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Bullpen Report: Five volatile bullpens to watch

Senior Fantasy Writer
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One of the perks of working in the Fantasy department here is getting to make wild, unfounded suppositions on the future, and then being able to loudly proclaim "bully on me!" when it comes to pass.

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If it doesn't, I can just point to some vague excuse -- the manager! He must be hiding an injury! It was opposite day! -- to cover my tail.

But every once in a while, I make some predictions that involve things like research and logic. And there isn't a tougher group to predict than closers, who cause you to go back and forth with theories, numbers and suppositions so much that you find yourself somehow suggesting -- for the world to see -- that Drew Smyly could close games for the Tigers.

What follows, for this week's Bullpen Report, is that internal debate.

The Cubs

Today's closer: Carlos Marmol

The one with most saves by October: Carlos Marmol

But what about ...: Kyuji Fujikawa? Coming back from a strained forearm, the last we heard from Fujikawa (via MLB.com's Carrie Muskat) was that he was throwing from 135 feet on flat ground and hasn't thrown a bullpen yet. If the bullpens go well, Fujikawa would then probably have to go on a rehab assignment. Through this all, there's a good chance of complications or aggravations slowing everything down. Finally, after all that, Fujikawa could show up with Marmol having been brilliant in the two preceding weeks, and just slid back in to the eighth-inning role.

Fine, but how about ...: Kevin Gregg? He got a save earlier this week, but it looks like he's behind Marmol in the pecking order. Dale Sveum said he'd probably go with matchups, but Gregg is a righty, like Marmol, so the "matchup" argument doesn't work too well (unless, maybe, it's against the Brewers, a team Gregg has a 1.69 career ERA against). If anything, lefty James Russell will probably pop up from time to time if Sveum goes for the lefty-lefty strategy.

That being said: Gregg is probably second in line for saves if anything happens to Marmol. He saved an average of 29 games per season between 2007 and 2011, and is eighth among active pitchers for career saves.

But do I like Marmol?: I actually do. Of all the ugliness we've seen this season from closers, Marmol has a better-than-you-think 4.35 ERA, which can drop a good deal with a few more scoreless innings. He currently has 11 strikeouts in 10 1/3 innings, and has a career K/9 of 11.7. Last year, after the All-Star break, Marmol had a 1.52 ERA with 12 saves and an 11.8 K/9.

But what if he gets traded?: That's something I'll worry about in August. For right now, Marmol has the skill, has the mettle, and has what seems to be the faith of Sveum.

Conclusion: Carlos Marmol has the job, but if he gets hurt, or traded, it'll probably be Gregg up next.

The Cardinals

Today's closer: Edward Mujica

The one with most saves by October: Edward Mujica

But what about ...: Trevor Rosenthal? The guy with a Marmol-ian 4.26 ER and 1.50 WHIP? The same people who hated on Marmol for his control issues seemed to be the first to call out Rosenthal's name when Mitchell Boggs started falling apart. But, through Jason Motte's injury, Boggs' implosion, and Mujica's first save, Rosenthal had plenty of chances, but didn't get any opportunities. He saw the ninth inning once, in the second game of the season.

Guess as to why this is: the team sees Rosenthal as a starter, and would like the freedom to stretch him out and pitch multiple innings instead of throwing him in as the closer.

OK, how about ...: Mitchell Boggs? He has two appearances where he's given up four or more runs already this year. I don't think he'll get many more opportunities this year.

Is Jason Motte done?: I hate to think he is, because he's awesome to watch, but as I approach Mujica, I do so with the assumption that the job is his for the rest of the year.

What makes Mujica so good?: Just that he can get the job done. Mujica doesn't throw hard, but neither did Eddie Guardado, whose fastball hit 87 -- yet he still managed three seasons of 35-plus saves. At this point, with an injured closer, an imploded Boggs, and little else to choose from, it doesn't matter if Mujica can throw 98; it only matters that he can get outs in the ninth.

Keep in mind: The Cardinals went out and traded for Mujica (they gave up Zack Cox, who was in Baseball America's top 100 list in 2011 and 2012. In the 35 1/3 innings Mujica has pitched for St. Louis since the trade last July, he has given up four runs and has a 0.82 WHIP.

Conclusion: Mujica holds onto the closer role, and only loses it if Motte comes back.

The Tigers

Today's closer: Jose Valverde

The one with most saves by October: Jose Valverde

Really, dude? You like Valverde?: I'm not jumping up and down and making crazy trades to get him, but I think there's gas left in that tank. Valverde is motivated and probably a little embarrassed at how his offseason went. He's saved 226 games since 2007, averaging 38 per season. His 278 career saves are more than Brad Lidge, Mitch Williams, the aforementioned Eddie Guardado, and Steve Bedrosian. And here he is, signing a minor league contract, engineered by the brilliant Scott Boras.

Give me stats!: Over 11 years, Valverde has a 3.10 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. That's a borderline exceptionally-low WHIP for a reliever thought to be middling. His career K/9 is 9.9.

But his velocity!: According to Brooks Baseball, Valverde averaged 94 m.p.h. on his fastball, which is just slightly down from the 95 m.p.h. he's averaged over the course of his career.

