PHI—Good setup man and could be in line to close if Lidge fails

39. Rafael Betancourt COL—Proven late-inning guy could close if Street gets injured again

40. Joel Hanrahan PIT—Will post good ERA and WHIP and could get some saves

41. Mike Adams SD—If Heath Bell gets traded, Adams is in line to close

42. Joba Chamberlain/Neftali Feliz NYY/TEX—Will they pitch out of the pen again?

43. C.J. Wilson TEX—Francisco is anything but durable, so Wilson could be in line for some saves

44. LaTroy Hawkins MIL—Successful season closing last year, could step in if Hoffman struggles

45. John Grabow CHC—Should be in line for lots of holds as setup man for Marmol

46. Nick Masset CIN—Top setup man with lots of holds, could close if Cordero is dealt

47. Kelvim Escobar NYM—Will be setup man to K-Rod, injury-prone so beware

48. Scot Shields LAA—Great setup man, but rebounding from shoulder injury

49. Peter Moylan ATL—Great WHIP and ERA, didn’t allow a HR in ‘09

50. Drew Storen WAS—Supposed to be the next top-end closer

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