Closer rankings

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Danny Weeks isn't a fantasy baseball expert. He's just a good friend who recently turned the big 4-0. He's an unapologetic New York Yankee loyalist, a consummate beer-league third baseman and an unflagging competitor who loves sacrifice bunts. I've seen Danny routinely stop hot shots with his face at third, pick up the ball with only the hint of a grimace and gun dudes down by a step. If you're an ASA umpire and you burn him with a bad call, prepare for a vociferous exchange.

Danny's loyalty and convictions naturally extend to the usual New York Yankee royalty, and if he played fantasy baseball, he'd undoubtedly reach a couple rounds too early for Derek Jeter. In a recent verbal joust we covered a host of my favorite topics -- from A-Rod's offseason to Jorge Posada's ever-diminishing ability to prevent balls from smashing against the backstop. Though we frequently disagreed, mostly about Jeter, Danny tossed out one undeniable comment regarding closers that I couldn't refute -- Mariano Rivera is the best closer ever. He even went a step further, pointing out that every time he and his Yankee-obsessed family hop on Exit 21 on the New York State Thruway and make the two-hour trip down to the games, he reiterates to his three young daughters that Mo is the best role player in perhaps the history of sports.

I'm equally impressed with the raw physical skills and aggressive mentality of Jonathan Papelbon -- a ruggedly built young man in the classic closer mold who already owns a World Series ring. Papelbon idolizes Rivera -- and while the blistering speed and nasty splitter are important to his success, he's not necessarily poised for as long a career in a closing role if he keeps beating on his arm. In searching for another Rivera-style closer who's bound for a comparable career, I'd lean toward the Royals' Joakim Soria, who's about as analogous to Mo as you're going to get when it comes to his naturally cutting fastball and easy, repeatable delivery. He probably won't win as many pennants as Rivera, but the aforementioned traits they share have helped Rivera consistently put up ungodly numbers in his chosen vocation.

Even mechanically, the two are similar. Soria, like Rivera, has a high-three-quarters release point and gets ahead of hitters quickly with his 88-93 mph fastball. Like Rivera, he regularly throws first-pitch strikes and can work over hitters with multiple pitches. The "Mexicutioner" also mixes in a sharp dropping knuckle-curve and a plus changeup with good movement that's often his out pitch. Sure, he's got remarkable poise for a 24-year-old, but it's the jumpy fastball and outstanding late-breaking stuff that means he could be doing it for a very long time. Shouldn't that be the true mark of the game's best closers -- and exactly what you're looking for on your fantasy team?

I'm actually taking over this column from RotoExpert Paul Bourdett this season while he focuses on weekly waiver wire additions in The Pickup Artist. Paul said in last month's draft kit that in standard 5x5 leagues, there are two things you should look for out of your relievers: saves and strikeouts (in that order). He also pointed out that the sum of your fantasy bullpen's parts is more important than any individual player, that starter performance and avoiding disaster in your bullpen are the primary factors in your WHIP and ERA standing from week-to-week. I'm not going to disagree with Paul; I think he's doled out solid advice. Where I'll try to diverge is by pointing out the closers and setup men who possess the requisite movement on their fastballs and a nice off-speed mélange -- a combination that helps keep arms healthy and jobs safe. So let's get to the pecking order, where things can change pretty quickly. I've italicized last year's numbers, leading off with saves, opportunities and save percentage.

Mariano Rivera, NYY39-for-40 (97.5%), 70.2 IP, 77 Ks, 1.40 ERA, 0.67 WHIPThe shoulder looks A-OK and Rivera still shows no signs of age that could threaten his job security. He's coming off one of his best statistical seasons ever, so age is not an issue. What's interesting is that the Yankees have a myriad of options behind him, including a few guys in Damaso Marte, Brian Bruney, Jose Veras or even Joba Chamberlain -- who could get the job done if Mo ever went down. Unless there's a major setback, Rivera should continue to be his usual unhittable self as the Yanks' closer.Next in line: Damaso MarteThird in line: Edwar Ramirez, Brian Bruney

Jonathan Papelbon, BOS41-for-46 (89.1%), 69.1 IP, 77 Ks, 2.34 ERA, 0.95 WHIPI always worry about his arm, but Papelbon is probably the critics' odds-on favorite to lead the majors in saves and strikeouts among closers. Behind him are Hideki Okajima, as well as former Dodgers closer Takashi Saito. Both are effective setup men who'll post admirable numbers in deep leagues that reward WHIP and holds.Next in line: Hideki OkajimaThird in line: Takashi Saito, Manny Delcarmen

Joe Nathan, MIN39-for-45 (86.7%), 67.2 IP, 74 Ks, 1.33 ERA, 0.90 WHIPNathan pulled out of the World Baseball Classic because of a sore shoulder, but was perfect in his recent one-inning appearance against the Orioles. It looks like the shoulder is all better. Nathan has multiple pitches and a very effective four-seam fastball that spikes in the high 90s, but he's been developing a cutter that could be his ticket to a long career.Next in line: Jesse CrainThird in line: Craig Breslow, Luis Ayala

