As the saying goes, "It's not how you start; it's how you finish."
For relief pitchers, that sentiment certainly rings true. Finishing games -- whether it's pitching in middle relief or actually closing things out in the ninth inning -- is what these guys do. Of course, not all relievers are created equal, and that's what we're here to talk about. After all, some have more job security, some have better track records of health and others are, you know, better known for their facial hair than what they do on the mound (unfortunately, because he remains unsigned as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery, that's the only Brian Wilson reference you're gonna get).
The start of the regular season is less than a week away, so let's jump right in. Here's a team-by-team breakdown of every bullpen in baseball, with a focus on closers and the pecking order behind them.
The closer: After notching 77 saves for the Diamondbacks over the past two seasons, J.J. Putz has plenty of stability as Arizona's ninth-inning man. Even at 36 years old, the right-hander's skills have remained sharp, as his K/9 (10.7) and BB/9 (1.8) rates were both terrific last year. While he has been relatively healthy the past few seasons, he does have elbow issues in his past and hasn't topped 60 innings in a season since 2007, so he does carry at least some risk.
Backup plan: David Hernandez is the clear-cut handcuff in Arizona. He has picked up 15 saves the past two years in relief of Putz, along with a 2.50 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and sterling 12.9 K/9 rate in 2012, so he can help your team even if he's not getting saves. His 25 holds last year also ranked top 10 in the National League. Heath Bell is worth remembering only because of his experience in the ninth inning. He flamed out in Miami last year and is a long shot to hold any fantasy value in 2013.
The closer: Universally regarded as the top closer in fantasy, Craig Kimbrel has an average draft position of 38.6, according to ESPN's live draft results, which is several rounds higher than the next closer off the board (Jonathan Papelbon at 77.0). Many fantasy owners are uncomfortable drafting a closer that high, but Kimbrel finished last season as a top-10 player, saving 42 games last year with a 1.01 ERA, 0.65 WHIP and 116 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings, so he's clearly worth a high investment.
Backup plan: Jordan Walden, acquired from the Angels over the offseason in the Tommy Hanson deal, saved 32 games as recently as 2011, but he was removed from the closer role early last season and never reclaimed the gig. Only 25, Walden could still have a bright future, but his declining fastball velocity and rising walk rate are concerns. Should Kimbrel suffer an injury, Walden might be behind Jonny Venters in the saves pecking order. The left-hander's 3.22 ERA and 1.52 WHIP last year were a disappointment compared to his first two seasons, but his performance in the second half (1.71 ERA, 1.18) should ease any concerns. Eric O'Flaherty is another name to keep in mind if you're looking for holds; he has racked up 60 the past two seasons combined.
The closer: Jim Johnson saved a major league-best 51 games in 2012. While he likely won't reach those heights again this season, he still has a firm hold on the closer gig in Baltimore, making him a relatively safe fantasy option. Unfortunately, he just doesn't miss enough bats (5.4 K/9 last year) to profile as a top-tier closer.
Backup plan: Pedro Strop was the Orioles' backup closer last year and will serve in the same role this season. That said, walks were a problem for him last year (5.0 BB/9), and he doesn't strike out enough hitters (7.9 K/9) to compensate, so there's no guarantee of long-term success should he be placed in the closer role. Darren O'Day, who posted a 2.24 ERA and 0.94 WHIP with 69 K's in 67 innings last year, would be a far more intriguing option should the opportunity present itself. Tommy Hunter is a long shot for any fantasy value, but he showed increased velocity after moving to the bullpen late last year and could work himself into some high-leverage innings in 2013.
The closer: The Red Sox acquired Joel Hanrahan from the Pirates in the offseason, and he'll immediately step into the closer role in Boston. While the right-hander has saved at least 36 games each of the past two seasons, his walk rate swelled to 5.4 in 2012, and Fenway Park could be a poor fit after last year's career-high 45.1 fly ball percentage. Hanrahan should have a long leash, but he's riskier than you might realize.
