It's time to check out the bullpens the newly leaner National League central. Without the Astros in the division, there are still a few bullpens that will feature turmoil all year, at least from where this correspondent is sitting. But! Turmoil always means opportunity, and opportunity comes before production. It's one of the foundational fantasy laws.
FIrst Up: Carlos Marmol
If you own Marmol, be prepared for trade rumors and/or tums all year long. Marmol has a big contract and his team is rebuilding. Also, his control, never good, has deteriorated to the point of ridiculousness. To add injury to this insult, researcher Jeff Zimmerman recently found that pitchers with good control usually stay healthy longer. We've already seen the beginning of the decline with the thirty-year old Cub reliever, as his velocity tanked in 2011 and his health got iffy last season.
Next In Line: Kyuji Fujikawa
If Marmol gets traded to the Detroit Tigers before the season -- ironically, because their in-house rookie (Bruce Rondon) may not get the job because of his control problems -- then it's probably Japanese veteran Kyuji Fujikawa taking over. But it's no lock that Fujikawa will find success, even if the Cubs paid a pretty penny for him. Not all pitchers make the jump from Japan well, and Fujikawa's velocity was already trending too close to 90 mph to feel comfortable touting him as a great sleeper. Then again, he has a good splitter and great control, and looks like the guy in a bad pen behind Marmol.
Sleeper: Arodys Vizcaino
It'll take some time for this sleeper to rise, considering he's recovering from Tommy John surgery and the team may want to give him another shot at starting before moving him to the bullpen for good, but Vizcaino has legit closer's stuff, and he may stay healthier pitching in short stints. Call him a dynasty league sleeper if he's on your wire or available deep in your deep league draft.
First Up: Jonathan Broxton
Broxton's huge fastball and swinging strikes did not return with his health in 2012, but the Reds gave him a closer's contract anyway. Part of that might have rested upon the excellence of his new cutter, which he used to great efficacy late in the season. He certainly showed the best control of his career, and one of the best ground-ball rates of his career, and those are both things associated with cutter usage. The 28-year-old seems like a shaky bet to finish the year closing if he has another year with a strikeout rate under eight, especially if his old wildness returns. This pen might be shook at some point.
Next In Line: Sean Marshall
Dusty Baker told me at the winter meetings that "If Sean Marshall could close, he would have closed in Chicago," so maybe Marshall isn't a good bet to replace Broxton. But he could get saves here and there and is probably the set-up man, so the die is not completely cast yet. If the Aroldis Chapman to the rotation experiment doesn't work, slide Broxton here and make Chapman the favorite.
Sleeper: JJ Hoover
Hoover is a relative unknown, but the former Brave has a 93-mph fastball and a platoon-friendly curveball, and got great whiffs last season. At 25, he's young enough to turn more of those whiffs into strikeouts, and improve the walk rate to fall more in line with his minor league rates. If he does so, watch out. He could be an elite reliever as soon as this season.
First Up: John Axford
The mustachioed Milwaukee closer had a bad season in 2012. He still got elite-level strikeouts and above-average whiffs and grounders, but his old nemesis -- control -- came back to haunt him. All those walks, and a few too many homers given his ground-ball rate, turned into a four-plus ERA and a reduced role at one point. There were two benefits to his season, however. For one, we now know who's next in line if he goes down again. And for two, he recovered the role and showed he had some leash. Expect the strikeouts, watch the walks, and hope for fewer home runs. Even if he doesn't push the walk rate back to better than league average, he should be a decent closer if the ball stops leaving the yard so much.
Next In Line: Jim Henderson
Axford's story -- veteran minor leaguer with bad control and a big fastball harnesses his stuff just enough to become a force at the back end of a major league bullpen -- is replicated one spot behind him on the bullpen depth chart. Thirty-year-old Henderson even did him one better when it came to strikeouts. But he's got the same problems as Axford, and it's really just a roulette roll as to which of them shows the better control next season. Even if it's Henderson, he's no lock to take the role. The first rule of speculating for saves is: "Who's the closer now?"
Sleeper: Tyler Thornburg
Now we're dealing with a 24-year-old that doesn't have the same history of control problems. The problem here is that he might end up as a starter. There are plenty who feel like his