Eric Mack: Top closer battles heading into spring training - Sports Illustrated

Spring training closer battles, rankings, more

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Issuing warnings on closers is a rite of spring. It is easily the most fickle position in fantasy and your draft pick most likely to bust.

This winter was hellacious on them.

If you didn't take notes, we will get you updated here on the closers market for draft day, with the usual caveat: It is subject to change.

With the signing of Brian Fuentes to set up for the A's and Rafael Soriano to set up for the Yankees, it has continued a winter where we have seen the fantasy-viable closer options drop like the mercury.

Let's take the temperature on closers.

Gone are the Nos. 3, 4, 5 and maybe 6 top scorers among relievers in standard Head-to-Head points leagues from last season. Seriously. Billy Wagner is retiring, Soriano is setting up, Matt Capps might be too and Neftali Feliz might be stretched out to start.

Other 20-plus save relievers from a year ago are going to be relatively worthless on draft day, too: Fuentes behind Andrew Bailey for the A's, Bobby Jenks as a middle reliever in Boston and Jon Rauch likely setting up for Octavio Dotel in Toronto.

This will be one of the most important springs to track closer battles, specifically when they relate to contenders. After all, you want a closer on a team that will win games, specifically a lot of 1- to 3-run games.

One third of the league is without a sure closer at this point. That is typical for this time of year, even if the winter made things harder for us to project at this position.

Here are the top 10 closer battles to watch (ranked in order of their potential to farm out a sleeper pick):

This really isn't a battle as much as a wait-and-see on Nathan's health. If Nathan is healthy, he is the closer -- and a top 10 one in fantasy. Right now, Capps might top the depth chart, but Nathan is coming off Tommy John surgery and could be ready to go for Opening Day. The Twins famously are a great place to find saves.

Another one that really isn't a battle as much as a wait-and-see: The reigning AL Rookie of the Year is going to be stretched out to start. If he doesn't win a rotation spot, he will be back closing games. Francisco is the fall-back option. Feliz is a top five closer if he will be in that role; otherwise, he will be a mid-round option as a starter who is unlikely to work more than 160 innings.

Howell is a veteran coming off shoulder surgery. Yuck! You have to hate those. McGee is an elite prospect who will likely follow in the relief-apprenticeship footsteps of David Price and Jeremy Hellickson, who should both be in the rotation. Peralta is a journeyman veteran there if Howell isn't healthy or McGee isn't ready. The Rays closer should get a lot of save chances, perhaps as many as the Twins and Rangers, but the uncertainty is just too great right now. They could still fill this glaring hole before pitchers report.

While we lose Jenks from the closer pool, we pick up a potential sleeper with whomever wins the White Sox's closer's job. Sale is an elite prospect drafted in the first round last June and showed he can handle late-inning pressure. The problem is the White Sox might want to keep him as a No. 5 starter option if Jake Peavy (shoulder) isn't ready. Thornton will close if Sale starts, or maybe even if Sale becomes the setup man. The White Sox want to pick a role for Sale and leave him in it, reliever or starter, for 2011. The are best off if Peavy is healthy and Sale is the closer with Thornton setting up.

You could throw the whole balanced Braves bullpen into this mix, but these are the top two options going in to replace the retiring Wagner. Kimbrel is flamethrower with the first shot at the job. Venters is a solid fall-back option. Kimbrel could be this year's Feliz, the NL ROY for 2011, and perform like a top 10 fantasy stopper.

The other battles:

L.A. Dodgers -- Jonathan Broxton vs. Hong Chih-KuoThis could be real interesting if Kuo takes the job, but you have to figure the Dodgers will give Broxton every opportunity to win it back.

Baltimore -- Kevin Gregg and Koji UeharaBuck Showalter loves competition and the Orioles have a bullpen full of guys who have closed games before, including these two and Mike Gonzalez.

Seattle -- Brandon League vs. David AardsmaLeague is the leading candidate to close if Aardsma (hip) doesn't prove worthy this spring.

