At first glance, the sight of Craig Kimbrel sitting atop the list of fantasy baseball’s top relief pitchers doesn’t exactly inspire awe. Not to take anything away from the third-year Braves closer, but even the great Mariano Rivera at the age of 57 is still a Top 5 relief pitcher this season.
Okay, I’m joking about Rivera’s age – he’s actually 42 – but the message is the same. In what most likely will be his last season, Rivera remains one of the top relievers in the game. What does that say about his competition?
Kimbrel appears to be the No.1 choice at closer this fantasy season, but he’s going to receive some competition from the usual suspects. In no particular order, here are the other relievers expected to come off the board early: Jose Valverde of the Tigers; John Axford of the Brewers; Drew Storen of the Nationals; Jonathan Papelbon of the Phillies; Heath Bell of the Marlins; Joakim Soria of the Royals and J.J. Putz of the Diamondbacks.
Many experts believe the Nationals will be much better this season, giving Storen that many more save opportunities. Just as many analysts believe that Valverde will struggle more this season, reverting to his pattern of one good year, one bad year.
Myself, I place more stock in Valverde than Storen, simply because the Tigers are stacked this year and should contend for the best record in baseball. And since Valverde never struggled at all last season, he’s going to put up great numbers even if he stumbles a couple of times.
But who presents best value out of the bullpen this year?
For my money, I’ve targeted three relievers (CBSsports.com rankings and 2011 stats):
Jordan Walden of the Angels, No. 18
32 saves, 1.24 Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched, 67 Ks in 60.1 innings
Walden was impressive after assuming the closer’s role last April. I expect him to be better this year, and the Angels’ big-name free agent acquisitions will keep providing save opportunities.
Sergio Santos of the Blue Jays, No. 17
30 saves, 1.11 WHIP, 92 Ks in 63.1 innings
Santos strikes out a ton of batters and his control figures to get better with another year of pitching under his belt. The fireballing reliever was a hot-shot prospect at shortstop in Toronto’s minor league system, but he’s back with the Blue Jays as a rising star out of the bullpen.
Andrew Bailey of the Red Sox, No. 14
24 saves, 1.10 WHIP, 41 Ks in 41.2 innings
Bailey will learn early on that being the Red Sox closer is very different than closing out games in Oakland. As long as he avoids the disabled list, I expect Bailey to thrive as his save opportunities increase.
Relievers of note: Don’t forget about Toronto’s Matt Moore and Neftali Perez of the Rangers, two high end of the rotation starters this year who will be listed as relievers in this year’s draft.
Guys I don’t trust, and neither should you: The Cubs’ Carlos Marmol and the Rays’ Kyle Farnsworth. Past history counts.
Injuries, injuries: How much do Brian Wilson of the Giants and Joe Nathan of the Rangers have left? Two guys who have got the job done in the past, but have plenty to prove now.
Keep an eye on: Rafael Betancourt of the Rockies and Joel Hanrahan of the Pirates. Betancourt’s WHIP last year was a meager 0.87. Hanrahan saved 40 games with a 1.05 WHIP a year ago.
What does this year bring, or Keep an eye on, Part II: There’s a new sheriff in St. Louis, Manager Mike Matheny, and he may have different ideas about how best to utilize his bullpen. Watch Jason Motte of the Cardinals closely.
Uh Oh: New Reds closer Ryan Madson is on the injury report with elbow issues. He’s says he’s feeling close to 100 percent, but elbow injuries keep major league pitchers up at night, not to mention team owners in fantasy baseball.
This is the second of eight fantasy baseball reports concerning best market value for each position. Check back for the next edition: catchers.