Brad Lidge, PHI41-for-41 (100%), 69.1 IP, 92 Ks, 1.95 ERA, 1.23 WHIPLidge was perfect in 2008 and looked like the closer we all remember before the unseemly debacle in Houston where he lost his job after a bunch of blown saves. He's actually the all-time leader in K/9 (12.98) among pitchers with at least 200 appearances in their career. I had nearly forgotten that just last year he tore the meniscus in his right knee during spring training, had arthroscopic surgery, and sat out until April 5. But "Lights Out" Lidge rebounded and used his two-pitch repertoire to consistently mow down opposing hitters.Next in line: Ryan MadsonThird in line: Chad Durbin

Joakim Soria, KC42-for-45 (93.3%), 67.1 IP, 66 Ks, 1.60 ERA, 0.86 WHIPI just can't stop singing the praises of Soria, whose job security rivals the best closers in the league. He's got it all as a closer -- a live arm, a bunch of weapons and poise. He's good enough to draft among the top five RP in any league even though he plays for a team that'll likely win less than 80 games. Juan Cruz is a quality setup man who struck out an amazing 71 batters in 51.2 innings last year for the D-Backs and held the opposition to a .192 BA.Next in line: Juan CruzThird in line: Kyle Farnsworth, Ron Mahay

Francisco Rodríguez, NYM62-for-69 (89.9%), 68.1 IP, 77 Ks, 2.24 ERA, 1.29 WHIPK-Rod's jerky motion and flimsy ankles are the main reasons I don't like his inclusion among the league's elite closers. Sure, he blew up for 62 saves last season, but anything over 50 is truly an anomaly. He's got a proven stud behind him, and if he struggles, there will be whispers about putting in J.J. Putz. Beware drafting Rodriguez among the top three closers, even though it's been chic to do so.Next in line: J.J. PutzThird in line: Pedro Feliciano

Jonathan Broxton, LAD14-for-22 (63.6%), 69 IP, 88 Ks, 3.13 ERA, 1.17 WHIPIt was only a matter of time before Broxton entered a season as the Dodgers' closer. He's got a heavy sinker and can get outs, but needs to prove he's meant to be LA's finisher. Hong-Chih Kuo is a solid middle-reliever and setup man, but has struggled to stay healthy over the years. Corey Wade is an up-and-comer with a nice arsenal of live pitches at his disposal.Next in line: Hong-Chih KuoThird in line: Corey Wade, Guillermo Mota

Bobby Jenks, CWS30-for-34 (88.2%), 61.2 IP, 38 Ks, 2.63 ERA, 1.10 WHIPJenks isn't as overpowering as he was in 2006 and 2007, but he's still fairly effective. Anything can happen at any time in Chicago, and of the guys who've racked up a ton of saves over the past few years, I like Jenks the least because he doesn't have great off-speed stuff outside of a plus curve. He's not very deceptive -- almost Farnsworth-ish in that respect, and you can ask people from New York what they think of Kyle Farnsworth (RP, KC).Next in line: Matt ThorntonThird in line: Octavio Dotel, Scott Linebrink

José Valverde, HOU44-for-51 (86.3%), 72 IP, 83 Ks, 3.38 ERA, 1.18 WHIPValverde limits mistakes by mixing up his four pitches (two-seamer, four-seamer, splitter and slider) and walking few batters. He's a dependable closer and definitely among the best in the league when he's locating his fastballs. LaTroy Hawkins retains a slight edge over the ancient Doug Brocail as the next man up.Next in line: LaTroy HawkinsThird in line: Doug Brocail

Francisco Cordero, CIN34-for-40 (85%), 70.1 IP, 78 Ks, 3.33 ERA, 1.41 WHIPI've always had a fascination with the hard-throwing Cordero, but his fastball is a bit on the straight side, and the fact that he relies a lot on his nasty slider means he'll walk batters and incur occasional arm injuries. He's a definite risk, but he'll still get you 30 saves and a strikeout per inning when healthy.Next in line: David WeathersThird in line: Jared Burton

Trevor Hoffman, MIL30-for-34 (88.2%), 45.1 IP, 46 Ks, 3.77 ERA, 1.04 WHIPThe legendary Hoffman could land on the DL due to an oblique strain, and if that's the case there will be a shuffle, with Carlos Villanueva, David Riske or even Seth McClung assuming the reins in a committee situation. I actually like McClung in Hoffman's stead, although he's been inconsistent as a closer, has a tough time facing lefties and didn't have the endurance to make it as a starter. Just stay tuned to the injury reports and adjust accordingly.Next in line: Carlos Villanueva, Seth McClungThird in line: David Riske, Todd Coffey

