Before you close the deal …

The best-laid plans still sometimes fail. Coming into this season, I took stock of the lack of sure things on the closer market. This caused me to think that I should either double down and invest in more closers early on and jump a little higher for the elite options, or embrace the idea that entropy will produce order, wait for things to shake up and shake out, and pounce on the wires.

The latter is a great idea in theory, but given my schedule, it’s not realistic for me to think I can too often be the first to hear and react to every closer shift and potential closer shift. So, I went with the former. I did not always reach for the elite options as I originally planned, but I did try to invest in some solid options as well as get greedy toward the back end, trying to get more than my “fair share” by adding an extra risky guy or two, hoping that some would work out.

This didn’t work as well as I had hoped. In one league, I’m brimming with closers, but in my others I’m in trouble. So, I’m in the market to trade for closers, and I’m sure I’m not the only one out there in this situation, given the significant amount of turnover the position has already seen this young season. But, trading for closers early in the year isn’t so simple. There are several factors to consider beyond simple performance when assessing a closer’s overall stability in his role, not the least of which is potential personnel moves in teams’. This week, I want to share an attempt to stratify closers into tiers that represent the level of confidence I have in the stability of the current closers.

I want to be very clear: I’m not trying to rank which closers are the best or the most valuable, though the list will likely resemble that exercise in outcome. My main criterion here is the likelihood that the player in question retains the opportunity to earn saves over the long haul. Some very good closers may have less of a chance to do that than some relatively poor closers, and that’s the point of these ruminations.

One more item before moving on: I have a love/hate relationship with the type of column you’re about to read. I think breaking players into tiers can be very helpful as an organizing tool, but it is very subjective as well, and in this case I don’t have an objectively grounded metric on which I’m basing my classifications. What separates the highest of one tier from the lowest in the tier below them? It’s subjective.

I’m not too proud to reveal that I’m familiar with the exercise called “Confidence Picks” from the Mike and Mike morning ESPN radio show, and even less proud to have to write that this column is fairly analogous to it, but for those of you as ashamed right now as I am, you now know from where this gross betrayal of the evidence-based ethos of this glorious website emerges. Finally, names within the tiers will just be alphabetized, as I’m not as oblivious or egomaniacal to think I can prognosticate to that degree of accuracy.

Tier 1
Heath Bell: Yes, a trade is certainly a legitimate possibility, but he’s good enough to close wherever he goes.
Francisco Cordero: I cringed a bit as I penciled his name in here, but he makes a ton of money, stays on the mound, and does a good, though not great, job every year. It’s highly unlikely he falters enough to warrant the Reds demoting him to a $12 million non-closer. It’s much more likely that the Reds make a move to add a starter or import another team’s closer to stabilize their pen.
Neftali Feliz
Craig Kimbrel: a little young to earn this distinction, but this kid is lights out. Although Atlanta will be in the playoff race, Kimbrel will be way too dominant for the team to bring in a veteran to supplant him.
Jonathan Papelbon
Mariano Rivera
Brian Wilson

Tier 2
Carlos Marmol: No trade likely, but we have seen him implode once before
Joakim Soria: He’s here only because there could be something physically wrong with him. I guess a trade is possible, but he has non-absurd team options through 2014, and for others teams to be willing to buy, I think he’ll have to be pitching like his old self, because nobody wants to buy a potential injury for the stretch run. And, if he’s pitching like his old self, he’s good enough to close anywhere he goes anyway.
Jose Valverde
Jordan Walden: Too good, young, and cheap for Anaheim to want to trade him if the Angels aren’t competing. Too solid to warrant replacement if they are contending

Tier 3
John Axford
Andrew Bailey: He’s been nothing but great when he’s been healthy, so I have to give him the benefit of the doubt
Frank Francisco: I think he’ll come out of the early season injury and battle with Jon Rauch for the position just fine
Joel Hanrahan: Hanrahan, like Nunez below him, is one of numerous players in this tier who have shown themselves to be fully capable, but are also under affordable, short contracts and on teams that are either likely to be sellers at the break or are just always willing to move players before the get any more expensive. It’s totally conceivable he ends the season as somebody else’s set-up man.
Leo Nunez
Chris Perez: I’m not sure I totally trust him, but I doubt the Indians, even if in a playoff race, would bring in an established veteran making good money to supplant Perez.
J.J. Putz
Houston Street: A strong argument could be made that his fragility is more perception than reality and that he should be in the tier above this one, but that’s why I wrote the long disclaimer about this exercise…

