2021 All Bullpen Audit

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Brad Johnson
·22 min read
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Today is our first peek at all 30 Major League bullpens with a special focus on potential closers and top setup men. We’ll check in on stolen base targets closer to Opening Day.

If you’ve tried any mock drafts this winter, you probably noticed reliable closers are somewhat scarce. Even a mainstay like Kenley Jansen has multiple threats looming over his shoulders. Two forces make this a difficult year for drafting saves. First, leaguewide trends have led teams away from singular, veteran closers. More clubs are using their best pitchers before the ninth inning. The disjointed 2020 campaign only accelerated this trend. Around one-third of teams finished last season with either a committee or no closer. The world of saves is in upheaval, and that means more opportunities for us!

Free Agents

Alex Colome, Trevor Rosenthal, Keone Kela, Roberto Osuna, Ken Giles, Mark Melancon, Ian Kennedy, Sean Doolittle, Shane Greene, David Robertson, Joakim Soria, Tony Watson, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Workman, Sergio Romo, Oliver Drake, Jeremy Jeffress, Brad Boxberger, Hector Rondon

Quite a few relievers with recent saves experience remain available. We can probably cross off a few. Osuna and Kela are both attempting to avoid Tommy John surgery after missing much of last season with elbow issues. Giles went under the knife in early October and will miss all of 2021.

That leaves Colome and Rosenthal as the most effective 2020 relievers. Both had superb seasons. Colome, in my estimation, is more likely to sign as a closer. Rosenthal is a prime candidate to join a club like the Phillies, Giants, or Reds where he can compete for the ninth inning role. Melancon also pitched well last year. I expect him to land a setup role with a contender.

The remainder of the list is a hodge-podge of consistent setup men like Soria and Watson, placeholder closers like Kintzler, Romo, and Jeffress, or pitchers who recently lost the job like Kennedy, Doolittle, Greene, and Workman. One dark horse to track is Robertson – he’s due to put on a showcase after missing nearly all of the last two seasons.

NL East

New York Mets: Edwin Diaz, Trevor May, Seth Lugo
Atlanta Braves: Will Smith, Chris Martin, A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson
Philadelphia Phillies: Hector Neris, Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado
Washington Nationals: Brad Hand, Tanner Rainey, Daniel Hudson, Will Harris
Miami Marlins: Yimi Garcia, Anthony Bass

Diaz kicked off his 2020 campaign with a couple clunkers which ultimately cast a pall over a fantastic rebound campaign. He finished with a career-best 45.5 percent strikeout rate (17.53 K/9) while shaking off the acute case of homeritis he suffered in 2019. Diaz projects as perhaps the best closer in baseball. However, with high caliber relievers waiting in the wings, he might not have much leeway for mistakes. May has all the attributes of an able closer. He never got a fair shake in Minnesota. Lugo should return to full time relief work after helping the Mets rotation limp through 2020.

The Braves lack of activity in the relief market is somewhat curious. Their bullpen is by no means a shambles – it’s a deep cohort of competent if not excellent relievers. Several left-handers including Smith, Minter, and Tyler Matzek are among the best relievers on the roster. Smith happens to be paid like a closer, but he’s coming off an inconsistent season. Martin and Jackson had brief shots at closing in 2019, but neither reliever held onto the job. If you’re drafting today, Smith and Martin would be my targets. However, I fully expect a free agent to further muddy the waters.

In 2020, the Phillies missed the expanded postseason due to a historically terrible bullpen. Strangely, their current relief corps looks to be mid-tier, and they’re probably not done adding to the collection. In mock drafts, the apparent assumption is that Bradley was signed to close. To the contrary, both the team and Bradley downplayed that possibility. This should be considered a wide-open battle to be decided by Joe Girardi and his coaching staff. Strictly speaking, Neris should be viewed as the best reliever in the collection. His annual one-to-two-week meltdowns hide otherwise superb performance. The safest course is to avoid over-investing in this group until there is more clarity. A late flier on Bradley or Neris can be kept or ditched depending on early indications.

