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Closers Preseason Preview – NL East

Unlike their AL counterpart, the NL East closer picture seems eerily clear even before pitchers and catchers report. This list is also very similar to last year’s preseason preview, with only Bobby Parnell providing a new name as projected closer in 2014. Without many position battles, this week’s examination of closers should not change dramatically between now and Opening Day. Barring injury, the NL East may be the only division to give us a complete set of closers with adequate job security throughout the season.

Atlanta Braves

As the gold standard for closers, Craig Kimbrel hopes to have another epic season in 2014. Unsurprisingly, Kimbrel had a dominant season last year (1.21 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 13.2 K/9) and appears ready to continue the trend. Given the Braves’ consistency over the past few regular seasons, he may be in the position to put up another 45+ save season. Even if Kimbrel struggles, the Braves will let their perennial All-Star work through any issues and be hesitant to turn to anyone else.

Closer – Craig Kimbrel

Bold Prediction – It’s hard to have a bold prediction when you’re talking about Kimbrel. With 138 saves in three seasons as the Braves’ closer, he’s pitched almost perfectly for Atlanta. Instead of claiming that he’ll challenge Francisco Rodriguez’s record of 62 saves, let’s say that he’ll make a real run for the Bravos’ single season 55-save record (set by John Smoltz in 2002).

Who’s Lurking? – Fortunately for Braves nation, the Atlanta front office has some experience in rebounding from reliever injuries. This season, the Braves will turn to Jordan Walden, David Carpenter, or Luis Avilan in the late innings. Should Craig Kimbrel fall to injury, Walden posted a 32-save sophomore season in 2011 (for the Angels) and will be first in line to inherit the ninth. David Carpenter had 12 holds last season, a 10.14 K/9 and is also waiting in the wings. The true darkhorse candidate in this race is Luis Avilan, who may not have traditional strikeout stuff, but possesses a career 1.69 ERA and 0.98 WHIP.

Miami Marlins

At the beginning of last season, Steve Cishek was named Marlins’ closer and he performed admirably in the role. Despite the fact that Mike Dunn was nipping at his heels last season and Miami rarely gave Cishek a save opportunity, he was just good enough (2.33 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 9.56 K/9, 34 saves) to keep his job in 2014. Should he kick it up a notch, he’ll certainly become trade bait for a Marlins team who has a tendency to deal talent and build for the future.

Closer – Steve Cishek

Bold Prediction – Although he won’t reach Kimbrel-like heights, Steve Cishek gets his WHIP below 1.00 and has another 30+ save season. If Papelbon struggles in Philly, Cishek will quietly become the second best closer in the NL East.

Who’s Lurking? – A.J. Ramos is a young flamethrower that the Marlins favored at the end of last season and his overall performance was solid for his first full season in the big leagues. Mike Dunn was initially in the closer battle with Steve Cishek last season and pitched fairly well last season as a setup guy (2.66 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 9.58 K/9, 18 holds). If Cishek struggles, Dunn should be the first one to get the call. One offseason move that may have fallen under the radar was the Marlin’s acquisition of Carter Capps from the Seattle Mariners (in exchange for Logan Morrison). Capps is another youngster, who won the 2012 Best Relief Pitcher in the AA Southern League, and will be eager to run with the closer gig if given the opportunity.

Philadelphia Phillies

Although Jonathan Papelbon struggled last season, the Phillies are paying him far too much and his statistics aren’t bad enough to merit a demotion (2.92 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 29 saves). The bigger concern was the 7 blown saves and 8.32 K/9 (as opposed to a career 10.56 K/9). If the Phillies give him enough save opportunities, he should return to form this season. On the other hand, Philadelphia will have a few potent arms if last season’s K/9 becomes a warning sign of worse things to come for Papelbon (a la Heath Bell). Philadelphia will likely lean on Mike Adams, Justin De Fratus, and B.J. Rosenberg – each of whom have a strong reliever pedigree – to finish the ninth.

Closer – Jonathan Papelbon

Bold Prediction – A Boston-like year for Papelbon shows his return to form (projected – 68.0 IP, 2.20 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 10.00 K/9, 35 saves) and he becomes a major steal for savvy drafters. He may go a few rounds late because of the “hype” surrounding last year’s struggles, but he's got enough upside potential to anchor your collection of closers.

Who’s Lurking? – Although he will not likely be ready for Opening Day after last year’s shoulder injury, Mike Adams probably is the best fit (career 2.39 ERA, 1.08 ERA, 8.99 K/9) to replace Papelbon should the time come . Justin De Fratus and B.J. Rosenberg provide the Phillies with two young righties that have loads of potential, but they need to prove their worth before being trusted in the ninth.

New York Mets

After an injury-riddled 2013, Bobby Parnell has the closer role again for the Amazin’ Mets. With LaTroy Hawkins in Colorado and Frank Francisco on the free agent market, Parnell has been cleared to pitch and all signs point to him firmly inheriting the ninth with little internal competition. Because the Mets’ front office has wanted Parnell to be the closer for a while, his leash should be fairly long even if he starts blowing saves on a regular basis. Despite his injury last season, Parnell still posted a respectable 2.16 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 7.92 K/9, with 22 saves and will have even better numbers if he can stay away from the disabled list.

Closer – Bobby Parnell

Bold Prediction – Without strong competition breathing down his neck, Bobby Parnell finally lives up to his potential and has a 30+ save season. With a sub 1.50 ERA and 9.50 K/9, Parnell has Mets fans debating whether he’s better than K-Rod in his prime.

Who’s Lurking? – Unlike other teams in the NL East, New York does not possess the bullpen depth which seems to be the norm. The Mets will be entering 2014 with a trio of relievers that they used fairly frequently at the end of last season - Vic Black, Josh Edgin, and Gonzalez Germen. Black (a righty) and Edgin (a lefty) give the Mets the flexibility to play matchups in the seventh and eighth innings, while Gonzalez Germen could creep his way into the discussion if Parnell struggles and the hierarchy is shuffled.

Washington Nationals

Similar to Papelbon, Rafael Soriano had a 2013 season (3.11 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 43 saves) that doesn’t stray too dramatically from his career average (2.82 ERA and 1.08 WHIP), but does show a dramatic difference in strikeout rate (2013 – 6.89 K/9, career – 9.15 K/9). Even at 34 years old, Soriano should give the Nationals another strong outing this season.

Closer – Rafael Soriano

Bold Prediction – Soriano’s strikeout rate returns to form and he channels the fountain of youth left behind by his former mentor, Mariano Rivera. This season marks the beginning of a career rejuvenation for Soriano, who has 40+ saves, 2.75 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and a 9.00 K/9 en route to a  Nationals’ push for the NL East title.

Who’s Lurking? – Tyler Clippard is the ultimate setup man and he seems to be comfortable with that role (career – 110 holds and 9.97 K/9). Even if Soriano ran into big trouble, the Nats would likely keep Clippard in the eighth and go with Craig Stammen or Drew Storen. After losing the closer gig to Soriano a few seasons ago, Storen has settled into a setup and reliever role. With Storen’s demotion to AAA last July, Washington will probably go with Stammen first (2013 – 2.76 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 8.71 K/9) if Soriano needs to be pulled.

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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