Easy to think that this is a one-team division, but the Indians made it interesting last season. And for fantasy players, team competitiveness is only a peripheral worry. After all, bad teams give good saves opportunities to their closers, too. The only thing correlated with more save opps are runs scored. So if the White Sox, Twins or Royals can score some runs, they'll get some saves and fantasy won't care about the MLB team's win column.
Nate Jones was an excellent pitcher last year, don't worry about the ERA over four. He struck out double-digit batters per nine innings, had above-average control, and got half his contact to come in the ground-ball variety. Guess how many qualified relievers did that last year? Two. Jones and David Robertson. So that's fairly elite company. Jones is dealing with a glute issue but says he's ready to go, and if talent wins out in this battle, Jones is the closer next year for the White Sox. Since he doesn't have name value, he'll be an excellent sleeper pick, one of the best in the bullpen.
There's obviously still risk. Perhaps the White Sox see this as a rebuilding year and want to keep Jones cheap in arbitration by keeping him away from saves. Maybe he's not fully healthy to begin the year. Whatever the reason, Matt Lindstrom is still in the mix. He's closed before, and he has the gas (95 mph) and the swinging strikes (10.2% career) to close. Perhaps because he's picked ground balls (49% career) over strikeouts, he's never had an average strikeout rate for a closer, though. Strange, considering his stuff. Strikeouts and gas are the only predictors I've found of closer change, so he owns half that mix and just muddies the water. Jones has to be considered the favorite. Ronald Belisario is the dark horse here. He throws a ton of fastballs, but it has action that makes it a deadly pitch when he can command it. He gets worm-burners at a better rate than they other two relievers, and he has a better strikeout rate than Lindstrom. And before you scoff, Hunter Pence told me last year that Belisario was personally the toughest pitcher he'd ever seen on a per-pitch basis. Seriously.
Closer: John Axford
Setup Man: Cody Allen
Man of Intrigue: Vinnie Pestano
By ERA, 2013 looked like a bad year for John Axford. But by swinging strikes (10.1%, career 10%), ground balls (45.3%, career 46.9%), walk rate (3.69 per nine, career 4.05), and velocity (95.4 mph, career 95.6), it was just another year for the wild fireballer. It looks like he gave up a ton of homers, but if you look at his game log, you'll notice that he surrendered six in the first month and four over the next five months. That sounds like he made an adjustment and figured it out. Cleveland is also a much friendlier park than Milwaukee, that could help. Axford has enough questions to slip until late in the draft, but given the fact that his team chose to run Chris Perez out there in some iffy years rather than turn to better younger pitchers, it does seem like he's going to get the job and have a decent leash.
Cody Allen is a better pitcher, probably. He has all the gas of an Axford (95.3 mph) and last year put up a double-digit strikeout rate with a walk rate that Axford has only bettered once in his career. Dude is 25 and alive, but that might count against him. His team can keep him cheap by keeping him out of save chances, and they can also play the experience card to justify it. Vinnie Pestano is the old Cody Allen, but he rode arm troubles into a career-worst walk rate last year. If he's over those issues and is healthy this year, he might be ready to throw his funk by major league hitters again. He's worth keeping an eye on.
Closer: Joe Nathan
Setup Man: Al Alburquerque
Man of Intrigue: Bruce Rondon
Joe Nathan had a great year last year, one of the best of his career. His strikeout and walk rates were great and supported some of the best results in his career. There are two numbers that should introduce a bit of worry, however. The first is easy. Dude is 39 years old. Have you seen the aging curves for relievers? They are not pretty. He could fall apart quickly and he wouldn't be any different than other past, great relievers. And before you say there's no evidence that he might fall apart, there's time for one more number: 92.2. That was his average fastball velocity last season, and it was the worst of his career. He'll *probably* be fine. Probably.
Al Alburquerque is his set-up man, but he won't be more than a temporary band-aid at closer. This doesn't come from his bad ERA last year, rather it stems from the underlying cause of that bad ERA. This fictional character has no idea where the ball is going. Over the last three years, only Carlos Marmol and Henry Rodriguez have a worst walk rate over more than 100 innings. And they are Carlos Marmol and Henry Rodriguez. Youngster Bruce Rondon doesn't have great control, either, but his walk rate was decent in a short sample last year, and he doesn't seem to be as wild as the setup man. He also *averaged* 99 on his fastball last season and is an exciting young reliever. Keep an eye on him.
It's better to use K%-BB% than to use K/BB to evaluate pitchers. Imagine a pitcher that strikes out three batters per nine and walks one versus one that strikes out nine per nine and walks three. The latter is much more valuable. Greg Holland had the second-best K%-BB% among qualified relievers last year, second only to old man Koji Uehara, who just had a career-high workload. No matter where you put him, Holland belongs in the top four among closers this upcoming season. Maybe he has the most command risk of the four (Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen are the other three), but obviously his 96 mph gas, slider and occasional split finger did him well last year. It looks like Holland was throwing 92-93 in his first outing and 93-94 in his second, which would both be significantly below his average last year. Pitchers can only expect to gain about a mile per hour from the beginning to the end of spring training, so it might be okay to worry -- but Holland has had a personal history of taking it slow in the spring. He's probably fine.
If he does get hurt, there are so many relievers that can step in. Aaron Crow has been excellent in the pen. Luke Hochevar is suddenly elite in the bullpen. Even Tim Collins and Louis Coleman are good. And if Wade Davis steps out of the rotation, he should be an excellent reliever. This might be the best pen in the big leagues. But there's something that Kelvin Herrera has over all of the rest of the bullpen, something important: gas and strikeouts. His projected strikeout rate is second only to Holland's, and his 98 mph gas is impressive. His numbers looked great last year, but they would have looked better if he hadn't lost the plate early in the season. A demotion to the minors allowed him to work on his delivery and find the plate again, and he was lights-out the rest of the way. There was once a time when Herrera was a decent sleeper to take the job even if Holland was healthy -- after all, Holland has had control problems in the past -- so he makes for one of the more interesting relievers behind an elite closer.
Closer: Glen Perkins
Setup Man: Jared Burton
Man of Intrigue: Casey Fien
Glen Perkins is an excellent reliever. That should tell you something about relieving vs starting (if the Royals paragraphs didn't) because he was a fairly bad starter. In any case, he got almost four mile per hour on his fastball with the move to the pen, and that, along with dropping his changeup, made him what he is today. Excellent command and great strikeout ability make up for his left-handedness (managers usually prefer righties). Even if the Twins aren't great this year, they probably won't trade him. He's signed cheaply until the end of 2016, and that gives them some time to get competitive.
But pitchers get injured, and if he does, it's probably Jared Burton and his splangeup that will step in and get saves. It's a wicked pitch that's somewhere between a change-up and a splitter, and it's led to excellent whiff rates for the reliever over the past two years. That hasn't quite turned into excellent strikeout rates just yet, but it could. He's at least been showing improvement in that category. Casey Fien is just a decent reliever that put in a great strikeout rate last year by throwing his cutter almost exactly as much as his fastball. Who knows if that's healthy. It's working, and since he has great command, he has the upside to be a late-inning reliever that gets holds and/or saves.