Backup plan: In the event Hanrahan's control issues continue, the Red Sox have a viable alternative in Andrew Bailey. Durability has long been an issue for the former Oakland closer, but when healthy, he has proven he can handle the ninth inning. Koji Uehara, signed to a one-year deal in the offseason, held a 1.75 ERA and 0.64 WHIP in 36 innings last year. He carries health issues of his own, but he did briefly serve as Baltimore's closer in 2010 and could move up in the pecking order given Bailey's injury history. Alfredo Aceves saved 25 games for Boston last year, but we don't see them going down that road again.
The closer: Carlos Marmol is currently the unquestioned closer in Chicago, but how long will that last? The Cubs have reportedly told the reliever's agent to expect a trade at some point this season, and if/when that happens, there's no guarantee the hard-throwing right-hander will continue getting save chances in his new digs. His control issues went from bad (5.8 BB/9) in 2011 to worse (7.3 BB/9) last season, so the "blow-up risk" with Marmol is substantial whether he's in Chicago or elsewhere.
Backup plan: Signed to a two-year, $9.5 million contract in December, Kyuji Fujikawa figures to get the next crack at the closer gig if/when it becomes available. The Japanese import boasts an impressive résumé, which includes 202 career saves, a 1.36 ERA and 12.2 K/9 rate over his past six seasons in the Pacific League, though it's often difficult to determine how a pitcher's skills will translate to the major leagues. Shawn Camp and James Russell could be dark horses for saves given that Marmol could be on his way out and Fujikawa is largely an unknown, but neither is draftable. Rafael Dolis' brief look in the closer role last year didn't go well, so it's doubtful the Cubs would want to go that route again.
The closer: By most accounts, Addison Reed was a disappointment after taking over the closer job last May. While he saved 27 games, he finished the season with a 4.75 ERA and 1.36 WHIP, including a 5.63 ERA and 1.54 WHIP in the second half. That said, he's only 24 and posted a 12.9 K/9 rate and 1.7 BB/9 rate over his minor league career, so we still like his long-term upside. Plus, the fact the White Sox stuck with him through last year's struggles suggests they're committed to him in the ninth inning.
Backup plan: If Reed doesn't take a step forward in 2013, Matt Thornton figures to be next in line. The Pale Hose seem to prefer the southpaw in a setup role, though, so there are better handcuffs to take fliers on. Thornton has, however, been a consistent source of holds the past few seasons if that's helpful. Frankly, it wouldn't be a surprise if Jesse Crain got the nod should Reed falter or get hurt, at least once he's healthy. Crain, who has been battling a groin issue this spring, also dealt with shoulder and oblique issues last season, but he posted a 2.44 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 11.3 K/9 when healthy. After a strong rookie campaign, Nate Jones could eventually work his way into the late innings.
The closer: The initial plan this spring was to move Aroldis Chapman to the starting rotation, but the Reds announced in late March that he would be staying in the bullpen and handling the closing duties. We can debate whether this is really in the Reds' best interest, but Chapman saved 38 games for the Reds last year with a 1.51 ERA, 0.81 WHIP and 15.3 K/9 rate, so fantasy owners already know that, as a closer, he's one of the elite. The hard-throwing left-hander finished last season as the No. 3 closer and No. 16 player overall and deserves to be one of the first closers off the board.
Backup plan: The Reds are paying Jonathan Broxton $21 million over three years to be their primary setup man. His fantasy value will skyrocket if something happens to Chapman, but as things stand now, he's nothing more than a handcuff. After all, his 7.0 strikeout rate last year was a career low, so he won't do enough to help you if he's not getting saves. Lefty Sean Marshall, who ceded the closer job to Chapman last May, gives the Reds yet another reliable late-inning option. He finished 2012 with a 2.51 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 4.6 K/BB ratio, though he was more effective against left-handed batters (.173/.206/.196 versus lefties, 273/.344/.344 against righties).
The closer: At this time last year, there were questions about whether Chris Perez would be able hold on to the closer job in Cleveland. He answered those questions by saving a career-high 39 games, posting a career-best 2.5 BB/9 rate, and propelling his strikeout rate up to 9.2 (K's per 9) after it had fallen to 5.9 the previous year. While Perez has shown he has the skills needed to succeed in the closer role, he also has been rumored to be on the trade block. Perez had been battling a right shoulder strain this spring, but the shoulder is reportedly back to 100 percent, so he should be ready by Opening Day, barring any setbacks.
