Here's the next wave of NL Central closers
ST. LOUIS -- The closer’s role has evolved over time, but there’s never been any doubt of the importance of a reliable late-inning relief strategy. That’s why closers hold such a key spot on a team’s roster -- they’re expected to notch the save and solidify their team’s win as quickly as possible.
As part of our weekly look at the National League Central, MLB.com is looking at some of the future closers for each team. Here are our reporters' picks for the arm that could be closing out games for each team for years to come:
Brewers: Drew Rasmussen
The Brewers planned to continue using Rasmussen, MLB Pipeline’s No. 9 Milwaukee prospect, as a starter this season, so there’s a chance he sticks in that role. But if his future proves to be in the bullpen, the right-hander has the equipment to be a top-flight closer, starting with that triple-digits fastball. Rasmussen also has a plus slider, a changeup and a fascinating backstory; he twice underwent Tommy John surgery at Oregon State before the Brewers drafted him in the sixth round in 2018. In his first 74 1/3 Minor League innings, Rasmussen has 96 strikeouts. -- Adam McCalvy
Cardinals: Johan Oviedo
While Jordan Hicks is viewed as the closer when he returns from Tommy John surgery, we can look a little further down the organizational ladder to find a potential future closer. Oviedo jumps out because of how well his fastball/slider combo plays; his high-spin-rate slider could be his out pitch, and his 94-98-mph fastball plays up because his 6-foot-6 frame generates a huge extension. The right-hander also has a curveball and changeup. Oviedo impressed this spring with his polish on the mound, and he received rave reviews from teammates, scouts and front-office members.
The 22-year-old Cuban is still being developed as a starter -- he went 5-0 with a 1.60 ERA in Class A Advanced Palm Beach last year before a promotion to Double-A Springfield -- and there’s a chance he sticks in that role if he can develop his changeup. But this year was going to help determine if the Cardinals turn him into a reliever. Oviedo led the organization's Minor Leaguers in strikeouts with 163, but he also led in walks (76) -- highlighting the quality of his stuff, but demonstrating the need to harness his control as he moves toward the Majors. -- Anne Rogers
Cubs: Manuel Rodriguez
The easy answer here would be righty Rowan Wick, who stepped up as a part-time closer in a breakout showing in 2019 for the Cubs. But looking a little further down the organizational ladder, it's Rodriguez who jumps out as a future closing candidate. In the offseason, the Cubs surprised some by adding the 23-year-old Rodriguez to the 40-man roster, but the hard-throwing righty showed early in Spring Training why the club is so high on his potential.
"He's the first guy I faced in live BP," Cubs infielder David Bote said in March. "He went 3-1 curveball, 3-2 curveball with a 99 [mph] four-seamer in his back pocket. I was like, 'Really? This is what we're going with?' [Jason Kipnis] and I were in it, and we were like, 'Uhh...' We didn't have the radar on it, so we didn't know what was going on."
Rodriguez was slowed in spring by a Grade 2 biceps strain, but he made a strong early impression after opening eyes with Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach last year. In 47 innings at that level, the right-hander racked up 65 strikeouts against 17 walks with a 3.45 ERA. Over his final 22 appearances, Rodriguez fashioned a 1.53 ERA with 42 strikeouts and 11 walks in 29 1/3 innings. -- Jordan Bastian
Pirates: Kyle Crick
The Pirates were expected to trade closer (and pending free agent) Keone Kela at some point this year, which would open the door for someone to step into the highest-leverage role in their bullpen sooner rather than later. The most obvious candidate for that assignment is Crick, the right-handed setup man who enjoyed an excellent season in 2018 before struggling last year due in part to a pitch-tipping problem he acknowledged during Spring Training.
Crick, a former first-round pick by the Giants, possesses all the traits necessary to pitch at the back end of the bullpen along with a high-velocity fastball and a wipeout slider. In some ways, he was unlucky last year, when he posted a 4.96 ERA and 1.55 WHIP in 52 appearances. The 27-year-old’s wOBA allowed (.345) was higher than his expected wOBA (.313), but he was hassled by a spike in walks (6.4 per nine innings pitched) and home runs (1.8 per nine innings pitched) last season. The year before, Crick put together a 2.39 ERA and 1.13 WHIP with 65 strikeouts in 60 1/3 innings over 64 appearances and appeared to be well on his way to a ninth-inning role.
If Crick can put it all back together, he could slide back in the bullpen to become Pittsburgh’s next closer. The Bucs have a handful of other future closer candidates to consider, including former setup man Edgar Santana, hard-throwing righty Nick Burdi and power-pitching prospect Blake Cederlind. -- Adam Berry
Reds: Joel Kuhnel
Kuhnel was having a nice Spring Training before baseball was delayed, throwing 5 2/3 scoreless innings across five relief appearances in his audition to win a spot in the Reds' bullpen. The big righty has quite a mound presence -- he stands at 6-foot-5 and weighs 260 pounds -- and he has the arm and power stuff to go with it. His fastball regularly sits in the upper 90s with an ability to touch triple digits. An 11th-round pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, Kuhnel had a taste of the big leagues in 2019 after receiving a mid-August callup. He allowed five earned runs over 9 2/3 innings, walking five and striking out nine.
Kuhnel could benefit from developing a changeup, which is still in the works, but his fastball-slider combination suggests he has the stuff to possibly transition into a closer role in the future. He's been one of the Reds' most consistent relievers while climbing up in the system. Last year, prior to his big league callup, he posted a 2.18 ERA over 41 games combined at Double-A and Triple-A, with an 8.4 strikeouts-per-9-innings ratio. He's been viewed as a middle reliever, but that could change as he further develops.
With the Reds showing signs of improvement and a real commitment to winning at the Major League level, they'll need contributions from their own prospects that came up through the system. Kuhnel could be in that group. -- Alyson Footer