Nate Jones is the front-runner to be the new closer for the White Sox in 2014.
The question of who will be entrusted to hold a lead in the ninth inning appears to be answered for all but four teams, barring an injury, as we head into spring training.
Several of the other 26 closers are new to their teams, such as John Axford (Indians), Grant Balfour (Rays), Jim Johnson (A's), Joe Nathan (Tigers), Addison Reed (Diamondbacks) and Fernando Rodney (Mariners). Trevor Rosenthal (Cardinals), who starred during the 2013 postseason, enters his first full season as a closer, and the Yankees' David Robertson will be replacing Mariano Rivera, the best closer of all-time.
There are also a few pitchers who are capable of forcing their respective team to turn away from the supposed leading man if they are impressive enough in camp—Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Sergio Santos could push steady closer Casey Janssen, while lefty Rex Brothers is capable of taking the Colorado Rockies' closer's job away from veteran LaTroy Hawkins.
In all likelihood, though, the realistic closer battles will be limited to the following four teams.
Candidates: Tommy Hunter, Darren O'Day, Ryan Web, Bud Norris
All signs may be pointing to Tommy Hunter (pictured right) as the next Baltimore Orioles closer, but one look at his inability to get out left-handed hitters (.857 OPS, 11 HR vs. LHH in 2013) and the team's failure to land a closer this offseason is a bit of a head-scratcher.
Next in line would be side-armer Darren O'Day, who has a 2.23 ERA and 35 holds in two seasons as the Orioles' primary setup man, but he also struggled mightily against left-handed batters in 2013 (.922 OPS, 5 HR).
In a non-closer role, manager Buck Showalter can pick and choose when to use Hunter and O'Day and keep them out of the game in a spot where at least two good left-handed hitters are due to hit. With a ninth-inning lead, however, a manager needs to be able to turn to his closer in any situation and not worry about who is due up or who the opposing team has available to pinch hit.
That doesn't appear to be the case for the O's as long as either Hunter or O'Day are the designated closer.
Free-agent signee Ryan Webb, who posted a 2.91 ERA while with the Miami Marlins last season, has a heavy sinker and a much-improved approach against left-handed batters, as explained by Jason Collette of FanGraphs, that resulted in much more balanced splits in 2013 (.618 OPS vs RHH; .714 OPS vs LHH) than in the past.
The 28-year-old's strong finish (2.41 ERA, 33.2 IP, 25 H, 6 BB, 23 K over last 22 appearances) could be enough to get him consideration as the closer on his new team, although it wasn't enough for the Marlins to offer him a contract, as he was non-tendered after the season.
A dark-horse candidate could be starting pitcher Bud Norris, especially now that the team has added Ubaldo Jimenez and Suk-min Yoon to their pitching staff. If Yoon, who was considered to be one of, if not the best, pitchers out of Korea, can prove that he's good enough for a rotation spot, or if rookie Kevin Gausman is too good to overlook, it would make it much easier to move Norris to the bullpen.
A move from starting pitcher to closer, however, could be a bit too much to ask. Norris may need to be eased in with a lesser role.
Prediction: Hunter wins the job, and Norris takes over by mid-season.
Candidates: Nate Jones, Matt Lindstrom, Daniel Webb
The Chicago White Sox felt comfortable enough with their bullpen depth that they traded away Addison Reed this offseason and failed to bring in any external candidates for his former job.
Next in line is Nate Jones, who had a 4.15 ERA and 16 holds in 70 relief appearances last season, while veteran Matt Lindstrom appears to be his main competition.
The 28-year-old Jones has not recorded a save during his two-year career, and his ERA jumped up nearly two runs from his rookie season in 2012. Take a look at his peripherals, however, and that face is not as big of a concern.
Jones gave up less hits and walks per nine innings last season, and his strikeout rate jumped from 8.2 K/9 to 10.3 K/9. He also averaged 97.7 mph with his fastball, according to FanGraphs.