Washington recently signed Hand to replace Doolittle – their departing southpaw closer. Despite an exceptional 2020 performance, Hand’s declining velocity is a modest red flag. Over the last two seasons, he’s turned into an extreme fly ball pitcher after spending much of his career as a ground ball guy. Even with these concerns, he still tracks as a top 10 closer. Behind him, the Nationals learned that a repeat engagement with Hudson was a predictable mistake. Harris remains a capable ground ball specialist. Rainey flashes closer traits and an elite strikeout rate albeit with shaky command and a penchant for allowing too much hard contact.

Garcia, a former Dodger, pitched well for the Marlins last season and should be the top name to track in a wide-open competition for the closer role. Garcia posted career bests with a 0.60 ERA and 11.40 K/9. Unfortunately, he should be expected to contribute closer to a 4.00 ERA with a strikeout per inning. That’s still better than Bass. The recent free agent acquisition projects for the same 4.00 ERA with under 8.00 K/9. Keep an eye out for interesting non-roster invitees and other late signings. Remember, this Marlins team made the 2020 postseason after overcoming a teamwide COVID exposure.

NL Central

Milwaukee Brewers: Josh Hader, Devin Williams
St. Louis Cardinals: Jordan Hicks, Giovanny Gallegos, Andrew Miller
Cincinnati Reds: Amir Garrett, Lucas Sims
Chicago Cubs: Craig Kimbrel, Rowan Wick
Pittsburgh Pirates: Richard Rodriguez, Chris Stratton

The Brewers have the best one-two punch in the league. Hader and Williams are downright dominant forces. The rest of the relief corps is merely competent. Hader has dealt with home run demons in the last two seasons. Hitters, especially those in his own division, have learned to play guessing games rather than try to avoid strikeouts. More likely than not, he’ll fan just under half the batters he faces. Williams too has incredible strikeout stuff. He leans heavily on a practically invisible changeup that has screwball-style movement without the wacky arm torque. The pitch is his finisher. Of 100 batters faced, 62 of those ended on a changeup – 41 strikeouts, five walks, 14 batted outs, and just two singles. Williams would be a top two closer if anything happens to Hader. Only Liam Hendriks and possibly Edwin Diaz are of the same caliber as the Brewers duo.

The Cardinals have no shortage of late-inning candidates. Hard-throwers Alex Reyes and Ryan Helsley could also re-enter the picture. For now, let’s focus on Hicks. He decided to skip the 2020 season rather than rush his rehab from Tommy John surgery. Prior to injury, he featured a 101-mph fastball and an over-60 percent ground ball rate. He was learning to miss bats with more frequency too. In 2019, he posted 9.73 K/9 and a 3.14 ERA in 28.2 innings. If he experiences hiccups in his recovery, Gallegos and Miller offer a potent righty-lefty platoon for late-inning duties. They passed around the job last season while the Cardinals navigated a COVID-crammed schedule. Hicks is an excellent value for saves at his current 260 ADP.

Raisel Iglesias is out of the picture in Cincinnati. Garrett is the most publicly vocal about wanting the ninth-inning job. He’s a bulldog left-hander who has the strut of a closer but might come up a tad short on the stuff. Garrett throws more sliders than fastballs, and he doesn’t have large platoon splits. Over the last two seasons, he’s struck out around one-third of batters accompanied by a high walk rate. Sims isn’t out on Twitter lobbying for the job, yet he seemingly has better credentials. He’s a Statcast darling with top marks in fastball and curve ball spin rates. Like Garrett, he fans around one-third of hitters with a higher-than-desired walk rate. As a right-handed pitcher, he has a natural advantage in a closer battle.

