Shaw on MLB: Top fantasy relief pitchers

October 10, 2012, 4:29 AM

It is very rare to see a reliever win the Cy Young award and yet this season there are no shortage of candidates as Aroldis Chapman, Fernando Rodney, and Craig Kimbrel can make a convincing case. Of course, the drawback is the fact that these hurlers only offer 60-70 innings of work. Regardless, it’s nice for teams to have the luxury of knowing that they have a win on their hands once they get through the eighth inning. That’s exactly what the following five relievers offer.

5) Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies

For what seems like the first time in his career, Jonathan Papelbon went under the radar as his team failed to make the playoffs. However, the Phillies closer is certainly not to blame as he enjoyed a very productive season racking up career bests such as 70 innings and 92 strikeouts.

It is far from easy closing in Philadelphia, one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in baseball and one of the most demanding fan bases. However, this is nothing new to the former Red Sox star who made a living getting outs at Fenway Park. On that note, Papelbon was not as dominant at home, where he surrendered five home runs, however, fantasy managers should be very pleased with his 2.44 ERA and 38 saves on the season.

4) Jason Motte, Cardinals

Jason Motte blew seven saves and at times struggled enough that there was talk about replacing him as the team’s closer, but the 30-year-old battled through it in his first season as a full-time closer. Only once all season did Motte surrender runs in back-to-back outings and neither of those performances were save situations.

Armed with a high-90s heater and great control, Motte racked up 42 saves with a 2.75 ERA and 5:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He established a career best with a 0.92 WHIP as his fine control was matched by a .191 opposing average. Now closing in the playoffs, Motte is another player on the Cardinals who improved this season to make up for the loss of the team’s franchise player.

3) Aroldis Chapman, Reds

For a good chunk of the season Aroldis Chapman was the most dominant hurler in the game as he honed his control to match his 100 MPH heat. Indeed, it wasn’t until June 7 that Chapman surrendered his first run of the season. Shortly after he went on another scoreless streak from June 26 to August 17. Towards the end of the season, Chapman began to tire a bit and the Reds wisely opted to give him some time off, allowing his fastball to bounce back from 97 MPH to 100 MPH over the final week of the season.

The 24-year-old southpaw fanned an astonishing 122 batters in just 71.2 innings of work and even with his late struggles the ERA was a dominant 1.51 en route to 38 saves. The question that the Reds have to ask themselves is whether they are content with having Chapman limiting to an inning or two of relief or if they would prefer to stretch him out as a starter. It’s a tough call since Chapman already offers so much to a squad that feels that they are not very far away from a championship.

2) Fernando Rodney, Rays

One of the greatest surprises in baseball this season, Fernando Rodney went from being an afterthought in the Angels bullpen to the most dominant reliever in the American League. The issue last season was Rodney’s walks, as he averaged nearly a walk per inning. This season Rodney issued 13 fewer walks in 42.4 more innings. The opposition mustered a .167 average against him and only scored five runs all season.

Hired as a middle reliever, Rodney answered the call when the Rays needed a closer. He racked up 48 saves while converting 96% of the save opportunities. The Rays have a knack for developing elite relievers with erratic pasts. Even at 35-years old, Rodney followed that pattern and will now have to perform at a high level merely to meet expectations next season.

1) Craig Kimbrel, Braves

If it’s true that Major League franchises can maximize the value of a relief pitcher by moving them to the starting rotation, then the Braves may want to consider transitioning Craig Kimbrel immediately. For a second straight season, Kimbrel has posted the most dominant statistics for any reliever.

Despite pitching just 14.1 fewer innings than a season ago, Kimbrel had less than half as many walks, fanned only 11 fewer batters, and surrendered 21 fewer hits and 11 fewer runs. With an ERA of just 1.01 and a 0.65 WHIP, Kimbrel was dominant and set several MLB records when it comes to his strikeout rates. Best of all, Kimbrel overcame his late struggles that plagued him in his rookie season. In fact, Kimbrel did not allow a single run to score against him in all of September and October.

Though fantasy managers are usually better off waiting until the later rounds to draft a closer, Kimbrel is a rare exception. His abundance of strikeouts combined with many saves and a sensational ERA and WHIP make him a closer to pick up within the first five rounds of fantasy drafts. While the notion of increasing his innings is enticing, the Braves will likely pass while living the motto: "If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it."

Biggest Busts

3) Frank Francisco, Mets

Perhaps the Mets should have learned something from the Blue Jays after they let both Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco walk last season after routinely struggling in the final two innings for the Toronto bullpen. Instead, the Mets signed both veteran relievers and the results were not pretty.

While Rauch had some decent moments in middle relief and even picked up four saves, Francisco was a disaster. The closer who still has another year left on his two-year deal with the Mets picked up 23 saves with a 5.53 ERA. Francisco barely had a 2:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and the opposition hit a comfortable .269 against him. The combination of walks and hits allowed had disastrous results and could jeopardize his footing as the Mets closer for next season.

2) John Axford, Brewers

The Ontario native converted 10 of his first 11 save opportunities and then 18 of his final 20 save opportunities, but in between Brewers closer John Axford blew six of his 13 save opportunities. At one point, Axford was removed from the closer’s gig and replaced by Francisco Rodriguez and then Jim Henderson, however, their ineffectiveness in the role allowed Axford to return to the ninth inning duties and finish the season with 35 saves.

With 93 strikeouts, Axford was as dominant and unhittable as ever, but he got himself in trouble by issuing walks. The 29-year-old flamethrower is likely to commence the 2013 season as the Brewers closer, but this time he may not get a second chance if he falters.

1) Heath Bell, Marlins

A string of solid seasons in San Diego resulted in a three-year $27 million deal with the Marlins for veteran hurler Heath Bell. It turns out that even with all the money coming his way it probably wasn’t worth heading east. Bell endured a miserable season comprised of blowouts on the field and blowups in the clubhouse. Simply put, Bell did not get along with manager Ozzie Guillen, and Guillen had little reason to get along with Bell considering he blew eight saves and finished the season with a 5.09 ERA that was more than twice his clip from the previous season.

Already 35 years old, the future is not very promising for Bell. In addition to increasing his rate of walks, Bell could not keep hitters off balance, as they hit an all too comfortable .282 against him. Though Bell did show some signs in the second half of the season with a 3.10 ERA following the All-star break, he may have a tough time supplanting Steve Cishek who broke out as the Marlins closer.

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