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Shutdown Corner: NL Central Closer Roundup

It's another week closer to Opening Day, so that means that it's time for another edition of Shutdown Corner. As you know, I'm grinding out closer roundups for every division in baseball. This week, it's the National League Central that gets the spotlight. And, of course, if you're interested ... here's our previous roundups: AL West, NL East, and AL East

If you haven't been following along at home, here's our closer tiering system for the pre-season:

  • Tier 1: World-class reliever, capable of putting up a season for the ages.
  • Tier 2: Very good closer, both stable and effective.
  • Tier 3: Average closer, may be lacking either stability or effectiveness.
  • Tier 4: Poor closer, either completely ineffective but stable, or very unstable.

Chicago Cubs: Carlos Marmol

I'm not sure any reliever combines high highs and low lows as much as Carlos Marmol does. Marmol, the long-time Cub closer, struck out 29.2% of batters faced last season, but walked a ridiculous 18.2% of batters faced. That's a huge amount of walks, more than just about any prospective closer in baseball. Marmol's dealing with challenges from other pitchers on his team (notably Japanese import Kyuji Fujikawa), a likelihood that he could be traded (he was almost traded to the Angels this offseason), and an imminent meltdown that's only a few walks away. Stay away from the guy unless you're brave.

Carlos Marmol is beyond all expectations. Marmol could strike out every batter he faces for three full weeks. Carlos Marmol could walk every batter he faces for two full weeks. Carlos Marmol could throw a pitch that hits his left fielder in the face. Everything is in play.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (all the strikeouts, ALL the walks, trade or demotion imminent)

Next in line: Kyuji Fujikawa

Cincinnati Reds: Jonathan Broxton

Broxton is a very interesting case, as he's almost definitely no better than the third-best reliever on his team, yet he still got a three-year, $21 million contract in this offseason to close for Cincinnati. And while Brox used to leverage his massive frame to get huge strikeout numbers, since 2011, he's been posting K numbers more like a #4 starter than a high-leverage reliever. In addition, pitching in homer-happy Cincy makes Broxton very risky from a performance standpoint.

Sean Marshall has a much better track record as a reliever than Brox, and as such, is likely to take over when and if Broxton struggles. Regardless, I wouldn't want Broxton as a bullpen option on my fantasy squad unless I was very desperate for a few saves.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (low strikeout totals, presence of Sean Marshall / Aroldis Chapman)

Next in line: Sean Marshall

Milwaukee Brewers: John Axford

While Broxton is a good example of a pitcher who got good results despite middling peripherals in 2012, Axford might be viewed as an opposite case. Despite being one of the better closers in baseball during 2010 and 2011, Axford fell apart (along with the rest of his bullpen) in 2012, posting a 4.67 ERA and 1.44 WHIP. But the underlying peripherals tell the story of a guy who struggled a little, sure, but could be expected to bounce back in 2013.

Axford and his mustache still struck out a tidy 30% of batters faced. And he certainly had more trouble with walks, walking a worrying 12.6% over the past season. But Axford suffered the most thanks to the long ball, as he gave up a homer on nearly 20% of all of his fly balls. This number is pretty unsustainable, and I wouldn't expect this poor luck to continue. Axford may not be an elite-level closer in 2013, but I wouldn't be surprised if he reverts back to his solid self, with strikeouts and 30-40 saves.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (huge strikeout rates, no serious competition in the 'pen)

Next in line: Jim Henderson

Pittsburgh Pirates: Jason Grilli

The Pittsburgh Pirates were comfortable dealing Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox this offseason due to the emergence of veteran Jason Grilli as a frightening late-inning option. Grilli, who was out of the bigs in 2010, re-emerged with stronger-than-ever strikeout totals in 2011. His Ks rose even further in 2012, where he struck out an astonishing 36.9% of batters faced.

The main concern with Grilli is his advanced age. At 36, he's not exactly a spring chicken. When you combine that with the fact that he's actually peaking in terms of performance at this point in his career, that's a major red flag. Instead of looking at a new normal, perhaps 2012 was the dramatic outlier before his production drops back off. But even if that is the case, and Grilli's strikeout rate falls off, it's high enough at this point to shoulder a drop back to earth. He could still be effective if he's only striking out 25% of hitters.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (big strikeouts, not a lot of history + age issue, good competition)

Next in line: Mark Melancon

St. Louis Cardinals: Jason Motte

To me, Jason Motte is one of the more sure things in late-inning relievers this season. A fixture in the Cardinal 'pen since 2009, Motte finally became the team's full-time closer for a full season in 2012, and responded with 42 saves and a 30.8% strikeout rate. Despite the emergence of Trevor Rosenthal and a host of live arms in the St. Louis bullpen, Motte owns the ninth, and should be consistent force in 2013 as well.

While Motte's home run rate jumped up in 2012, it probably sat higher than it will in 2013. Motte has a history of giving up long balls, but the strikeout rate and his uncanny ability to strand runners and limit walks will help him keep things at an even keel.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (solid strikeout rate, "proven closer")

Next in line: Trevor Rosenthal

As always, check out @CloserNews on Twitter for up-to-the-minute closer updates, and find me at@bgrosnick for everything baseball. Shutdown Corner will return next week with a look at the AL Central.

All data from FanGraphs.



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