Washington -- Drew Storen vs. Tyler Clippard and/or Sean BurnettIt should be Storen's job to lose. He was drafted to close. Clippard and Burnett are coming off surprisingly good years.

Pittsburgh -- Joel Hanrahan vs. Evan MeekWho cares? It is the Pirates. Meek has some elite long-term potential, but the Pirates are notoriously one of the worst places to look for saves in fantasy. Hanrahan likes starts with the job and Meek assumes it in-season.

Again, these are subject to change, but if you are drafting this early, here is a ranking of the current closer conditions (the * denotes the reliever will have to compete to close games):

There will be more spring training movement at this position than any other this spring. Nathan could be a top-5 option, if healthy, and Feliz could drop out of the top 15 if he starts games. Kimbrel and Sale could be real interesting after the top 14 are off the board, while the Rays closer TBD could perform at that level, too.

The A's really put all their eggs in the pitching basket, signing a premium closer to set up for Bailey. They did it at the expense of their still-punchless offense.

Projected lineup

1 Coco Crisp LH2 Daric Barton 1B3 David DeJesus RH4 Hideki Matsui DH5 Josh Willingham LF6 Kurt Suzuki C7 Kevin Kouzmanoff 3B8 Mark Ellis 2B9 Cliff Pennington SS

Top Bench Options

R Conor Jackson 1B/OFR Ryan Sweeney OF

Projected rotation

1 Brett Anderson LH2 Trevor Cahill RH3 Dallas Braden RH4 Gio Gonzalez LH5 Rich Harden RHALT Brandon McCarthy RH

Top bullpen arms

CL Andrew Bailey RHSU Brian Fuentes LHRP Michael Wuertz RHRP Brad Ziegler RHRP Craig Breslow RH

The rotation and bullpen should be easily the best in the AL West. That offense could be their undoing if the Rangers stay healthy and mash.

The Twins recently re-signed Carl Pavano, solidifying their rotation and leaving some depth there to boot. It will be what carries them, as usual, regardless of Nathan's health.

Projected lineup

1 Denard Span CF2 Tsuyoshi Nishioka SS3 Joe Mauer C4 Justin Morneau 1B5 Delmon Young LF6 Michael Cuddyer RF7 Jason Kubel DH8 Danny Valencia 3B9 Alexi Casilla 2B

Top bench options

R Jim Thome DHR Jason Repko OF

Projected rotation

1 Francisco Liriano LH2 Carl Pavano RH3 Kevin Slowey RH4 Scott Baker RH5 Nick Blackburn RHALT Brian Duensing RH

Top bullpen arms

CL Joe Nathan RHSU Matt Capps RHRP Jose Mijares LHRP Alex Burnett RHRP Glen Perkins LH

Morneau needs a healthy spring to return to the top 10 of fantasy first baseman, while Nishioka is an interesting middle-infielder sleeper. He could slap his way to .300 and 20-plus steals.

The Orioles revamped their infield with an influx of offseason acquisitions and a return to health of their catalyst.

Projected lineup

1 Brian Roberts 2B2 Adam Jones CF3 Nick Markakis RF4 Derrek Lee 1B5 Luke Scott DH6 Mark Reynolds 3B7 Matt Wieters C8 J.J. Hardy SS9 Felix Pie LF

Top bench options

R Nolan Reimold OFR Cesar Izturis UTL

Projected rotation

1 Jeremy Guthrie RH2 Brian Matusz LH3 Chris Tillman RH4 Brad Bergesen RH5 Jake Arrieta RHALT Zach Britton LH

Top bullpen arms

CL Kevin Gregg RHSU Koji Uehara RHRP Mike Gonzalez LHRP Jim Johnson RHRP Jason Berken RH

Lee, Roberts, Hardy and Reynolds could be a real interesting infield. It would be a great one if you could put all of their career years together. There are too many ifs in that statement, though.

In the closer battle, Uehara has the better arm, but Gregg is more proven in the role. The amount of save chances will depend on the progress of the young pitching in a brutally tough division, though.