Backup plan: Given Perez's uncertain future, Vinnie Pestano, who sported a 2.57 ERA and 1.10 WHIP last year, is an intriguing option. In addition to potentially being in line for saves down the road, his 36 holds last season were second most in baseball. There's little doubt he would run with the closer job if it were handed to him. After Pestano, guys like Joe Smith and Matt Albers will pitch some relevant relief innings, but neither profiles as a potential saves candidate.
The closer: Rafael Betancourt saved 31 games and posted a 2.81 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in his first full season as a closer, and he enters the 2013 season with a firm grip on the role. Fantasy owners should keep in mind, however, that the 37-year-old holds a mutual $4.25 million option for 2014, which he'll almost surely decline if he has another strong season. This means the Rockies may look to deal Betancourt at the deadline if they're struggling to compete in the National League West.
Backup plan: Rex Brothers is being groomed as the future ninth-inning man and could get a crack at the gig if Betancourt is traded. He throws hard and misses plenty of bats, though his 4.9 walk rate and .282/.376/.386 slash line versus right-handed batters last year are both red flags. Offseason acquisition Wilton Lopez doesn't have the same strikeout potential (6.8 K/9 in his career), but his 1.6 career walk rate may make him a more reliable late-inning option for the Rockies. He also saved 10 games for the Astros last season, so the closer role isn't completely foreign to him.
The closer: Following Jose Valverde's implosion last season and eventual departure via free agency (he has yet to sign anywhere, but the Tigers have ruled out bringing him back), the closer job in Detroit is still somewhat up in the air. Rookie Bruce Rondon seems like the early favorite, but he still has plenty to prove. While the young right-hander throws gas and racked up 29 saves across three levels of the minors last year, he has pitched only eight innings above Double-A in his career (all at Triple-A), and often has trouble finding the plate (5.1 career minor league BB/9 rate). Rondon has plenty of upside in the ninth inning, but he also has plenty of risk.
Backup plan: Should the Tigers get gun-shy about handing the closer reins to a rookie, left-hander Phil Coke could make some sense. Yes, last year's 4.00 ERA and 1.65 WHIP were ugly, but he was 2-for-2 in save opportunities and allowed just one earned run in 10 postseason appearances (0.84 ERA) after replacing Valverde, which could still be fresh in manager Jim Leyland's mind. Leyland said in the offseason that Joaquin Benoit wasn't a candidate to close, because he didn't think the right-hander could handle pitching back-to-back days. Even so, Benoit was impressive in 2012, boasting a 10.7 K/9 rate and 2.8 BB/9 rate in 73 appearances, so he could wind up being the team's best option. If nothing else, he's a valuable option in leagues that count holds, as he has finished top 10 in holds each of the past three seasons. Octavio Dotel, the owner of 109 career saves, could enter the discussion at some point, as well. Finally, Al Alburquerque offers intriguing strikeout potential (13.5 K/9) and posted a 1.87 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 56 2/3 innings with the Tigers over the past two seasons, but he'll need to improve his control (5.9 BB/9) if he's going to work himself into a more prominent role.
The closer: Jose Veras is the favorite to close games in Houston after inking a one-year, $2 million contract with the team in December, though his skill set certainly doesn't scream "closer." He strikes out more than a batter per inning but has poor control (4.9 career BB/9 rate) and isn't adept at keeping runners off base (1.51 WHIP last year). According to recent live draft data, he's the 34th relief pitcher being selected, on average, and is being drafted in just 11.3 percent of standard mixed leagues. In other words, Veras may be cheap, but sometimes you get what you pay for.
Backup plan: Unfortunately, in terms of proven late-inning commodities, there's little else in the Astros' cupboard. Wesley Wright is coming off a strong 2012 season, but he has trouble getting right-handed hitters out consistently. There's also not much in Hector Ambriz's profile that says he's worthy of the job. Josh Fields, the first pick in December's Rule 5 draft, has no big league experience, but he did save 13 games with a 12.0 K/9 between Double- and Triple-A last year in the Red Sox organization and seemingly corrected the control issues that plagued him early in his pro career. Given what's ahead of him, it's not crazy to think he could get a crack at some point. Rhiner Cruz, a Rule 5 pick from last season, had a rough 2012 (6.05 ERA, 1.71 WHIP), but he showed some flashes late in the year and could eventually work his way into the late innings. On nearly any other team, Cruz wouldn't even be worth discussing, but in Houston he's at least a name worth knowing.
