2015 Outlook: It would have been understandable had Chapman dialed back his fastball after being drilled in the head by a comebacker during spring training, a gruesome incident that resulted in multiple facial fractures, but the left-hander hit triple digits in his very first rehab outing. That fearlessness carried over to the majors following his May activation from the DL, as Chapman blew by hitters with an otherworldly average fastball velocity of 100.3 mph. Major league hitters could hardly touch him. Chapman finished the season with a 52.5 percent strikeout rate -- an all-time record -- as well as a minuscule 0.89 FIP and 36 saves in 38 chances. He gave up just one home run in 54 innings and held opponents to a .107 average after the All-Star break. While the Reds project to be one of the worst teams in the NL Central this season, the team context is largely moot with regard to Chapman's value, as he's simply one of the most dominant relief pitchers the game has ever seen.
2015 Outlook: There are little indicators here and there that Kimbrel might be taking a small step back from his position as the best closer in baseball, but once you realize how great the starting point was to begin with, those factors diminish in importance. Most max-effort relievers tend to have a velocity decline, but that hasn't happened yet for him --d in fact, his average fastball was a tick higher than in 2013, resulting in a 38.9 percent strikeout rate. Kimbrel's biggest weakness is his walk rate, which jumped from 7.8 percent to 10.7 percent in 2014, a level he hadn't reached since 2011. Perhaps the biggest worry is one that Kimbrel can't control -- the quality of his team. The Braves were sellers over the offseason, getting rid of Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, and Kimbrel's top two setup men in Jordan Walden and David Carpenter. As a result, Kimbrel might see fewer save chances than he has in the past. But with three years left on his contract, he's unlikely to be shipped out as part of Atlanta's rebuild.
2015 Outlook: When an oblique injury forced Jason Grilli to the DL in May, Melancon was afforded another opportunity in the ninth-inning role for Pittsburgh. It wasn't smooth sailing from the get-go, as Melancon blew two of his first seven save chances, leading manager Clint Hurdle to reinsert Grilli into the role upon his activation later in the month. It was just a matter of weeks, however, before the switch back to Melancon was made, and the right-hander went on to convert 23 of his final 24 save opportunities. Melancon finished with brilliant numbers (1.90 ERA, 0.87 WHIP), and though he did benefit from a .258 BABIP and 80.4 percent strand rate, he improved his swinging-strike rate to a career-high 13.7 percent while lowering his line-drive rate by more than 4 percent. He also maintained a ground ball rate above 57 percent, seemingly locking him in as the team's closer to open 2015. There's always a chance the Pirates could look to move him back to the setup role eventually, but he's easily the best option they have in the ninth inning at the moment.
2015 Outlook: Although Rosenthal's walk rate more than doubled last season, going from 2.4 BB/9 in 2013 to 5.4 BB/9, he was able to hold onto the Cardinals' closer job the entire year. The right-hander blew six opportunities, but still finished with 45 saves, second in the NL behind Craig Kimbrel. While his swinging-strike rate fell by close to two percent and his opponents' line-drive rate jumped by nearly six percent, Rosenthal allowed just two home runs in 70.1 regular-season innings and finished the year with just three earned runs allowed in his final 15 appearances (including the postseason). Jordan Walden, whom the Cardinals acquired from the Braves in the offseason, has closing experience and will be waiting in the wings in case Rosenthal falters, and Carlos Martinez could be a ninth-inning option as well if he fails to maintain a rotation spot, but as long as Rosenthal has manager Mike Matheny's trust, he will see plenty of chances and thus warrant consideration as a first closer
2015 Outlook: On the surface, it appears as though Jansen took a significant step back last season, with his ERA and WHIP jumping by .88 and .27, respectively, but he actually shaved .08 off his FIP. The right-hander improved his K/9 rate by nearly a full strikeout (from 13.0 to 13.9) and his swinging-strike rate by more than 2 percent, to a career-best 16.6 percent. Jansen finished with a 1.69 ERA and .186 BAA after the All-Star break, but his overall numbers were marred by an anomalous .350 BABIP. It should be noted that lefties did have far more success against Jansen, batting .284/.331/.379 against him, well up from .204/.256/.274, but his fastball velocity ticked back up and he finished third in the NL in saves with 44. Unfortunately, Jansen's 2015 debut will be delayed after he was forced to undergo foot surgery in mid-February, a procedure which carries with it a 8-to-12 week estimated recovery timetable. J.P. Howell, Chris Hatcher and Joel Peralta seem like the top in-house candidates to start the year in the closer role, though the Dodgers may very well look outside the organization for a short-term replacement.