Since joining the Cubs, Kimbrel has struggled to avoid barrels and walks. Under the hood, not much has changed from when he was a dominant relief force. That makes him a plausible rebound candidate so long as you’re prepared for the risks involved. We have to consider the possibility that hitters have caught up to Kimbrel. For those who look to Wick as a potential savior, the traits just aren’t there. He’ll strike out more than a batter per inning with a high walk rate and modest run prevention. He’s an above average reliever, but that doesn’t make him a fantasy-quality closer.

The Pirates are embarking on a season of irrelevance. Thus, it strikes me as unlikely that Rodriguez will remain with the club through Spring Training. Coming off his best performance since the first half of 2018 and entering his age 31 season, his trade value will never be higher than right now. An acquiring team is more likely to use him before the ninth inning. If he does stick with the Pirates, the closer job is his to lose, making him a potentially valuable sleeper target. Michael Feliz and Kyle Crick have shown no penchant for high leverage relief. Stratton might be the toughest competition. His fastball velocity improved upon moving to the bullpen full time. His fastball and curve ball spin rates are among the best in the league.

NL West

San Diego Padres: Drew Pomeranz, Emilio Pagan
Los Angeles Dodgers: Kenley Jansen, Blake Treinen, Brusdar Graterol, Corey Knebel, Victor Gonzalez
Colorado Rockies: Daniel Bard, Mychal Givens, Robert Stephenson
San Francisco Giants: Reyes Moronta, Tyler Rogers, Matt Wisler
Arizona Diamondbacks: Stefan Crichton, Kevin Ginkel

Pomeranz and Pagan could find themselves in a job shares, especially if Pagan can build on his late-season performance. From mid-August on, he pitched much like his 2019 self with 11.48 K/9, 2.70 BB/9, and a 2.03 ERA. Pomeranz, meanwhile, built upon his own late-2019 breakout by delivering a shining 1.45 ERA and 13.98 K/9 in 18.2 innings. There were two blemishes, a brief shoulder strain and a 4.82 BB/9. Beyond the top names lurk several pitchers projected to thrive, most notably former Mariners closer Austin Adams and right-hander Pierce Johnson.

While the Padres bullpen is fortified with quietly excellent relievers, the Dodgers have opted for a Hollywood-style relief corps. Jansen is reportedly working hard this winter with Driveline to claw back velocity and movement from father time. While still effective, he has been on a downward trajectory in recent seasons. The pressure is mounting. Treinen and Knebel were once considered top five closers in this very column. Injuries and inconsistency have robbed them of their former status. Elite output remains well within reach. The Dodgers will produce plenty of hold opportunities too. Los Angeles also has a couple young guns. Graterol is yet to reach his potential and leans on blistering 99-mph heat. Gonzalez debuted in 2020 to a 1.33 ERA with 10.18 K/9, 0.89 BB/9, and a 69.2 percent ground ball rate. We should expect regression in 2021.

Perhaps the rest of the division can ask the Padres and Dodgers to share because this gets ugly fast.

Bard was the redemption story we all saw coming from a mile away. You know, you’re watching the movie and you say to yourself, they can’t do that, it’s too obvious. And then they go and do it anyway. Bard was impressive in Spring Training, having turned back to the clock to 2011 when he featured 97-mph fastballs and acceptable walk rates. As the season progressed, he quickly moved up the ladder from token depth to setup man to closer. He even handled Coors Field without any hiccups. It goes without saying that Rockies closers are never safe fantasy targets. A 36-year-old with limited recent track record is doubly dangerous. Still, this feels like a palatable late-draft option compared to some of the alternatives. New additions Givens and Stephenson strike me as maladapted for their new home park. Givens has some ninth-inning experience while Stephenson has a visually impressive slider.

