As prep work for the season, and your draft, let's go through the divisions one by one and identify the key players in each bullpen. We'll go three deep so that you deep leaguers have a shot at picking the guy who might be after the guy who might be after the guy who gets the saves. Every bit counts!
National League West
Poor Brad Ziegler. He finally developed a change-up to battle the platoon splits that plague submariners, had the best season of his life, was installed as the closer, and it looked like everything was coming up Millhouse for him. But then J.J. Putz finally got healthy at the end of the year, and then the team traded for Addison Reed. As a result, the ground-ball wizard is probably third in line for saves now. Even with the injury that's probably coming to a Putz near you, Ziegler's reduced strikeout rate just means a lot of balls are allowed into play. That's not usually the recipe for a good closer, even if Jim Johnson made it work. That said, he's an elite ground-ball guy, with great control in a homer-happy park, and at least one of the guys ahead of him won't make it through the season without a two-week break.
How will Addison Reed do in the desert? Can't imagine things will be much different for him. His former park was the second-friendliest park in the big leagues for hitters. Arizona is the 12th-friendliest! That said, for a fly ball guy, he's been a bit lucky on home runs per fly ball. Pencil him in for another year with just under a home run per nine innings, and you still have a closer with excellent strikeout stuff and excellent command. You might even give him a half a strikeout per nine bonus for moving into the National League West, which isn't known for boasting Murderer's Row lineups. Reed is in that tier just below the top tier, and if he ends up being your first closer, there's no shame. He's 25 and ready to thrive.
The shiny new free agent acquisition, LaTroy Hawkins, is supposed to be the closer this year. Really. That's what everyone is saying. It makes no sense to me. Dude is 41 years old and hasn't had an average strikeout rate for a closer since 2010… when he did it in 16 innings. It's true that he has good command (2.9 walks per nine, career), and that some years, he shows a good ground-ball rate. But not every year. His career grounder rate (47.8%) is only barely above average. Command and an above-average, but not elite, grounder rate is not the stuff that closers are made of. 1374 1/3 innings into a career in the bullpen and his last two consecutive years with 10+ saves came at the beginning of this decade? Probably best to pass on this closer like most general managers and managers have done over his career. He's a decent arm, but not really a closer. What do you know, his team is already back-tracking on anointing him the sole closer.
You know who has a closer's arm in that pen? Rex Brothers. Research has shown us that velocity and strikeout rate do have some predictive quality for closer change ($ link), and Brothers owns both of those statistics over Hawkins. The younger one can hump it 94+ and with a slider and a change-up, his platoon splits are not bad. Yes, he's a little better again lefties (a whopping 13.3 strikeouts per nine), but he still gets near double-digit strikeouts per nine against righties. Managers don't prefer lefty closers, but Brothers should force the issue. If he doesn't, there's Chad Bettis, too. Bettis has the arsenal to be a starter, and the team wants him there, but he was much better in relief last year. If he ends up in the pen, he absolutely has late-inning upside. Either way, bet on 'anyone other than Hawkins' when it comes to who will lead the Colorado bullpen in saves this year. Probably Brothers.
When you've got all of the money, you can get all of the closers. Is there another bullpen with this many career saves hanging out eating sunflower seeds on the same bench? Still, it's clear which is the best one. Kenley Jansen is actually elite. If you use strikeout percentage instead of strikeouts per nine -- a good idea because if you walk a lot of guys, you give yourself more chances to strike guys out, paradoxically -- Jansen had the fourth-best strikeout rate in baseball last year. He struck out 38% of the batters he faced! Considering he only walked 6.2%, that's an intense ratio. That he does it throwing one pitch 94% of the time is even more impressive. Don't say it. Don't say it. Okay. Fine. Say it. He could be the next Mariano Rivera.
Of course, he's not the healthiest guy. He's managed 140+ innings over the last two years combined, but he also had a heart scare. And even though he used to be a catcher, he's still a pitcher, and comes with the inherent risk. Since Brian Wilson was great with the team last year, you have to think he's first in line if something happens to Jansen physically. Wilson has flipped his cutter and fastball usage over time to the point that he pitches off the cutter (75%), and that can't be healthy for his elbow, but he's going to give that new ligament one last ride into the sunset, most likely. So get used to the strange, strange beard/hair combination.
Huston Street is in trouble. Last year, he showed the worst swinging strike rate of his career. He showed the worst strikeout rate of his career. He gave up the most home runs of his career. He failed to pitch 60 innings for the fourth season in a row. He showed the worst four-seam fastball velocity of his career. He turned 30. And *then* the team signed a capable closer. Seriously, if LaTroy Hawkins is the most likely closer to lose his job in this division, Street is next in line. His slider still misses bats and his sinker still sinks, but with his velocity going, his platoon splits might become a problem. Last year, he was fairly terrible against lefties. And, to make matters worse, he was one of the luckiest pitchers in baseball. 21% of his batted balls went for hits (30% is league average) and he stranded 99.5% of his base-runners (70% is average). Those are serious outlier numbers.
Joaquin Benoit is older, sure. He's 36! But he still throws the ball four to five miles per hour faster than Street, and where Street's numbers all hit a nadir last year, Benoit looks like he's peaking. A great strikeout rate, great control, okay ground-ball rates -- these have been the earmarks of a Benoit season since he signed with the Tigers. Moving to the easier league should pad his stats even if they fall a bit due to age. Health was once a question with Benoit, and even last year, there was some reluctance to use Benoit in back-to-back-to-backs. That's fine, this bullpen is fairly deep. I'd expect Benoit to be getting most saves at some point, with Street helping if he's healthy, and Alex Torres getting a handful of saves as a backup plan. Torres has an excellent change-up and throws 93+. We'll have to see what sort of control he shows, though, his minor league career is littered with bad walk rates.
It's not obvious where the risk comes with Sergio Romo, but it's there. Look at his strikeout and walk rates over the last three years, and they all look excellent. He pitches for a good team in a nice park, and had 38 saves last year. What's not to like? Well, for one, he's only twice managed sixty innings. And if you follow the Giants, you know that there's always a point in the season when his elbow is tender and he takes some time off. He hasn't hit the DL since 2011 for that particular joint, but the team is aware of his frailty. Only five relievers in baseball throw the slider more than Romo, and high slider usage is associated with health issues. For a guy that made it through last year unscathed and didn't pitch an inordinate amount of innings, there's a considerable health risk here.
If he goes down for a short time, most likely Santiago Casilla will step in for a bit. He's a competent reliever, even if he doesn't have as much velocity as Jairo Garcia did. Last year was the second-worst of his career by strikeout and walk rates, but he's been slowly improving his ground-ball rates, so perhaps he's purposefully traded some strikeouts for grounders. In any case, he's not a lefty (sorry Jeremy Affeldt) and he doesn't have crazy platoon splits (sorry Javier Lopez), so he's likely to get the bulk of short-term save opportunities. If Romo goes down for a while, though, and perhaps the team is struggling, they may want to see what life after Romo will look like. After all, 2014 is the last year Romo is under contract with the team. Heath Hembree has long been seen as the closer of the future. With his 92 mph gas and three-pitch mix and a few major league innings under his belt, he should make the team in spring, too. He can get whiffs, and if his command is there, he's a legitimate possibility for saves eventually. Derek Law has none of that pedigree, and was too old for his levels in the minors, so maybe you can't believe all of those eye-popping strikeout rates, but the organization has an eye on him and he may make the team in spring.