2015 Outlook: The swingman with the funky delivery became a full-time starter and added a breaking ball to become one of the bigger surprises in 2014. Wood understood he needed a third pitch to effectively move from the pen to the rotation, and the curveball did the trick for him, as he generated an above-average strikeout rate and did not hurt himself with walks or get hurt badly by home runs. Thus far in his career, he's been able to strand runners at a very high rate for starting pitchers, but it's very unlikely he repeats his 2014 level of 80 percent, as only a handful of pitchers have ever done so. Wood will help in ratios and strikeouts, but the Atlanta offense might hold down his win total.
2015 Outlook: By any measure, 2014 was successful for the Phillies' closer and certainly an improvement on his 2013, as Papelbon posted his highest save total since 2008 and his lowest WHIP since 2007. His strikeout rate ticked back up to 24.3 percent and his opponents' line-drive rate of 15.3 percent matched a career best. However, there were some signs that suggest Papelbon is due for a significant regression in his age-34 season. He finished with a .247 BABIP and 2.7 percent HR/FB rate, numbers that helped mask another dip in fastball velocity. Indeed, since 2011, Papelbon has lost nearly four miles per hour off his fastball. Further, his 3.50 xFIP was just one tick lower than his 2013 mark. When it comes to relief pitchers, role is of utmost importance in fantasy, and the uncertainty regarding Papelbon's future in Philadelphia presents another wrinkle for prospective owners, though Papelbon would likely push for the closer role no matter where he ends up.
2015 Outlook: It's easy to look at Cishek's nearly 90-point increase in ERA last season and assume his performance fell off dramatically from 2013, but he actually improved in several crucial categories. The right-hander's FIP was a full run lower than his ERA, and he improved his strikeout rate by more than four percent (26.3 to 30.6) while trimming his walk rate slightly as well. Cishek's numbers were bloated by an unusually high .331 BABIP (career .297), so there's reason to believe his ratios will return to more useful levels in 2015. His opponents' line-drive rate did see an alarming spike last season, but the 28-year-old fared far better against lefties, and A.J. Ramos and Carter Capps likely won't present any threat to his job in the early going.
2015 Outlook: Storen had a superb 2014 that saw him ultimately wrest the closer's job from Rafael Soriano at the end of the season, a role that he'll have to begin 2015. But Storen is hardly a stable commodity, as both his performance and his role have fluctuated wildly as a major leaguer. In a way, his experience with the Nats is a microcosm of max-effort relievers as a whole. He burst onto the scene after being a blue-chip prospect, held his own but didn't quite dominate as a rookie, took over the closer's job in his second year in the majors, suffered his first elbow injury, lost his job to a veteran alternative, then finally had the redemption story to get his role back. Storen has changed his approach on the mound, using his changeup more often in the hope of inducing weak groundballs rather than turning to a slider to strike batters out. However, he had a whopping 90.6 percent strand rate and a .271 BABIP against last year, suggesting that some regression might be in order for 2015. Washington signed a former closer, Casey Janssen, this offseason to provide insurance for Storen, but he still figures to have the ninth-inning role to himself to start the season.
