2012 Baseball Preview — Top 10 Relievers

TOP 10 RELIEVERS

1. Mariano Rivera, N.Y. Yankees – Still the best closer in baseball, despite being 42 years old. Rivera has amassed 603 career saves and last season finished second in the American League with 45. He has finished with a sub-2.00 ERA the past four seasons.

2. Jonny Venters, Atlanta Braves – Despite not being his team’s closer, Venters might be the game’s most dominating reliever. He throws a mid-90’s fastball with wicked movement to go along with his knee buckling slider leaving many helpless in the batter’s box. In his first two seasons as a big-leaguer, Venters struck out 189 batters, pitched 171 innings, and gave up only three homers.

3. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves – The 23-year-old is the only one standing in the way of Venters being the Braves full-time closer. If you can believe it, Kimbrel’s fastball is both harder (high 90‘s) and has more movement than Venters. Kimbrel set a National League rookie record by saving 46 games last year. If he can improve his control (3.7 BB/9 last year), he might challenge Rivera’s saves record by the time he’s 35.

4. John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers - Has beaten out a 600-career saves man (Trevor Hoffman) and the single-season saves record holder (Francisco Rodriguez) the past two years to earn the closers job in Milwaukee. Axford led the NL in saves last season with 46.

5. Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers – Finished last season perfect, saving 49 of 49 games, and leading all of Major League Baseball in saves.

6. J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks – After a few seasons of being forced (by the Mets and White Sox) into a set-up role, where he is not comfortable, Putz flourished as closer of the resurgent Arizona Diamondbacks. He logged a career-best 45 saves and had an ERA of 2.17, helping the D-Backs complete a worst-to-first season.

7. Eric O’Flaherty, Atlanta Braves – O’Flaherty is the third man in the Braves “Nasty Boys 2.0” and had, statistically, the best year of any of them, finishing the season with an 0.98 ERA in 73.2 innings.

8. Brian Wilson, San Francisco Giants – Last year was frustrating. Even before battling injuries down the stretch, Wilson struggled to hold onto leads early in the season, but he was able to eventually get it together until having to sit out half of August and most of September because of an elbow injury. However, the one thing that Wilson does not lack is confidence, and assuming he has good health, he figures to have a strong rebound season.

9. Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies – Has not been the same pitcher he was early in his Boston career, but a change in leagues and teams gives him a fresh start and a clear mind.

10. Heath Bell, Miami Marlins – Miami signed Bell in the offseason to solidify the back end of the bullpen. Bell has 134 career saves and had at least 40 in the past three years, all with San Diego.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Cincinnati Reds closer Ryan Madson was ranked seventh on this list, but was recently lost for the season to an elbow injury and will have Tommy John surgery.

Aaron May