Welcome to the annual All Bullpen Audit, an early look at all 30 Major League bullpens. The focus today is on would-be closers and their most likely usurpers. The next six weeks will be spent on a detailed division-by-division examination of every relief crew. For now, let’s 86 the “steals” portion of this column. We’ll check in on speedsters later this spring.
Craig Kimbrel, Bud Norris, Sergio Romo, AJ Ramos, Ryan Madson, Tyler Clippard, Santiago Casilla, Brad Boxberger, Matt Belisle, John Axford, Jim Johnson, Drew Storen, Adam Warren, Zach Duke, Xavier Cedeno, Tony Sipp
The above isn’t a complete list of the remaining free agent relievers, but it covers the most meaningful names. Kimbrel is the only premium closer on the market. He’ll certainly work ninth innings for a lucky club. Rumors of his destination are scarce with his old stomping grounds in Boston, Atlanta, and San Diego among the most likely fits. I could see the White Sox jumping into the picture if they manage to sign Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. Any would-be contender besides perhaps the Yankees or Phillies is in play.
Aside from Kimbrel, we could see a guy like Norris or Romo step into a ninth inning role on a cheap contract. Look at teams like the Marlins, Rays, and Mariners as potential fits. Some of the others listed could act as a closer in a pinch. The odds are pretty low.
Philadelphia Phillies: David Robertson, Seranthony Dominguez, Hector Neris
Miami Marlins: Drew Steckenrider, Adam Conley, Tayron Guerrero
The Phillies have compiled an embarrassment of riches in the late innings, a topic we’ll discuss in more detail next week. Given manager Gabe Kapler’s proclivities to play matchups, we shouldn’t count on Robertson as a traditional closer. Pencil in 20 saves with good ratios. Dominguez may receive the bulk of the remainder. Don’t completely count out Neris for 10 saves. Although he’s not even guaranteed to make this deep bullpen, he finished the year on a high note while posting one of the best swinging strike rates in the league.
We know where the Mets will turn for all of their ninth inning needs. Diaz enters this spring as the top closer in baseball. Most holds opportunities will fall to Familia and Lugo. The Braves bullpen is far less secure. Vizcaino has only once thrown more than 39 innings in a major league season. That could open the door for Minter to steal the job.
In Washington, the Nationals will depend upon Doolittle’s shoulder to hold up for a full season. He hasn’t thrown more than 51.1 innings since 2014. Backing him up is a trio of high risk, high reward gambles. Each of Rosenthal, Barraclough, and Glover have closer upside. They could also easily post over-5.00 ERAs. Last and definitely least is the dreadful Marlins bullpen. Steckenrider is the most accomplished of the group. He’s miscast as anything more than a middle reliever.
Milwaukee Brewers: Corey Knebel, Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress
Pittsburgh Pirates: Felipe Vazquez, Keone Kela
St. Louis Cardinals: Andrew Miller, Jordan Hicks
Chicago Cubs: Brandon Morrow, Pedro Strop, Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards Jr.
Cincinnati Reds: Raisel Iglesias, David Hernandez, Jared Hughes
The NL Central may be the most competitive division in baseball. That extends to their bullpens. The Brewers feature a deep unit led by two superstar firemen. The club prefers to leave Hader in a flexible role even though he’s clearly superior to Knebel. The Pittsburgh staff is also headlined by a pair of stud relievers. Kela had the equivalent of a top 10 closer season, but he spent half the year in a setup role. Vazquez and Kela are possible trade bait later this summer.
The Cardinals are on shaky ground with Miller and Hicks as the poster children. The entire ‘pen is a mix of rehabbing vets and not-quite-established young arms. Miller missed much of 2018 and was ineffective when he played. The upside is still that of a top five closer. As for Hicks, he teased elite stuff and velocity, yet he only managed a 3.59 ERA and 8.11 K/9. This is a volatile unit.
The Cubs relief staff features some depth and a lack of elite ceiling. They’ll be without Morrow to start the season. His status for 2019 is uncertain. It’s not a good sign that he’s already listed as out for at least a month. Strop was perfectly playable in Morrow’s stead last season. Manager Joe Maddon does like to ride the hot hand.
Cincinnati has the weakest bullpen in the division, although it’s still an acceptable group. Iglesias is a fringe top-10 closer at times. It’s easy to see room for improvement which could come in the form of Norris, Madson, or even a surprise bid for Kimbrel.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Kenley Jansen, Joe Kelly, Pedro Baez
San Diego Padres: Kirby Yates, Craig Stammen, Matt Strahm
San Francisco Giants: Will Smith, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson
Arizona Diamondbacks: Archie Bradley, Yoshihisa Hirano, Greg Holland
Colorado Rockies: Wade Davis, Seung-Hwan Oh
For the first time in nearly a decade, Jansen showed signs of mortality last season. Home runs were a problem. An offseason surgery for a heart-related issue will supposedly restore Jansen to his previous glory. Indeed, a change in his medication last season did correlate with an increase in performance. Presumably, he’ll be off the meds entirely this year. The Dodgers bullpen has no shortage of hard-throwing firemen to step into the eighth inning.
Odds are, you’re unfamiliar with most of the Padres relievers besides Yates and Strahm. That doesn’t mean they’re bad. Rather, we’ve under-publicized the quality of the San Diego reliever machine. We’ll get into more detail later this spring. Yates tops the depth chart. I always worry about home runs with him. He could lose his job in April. He could also finish as a fringe top 10 closer. It’s a wide range of plausible outcomes. For now, he has the job and sufficient strikeouts to help fantasy owners.
