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One of the fun ways we all try to outsmart our opponents in fantasy is by searching for hidden value in players who, for one reason or another, we suspect have the ability to outpace their projections (and, relatedly, their draft cost). Our Darkhorses series features staff picks for players who could very well outpace their PECOTA projections for the year and provide the top overall production in one of the standard five-by-five categories. We’ve all picked one player currently projected by PECOTA to fall outside of the top 10 and one longer-shot player currently projected outside of the top 25. We’re taking a look at pitching this week, following our run on offense a week ago. To read the earlier editions in this series, click below:

We've made it all series without a Katy Perry reference, so… shorty's heart may be on steroids, but let's hope the following players aren't! Let's close out darkhorses with players who close out games. Nailed it.


Steve Cishek, Marlins
Sure, you can look at Craig Kimbrel and imagine the colossus his stat line inspires. It’s an overwhelming monolith built as a testament to the short reliever by those who worship at the altar of the fastball-slider short-burst pitcher altar. I won’t argue with the assessment that Kimbrel is the best bet to lead the league in saves again and all the tributes we throw out in this section are seemingly inadequate replacements who ultimately leave us empty on the inside in comparison. Enter Steve Cishek, closer for the much-maligned Miami Marlins. Making the leaps necessary to envision Cishek to lead the league in saves requires that we either believe that the Marlins will also be a surprise team that wins more than it should or that Cishek gets traded to a contender at the deadline and closes the door, locks the windows and draws the blinds on all sorts of games down the stretch. I believe in the latter possibility, and I believe in Steve Cishek. —Mauricio Rubio

Ernesto Frieri, Angels
For starters, he has a great name. He saved 37 games in 40 opportunities. The pitching staff should be improved over last season. The offense should be improved over last season. The bullpen, well who knows, but at least there is no clear-cut relief stud that is chomping at the bit to replace him. With 10-20 more opportunities, Frieri has the stuff to capture the saves crown. —Jeff Quinton

Ernesto Frieri, Angels
In some ways, if you thought some of these other exercises were silly, you're probably going to think this one is really silly, as PECOTA projects pretty much all of the closers with active jobs between 25 and 35 saves with no great discernible difference between them. However, I really like Frieri to clear the 30 that he's projected for, and potentially get deep into the 40s, given my thoughts on the Angels (I think they'll be good) and Frieri (I think he'll be very good). The walk rate is a little too high to make you super comfortable, but his career strikeout rate of 32.4 percent is excellent and can cover up many mistakes. And despite a rough patch which saw him lose his job for a couple of weeks, he returned to the role in mid-August and had a 1.66 ERA and 29-to-4 K:BB ratio in just 21 1/3 innings. —Bret Sayre

Jason Grilli, Pirates
I see too many owners passing on Grilli because he’s 37. I get it. He missed all of August and hurt you down the stretch. But before suffering a right forearm strain, he was automatic, going 30-for-31 in save chances and ultimately finishing with a 74-to-13 K:BB ratio in 50 innings. He’s not getting any older, but last year’s injury should provide substantial room for value. He came back considerably worse in September, but his spring numbers through Wednesday's games have been encouraging (seven strikeouts, no walks in four innings). Small sample size and all, but with a chance to be elite, Grilli is worth the risk. —Alex Kantecki

Jim Henderson, Brewers
Hernderson blossomed quite late as a prospect, not reaching the majors until he was 29 and entering the 2014 season as a 31-year-old. People seem to be holding that against him, as his aggregate ADP (courtesy sits at 23rd among closers despite Henderson's explosive strikeout rate from a year ago and his firm grasp on the Brewers closing job. Henderson struck out 75 batters in just 60 innings last year, converting 28 of 34 save chances and finishing as a very valuable fantasy contributor. He won't have the prettiest WHIP in the world, and he doesn't have as long a leash as one of the league's more established firemen, but the ingredients are here for Henderson to notch well over 30 saves in 2014. PECOTA has him slated for 29, but I think that's a bit low of Henderson stays healthy all year. —Ben Carsley

Greg Holland, Royals
Another gimme from PECOTA, this time for one of the best relievers in the game last year, and the best fantasy reliever in the AL in 2013. Holland should have no problem duplicating is 2013 and putting up 40 or more saves.Mike Gianella

