Closer landscape for September, 2014
Tristan H. Cockcroft [ARCHIVE]
ESPN.com
September 3, 2013
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It happens every year, without fail.

When it comes to saves and the closer role in baseball, change is the name of the game. Sixteen of the 30 major league closer roles changed hands for an extended period of time this season, a fact that should surprise nobody considering that at least that many did so in both 2011 and 2012.

Fantasy owners as a whole are learning; you see more than ever going the cheap route in the saves department. Understanding the volatility of the role is key to your draft-day strategy, though that's not to say you should punt saves entirely.

Today, let's play the prediction game -- both for 2014 as well as the remainder of 2013 -- examining the landscapes of each of the 30 major league bullpens. Picked for each team is: A "2014 Projected Closer," the definition of which is somewhat obvious, though doesn't necessarily mean the Opening Day closer, but rather the one likely to be in that role the majority of 2014. A "2014 Sleeper," which isn't always the top handcuff choice, but rather a pitcher with a skills to rise from nowhere and thrive in the ninth (à la Rex Brothers this year). Finally, a "Rest of 2013" pick, for those of you still in tight late-season races. Both the projected 2014 and rest-of-2013 closers are graded, to provide a sense of their expected value.

Check out our Closer Chart for the latest rundown of each team's bullpen situations.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Brad Ziegler has pitched well since taking over as closer, going 7-for-9 in save chances with a 3.33 ERA and 1.64 WHIP in 24 appearances since July 1. Still, even during that span, he has exhibited the primary flaw in his game, the lack of a dominant pitch to use against left-handers: They have a .315 batting average and .333 wOBA (weighted on-base average) against him, compared to .273 and .293 by right-handers. Next season, therefore, is where it gets interesting, because Ziegler is the one prominent Diamondbacks reliever who isn't yet locked into a 2014 salary -- J.J. Putz ($7 million for 2014), Heath Bell ($9 million, but only $5 million paid by the Diamondbacks) and David Hernandez ($2 million) are the others -- as he's up for arbitration at season's end. Could the Diamondbacks shop Ziegler? Might they prefer to restore Putz, the pitcher with the lengthier track record as closer, to the role given a new season's fresh slate? Won't Ziegler's September have much to say about the team's decision? The answers: A pair of "maybes" and a "probably," but most probable is that the Diamondbacks' 2014 bullpen should look a lot like 2013's. 2014 Projected Closer: J.J. Putz -- C. 2014 Sleeper: Matt Stites. Rest of 2013: Brad Ziegler -- C.

Atlanta Braves: Even with his declining strikeout rate -- he has whiffed 12.9 percent fewer batters this season than last -- and impending arbitration eligibility -- he'll be first-time eligible -- Craig Kimbrel will be the Braves' rest-of-2013 and 2014 closer. Consider: His 37.3 percent whiff rate ranks seventh among qualified relievers, and his 3.2 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) ranks first. 2014 Projected Closer: Craig Kimbrel -- A. 2014 Sleeper: Jordan Walden. Rest of 2013: Craig Kimbrel -- A.

Baltimore Orioles: Jim Johnson's recent struggles are a matter of perspective; he's only 13-for-17 in save chances with a 1.64 WHIP in 20 games since July 1 but he has a 2.45 ERA during that same span. Considering he'll be up for arbitration again after having earned $6.5 million this season, Johnson could be a trade or non-tender candidate this winter, especially because the Orioles have cheaper alternatives in Tommy Hunter (also up for arbitration but earned only $1.82 million this year) and Darren O'Day (set to earn $3.2 million in 2014). The Orioles' winter decisions might be the most important to track. That said, Johnson is the team's closer for the rest of this season, and his performance in September and beyond could drive his 2014 circumstances. 2014 Projected Closer: Jim Johnson -- C. 2014 Sleeper: Tommy Hunter. Rest of 2013: Jim Johnson -- B.

Boston Red Sox: This might've been a bullpen in flux until a couple weeks ago, when it was learned following his 55th appearance of 2013 on Aug. 13 that Koji Uehara had reached the threshold to activate a previously unknown $4.25 million vesting option for 2014 on his contract. Heck, he'll probably also reach the 35-games-finished threshold necessary to escalate his salary to $5 million; that would further lock him in as Red Sox 2014 closer. Any doubts about Uehara's durability appear to have vanished, as he has made appearances on consecutive days 12 times this season, has pitched more than one inning seven times, and is on pace to set a professional-best high with 71 1/3 innings (even including his one year in Japan as a full-time reliever in 2007). This is a much firmer bullpen than anyone might be willing to give credit. 2014 Projected Closer: Koji Uehara -- B. 2014 Sleeper: Rubby De La Rosa. Rest of 2013: Koji Uehara -- A.

Chicago White Sox: Addison Reed might be in the midst of another up-and-down campaign as White Sox closer, blowing five of his 41 save chances and on five occasions allowing two or more runs, but despite that he has made many more strides than you might think. He has upped his strikeout (24.5 percent, up from 22.7) and ground-ball rates (35.0 percent, up from 33.5) and lowered his walk rate (5.8 percent, down from 7.6) and well-hit average allowed (.133, down from .234), signs that the 24-year-old is growing as a big league pitcher. Remember, Reed is a pitcher who whiffed 38.0 percent of the hitters he faced, as well as 7.8 times as many as he walked, during his minor league career. There might yet be growth here; he could be a beneath-the-radar 2014 value. 2014 Projected Closer: Addison Reed -- A. 2014 Sleeper: Nate Jones. Rest of 2013: Addison Reed -- B.

Chicago Cubs: Current closer Kevin Gregg isn't especially likely to be back next season, as he's an impending free agent who has blown four of 19 save chances with a 4.73 ERA and 1.73 WHIP in 26 appearances since July 1, and the curious question therefore becomes whether the Cubs, who have spent all of 2013 playing for the future anyway, might audition 2014 closer candidates sometime in September? It's possible, as both Blake Parker (2.02 ERA, 1.16 WHIP) and Pedro Strop (2.19 ERA, 0.89 WHIP) have outpitched Gregg during that same time span, both earning praise during that time as future closer candidates. Strop, who throws a little bit harder, has a little more strikeout potential and a little more experience of the two, is quite the sleeper … both for 2014 and the remainder of 2013. 2014 Projected Closer: Pedro Strop -- C. 2014 Sleeper: Blake Parker. Rest of 2013: Kevin Gregg -- D.

Cincinnati Reds: A year ago, there was much chatter about whether Aroldis Chapman might be converted back into a starting pitcher; the experiment...
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