Closers killing N.L. Central teams


Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher has a chance to lead his team in saves this year after he replaced John Axford at closer. Photo by: Steve Paluch

Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher Jim Henderson has a chance to lead his team in saves this year after he replaced John Axford at closer. Photo by: Steve Paluch / Flickr

Like a good NFL quarterback battle, there’s always someone looking over the opening day closer’s shoulder in Major League Baseball. The young 2013 season has already seen a few teams make a switch at the position due to a lack of talent, while other clubs have been hindered by injuries to their late-inning men. Organizations look at their closing situations through a microscope and for a lot of teams, the leash isn’t long to keep the job. No other group of squads knows those facts as well as the five members of the National League Central.

The closer carousel is at full spin for the St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs. Before the season, it didn’t seem like Cincinnati and Pittsburgh had solidified the role with one clear option, either. There’s no question, just one month into the season, there’s been way too many late-inning blow ups from teams in the N.L. Central. In fact, the division leads the majors in blown saves by four with a total of 13. Furthermore, four closers in the National League have two blown saves (the American League has none) and of the four, three of them pitch for N.L. Central teams.



The solution for such a problem could be swapping the bad for the unproven or pitch the hot hands in the ninth. But the Central’s potential replacements for its troubled closers haven’t exactly proven themselves. Of the five teams, three squads have put at least two different hurlers in save situations and the result was a blown save. At the end of the day, my guess is that baseball fans will be seeing a lot of different players in the ninth inning for N.L. Central teams. Only the Cincinnati Reds seem like they have a permanent solution for the ninth inning in Aroldis Chapman. Perhaps the Pittsburgh Pirates do too with Jason Grilli, but as for the rest of the bunch, there is still a huge question mark looming over the heads of late relievers in their bullpens. Here’s a closer look and ranking (from worst to best) of each team’s current closer situation:

5. Chicago Cubs, tied for last place in MLB blown saves

• The Problem: The Cubs have the company of the St. Louis Cardinals in the blown saves department. The only difference is Chicago has used four players in save opportunities who ultimately blew the opportunity. Those pitchers are the likes of opening-day closer Carlos Marmol, MLB rookie Kyuji Fujikawa and veterans Shawn Camp and Michael Bowden. So what’s the problems with each of those players? Marmol has always been shaky and I was actually shocked he got the nod as Chicago’s opening day starter. Fujikawa has never seen MLB hitters before this year. And when it comes to Camp and Bowden, they’re simply just not closers. • The Solution: What I don’t understand is why the Cubs won’t give the big lefty James Russell a shot. He is clearly the best option out of Chicago’s bullpen right now, leading the teams relievers with a 0.00 ERA in just under five innings of work. Russell is clearly underused, which is a head scratcher because he was effective as the team’s temporary closer last year when he picked up a couple of saves and even recorded a 7-1 record as a late-inning reliever.

4. St Louis Cardinals, tied for last place in MLB blown saves

• The Problem: In all honesty, the problem is that Jason Motte was lost for the year as it looks like he will be undergoing Tommy John surgery sometime next month. After that bad news, it seemed like manager Mike Matheny was going to use Mitchell Boggs and / or Trevor Rosenthal in the ninth. They haven’t made the most of those opportunities as St. Louis is the only team in baseball with two players with more than one blown save. Both Boggs and Rosenthal are young and might just be working out some of the kinks that come in the early years of a pitcher’s career. For the Cardinals’ sake, they had better figure it out quick, though or the Red Birds might be forced to make a trade or look at some available arms on the market like Brian Wilson. • The Solution: The answer to St. Louis’ closing woes could be a committee approach. They have a good mixture of veterans and younger pitchers in their bullpen. The latest is that Matheny might give 28-year-old Edward Mujica a try, which is a move I like because of his proven ability to stay head strong throughout his seven years as a pro. He has looked really good in the past two years with an ERA around 2.90, so why not give the Venezuelan native a shot. After all, Mujica is already the best reliever the Red Birds have in terms of ERA (1.80 in five innings).

3. Milwaukee Brewers, tied for second-to-last place in MLB blown saves

• The Problem: It has to be John Axford, right? He does have the highest ERA on the team at 15.19 in just over five innings. There’s also the fact he has one blown save and actually took the loss in two Brewers’ defeats. Simply put, Axford has looked god awful this season and the long hair and gross beard make it even worse. There’s some speculation that Axford could earn the job back. I immediately ask why? He lost the job last year, regained it later, but still ended 2012 with a 4.67 ERA despite his 35 saves. He started off hot in 2012 and cooled down drastically at the end. It appears he is still on that path of decline. • The Solution: The Brewers do have a plethora of options who shouldn’t scare fans away. Jim Henderson seems to be the closer right now and I honestly believe he could lead the team in saves. There are a lot of Henderson haters out there, but they can’t exactly argue with the fact that he has struck out nine batters in saven innings and boasts the team’s third-lowest ERA at 1.29. If the wheels fall off on Henderson, however, Milwaukee still has the likes of Mike Gonzales and the newly signed Francisco Rodriguez, who both have significant closing experience. The only problem is that Gonzales had already blown a save this year and isn’t used much, carrying a 10.18 ERA in 2.2 innings pitched. Rodriguez could also be washed up. He was given the Brewers’ job last season, but converted just three of seven save chances while posting a 2-7 record and a 4.38 ERA as a late-inning pitcher.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates, tied for third in MLB saves

• One-two-punch: I have to include the next two teams just to be fair, examining the entire division. The truth is the Pirates look great despite losing last year’s saves leader Joel Hanrahan in a trade to the Boston Red Sox. To replace Hanrahan, the Bucs stayed in house, promoting veteran Jason Grilli to closer. The 36-year-old is holding the job down quite nicely in 2012, converting all five of his save opportunities while not allowing a single earned run. There is a bit of bad news, though. It wouldn’t surprise me if Grilli is dealt near the MLB trade deadline if the Pirates look to be out of playoff contention. If that’s the case, Pittsburgh fans shouldn’t shun the idea of Mark Melancon stepping into the role. Melancon, 31, looks like the Jason Gilli as a setup man of last year as he’s posted a 1.00 ERA in nine innings during the 2013 campaign.

1. Cincinnati Reds, tied for fifth in MLB saves

• Championship caliber closer: If I could have anyone pitch for my team in the ninth inning with the lead on the line, it would be Cuban sensation Aroldis Chapman. There was a lot of talk that the 25-year-old phenom would be a starter in 2013, but that’s just not in his cards. Luckily for the Reds, manger Dusty Baker (who makes a ton of bad pitching decisions) kept Chapman as his closer and the hard-throwing lefty has already struck out 13 batters in just eight innings. Chapman may have had the same stuff as a starter, but it’s a good thing Baker came to his whits because that decision would’ve led Jonathan Broxton to the closer role. And that’s not a good thing. Broxton is the biggest blunder in Cincinnati’s bullpen, blowing two saves while compiling a dismal 11.57 ERA in five appearances.

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