Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
There are many strategies to building your pitching staff, but most assert the theory of not paying too much for saves.
The thought process is that most closers pitch a limited number of innings and therefore your dollars/draft choices are only helping in one category.
I believe in a variant of that strategy - one in which you pay for one high- quality closer and then surround him with low-priced, end-of-the-draft selections who will still get you a competitive save total.
In this alternate strategy, you earn 40-plus saves from your anchor and find three closers late in the draft who can earn 20-30 saves. Remember, even the worst teams in the league still create save opportunities.
In 2011, the Houston Astros won just 56 games, but had 25 saves and Mark Melancon earned 20 of them. In all, 26 relief pitchers accumulated 20 or more saves, so unless one fantasy owner is hoarding closers, you should be able to acquire the necessary back-end guys inexpensively.
Using last year's Yahoo ADP as a reference, in a typical 12-man league you could have selected future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera in the sixth round (ADP 75) and late in the draft added Huston Street (ADP 160), Brandon League (ADP 183) and Kyle Farnsworth (ADP 196). They would have earned you 135 saves and cost you just sixth-, 14th-, 16th- and 17th-round picks. In my competitive Yahoo League, 135 saves would have earned me third-place points with very little capital outlay.
There were plenty of saves available later in the draft. Along with the three pitchers referenced above, the following closers were also late-round selections who produced quality results: Chris Perez (ADP 184, 36 saves), Neftali Feliz (ADP 187, 32 saves), Javy Guerra (ADP 308, 21 saves), Kevin Gregg (ADP 309, 22 saves), Francisco Rodriguez (ADP 318, 23 saves), Francisco Cordero (ADP 393, 37 saves), Fernando Salas (ADP 394, 24 saves) and Melancon (ADP 399, 20 saves).
Now on to the closer rankings:
1) Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta - As a rookie, Kimbrel was the best closer in the league and the situation won't change in 2012 as long as his arm doesn't wear out. He's in the right spot - on a team that can win 90-plus games, but doesn't score many runs (ranked 10th at 641 runs). That's the perfect recipe for 45-50 saves. Throw in 127 strikeouts in 77 innings (14.8 K/9 IP) and a 4:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and you have a star. Beware, he faced 306 batters and threw 1,300-plus pitches, far above any previous season. He may be the best closer, but a smart fantasy owner will have setup man Jonny Venters stashed deep on his roster ... just in case.
2) Andrew Bailey, Boston - Bailey has closer stuff, but he'll no longer be working under the anonymity of Oakland's empty Coliseum. In Boston, he will have about as much pressure as humanly possible under the microscope of Red Sox fans as Jonathan Papelbon's replacement. The 2011 version of Bailey was solid, but he'll need to produce as he did in 2009 and 2010 (read ERA under 1.85, WHIP under 1.00) in order to survive the spotlight. Forty-five to 50 saves is certainly possible.
3) Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees - The best closer to ever play the game, may not be as good as he once was, but after 17 seasons he's still a top-five closer. His ERA hasn't been north of 2.00 in four seasons nor his WHIP over 1.00. Even the 40-year-old version of Rivera still has an ERA of 1.85 and a WHIP of 0.865. After a weak strikeout year in 2010, Rivera returned to form, striking out 60 batters in 61 1/3 innings.
4) Drew Storen, Washington - Like Kimbrel, Storen is very young and should challenge as a top closer for many years to come. During his first full season in the closing role, Storen was 6-3 with 43 saves, an ERA of 2.75 and a WHIP of 1.022 against five blown saves. Not quite in the "Kimbrel strikeout neighborhood," Storen still posted 74 in 75 1/3 IP.
5) J.J. Putz, Arizona - Returning to the closer role last season for the first time since 2008 in Seattle, Putz was stellar, posting an ERA of 2.17 and a WHIP of 0.914 with 45 saves. His last regular-season blown save was June 28 as he converted the last 23 opportunities in a row. Like most of the Top 10, he strikes out around one batter an inning (61 in 58 IP).
6) Jose Valverde, Detroit - The Tigers figure to win a lot of games this year, and Valverde should see plenty of save opportunities. He posted 49 saves in 2011 without blowing a single one, so if your league uses "net saves," he moves up in the rankings. His WHIP is slightly higher than other closers of his quality, but pitching just 72 innings shouldn't be a huge detriment to your the category.
7) Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia - All the talk about Papelbon's bad 2010 season disappeared last season while he posted an improved ERA (2.94) and a WHIP of 0.933 along with 31 saves. He did, however, blow two saves in the final 10 days of the season. His 12.2 K/9 IP is one of the highest in the majors. In Philadelphia, he'll lose out on some easy save opportunities because Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels like to finish what they start. The Phillies led the National League with 18 complete games, more than double any other NL team. He'll lose 5-10 saves because of this, but could still post 30-35 with a another solid season.
8) Brian Wilson, San Francisco - Wilson will get a late start to camp (elbow), but a one- or two-week delay shouldn't keep you from making the Giants closer a mainstay of your bullpen. His high WHIP (1.47) and ERA (3.11) in 2011 could scare off your competition and allow you to obtain Wilson at a discounted price. If he returns to his 2009-2010 form, he's a top-five closer.
9) John Axford, Milwaukee - Without Prince Fielder (signed with Detroit) and Ryan Braun (possible 50-game suspension) mashing the ball, just how many opportunities will Axford get? The Brewers should be a middle-of-the-road club, but Axford is an above strikeout guy who posted 10.51 K/9 IP last season.
10) Jordan Walden, Anaheim - Walden has a 100-plus mph fastball but doesn't have the control of some other closers with nearly the same amount "heat." He also faded in the second half, posting mediocre numbers after the break (3.22 ERA, 1.343 WHIP). On the other hand, he's just 24 years old and starting his second season as a major league closer. Once he learns that he doesn't have to overthrow pitches to get people out, his top-five talent will shine through.
11) Joe Nathan, Texas
12) Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh
13) Heath Bell, Miami
14) Kyle Farnsworth, Tampa Bay
15) Ryan Madson, Cincinnati
16) Sergio Santos, Toronto
17) Joakim Soria, Kansas City
18) Carlos Marmol, Cubs
19) Chris Perez, Cleveland
20) Matt Thornton, White Sox
21) Huston Street, San Diego
22) Jason Motte, St. Louis
23) Brandon League, Seattle
24) Frank Francisco, New York Mets
25) Rafael Betancourt, Colorado
Rookies with fantasy value: Addison Reed, White Sox.