2/13/2014 10:00 A.M. ET
Kimbrel in a class of his own among fantasy relievers
By Paul Casella / MLB.com
Fantasy owners often have a difficult time deciding how to approach drafting relief pitchers. While everyone would prefer to have a couple top closers on their team, some don't believe it's worth using early draft picks to pursue saves.
Though it's true saves will be available deep into the draft -- and on the waiver wire for much of the season, due to injuries and demotions -- not many closers will provide the extra help with ERA, WHIP and strikeout rate that the top-tier relievers can. Fantasy owners will need to decide which approach works best for them, and then try to stick to it come draft day.
TIER 1: Craig Kimbrel
No closer has been as dominant, in real life or fantasy, as Kimbrel over the past three years. Along with averaging 46 saves, Kimbrel has posted a combined 1.48 ERA and 0.87 WHIP during that time. He reached the 50-save plateau last year, while posting a 1.21 ERA one season after his eye-popping 1.01 ERA. Barring injury, Kimbrel is poised to once again be the league's most dominant closer.
TIER 2: Greg Holland, Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman, Trevor Rosenthal
Holland comes into 2014 looking to build off his breakout season. After two subpar appearances early last April, Holland posted a 0.69 ERA and 46 saves from April 9 until season's end. The only appearance all season in which he allowed multiple earned runs came on April 6.
As for Jansen, who opened each of the last two seasons as the Dodgers' setup man before sliding into the closer role, he will finally get the chance to be the club's closer from Opening Day. He dominated in the season's second half last year, posting a 1.19 ERA and converting 19 of 20 save opportunities, while also chipping in a 0.67 WHIP and striking out an average of 13.7 hitters per nine innings.
Chapman's ERA jumped more than a full run to 2.54 last year, but the fireballer's save and strikeout numbers still made him one of the best relief options available. He finished with 38 saves for the second straight year, while striking out a Major League-best 15.8 hitters per nine innings.
Rosenthal rounds out the second tier, despite sporting a very limited resume as a closer. Though he didn't assume the closer role until the final week of the regular season in 2013, Rosenthal cemented his role going forward with a dazzling postseason performance in which he recorded four saves over 11 2/3 scoreless innings.
TIER 3: Joe Nathan, Glen Perkins, David Robertson, Koji Uehara, Sergio Romo
From "Enter Sandman," to enter Robertson? Robertson appears poised to assume the closer's role for the Yankees in the wake of Mariano Rivera's retirement, and although he has some huge shoes to fill, the right-hander has all the tools necessary to potentially become a top closer.
Nathan, meanwhile, has proved he is still just that. Now 39 years old, Nathan notched 43 saves with a 1.39 ERA with the Rangers last season, and he figures to again have plenty of save opportunities after signing with the Tigers this offseason.
In his first full season as a closer, Uehera will look to build off his impressive breakout campaign. After injuries and ninth-inning collapses opened the door for Uehera, the Japan native took over the closer role midseason and never looked back en route to a record 0.57 WHIP and stellar 1.09 ERA, all while helping lead the Red Sox to a World Series title.
TIER 4: Ernesto Frieri, Grant Balfour, Steve Cishek, Casey Janssen, Addison Reed, Jim Johnson, Jonathan Papelbon, Rafael Soriano
Now is when the saves really start to come with some potential drawbacks. Frieri, for instance, earned 37 saves for the Angels last year, yet saw his ERA skyrocket from 2.32 in 2012 to 3.80 last season. Balfour had a peculiar offseason, nearly signing with the Orioles before reportedly failing a physical and later signing with the Rays, where he will look to build off his successful 2013 season. Johnson, his replacement in Oakland, tends to shut the door -- evidenced by his back-to-back 50-save seasons -- despite some occasional rocky outings.
Reed presents a high-risk, high-reward opportunity, as the young right-hander prepares for his first season in Arizona. He tallied 40 saves for the White Sox last season, and though he's not guaranteed the ninth-inning job quite yet for the D-backs, Reed's impressive strikeout rates make him an interesting option if he indeed locks up the job.
TIER 5: Jim Henderson, Jason Grilli, Nate Jones, Bobby Parnell, Fernando Rodney, Tommy Hunter, Danny Farquhar, John Axford, Huston Street, Jose Veras
One of the feel-good stories of the year, Grilli experienced a breakout season at the age of 36 last year. He converted 27 of 28 save opportunities before a forearm injury forced him to miss substantial time in the season's second half. Back at full health, the veteran should be good for 30-plus saves for the Pirates again this year.
From there, any other picks could be gambles. Axford, though he has struggled the last two seasons, has some interesting buy-low appeal in his new home in Cleveland, considering he was one of the game's elite closers just two years ago.
TIER 6: Rex Brothers, Mark Melancon, Joaquin Benoit, Cody Allen, Darren O'Day, Jesse Crain, Neftali Feliz
Feliz is the only player in this group who currently seems headed toward starting the season in a closer's role. Formerly a top-end closer prior to his brief stint as a starter that ended with Tommy John surgery in 2012, Feliz could be worth a late-round flier. The others, possibly with the exception of Allen, figure to start the year in setup roles, but they could soon shift to closer due to injury or ineffectiveness.