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Who Will Replace Billy Wagner as Braves Closer?

As the Atlanta Braves try to recover from getting swept by the Phillies and hold on to the Wild Card position, savvy fantasy baseball managers are already looking ahead to the 2011 fantasy baseball season.

2011 BRAVES CLOSER: Jonny Venters

2011 BRAVES CLOSER: Jonny Venters

Billy Wagner, 38, has announced that he will retire after the 2010 season.  Wagner’s 420 career saves leave him in fifth place all-time for saves and Wagner remains a possible Hall of Famer.  After having a tendency to get himself in trouble by saying what’s on his mind in Philadelphia and New York, Wagner seems to have mellowed and has been very helpful to his possible replacements–Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel.

“If I can help a Kimbrel or a Dunner [Mike Dunn] or Vent [Venters], that’s what you’re supposed to do,” Wagner said.

Pitching coach Roger McDowell said Wagner’s presence had been a boon for the young pitchers.

“I think it had a huge impact, especially with Jonny, because Jonny’s been here the whole year for the most part,” he said. “Jonny’s been pretty much a starter throughout the minor leagues, so getting his first crack at pitching in the big leagues and pitching at the back end of the games, I think Billy’s been a huge influence on his success.”

The two guys contending for the Braves closer role in 2011 are Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel and both appear to be strong choices.

Most speculate that the 25-year-old Venters will be the front runner for the 2011 closer role.  After getting a mid-April call up, Venters has appeared in 73 games and sports a 4-3 record with 1 save, a 1.83 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP.

Venters made news earlier this season when he threw at Brewers’ slugger Prince Fielder.  After tossing one over Fielder’s head, the next one plunked the rotund first baseman in the back between the numbers.  MLB gave Venters a 4 day vacation and gave manager Bobby Cox a 1 game suspension for the incident.  Throwing at a guy the size of Fielder surely must have earned the rookie the respect of his Braves’ teammates.

Venters sat out the 2006 season with Tommy John surgery and missed much of the 2008 season with elbow tendinitis.  This year, however, his fastball is in the 94-95 range and his slider is in the mid-80’s.  Like a true closer, he throws his heater about 75% of the time.

Kimbrel spent the year with the Gwinnett Braves where he was named Gwinnett’s pitcher of the year.  Kimbrel throws a mid-90’s fastball with a nasty cutter mixed in.  On occasion, he’ll throw a change up or a curve to righties.

Kimbrel earned 23 saves at Gwinnett to go along with a 1.61 ERA.  If your league counts strikeouts, Kimbrel’s your man.  He struck out 105 in 60 innings last sesaon.  The only knock against Kimbrel is control.  Kimbrel walked 35 in 55 2/3 innings as the Gwinnett closer this season.

With the Braves, Kimbrel has been even better with 3 wins and a save to go along with a microscopic 0.56 ERA.  When the Braves wanted to rest Wagner prior to the Phillies series this week, it was Kimbrel that got the call; he promptly struck out three Nationals to earn his first save.

“I feel like I’m definitely a better pitcher now than I was at the beginning of the year,” Kimbrel said. “At the beginning of the year I was more focused on the radar gun and trying to strike everybody out. Now I’m more about holding runners on and throwing quality pitches.”

The Braves wanted Kimbrel to cut down on his leg kick to be quicker to the plate. He said he’s accomplished that without losing the quality of his pitches.

“I’m sure we’ll go out and get somebody with some veteran presence, like we did with Billy and [Takashi] Saito this year, to give us some options,” general manager Frank Wren said. “But those two guys [Venters and Kimbrel] give us a good starting point.”

While either of the two are good choices for the 2011 Braves closer, we have to believe that the added experience for Jonny Venters gives him the upper edge to pitch the 9th for the Braves in 2011.

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