With less than 10 days left in the regular season, it's time to look ahead to 2012. Which relievers look like the best bet next year? Countless things will change between now and then, but here's where we think things stand:
Jonathan PapelbonCraig KimbrelMariano RiveraJohn Axford
These guys were all fantastic in 2011, but they are not without their question marks. Papelbon (2.56 ERA, 30 saves, 12.07 K/9) showed that 2010 was an aberration with a fantastic campaign that should have been even better (his FIP was 1.64). The Boston closer will be a free agent this offseason, but there's no doubt he'll be pitching in the ninth inning somewhere in '12. ... It's hard to trust someone with no track record, but Kimbrel's '11 season was exceptional. The Braves' closer (1.81 ERA, 45 saves, 14.95 K/9) pitched a ton of innings (74.2) and yielded very few home runs (0.24 per nine innings), so some regression can be expected, but the dominance is undeniable. He's keeper gold. ... The all-time leader in saves is ageless. Rivera had another amazing year (2.02 ERA, 42 saves, 8.69 K/9), and I don't see why he'll stop anytime soon. ... Axford (2.07 ERA, 43 saves, 10.46 K/9) improved upon his rookie campaign and seems poised to lock down games for years to come.
Jose ValverdeJoel HanrahanCarlos Marmol}Heath Bell|J.J. PutzJordan WaldenRyan MadsonBrandon LeagueBrian WilsonDrew Storen
Valverde (2.41 ERA, 46 saves, 8.29 K/9) put together a career year for the Tigers, but his peripherals suggest his best years are behind him. On a loaded Detroit squad, however, he should be good for at least 30 saves next year. ... Hanrahan (1.78 ERA, 38 saves, 7.81 K/9) was great in the first half but he slowed considerably in the second. A minuscule HR/FB ratio (1.9 percent) aided his career year, and he plays for the Pirates, so adjust your expectations for next season. ... It's anyone's guess where Bell will end up. Accordingly, he's a non-factor in keeper leagues. ... Walden (2.41 ERA, 31 saves, 10.13 K/9) had a great rookie year and he has little competition for saves in Anaheim. He's a great bet in keeper leagues. ... League won't blow hitters away, but his pinpoint control (1.57 BB/9) and ability to induce ground balls (57.6 ground ball percentage) offer him a nice future in Seattle. ... Wilson's recent return from the DL suggests his elbow injury isn't a long-term concern. Invest in next year, but don't expect a repeat of '10.
Joakim SoriaNeftali FelizAndrew BaileySergio SantosFrancisco CorderoFrank FranciscoKyle FarnsworthChris PerezLeo NunezJason Motte
Soria (4.03 ERA, 28 saves, 8.95 K/9) makes a nice bounce-back candidate, as his skills showed no discernible drop off this year. Just don't pay for a sub-2.00 ERA. ... Feliz started to resemble the AL Rookie of the Year as the year dragged on, but the drop in strikeouts (7.56 K/9 in '11 down from 9.22 in '10) is alarming. ... Santos (3.43 ERA, 29 saves, 12.98 K/9) might have the biggest upside of any reliever. His stuff is downright nasty, and with Chris Sale likely headed for the rotation, he'll have little competition for saves. ... Cordero, as we discussed last week, is unlikely to be in Cincinnati next year. Given his declining skill set, let another owner take a chance on him. ... Francisco (3.70 ERA, 16 saves, 9.43 K/9) finished the year strong for the Jays. He's a free agent at season's end, but I think he returns to Toronto as their stopper. ... Marlins management wanted to hold on to Nunez but that's looking like a mistake. He's very home run prone (career 1.19 HR/9) and his stuff is just plain mediocre (7.82 K/9 in 2011). Expect him to be on the hot seat early in '12. ... Motte (1.55 ERA, seven saves, 8.02 K/9) has the stuff to close, but he'll face plenty of competition. Add in the unpredictability of Tony LaRussa, and it makes Motte a high-risk, high-reward keeper.
Mark MelanconJavy GuerraRafael BetancourtManny AcostaJoe NathanKevin Gregg
Melancon had a nice year (2.99 ERA, 19 saves, 7.79 K/9) and the home runs (11.9 percent HR/FB) should come down. He'll make a solid late-round pick in mixed leagues. ... Guerra's stats are strikingly similar to Melancon's (2.11 ERA, 18 saves, 7.59 K/9), but he should face heavy competition for the ninth inning, making him a riskier keeper. ... It's impossible to predict who will be closing in Colorado in '12. My guess is whichever reliever (Betancourt, Huston Street) isn't traded. ... Acosta has grabbed the ninth inning for a floundering Mets squad, but New York wants Bobby Parnell (10.00 K/9) to close. Expect the young flamethrower to get the first shot next spring. ... Gregg (4.69 ERA, 20 saves, 6.31 BB/9) shouldn't be closing in '12, but the Orioles might not have another choice. Jim Johnson has been great for the O's lately, but the plan is to turn him into a starter. Either way, stay far, far away from Gregg.