Matt Lindstrom (pictured), 34, has a 2.95 ERA over the past three seasons, but his 6.8 K/9 and 9.0 BB/9 indicate that he's too comfortable of an at-bat for opposing hitters and not the intimidating closer that teams hope to avoid in the ninth inning. That's surprising for a guy with a mid-90s fastball, but the Sox might not be too concerned about the lack of strikeouts as long as he's getting the job done while Jones remains in the eighth-inning setup role.
If there is a dark-horse candidate who could force his way into the closer's role with a big spring, it's hard-throwing Daniel Webb.
The 24-year-old right-hander, who allowed four earned runs in 11.1 major-league innings last season, posted a 5.81 ERA in Low-A ball in 2012, which was his first full season as a reliever.
It was a different story in Year 2, though. Between High-A, Double-A and Triple-A last season, Webb posted a 1.87 ERA with a 3.9 BB/9 and 11.2 K/9 in 62.2 innings pitched. He also allowed just one home run. His quick rise indicates that he's figured things out and could be ready to dominate at any level.
Prediction: Jones wins the job and doesn't relinquish it throughout the season.
Candidates: Chad Qualls, Jesse Crain, Matt Albers, Josh Fields
Journeyman Chad Qualls (pictured) is back with the Houston Astros, the team he had four highly successful seasons with (3.39 ERA from 2004-2007) to begin his big-league career. After signing a two-year, $5.95 million deal this offseason, the 35-year-old enters camp as the front-runner to be the team's closer based on his experience (51 career saves) and Jesse Crain's expected stint on the disabled list to begin the season.
While Crain may be behind as he recovers from a shoulder injury that kept him out for the last three months of 2013—he hopes to be pitching in games at some point in April, per Brian McTaggart of MLB.com—he could still work his way into the role as soon as he shows the form that made him one of the top setup men in baseball early last season.
The 32-year-old right-hander was dominant out of the gate for the Chicago White Sox in 2013, earning a spot on the AL All-Star team after posting an 0.74 ERA with 19 holds, 2.7 BB/9 and 11.3 K/9 before he was sidelined by a shoulder injury after being traded to the Rays in July. If he had finished the season healthy, it's very likely he would have received more interest this offseason from team's wanting to make him a closer for the first time in his career.
Matt Albers will get mentioned as a candidate after posting a 2.77 ERA over the past two seasons between the Arizona Diamondbacks, Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians. He has zero saves in parts of eight big-league seasons, though, and his 3.3 BB/9 and 5.8 K/9 are an indication as to why he's been limited to a middle-relief role.
Josh Fields will still need to take a big step forward after posting a 4.95 ERA as a rookie, but he did save five games and finished strong (1.62 ERA, 10 H, 6 BB, 17 K over his final 16.2 IP), which is why he'll get a solid chance to beat out Qualls.
Prediction: Qualls wins the job, Crain takes over in mid-May, and Fields takes over in July after both Qualls and Crain are traded.
Candidates: Neftali Feliz, Joakim Soria, Tanner Scheppers
Despite losing one of the best closers in the game (Joe Nathan) to free agency this offseason, the Texas Rangers still find themselves in very good shape with former AL Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz (pictured) back at full health following Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for most of the past two seasons. Furthermore, two-time All-Star Joakim Soria and Tanner Scheppers, who posted a 1.88 ERA with 31 holds in 2013, are expected to push him for the job.
The 25-year-old Feliz, who had a 2.73 ERA and 72 saves from 2010-2011, pitched 4.2 shutout innings after returning to the mound late last season. He averaged 93.6 mph with his fastball, according to FanGraphs, which was down close to three ticks from his closing days. However, there's a good chance that another full offseason of recovery and strength training will have him back to his previous form.
Soria missed the entire 2012 season recovering from Tommy John surgery and only pitched in 26 games last season in his Rangers debut. He had been one of the best closers in the game prior to the elbow injury, however, with a 2.40 ERA, 160 saves, 2.5 BB/9 and 9.7 K/9 between 2007-2011.
It could be a heated battle if Soria and Feliz are back to dominating as they once were. If both struggle, however, the Rangers could turn to the 27-year-old Scheppers, who will come to camp competing for a rotation spot.
Prediction: Feliz wins his old job back and keeps it for the next two seasons before reaching free agency.