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Aroldis Chapman
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Saves and Steals

Bullpen Review: AL East

by Brad Johnson

Pitchers and catchers have reported! It’s exciting, right? On the free agent front, we’re still waiting for Craig Kimbrel to find a home. Sergio Romo is off the market. He’s now the probable closer for the Marlins. The most notable free agents besides Kimbrel are Bud Norris and Ryan Madson.

 

With that free agent update out of the way, it’s time to continue our division-by-division bullpen reviews. We started last week with the NL East. There’s also a high-level look at every relief corps via the All Bullpen Audit. Let’s move along to the AL East.

 

I welcome any and all criticism or suggestions. Think I missed somebody? Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @BaseballATeam.

New York Yankees

 

Aroldis Chapman

Zack Britton

Dellin Betances

Adam Ottavino

Chad Green

Tommy Kahnle

Jonathan Holder

 

Once again, the Yankees enter the season with the best bullpen in baseball. Miraculously, they somehow upgraded their staff by replacing David Robertson, Adam Warren, and Chasen Shreve with Ottavino, Holder, and Britton.

 

Chapman’s devastating combination of velocity, extension, and wicked offspeed stuff has kept him ranked at or near the top of the closer leaderboard. If there’s cause for concern, it’s in the occasional battle with command. Since the Yankees' bullpen is so elite, Chapman can occasionally lose his job. It’s temporarily happened in each of the past two seasons, sometimes due to injury.

 

Britton has spent considerable time ranked as a top five closer over the last half decade. After a trade to the Yankees last summer, he was able to shake off injury-related rust and return to form. Nobody is better at inducing weak ground balls than Britton. Betances also rates as a top five closer in the rare moments he captures the role. This year, he’ll share high leverage opportunities with Ottavino. Both pitchers are untouchably filthy most of the time, although they can be prone to modest slumps during which their command evaporates.

 

Green, Kahnle, and Holder would be in the mix as setup men for most ballclubs. In New York, they’re just depth and multi-inning relief. Green is the best of the trio, able to absorb a hefty volume of work. He’s a fly ball pitcher, and it’s his biggest weakness. The best fly ball specialists rack up strikeouts and rarely allow hard contact. Green checks the first box, but he allows frequent hard contact. Holder might have the same issue. He’s also a fly ball pitcher. His (small sample) track record for inducing weak contact is better than Green’s. Kahnle is in danger of being bumped from the bullpen. After a command breakout in 2017, he reverted to a scattershot mess last season.

 

A number of recognizable names are in camp as non-roster invitees, namely Rex Brothers, Danny Farquhar, Drew Hutchison, David Hale, and Danny Coulombe. None of them are especially likely to make the club.

 

Tampa Bay Rays

 

Jose Alvarado

Diego Castillo

Chaz Roe

Ryne Stanek

Adam Kolarek

Wilmer Font

Austin Pruitt

Colin Poche

Emilio Pagan

Yonny Chirinos

 

The list could go on. There’s almost no telling who will eventually land Opening Day roles with the Rays besides Alvarado, Castillo, and Roe. Nearly all of these pitchers have options – and they’ll be traded almost as soon as they don’t. That’s the Rays way. I’m still of the belief they’ll sign a free agent like Bud Norris or Ryan Madson to anchor the ninth inning. Alternatively, they could cheaply acquire somebody like Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter, or Juan Nicasio from the over-packed Phillies. Despite lacking nationally renowned talent, this is a top 10 bullpen.

 

Until such a move, Alvarado is the presumed closer. Don’t be surprised to find Castillo and/or Roe sharing the ninth inning with him. While Alvarado, a southpaw, doesn’t appear to have platoon splits, the Rays may still wish to use him earlier in games against tough left-handed hitters. He has a three-pitch repertoire headlined by an effective 98 mph fastball. His slider was a double-plus offering last season. His curve was above average too.

 

Castillo has the capacity to keep pace with Alvarado, but there are more obvious ways for the profile to turn sour. He throws nearly 50 percent sliders. It’s an elite offering. Although his fastball sits at 98 mph, he got below average results from the pitch. He may want to push his slider usage even higher. In addition to strikeouts, Castillo induced more than his share of infield flies.

 

Speaking of elite sliders, Roe features perhaps the most visually dazzling version in the league. He uses the pitch over half the time. The Rays try to avoid left-handed hitters with Roe. In a sample of 52 batters last season, he allowed a .225/.404/.400 batting line to southpaw swingers. For this reason, he’s not a good bet for saves.

 

Kolarek is a sort of poor man’s version of Britton. The southpaw is a pitch-to-contact ground ball specialist. That’s useful in reality but not so much for us fantasy players. Stanek is liable to reprise his role as Opener. He throws a 98 mph fastball, a slider, and a splitter. The overall picture has the look and feel of a closer candidate. Pagan is a solid fly ball pitcher who will be suiting up for his third team since the start of 2017. Poche is a top bullpen prospect who can be expected to debut during the 2019 season.

 

Others like Yarbrough, Font, Pruitt, and Chirinos look like candidates to serve as multi-inning relievers or follow Openers. They’ll bounce on and off the roster. Recognizable non-roster invitees include Oliver Drake, Andrew Kittredge, Ryan Merritt, and Hoby Milner.

