It's a closer's job to nail things down, polish off a victory, end things on a high note.
All season we've projected closer performance in this space, so in this, the final "Relief Efforts" of 2010, wouldn't it be fitting to end things on a high note?
Today, let's shift our focus to 2011 -- while still keeping an eye on the final days of 2010 -- and predict the future in each of the 30 major league bullpens. Change can come fast and furious at closer, but that's where the fun of the predicting game comes in. After all, is forecasting saves production not, to a degree, a bit of a guessing game?
Picked for each team is: A "2011 Projected Closer," the definition of which is somewhat obvious, though I'll stress that it doesn't necessarily mean the Opening Day closer, but rather one likely to be in that role the majority of next season. A "2011 Sleeper," which doesn't always mean the top handcuff choice, but perhaps a pitcher with the skills to rise from nowhere and thrive in the ninth inning (à la John Axford this year). Finally, a "Rest of 2010" pick, for those of you still in tight late-season races. Both the projected 2011 closer and rest-of-2010 picks are graded, to provide a sense of their expected value.
TOP 50 RELIEF PITCHERS FOR 2011
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 50 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance only for 2011. Teams are current teams, not projected teams, and "2010 P.R." refers to the pitcher's ranking on our Player Rater, among relief-eligible pitchers.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Just like last year, Juan Gutierrez seems to be finishing strong, with six saves and a 1.35 ERA in his past 13 games, and this time he shouldn't have Chad Qualls around to compete for his job in the spring. That said, Gutierrez is wildly inconsistent and his status as "favorite" -- if he's even that -- is more damning of the alternatives than anything. You'd think the Diamondbacks, whose 5.81 relief ERA is worst in baseball, might target relief help during the winter, except that it makes little sense to open the wallet for a top-flight closer if you don't believe you can win. Expect some competition to be brought on board, perhaps a Grant Balfour, Jason Frasor or J.J. Putz, but nothing that would firm up closer plans.
2011 Projected Closer: Gutierrez -- D. 2011 Sleeper: D.J. Carrasco. Rest of 2010: Gutierrez -- C.
Atlanta Braves: Billy Wagner is expected to retire and Takashi Saito turns 41 in February, so the future might arrive for the Braves in 2011, with hotshot prospect Craig Kimbrel, or perhaps Jonny Venters, getting a chance. Kimbrel is the team's projected long-term answer, but remember this: Saito is under team control for 2011, and if he plans to keep pitching, it might make sense for the Braves to use him to ease the rookie into the role next year. Or, could the Braves attempt to pluck another gem from the Boston Red Sox bullpen, hoping to repeat their Wagner/Saito successes? Hmmm.
2011 Projected Closer: Saito -- D. 2011 Sleeper: Kimbrel. Rest of 2010: Wagner -- A.
Baltimore Orioles: Koji Uehara has been a sensation since being converted to relief, and he's 9-for-10 in save chances. Still, his 2011 contract status is up in the air; he's under team control but he could retire, return to Japan or prove too costly for the Orioles' tastes. Mike Gonzalez should still be around because he's owed another $6 million, but why would the Orioles want to switch?
2011 Projected Closer: Uehara -- C. 2011 Sleeper: He's probably not on the roster. Maybe Triple-A closer Dennis Sarfate? Rest of 2010: Uehara -- C.
Boston Red Sox: The talk of the winter will be whether the Red Sox trade Jonathan Papelbon or swallow hard and pay him the eight figures he'll command in arbitration despite his declining strikeout rate and rising home-run rate. The presence of Daniel Bard, who throws harder and has been at least as effective in a setup role, should tempt them
that is if they can find a taker. Even with Papelbon's regression -- which somewhat resembles that of Francisco Rodriguez in his final year with the Los Angeles Angels -- both Red Sox relievers would be top-10 fantasy options granted the full-time job. So where might Papelbon spend his 2011, his final year before free agency, if it's not in Boston? Might he simply switch sox?
2011 Projected Closer: Bard -- B. 2011 Sleeper: Michael Bowden, otherwise it's not on the roster. Rest of 2010: Papelbon -- A.
Chicago Cubs: Carlos Marmol has an 85.7 percent save conversion rate and is on pace to set a record for highest strikeouts-per-nine-inning ratio of any pitcher in a season of 50-plus innings (15.73), so this job is most definitely his.
2011 Projected Closer: Marmol -- A. 2011 Sleeper: Andrew Cashner. Rest of 2010: Marmol -- B (this isn't a good Cubs team).