If Gabe Kapler taught us anything in 2020, it’s that he’s a real pain for fantasy managers. Mostly, this relates to his handling of starting pitchers. However, we should be prepared for frustrating reliever usage too. Moronta is expected to finally return from injury. He’s a hard-thrower who posted shiny ERAs in 2018 and 2019 despite serious red flags with his pitching profile. A lack of command and reliance on low home run rates could sink him. Rogers, a right-handed submariner, is expected to have large platoon splits and is used as such. We’ve yet to actually see evidence he’s platoon-prone. He gives a strong Brad Ziegler vibe and even averages over 8.00 K/9. Wisler is an extreme fly ball pitcher coming off a fluky-looking 1.07 ERA in Minnesota.

The Diamondbacks have the worst bullpen in the league. Crichton finished the year as their closer. He is an exceptionally generic reliever, lacking even one standout trait. Perhaps his best attribute is a ground ball rate just under 50 percent. That helps to limit the damage since he isn’t especially skilled at inducing whiffs or avoiding free passes. Ginkel very much looked the part of closer in 2019. He proceeded to lose all semblance of command last year. He also gained two mph – not a typical develop for a struggling pitcher. Perhaps he’ll parlay a more typical Spring Training into better performance.

AL East

New York Yankees: Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Chad Green
Tampa Bay Rays: Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks, Diego Castillo
Toronto Blue Jays: Kirby Yates, Jordan Romano, Rafael Dolis
Boston Red Sox: Adam Ottavino, Matt Barnes
Baltimore Orioles: Hunter Harvey, Tanner Scott

The Yankees recently jettisoned a high caliber late-inning reliever (more on him in a moment). They still project for the top bullpen in the division. It’s a familiar collection of talent with the ageless Chapman leading the way. He’s entering his age 33 season. Chapman’s velocity has declined in recent years. He now sits at only 98-mph. His angular frame and approach should allow him to age relatively well. There’s room for him to up his slider usage too. Consider him a consensus top five closer. Britton, also 33, continues to dominate in an entirely different way. In the last seven seasons, he has never posted lower than a 71.7 percent ground ball rate. It’s awfully hard to beat somebody without hitting the ball in the air. Green, a viable closer candidate in his own right, could soak up the odd save if Chapman and Britton need a breather.

If there’s one thing we should expect from the Rays, it’s that a surprise reliever will come along to sponge saves. In 2019, Emilio Pagan was the guy. Oliver Drake filled the role in early 2020 while Fairbanks took over in the postseason. Fairbanks is still on the roster and few outlets are considering him a credible target for saves. His 97.5 mph fastball pairs well with a frequently used slider. In just under 50 career innings, he has 12.65 K/9 and 4.53 BB/9. He’s a closer caliber pitcher, yet there’s no question Anderson is a superior reliever – and perhaps the top reliever in baseball. He finished 2020 on a sour note, struggling to induce whiffs and avoid hard contact in the postseason. During the regular season, his 14.33 K/9, 1.65 BB/9, and 0.55 ERA were exemplary. Castillo shouldn’t be ignored either. He’s an effective ground ball pitcher who typically pitches to a low-3.00s ERA.

Perhaps the best reliever in 2018 and 2019, Yates missed most of 2020 due to bone chips in his elbow. He has completed his rehab and should be one of the top reliever targets in drafts. He’s currently available at a discount – his ADP is right around Kimbrel. Don’t expect that value to last into February and March. He’s at slightly elevated risk of sustaining another elbow injury. He joins a bullpen that already featured two closer-quality relievers in Romano and Dolis. They both feature hefty strikeout and ground ball rates, a somewhat rare combination and an indication of potential greatness. Romano used his elite slider nearly 60 percent of the time.

Boston’s recent acquisition of Ottavino from the Yankees is a shot in the arm for an ailing bullpen. He pitched to a 5.89 ERA, but much of that damage came on September 7 when he allowed six runs and failed to record an out. Otherwise, it was a typical season for Ottavino including 12.27 K/9, a somewhat painful 4.42 BB/9, and a league average home run rate. For now, he’s a savvy late-round saves target. As his ADP increases, don’t forget to also target Barnes. The long time Red Sox reliever relies upon curve balls out of the zone which leads to high strikeout and walk rates. His fastball is prone to home runs, making him less than ideal as a closer.

