Closer rankings, from No. 1 to 30

Tuesday May 5th, 2009

Below is an attempt to rank the 30 major-league closers for the 2009 season. The rankings are not purely objective, but based on a variety of criteria that I can collectively label "reliability." That means first and foremost their ability to convert save opportunities into team wins. When Joe Nathan enters a close game with a lead, that game is all but over. When Joel Hanrahan enters a close game with a lead, it's still anyone's ball game.

That "game over" factor is the primary criteria, but reliability also means the ability to take the ball with typical effectiveness. A current 15-day DL stay didn't knock anyone down this list provided their prompt return is expected, but a perpetual inability to stay healthy (I'm looking at you, B.J. Ryan) has, as have the advanced ages of future Hall of Famers Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, while Troy Percival suffers on both fronts. (Remember, I'm ranking these pitchers based on their expected 2009 performance, not their career achievements.)

I've treated a tenuous hold on the job like a tenuous hold on health or those late-inning leads.

Were I to revisit this list in September, I'm sure it would look very different after the top six or so, with both rankings and the listed pitchers for several teams likely to fluctuate. Here at the beginning of May, this is my best estimation of what to expect.
1Joe NathanMinnesota Twins
Age: 34 | Salary: $11.25M
Acquired: Trade w/ S.F. (re-signed)
20094 (80%)
Career204 (89%)2.811.129.2
Nathan's career stats include two rough seasons as a starter for the Giants around the turn of the century. He reemerged in the San Francisco bullpen in 2003, but the Giants flipped him to Minnesota that winter in the absurdly lopsided A.J. Pierzynski deal that also cost them Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser. The Twins immediately made Nathan their closer, and he's since posted a 1.83 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 11.0 K/9 and converted 91 percent of his save opportunities.
See Also: Steve Aschburner profiles Joe Nathan's extraordinary path to ninth-inning excellence
2Jonathan PapelbonBoston Red Sox
Age: 28 | Salary: $6.25M
Acquired: Draft (4th round, 2003)
20097 (100%)1.501.429.75
Career120 (89%)1.820.9610.5
Papelbon pitched in relief for Mississippi State, but the Red Sox converted him into a starter in the minors with great success. In 2005, necessity returned him to the bullpen at the major-league level down the stretch and into the playoffs. He emerged as the Sox's closer following a Keith Foulke injury in spring training the following year, and he has remained in the role due to concerns about the health of his pitching shoulder.
3Joakim SoriaKansas City Royals
Age: 25 | Salary: $1M
Acquired: Rule 5 Draft (from Padres)
20096 (100%)1.171.0410.6
Career65 (90%)2.000.919.4
Soria only has one full season as a closer under his belt, but he has a starter's repertoire, an unhittable fastball, and despite some shoulder soreness has looked every bit as dominant in the early going this year as he had been since shaking off some rookie jitters in June 2007. Originally signed by the Dodgers as an amateur free agent in 2001, Soria was pitching in the Mexican League when the Padres signed him, only to lose him to the Royals in the Rule 5 draft.
4Mariano RiveraNew York Yankees
Age: 39 | Salary: $15M
Acquired: Amateur FA (re-signed)
20095 (83%)2.791.2411.2
Career487 (89%)
The great Rivera had perhaps his best season last year, converting 39-of-40 save chances while posting a 1.40 ERA and 0.67 WHIP. Since 2003, he has posted a 1.89 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and converted 91 percent of his save opportunities. He's the greatest closer in the history of the game, but at 39 years old, he may only be the fourth-best closer in the game in 2009.
See Also: Tom Verducci ranks Mariano Rivera among his top 10 closers of all-time
5Francisco RodriguezNew York Mets
Age: 27 | Salary: $8.5M
Acquired: Free agent
20096 (100%)1.690.9412.7
Career214 (87%)2.341.1111.7
Rodriguez's single-season record of 62 saves last year were as much a product of his record 69 save opportunities as his ability to convert them. The man with the next-most save opportunities in 2008 was Jose Valverde, who had 18 fewer chances. K-Rod blew seven saves last year, due in part to his occasional bouts of wildness, and his save percentage ranked behind those of Brad Lidge, Mariano Rivera, Joakim Soria and the Indians' Jensen Lewis among pitchers with double-digit saves. It was still a great season, but context matters.
6Bobby JenksChicago White Sox
Age: 28 | Salary: $5.6M
Acquired: Waivers (from Angels)
20096 (100%)
Career123 (88%)
