Fantasy baseball 2014 draft prep: Relief pitcher primer

Craig Kimbrel recorded 50 saves with a 1.21 ERA and 98 strikeouts for the Braves last season.
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Fantasy baseball 2014 draft prep: Player rankings, position primers, burning questions and more

It seems like no other fantasy baseball position goes through as much change as the relief pitcher position. Formerly reliable veterans suddenly lose control, or rag-arm relievers shred their shoulders, or relief prospects find out they don't have the "closer" mentality. But the fact that closers are shaky and shouldn't be drafted in the early rounds isn't a new concept, so let's discuss why this thought exists, and what stats we have to back it up.

In 2013, there were 1,266 saves recorded by a total of 130 pitchers. The top 36 relief pitchers who's ADP ranked among the top 276 players (12-team, 23-round Rotisserie draft) were responsible for just 848 of those total saves. Therefore, 94 pitchers that weren't drafted in the average Rotisserie league were responsible for 418 saves.

Hypothetically, an owner could have not drafted any closers, and still been able to scratch and claw for some of those remaining 418 saves left on the table. Obviously, that's a tricky task to take on, considering 11 other owners will be scratching and clawing for free agents, as well.

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Obviously, some of the 36 relievers that were drafted were actually either starters with relief pitcher eligibility, or they were relievers with a possible upcoming opportunity to close. So that means that the number of drafted closers that got saves was an even smaller number.

This list of names should sound familiar: John Axford, Jonathan Broxton, Joel Hanrahan, Ryan Madson, Carlos Marmol, Jason Motte, J.J. Putz and Bruce Rondon. Those eight closers (or potential closers) from last spring notched a combined total of 15 saves. All of them had six or fewer saves in 2013.

However, these eight players all notched more than 15 saves each last season: Heath Bell, Joquin Benoit, Rex Brothers, Danny Farquhar, Mark Melancon, Edward Mujica, Koji Uehara and Jose Veras. They earned 127 saves between the eight of them -- and none of them ranked in the top 276 players in ADP last March.

POSITION PRIMERS: Catcher || First Base || Second Base || Shortstop || Third Base || Outfield || Starting Pitcher || Relief Pitcher || Designated Hitter

Is there a debate at No. 1?

For the past three seasons, no relief pitcher has even come close to the consistency of Craig Kimbrel. As shaky as this position appears to be, he'll probably be drafted by Round 5. Picking a closer early -- even one as reliable as Kimbrel -- is a bold move that could ruin your season. But he has averaged 46 saves, with a 1.44 ERA and a 0.870 WHIP since 2011, so I can't blame you for going against my advice too much. If you draft him, consider taking his backup and former closer Jordan Walden as a bench guy, just to handcuff him.

Comeback Player: Jason Motte

Last year, Motte was supposed to be a top-five fantasy closer until Tommy John surgery ended his season before it even started. He's not expected to be ready at the start of this season, but if Trevor Rosenthal proves he can't cut it in his new role as gamestopper, then the Cardinals could come back to Motte out of the bullpen in the ninth. A lot of things have to happen, but closer is the one position where crazy things are expected.

Breakout: Grant Balfour

The Orioles backed out of what would have been a two-year deal with the Australian righty because of something they didn't like during his physical. That's enough noise to drop him considerably in the reliever rankings, with the thinking that his ulnar collateral ligament is hanging on by a thread.

The fact is that the Rays didn't sign Balfour blindly, and they likely gave him a much closer look than most other pitchers because of the rumors. Tampa Bay signed him to a two-year deal, and the Nationals reportedly lost out on his services. Oakland has a better pitching park than Tampa Bay, but both are pitcher-friendly. And now, Balfour gets to pitch on the back end of a Rays bullpen that might be the franchise's deepest ever.

Keep in mind, with an ADP in Round 12 or 13, you might have to lock him up as your second closer in Round 11.

Potential Bust: David Robertson

Would you like to be the next Yankees closer in line to replace the great Mariano Rivera, who will end up in the Hall of Fame in five years?

Robertson is a great relief pitcher, but as we've learned over the past 30 years -- as this position has developed before this generation's eyes -- closing games takes a lot more than just a strong arm. We still have yet to see if Robertson can stand up to the pressure of regularly pitching in the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium and pitching as the closer on a team expected to win the toughest division in baseball.

I'm steering clear of Robertson. Don't forget that he had two saves in 2012, when Rivera went down with a knee injury, along with three blown saves.

Sleeper: Joakim Soria

Soria underwent his second Tommy John surgery in April of 2012, and he should be completely healthy for the 2014 season. He pitched 23 innings in the second half of last season, striking out more than a batter per inning, and now he'll be in the mix for possible saves as the Rangers' closer this year. The almost 30-year-old, who was once an elite closer with Kansas City, would make a fine RP3 in larger leagues.

Top Prospect: Cody Allen

Looking for top prospects at the closer position is not like looking at other positions. A college closer might not translate to the pro game the same way, and a closer in the minors still hasn't really been mentally tested. They also haven't faced enough batters to prove they're good enough to close the door on a win in the majors -- easily the biggest way for an untested rookie to affect his team negatively the most. Rookie starters get four days between outings, and they can still bounce back from a bad outing. Managers aren't nearly as trusting with rookies in the ninth, where they could lose three games in a row before getting the bench for good. Plus, their confidence would be destroyed for a while.

So when we look for closer prospects, we still look at relatively young players, and we look at -- the middle innings.

Cody Allen proved to be reliable for the Indians last season, with a nice 88/26 K/BB ratio. If John Axford stumbles, the 25-year-old Allen could be a good 30-35 saves pitcher.

Other potential eligibles

If you're looking for relief pitchers in Rotisserie leagues, it's a much different task than looking for them in Head-to-Head formats. Rotisserie leagues are much more fluid, allowing you to start as many starters or relievers as you want in your nine pitching slots. But since Head-to-Head leagues usually have separate slots for relievers, and starting pitchers are usually rewarded with more points per week because of innings and strikeouts, then it stands to reason that good starting pitchers with relief pitcher eligibility are quite valuable.

Here's some of the top relief-eligible pitchers that should be starting at some point this season -- most likely sooner than later.

• Drew Smyly, Detroit: The Tigers moved Doug Fister to make room for Smyly in the rotation.
• Tyson Ross, San Diego: Nice strikeout guy that pitched well as a starter down the stretch in 2013.
• Alex Wood, Atlanta: With a 3.54 ERA in 11 starts last season, the now 23-year-old lefty has potential in all formats.
• Carlos Martinez, St. Louis: The fireballing rookie that has a chance to make the Cards' rotation this month.
• Hector Santiago, L.A. Angels: Going from the dismal White Sox to the desperate Angels should help him.
• David Phelps, N.Y. Yankees: Had some injury issues last season, but could earn a rotation spot in pinstripes, with an above average offense fighting for him.

David Gonos is a fantasy sports veteran of over 20 years and over 100 fantasy leagues. You can also follow/mock him @davidgonos on Twitter.

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