The Orioles bullpen may be one to avoid – at least until we have more clarity. Harvey has dealt with myriad injuries over the years and struggled in limited action last season. Scott had a career-best performance built upon uncharacteristic success in limiting baserunners, hard contact, and home runs. The smart bet is for the southpaw to regress. He also recorded only one save despite clearly being the top performing pitcher on the roster. Cesar Valdez, 36, finished the year with the closer role. Cole Sulser emerged earlier in the season before collapsing in a heaping pile of free passes (6.75 BB/9). Just to add to the confusion, Paul Fry and Shaun Armstrong have experience in the late-innings too.

AL Central

Chicago White Sox: Liam Hendriks, Aaron Bummer, Garrett Crochet
Minnesota Twins: Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey, Hansel Robles
Cleveland Indians: James Karinchak, Emmanuel Clase
Kansas City Royals: Greg Holland, Scott Barlow, Josh Staumont
Detroit Tigers: Gregory Soto, Bryan Garcia, Joe Jimenez, Buck Farmer

Since the start of 2019, Hendriks is on the shortlist for best reliever in the game. If our closer tiers were to be published today, he would have top billing. In addition to improved stuff, the right-hander has successfully incorporated heatmaps from Codify into his approach which has helped him to better exploit opponent’s weaknesses. He’s turned into a fly ball pitcher who also limits hard contact and home runs. He’ll benefit from plenty of save opportunities against weak AL Central opponents. Bummer would be a valuable closer in his own right if anything happens to Hendriks. The southpaw has much in common with Yankees setup man Zach Britton including a 70 percent ground ball rate. Crochet, a 2020 draftee who debuted in the same season, has been compared to Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller due to his 100-mph heater and massive frame. With pitchers of his size, it’s always fair to wonder about command. He also dealt with a forearm strain late last season.

The Twins were quick to turn to Rogers in 2019, but they had less patience last season. He ultimately shared the job with journeyman reliever Sergio Romo. Rogers struggled with line drives and hard contact but otherwise looked sharp. An uncharacteristic .400 BABIP hid sparkling ERA estimators. His 2.84 FIP in 2020 was a near-perfect mirror of his 2.85 FIP in 2019. Rogers looks to be a bargain in drafts at a 140 ADP. Beware of internal competition, specifically Duffey who is similarly effective and pitches from the right side. Cody Stashak and Jorge Alcala have also shown closer potential. Robles is something of a reclamation project. Last season, he was missing the velocity and command he demonstrated during his breakout 2019 campaign. Was that natural regression or a function of COVID? We may find out this season.

The Brad Hand era is over in Cleveland. Fantasy managers should look forward to targeting Karinchak. He’s an extreme fly ball pitcher with an equally extreme 17.76 K/9. While most assume the closer job will fall to Karinchak uncontested, it’s worth remembering the Indians also acquired another late-inning candidate before last season. Clase missed 2020 due to a PED suspension. An imposing presence on the mound, Clase touches 100-mph with a devasting cutter. He keeps most opponents on the ground, limiting the damage on balls in play. We also shouldn’t rule out a visit to the free agent bargain bin.

The Royals signed up for return engagements with Holland and Wade Davis. Holland finished 2020 as the closer. He had his best season since 2014. Consequently, he also posted a tolerable walk rate for the first time since his peak. I have doubts he can replicate his 2020 success. At the same time, he should offer some cheap early saves. Davis never adapted to Coors Field and dealt with injuries. If healthy, a rebound of sorts can’t be ruled out. Should these strolls down memory lane fail, both Barlow and Staumont have closer-qualities such as high strikeout rates and velocity. Staumont in particular throws 98-mph with 12.97 K/9. He also had one of the highest hard contact rates in the league – a sign that his already suspect command might be even worse than a 5.61 BB/9 suggests.

