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Saves and Steals

2018 All Bullpen Review

by Brad Johnson
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

Football season is coming to a close, and that means it's time to dive into fantasy baseball. Over the next seven weeks, Saves and Steals will cover every bullpen in gory detail. Today is the All Bullpen Audit, a high level analysis of all would-be closers and their most likely usurpers. Beginning next week, we'll do a division-by-division dive into every team's relief squad. For now, let's 86 the “steals” component of the column. We'll get back to those closer to the start of the season.

 

Free Agents

 

Greg Holland, Tyler Clippard, Joaquin Benoit, Matt Belisle, Jeanmar Gomez, Jason Grilli, Jason Motte, Bud Norris, Seung-hwan Oh, Chad Qualls, Bruce Rondon, Sergio Romo, Drew Storen, Huston Street, Trevor Rosenthal, Koji Uehara, Kevin Siegrist, and Tony Watson

 

I won't regale you with tales of the slow free agent market. You can find plenty of that copiously scattered throughout the internet. Here's the short version: not many free agents have signed. Relievers are the one position that has seen considerable movement, and yet I was still able to construct a list of 18 pitchers with (mostly) recent closer experience. We can dismiss most of these names as middle relievers, but a few could sneak into save opportunities.

 

The most obvious of those is Holland. The former Royals and Rockies closer pitched well in his return from Tommy John surgery, accruing 41 saves, a 3.61 ERA, 10.99 K/9, and 4.08 BB/9 – all with Coors Field as his home park. Just like the pre-injury version of Holland, he relied on his slider. He's basically the current iteration of Brad Lidge. Since he's still a free agent, teams must be worrying about his dreadful August. Over an eight outing span, he allowed 14 runs and four home runs in 6.1 innings while walking six. Prior to the blip, he had a 1.56 ERA in 40.1 innings. After August 26, he recovered to finish with a 1.69 ERA in 10.2 innings. Most of his season was superb. Somebody will sign him – probably to close.

 

A couple former Cardinals closers also stand out. Alas, Rosenthal will miss the 2018 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Oh somehow lost his feel for inducing an elite swinging strike rate. The weird part is that I can't point to a reason why. He appears to have used the exact same stuff in the exact same way. A team could take a chance on him as a rebound candidate and be pleasantly surprised.

 

Norris and Watson are probably the next most likely free agents to snake a few saves. Like Oh, they'll first have to perform before being given the opportunity. Norris is likely to sign as a swing man – he gave up a performance bonus last season to demonstrate his ability to start. Watson will probably be treated as a left-handed setup man. Both should have no issue finding jobs. A few of the others will be forcibly retired for lack of opportunity.

 

NL East

 

Washington Nationals: Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler, Koda Glover

New York Mets: Jeurys Familia, A.J. Ramos, Anthony Swarzak

Philadelphia Phillies: Hector Neris, Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter

Miami Marlins: Brad Ziegler, Kyle Barraclough, Drew Steckenrider

Atlanta Braves: Arodys Vizcaino

 

Thanks to a couple mid-season trades, the Nationals have the deepest bullpen in the NL East. Doolittle is a superb closer when healthy, although he has battled shoulder issues over the years. At his best, he'll provide over 10.00 K/9, a low walk rate, and somewhere around a 3.00 ERA. His fly ball tendencies probably aren't ideal for a closer, but he can still push top ten value.

 

If anything happens to Doolittle, Madson has plenty of closing experience. Last season, he posted similar numbers to Doolittle while inducing a 54.7 percent ground ball rate. There's a case to be made that he should be the closer. Kintzler serves as depth while Glover may eventually grow into the role. They still have Shawn Kelley hanging around too.

 

The back end of the Mets bullpen could devolve into a free-for-all. Familia struggled with his command in 2017 after missing time to a domestic abuse suspension and a blood clot. He still had the same quality stuff that led to 51 saves in 2016, including a 96 mph fastball, over a strikeout per inning, and a 60 percent ground ball rate. Allowing 5.47 BB/9 generally doesn't work. If his command returns, he's a potential top 10 closer. Lurking in the wings are Ramos and Swarzak. While Ramos has 99 saves to his name, Swarzak appears to be the better reliever. Swarzak in particular could be a top holds option.

 

The Phillies have tidied up their bullpen in anticipation of a heavy workload. The rotation is a bit of a hodgepodge which means lots of short outings. The back end is designed to shut down opponents. Neris can be inconsistent with his premium splitter, and his fastball is merely an average offering. His isn't an ideal closer profile, but he'll serve as a fine steward until one of their many prospects pushes him aside. Neshek and Hunter are probably capable of handling the ninth inning, but they're better suited to setup roles. The Phillies actually have a shockingly solid offense so they should supply more saves and holds opportunities this year. Francisco Rodriguez is a dark horse candidate for a rebound campaign. He's signed to a minor league contract.

