New closers finding their fit in NL Central

Morrow, Norris succeeding early; committee lifting Crew after Knebel injury

April 26th, 2018

Since the end of last season, the National League Central has seen three faces and one name change in the ninth inning.
The Cubs lost closer to free agency and installed in his place. The Cardinals' ongoing search for a closer continued until they signed Greg Holland on Opening Day, then it eventually led them to . All-Star closer returned for the Brewers, but his early-season injury forced manager Craig Counsell to get creative for the time being.
The Pirates kept their lights-out lefty closer, but even he offers a different look these days -- the former Felipe Rivero now goes by Felipe Vazquez. Then there's Reds right-hander , the steady hand at the back of an often-unstable Cincinnati bullpen.
Here's a look at the lay of the ninth-inning land across the NL Central.
Who's the closer? Mr. Committee
How is it working out? Surprisingly well, considering the Brewers' initial concern when Knebel, a 2017 All-Star, went down with a left hamstring injury on April 5. After a few shaky ninth innings immediately after the injury, Counsell's bullpen has ably covered Knebel's absence. Matt Albers, and have all logged saves, including a series of two-inning saves for Barnes and Hader. Three weeks later, it's still a by-committee approach. Through Wednesday's win over Kansas City, Milwaukee's eighth straight, the relievers had not allowed an earned run in their past 28 innings.
How secure is he? Mr. Committee's tenure could be nearing an end. Knebel got back on the mound for the first time on Saturday, and while the Brewers plan to be extremely cautious during this phase of his rehab because he was injured while pitching, there is hope he could return to the ninth inning sometime in mid-May.

Who's next in line? Some fans have pined for Hader, a strikeout machine, to be installed in the role. But Counsell loves the flexibility to pick Hader's spots. If Knebel were to remain out and Counsell wanted a more permanent solution in the ninth, he would more likely use Barnes or , who was Milwaukee's closer when he was traded to Texas at the 2016 Trade Deadline. Jeffress is currently flourishing as the Brewers' "sixth-inning closer," often entering games with runners aboard in relief of the starting pitcher -- a role that can be as important as the closer in Counsell's view.
Who's the closer? Norris
How is it working out? Norris wasn't the Cardinals' first choice to close, but he's taken the job and run with it. Norris entered Thursday with five saves in as many opportunities along with a 2.38 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP and 18 strikeouts in 11 1/3 innings. The Cards first named Luke Gregerson their closer, gave a couple chances to claim the job then signed Holland to pitch the ninth. But Norris has emerged, for now, as their guy in the ninth inning.

How secure is he? The job still seems set up for Holland whenever he's ready. The Cardinals signed him to a one-year, $14 million deal, but he walked four in his season debut and hasn't seen any real high-leverage work since then as he works through what the club is calling his "Spring Training phase."
Who's next in line? St. Louis has plenty of experienced options with Norris, Holland and Gregerson. The Cards value 21-year-old righty , but it seems like he'll be more of a "super" setup man, pitching multiple innings.
Who's the closer? Morrow
How is it working out? Quite well. Morrow didn't record his first save until April 7, but it was due to a lack of opportunity, not performance. Morrow locked down four saves with seven strikeouts and only four hits allowed over his first eight appearances, and he's yet to be charged with an earned run.

How secure is he? This is Morrow's job, and it's hard to imagine anything changing that aside from an injury or big-time acquisition. He was promised the closer's job when he signed a two-year, $21 million contract with the Cubs in December, and they haven't wavered since then.
Who's next in line? Manager Joe Maddon has said the Cubs are grooming for the ninth inning, so it would probably fall to the lanky right-hander. Other candidates include right-hander and, if he gets beyond the struggles that began last season, left-hander .
Who's the closer? Vazquez
How is it working out? It's going to take a while for Vazquez to erase the effects of Opening Day -- four runs on three walks and a hit with only two outs recorded -- from his record. But the lefty followed that outing with a two-save day on April 1, the first two of seven straight scoreless appearances. He then allowed two runs (one earned) in a non-save situation last Saturday.

How secure is he? Vazquez is not going anywhere. The Pirates committed to him (he was then going by Rivero) over the offseason by signing him to a long-term contract extension. The job belongs to Vazquez for the foreseeable future.
Who's next in line? With Vazquez unavailable on April 2, veteran setup man recorded his second career save. Kontos remains Pittsburgh's eighth-inning man, so he'd be the guy. But keep an eye on hard-throwing right-hander , currently the Pirates' seventh-inning setup man, who has been excellent since an Opening Day blowup.
Who's the closer? Iglesias
How is it working out? Iglesias has been a lights-out closer without many save situations to convert. He entered Thursday with three saves in four opportunities, recording an overall 1.74 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP with 14 strikeouts in nine appearances.

How secure is he? There are no obvious replacements to take Iglesias' spot, and he hasn't done anything to shake the Reds' confidence in him as their closer. For all of Cincinnati's bullpen issues, Iglesias posted a 2.51 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP with 175 strikeouts in 154 1/3 innings over 100 appearances from 2016-17.
Who's next in line? With on the Reds' crowded disabled list, the job would most likely fall to sinkerballer Jared Hughes at this point. Hughes, an NL Central veteran, is off to a solid start with a 2.13 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP over his first 13 appearances. If the situation called for a left-hander, Cincinnati could turn to instead.