Chicago White Sox: One of the reasons I theorize that this could be a Papelbon landing spot is that the incumbent, Bobby Jenks, is a free agent after 2011 and is pricey ($7.5 million this year and headed to arbitration). It could by all rights be the same-old, same-old, what with Matt Thornton possessing a 2011 option, but after a year in which the White Sox tried four different guys in the ninth and never seemed pleased with any one of them -- barring, of course, their being blown away by Chris Sale these next three weeks -- wouldn't upgrading seem their natural reaction?
2011 Projected Closer: Papelbon -- A. 2011 Sleeper: Sale. Rest of 2010: Sale -- C (it's a committee, but he's my top choice).
Cincinnati Reds: Francisco Cordero is owed another $12 million next year, so do you really think the Reds are that concerned about his 1.50 WHIP?
2011 Projected Closer: Cordero -- C. 2011 Sleeper: Aroldis Chapman is tempting, but as things stand, he's probably going to get a long look for the rotation. So it's Nick Masset. Rest of 2010: Cordero -- C.
Cleveland Indians: Since Kerry Wood was traded, Chris Perez is 10-of-11 converting saves with a 0.98 ERA and .164 batting average allowed. Plus, he has long been hailed a future dominant closer. People aren't onto Perez because his team is awful, but with a winter's chance to further examine the facts, they'll catch on well before Opening Day.
2011 Projected Closer: Perez -- B (again, his team). 2011 Sleeper: Tony Sipp. Rest of 2010: Perez -- B.
Colorado Rockies: Huston Street is owed $7.3 million in 2011, is signed through 2012 and has a player option for 2013. It's his job, or at least it is when he's healthy.
2011 Projected Closer: Street -- B. 2011 Sleeper: I'd love to pick Casey Weathers, but with his injury issues, the right answer is probably not on the roster. Rest of 2010: Street -- B.
Detroit Tigers: Jose Valverde is under contract for $7 million next season, so this job is presumably his if healthy. However, there are concerns: His strikeout rate (9.15 per nine innings) is a career worst, he's inducing more contact (10.4 swinging strike percentage, a career low) and he's throwing fewer strikes (48.9 percent of his pitches seen in the strike zone, second worst in his career). His salary might provide job security, but he's not a clear top-flight fantasy closer.
2011 Projected Closer: Valverde -- B. 2011 Sleeper: Still Ryan Perry, but there might be two, Daniel Schlereth being the other. Rest of 2010: Valverde -- C.
Florida Marlins: With Leo Nunez struggling to a 5.14 ERA and 1.86 WHIP since the All-Star break, not to mention sporting a 78.6 percent save conversion rate with a 3.92 ERA and 1.29 WHIP since the beginning of last season, it's possible the Marlins will be seeking a new finisher this winter. At the same time, it's tough to see them opening their wallets for a premier option, so a Nunez-caliber contender (Jason Frasor? Jon Rauch? Kerry Wood?) might be brought in for a spring battle. It's unlikely this will be an exciting bullpen.
2011 Projected Closer: Nunez -- D. 2011 Sleeper: Jose Ceda. Rest of 2010: Clay Hensley -- D.
Houston Astros: There are two years remaining on Brandon Lyon's three-year, $15 million contract signed last winter, and the Astros might build a case that his recent run stamps that move a success. Having Matt Lindstrom around diminishes the need for free-agent help, but you can never rule out reliever-loving general manager Ed Wade making a play for another overpriced name.
2011 Projected Closer: Lyon -- D. 2011 Sleeper: Wilton Lopez (yes, over Lindstrom). Rest of 2010: Lyon -- C.
Kansas City Royals: Whispers that Joakim Soria might be traded at this year's deadline shows how teams recognize it's foolish to invest big money in elite closers if you can't win. At least in Soria's case he's not a pitcher the Royals spent big money to acquire, and he's not really making "big money" besides, earning $4 million in 2011 with a $6 million option for 2012. That's affordable, and while he could be dealt, don't assume a trade for him is going to be easy for the other team.
2011 Projected Closer: Soria -- A. Not terribly worried he'll be moved. 2011 Sleeper: They're all sleeping. Rest of 2010: Soria -- A.