 

I consistently rate Ziegler among the worst closers in the league, yet he's outlasted many better names. I don't actually believe he'll still be with the Marlins come Opening Day. For fantasy purposes, his low strikeout rate and occasional platoon issues can hurt his owners. Miami is also poised to win the fewest games in the league. On the plus side, he has an elite ground ball rate. Barraclough was supposed to steal the job last season. His lack of command continues to be a problem. Steckenrider's stuff doesn't match the gaudy 14.02 K/9 he posted last season. Expect regression.

 

The Braves bullpen is a stinking heap. Vizcaino is a fine closer, but there are no obvious setup men to support him. He also has a long track record with injuries. Vizcaino's stuff is inconsistent year-to-year so he could range from borderline top 15 value to one of the worst in the league. He might be hurting for save opportunities. Atlanta is a prime candidate to sign a slew of those older free agent relievers with closing experience. Were I Alex Anthopoulos, I'd look to land Oh, Watson, and Norris on cheap contracts.

 

NL Central

 

Milwaukee Brewers: Corey Knebel, Jacob Barnes

Pittsburgh Pirates: Felipe Rivero, Daniel Hudson

Cincinnati Reds: Raisel Iglesias, David Hernandez, Michael Lorenzen

Chicago Cubs: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson, Carl Edwards Jr.

St. Louis Cardinals: Luke Gregerson, Brett Cecil

 

Last season, Knebel emerged as one of the best relievers in the game. His profile is comparable to vintage Craig Kimbrel – before he magically stopped walking people last season. If things go sideways for Knebel, his 4.74 BB/9 will probably be to blame. With a 1.78 ERA and 14.92 K/9, he's a fantasy monster. Barnes flashed a fringe closer skill set by combining a 10.00 K/9 with 53 percent ground ball rate. Unfortunately, he was quite homer prone. Jeremy Jeffress and Josh Hader could play big roles.

 

Rivero is the other candidate for top closer in the NL Central. Like Knebel, his supporting cast isn't particularly noteworthy. Rivero has emerged as a top left-handed pitcher, featuring 98.5 mph heat, a 1.67 ERA, 10.51 K/9, 2.39 BB/9, and 52 percent ground ball rate. His stuff could easily support more strikeouts. Hudson is a nearly 31-year-old middle reliever. Recent acquisitions Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz could factor into the late-inning formula. Musgrove was elite as a reliever last season, but he'll be tried as a starter in Spring Training.

 

Iglesias posted comparable numbers to Rivero last season despite playing half his games at homer friendly Great American Ballpark. In 76 innings, he tallied 10.89 K/9, 3.20 BB/9, and a 2.49 ERA. The Reds like to use him as a multi-inning reliever which cut into his saves total. Hernandez and Lorenzen are both inconsistent. Lorenzen in particular suffers from homeritis.

 

The Cubs feature a deep if slightly unsettled bullpen. For the moment, Morrow is the nominal closer despite not closing out a regular season game since 2009. He experienced one of the most stunning breakout seasons, posting a 2.06 ERA, 10.31 K/9, and 1.85 BB/9 while leaning on a 97.7 mph fastball. Cishek remains an effective reliever despite some notable struggles as a closer. He should be viewed as a quality holds candidate. Wilson puzzlingly couldn't throw strikes after a mid-season swap to the Cubs. He's usually an effective full-inning left-handed reliever. Fantasy owners view Edwards as a future closer, but he relies a little too much on freakishly low BABIPs for me to fully jump on the bandwagon with both feet. His command could use improvement.

 

The Cardinals are a prime candidate to sign Holland. Gregerson is a perfectly able patch for the ninth inning, but a contender should be looking for more. Cecil was useful during his first season with St. Louis. He's also best used as a setup reliever.

 

NL West

 

Los Angeles Dodgers: Kenley Jansen, Scott Alexander

San Diego Padres: Brad Hand, Kirby Yates

San Francisco Giants: Mark Melancon, Sam Dyson

Colorado Rockies: Wade Davis, Adam Ottavino, Jake McGee

Arizona Diamondbacks: Brad Boxberger, Archie Bradley

 

The last time I wrote this post, I called Jansen the “reincarnation of Mariano Rivera.” Yep. The righty had his finest season to date, recording a 1.32 ERA, 14.36 K/9, and 0.92 BB/9. Everybody knows the cutter is coming. It's still unhittable. Alexander, acquired in an offseason trade with the Royals, has middling fantasy numbers and an elite 73.8 percent ground ball rate. He's basically Zach Britton with lesser command.