Jenks began his pro career as a starter in the Angels organization with a 100 mph fastball and a lack of both personal and pitch control. The White Sox took a waiver chance on him, put him in the bullpen, and less than a year later he was closing out their first championship in more than 80 years. Since then, he's eased off the gas, learned how to induce groundballs and become the one thing even the White Sox likely never thought he would be: a smart control pitcher.
7Brad LidgePhiladelphia Phillies
Age: 32 | Salary: $11.5M
Acquired: Trade with HOU (re-signed)
20094 (80%)6.521.8611.2
Career168 (86%)3.171.2212.5
The little hiccup in Lidge's career had far more to do with the torn cartilage in his right knee he suffered in 2007 than the home run Albert Pujols hit off him in the 2005 NLCS, and it still shouldn't have been enough to motivate the Comeback Player of the Year award he won last year. After concluding a perfect season by recording the last out of the World Series, Lidge will be as good as that knee (now barking again) and his walk rate (4.4 BB/9 since 2006) allow.
8Kerry WoodCleveland Indians
Age: 32 | Salary: $10M
Acquired: Free agent
20095 (83%)7.201.7014.4
Career39 (85%)3.681.2510.4
Wood burned brightly as a starter, but also burned out as his career was twice derailed by injuries. Finally able to stay healthy after a move to the bullpen in 2007, he's grown a Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart goatee and is back to dominating hitters the way he did as a young Cub.
9Jonathan BroxtonLos Angeles Dodgers
Age: 25 | Salary: $1.825M
Acquired: Draft (2nd round, 2002)
20097 (88%)0.690.4615.9
Career25 (57%)2.911.1811.7
A minor-league starter, "The Ox" started hitting 100 mph on radar guns after a move to the bullpen in mid 2005 and instantly became the Dodgers' closer of the future. The future arrived when Takashi Saito hit the DL at last year's All-Star Break. Broxton has converted 21-of-24 save chances since and also closed for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.
10Heath BellSan Diego Padres
Age: 31 | Salary: $1.255M
Acquired: Trade with Mets
20098 (100%)0.000.699.3
Career10 (45%)3.461.219.0
One of the best setup men in baseball over the past two seasons, Bell was a natural replacement for Trevor Hoffman in San Diego, and currently leads the majors with eight saves. Yes, he posted a 4.81 ERA away from PETCO last year, but he had a 1.46 ERA on the road in 2007 and hasn't allowed a run anywhere thus far this year.
See Also: Ted Keith says Heath Bell has filled Trevor Hoffman's shoes nicely thus far
11Jose ValverdeHouston Astros
Age: 29 | Salary: $8M
Acquired: Trade with Diamondbacks
20092 (50%)5.621.2512.4
Career144 (85%)3.361.1811.3
"Papa Grande" led the majors in saves for the surprising 2007 Diamondbacks and led the majors in games finished for the surprising 2008 Astros. Until his current calf injury, he was a reliable workhorse. An impending free agent, he could generate a lot of trade buzz once he returns to action.
12Francisco CorderoCincinnati Reds
Age: 34 | Salary: $12M
Acquired: Free agent
20097 (100%)2.701.409.9
Career218 (81%)3.281.369.5
Cordero benefitted from being the only healthy, "proven" closer on the free-agent market following the 2008 season. He'll get the job done, but he's not a "game over" type of closer; his walk rate is headed in the wrong direction (4.9 BB/9 last year), he's not young anymore and his home ballpark does him no favors (4.17 ERA at the GAP last year).
13Brian WilsonSan Francisco Giants
Age: 27 | Salary: $480K
Acquired: Draft (24th round, 2003)
20096 (86%)3.381.2010.8
Career54 (86%)4.241.418.6
The rare major-league closer who also closed in the minors, Wilson will fight his control now and again, but has proven to be a great return for late-round draft pick.
14Brian FuentesLos Angeles Angels
Age: 33 | Salary: $8.5M
Acquired: Free agent
20096 (75%)7.001.8913.0
Career121 (82%)3.491.2510.3
A side-arming lefty, Fuentes has held righties to a .229/.324/.374 line over the course of his career and posted a 3.39 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in 228 career appearances at Coors Field. He briefly lost his closer job to Manuel Corpas following an injury in 2007, but reclaimed it and posted his best season in 2008. He's off to a rough start this year, but it's unwise to bet against Brian Fuentes.
15Matt CappsPittsburgh Pirates
Age: 25 | Salary: $2.3M
Acquired: Draft (7th round, 2002)
20095 (83%)7.561.927.6
Career45 (73%)
Capps has great control (1.4 BB/9 career), which offsets his comparatively low strikeout rate for a closer, giving him an impressive 4.61 K/BB rate on his career. He gives up too many fly balls, but manages to keep most of them in the park. His career save percentage is artificially low due to the nine blown saves he had as a setup man in 2006. Since becoming the Pirates' closer in June 2007, he's converted 85 percent of his save opportunities.

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