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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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.