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Closers Preseason Preview – AL Central

Welcome to the American League Central, another division wrought with uncertainty at the closer position and looking very different than Opening Day 2013. The AL Central brings us a few returning favorites (Holland and Perkins), but also features a great deal of change via the free agent or trade market (see Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit). Unlike some of the steadier divisions, these teams should give bullpen fans plenty to watch for this season.

Chicago White Sox

Closer – Ongoing Position Battle (Ronald Belisario, Nate Jones, Matt Lindstrom)

Once Addison Reed was shipped to the desert to pitch for Arizona, the battle for White Sox closer began. Although Chicago GM Rick Hahn doesn’t feel the need to name a closer at this juncture, there are plenty of solid candidates. The current favorite is fireballer Nate Jones, who led the White Sox in relief appearances over the previous two seasons (to go along with a career 9.3 K/9) and has earned Hahn’s trust in his first two seasons.  Should the White Sox opt for experience, Matt Lindstrom has 45 career saves (with stints as closer for the Marlins and Astros). Lindstrom may not be the prototypical candidate (3.12 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, and 6.8 K/9 in 2013), but he does have the know-how to get the job done. After being non-tendered by the Dodgers this offseason, Ronald Belisario was also brought in to compete and the sinkerballer carries a career 3.29 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and 7.5 K/9.

Bold Prediction – Nate Jones enters camp with the closer job and earns his first save on Opening Day. Although the White Sox lose more games than they win, Jones continues to develop his repertoire and starts striking out lefties at a better rate. Despite the fact that Jones’ save total save is rather low, he has the highest K/9 of all AL Central closers.

Cleveland Indians

Closer – John Axford

Last season Axford lost his job in Milwaukee after four treacherous outings (0-2, 1 blown save, 22.10 ERA) and never had a chance to earn the ninth back. For those who know Axford’s career, remember that he’s struggled before and managed to bounce back. If he exerted himself too much during last offseason while representing Canada in the World Baseball Classic, he may have simply had a bad start and could be a prime candidate to return to form this season (career 3.29 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, and 10.8 K/9).

Bold Prediction – After being traded to the Cardinals on August 30, Axford spent time with the St. Louis pitching staff and All-Star catcher Yadier Molina to correct some minor flaws in his delivery. Entering his sixth season, Axford bursts back on the scene in 2014 and places himself back among the next wave of good young closers.

Who’s Lurking? – Career middle reliever Vinnie Pestano is still on the roster and earned six saves for the Tribe last June. If Axford struggles mightily, Pestano might be next in line to audition for the gig. Don’t forget about the right-handers Cody Allen or Bryan Shaw, each of whom performed well last season in Cleveland. Of the two, Cody Allen has the most potential (with a career 2.81 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, and 10.4 K/9) and may develop this season as a premier setup man.

Detroit Tigers

Closer – Joe Nathan

The Detroit closer situation will be substantially different this season and the Tiger faithful could not be happier. Solving a major pain point, the three-time defending AL Central champions found a solution in 39-year-old Nathan, who went 6-2 with 43 saves for the Texas Rangers (1.39 ERA, 0.897 WHIP, 10.2 K/9) in 2013. Although there are always age concerns with a pitcher going into his 14th season, Nathan has made a career of being consistent (by averaging 31 saves a season) and should continue to dominate the ninth inning this season.

Bold Prediction – Nathan has been a model of consistency over the years and 2014 proves to be quite the opposite. Over the first few months of the season, it’s clear that Nathan has lost velocity and can no longer pitch himself out of trouble. Although Nathan struggles early in the season, he finishes the season as the Tigers’ closer and performs well enough in the playoffs to keep his job in 2015.

Who’s Lurking? – With Joaquin Benoit, Jose Veras, and Octavio Dotel all gone via free agency, and Drew Smyly set to return to the starting rotation, the Tigers’ bullpen this spring training will look dramatically different than a year ago. This season, expect Bruce Rondon, Joba Chamberlain, and Al Alburquerque to fight for the eighth inning gig. If Nathan’s fastball begins to slow because of age, expect these three to be constantly jockeying for the role. Joba Chamberlain has more experience as a reliever (260 career appearances), but the Tigers seem to have placed a great deal of faith in Rondon - who hasn’t exactly matched up to expectations thus far (30 appearances, 3.45 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, and 9.4 K/9). Alburquerque pitched frequently last season and is a darkhorse candidate simply because of the fact that the Tigers know him the best (53 appearances in 2013, despite a 4.59 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, and 12.9 K/9 last season).

Kansas City Royals

Closer – Greg Holland

When Jonathan Broxton was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in 2012, Holland took the ninth inning and never looked back. In his first full season as closer, Holland set the Royals’ single season saves record by converting 47 of 50 save opportunities. The 2013 All-Star finished ninth in AL Cy Young voting with a dominant season (68 appearances, 1.21 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 13.8 K/9) and could be standing at the cusp of greatness. If KC continues to give him save opportunities, expect Holland to have another great season.

Bold Prediction – Greg Holland keeps it going and breaks his own Kansas City single season saves record by converting 48 saves in 2014, pushing him over the 100 save plateau in only his second season as a full-time closer. Despite the fact that the Royals miss the postseason, Holland again places in the top 10 for Cy Young voting.

Who’s Lurking? – Kansas City has the benefit of possessing a trio of young, but experienced, relievers in Luke Hochevar, Aaron Crow, and Kelvin Herrera. Although Hochevar is not a flamethrower like Crow and Herrera (possessing a career 6.6 K/9), he has a variety of pitches, performed quite well last season (70.1 innings pitched, 1.92 ERA, and 0.83 WHIP), and should have the first chance if Holland goes down to injury or inconsistency. Crow (9.0 career K/9) and Herrera (9.4 career K/9) are both strikeout pitchers with a handful of saves over the past two seasons. If both Holland and Hochevar struggle, expect Crow and Herrera to battle it out.

Minnesota Twins

Closer – Glen Perkins

After Matt Capps’ injury in 2012, Perkins took the Twins’ closer job and earned 16 saves before the season ended. Similar to Greg Holland, last season was Perkins’ first as full-time closer and he performed better than expected (36 saves, 2.30 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, and 11.1 K/9). Assuming that last year was not a fluke, Perkins has begun to establish himself as a reliable closer.

Bold Prediction – Perkins was named to the All-Star Game last season as an injury replacement and demonstrated, through the rest of the season, that he was worthy of the honor. This year, Perkins comes out of the gate with a charge and is named to the All-Star game again (but not as an injury replacement) while chasing Holland and Nathan for the AL Central’s best closer title.

Who’s Lurking? – The Twins seem comfortable with Jared Burton as Perkins’ setup man and he’s earned that trust over the past two seasons in Minnesota (135 appearances, 45 holds, and 4 blown saves). If Perkins falls from grace, look for Burton to be first in line. Casey Fien, who pitched admirably last season in the Twin Cities (73 appearances, 3.92 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 10.6 K/9), may also be a candidate. Flying under the radar is Brian Duensing, who earned his first career save last season (73 appearances, 15 holds, 3 blown saves) and any struggles from Perkins, Burton, or Fien should move him up the depth chart quickly.

If you’re chasing saves in your fantasy league, there’s only one place to check out… For the latest news on closers to grab, stash, start, or bench, be sure to follow @CloserNews on Twitter.

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