 

Toronto Blue Jays

 

Ken Giles

Ryan Tepera

David Paulino

David Phelps

Tim Mayza

Joe Biagini

 

The rest of the AL East bullpens rank in the bottom 10 of the league. The best of those is Toronto. They’re carried by the hope Giles can rebound in 2019. His slider lost some movement, declining from elite to merely very good. The real problem was with his fastball which, despite a 97 mph velocity, was extremely hittable. I’d recommend increasing his slider usage from 41 percent to around 60 percent. Hell, pull a Lance McCullers and throw 24 in a row.

 

The Blue Jays are in a transitional phase. They’re finishing a pivot from Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and others. Undoubtedly, the bullpen plan is to sell anything that performs well. If Giles improves his stock enough to return a prospect, Tepera could slide into the ninth inning. He projects to supply over a strikeout per inning with around a 4.00 ERA. Not exactly exciting stuff in the current relief marketplace. Holds could be rare in a tough AL East. He’s also a candidate to be traded.

 

Phelps had the look of a closer after converting from starting to relief full time in 2016. He suffered from exploding elbow syndrome (Tommy John surgery) in 2017. Now he’s nearing his return. If you’re looking for a very deep saves sleeper, you could do far worse than Phelps. The opportunity will probably be there if the talent returns. As for the rest of these schlubs, there’s nothing to discuss from a fantasy perspective. Even the non-roster guys are lacking. You’ll recognize Javy Guerra mostly because there are roughly 11 relievers who go by that name. Mark Leiter Jr. is a son/nephew of formerly famous big leaguers.

 

Keep half an eye out for Trent Thornton. The Jays acquired him from the Astros in exchange for Aledmys Diaz. He’s a failed starter whose stuff could play up in relief. His curve and slider feature elite spin rates. Toronto may give him one more chance in the rotation since he has a workable three-pitch repertoire.

 

Boston Red Sox

 

Ryan Brasier

Matt Barnes

Heath Hembree

Tyler Thornburg

Bobby Poyner

Hector Velazquez

Steven Wright

 

It’s hard to take the Red Sox seriously as defending champions when their idea of a bullpen is a guy they found under a rock, a couple decent middle relievers, and someone who has thrown 430 (mostly bad) pitches since the end of 2016. On the plus side, they have plenty of room to aggressively scout and add discarded players during Spring Training. There are always a few good arms who are casualties of a numbers crunch. Their non-roster guys feature some interesting names like Carson Smith, Erasmo Ramirez, and Ryan Weber. They’ll add more.

 

Brasier was a key component of the Red Sox title run, posting a 1.04 ERA in 8.2 postseason innings. A look under the hood can invoke either optimism or pessimism. His 97 mph fastball performed like an elite offering. Hitters managed a meager .127 average and .183 slug against the pitch. However, a .180 BABIP hints at possible regression. Meanwhile, his slider induced a hefty swinging strike rate, but it was also hit fairly hard. A growth in strikeout rate is possible for Brasier, but it’s just as likely he regresses to borderline unplayable. As of today, he’s the best guess to serve as the Boston closer.

 

Barnes is really the only alternative on hand. He features a hefty strikeout rate, middling command, and a penchant for limiting hard contact. It’s a profile that can work in the ninth inning, although he fits better in a middle innings role. Thornburg looked like a high quality closer back in 2016. Since then, he’s missed nearly every game to injuries. He has a long road back to high leverage innings.

 

Hembree and Poyner are middle innings guys who can play matchups. Since the Red Sox will enter the late innings with more than their share of leads, they could work as temporary patches in holds leagues. Velasquez and Wright are emergency starters. They’ll fill out the bullpen only because better options aren’t available.

 

Baltimore Orioles

 

Mychal Givens

Richard Bleier

Paul Fry

Miguel Castro

Tanner Scott

Mike Wright

 

As with the Rays, the list of prospective Baltimore relievers could go on and on and on. However, whereas Tampa Bay featured a deep pool of major league quality arms, the Orioles plan to throw a bunch of slop at the wall behind Givens. Even their so-called “good” reliever is miscast in a late-innings role. He’ll strike out a little better than a batter per inning while allowing a few too many baserunners. He projects to post something like a 3.80 ERA. With a garbage lineup and rotation, Baltimore may not produce more than 25 save opportunities all season.

 

Fry could emerge as an adequate replacement for Givens if he’s able to replicate his 2018 debut. He featured a hefty ground ball rate and a little under a strikeout per inning. In the minors, he routinely struggled with command. As a fantasy play, it’s a risky bet for minimal upside. Bleier is a worm-burning southpaw who doesn’t record strikeouts. Castro is a 24-year-old former prospect. His biggest claim to fame is very briefly beating out Roberto Osuna for saves in Toronto back in 2015. He’s failed to perform at an above-replacement level quality in any season. Scott has velocity, strikeouts, shaky command, and bad results. There’s potential for a step forward if he can figure out how to get more out of his 97 mph fastball (.368 average, .594 slug allowed).

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