NL Central Preview: Closer

The lock on the door. The guy who shows up to inform you that the game is over. The closer.

In the game of baseball, there is probably no position more ridiculed than that of a closer. Many teams have tried to do without, using a “bullpen by committee.” For some reason, that never works.

Teams are just inexplicably better when they have a shut down pitcher at the back end of their pitching staff who can take the ball at the beginning of the ninth inning and can shut the other team out. Or if he blows the game wide open, forget about it the very next night when he has to do the same thing.

It’s a position where I have heavily criticized the Cardinals and Ryan Franklin over the past few seasons. I don’t really see Franklin as the shut down guy and when things begin to unravel, it seems that more often than not, so does he. However, he has managed to not only hold onto the position, but perform well. At 38, he may be in his final year with the Cardinals, but he’s done a good job.

There is a very talented crop of closers in the NL Central who have all put up great numbers. The pitchers have definitely been the hardest to rank.

6. Francisco Cordero, Cincinnati (3.84 ERA, 6-5, 40 SV in 75 appearances)
Cordero might not completely belong at the bottom of this list, but his performance last year left plenty to be desired. Despite leading the NL Central with his 40 saves, Cordero’s numbers ballooned from his 2009 campaign, let alone his 2007 campaign with the Brewers where he earned his contract. He will once again perform well and be an excellent fantasy closer, but if he continues to decline, there is no reason why he can’t be the worst closer in the NL Central. He also gets hit by his 5 losses, to me the big key of a closer is to not lose a game, even if you blow the save. That’s like a worse case scenario. The closer’s first job is to keep the lead, and if he can’t do that to keep the tie. When you lose, it’s devastating.

5. Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh (3.62, 4-1, 6 SV in 72 appearances)
Hanrahan was given the closer’s job in Pittsburgh earlier in Spring Training because of his previous closing experience. Still, he hasn’t had much in the major leagues. Part of it is because of his ability to make major league hitters miss the ball. His K/9 in 2010 was an impressive 12.9 strikeouts per 9 innings. That is some impressive power that should help Hanrahan as long as he can keep the walk totals down. That’s something he’s done well since his arrival in Pittsburgh.

4. Brandon Lyon, Houston (3.12, 6-6, 20 SV in 79 appearances)
Lyon gets knocked down the list thanks to his 6 losses as well. Also, it’s his inability to keep the closer’s job. Lyon is a very good middle reliever who has had his opportunity to close out ball games regularly. In Houston, he should get the opportunity to be the go-to guy in the 9th inning in the event that they have a lead. Last season was one of his best seasons that he kept the closer’s role through most of it. Can he improve on that? His numbers won’t be stellar thanks to the rest of his team, but Houston is closer to ready than a lot of people think and Lyon is still young enough to potentially hold this role into the future.

3. Ryan Franklin, St. Louis (3.46, 6-2, 27 SV in 59 appearances)
As I said early, I’ve heavily criticized Franklin and he keeps going out there and doing well. While his ERA jumped from 1.92 in 2009 to 3.46 last season, it was unrealistic to expect Franklin to continue to perform at a level that would be considered his best MLB season to date. His 1.1 WHIP as a reliever in St. Louis definitely helps him, considering his low strikeout rates. The Cardinals will need him to be on his game, along with the rest of that bullpen, because they can’t afford to give up many leads late in games this year.

2. Carlos Marmol, Chicago (2.55, 2-3, 38 SV in 75 appearances)
Maybe the most electric pitcher, Marmol has had moments where his command has to be questioned and he’s been removed from the closer’s role. By many metrics he was the best closer in the NL Central, and I’ll agree that I nearly placed him there. The inconsistency is what really played the biggest role in the move from #1 to #2. Plus, Axford is pretty good.

1. John Axford, Milwaukee (2.48, 8-2, 24 SV in 50 appearances)
It’s definitely a career boost when you get to study a legendary closer like Trevor Hoffman for a couple months before replacing him. Axford was that guy. He was a reliever in Milwaukee and the closer of the future when he replaced a struggling Hoffman as the team’s everyday closer. And Hoffman was okay with the move, to boot, which says a lot about Axford. His ERA was the best of the NL Central closers and being in front of that Milwaukee pitching staff should just help hand him leads all season long.

Look for a wrap up post later this week to discuss the findings and issue final predictions with some of the more recent injury developments in the NL Central. It has hardly been an easy Spring Training for NL Central pitching.

The current points though:

Milwaukee — 65 pts
St. Louis — 58 pts
Cincinnati — 52 pts
Chicago — 52 pts
Houston — 35 pts
Pittsburgh — 32 pts

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