Kerry Wood, CLE34-for-40 (85%), 66.1 IP, 84 Ks, 3.26 ERA, 1.09 WHIPWhen healthy, Wood is as dynamic as the game's best relievers. But the inherent risk this season is his back. Although he's looked good for a few outings, don't sleep on the setup men in Cleveland because they've got a slew of young arms with lots of life.Next in line: Rafael BetancourtThird in line: Jensen Lewis

Brian Fuentes, LAA30-for-34 (88.2%), 62.2 IP, 82 Ks, 2.73 ERA, 1.10 WHIPI'm not a Fuentes fan, and I have my misgivings about whether or not he'll still be the closer by mid-season. If there's a guy to emerge, it'll be Jose Arrendondo who's more suited for the reins. Scot Shields works best as a setup man and was a smidge inconsistent in '08.Next in line: Jose ArredondoThird in line: Scot Shields

Brian Wilson, SF41-for-47 (87.2%), 62.1 IP, 67 Ks, 4.62 ERA, 1.44 WHIPAn underrated performer who needs to limit his walks and develop a more complete arsenal, Wilson has plenty of upside. But if the walks pile up and the dingers are as frequent as in '08, there will be controversy in the bullpen.Next in line: Jeremy AffeldtThird in line: Bob Howry

B.J. Ryan, TOR32-for-36 (88.9%), 58 IP, 58 Ks, 2.95 ERA, 1.28 WHIPWord is that Ryan can't top 90 on the gun, and that he might be limited in his effectiveness in '09. I know how awesome he can be, but it'll be wise to stay away from Toronto's closer situation until a more lucid picture emerges.Next in line: Jesse CarlsonThird in line: Jason Frasor

George Sherrill, BAL29-for-37 (78.4%), 53.1 IP, 58 Ks, 4.73 ERA, 1.50 WHIPSherrill, who doesn't possess miraculous stuff, is slated to be the primary closer. But Chris Ray -- who was ineffective in 2007 -- is nipping at his heels after successful recovery from his August '07 Tommy John surgery. Ray's last healthy season was 2006, when he compiled 33 saves, a 2.73 ERA and 51 strikeouts -- allowing an opponent batting average of just .193.Next in line: Chris RayThird in line: Jamie Walker

Matt Capps, PIT21-for-26 (80.1%), 53.2 IP, 39 Ks, 3.02 ERA, 0.97 WHIPCapps' shoulder is supposedly healthy and it's his job to lose. Last season he struggled because of the shoulder, but posted an obscenely low WHIP despite not striking out a ton of hitters. While the young, aggressive fireballer shows good command, he needs desperately to develop a second pitch to maximize his potential.Next in line: John GrabowThird in line: Sean Burnett, Tyler Yates

Brandon Lyon, DET26-for-31 (83.9%), 59.1 IP, 44 Ks, 4.70 ERA, 1.48 WHIPLyon is far from overpowering, but he does throw four pitches -- the key to his deceptiveness as a closer. He only signed a one-year contract with the Tigers, which are using him as a last resort. The Detroit brass undoubtedly hopes Joel Zumaya can return to his pre-separated-shoulder form -- or that Francisco Rodney can battle back into the role if Lyon struggles.Next in line: Fernando RodneyThird in line: Joel Zumaya, Bobby Seay

Mike González, ATL14-for-16 (87.5%), 33.2 IP, 44 Ks, 4.28 ERA, 1.19 WHIPCan Gonzalez last the season in a closing role? It's been a while since he has, although when healthy he's dominant. He has a great fastball-slider combo, and the sharp, late-breaking slidepiece he throws is a great out pitch, making him a nice transition from Rafael Soriano in the eighth.Next in line: Rafael SorianoThird in line: Blaine Boyer, Buddy Carlyle

Kevin Gregg, CHI (NL)29-for-38 (76.3%), 68.2 IP, 58 Ks, 3.41 ERA, 1.28 WHIPBoth Gregg and Carlos Marmol have great stuff, and manager Lou Pinella is reportedly considering flipping a coin to determine his closer. The one thing he said he's not considering is using a committee. I'm going to stay tuned to the whims of Pinella and adjust accordingly. I'm leaning toward Gregg as the guy and Marmol in a setup role, especially since Carlos has the habit of blowing saves.Next in line: Carlos MármolThird in line: Aaron Heilman, Jeff Samardzija

Joel Hanrahan, WAS9-for-13 (69.2%), 84.1 IP, 93 Ks, 3.95 ERA, 1.36 WHIPIn limited duty as the Nats' closer, Hanrahan was okay. He struck out a ton of guys and generally pitched well. However, the story of '09 has yet to be told. While I wouldn't be surprised if he lost the job at some point in the season to Joe Beimel -- a lefty who's leading off the season in a setup role -- Hanrahan has shown electric stuff so far and should continue to mow down plenty of batters.Next in line: Joe BeimelThird in line: Saul Rivera, Jesus Colome

