2014 Outlook: A pitcher whose production exceeds his reputation, Janssen has quietly been one of the game's better relief pitchers for three years running. Thanks to a nasty cutter, he has balanced his lefty/righty splits in recent years and elevated himself to the role of Toronto Blue Jays closer, where he has the 12th-most saves (56) in baseball since taking over full-time in May 2012. Janssen effectively has one thing holding him back from being considered one of the best in fantasy at his position: He's a pitcher in a hitter-friendly ballpark, and in the American League East. Still, don't let that dissuade you from selecting him, especially in AL-only formats where he's especially underrated due to the smaller available pool.
2014 Outlook: Street's history is to pitch exceptionally well between trips to the disabled list, and a cursory look at last season's numbers looks to be more of the same. However, things aren't always as they appear. Street's strikeout rate fell rather steeply, and he served up a bunch of homers. On the other hand, his hit rate was miniscule, so the end result was a normal-looking season. Chances are the hit and home run rates normalize, which leaves the issue of a falling whiff rate. Due to injury risk alone, Street is a second-tier closer. Factor in the drop in strikeouts, and he's borderline third tier.
2014 Outlook: Apparently Cishek got the message after watching his closer job being handed over to a committee. Cishek was given another chance and took it to the house. At the time of the demotion, he had allowed 10 runs, resulting in a 4.65 ERA. In the ensuing 50 1/3 innings, he surrendered only eight more runs, for a 1.43 ERA. Allowing only three homers all season (one in that 50 1/3-inning stretch) helped, but it's going to be hard to repeat that this summer. But even allowing for a home run/fly ball percentage correction, Cishek should still spin very good ratios. Then it's just a matter of how many chances the Marlins give him, but remember even the worst teams get opportunities.
2014 Outlook: They say possession is nine-tenths of the law, right? Well, Frieri possesses the Angels' closer job, so he should be expected to garner nine-tenths of the Halos' saves. There's just something uneasy about an extreme fly-ball closer with an elevated walk rate, despite how many he fans. Perhaps the approach is to put on a blindfold, pinch your nose, revel in the strikeouts, take the saves and pray he keeps the ball in the yard.
2014 Outlook: Parnell had his 2013 campaign cut two months short by a herniated disc in his neck, requiring September surgery. Early reports are favorable, but the nature of the procedure is such that the final determination on whether he can perform regularly won't be known until spring training when he starts throwing the ball in game situations. Before being felled in late July, Parnell was in the midst of a fine season, though it was being aided by some good fortune. As an extreme ground-ball pitcher, his total is usually low, but one homer allowed in 50 innings is quite fortuitous, as was a .264 BABIP. Health issues aside, expect a correction to his ERA. Assuming no complications, Parnell should return as closer, but until it's clear he's 100 percent, he's a risk, and should be thought of as a speculative third closer.
Stephania Bell: Persistent problems with a herniated disc in his neck led Parnell to September surgery. He began throwing off a mound mid-February and appears on track to open the season as the closer.
2014 Outlook: The good news is Soriano's walk rate is trending in the right direction. Unfortunately, the tradeoff is fewer strikeouts. Of course, the most important aspect of a closer is saves, and Soriano has topped 40 for two straight seasons. Soriano's track record and job security put him in the top 20. His low strikeout total and volatile ratios push him toward the back end.
2014 Outlook: Only two pitchers totaled more than Rodney's 85 saves the past two seasons combined: Jim Johnson (101) and Craig Kimbrel (92). Keep that in mind if you worry about his lengthy wait before landing a closer job with the Seattle Mariners in February or his more than 2 1/2-run increase in ERA in 2013, as $14 million does a lot to convince a team to keep dishing out save chances. Rodney's step backward was the product of his walk rate returning to pre-2012 levels, although he kept the high strikeout and ground ball rates that fueled his late-inning success. He is not the WHIP source he was during his sensational 2012, but he's plenty capable of 30-plus saves, and that alone will propel him into the lower tiers of AL-only and deep-mixed closers.
2014 Outlook: The most experienced save-getter of the Texas Rangers' four primary candidates, Soria converted 160 of 180 save chances during a five-year span from 2007-11, before Tommy John surgery shelved him for the entire 2012 campaign. Following his return midway through 2013, he managed a similar strikeout rate to pre-surgery, albeit at the expense of slightly lesser velocity and a higher walk rate. As they often say, command takes longer to return to a pitcher post-Tommy John surgery, so Soria's spring performance bears closer watching than a typical player's. At worst, he seems likely to land the next-in-line role to closer Neftali Feliz, but it's possible that Soria could pitch his way into the gig, if not on Opening Day, then in-season.