Los Angeles Angels: Fernando Rodney is signed for $5.5 million, but he hasn't pitched well since making a brief closer cameo in April, and the Angels are renowned for having formidable foes as finishers, not to mention willingness to pay for saves. It could be Rodney's job, or maybe this is the landing spot for Papelbon, or perhaps Rafael Soriano if the Tampa Bay Rays determine him unaffordable.
2011 Projected Closer: Soriano -- A. 2011 Sleeper: Jordan Walden. Rest of 2010: Rodney -- D.
Los Angeles Dodgers: No matter how disappointing his season, Jonathan Broxton is simply put too talented not to get another chance to close. Perhaps the winter's rest will help. The upshot is that Broxton is the one in whom to invest, but suddenly, Dodgers middle relievers are relevant draft-day handcuffs/bargains.
2011 Projected Closer: Broxton -- A. 2011 Sleeper: Kenley Jansen. Rest of 2010: Hong-Chih Kuo -- C.
Milwaukee Brewers: All-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman notched his 600th career save on Sept. 7 and then, sure enough, John Axford got the very next save chance for the Brewers. Shocking! It doesn't matter whether the Brewers were simply trying to help Hoffman make history or easing off on Axford, who has been worked hard; the bottom line is that they recognize Hoffman's time has passed and are probably prepared to give Axford a shot. Being that Axford lacks a significant track record, however, competition might be brought in for the spring.
2011 Projected Closer: Axford -- C. 2011 Sleeper: Zach Braddock, who is a huge reason for Axford's low grade. Rest of 2010: Axford -- D.
Minnesota Twins: Another big topic of the winter will be Joe Nathan's recovery from Tommy John surgery. While you can point to Billy Wagner as the best-case scenario for an older closer having that procedure, B.J. Ryan serves perhaps as the worst. There hasn't been a lot said about Nathan, but I'll say I've got "guarded optimism" with him in 2011. The Twins also have a smart setup; the recently acquired Matt Capps is under team control (via arbitration), and if Nathan suffers setbacks, Capps provides a fallback.
2011 Projected Closer: Nathan -- B. 2011 Sleeper: Anthony Slama. Rest of 2010: Capps -- B.
New York Mets: This one is a mess, what with Francisco Rodriguez dealing with his off-field issues and the Mets seemingly trying to wiggle their way out of the final year of his three-year, $37 million contract. It's completely unclear whether he'll be back, but the odds aren't in his favor. But look at the alternatives: Stand-in Hisanori Takahashi might use an out clause in his contract to seek a starter's role elsewhere, future prospect Bobby Parnell doesn't look ready and the Mets might lack the budget to bring in an elite option. This one takes a lot of guesswork, but here we go!
2011 Projected Closer: Bobby Jenks -- C. If Papelbon lands in Chicago, Jenks has to go somewhere, right? 2011 Sleeper: Parnell. Rest of 2010: Takahashi -- C.
New York Yankees: Why, other than his impending free agency, would you ever doubt Mariano Rivera? You can point out that Hoffman fell apart at age 42 this year, but Rivera's age-42 season won't arrive until 2012 and he's not a pitcher who relies on changing speeds, as Hoffman does. Their arsenals are totally different. The Yankees will re-sign Rivera, and he will be a top-shelf closer again.
2011 Projected Closer: Rivera -- A. 2011 Sleeper: David Robertson, if there really is one. Rest of 2010: Rivera -- A.
Oakland Athletics: Andrew Bailey has been one of the most pleasant closer finds of the past half-decade, another credit to Billy Beane and his scouting team. If there's any worry with A's closers, it's that Beane isn't afraid to trade them when they approach their arbitration years. Fortunately, Bailey's don't arrive until 2012. Whew.
2011 Projected Closer: Bailey -- A. 2011 Sleeper: Henry Rodriguez. Rest of 2010: Bailey -- A.
Philadelphia Phillies: The rest of this year and the playoffs might have a noticeable impact upon this bullpen, but Brad Lidge has been lights-out of late, converting 12-of-13 saves with a 0.52 ERA and .119 BAA since Aug. 1. There's always the prospect of meltdowns from the right-hander, but he's set to earn $11.5 million in 2011, so job security won't be as big a problem as you might think.
2011 Projected Closer: Lidge -- C. 2011 Sleeper: Scott Mathieson. Rest of 2010: Lidge -- B.
Pittsburgh Pirates: It couldn't be more cut-and-dry, Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek, their two lightning arms at the back end, head to spring training each given equal opportunity to win the job.
