2012 Fantasy draft tiers: Relief pitcher
Kimbrel, Axford join reliable Rivera atop stopper ranks
Perhaps no position inspires more debate among fantasy owners than relief pitcher.
How should you value relievers on draft day? Some owners subscribe to the "don't pay for saves" mantra. Others prefer to grab a couple top closers early, noting that the elite stoppers not only offer saves but can do wonders for your ERA, WHIP and strikeout rate.
There's no one correct answer to the reliever question, but owners who decide on a strategy prior to entering the draft room will have a leg up on the competition.
TIER 1: Craig Kimbrel, Mariano Rivera, John Axford, Jonathan Papelbon, Drew Storen
National League Rookie of the Year Kimbrel -- who struck out nearly 15 batters per nine innings last season -- has supplanted Rivera as the consensus top choice, although Mariano is still as consistent as they come. Papelbon's transition to the Senior Circuit should be a smooth one, while Axford and Storen have emerged as ultra-reliable options.
TIER 2: Heath Bell, Jose Valverde, Brian Wilson, J.J. Putz, Joel Hanrahan, Ryan Madson, Andrew Bailey, Joakim Soria
Owners who miss out on the top tier of stoppers should be perfectly happy selecting one from this group, though each of these players comes with question marks. Valverde is fresh off a brilliant season but experienced a loss in velocity and battled control issues. Bell's strikeout rate declined in '11, while Wilson, Putz and Bailey are injury risks. Hanrahan and Madson carry thin closing resumés. Soria is established but will look to bounce back from a disappointing campaign.
TIER 3: Jordan Walden, Carlos Marmol, Joe Nathan, Sergio Santos, Chris Perez, Jason Motte
Medium-risk, high-reward is how this tier should be viewed. Walden has the potential to develop into a top-end closer, but his control is still developing. Few can match Marmol's raw stuff, but his shaky control leads to occasional disaster outings. Nathan will return to a ninth-inning role in 2012, but has yet to pitch a full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010. Santos and Motte each have less than a full year of closing experience under their belts, while Perez's strikeout rate dropped considerably in 2011.
TIER 4: Kyle Farnsworth, Brandon League, Huston Street, Rafael Betancourt
Each of these relievers could serve as a solid No. 2 closer in mixed leagues. Farnsworth thrived in the stopper role in 2011 but had an unimpressive prior ninth inning track record. League saved 37 games for the Mariners, but a pedestrian strikeout rate (6.60 K/9 last season) could eventually come back to haunt him. Street is effective when healthy, but DL trips have become commonplace for him of late. Betancourt's eight saves last year marked a career high.
TIER 5: Frank Francisco, Javy Guerra, Jonny Venters, David Robertson, Matt Capps
Francisco, Guerra and Capps will be among the few late-round options for save-desperate owners, though Guerra will face job competition from the flame-throwing Kenley Jansen. Venters and Robertson are the cream of the crop when it comes to setup men. High K rates and outstanding ratios make each worthy of a mixed-league roster spot, even in formats that don't count holds.
TIER 6: Jim Johnson, Matt Thornton, Grant Balfour, Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman
Speculation is the name of the game in this group. Thornton is the favorite for saves on the South Side, but Chicago's ninth-inning situation is far from settled. Johnson should hold the edge over Kevin Gregg in a Spring Training battle for the Orioles' closer gig. Balfour is a legitimate stopper option for the A's, while Jansen and Chapman will have value even if they're not earning saves.
TIER 7: Mike Adams, Sergio Romo, Francisco Rodriguez, Tyler Clippard, Addison Reed, Joaquin Benoit, Koji Uehara, Brian Fuentes, Fernando Salas, Luke Gregerson, Aaron Crow, Mark Melancon
These players are unlikely to see regular save opportunities barring an injury to their team's closer, but all will be valuable assets in leagues that use holds as a category. Fuentes is the exception with 199 career saves and no clear-cut stopper blocking him in Oakland. Melancon proved last season that he can succeed in the closer role and would be Boston's logical fill-in choice should the injury-prone Andrew Bailey miss any time. Reed is a darkhorse to beat out Matt Thornton and open the season as the White Sox stopper.
TIER 8: Eric O'Flaherty, Rafael Soriano, Scott Downs, Joel Peralta, Jeremy Affeldt, Kris Medlen, Sean Marshall, David Hernandez, Francisco Cordero, Kevin Gregg, Wilton Lopez, Antonio Bastardo, Arodys Vizcaino, Santiago Casilla, Eduardo Sanchez, Jesse Crain, Vinnie Pestano, Brad Lidge
Although there are some intriguing options here for owners in deep mixers and single-league formats, most of this tier will likely open the 2012 campaign on the waiver wire. Gregg and Lopez are notable exceptions, as strong Spring Training performances could put them in line to rack up saves in April
Zach Steinhorn is a fantasy writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.