2014 Outlook: One of the precious few "trustworthy closers," Kimbrel's numbers stack up favorably among history's young finishers: His 1.39 ERA and 43.2 percent strikeout rate were both best all-time among any pitcher through his age-25 season (minimum 200 innings), and his 139 career saves at the time of his 25th birthday ranked second all-time (Francisco Rodriguez, 146). Take that to heart, if you're among the rare critics of Kimbrel's 2013 strikeout-rate drop; his 38.0 percent number, a decline of a little more than 12 percent, was still the 20th-best in any year all-time (minimum 50 innings). In other words, his skills remain excellent, his workload has been managed much more conservatively the past two seasons than in 2011, diminishing any health risk, and his Nos. 30 (2011), 10 (2012) and 14 (2013) Player Rater rankings overall support his candidacy for top-50 draft status even in shallow mixed leagues. Do you pay for saves? This is one of the rare closers worth the hefty price.
2014 Outlook: Craig Kimbrel might get the press -- he's the one who has held a closer's job for a longer period of time -- but Jansen has skills that place him right up there with the Atlanta Braves' finisher. Like Kimbrel, Jansen possesses three of the 20 best single-season strikeout rates in history (minimum 50 innings), finishing fourth in 2011 (44.0 percent), 12th in 2012 (39.3) and 18th in 2013 (38.0). Frankly, if the Los Angeles Dodgers didn't keep signing lesser-skilled relievers with "closer experience" -- from Brandon League to Brian Wilson to Chris Perez -- Jansen would probably have more faith from fantasy owners. Still, despite the seemingly endless list of closer contenders, Jansen is actually one of the safest save-getters in the game, and following an October 2012 heart surgery, he suffered zero injury setbacks in 2013 to diminish any such future worry. There is a four-man tier of "elite fantasy closers" -- three of whom hail from the National League -- and Jansen belongs squarely in that group.
2014 Outlook: Holland's 2013 is all the more remarkable if you consider that this No. 2 relief pitcher and No. 21 player overall on our Player Rater actually lost his closer job for a brief spell early in the season. But even if you account for his rocky early April, since he took over as the Kansas City Royals' closer on Aug. 1, 2012, he ranks second in the majors in saves (63), third in relief ERA (1.43), eighth in WHIP (0.93) and fifth in strikeout rate (37.7 percent). He has a filthy slider that generates many swings and misses, and made huge strides with his control in 2013, his 7.1 percent walk rate a big improvement upon 2012's 11.8 percent. If there's to be any criticism of Holland, it's that he has a 7.04 ERA in his career in the month of April, but both the Royals and his fantasy owners are probably prepared to absorb that and be patient, even through any brief rough patches. He's the sneaky entrant into the four-man, upper tier of fantasy closers, and the only one of that group who hails from the American League. Don't wait on him for long.
2014 Outlook: At the time news broke that projected St. Louis Cardinals closer Jason Motte had an elbow injury that would eventually require Tommy John surgery, Rosenthal appeared the obvious replacement, thanks to his high-90s fastball and elite changeup, both of which he could command and use to generate many swings and misses. He was one of 2013's breakout relief pitchers; what no one could've seen coming was that he'd spend most of it in the eighth inning, only graduating to the ninth in time for the playoffs, during which he had four saves in five chances to go along with 11 2/3 shutout innings. Rosenthal's performance was both outstanding and historic, as he became only the ninth reliever in history to manage at least 100 K's with 20 or fewer walks in a season, and it set him up well to close for the Cardinals at the onset of 2014. His ceiling is as high as any closer -- the case can legitimately be made that he warrants consideration alongside our "Big Four" top tier -- with any rankings/draft-stock hesitation centered upon his limited experience as a closer, his somewhat aggressive early-2013 usage and Motte's projected midseason return. But we must admit, we're nit-picking.
2014 Outlook: Nathan picked the perfect time to put up career numbers, as not many 39-year-old closers can fetch multiyear deals. Fortunately, Lady Luck shined brightly and the Detroit Tigers want to win now. Lost in the sparkling 2013 ERA and WHIP was a rising walk rate which could be a minor issue, assuming Nathan's fortunate hit and homer rates regress to normal levels. That said, the veteran stopper continues to fan more than a batter per inning, so even with a normalized ERA, he'll again be a reliable source of saves.
2014 Outlook: Uehara rarely receives due credit for his raw ability, as DL stints in each of his first four major league seasons, plus an unwarranted reputation for being unable to handle larger workloads, tend to make fantasy owners hesitant to trust him. So let's help him earn yours: In 2013, he set a new single-season record for lowest WHIP among pitchers with at least 50 innings, with his 0.57 mark besting Dennis Eckersley's 23-year-old record of 0.61. His 11.22 career K-to-walk ratio was fifth-best in the modern era, and his .130 batting average-against was second-best. And to answer the workload question, after capturing the Boston Red Sox's closer gig last June, he appeared 13 times on consecutive days and 54 times in 99 games overall (playoffs included). Uehara is as safe a ratios bet as relievers come, and he's firmly locked into the Red Sox's ninth-inning picture after his outstanding late-2013 run. If not for his DL history, he'd surely warrant a higher rank.