2011 Projected Closer: Meek -- C (I just like him better, but the grade hints at the potential for a time-share.) 2011 Sleeper: Steven Jackson. Rest of 2010: Hanrahan -- D.
San Diego Padres: Expect to hear more trade rumors surrounding Heath Bell, as the Padres always have budgetary concerns and probably prefer to keep Adrian Gonzalez if they're forced to choose between the two. That said, as Bell continues to rack up numbers and, with that production, increase his earning potential, he'll be increasingly difficult to trade. The Padres might be stuck with him; the horror!
2011 Projected Closer: Bell -- A. 2011 Sleeper: Luke Gregerson. Rest of 2010: Bell -- A.
San Francisco Giants: That Brian Wilson has held this job for three years running is testament to his talent, which exceeds that of the many viable candidates you'd think who could sneak up from behind him in this bullpen. Wilson's price rises to $6.5 million in 2011 and he'll earn $8.5 million in 2012, and he's in the midst of the best season of his career. This job is his, period.
2011 Projected Closer: Wilson -- A. 2011 Sleeper: Dan Runzler. Rest of 2010: Wilson -- A.
Seattle Mariners: Both David Aardsma and Brandon League were trade candidates in July and both will head into arbitration seeking noticeable raises, so, naturally, both will be trade candidates this winter. Aardsma is the pricier of the two ($2.75 million to $1.09 million) and he's the save-getter, and saves tend to boost prices quicker than anything, so if one goes, he might be it. Then again, the Mariners could just wait again until midseason.
2011 Projected Closer: Aardsma -- D. 2011 Sleeper: Brandon League. Rest of 2010: Aardsma -- C.
St. Louis Cardinals: Don't doubt a Dave Duncan pupil. Ryan Franklin might not be pretty as a closer but he gets the job done, and little about his 2010 puts his job in jeopardy next season. He's signed for an affordable $3.5 million.
2011 Projected Closer: Franklin -- C. 2011 Sleeper: Jason Motte. Rest of 2010: Franklin -- B.
Tampa Bay Rays: The grand question is, do the Rays re-sign 2010 standout Rafael Soriano or do they let him walk, and if it's the latter, do they sign a cheaper replacement or try to develop someone in-house? Soriano could earn close to eight figures coming off a year like this, so I'm betting he'll be gone, especially if the Rays want to make any serious attempt to re-sign Carl Crawford and/or Carlos Pena. (I'm thinking, actually, that two of the three are gone.) Besides, the Rays have been exceptionally efficient at grabbing relief gems off the waiver wire or free-agent stockpile, so this might be a case where they pluck a Putz, Rauch or Wood for experience, mix and match parts and perhaps even dabble in using one of their young starter prospects -- a Wade Davis or Jeremy Hellickson, perhaps -- in the ninth. A wild thought: What if this is where K-Rod, whom the Mets conceivably could try to unload cheap, gets his fresh start?
2011 Projected Closer: I expect the unexpected (again); could be Rodriguez (in which case grade him a "B"), could be Joaquin Benoit, could be 2011 Sleeper: Davis. Rest of 2010: Soriano -- A.
Texas Rangers: It's up to the Rangers how they regard Neftali Feliz's long-term future, is it as a starter or a lights-out closer? That there isn't a logical, immediate alternative, what with Frank Francisco set for free agency and Tanner Scheppers struggling through a disappointing year in the minors, so Feliz might yet spend another year in the role. Heck, if he's this productive again, it might be difficult to ever move him!
2011 Projected Closer: Feliz -- A. 2011 Sleeper: Scheppers. Rest of 2010: Feliz -- A.
Toronto Blue Jays: As effectively as he performed this season, Kevin Gregg probably should have his $4.5 million option for 2011 exercised, and the case can be made his $8.75 million alternative option for 2011 and 2012 might be smart, as well. (I still prefer the former.) He's hardly exciting in fantasy, but for four years running he has performed adequately in the role, so why not respect him as a decent middle-range option?
2011 Projected Closer: Gregg -- C. 2011 Sleeper: Josh Roenicke. Rest of 2010: Gregg -- B.
Washington Nationals: It's as obvious a pick as they come -- Drew Storen, who was picked 10th overall in the 2009 amateur draft as the team's closer of the future and 14 months later had notched his first big league save. Perhaps the Nationals were smart to ease him into the role following the Capps trade, but next year the leash comes off.
2011 Projected Closer: Storen -- B. 2011 Sleeper: Collin Balester. Rest of 2010: Storen -- D.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.