Spring Training Teasers: Couch Side’s top five closers for 2012

BY CHUCK CONSTANTINO, Couchsideshow.com writer

No longer will the skipper climb out of the dugout, walk to the mound and signal for the closer in the seventh inning, heck, rarely will they call for him in the eighth. Most guys throw one inning, unless it is an important game, then the closer will get the next game or two off. Either way, closers are the guys who slam the door shut, or are the goat for the night. Here’s a few pitchers who I would call upon in the ninth innings this season.

5. John Axford, RHP, Milwaukee Brewers

Milwaukee Brewers closer John Axford earned 40-plus saves during his first year as Milwaukee's go-to-guy in the ninth inning. Photo by: Steve Paluch / Flickr

Shoved into the closer role, Axford did not disappoint. He posted 46 saves, 86 strikeouts in 73.2 innings pitched and blew only two saves. He got stronger after the all-star break and cut down on his walks. His 49 percent ground ball rate helped him record an ERA of 1.95. Although he has Francisco Rodriguez behind him, Axford has proved to be composed. One thing that worries me is his 59 hits given up. He will need to get more swing and misses without the same lineup in Milwaukee.

4. Heath Bell, RHP, Miami Marlins

Although he is out of San Diego’s pitchers-friendly Petco Park and his numbers have slipped, Bell is going to be the man in Miami. His new manager Ozzy Guillen will show him the confidence he needs, and will hand him the ball in the ninth inning. Forty-three saves for the Padres is no joke; imagine how many he may have had playing for a team that actually scores runs. I’m not predicting 50 saves, but somewhere in the 40 range is realistic.

3. Craig Kimbrel, RHP, Atlanta Braves

This 23-year-old enters spring training with National League Rookie of the Year honors, coming off a season that he tallied 46 saves behind his 14.84 K’s-per-nine, which was the sixth highest mark in MLB history. His 127 strikeouts were more than 13 starters with 30-plus starts. Baseball hasn’t seen a guy like this since Eric Gagne, which could be a bad thing. His 79 appearances and 77 innings pitched may scream overused for a rookie. The Braves should look to limit his innings, especially with the bullpen they own.

2. Jose Valverde, RHP, Detroit Tigers

Papa Grande is a guy who has showed he can dominate, but can be a bit wild as well. Last season, Valverde was stellar. He was a perfect 49-for-49 despite an alarming walk-to-strikeout rate of 34-69. As long as he stays healthy, there is no reason he can’t record 50-plus saves. His stats should be even better this season because of the stacked lineup that will score runs, so he will be handed the ball more.

1. Mariano Rivera, RHP, New York Yankees

Mo Rivera is still the best closer in the game of baseball. At the ripe age of 42, Rivera is showing no signs of slowing down. The Sandman finished this past season with 44 saves and posted 60 strikeouts in 61.1 innings pitched. With a .90 whip and 1.91 era, it’s hard to tell the guy to retire already. He has a pitch everyone involved in baseball knows he’s going to throw — a fierce cutter — and it still works. While he may not throw in the upper 90’s, he will still throw in the 90-94 range. Plus, there is no one more proven than him in the regular and postseason. He will continue his dominance this season and retire with dare I say a sixth ring.

Baseball fans young or old really can't argue that New York Yankee Mariano Rivera is the best closer to ever play the game. Photo by: Alex Abbund / Flickr

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