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Closers Preseason Preview – NL Central

Like its American League counterpart, the National League central has both fresh faces (Rosenthal and Veras) and returning closers (Chapman, Grilli, and Henderson). The three returning closers carry a strong pedigree (with 99 combined saves last season), but will face a serious challenge from the young guns for the 2014 NL Central Closer gold medal. If the race for the division title comes down to intra-division matchups, the closers below may just decide who gets a shot at the pennant.

Chicago Cubs

Closer – Jose Veras

After being moved from Houston to Detroit last July, Veras has landed in Wrigleyville for the 2014 season. Fresh off his first 20+ save season, he’s ready to bring much-needed consistency to the Cubbies’ bullpen. The right-handed veteran reliever carries a career 9.3 K/9 and hopes to help Chicago forget about last year’s Carlos Marmol experience (who was designated for assignment after a dismal 5.68 ERA in 31 appearances). Should Veras develop under pitching coach Chris Bosio, he will likely have even more success than he had in the American League last season (21 saves, 3.02 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 8.6 K/9).

Bold Prediction – Chicago will win far more games than the Astros did last year, giving Jose Veras his first season with 30+ saves and 80+ strikeouts. With the development of the other young relievers, he leads a talented bullpen and makes the rest of baseball take notice.

Who’s Lurking? -  The Cubs are fortunate enough to have a number of young relievers going into 2014. Pedro Strop pitched well after coming over from Baltimore last season (2.83 ERA, 0.94 WHIP) and has a career 9.1 K/9. After making Chicago’s Opening Day roster in 2013, right-handed reliever Hector Rondon settled in well and had a 3.20 ERA after the All-Star break. Blake Parker, who had a 2.72 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and 10.7 K/9 in 49 appearances last season, should not be overlooked either. James Russell, the team’s only consistent lefty over last two years, should post some solid numbers as well, but will be grateful for not having to shoulder the load (151 appearances over the last two seasons).

Cincinnati Reds

Closer – Aroldis Chapman

There is little doubt that Chapman will be the closer in Cincy this season, as the lefty has been dominant since inheriting the job in 2012. Last season, the strikeout artist had a 2.54 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, and 15.8 K/9 en route to 38 saves. Although he slightly lags behind Craig Kimbrel in terms of strikeout rate, Chapman is certainly the cream of the crop when it comes to closers and is worth an early round draft pick. Given the Reds’ offensive potential, he could be easily looking at another 38-save season (his save total in 2012 & 2013) with a K/9 higher than 15.0.

Bold Prediction – Aroldis Chapman breaks past the 38-save barrier and jumps ahead of Kimbrel as the game’s best closer. Despite the fact that his average pitch velocity drops for the fourth consecutive year, Chapman’s control is better than ever and he chases a 16.5 K/9 – easily making him the most valuable closer in the big leagues.

Who’s Lurking? – After losing the closer’s job to Aroldis Chapman, Jonathan Broxton has struggled to stay healthy. Because Broxton is still a top setup man (career 10.7 K/9), he should have a number of holds for the Redlegs this year. Young righty J.J. Hoover had three saves during an excellent 2013 season (2.61 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 9.1 K/9) and may get a crack at the gig if the injury bug hits. Sam LeCure is also a candidate after a strong 2013 (2.66 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 63 appearances) and a respectable career 8.7 K/9. When Ryan Madson went down in 2012, Sean Marshall initially got the job but performed poorly enough for Chapman to take the ninth. There’s little doubt the Reds have forgotten and Marshall is probably on the outside looking in.

Milwaukee Brewers

Closer – Jim Henderson

Given his admirable performance last season (converted 28 saves of 33 opportunities, 2.70 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 11.3 K/9) and the Brewers’ lack of activity in the closer free agent market, right-handed journeyman Jim Henderson will likely be the closer in Milwaukee on Opening Day. Given that Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford were both traded away last season, Henderson has a fairly long leash in terms of job security and will be given the opportunity to work through any issues before being pulled.

Bold Prediction – Jim Henderson is so good that he reminds the Brewers faithful of Trevor Hoffman’s first season in Milwaukee. By limiting his blown saves and staying healthy, Henderson easily passes the 35-save mark with another 11.0+ K/9 season.

Who’s Lurking? – Brandon Kintzler is an above average setup guy and he should return to the eighth after a solid 2013 (71 appearances, 27 holds, 2.69 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 6.8 K/9). While he may be first in line if Henderson struggles, Brewers management could elect to keep him in a setup role simply because he’s a ground ball pitcher. Second-year relievers Jimmy Nelson (0.90 ERA in 10 innings last season, with a 0.70 WHIP and 7.2 K/9) and Rob Wooten (27.2 innings pitched, 3.90 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 5.9 K/9 in 2013) will both have a chance to prove themselves throughout spring training. Tom Gorzelanny is still the bullpen’s only steady lefty, so look for him to remain outside of this race for now.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Closer – Jason Grilli

After being named the closer before Opening Day 2013, Grilli hit the ground closing. After 10 saves in April, he went on a stretch of pure dominance and even pitched the ninth inning for the National League in last year’s All-Star Game (33 of 35 save opportunities, 2.70 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 13.3 K/9 last season). However, Grilli fell to a forearm injury and left the job open for Mark Melancon, who performed admirably in Grilli’s stead (16 saves, 1.39 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 8.9 K/9). By returning before the playoffs began, Grilli regained the trust of Pittsburgh management and will be the closer again in 2014.

Bold Prediction – Jason Grilli charges out of the gate with an April similar to last season (11.0 innings pitched, 10 saves, 1 earned run, 17 strikeouts) and makes any questions about lingering forearm issues a thing of the past. The dynamic duo of Grilli and Melancon give the Buccos baseball’s best one-two punch.

Who’s Lurking? – With Melancon a premier setup man, he is most likely to step into the ninth if Grilli becomes injured again. Although Vin Mazzaro (2.81 ERA, 1.21 WHIP) and Tony Watson (2.39 ERA, 0.88 WHIP) both pitched well last season, they will remain in a setup role for the time being. Justin Wilson is a dependable lefty for the Pirates (2.08 ERA and 1.16 WHIP last year), but he’ll need to separate himself from this talented pack if he wants a sniff at the ninth.

St. Louis Cardinals

Closer – Trevor Rosenthal

Going into spring training, the favorite for the St. Louis closer gig is Trevor Rosenthal. Although this comes with some debate (as Rosenthal could be moved to the starting rotation), he seems to be the best option for the Cards in 2014. With Edward Mujica in Boston, the fireballer hopes to build on the three saves he earned last season (3 saves, 2.63 ERA, 1.10 WHIP) and his strong postseason performance (four saves). Given his 12.9 K/9 and an average pitch speed of 96.4 mph, Rosenthal might just provide great draft day value this season.

Bold Prediction – At this time next year, baseball fans will start to wonder if Rosenthal is the best closer in the NL Central. Rosenthal has the build of a prototypical closer, with a tremendous strikeout rate, and is throwing nearly as fast as Aroldis Chapman. If Chapman doesn’t stay healthy and the Cardinals keep winning ball games, Rosenthal may just keep trending upward until he’s at the top.

Who’s Lurking? – If Rosenthal does not have success in the ninth, St. Louis might be in some serious trouble. Jason Motte is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and will miss the early part of the season. Sophomore Carlos Martinez is talented, but also very raw (5.08 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, and 7.6 K/9 in 2013) and needs to prove he can be consistent. Fellow second-year reliever Kevin Siegrist may be the real dark horse in this race (0.45 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 11.3 K/9 last season) and could emerge if Rosenthal struggles early.

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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