2014 Outlook: Although he'll miss the first few weeks of the season after being hit by a line drive in the face during spring training, there's no debate that Chapman enters 2014 as the Cincinnati Reds' closer. It took until the conclusion of spring training for the team to decide his eventual role for 2013, but once they did, they were rewarded with the No. 7 season by any pure reliever on our Player Rater, as well as the fifth-best strikeout rate (43.4 percent) of any pitcher in history (minimum 50 innings). Chapman's high-90s fastball -- he averaged a major-league-leading 98.2 mph with it -- and biting slider make him difficult to hit, maximizing his chances at a third consecutive season as one of the game's most valuable closers thanks to his strikeout contributions. He's one of the few true "trustworthy" fantasy closers -- if there is such a thing -- and worth an early-round pick even in shallow mixed leagues. Stephania Bell: In a terrifying moment during a spring training game on March 19, Chapman took a line drive comebacker to the left eye region, sustaining facial fractures and a concussion in the process. He underwent surgery to implant a stabilizing plate two days later and the initial outlook is remarkably positive. Team medical director Timothy Kremchek says Chapman could begin throwing in as little as 10-14 days and could pitch in game conditions by late April. The fractures should heal in that timeline but regaining comfort on the mound after such an injury may be less predictable.
2014 Outlook: While Romo is still deserving of top-10 closer status, it comes with some warning. The reliance on his slider half the time poses an always-present injury risk. Perhaps more concerning is, for the second straight season, Romo incurred a rather precipitous drop in strikeout rate while his still excellent walk rate is slowly edging upward. Assuming his skills stay where they are, he remains a top-10 closer. Just don't wait too long to add a second source of saves to your staff.
2014 Outlook: Remember, good closers on poor teams can still rack up saves. Not only is Perkins good, he's very good. Put him on a big-market team and Perkins would be a top-five closer. The danger of pitching for someone like the Twins is the possibility of being dealt at the deadline and possibly being asked to set up, especially since he's a southpaw. This knocks Perkins down a few spots, but he's still a top-10 stopper.
2014 Outlook: Robertson has big shoes to fill -- future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera hung up his cleats this winter -- and if you listened to the New York Yankees all winter, surely you heard them hem and haw over whether Robertson is worthy enough to be Rivera's successor. We look at Robertson and see only one key difference: He's not as pitch-efficient, having averaged 4.14 pitches per batter faced the past three seasons combined; Rivera averaged 3.81 during the same time span. But that's forgivable, especially if you consider that Robertson converted 94.7 percent of his save/hold chances last season, second-best in the majors, and he had a 1.91 ERA the past three seasons combined, third-best among relievers. There's also a reason he's less efficient: He generates more swings and misses than Rivera -- at least the after-40 model -- and that fuels your strikeout category. Robertson's statistical ceiling is one close to the upper tier of fantasy closers -- yes, we're talking that group of four truly elite stoppers -- as long as the Yankees truly have faith in him.
2014 Outlook: Last season marked the first time since 2006, his first year as closer, that Papelbon failed to garner 30 saves or fan a batter per inning. His numbers weren't bad, just not as expected from the best closer over the past eight seasons not nicknamed Mo. After sporting a K per nine innings average of 12.0 the previous two seasons, his ratio plummeted to 8.3 in 2013. A 2 mph drop in velocity could be the culprit, though this doesn't explain why batters swung at five percent fewer pitches outside the zone. Papelbon can still be effective, provided his strikeouts don't fall further, but he's best thought of as a second closer in 10-team mixed leagues and a low-end first closer in larger formats. His track record affords Papelbon the benefit of the doubt, but declining velocity and a steep drop in whiffs is disconcerting.
2014 Outlook: Reed's move to Arizona was one of the more unexpected transactions of the winter, and in an even more out-of-left-field development, he wasn't even guaranteed the closer's job by Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers following his acquisition. Mmm-hmm, Mr. Towers, we're sure you'd swap an above-average third-base prospect for a setup reliever. Reed is almost certain to close in the desert, just as he did in Chicago, with the ballpark swap resulting in a negligible impact upon his statistics but the move to the National League a boost. Reed is a closer with plenty of career ahead of him -- his 69 career saves were the 16th-most of any pitcher in history at the time of his 25th birthday -- and if he can merely polish his command, he might vault himself into the top 10 at his position in fantasy.
2014 Outlook: Fearing that he'd command a hefty payday in arbitration -- and sure enough, he eventually settled for a $10 million deal -- the Baltimore Orioles traded Johnson to the Oakland Athletics, a most unexpected destination considering the latter's tendency not to pay for saves. Johnson has been adept at recording them, however, in 2013 becoming only the second pitcher in history (Eric Gagne, 2002-03) to manage consecutive 50-save seasons. Johnson is an extreme ground-baller -- he had a 58.6 percent rate last season alone, 12th-highest among relievers -- with a low strikeout rate who needs keep his sinker down and trust his defense to drive his fantasy stats. And while the Athletics' defense might not have been as good as the Orioles' the past two years, it's still a good one, and their ballpark should rein in his mistakes better than Camden Yards, helping make up some of the difference. Drafting Johnson is chasing saves, but his are pretty assured.
2014 Outlook: Grilli has the skills of a top-five closer; it's his durability that's the problem. And at 37 years of age, it can't be ignored. Grilli hasn't topped 59 innings since 2008, losing six weeks last season to a forearm strain. When he's on the hill, Grilli fans well above a batter an inning, which is a nice bonus for points-based leagues as well as daily or weekly head-to-head formats. Just have an emergency plan in place, which very well may include handcuffing Grilli with Mark Melancon, as Melancon's skills are also superior.
2014 Outlook: Balfour's surface stats have been very consistent despite vacillating skills. Of some concern is a rising walk rate, though a boost in strikeouts last season helped assuage the fears. Balfour's home run rate has also been up and down, though if he continues his trend of inducing more grounders, his home run rate should drop and stabilize. The 400-pound gorilla in the room is whether there really is something wrong with Balfour's arm. Tampa Bay didn't seem concerned, so Baltimore's loss is the Rays' gain. Still, the mystery is enough to push Balfour into second closer status. That said, the Rays' track record with closers renders Balfour a solid gamble.