The closer: The Royals handed Greg Holland the closer role after Jonathan Broxton was shipped to Cincinnati at last year's trade deadline, and he ran with it, racking up 16 saves along with a 2.17 ERA after the All-Star break. His 12.2 K/9 ranked top 10 among relievers with at least 30 innings. Last year's 1.37 WHIP and 4.6 BB/9 rate might be worrisome on the surface, but his improvement in the second half (1.07 WHIP, 3.4 BB/9) should ease some of those concerns.
Backup plan: While Holland should have some leash to work with, there are multiple arms behind him who could handle the ninth inning, if necessary. Kelvin Herrera, owner of a heater that averaged 98.5 mph last season, was reportedly a candidate to replace the departed Broxton last year, so he could get the first look should something happen to Holland. Aaron Crow, who could still theoretically return to the starting rotation sometime down the road, showed improvement in his second big league season and has the skills to succeed in the role, too. Southpaw Tim Collins may be a long shot for saves, but his K/9 rate shot up from 8.1 in 2011 to 12.0 in 2012, and he's effective against both righties and lefties, so he could have some AL-only value.
The closer: The expectation is that Ryan Madson will step into the closer role when healthy, but as of now, he's still recovering from Tommy John surgery and won't be ready for Opening Day. This means Ernesto Frieri will open the season with the job. Frieri has his flaws, namely control issues and a high fly ball rate, but this is still a guy who saved 23 games in 2012 and finished the season with a 13.4 K/9 rate, not to mention a 2.32 ERA and 0.96 WHIP after being acquired from San Diego.
Backup plan: We still expect Madson to take over the closer job eventually, but nothing is set in stone. While Madson posted great numbers while accumulating 32 saves for the Phillies in 2011, many pitchers coming back from Tommy John surgery encounter control issues when they first return, and he still doesn't have a firm return date. It's possible -- maybe even likely -- that the Angels will ease Madson back into things instead of inserting him into the closer role immediately. And if Frieri is consistently locking things down in the ninth, who's to say they make a change at all? Scott Downs shared the closer role with Frieri for a time last year, so he's likely third in the pecking order, though fellow lefty Sean Burnett was signed this offseason and has a similar skill set. Kevin Jepsen is a long shot for saves, as well.
The closer: The Dodgers gave Brandon League "closer money" over the offseason -- three years, $22.5 million, with incentives that could push it up to $33.5 million -- so the job is his to lose. League doesn't have elite stuff by any means, as his career K/9 rate sits at just 6.7, but he generates plenty of ground balls, has 52 saves the past two seasons, and held a 2.30 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 28 games with the Dodgers last year. Given the money invested, the former Mariner should have a long leash.
Backup plan: Many fantasy owners are skeptical about League's ability to hold the closer job all season, and most of that skepticism stems from their belief in setup man Kenley Jansen. Jansen is the superior pitcher in nearly every regard. In addition to notching 25 saves for the Dodgers in 2012, he sported a 2.35 ERA, 0.85 WHIP and 13.7 K/9. Don't reach for Jensen with the assumption that he'll eventually be closing out games, because he could very well stay in the setup role all season. That said, should he get the job, he does have elite potential. Ronald Belisario is probably best equipped to be ninth-inning option No. 3, though the Dodgers have to be hoping it doesn't come to that.
The closer: The Marlins may have shipped off most of their useful parts over the offseason, but closer Steve Cishek, who racked up 15 saves last year following Heath Bell's implosion, remains in South Beach. While he's far from being a household name, he could be one of the better closer values in fantasy. Last year's 4.1 BB/9 rate wasn't great, but he struck out 9.6 hitters per nine innings and limits home runs, so he should perform well enough to stay in the role.