Kenley Jansen, Dodgers
He’s already one up on everyone else so I’m feeling pretty good about this one. Jansen will mostly throw just the one pitch, but it’s a doozy of a cutter, breaking late and giving hitters almost no time to adjust to it’s movement. The Dodgers should be one of the best teams in the league, potentially affording Jansen more opportunities than other closers outside the top 10 PECOTA selections. Jansen has been one of the best relievers in baseball for the last several years but only now has the closer’s job to begin the season. That likely accounts for PECOTA’s relatively low save total from him. He’s being taken in the top five closers in most fantasy leagues, as well he should be. It would surprise no one if he ends up leading the league in saves. —Craig Goldstein

Addison Reed, Diamondbacks
Reed logged 40 saves for a 63-win team in 2013 and now he moves to a club that won 81 a season ago and will almost certainly out-win the White Sox even if they don’t eclipse last year’s .500 mark. His ERA was a bit inflated by two awful outings during which he allowed five and four earned runs (30 percent of his total ER for the season). Had he allowed just a pair in each of those outings, his ERA would’ve been 3.16 for the year. I mention the ERA only because some are concerned that he might not be able to hold the role with a high-3.00s ERA and viable replacements at the ready. I don’t think he’ll have the high ERA, so holding the gig shouldn’t be an issue. —Paul Sporer

Sergio Romo, Giants
I extolled the assorted virtues of Romo earlier in the offseason, but in sum, I think he’s got the combination of relative job security, a strong starting staff and setup bullpen in front of him, and mediocre offense to produce a whole bunch of save opportunities this year. He’s saved 90 percent of his 58 opportunities since taking over the closer role in 2012, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the Giants matched that number of opportunities this year alone. Declining strikeout rate be damned, the defense and ballpark will help him overcome it and flirt with 50 saves this year. —Wilson Karaman


John Axford, Indians
Axford led the NL just a few years ago with 46 in 2011 so this isn’t a huge gamble, but it fits the requirements so here we go. I think opinions are split on him: you’re either in or out… not too many folks on the fence. Even worse than Reed, my other darkhorse pick, Axford had a cluster of awful that really skewed his overall numbers. He allowed nine earned in his 3 1/3 innings in his four 2013 appearances and that basically doomed his ERA the rest of the way. He had a 2.92 from there on out in 61 2/3 innings, but the damage was done. I think he returns to be a strong, reliable closer in 2014. —Paul Sporer

Joaquin Benoit, Padres
Being an elite fly-ball reliever in San Diego is a wonderful proposition, and if you add in that Benoit only has one tweak or strain from Huston Street before being in a position to pick up saves, all the better. There's a real scenario in which the former Tiger (among others), reaches 30-plus saves while being taken as a late-round flier on draft day. He's talented enough to put up a near 2.00 ERA with 80 strikeouts in the NL West and if he can turn that into saves, that could be one of the best closers in baseball. —Bret Sayre

Rex Brothers, Rockies
LaTroy Hawkins is expected to be the closer to start the season, but there’s an excellent chance that Brothers finishes the year with the role. The question is how soon does Brothers get the call in the ninth inning from Colorado. Like many analysts, I believe this switch happens sooner rather than later, and that this is similar to the Brandon League/Kenley Jansen situation in LA last year. Brothers might not win a saves title, but if talent wins out in this bullpen, he should at least have an honest shot. —Mike Gianella

Rex Brothers, Rockies
With a name straight out of a Matt Christopher novel, all Brothers needs is an early exit or falter from LaTroy Hawkins (another great name). Well, that and the most saves opportunities in baseball. Yes, the walk rate could be better, but I do not see it as something that will preclude him from saving games, largely because it did not do so last year. He took the job and ran with it last season; it will be interesting to see when he will do so again in 2014. —Jeff Quinton

LaTroy Hawkins, Rockies
Yeah, I’m saying it: LaTroy Hawkins is a potentially league-leading save artist this year. He’s going to be one of those textbook cases where your buddy comes in to town to crash with you for a couple weeks while he “figures things out” and ends up staying for six months. After his improbable 24-inning scoreless streak to open the season Rockies fans are going to create an awesome cult of personality around him, brandishing “LaTroy to Stop Us!” signs in the top of the ninth and making up a goofy Hawkins-centric lyrical verse for the team’s commissioned orchestral entrance theme. And for his part the wily veteran Hawkins will oblige the rules of the role, first shaving his head into a rudimentary mohawk in May before sculpting his whiskers and embracing a full-on Mr. T look come Labor Day. Colorado has a very real financial incentive to keep Hawkins in the closer’s chair for as long as possible in order to keep Brothers out of it. And if the Rockies are as middling and average a team as I think they will be, and Hawkins isn’t a completely unmitigated disaster, and I don’t think he will be, then he’s the man. He’ll save more 9-6 ballgames at Coors Field this summer than you can shake a stick at. —Wilson Karaman

