Fantasy draft tiers: Relief pitcher
Weighing risk and reward is key to building solid 'pen
It's tough to field a contending team that doesn't include a strong bullpen.
In addition to racking up saves and holds, relievers can have a significant impact on how the composite stats (ERA, WHIP, K/9 etc.) of an owner's pitching staff shake out.
In head-to-head formats, where stats reset each week, a handful of strong relievers can help soften the blow of a starter getting lit up.
Top closers usually remain on the draft board until at least round five or six, but you can count on Mo being the first to exit stage left when they do start going. Bell benefits from the Padres playing lots of close games and has mowed down nearly 11 batters per nine innings over his two years as a fireman. Soria has proven over the last three seasons that a team doesn't need to win many games to support an elite closer. Wilson led the Majors in saves in 2010 and only improved his stock during the Giants' World Series run.
Closers operate with such a small margin for error that trusting any fireman entails a good amount of risk. Even in a second tier full of big arms and egos, not one of these closers comes without issues. Feliz is still just 22 years old. Marmol's control deserts him at times. Papelbon blew as many saves last year (eight) as in his previous two seasons combined. K-Rod no longer possesses his heater of yesteryear, and Bailey and Valverde have each battled injuries in recent past.
Weighing the risk/reward factor is vital when settling on a closer. The utterly unpredictable Lidge is in a league of his own on that front, though two of his last three seasons have been quality. Broxton's bumpy '10 -- and late-summer demotion to a setup role -- has him flying dangerously close to The Lidge Zone. Cordero saves a lot of games but allows a ton of baserunners. Street and Putz have struggled with injury problems. Axford and Perez are still relatively unproven. That leaves Nathan, who was the closest thing to Rivera before undergoing Tommy John surgery last spring. At an injury-adjusted price, he's worth the investment.
Owners who abstain from taking part in the extended fireman frenzy are likely to have their pick of these players. While most have the potential to notch 25-plus saves, they range from streaky (Hanrahan, Francisco) to shaky (Nunez, Gregg) to implosions waiting to happen (Rodney). Thornton looks to be the most solid option after a lights-out '10, although he doesn't have much ninth inning experience. Aardsma, like Joe Nathan, has health concerns.
Tier 5: Hong-Chih Kuo, Matt Capps, Jonny Venters, Daniel Bard, Ryan Madson, Brandon League, Evan Meek, Takashi Saito, Luke Gregerson, Mike Adams, Aroldis Chapman, Rafael Soriano, Bobby Jenks, Clay Hensley, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Chris Sale, Phil Coke, Koji Uehara, Tyler Clippard, Jeremy Jeffress, Sergio Mitre
In some respects, this tier is the most fascinating. Guys like Soriano and Bard have Tier 2-caliber stuff but no clear path to saves. If Rivera gets hurt or Papelbon underperforms, these two could emerge as top-notch relief options. The same can be said of Kuo, Capps, Venters and Madson.
Tier 6: Kenley Jansen, Bruce Chen, Sean Marshall, Dustin Moseley, Andrew Cashner, Chris Capuano, Brian Fuentes, Casey Coleman, Matt Lindstrom, Mark Melancon, Grant Balfour, Joba Chamberlain, Sergio Romo, Nelson Figueroa, Michael Wuertz, Hisanori Takahashi, Scott Downs, Tim Wakefield, Jon Rauch
Padding a bullpen with plus arms is the tactically sound move once an owner has drafted a few closers. In leagues where holds are a category, owners should shift their attention to proven seventh- and eighth-inning guys. Romo was dominant in 2010 and sports a career 0.96 WHIP. Jansen, Marshall and Downs should each serve as capable setup ment this season.
Tier 7: Sergio Santos, Esmil Rogers, Jake McGee, Edward Mujica, Manny Parra, Michael Gonzalez, Matt Guerrier, Jason Motte, Rafael Betancourt, Jason Frasor, Peter Moylan, David Robertson, Jordan Walden, Dan Cortes, Darren Oliver, Kerry Wood, David Hernandez, Kevin Jepsen, Alexi Ogando, Sean Burnett, Juan Gutierrez
While some of these relievers could find their way onto squads in deeper mixed leagues, most will spend at least part of the season on the waiver wire.
Matt Chaprales is a fantasy writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.