Backup plan: Jon Rauch figures to handle the eighth inning and could vulture a save here or there when Cishek is unavailable. The 6-foot-11 right-hander spent time in the closer role for both the Twins and Blue Jays in 2010 and 2011, respectively, so he has the experience to step in, if needed. Left-hander Mike Dunn misses bats but does little else well, so we won't see him in the ninth inning unless multiple injuries strike.
The closer: John Axford remains the closer in Milwaukee, though 2012 was a tumultuous season, to say the least. He walked 5.1 batters per nine innings, allowed a whopping 10 home runs and was temporarily removed from the closer role. On the bright side, he still whiffed hitters at a high rate (12.1 K/9) and converted 17 of his last 18 save opportunities. Axford has proven he can get the job done, but the road getting there is often bumpy.
Backup plan: Should last year's walk and home run issues strike again, the Brewers may decide to go in another direction. Jim Henderson, who made his first big league appearance last year as a 29-year-old, has big-time strikeout ability (13.2 K/9 in 36 games last year), though, like Axford, walks can sometimes be a problem. Still, Henderson was the guy who stepped in last year when Axford was briefly demoted, so he could be asked to do the same in 2013 if the need arises. Lefty Mike Gonzalez was a highly regarded closer once upon a time, making him a potential dark horse for saves should Axford falter.
The closer: Glen Perkins figures to be the primary closer for the Twins in 2013. He shared the role with Jared Burton for a while last year after Matt Capps was shut down with a shoulder injury, but the left-hander received every one of the team's save chances from Aug. 5 on, finishing with 15 saves on the year. Currently being drafted as the 25th reliever off the board, Perkins was terrific in 2012, boasting a 9.9 K/9 rate and 2.1 BB/9 rate to go with his 2.56 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. He could be one of this year's better bargains.
Backup plan: Burton dramatically improved his walk rate last year after missing nearly the entire 2011 season due to a shoulder injury, and the result was a career-best 2.18 ERA and 0.92 WHIP. He could conceivably get another crack at saving games this year, particularly against right-handed heavy lineups, but he can still help fantasy teams even if he spends the whole year in a setup role. Casey Fien made a strong impression in his 35 appearances with the Twins last year, posting a 3.6 K/BB ratio along with a 2.06 ERA and 0.97 WHIP. Look for him to become a more integral piece of the bullpen this season.
The closer: With Frank Francisco unlikely to be ready for Opening Day due to an elbow injury, Bobby Parnell will be asked to hold down the ninth inning. Parnell isn't a dominant pitcher, as evidenced by his career 8.3 K/9 rate, but he saved seven games in relief of Francisco in 2012 and significantly knocked down his walk rate from the year before (4.1 to 2.6), so there's value here as long as he has the job.
Backup plan: The expectation is that Francisco will get the closer job back once he's healthy, but if Parnell is pitching well, it might be hard for the Mets to justify making a change, other than the fact they're paying Francisco $6.5 million this year to close games. While the 33-year-old notched 23 saves last year, his 5.53 ERA and 1.61 WHIP tell more of the story. Like last year, Francisco could net your team some saves, but he could very well damage your ERA and WHIP in the process. Brandon Lyon probably shouldn't be closing games either, though he's probably more reliable than Francisco at this point. The former Astros closer fared quite well after being traded to Toronto last year, posting a 2.88 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 30 games.
The closer: The all-time saves leader is back! After missing nearly the entire 2012 season with a torn ACL in his right knee, Mariano Rivera is giving it a go one last time before he retires. He may be 43 years old coming off a major injury, but conventional wisdom can't be applied here. Every pitcher carries at least some risk, and Mo is no different, but he's still as good a bet as any to finish the year as a top-5 closer.
Backup plan: With Rafael Soriano out of the picture, David Robertson is now the unquestioned go-to guy after Rivera. Even if he never leaves the setup role, Robertson strikes out enough hitters (12.2 K/9 rate last year) and helps enough in ERA and WHIP to have fantasy value. Fantasy owners who need holds should also take note, as he has topped 30 holds each of the past two seasons and should again be near the top of the standings in 2013. Joba Chamberlain doesn't figure to hold significant fantasy value this year, but he could once again be an integral part of the Yankees' bullpen. He made 22 appearances last year after returning from Tommy John surgery, and while he struggled initially, he seemingly found his groove in September (2.19 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 11.7 K/9).