Tier 4
Matt Capps: A veteran with closer experience on a one-year contract for a team having a terrible year that is still nursing its stud post-op closer back to health. What is the recipe for a trade, Alex?
Kevin Gregg
Kyle Farnsworth
Brandon League: I’m thinking he should be even lower than this, but if he hasn’t lost the job yet, that just speaks to how few options there are in Seattle. I’m not sure if David Aardsma will return either, but I think something happens to lose League the job. Is it Jamey Wright? Is it the promotion of a prospect? With $18.5 million due to Felix Hernandez in 2012, do we see a trade that includes live young arms, one of whom takes the closer job? I don’t know; but if it’s League versus the field, I’m betting the field
Mark Melancon: Could move up to tier 3, but I need to see a bit more
Francisco Rodriguez: One way or another, I just can’t see whatever team for which he ends up pitching as allowing his 2012 option to vest, which it certainly will if he remains healthy and closing all year.

Tier 5
Vincente Padilla: However, I am kind of hoping he succeeds because it’s a personal victory to me every time I can lower the anecdotal floor that defines just how bad a starting pitcher one can be and still make a wholly competent closer. I wonder what Daniel Cabrera is doing right now?
Anybody currently wearing a St. Louis Cardinals uniform
Anybody in the Phillies closer mix: Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson, and Jose Contreras. This is sort of the opposite of the Cardinals’ situation, yet it renders the same result. Unlike the Cards, it seems all three of these options are good enough and there’s reason to think each could stick. I think they’re all worth holding if you own any of them, but I wouldn’t trade for any of them.

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12 years ago

Sergio Santos?

12 years ago

John Axford and Drew Storen?

Derek Ambrosino
12 years ago

Sorry for leaving off Storen and Santos. (Axford is in tier 3 for me. I don’t think he gets traded, but if he struggles and the Brewers contend I could see them trying to replace him by adding somebody.)

I’d put Santos in tier 3 too. He’s been great and although the White Sox are a mess, I’m not sure they’d try to trade him if this continues. But, I have an inherent distrust of their organization that I can’t totally pinpoint or articulate. Thornton makes money and Sale is theoretically qualified to close too, so the fact that I worry about the organization’s stability and that they have what could be other future options leads me to cap my confidence in Santos. Admittedly, there’s a lot of just gut hesitation in this take.

Storen is a high 3 if not a low 4, IMO. I think he’s got what it takes and I think the Nats want to set up a plan to become competitors over time. Storen is probably a piece they see as part of their future. At the same time, they won’t be contending this year, so even if they’re willing to spend money, they’re unlikely to bring anybody in. …I skipped over Storen because I had moved him from 3 to 4 as I writing. My bad!

Drew Storen
12 years ago

Why do I deserve to be in the 4th tier? I’ve been lights out this year with 9 saves, a 19/5 K/BB ratio, and an ERA at 0.38. What more do you want from me?

12 years ago

Thanks for the reply.  I saw Axford after I had pressed the send button, but no edit post option was available.  The White Sox blog spoke about this a couple of weeks ago.  I think Ozzie will stand by Santos, even if he doesn’t officially name him the closer as it will allow him to back track later and also puts less pressure on the kid, allowing him to just go out and throw without over thinking it…

Derek Ambrosino
12 years ago


Ha – I misspoke (today is not my day), and if it wasn’t for somebody impersonating Storen I wouldn’t have looked it again. I transposed the tiers – I meant, tier 2. I think he’s a young, stable horse. He just lacks the track record and contract that make guys almost unable to be moved from the role.

Guys, I really do apologize for my carelessness today.

12 years ago

agreed, if other young/new options like Axford, Hanrahan and C.Perez are Tier 3, then Storen should be too.  The Nats obviously wanted him to close this year despite the professed “committee” heading into the season, and he’s clamped down his hold on the job with his awesome start.

Huston Street should be Tier 2.  The guy has simply been excellent whenever he has pitched; only thing that would knock him out is an injury.  He’s certainly as secure as Jordan Walden!

Jeffrey Gross
12 years ago

Interesting how high you got Walden

12 years ago

may 18th and kimbrel is tier 1?      dont see it…..he has lights out stuff i agree but results have not been lights out and a couple more blown saves and hes out of a job