March 29, 2011

The first pitch of the 2011 season hasn't been thrown yet but already several teams are scrambling for a closer. What does this mean for you as a fantasy owner? If you already drafted Brian Wilson, Brad Lidge or Andrew Bailey, then listen up. This could mean the difference between a championship and a middle-of-the-pack finish.

Every Tuesday during the season the Closer Report will rank all of the top relievers in the major leagues. We'll also have an updated list of closer handcuffs, so you'll know who's next in line for saves.

With so many late-inning relief situations already in a state of flux, let's get started.

Mariano RiveraHeath BellBrian Wilson

The end-game upper echelon should come as no surprise, apart from Wilson. The bearded San Francisco Giants closer will likely start the season on the DL, an obvious cause for concern, especially given his heavy workload last season. That said, the Giants sound like they are being proactive in getting their stud healthy, and their caution should serve owners well down the stretch. Let others shy away, while you rack up the saves.

Carlos MarmolJoakim SoriaFrancisco RodriguezNeftali FelizJonathan Papelbon

Papelbon comes with some question marks this year. He's coming off the worst season of his career and has done no favors for himself this spring (where he's sporting a 10.50 ERA). At 30, his skills may be declining but not this rapidly. On a Boston team that seems World Series bound, he should rack up a ton of saves. ... The Rangers settled one preseason bullpen debate when they said Feliz would not move to the starting rotation. There are always concerns about one-year wonders, but Feliz is the real deal. As long as he's the stopper, saves and a great ERA and WHIP will follow.

Jonathan BroxtonJoe NathanChris PerezJose ValverdeJohn AxfordHuston StreetRyan FranklinFrancisco CorderoBrandon LyonLeo NunezJoel HanrahanJ.J. Putz

Many of the third-tier closers are working their way back from injuries, so it's hard to know what to expect. When healthy, Broxton, Nathan and Street can be among the best in the game. But they'll have to prove that health before I move them up. ... Cordero, Valverde and Franklin are all on the wrong side of 30 and their skills are in decline. With Aroldis Chapman breathing down his neck, I think Cordero will be the first to falter. ... Axford and Hanrahan were two guys with impressive strikeout rates last year (11.8 K/9 and 12.9 K/9 respectively). A lack of ninth-inning experience is the only thing holding them back.

Matt ThorntonDrew StorenAndrew BaileyCraig Kimbrel/Jonny VentersBrad LidgeKevin GreggFernando RodneyBrandon LeagueFrank Francisco/Octavio Dotel Jake McGee

This is where things get dicey. Bailey, Lidge and Francisco/Dotel are all expected to begin the season on the DL and there's no telling how effective they'll be once they return. In their absence, Brian Fuentes, Ryan Madson and Jon Rauch, respectively, are expected to pick up a few saves. ... Several bullpens could be embroiled in a dreaded closer-by-committee situation. Atlanta, Washington and Tampa Bay have already declared they'll ride the hot hand. I like Venters, Storen and McGee to eventually emerge from this group.

For those of you haven't drafted yet or even for those who have, here's a list of the backups who will ensure you're banking saves even if your closer goes down. I'll update this list throughout the season as bullpen roles change and evolve.

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