The closer: Assuming he's healthy, Grant Balfour is the ninth-inning man for the A's. He's recovering from offseason knee surgery but is on track to be ready to go when the season starts. The right-hander did lose the closer role to Ryan Cook early on in 2012, but he reclaimed the gig in mid-August and converted all 17 of his save opportunities the rest of the way. While the strong finish is encouraging, Balfour sometimes struggles with consistency, and last year proved the A's aren't shy about pulling the plug if the going gets rough, so he's not the most stable of closer options. It's also worth noting that Balfour will be a free agent after the season, and the A's haven't been afraid to trade their closers in the past.
Backup plan: Cook may have saved 11 games for Oakland last season, but he still was unable to keep the job, eventually conceding the ninth-inning role back to Balfour. That's not to say Cook won't get another look if Balfour encounters more struggles in 2013, though. He finished the year with a 2.09 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 80 K's in 73 innings, including a much-improved 1.5 BB/9 rate in the second half (4.9 BB/9 before the break), so the skills are there. While Sean Doolittle is third in the pecking order, he shouldn't necessarily be ignored. In addition to being a great holds contributor, the southpaw showed great strikeout ability (11.4 K/9), limited walks (2.1 BB/9) and held right-handed hitters to a .195/.244/.242 slash line last year. He could move up the ranks as the season wears on.
The closer: Jonathan Papelbon has saved at least 31 games in seven straight seasons, and he notched 38 last year in his first season in Philadelphia while sporting a 5.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio with a 2.31 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. He's one of the safest two or three closers in baseball, but he's also being drafted, on average, in the seventh round, so you're going to have to pay handsomely for his services.
Backup plan: Mike Adams, signed to a two-year, $12 million contract over the offseason, will serve as the primary setup man and would step into the closer role should something happen to Papelbon. The right-hander has just four saves in his career, but there's little reason to think he couldn't fill the closer role ably, even with a declining strikeout rate that fell to 7.7 last year. At the very least, he's a tremendous source of holds, with 97 over the past three years, the most in baseball. Antonio Bastardo should help out in the holds department, as well. He racked up 26 last year and also provides plenty of strikeouts (81 in 52 innings in 2012).
The closer: Joel Hanrahan is out after being dealt to the Red Sox, and Jason Grilli is in. The 36-year-old has saved only five games in his career, but he should be able to handle the ninth inning just fine. Last year's career-high 13.8 K/9 rate was the fourth-best mark in baseball, thanks partly to improved velocity on his fastball, and his 3.4 BB/9 rate was also a career best. He did seem to fade down the stretch last year (6.52 ERA, 1.40 WHIP in September), which is a slight concern given his age. However, as the 21st reliever off the board, according to ESPN's live draft data, he looks to be one of this year's better closer values.
Backup plan: Mark Melancon's first -- and only -- season in Boston was a disaster, but he gets a fresh start in Pittsburgh, where he'll be the setup man behind Grilli. Keep in mind, Melancon saved 20 games for the Astros in 2011 along with a 2.78 ERA and 1.22 WHIP, and many of his underlying numbers last year were actually better than what he did in 2012, so there's reason for optimism. Should Grilli struggle in the closer role, Melancon could be a very cheap source of saves. The 6-7 Jared Hughes could be third on the totem pole, but it's yet to be seen what kind of upside he has.
The closer: The closer role in San Diego belongs to Huston Street. The trouble is, he's rarely healthy enough to keep the job all season long; he has spent time on the DL each of the past three years. Street is an effective closer when he's on the mound, and last season's 10.9 strikeout rate was his best mark since 2007 with Oakland, but it's good to have an insurance plan if you roster him.