The Tigers don’t have to be downright terrible this season. Signing a few of the less in-demand free agent relievers like Ian Kennedy, Oliver Drake, Brandon Kintzler, or Sergio Romo would go a long way towards improving their late-inning picture. Jimenez has received and botched countless chances. He’s entering his age 26 season having individually demonstrated all the traits of a closer without putting them all together at the same time. Farmer and Garcia are, frankly, generic middle relievers. Soto has some positive attributes including a 97-mph fastball. He also has large platoon splits and too many walks in his short 80.2 inning career.

AL West

Los Angeles Angels: Raisel Iglesias, Mike Mayers, Ty Buttrey
Texas Rangers: Jose Leclerc, Jonathan Hernandez
Houston Astros: Ryan Pressly, Pedro Baez
Seattle Mariners: Rafael Montero, Keynan Middleton
Oakland Athletics: Jake Diekman, Lou Trivino

It’s difficult to pick the top bullpen in the AL West. The Astros have the best closer, but the Angels and Rangers have better depth.

The acquisition of Iglesias should solve the ever-burning question of who will close for the Angels. He’s consistently a top 10 closer and is coming off his best season to date. That said, the breakout version of Mayers appeared to be a better reliever than Iglesias. His success was fueled by a new pitch – a highly effective cutter. Even if he maintains his 2020 performance, Iglesias will have to blow several saves to open the door. Buttrey is beginning to feel a bit like Joe Jimenez – a guy with closer traits who refuses to successfully close games when given the opportunity.

In Texas, Hernandez impressed in both Spring Training and Summer Camp. He averaged 98-mph with his fastball while recording a strikeout per inning and overcoming a reputation for poor command. Although he’s clearly the best reliever in their stable, the Rangers have signaled a desire to use him as a multi-inning stopper. He’ll get some saves in this role, but Leclerc is presently the best bet to lead the team. The splitter specialist missed most of 2020 with a shoulder strain. A history of high walk rates offers a constant threat of baserunners.

As mentioned, Pressly is likely the best closer in the division. He would comfortably rank in the top 10 if we were to publish closer tiers today. He typically delivers 12.00 K/9, a low walk rate, and top of the barrel ERA and WHIP. Pressly struggled early in the 2020 campaign. He was able to quickly adjust and return to dominance. Over the final month, he recorded a 2.03 ERA, 13.50 K/9, and 2.03 BB/9. Baez, a longstanding setup man for Kenley Jansen, joined the Astros as a free agent. He’s coming off his worst season which saw his velocity slip to 94.4-mph – down from a peak of 97-mph.

The Mariners raided the divisional pantry to scare up their late-inning cohort. In addition to adding Montero from the Rangers and Middleton from the Angels, former Athletic Kendall Graveman will return too. Montero is unexceptional but serviceable as a ninth-inning option. He projects to deliver around a 4.00 ERA with slightly better than a strikeout per inning. Middleton, once the heir apparent in Los Angeles, returned from injury in 2020. While he flashed a career-best 97.1-mph heater, he also lacked command. Opponents gave him a drubbing to the tune of a 5.25 ERA in just 12 innings. Speculators in deep leagues might consider a preemptive share of Sam Delaplane, a 25-year-old with potent strikeout rates in the minors.

Perhaps no team could benefit more from a dip in free agency than the Athletics. It’s a deep, contending roster in every respect but the bullpen. We know they’ll shop in the bargain bin so look for them to take a chance on riskier options like Doolittle and Robertson. They’re also rumored to be interested in a reunion with Soria. Diekman looks like the top reliever on hand. He typically records a gaudy strikeout rate (career 11.34 K/9) matched by a painfully high walk rate (career 5.01 BB/9). Trivino struggled in 2019 and then lost two mph on his fastball in 2020. He’s a four-pitch reliever which helps him to outfox opponents.

OddsMoney LinePoint SpreadTotal Points
LA Dodgers
-143--
Texas
+120--