I've seen some talk about the 2011-12 offseason featuring a strong free agent market for closers. However, it's possible the strength of this class has been overstated. Let's take a look.
- Heath Bell: Bell has yet to allow a home run this year in 17 innings, and he's generally pitching well. However, he's typically been good for at least a strikeout per inning and this year he's down to 6.3 per nine. That's come with an increase in groundballs, but if the lack of strikeouts continues it will have to give some teams pause before committing big bucks to a 34-year-old.
- Jonathan Broxton: Broxton has relative youth on his side, but he lost his closing job again and his numbers are lousy across the board. He's currently on the DL with an elbow injury and may have to take a one-year deal to rebuild value.
- Matt Capps: Capps has never been a top-shelf closer. He's showing fantastic control this year, but otherwise his strikeout rate is dangerously low and he's allowing tons of flyballs (and as you'd expect, home runs). He's blown four saves already; only one other closer (Craig Kimbrel) has done that without being ousted from the role.
- Francisco Cordero: Cordero has a $12MM club option the Reds figure to decline, even though the 36-year-old has a 1.77 ERA. He's improved his typically poor control and added groundballs, but like several other closers it's come at the cost of strikeouts. In general, teams figure to be reluctant to commit $8MM+ salaries and multiple years to relievers in their mid-30s who don't strike people out.
- Frank Francisco: Francisco's season began with a DL stint for tightness in his right pectoral muscle and inflammation in his biceps. That's a concern for a pitcher with a lengthy injury history. He's got his usual huge strikeout rate, but he's walked eight and allowed four home runs in 12 1/3 innings so far.
- Ryan Franklin: Four blown saves got him replaced as the Cardinals' closer, and he may not return to that role for any team.
- Brad Lidge: Lidge has a $12.5MM club option that will surely be declined. He's rehabbing a shoulder injury and could make his 2011 debut in June. Lidge probably won't close upon his return, unless something happens to Ryan Madson.
- Joe Nathan: Nathan's return from Tommy John surgery has not been smooth sailing, and he's another former great closer certain to have a big club option declined. So far his customary control has been missing. Like Broxton and Lidge, he'd do well to take a one-year deal and rack up 40 saves somewhere.
- Jonathan Papelbon: Quietly, Papelbon is having one of the best statistical seasons of his career. If he can put 2010 in the rearview, maybe he can challenge Nathan's relief record $47MM contract.
- Francisco Rodriguez: Though he's on pace, I still can't see the Mets allowing K-Rod's 2011 option for $17.5MM to vest with 55 games finished. The Mets could eat some salary and trade Rodriguez to a team for which he would not close. Of course, that team would be taking on a risk in that they might have little recourse but to turn to K-Rod to close if their ninth inning guy falters or gets hurt. K-Rod still whiffs a batter per inning with questionable control, but this year he boasts the best groundball rate of his career by far. His average fastball velocity is down to 90.4 miles per hour.
- Rafael Soriano: Perhaps he's unhappy as a setup man, but there's no way he opts out after a season that included an elbow injury and lousy numbers (so far). Soriano must choose between $25MM over the 2012-13 seasons or free agency and a $1.5MM buyout.
- Jose Valverde: His fastball is down a tick, but he is 11-for-11 in save chances. I imagine the Tigers will exercise his $9MM club option.
- Kyle Farnsworth: Farnsworth's customary strikeouts are missing, but he's got a fantastic 62.5% groundball rate. Did all the closers have a meeting about this? Farnsworth is fixing his reputation by going nine for ten in save opportunities, and the Rays will probably exercise his $3.3MM option.
- Ryan Madson: Thrust into the closer role with Lidge and Jose Contreras unavailable, Madson is nine for nine in save chances and has allowed one run in 19 innings. His peripherals are strong, including a career-best 62.8% groundball rate. This Scott Boras client is also mending his reputation and may jockey with Papelbon for the biggest contract for any reliever this winter.
- Vicente Padilla: He snagged a couple of save chances with Broxton unavailable, but is back on the DL with pain in his surgically-repaired forearm. Fun fact: Padilla's Major League debut in 1999 with the Diamondbacks was a save situation, but Greg Vaughn, Barry Larkin, Eddie Taubensee, and Aaron Boone got the best of him. We'll see whether Padilla can come back strong and remain the Dodgers' closer this year.
There are strong options here, though we all know the fickle nature of relievers. This closing class is weaker than expected given the poor pitching of Broxton, Capps, Franklin, and Nathan. Papelbon and Madson represent the best combinations of age, success, and strikeouts.