Backup plan: Because of Street's injury history, setup man Luke Gregerson is a good bet to tally at least a handful of saves in 2013 (he had nine last year in Street's absence). After his strikeout rate collapsed in 2011 (5.5 K/9), Gregerson rebounded last year (9.0 K/9) and went on to post a career-low 2.39 ERA. He's also a good bet for holds; he accumulated 24 last year, and his 40 holds in 2010 are a major league record. Dale Thayer racked up seven saves himself last season when Street was on the DL, though Gregerson got all of the Padres' save chances over the final month of the season. Ultimately, we expect Gregerson to get the first crack at the ninth inning if/when Street gets hurt this year, but Thayer could once again work himself into the mix.
The closer: Manager Bruce Bochy still seems somewhat hesitant about relying on Sergio Romo as his full-time closer, as he wants to keep the reliever's workload down in 2013. Fantasy owners may not like to hear that, but in Bochy's defense, the diminutive right-hander has topped 55 innings only once in his big league career, and he threw his slider nearly 62 percent of the time last year, according to FanGraphs.com, which can be very taxing on a pitcher's arm. Romo has all of the skills to be one of fantasy's top closers -- his 1.79 ERA, 0.85 WHIP and 6.3 K/BB ratio last year all speak to that -- but his upside could be held in check depending on how Bochy handles him.
Backup plan: Santiago Casilla served as the Giants' closer for an extended period of time last year -- his 25 saves led the team -- before eventually relinquishing the job to Romo, so he appears to be next in line. Aside from a rough stretch in June and July last year, Casilla was very effective, so he's not a bad guy to stash if you're a Romo owner. That said, left-hander Javier Lopez makes things a little more complicated. While right-handed hitters give him fits (they hit .417 against him last year), Bochy isn't afraid to turn to Lopez in the ninth inning against left-handed heavy lineups, as evidenced by his seven saves in 2012. Lopez doesn't do enough elsewhere to be a real fantasy option, but he could vulture a few saves again this season.
The closer: Tom Wilhelmsen is solidified in the closer role after being handed the reins to the ninth inning last June and saving 29 games in 34 opportunities. The 29-year-old misses bats (9.9 K/9 rate), induces ground balls (48.3 percent) and doesn't hand out too many free passes (3.3 BB/9). Aside from not having a long, proven track record, he's a solid closer option even though he's being drafted as just the 23rd reliever overall.
Backup plan: There's currently no clear-cut option behind Wilhelmsen. Stephen Pryor throws smoke and should have a role in the late innings, though he has only 23 big league innings under his belt and held a 5.1 walk rate in those 23 innings (not to mention a 4.7 BB/9 rate in 123 minor league innings), so he has work to do. Like Pryor, Carter Capps' big league experience is sparse (25 innings), but he has better control (2.9 minor league BB/9 rate) in addition to a strong strikeout rate (12.5 K/9 in the minors; 10.1 in the majors). He may be the better bet if you're looking for Wilhelmsen's handcuff. Left-hander Charlie Furbush, who posted a 2.72 ERA and 0.95 WHIP last year in his first full season as a reliever, can get both right- and left-handed hitters out, but he's a long shot for save chances.
The closer: Jason Motte is the "guy" when healthy -- on average, he has been the third closer off the board, according to live draft results -- but he's expected to begin the season on the disabled list after suffering a mild strain in his pitching elbow. He'll return to the closer role when he's 100 percent, but as of this writing, there's no timetable for his return. In Motte's absence, Mitchell Boggs will handle the closing duties. Boggs is largely inexperienced in the role (only four career saves), but he should fill in adequately and deserves to be drafted in all formats.
Backup plan: With Motte's timetable uncertain and Boggs unproven in the ninth inning, Trevor Rosenthal is a guy to keep an eye on. While his long-term future may still lie in the starting rotation, he has proven he can be a dominant reliever. In 22 2/3 innings with the Cardinals last season, he and his high-90s fastball held a 2.78 ERA and 0.93 WHIP to go along with a 3.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio. There's definite sleeper potential here. Edward Mujica isn't as exciting as the 22-year-old Rosenthal, but he has a longer track record and possesses great control (his walk rate hasn't surpassed 1.6 any of the past three years), so he could work his way into the discussion if Boggs can't hold things down until Motte returns.