Chad Qualls, ARI9-for-17 (52.9%), 73.2 IP, 71 Ks, 2.81 ERA, 1.07 WHIPQualls is a hit-or-miss guy who's always been simultaneously exhilarating and frustrating to own, largely because he's been a setup man and didn't get save chances. As the closer, he'll have to locate his fastball and capitalize on his slider.Next in line: Tony PeñaThird in line: Jon Rauch

Heath Bell, SD0-for-7 (0%), 78 IP, 71 Ks, 3.58 ERA, 1.21 WHIPHe's completely untested as a closer, although he's been effective in setup. I'm not that sure he's the long-term answer in replacing the regal Hoffmann, but he's getting the chance. Bell shows the ability to blow hitters away at times and lost 25 pounds this offseason -- an accomplishment that many believe could improve his game in '09. At any rate, the slimmer Bell is definitely worth a late-round shot.Next in line: Cla MeredithThird in line: Duaner Sanchez

Huston Street, COL18-for-25 (72%), 70 IP, 69 Ks, 3.73 ERA, 1.21 WHIPManager Clint Hurdle hasn't given anyone an edge in the battle for closer. I like Manny Corpas to come in at some point this season, largely because he's got a great mindset on the mound and can handle the pressure of Coors field. Street gets hurt and doesn't have the poise that it will take to make the transition to such a hitter's park. But the Oakland castoff does have a fastball with good sinking action and could be successful if he develops into a healthier, smarter pitcher. Taylor Buchholz is currently injured (elbow), but figures into the bullpen as soon as he's available in a month or so.Next in line: Manny CorpasThird in line: Alan Embree

Frank Francisco, TEX5-for-11 (45.5%), 63.1 IP, 83 Ks, 3.13 ERA, 1.15 WHIPThere's a lot of raw power in Francisco's arm. When he's not hitting fans with chairs, he's a pretty good pitcher because he balances the fire with a solid changeup and slider. Yet the risk factor on this guy couldn't be higher, especially since there are other options in Texas. That said, I feel it's a situation where Francisco is immediately on the fence since C.J. Wilson, Eddie Guardado and Derrick Turnbow all have closing experience.Next in line: C.J. WilsonThird in line: Eddie Guardado, Derrick Turnbow

Troy Percival, TB28-for-32 (87.5%), 45.2 IP, 38 Ks, 4.53 ERA, 1.23 WHIPThe bullpen has major identity issues and should probably be avoided at all costs, although Percival's the closer-of-the-moment. If he starts off the season on the DL, the job could go to any one of Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler or Jason Isringhausen. Any way you slice it, it's still kind of a committee, and questions about Percival's health complicate things even further.Next in line: Dan WheelerThird in line: Grant Balfour, Jason Isringhausen

Matt Lindstrom, FLA5-for-6 (83.3%), 57.1 IP, 43 Ks, 3.14 ERA, 1.45 WHIPThe only reason I'm including the Marlins on the fence is the uncertainty regarding Lindstrom's injury. A healthy Lindstrom is the obvious candidate for the job, and he's slated to throw off a mound this weekend. If he's not on the 25-man roster come opening day, the likely default will be Leo Nunez, although he's struggled this spring. Scott Proctor is also currently shut down (mainly because Joe Torre destroyed his arm).Next in line: Leo NunezThird in line: Scott Proctor

Jason Motte, STL1-for-1 (100%), 11 IP, 16 Ks, 0.82 ERA, 0.73 WHIPTony La Russa indicated that Motte, who was impressive in a small sample last season, will be the guy. However, I can't help but think he'll be on a short leash. I've heard different opinions on which guy will be his primary backup. It may be a stretch to call this a committee, but it looks pretty confusing to me.Next in line: Ryan FranklinThird in line: Chris Pérez

Brad Ziegler, OAK11-for-13 (84.6%), 59.2 IP, 30 Ks, 1.06 ERA, 1.16 WHIPSome say Ziegler is the unequivocal Opening Day closer. Others claim it's a smokescreen -- and that the wait on Joey Devine is over. My take is that on-the-job performance will determine the winner.Next in line: Joey DevineThird in line: Russ Springer

Mark Lowe, SEA1-for-5 (20%), 63.2 IP, 55 Ks, 5.37 ERA, 1.76 WHIPThis job could go to just about anybody who proves he can get outs in the ninth. With Putz gone, I thought the obvious choice would be Brandon Morrow, but a designation in the rotation and arm tightness nixed that possibility. For now, it's safe to avoid Seattle until a fresh, capable body emerges.Next in line: Roy CorcoranThird in line: Miguel Batista, Tyler Walker