2014 Outlook: Perhaps it's because he's a 30-year-old fly-ball pitcher in a hitters' park with a checkered injury history, but Estrada does not instill the giddiness in the fantasy community commensurate with a player of his skills. If these skills were present in a guy five years his junior, they'd garner more attention. Fly-ball pitchers have superior WHIPs and Estrada is no exception. The problem is homers and Miller Park doesn't help in that regard. On the other hand, ERA is fairly fickle so if you have a strong stomach, Estrada is an intriguing late-round gamble in mixed formats or a discounted option in NL-only.
2014 Outlook: Axford landed himself a golden opportunity this winter, scoring a one-year deal with the Cleveland Indians to fill their ninth-inning void. The Indians are banking on him being closer to the pitcher who led the National League in saves two seasons ago (46 in 2011) than the one who led the majors in blown saves the past two years combined (16). In Axford's defense, he looked a lot closer to that 2011 Milwaukee Brewers stopper following his late-season trade to the St. Louis Cardinals, where he leaned more heavily upon his ground-ball-inducing two-seam fastball: The result was a 1.69 ERA in 19 appearances for them, postseason included. That the closer job is Axford's to lose presents him plenty of bargain-bin saves potential; that said, without a lights-out spring, he might be a smart one to handcuff with talented next-in-lines Cody Allen or Bryan Shaw.
2014 Outlook: After a season as one of the game's more reliable left-handed setup men, Smyly returns to the rotation in 2014 following the trade of Doug Fister. It won't be Smyly's first stint as a starter; he posted a 3.79 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 22.3 percent strikeout rate in his 17 starts in 2012, and in two years he has accrued enough experience to prove he has the stuff to return to his original role. In terms of pitch selection, little should change this year, as the most significant difference in 2012-13 was his changeup, used 6.4 percent of the time as a starter (1.6 percent in relief), but that's a secondary pitch designed to help keep his righty/lefty splits balanced. After throwing only 76 innings last season, Smyly might face some sort of workload cap -- and fatigue late in the year could be a factor -- but he has a bright future that always appeared more so in a starting role. He's talented enough to warrant a mixed league pick, but he's certainly an AL-only breakout candidate.
2014 Outlook: Jones pitched better than last season's ERA suggests, as both his FIP and xFIP were well under 3.00. That said, it remains to be seen if he can sustain the simultaneous improvement in strikeout and walk rates. The White Sox seem to think he can, thus he'll be given a chance to fill the club's open closer role. At least for now, Jones is best considered a reserve or speculative option for saves. In the likely event he breaks camp with the gig, he still needs to show the skills gains exhibited last season to be a trusted closer.
2014 Outlook: Henderson should consider himself fortunate to be a member of the Milwaukee Brewers' bullpen, as he's a closer whose value is rooted more in job security than elite skills. He's a fastball/slider type who has a predictably wide split -- lefties (.256) have batted 87 points higher against him than righties (.256) during his career -- and his fly-ball (41.7 percent from 2012-13 combined) and walk rates (9.8 percent from 2012-13) set him up for the occasionally rocky outing. That said, the sum of the parts still makes him a top-25 reliever on the Player Rater (23rd, to be exact), and Henderson is in almost precisely the same position this year as last. If you're going cheap at closer, he'll be a category filler, at least.
2014 Outlook: What is it that baseball teams have against left-handed closers? Brothers certainly proved he could handle the gig when Rafael Betancourt was sidelined in 2013; he converted 18 of 19 save chances with a 2.45 ERA in 35 appearances during the 84 Colorado Rockies games in which Betancourt was on the DL. The Rockies, however, signed LaTroy Hawkins this winter with the intent to have him close, relegating Brothers to a setup role in which his 1.37 career WHIP (1.29 in 2013) caps his usefulness even in NL-only leagues. Picking Brothers is more of a speculative saves grab -- could he and Hawkins be to 2014 what Kenley Jansen and Brandon League were to 2013? -- than ratios support, though he'll be of some ERA/K's support even if he never saves a game.
2014 Outlook: The Baltimore Orioles' decision to trade Jim Johnson might have made financial sense, but it put them in a most curious position: They now have a wide-open closer picture in which Hunter is the leading candidate. A converted starter, Hunter's stuff is better in relief, as his 2.99 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 19.8 percent strikeout rate in his career in the role far exceed his numbers as a starter (4.88, 1.35 and 12.6, respectively). But the primary obstacle standing in his path to a breakout closer year is his wide platoon split; in 2013, righties hit .141/.190/.154 against him while lefties hit .294/.322/.535. Hunter could emerge because of a lack of competition, but his numbers hint at some rough patches, and they're the primary reason you shouldn't go overboard with your expectations.