Is there any division with a more muddled bullpen picture than the NL central? Consider that the longest tenured closer in the central is Fransisco Cordero of the Reds at a whopping two full seasons in a Cincinnati uniform. In that time Cordero has racked up an impressive 73 saves(on losing teams) with 137ip, 136K’s and a combined era of 2.76. Cordero has proven himself reliable in both leagues to lock games down and give a strikeout or more per inning. Solid all the way around.
After Cordero we’ll look at the Brewers who at this point appear to be going with Trevor Hoffman. Not much can be said about Hoffman that hasn’t been said before, but it’s worth noting that he nearly duplicated many of his career best peripherals at the age of 41 last season and is really showing no signs of slowing. A k/9, bb/9 and h/9 all equal or better than his career averages at a point when, if we’re being honest, his career should be winding down. After Hoffman however, the Brewer bullpen is very short on closing experience. Latroy Hawkins and David Riske have some while Todd Coffey was once the closer-in-waiting for the Reds. If Hoffman falters or gets hurt the back end of Brewers games are likely to be nail biters.
The Astros will be handing the closer reigns over to hard throwing Matt Lindstrom. 2009 was a season Lindstrom would like to forget. Career worsts in WHIP, era, hit rate, walk rate and homers allowed. Not to mention a sore elbow that sidelined him for a month and showed the Marlins brass that he was expendable by allowing Leo Nunez to step in and hang onto the closer job for the duration of the season. Before ’09 however, a healthy Lindstrom gave an era in the low 3’s to go along with a decent 7.6 k/9 combined in ’07-’08. Other than Lindstrom the Astro with the most notable closing experience is the erratic Brandon Lyon. Calling Lyon erratic is being nice as he has been all over the place during the course of his career. Three seasons with an era under 3.89, two season with an era over 6.40 and 3 more with an era between 4.12-4.70. To go along with the strange era is the fact that Lyon can reach the mid to high 90’s, but bring a very low strikeout rate(5.8/9 career) for a hard throwing reliever. But he does have 54 career saves and will be next in line after Lindstrom.
St.Louis has a semi-established closer in Ryan Franklin, but as great as he was last year(1.92era, career low by more than a full run) his fall back to Earth is inevitable. It’s hard to imagine that Franklin, who will turn 37 in March, can continue the pace he set last year with career best hit rate(7.2/9), home run rate(0.3/9) and strikeout rates(6.5/9). Another solid season is in line for 2010, but not the all-star caliber we saw in ’09. In line behind Franklin is the smoke throwing Jason Motte. Motte’s first full season in the majors was rocky as he tried to make the transition from thrower to pitcher. His peripherals weren’t what we saw in his limited ’08 debut, but he did leave enough to have fans excited including a still strong 8.6k/9. If Motte can get his control established and limit his walks and the long ball he has the fastball to be one of the better setup men in the NL.
Carlos Marmol will open the Cubs season with the closers job all to himself. How long he holds onto it is an entirely different matter. There is no question that when Marmol is on his stuff is as lights-out as it gets as evidenced by a career 10.6k/9. But, Marmol is also erratic with a career 5.9bb/9 and an astonishing 7.9bb/9 last year. If Marmol can limit his walks he will be the real deal as a closer. He doesn’t give up a lot of hits and is an absolute strikeout machine, which is just what you want in a stopper. Now the Cubs being the Cubs, injury is always a concern it seems. If/when Marmol makes a DL trip the Cubs are likely to turn to John Grabow or Angel Guzman with Guzman being the more potent “stuff”-wise, but Grabow being the veteran with more closing experience.
Last but not least, we have the Pittsburgh Pirates, who might not be as bad off in the closer spot as they look on paper. For now the spot is Octavio Dotels to lose. Dotel hasn’t had a full-time closing job in around 5 years but is coming off two straight seasons of being healthy and a combined era of 3.55 with a 11.6k/9. Now two straight healthy seasons does not erase the fact that the “oft-injured” label should be applied to Dotel. In fact, from ’05-’07 Dotel only threw 56 innings. But, the job is his to lose and should he, the opportunities will fall to Joel Hanrahan. Hanrahan was awful with the Nationals last year and was traded to the Pirates where he was amazing down the stretch. In 33 games with Pittsburgh Hanrahan posted in era of 1.71 with a 10.6k/9. Walks were and always have been a problem, but in going from Washington to Pittsburgh his hit rate dropped from an abysmal 13.8/9 to 6.6/9. So there are plenty of reasons to be encouraged that Hanrahan can regain the form we saw in 2008 and he will either take the closer job or be a nice trade chip if a playoff team is looking for bullpen help.