The closer: Fernando Rodney was arguably the biggest surprise in baseball last season. He posted a 0.60 ERA and 0.78 WHIP along with 48 saves and even garnered some Cy Young award attention. Needless to say, he'll once again handle the ninth inning for Tampa this season. We can't expect the 36-year-old to repeat last year's dominance, but the fact he improved his walk rate from 7.9 in 2011 to 1.8 last year tells us he turned a corner last year. As strange as it may sound, Rodney enters this season as one of the most trustworthy closers.
Backup plan: Jake McGee looks to be the Rays' closer of the future, and it's easy to see why after he sported a 1.95 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and 6.6 K/BB ratio in his first full season. He may not get any save opportunities this season, but he can still provide useful numbers in a setup role. In addition, McGee is someone to keep in mind for keeper leagues, as Rodney is a free agent after this year. That said, Joel Peralta, who led baseball with 37 holds last season, could very well be the one to take over the ninth inning should something happen to Rodney. Although the long ball can sometimes be a problem, he posted an 11.3 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9 in 67 innings last year and could hold down the job, if needed. Kyle Farnsworth, who tallied 25 saves for Tampa in 2011, is still on the team after missing significant time last year because of an elbow injury, but he's too far down in the pecking order right now to be relevant in fantasy.
The closer: Joe Nathan may be 38 years old, but you wouldn't know it from the numbers he put up last year. In addition to whiffing 10.9 hitters per nine innings, his 37 saves ranked fifth in the AL, and his 1.8 walk rate and 6.0 K/BB ratio were both career bests. He has tons of job security in Texas, so aside from his age, there's little reason not to trust him as a top-10 closer.
Backup plan: Jason Frasor, who signed a one-year deal with Texas in the offseason, is coming off a rough season in Toronto in which he held a 4.12 ERA and 1.47 WHIP and missed time because of a forearm injury. On the bright side, he did strike out 10.9 hitters per nine, which was a career best. With Joakim Soria working his way back from Tommy John surgery, Frasor will open the season as the primary setup man and handcuff to Nathan. Barring any setbacks, Soria could return to action in May, though the Rangers may not feel comfortable trusting him as their eighth-inning guy right away. His health and performance should determine his role as the season goes on. With Frasor coming off a down season and Soria on the DL, Tanner Scheppers could have a prominent role in the bullpen this year, though he still has plenty to prove at the big league level.
The closer: Casey Janssen's status for the start of the season had been in doubt as he recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, but he made his first spring training appearance on March 22 and now looks on track to begin the season in the closer role, barring any setbacks between now and Opening Day. Janssen posted a 2.54 ERA and 0.86 WHIP with 22 saves for the Jays last year, and assuming full health, he has the skills to hold down the job.
Backup plan: With Janssen's outlook looking more and more positive, Sergio Santos, who underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in July, figures to be used in a setup role. That said, Santos saved 30 games for the White Sox in 2011 and was acquired by Toronto last offseason to serve as the team's closer (injuries limited him to only six appearances), so he could very well take over the gig at some point in 2013. Steve Delabar, acquired from Seattle at the trade deadline last year, still has work to do, as he allows too many home runs (1.6 HR/9 last year) and posted a 4.6 BB/9 after joining the Blue Jays last year. However, last season's 12.6 strikeout rate suggests he could be a dominant late-inning option if he improves his control and learns to limit the long ball.
The closer: The Nationals appeared to be set in the late innings with Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard, but Rafael Soriano was still brought in on a two-year, $28 million contract to take over the ninth inning. Even with Storen and Clippard behind him, Soriano has plenty of job security because of the financial investment the Nats made to bring him in. Soriano has netted 87 saves in his past two full seasons as closer (2010 and 2012) and should have no shortage of opportunities in Washington.
Backup plan: Storen saved 43 games with a 2.75 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in 2011 and eventually reclaimed the closer job from Tyler Clippard in September after missing roughly half the season while recovering from elbow surgery, so he should be the next in line for saves should the 33-year-old Soriano get hurt. At the very least, Storen should rack up plenty of holds this year, but his value obviously takes a huge hit in standard formats with Soriano now in the fold. The same goes for Clippard. While he racked up 32 saves last season in Storen's absence, his value is limited in the new bullpen hierarchy.