Who would be next in line?: Despite the ugly line score from Thursday (one run on three hits in an inning of work), Bruce Rondon actually looked pretty good. Of his first six pitches, only one failed to hit 98 or above on the radar gun, and he threw four pitches that registered in double digits. His main problem in the minors was control, and he didn't walk a batter. Maybe he got a little stymied having Jarrod Dyson and Mike Moustakas steal on him, but this was Rondon's major league debut, and he showed up in a one-run game with the heart of the AL Central-leader's lineup at bat.

Can Rondon steal the job from Valverde?: Probably not. Jim Leyland knows Valverde and is probably relieved to have him back. This is a team that went to the World Series last year, has the 2012 MVP and 2011 Cy Young Award winner on the roster, and can boast up to seven All-Stars. When the Rondon experiment failed in spring training, it was a sign that this team needs a veteran close (even though Valverde did fall apart in the postseason).

Conclusion: Jose Valverde holds it until he gets hurt, at which point Bruce Rondon takes over.

The Red Sox

Today's closer: Andrew Bailey

The one with most saves by October: Joel Hanrahan. By a hair.

Future comment at the bottom of this column: "Just another 'Fantasy expert' trying to prove he knows something.CBS sucks."

Speak the truth!: This is 90 percent guesswork here. And that's the same for everyone in the world, outside of the Red Sox braintrust.

Here's what we know: In 2011, John Farrell had Jon Rauch start the year as his closer for the Blue Jays. Toronto had traded Mike Napoli to Texas for Frank Francisco in the offseason, but Francisco injured his pectoral in spring training. Rauch had five saves and a 2.45 ERA through April. On May 3, Rauch gave up two runs in a loss to the Rays. On May 4, Francisco, who had made five middle relief appearances (in non-hold situations), got his first save. Just like that, Rauch was out and Francisco was the closer for the Blue Jays.

So it'll be Hanrahan?: The situations are kind of similar. The Red Sox traded for Hanrahan in the offseason. Unlike Francisco, though, Hanrahan already racked up three saves before going on the DL.

But Bailey's been so good: Hanrahan's 11.57 ERA is pretty much all the result of one ugly outing, when he gave up five runs to the Orioles. In retrospect, he could have been hiding the hamstring soreness then. But Bailey has been awesome in Hanrahan's absence, with five saves in just over a week, along with 20 strikeouts in 11 1/3 innings and a 1.59 ERA. It's going to be tough to justify removing Bailey from that role, outside of the "Hanrahan shouldn't lose his job because he got hurt" argument.

So this is pretty much a 50/50 thing?: For Fantasy purposes, it is. Farrell hasn't been a manager long enough to figure out some kind of pattern regarding his closers. And both Bailey and Hanrahan have made a case to be tabbed as closer.

What should I do with my Bailey/Hanrahan?: The best strategy for Bailey owners would be to hold. And Hanrahan owners should keep him on the DL for as long as league rules allow, which will buy some time without having to make a roster decision.

Conclusion: The good news here is that you can justify whichever way you choose with a shrug and simply say, "nobody knew anything." But, based on the Rauch/Francisco situation, I would guess that Hanrahan has the better shot of getting the role back about a week or two after he returns.

The Brewers

Today's closer: Jim Henderson

The one with most saves by October: John Axford. But Henderson has a better case than people think.

Well give me Henderson's case, dammit!: The best way to do that is to attack the case made against him. Observe:

1. Ron Roenicke said Axford will get the job back. But he didn't say when. Roenicke pretty much said Axford would work his way back into the role, and there's not much else he can do to prove he can handle the closing duties again. And Henderson acknowledged that the plan was for Axford to take over. But even if Roenicke wasn't just flat-out lying to the media to keep Axford's confidence up, he hasn't set anything in stone.

2. Henderson lost the job last year. He was also just thrown into the mix as a journeyman rookie. And the two games that cost him the job came back-to-back, with the second being in Colorado. Overall, though, Henderson's 2012 probably looks worse than it should because he only pitched 30 2/3 innings, so those 12 runs he gave up -- with three coming in the last three games, in October -- inflated his ERA. In those 30 2/3 innings, Henderson only allowed one home run, and he struck out 45 batters.

3. Henderson had bad minor league stats. With a 3.96 ERA and 1.32 WHIP, Henderson's 10-year minor league career was pretty unimpressive. But a good amount of the ERA damage was done when he was 22, working as a starter. And he battled through a series of injuries throughout his career, as well. Plus, to bring in his main competition -- Axford's minor league stats weren't much more impressive than Henderson's.

With all of that added up, I'm still not fully sold on Henderson. Yes, he had an erratic minor league career, but there was some not-so-great mixed in there in full seasons of relief. Axford has been flat-out dominant before, but seems to have let his 2012 funk extend to 2013. Still, he's gone six appearances without allowing a run, striking out six, allowing two hits, and walking none in 5 1/3 innings. It's unclear if that's enough to just yank an effective Henderson from the role, but if Axford can keep it up and Henderson has one bad outing, it won't be hard for Roenicke to justify that switch.

Conclusion: Axford will probably take over shortly after the first time Henderson stumbles.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Nando Di Fino at @NandoCBS . You can also send our staff an e-mail at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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