 

Hand is a stud. He's also one of the most often used relievers of the last two seasons. He's combined for 168.2 innings across 154 appearances. Nobody pitched more relief innings. Only Addison Reed had more appearances. A high workload can lead to injury. That said, Hand has shown no signs of slowing down. He even improved his command last year en route to a 2.16 ERA, 11.80 K/9, and 2.27 BB/9. Yates has emerged as an extreme fly ball pitcher with an elite swinging strike rate. Unfortunately the frequent fly balls were coupled with 1.91 HR/9 – not ideal for a late-inning reliever.

 

Melancon battled forearm discomfort last season, opening the door for Dyson to rebound from his terrible collapse in Texas. Prior to the injury, Melancon was the league leader in appearances and relief innings from 2013 to 2016 – a lesson that even the most durable pitchers can break. The Giants are hopeful he'll be healthy to start the season. Although he pitched to a 4.50 ERA in 30 innings, Melancon showed a typically solid 8.70 K/9 and 1.80 BB/9. Dyson is a ground ball specialist who struggled throughout the 2017 campaign. If he recovers his command, he could be a decent holds asset. A low strikeout rate kills his fantasy upside.

 

The Rockies opted to move on from Holland. Instead, they've turned to his former teammate. Davis continues to lean on a high quality cutter. The rarefied air at Coors Field can hurt fastball movement and may increase injury risk. Davis has a recent history of forearm discomfort which can be a precursor to a UCL injury. I'm still a huge fan of Ottavino, although he'll need to rediscover the elite ground ball stuff he had in 2016. McGee and Bryan Shaw could rack up holds.

 

After successfully getting away with using Fernando Rodney as their closer, the Diamondbacks are reportedly planning to use Boxberger as their closer. Even at his best, the righty was more of a placeholder than a legitimate ninth inning guy. Fortunately, they have a superb alternative in the form of Bradley, but they've committed to stretching him out in Spring Training. Arizona has a full rotation. Barring injury, Bradley will be back in high leverage innings.

 

AL East

 

New York Yankees: Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Chad Green

Boston Red Sox: Craig Kimbrel, Carson Smith

Toronto Blue Jays: Roberto Osuna

Baltimore Orioles: Brad Brach, Darren O'Day, Mychal Givens, Zach Britton

Tampa Bay Rays: Alex Colome

 

The Yankees reliever depth chart is absurd. It even led to Chapman briefly losing his job last season. He remains a top closer although it's increasingly clear that he can't simply fire 100 mph fastballs into the zone and expect to excel. The other four listed above all have at least top 10 closer ability with upside for more. It's a shame only one of them can close. They'll also have to pass around the holds opportunities.

 

Kimbrel turned a corner in 2017, defeating a long history of shaky command to post a ridiculous 1.83 BB/9. The walk rate by itself isn't that unusual, it's that he was able to pump strikes while also inducing a career best (and beyond elite) 19.8 percent swinging strike rate. Overall, his 1.43 ERA, 16.43 K/9, and 0.68 WHIP narrowly outpaced Jansen for the top reliever season. The Red Sox should also enjoy the return of Smith. In a small sample, he demonstrated his typically high ground ball rate with over a strikeout per inning.

 

Osuna is still just 22 years old for a few more days. The righty already has 95 saves to his name along with a 2.86 ERA, 10.40 K/9, and 1.69 BB/9. I was worried he was injured for a period last season when his velocity dipped. He later recovered and looked like his usual self. Osuna has the potential to take another step forward into the upper echelons of relieverdom. Honestly, he should probably be a starting pitcher. Ryan Tepera and Danny Barnes appear to be the setup men, but they aren't anything special. You might stream a hold or three from them.

 

With Britton sidelined until mid-season with an Achilles injury, the Orioles will once again ask some combination of Brach, O'Day, and Givens to work the late innings. Most likely, Brach will get first crack at the job after pitching well in 2017. The others will be useful holds candidates with some potential to grab saves. With Britton missing time to a forearm injury last year, I'm not sure we can expect much out of him when he finally returns. At the very least, he'll be rusty.

 

The post-Evan Longoria Rays are reportedly looking to trade their one reliable reliever. Colome is a decent closer. Unfortunately, his stuff took a step back in 2017 after his breakout 2016 campaign. His most recent season included a huge 47 save total with middling supporting stats – 7.83 K/9, 3.24 ERA, and a 1.20 WHIP. For most contenders, he'd be a setup man. The best case scenario for him is a swap to St. Louis or Arizona. The Rays have other relievers with talent, but none have stepped forward with impressive major league results. They'll have some sorting to do once they deal Colome.

 

AL Central

 

Cleveland Indians: Cody Allen, Andrew Miller

Kansas City Royals: Kelvin Herrera, Brandon Maurer

Chicago White Sox: Joakim Soria, Nate Jones, Juan Minaya

Minnesota Twins: Fernando Rodney, Addison Reed, Trevor Hildenberger

Detroit Tigers: Shane Greene

 

The Indians late-inning dynamic duo remains intact. Despite making it an adventure, Allen always seems to find his way to a sub-3.00 ERA. He's an easy top 10 closer. Miller is technically a better pitcher. There seems to be a preference for using him in a more flexible role. He usually nabs a few saves along the way.

