Below is my best guess as to who will be pitching the ninth inning for National league teams next season. I decided 16 teams was too much for one week, so I broke it up into two pieces. The first eight NL teams are contained here, with the final eight to come next week. As always, if you feel you know something I don’t or just want to highlight something, share it in the comments.
Astros — Mark Melancon — The Astros don’t have much going for them in the present, so it would be a move of the shocking variety if they spent money on bullpen help this offseason. With that said, Melancon has not done great, but well enough to make me think he’ll remain the closer come next spring. Wilton Lopez may be the better pitcher of the two, but he should stay a setup man unless Melancon falters.
Braves — Craig Kimbrel — Emerging as perhaps the No. 1 closer in the majors this season, Kimbrel leaves little up to chance with a 14.6 K/9. That’s 40 percent of the time it wouldn’t matter if Rosie O’Donnell or Mark Reynolds were in the field.
Kimbrel does not possess the best control (3.53 BB/9) but limits hits so well, in particular home runs—in fact in his entire 235-inning major and minor league combined career he has allowed a mere five home runs—that ninth-inning rallies are a minor miracle off of him. His contemporaneous setup man, Jonny Venters, is also one of the best, but he will have to be satisfied atop the holds, rather than saves, leaderboard.
|I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to showcase Axford’s exquisite mustache…errr… goatee setup. (Icon/SMI)|
Brewers — John Axford — The unlikely savior in the wake of the 2010 Trevor Hoffman meltdown, Axford has impressed everyone and maybe even himself with his strong repeat performance this year. He currently is tied with Kimbrel for the most saves with 40 and has a mere two blown saves to his name.
Although 28 years old, he was a late bloomer and will continue to make near league-minimum, meaning Axford is under contract for at least the next few years. If Francisco Rodriguez leaves town, the Brewers likely will sign a solid reliever this offseason, but that player will come to Milwaukee to set up for Axford and not the other way around.
Cardinals — Jason Motte — The Cardinals have had a circus of a bullpen this year, putting on an act that started with Ryan Franklin falling from a tightrope through a ring of fire and onto his family-room couch.
Mitchell Boggs, Eduardo Sanchez, Fernando Salas, and now Motte each have had time in the spotlight, with Salas proving himself a worthy closer and Motte—complete with the requisite 96 MPH heater and beard—showing great improvement over the past month.
The Cards’ offseason strategy will revolve around the massive question that is what will Albert Pujols do, and with enough in-house options to fill a small house, I don’t think they will look for much outside help. I listed Motte as the closer for next year, though the palindromatic Salas is just as likely a candidate.
Cubs — Carlos Marmol — Marmol has had a much less electrifying year than his 138 strikeout campaign in 2010. He also has been fairly ineffective, with a 3.82 ERA and eight blown saves. Still, the Cubs extended Marmol through 2013 in the offseason for one reason—to make the ninth inning exciting for an otherwise unexciting ballclub. If Marmol implodes or get injured, the untouchable Sean Marshall is certainly capable of filling the role.
D-backs — J.J. Putz — The D-backs turned one of ugliest bullpens of 2010 into one of the most trustworthy, largely through the signing of Putz this offseason. The former Seattle star appears to have found a new permanent home in Arizona, having converted 33 of 37 save chances with a shiny 2.70 ERA. As we saw in early July, if Putz gets injured, David Hernandez is the man to own.
Dodgers — Kenley Jansen — Javy Guerra is currently the Dodgers closer and pitching well after making the jump from Double-A to the majors in May. Unlike his predecessors, he’s closed out games with relative ease, converting 11 of 12 opportunities.
I am skeptical, however, that he will be the closer long-term. In the minors he periodically struggled with control, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see his current 2.5 BB/9 rate rise into the threes or maybe even the low fours at some point next season. Couple that with his less-than-stellar 7.4 K/9 rate, and I see a pitcher prone to stringing together blown saves with a little bit o’ bad luck.
Now enter Jansen, a pitcher capable of streaks of spectacular dominance who also suffers from wildness at times. He’s thrown 18 innings since June and hasn’t given up a run in any of them. He also came off the DL recently for one of the more concerning injuries for a stressful job like closer, an irregular heartbeat. That’s an injury you can never be sure a player is completely past, but if Jansen’s heart issues are behind him, I believe it will be sooner rather than later he regains his closer’s role.
Giants — Brian Wilson — Wilson is under contract for another season, and the Giants will certainly keep him the closer out of fear of what he would do if he were removed. After an impressive two seasons, Wilson has definitely taken a step back this year, walking 5.2 batters per nine.
I’m sure his elbow soreness has a good deal to do with that, and if healthy next year, I’d expect him to pitch more like his 2009 and 2010 seasons. If not, Sergio Romo is a machine in the eighth inning, and with a similar beard, I’m sure many people wouldn’t even know the difference if they switched roles.