The weekend announcement from New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera that this would be his final big league season doesn't change anything from a fantasy baseball perspective. The beloved Rivera remains a trusted fantasy option, and is appropriately being selected sixth among current relief pitchers in ESPN average live drafts, and in the top 100 overall. It won't be me choosing a closer that early, but I also don't see much risk. Not only is Rivera's body of work outstanding, but he injured his knee early enough last season that he's now fully recovered, with the pending Opening Day not even in question. Rivera tossed a perfect inning Saturday, striking out two, and while it's rare that we project a 43-year-old to produce at such a high level again and again and again, in his case, it fits.
Of course, for those in dynasty formats, this news only confirms that Rivera will not be helping fantasy owners in 2014, so while one should always aim to win now, it's reasonable to seek out others in longer-term formats. One of the relievers likely to come in greater demand is Yankees setup man David Robertson, the presumed next in line. It's tough to argue the case against Robertson, an elite strikeout reliever certainly capable of moving his act to the ninth inning when given the chance. This transition might have occurred last May when Rivera was hurt, but Robertson was sputtering a bit with health and performance, and the experienced Rafael Soriano got the job done in the role.
Still, Robertson boasts an exalted and secure place among my top 10 non-save relief pitchers for 2013. I participate in a league in which holds are featured, and know of other leagues that use the "saves plus holds" category. For the record, it's often tougher to predict holds leaders than saves, but it's best to invest in skills over roles, and we want strikeout relievers that pile on the innings and, obviously, keep their ERA and WHIP in pristine shape. For the record, the holds leaders in 2012 were, and good luck guessing these names in advance, Joel Peralta, Vinnie Pestano, Mitchell Boggs (the NL leader!), Jason Grilli, Francisco Rodriguez (seeking work), Sean Burnett, Joaquin Benoit, Edward Mujica, Robertson and Eric O'Flaherty. Robertson, Benoit and O'Flaherty were the only repeat names from 2011.
Here's my top 10 list of relief pitchers I expect to save fewer than 10 games to count on for fantasy in 2013, and it can be construed in myriad ways. It's not always about saves, and I wasn't thinking at all about wins or holds. Some of these pitchers will get saves (in the case of the top guy, perhaps quite a few of 'em). Some will not. Some big names are missing as well, and I'm excluding relief-eligibles such as Aroldis Chapman (though I do expect far more than 10 saves from him) and Kris Medlen. In the later rounds of some drafts, depending on various factors, I admit I'll be more likely to select a potentially middling pitcher with the chance for saves, such as former Houston Astros Mark Melancon (Pirates), Brandon Lyon (Mets) or anyone actually on the current Astros, like Jose Veras. In others, I might search for safe innings that don't count against a start limit. This list takes into account the upside of great innings (strikeouts!) with a reasonable chance of saves in certain cases.
1. Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers: In his three big league seasons, he has struck out 14.6 hitters per nine innings. That's outrageous. That said, I still think Brandon League is the Dodger in line for 30-plus saves. Jansen is the guy to get for strikeouts, ERA, WHIP ... pretty much everything but saves.
2. David Robertson, New York Yankees: Has been dominant in his own right the past two seasons, though like Jansen, he might not even get to 65 innings. And no, I don't expect Rivera to cede more than 10 ninth-inning save chances.
4. Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals: Surprise! This right-hander brings nasty stuff to the bullpen, where he could supplant Boggs as the setup man to Jason Motte. He's also capable of 80-plus relief innings. Draft the skills and see what happens.
5. Tyler Clippard, Washington Nationals: A case can be made that Drew Storen, likewise a former closer for this team, is next in line for Soriano's saves, but Clippard boasts an uninterrupted three-year run of success and bigger K rates. And I don't think Soriano will cede saves anyway.
6. Kelvin Herrera, Kansas City Royals: This is a really nice bullpen, with multiple options for fantasy owners to like. I chose Herrera over Tim Collins and Aaron Crow because he's still ascending and seems safer in ERA and WHIP.
7. Sean Doolittle, Oakland Athletics: The former first baseman burst on the scene with little minor league pitching experience to fan 11.4 hitters per nine innings. Give him 30 more relief innings, which is reasonable, and he's flirting with the relief leaders in strikeouts. This lefty also destroyed right-handed hitters, and we can't argue with his pitcher-friendly home ballpark, either.
8. Luke Gregerson, San Diego Padres: When in doubt, choose a Padres middleman. Gregerson should be next in line for when Huston Street is hurt -- it's an annual thing -- or traded, but in four big league seasons, he has averaged 70 innings, 72 strikeouts and a 1.11 WHIP. Brad Brach is also looking safe for the next few seasons.
9. Jake McGee, Tampa Bay Rays: Gets the nod over O'Flaherty, who has done this longer, for the strikeouts. The lefty McGee was dominant in 2012, fanning 73 in 55 1/3 innings, and posting a 0.79 WHIP. He held right-handed hitters to a .098 batting average. Perhaps he's closing in 2014.
10. Koji Uehara and Alfredo Aceves, Boston Red Sox: Perhaps these are odd selections, but Uehara is a WHIP monster, posting a 0.92 mark in his four-year career. He rarely walks opposing hitters. Durability is an issue, but this spring he has faced 15 hitters in five appearances, retiring them all. In 2011 in the bigs, Uehara had 85 strikeouts (nine walks) and a 0.72 WHIP in 65 innings. Wow! As for the wild and crazy Aceves, remember that he tossed 93 relief innings in his 51 appearances in 2011 (four starts), a true long man, and he won nine games in that role. He's not a big strikeout guy, but with Boston's deep bullpen, watch him throw many innings again. Aceves was not nearly as bad as his 2012 numbers might portray. I also like Daniel Bard, who was excellent setting up in 2010 and 2011, to bounce back. As for Andrew Bailey -- well, at least he's healthy today, but I also see him earning double-digit saves.
Also: Watch Carter Capps in the Mariners' bullpen flirt with 100 strikeouts if he can pitch 70 innings. The guy throws hard. ... I doubt Tigers manager Jim Leyland lets Brayan Villarreal see ninth-inning work, but the Tigers right-hander was certainly effective in 2012. ... Honestly, what scares me about Tampa Bay's Peralta and Detroit's Benoit are the home runs. Benoit allowed 14 of them. It means higher ERAs in relation to WHIP, but they do get strikeouts. ... Overall, Baltimore's bullpen is not a great investment in 2013 -- I don't see many of the guys repeating their 2012 success -- but submariner Darren O'Day should be an exception. ... Atlanta's O'Flaherty saw a major dip in K rate last season, but he has 60 holds since 2011 began. Teammate Jonny Venters, a stalwart in 2010 and 2011, is a reminder why fantasy owners shouldn't count on top relievers pitching at a high level every season. ... Other safe setup men include Mike Adams, Ryan Cook, Sean Marshall and Ronald Belisario. ... Pestano, Melancon as well as Los Angeles Angels Ernesto Frieri and Ryan Madson didn't make the list because I expect each to save double-digit games this season.