 

If you haven't taken a close look at the Royals roster, you ought to give it a squint. What an execrable collection of “talent.” For now, their bullpen is still well constructed. They've subtracted from that depth by trading Soria, Alexander, and Ryan Buchter. It's only a matter of time before Herrera and Maurer are sent packing too. Herrera was poised for a breakout season entering 2017. Instead, he regressed in multiple ways. He's a solid buy low asset if he's still in a closer role. Maurer always finds a way to underperform his stuff, mixing in some massive disasterpieces along the way.

 

The bullpen was a weakness for the White Sox late last season. Soria should add some stability, and the return of Jones could supply them with a premium closer. Jones would have been a top 10 quality closer in 2016 if he wasn't stuck behind Robertson. He missed most of last season to injury. Minaya finished the year as the closer, but he's more of a middle reliever.

 

Even though Reed is clearly the best reliever in Minnesota, the Twins claim Rodney will be the closer. I'll believe it when I see it. Reed may be my favorite target to quickly gain the closer job. Only Archie Bradley has comparable talent and a similarly easy path to saves. Rodney remains excessively inconsistent. He's a changeup specialist who can occasionally lose command. When he's on, he can be among the best relievers in the game. It's just impossible to spot when it's going to go sideways. Hildenberger flashed low-end closer quality statistics despite underwhelming stuff. Reed and Hildenberger are quality picks for holds.

 

Even during their heyday, the Tigers had terrible bullpens. Now it at least makes sense. Some arms will emerge to support Greene – they may even take the job from him. He's merely a placeholder. Joe Jimenez was a touted relief prospect, but he couldn't buy an out in the majors last season.

 

AL West

 

Seattle Mariners: Edwin Diaz, Juan Nicasio, David Phelps

Houston Astros: Ken Giles, Chris Devenski

Oakland Athletics: Blake Treinen, Santiago Casilla

Texas Rangers: Alex Claudio, Matt Bush, Keone Kela

Los Angeles Angels: Cam Bedrosian, Blake Parker

 

Diaz ran into a few roadblocks in his sophomore season. His average command declined, and he had some issues with home runs (1.36 HR/9). His elite strikeout rate dropped from 15.33 K/9 to a still good 12.14 K/9. To be fair, nobody should have expected him to maintain nearly two strikeouts an inning. Assuming he can make some progress, Diaz remains one of the best young closers in the game. He's not yet 24. Nicasio and Phelps looked like closers at times last season. They should be useful sources for holds.

 

The Astros need to find a way to mitigate Giles' early season struggles. He's consistently bad in April before settling down. He also disappeared completely during the postseason. In that sense, he reminds me of Allen. Expect a rough patch at some point with still-good numbers when it's all said and done. If a temporary change is required, it looks like Devenski is well-positioned to supply the patch. The club began to shift away from using him as a multi-inning reliever after he showed signs of wearing down.

 

Treinen has closer quality stuff. Unfortunately, he's yet to put it all together. There's some hope he's turned the corner after posting a 2.13 ERA, 9.95 K/9, and 2.84 BB/9 in 38 innings for the Athletics. That could also just be a small sample fluke. Notably, his 2017 walk rate was far below his career norms. Limiting the free passes should help him maintain a useful late-innings presence. Boring ol' Casilla is there just in case anything goes wrong. He's coming off his worst season since 2009.

 

The Rangers have plenty of reliever depth, it's just a matter of finding the right guy at the right time. Claudio, a ground ball specialist, finished the year as the closer. He'll get the first crack to keep the job. Kela and Bush have long been viewed as potential ninth inning guys. They've yet to take advantage of their opportunities. Others, like hard-thrower Jake Diekman, could serve as dark horse candidates for saves. This time last year, nobody expected Claudio to close 11 games.

 

When it comes to bullpen watching, Mike Scioscia is the most frustrating manager in the game. Bedrosian should have been the closer for years, but little flukes of timing have conspired to limit his opportunities. He has only seven career saves – six of which were earned last season. Parker picked up eight saves last season. It should have been more like 25 saves. Parker pitched to a luck neutral 2.54 ERA with 11.50 K/9 and 2.14 BB/9. I'm not confident he can repeat those strikeout and walk rates. They'll likely battle in Spring Training for the closer job. Watch out for Jim Johnson. Remember, Bud Norris held the job for most of last season. Johnson is usually a better reliever than Norris.

Brad Johnson
You can read more from Brad Johnson on Rotoworld, FanGraphs, and RotoBaller. Find him on Patreon and Twitter @BaseballATeam.