2015 Outlook: K-Rod got off to an unbelievable start last season, turning in a whopping 19 straight scoreless appearances to begin the year, with just eight hits allowed over that span. Regression was inevitable, and the right-hander indeed struggled to a 3.97 ERA after the All-Star break, but Rodriguez still finished with 44 saves, good enough for third in the NL, including very useful numbers in the ratio categories. Although he was relatively lucky with a .216 BABIP, that was offset to a large extent by a bloated 23.3 percent HR/FB rate, and his 6.7 percent walk rate was a career best. After re-signing with Milwaukee on a two-year deal in late February, Rodriguez is set to once again open the season as the team's closer, and his success with the club last season and lack of options behind him should afford the right-hander a fairly long leash in the role. Rodriguez should warrant consideration as a high-end second closer.
2015 Outlook: Rondon illustrates how hard it is to project the ultimate closer for any ball club without an established ninth-inning man. Once a starting pitching prospect in the Indians' organization, Rondon had to go under the knife and missed the entire 2012 season. The Cubs snagged him in the Rule 5 draft prior to the 2013 season and put him in the bullpen, where his initial season was pretty choppy -- though not surprising, given that Rondon had never pitched in the majors or out of the bullpen -- but Chicago had to keep him on the roster because of his Rule 5 status. But in 2014, when everyone above him fell apart, Rondon was given his chance to close and ran with the job. He struck out more than 24 percent of the hitters he faced while walking just 5.9 percent. Rondon's a ground-ball pitcher too, which allows him to keep the ball in the park, even at the Friendly Confines. For all the improvements the Cubs made, they didn't bring in too much competition for the job -- just Jason Motte, who didn't look like a closer candidate upon his return from injury last year. More save opportunities for the improving Cubs should come in 2015, which makes Rondon a bit of a sleeper.
2015 Outlook: Mejia began the 2014 season as a starter but ended the year as the Mets' closer, converting 28 of 31 save chances along the way. Some warning signs loom, however. Mejia gave up nine homers on the year, and he walked 9.8 percent of the batters he faced. Moreover, he has legitimate competition for the role in Jeurys Familia and the returning Bobby Parnell. But at least the Mets seem to have finally, permanently settled on Mejia as a reliever rather than a starter. He underwent surgery to repair a sports hernia as soon as the season was over and should be ready for the start of spring training. That said, it remains to be seen what his role will be.
2015 Outlook: If and when the Phillies trade Jonathan Papelbon and install Giles as the closer, it'll be one of the least surprising role changes of the season. Giles has posted extreme strikeout rates at every stop in his professional career and throws a fastball that averages just over 97 mph. The hyperbole on him has started early, as he's already been called "The Next Craig Kimbrel," among other things. Of course, Giles has done a lot to encourage that enthusiasm by pitching so well upon his big league arrival. He posted a 1.18 ERA and struck out 38.6 percent of batters in his first 45 2/3 major league innings.
2015 Outlook: Reed has one of the least stable closing jobs in baseball, after he gave up a whopping 11 homers in 2014. The management team that traded for Reed is gone, as is the manager who kept him during the season. Reed gets his share of strikeouts, but he's a fly-ball pitcher in a homer-heavy environment. The one thing in his favor is there isn't a readily identifiable replacement on the Diamondbacks, which at least gives him the first shot at the job.
2015 Outlook: Although Casilla throws hard, averaging around 94 mph with his fastball throughout his career, he's never been much of a strikeout pitcher. Thus, he doesn't profile like a typical closer, nor does he have an extended track record of closing to help him hold the job if he hits a rough patch. Fortunately for Casilla, he didn't have that rough patch in 2014, and he thus managed to hold onto the ninth-inning role after Sergio Romo faltered. However, the Giants did re-sign Romo, and manager Bruce Bochy has demonstrated a willingness to use a closer committee in the past, so Casilla's hold on the job has to be considered somewhat tenuous, though he's a good bet to post decent ratios regardless.