Eric Mack
Tuesday March 15th, 2011

Closers are always a mess. This year there is no clear No. 1, although Brian Wilson is the best bet, and this week has seen a number of top-tier closers slide in the rankings.

Neftali Feliz has had a change of heart (sort of) and now says he would prefer to start. Andrew Bailey is visiting Dr. James Andrews, moving Brian Fuentes to the top spot. Alexi Ogando and Mark Lowe are no longer no-where men in fantasy.

Ah, just another run-of-the-mill wacky week (er, Monday) for the closer position in Spring Training. And it won't end here.

It is the reason you wait, wait and wait some more if you're not locking up an elite closer early on draft day. That pick you make is liable to go bust before Opening Day by a manager's mere change of heart.

How many closers are elite? Let's just say a handful, such as Wilson, Jon Papelbon, Mariano Rivera, Heath Bell, Carlos Marmol and Joakim Soria.

Even some of those ranked elite might be worthless setup men by midseason; see free-agent-to-be Bell.

Few owners like Papelbon because of his mediocre performance in 2010. Rivera is past his prime and is the age of 40 with a closer-in-waiting behind him in Rafael Soriano. Marmol is alternately a wild card on a year-to-year basis. And Soria pitches for one of the worst teams in baseball. Sure, if the Royals win games, they figure to be close, but how can you be sure they are going to win more than a game or two a week?

Feliz moves from four to six in the closer rankings -- for now. But that fall could be a lot longer once it is officially announced he will be a full-time starter.

To clear up an early spring rush to judgment, Feliz said he always preferred to be a starting pitcher. Armed with 100 mph fastball, he could be a dominant one in the long term. But you never know how your shoulder is going to react with 180-plus innings through 30 starts on it vs. the 69 1/3 he pitched last season in the bullpen.

It makes him less valuable in fantasy because he is less of a sure thing. There are at least 25 starting pitchers you should prefer to have in fantasy, maybe even 30 or 40. As a closer, he was arguably a No. 1A to the Giants' bearded Mr. Wilson.

Adam Wainwright gave us the early spring warning of starting pitcher risk. Feliz is giving us the mid-spring yellow (or red) light on closer risk, if only because they get a downgrade because the manager changes the role on you.

Alexi Ogando is the most likely candidate to close for the Rangers if Feliz remains a starter into the season. Mark Lowe might also be in the mix, but he doesn't have experience with it either, even if he has been a decent setup man before.

The worse-case scenario would be the dreaded bullpen-by-committee. That would just make a further mess of the closer rankings, which are already the hardest to discern in fantasy right now.

There is talk that with the early struggles of Drew Storen this spring, the Nats might have to go with the closer committee with Tyler Clippard and lefty Sean Burnett. That is a far less fantasy-relevant position battle, though.

But how about Oakland? Former AL ROY Andrew Bailey has elbow and forearm stiffness that is sending him to DJA (Dr. James Andrews), who already operated once on his elbow. With Brian Fuentes with the A's on a one-year deal, it certainly looks like it might be time to swap spots with those A's relievers. Grant Balfour is a name in the mix, too.

At least that situation has an answer. The biggest mess might be in Tampa Bay, where J.P. Howell currently tops's depth chart but he reportedly won't be ready off shoulder surgery until May. Joel Peralta and Kyle Farnsworth have the most experience, while rookie/TJS survivor Jake McGee has already gotten six strong innings or work in. (Jeremy Hellickson, projected to be the No. 5 starter and not the closer after Matt Garza was dealt, has pitched just one inning because of a leg injury.)

Here are the current closer statuses of all 30 teams as of Tuesday:

AL East

Boston Red Sox -- Papelbon set (Daniel Bard and Bobby Jenks setting up) New York Yankees -- Rivera etched in stone (Soriano setting up) Tampa Bay Rays -- TBD (hopefully McGee with Peralta and Farnsworth setting up) Toronto Blue Jays -- Octavio Dotel likely (Jon Rauch setting up) Baltimore Orioles -- Koji Uehara likely (Kevin Gregg, Mike Gonzalez and Jim Johnson setting up)

The Rays, Blue Jays and Orioles still don't have a set closer, so things could change.

AL Central

Minnesota Twins -- Joe Nathan possible (Matt Capps perhaps closing initially) Chicago White Sox -- Matt Thornton likely (Chris Sale still competing) Detroit Tigers -- Jose Valverde etched in stone (Joaquin Benoit and Ryan Perry setting up with Joel Zumaya banged up) Cleveland Indians -- Chris Perez set (Rafael Perez likely setting up) Kansas City Royals -- Soria a lock (Robinson Tejeda setting up)

This is a far more stable division than the AL East right now, but there is still some uncertainty amid Nathan's hittable spring.

AL West

Texas Rangers -- TBD (likely Ogando with Lowe setting up) Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim -- Fernando Rodney (with Scott Downs and Hisanori Takahashi setting up) Oakland Athletics -- TBD (likely Fuentes with Balfour setting up) Seattle Mariners -- Brandon League set (at least until David Aardsma is ready mid-April or beyond)

This is a division full of sketchy closers. The only set one, Rodney, has been a career enigma. A "Feliz to close" announcement would change a lot of things, though

NL East

Philadelphia Phillies -- Brad Lidge set (Ryan Madson setting up) Atlanta Braves -- TBD with Craig Kimbrel (rough start) and Jonny Venters (great spring) still competing Florida Marlins -- Leo Nunez set (Clay Hensley and Mike Dunn setting up) New York Mets -- Francisco Rodriguez etched in stone (Bobby Parnell likely setting up) Washington Nationals -- TBD with Storen, Clippard and Burnett an underwhelming three-headed monster

Kimbrel is this year's potential Bailey/Feliz ROY story. He needs to show some more before he wins the job, though. Venters has been lights out. K-Rod is the Mets closer still but a ridiculous $17.5 million option-vesting with 55 games finished could muddle things.

NL Central

Cincinnati Reds -- Francisco Cordero is set (Aroldis Chapman lurks as the setup man) Milwaukee Brewers -- John Axford is set (Takashi Saito setting up and Zach Braddock lurking) St. Louis Cardinals -- Ryan Franklin locked in (Jason Motte setting up with Kyle McClellan all but certain to start now) Chicago Cubs -- Carlos Marmol etched in stone (Kerry Wood setting up) Houston Astros -- Brandon Lyon set (Wilton Lopez and Jeff Fulchino likely setting up) Pittsburgh Pirates -- Joel Hanrahan penciled in for now (Evan Meek setting up and lurking)

This is another Central division with some more certainty, albeit less fantasy-worthy sure things.

NL West

San Francisco Giants -- Wilson etched in stone (Sergio Romo and Jeremy Affeldt setting up) Colorado Rockies -- Huston Street set (Matt Lindstrom setting up) Los Angeles Dodgers -- Jonathan Broxton set (Hong Chih-Kuo and Matt Guerrier setting up) San Diego -- Bell set until he is dealt (Luke Gregerson setting up and Mike Adam lurking) Arizona Diamondbacks -- J.J. Putz set (Juan Gutierrez and David Hernandez setting up)

This is the only division in baseball where all five closers are sure things. It doesn't mean we should rate them all highly.

We will do this exercise one more time before the start of the season, hopefully with far more answers than questions.

Eric Mack writes bi-weekly for You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy. Hit him up. He honestly has nothing better to do with his free time.

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