The Giants will likely trade away at least two of these potential closers – perhaps all three! Melancon is a sneaky late-round closer candidate. Smith and Watson are comparable in quality to Melancon, left-handed, and on cheaper contracts. They’ll be easier for San Francisco to trade. Things could linger into the summer months, although they have an incentive to act now.
The Diamondbacks are the latest team to give Holland a chance to rebound. The former ace closer hasn’t shined since 2014. Arizona loves to find excuses to bump Bradley from the ninth inning role. A healthy spring from Holland could upset the balance of power. Over in Colorado, the Rockies received surprisingly good relief results last season in large part thanks to Adam Ottavino. He’s gone, leaving Davis with no obvious contender to steal his job. Beware, Davis posted a 4.73 ERA at Coors Field.
New York Yankees: Aroldis Chapman, Zach Britton, Dellin Betances, Adam Ottavino
Toronto Blue Jays: Ken Giles, Ryan Tepera
Tampa Bay Rays: Diego Castillo, Jose Alvarado, Chaz Roe
Boston Red Sox: Ryan Brasier, Matt Barnes, Tyler Thornburg
Baltimore Orioles: Mychal Givens
Once again, the Yankees will enter 2019 with a terrifying bullpen. The horror show extends well beyond the four closers listed above. Chapman has actually briefly lost his job for performance reasons in each of the last two seasons. This has less to do with his performances than the elite players surrounding him. We’ll touch upon the gory details in two weeks.
Things are… ugly… elsewhere in the division. Toronto will hope that Giles can rehabilitate his image after struggling through the 2018 campaign. The Rays currently plan to play mix and match with Castillo, Alvarado, and Roe. They’re notorious for signing cheap veterans to handle the actual ninth inning duties. Last year it was Sergio Romo. He’s still available.
Despite winning the World Series, Boston is crying poor. In truth, they’re just trying to avoid tripping heavier luxury tax penalties. They’re beyond an obvious match for Kimbrel. Some analysts believe they’re just waiting for the price to drop – as they did with J.D. Martinez last winter.
As for the Orioles, they lit the dumpster fire last summer. They’ll toss in more fuel this year to see if anything emerges. Givens is the only certain major league reliever on their staff, and he’s only middle relief quality. They do own a few arms with potential like Tanner Scott.
Cleveland Indians: Brad Hand
Chicago White Sox: Alex Colome, Kelvin Herrera, Nate Jones, Jace Fry
Minnesota Twins: Blake Parker, Trevor May, Addison Reed, Trevor Hildenberger
Detroit Tigers: Shane Greene, Joe Jimenez
Kansas City Royals: Wily Peralta
This is easily the weakest division for relievers. It’s no contest. The Indians at least have a high quality closer, although they’ve yet to put any effort into bolstering the rest of their bullpen. This is a curious bet on their rotation at a time when the rest of the league is increasing their reliever workloads. The White Sox have also verbally signaled a desire to lean on their starters. Even so, they’ve substantially improved their relief corps. Any of the four names listed above could emerge as the regular closer. My top bet is Colome followed by Herrera.
The Twins have a poor man’s version of the White Sox bullpen. Four of their relievers are in the mix for late inning opportunities. Parker appears to be the best of them. He was cut by the Angels despite a modest salary projection. That’s an ominous sign. Reed was a high-quality reliever back in 2017, but his results and velocity took a nose dive last season. May and Hildenberger are of greater interest. I doubt the Twins will bid for Kimbrel. They could get involved with Norris or Romo.
While the above three teams are pretending to be competitive, the Tigers and Royals have no interest in feigning effort. Detroit is expected to return Greene to the ninth inning. He’s merely a good middle reliever. Jimenez has some potential, but he’s fumbled every opportunity to date. In Kansas City, we’re waiting on somebody unexpected to emerge. Wily Peralta is correctly cast as a reliever. However, he’s not a particularly good reliever.
Oakland Athletics: Blake Treinen, Joakim Soria
Houston Astros: Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly
Los Angeles Angels: Cody Allen, Ty Buttrey, Cam Bedrosian
Texas Rangers: Jose Leclerc, Jesse Chavez
Seattle Mariners: Anthony Swarzak, Hunter Strickland
Treinen is in the mix for best closer in baseball. The remainder of the Athletic relievers are deceptively good despite minimal fanfare. Their surprising 2018 success was built upon the bullpen, and they’re mostly returning the same staff.
Despite consistently developing excellent pitchers, the Astros best relievers joined the team at the trade deadline. Osuna is a possible top five closer. Pressly transformed from merely good as a Twins reliever to otherworldly in Houston. After the trade (23.1 innings), he posted a 0.77 ERA, 0.60 WHIP, 12.34 K/9, and 1.16 BB/9. He has some of the best breaking stuff in the league. If both imports falter, there are plenty of internal replacements.
The Angels overhauled their bullpen and could benefit from the departure of Mike Scioscia and his fear of commitment. Allen is the top candidate for saves. He always seems to hit a rough patch before going on a hot streak. It never materialized last season. Los Angeles will hope for a rebound.
In the basement lurk the retooling Rangers and Mariners. Both clubs are aiming at short-term rebuilds rather than the tear-everything-down-and-wait-five-years model that has become popular. The Texas bullpen features a guy who halved his walk rate and turned into a star in the process. Be careful with Leclerc. If his walk rate regresses back to career norms, he could be in trouble. His specialties are strikeouts and limiting hard contact. Seattle doesn’t have much of a bullpen at present which is why I think they’ll eventually sign a guy like Norris, Romo, or Madson to close. That also hands frenetic GM Jerry Dipoto more trade ammunition.