Nate Jones, White Sox
Even with nearly 150 innings on the books, Jones is something of a mystery, which works well because the entire White Sox team is a bit of a mystery. There’s a lot of “ifs” on the south side of Chicago, and Jones is one of them. He notched a 2.39 ERA and a 21 percent strikeout rate in 2012 before seeing his ERA balloon to 4.15 in 2013. But while his ERA grew, his FIP dropped (a stellar 2.64) and his strikeout rate jumped seven percentage points. With the offseason trade of Addison Reed to Arizona, the closer’s role opened up for Jones. The White Sox will likely not give Jones the same advantage that the Dodgers will give Jansen, but perhaps he could channel Jim Johnson in his recent years on the Orioles. A competitive team that plays a lot of tight games, affording Jones additional opportunities to accrue saves. —Craig Goldstein

Fernando Rodney, Mariners
I would rather see Danny Farquhar get an extended look at closer, and there’s always a chance that Rodney implodes and makes that happen. The Mariners could have chosen that route but instead opted to sign rollercoaster Rodney anyway. It remains to be seen if manager Lloyd McClendon is as patient with the team’s new closer as Joe Maddon was in Tampa Bay, but for someone with 85 saves since 2012, Rodney isn’t getting enough respect. I can easily imagine a scenario where Rodney hiccups and coughs his way to 40 saves, because he’s done it before. —Alex Kantecki

Huston Street, Padres
PECOTA projects 25 saves for Street, which is quite fair considering he spends 2-4 weeks on the DL every year. But this is a series for dark horses, so let's pretend for a moment that Street can stay healthy. If he does, there's little reason to remove him as closer—his strikeout rate is down but his ERA was still a palatable .270—and he went 33-for-35 in save chances last season. Street isn't the dominant force he was earlier in his career and the presence of Joaquin Benoit looms large, but all Street has to do is stay healthy and repeat his performance of the past several seasons to challenge for 35 saves. It's not the sexiest profile in the world, but the opportunity exists nonetheless. —Ben Carsley

Jose Veras, Cubs
Second verse same as the first, with a slight alteration. Relievers are the ultimate wild card. The stop being effective or get hurt for odd reasons. Billy Koch thought that he had tendrils growing out of his fingertips once and well, that was that for his baseball career. Let’s take intellectual leaps and say Kimbrel isn’t saving as many games for whatever reason as he had in the past. That opens the door up quite a bit for the field and while Veras does play for a rebuilding squad I think it will also be a squad that will look to shop him heavily at the trade deadline. Once again, I believe in Veras’ ability, and I think he would look quite nice in high leverage situations for some team that’s suddenly found itself in a playoff chase sans a capital C closer. Enter Veras and his healthy strikeout rate and improving command. I think he'll do quite well as The Guy, wherever he is needed. —Mauricio Rubio

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Benoit is with San Diego now, not Detroit. (At least I hope so, I'm targeting him for my NL-only draft tomorrow!)
Why not focus on guys who are actually dark horses and could move into the closers role during the season? You guys just picked half the leagues closers and didn't present too a strong case why they would outperform their perceived value.
I'm doing that on Tuesdays throughout the season. This assignment called for guys who could led the league in saves.
This was just to pick who could lead the entire league in saves... just like the rest of the exercise at each position.
Fernando Rodney is a Mariner
And now he's listed as one!
I'm on the fence with Axford. Am I the only one?

He was great in Milwaukee for a while, but then he began tipping his pitches. He fixed that in St. Louis, and performed well in a really small sample. Will the Cleveland coaching staff be able to help keep his delivery proper? I have no idea.
Wouldn't it be logical for the Rockies to use Hawkins and Brothers as a righty/lefty closer team? Every other inning is about matchups, why not the ninth?
Weiss actually has hinted about an intention to do just this even early in the season. I was having some fun with this piece, as predicting closer save totals can be like predicting the weather three weeks from now. That said, I do think it entirely possible if not probable that Hawkins pulls down the lion's share of Rocky Mountain saves this year.