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Saves and Steals

Bullpen Review: AL East

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

Last week, we embarked upon the latest Saves and Steals epic journey – a top to bottom analysis of every major league bullpen. We began with the NL East. Today we'll shift leagues to cover the AL East.

 

Over a six week period, we'll cover every major league bullpen by division. It's not a simple job. Any number of potential relievers could emerge during spring training or early in the season. Ken Giles was on nobody's radar last February.

 

Suggestions and criticisms are welcome. My focus is on pitchers who are likely to make their club out of spring training, but I will also try to highlight notable prospects. If you would like to add a name to the mix, you can find me on Twitter.

Editor's Note: For more than 1,000 player profiles, prospect reports, positional tiers, mock drafts, ADP date, customizable projections and more, get Rotoworld's MLB Draft Guide.

 

New York Yankees

 

Dellin Betances

Andrew Miller

David Carpenter

Adam Warren

Justin Wilson

 

While it's largely assumed Betances will open the season as the Yankees closer, the team is billing it as a competition. It's no slam dunk either. Betances was excellent last season with a 97 mph heater, 13.50 K/9, 2.40 BB/9, and a 1.40 ERA in 90 innings. Miller was just as good. The lefty's heater “only” sits at 94 mph, but he still managed 14.87 K/9, 2.45 BB/9 and a 2.02 ERA in 62.1 innings.

 

There are arguments for using either pitcher as the club's closer. Betances has an ability to pitch multiple innings, which could make him useful in the seventh and eighth innings of tight games. He could also simply be used as a multi-inning closer on occasion. Since Miller is a southpaw, the Yankees may want to reserve him for important matchups – say Chris Davis with the game on the line.

 

It's too soon to say with any certainty, but there's a good chance both pitchers notch at least 10 saves. The job will probably go to Betances. Assuming he is sometimes used for multiple innings, Miller will receive some follow up opportunities. These are two of the 10 best relievers of 2014.

 

The Yankees have additional depth beyond the eighth and ninth innings. Carpenter, who was acquired from the Braves this offseason, features a 95 mph fastball and a sharp slider. His slight fly ball tendencies may not play well at Yankee Stadium. Last season, he posted 9.89 K/9, 2.36 BB/9, and a 3.54 ERA in 61 innings. ERA estimators expected something closer to a 3.00 ERA.

 

Warren also offers value and versatility in the late innings. Like Betances, the former starter can be stretched over two innings when needed. He's improved with each season, with his fastball jumping to 94 mph in 2014. Unlike most relievers, he features a viable four pitch mix, which could open opportunities for continued improvement. The overall profile is reminiscent of Joakim Soria in his prime.

 

Wilson will fill the role of situational lefty. The former Pirate doesn't have big platoon splits, so he can be used for full inning work. Like the rest of this bullpen, Wilson throws hard. He hits 95 mph on the gun with a ground ball rate over 50 percent. In a weaker bullpen, he would be a target for holds.

 

The final two spots probably belong to Esmil Rogers and Chase Whitley. Rogers is a well-traveled righty with visually impressive stuff and bad results. Teams often use him as a swingman, hoping he can learn to get more out of his 94 mph fastball. When used in relief, he also leans heavily on a slider.

 

Whitley had an ugly 5.23 ERA in 75.2 innings last season, but his peripherals were a lot better. Most notably, his swinging strike rate was 11.1 percent which is comparable to the rates posted by Glen Perkins, Danny Farquhar, and Hector Rondon. Whitley features a three pitch mix of fastballs, sliders, and changeups. His velocity didn't play up in the bullpen last season, but he could still benefit from a relief role.

 

One relief prospect to watch is lefty Chasen Shreve. If the Yankees decide to use Miller in a full inning role, they may want a third southpaw for matchups. Shreve appears major league ready. He split 2014 across three levels with the Braves, excelling at each stop. In the majors, he managed a 10.95 K/9, 2.19 BB/9, and 0.73 ERA over 12.1 innings. In his brief stint, he pitched well against both lefties and righties.

 

Baltimore Orioles

 

Zach Britton

Darren O'Day

Tommy Hunter

Brian Matusz

 

The Orioles were fortunate to try Britton in relief last season. His fastball jumped from 92 to 95 mph. His sinker helped to generate a ludicrous 75 percent ground ball rate over 76.1 innings. There are a couple blemishes in his profile as a closer. Rather than striking out the side, he prioritizes weak contact. His 7.31 K/9 is among the lowest of any closer in the majors. However, his 13.1 percent swinging strike rate is among the best in the league. It will be interesting to see how far his .215 BABIP regresses. It will determine if he can maintain an elite 1.65 ERA.

 

Baltimore needs Britton to succeed because the internal replacements are flawed. O'Day has typically been used as a right-handed specialist, although he has improved against left-handed hitters. He posted a 1.70 ERA with 9.57 K/9 and 2.49 BB/9 last season. Without good velocity (87 mph fastball), he uses a funky delivery and a barrage of sliders to retire opponents.

 

Hunter began 2014 as the club's closer but quickly lost the job. He settled down upon returning to regular relief work. He depends on a 96 mph fastball and lacks the swing-and-miss stuff typically associated with a closer. He's best suited for middle relief work.

 

Notice the volume of former starting pitcher prospects in the bullpen? Unlike the others, Matusz's velocity did not increase in the bullpen. The southpaw was mashed by right-handed hitters to the tune of .275/.351/.525. Look for the Orioles to use him situationally whenever possible. He still managed a 3.48 ERA, 9.23 K/9, and 2.96 BB/9 despite the platoon problems.

 

The final three spots in the bullpen are open competition. The long reliever could be any of Kevin Gausman, Miguel Gonzalez, Bud Norris, or Ubaldo Jimenez. They're competing for three jobs in the rotation. Jimenez may be the most likely to land in the pen after a rough 2014 season. However, the Orioles are paying him a lot of money, so they'll give him a chance to return some value.

Four relievers are front runners for the other two spots. Brad Brach and Ryan Webb are the right-handers in the group. Both are adequate middle relievers, although Brach has the better swing-and-miss stuff. He's also a fly ball pitcher, which is dangerous at Camden Yards. Webb typically features an above average ground ball rate.

 

The south paws are Wesley Wright and T.J. McFarland. Both are ground ball specialists rather than typical LOOGYs. At the same time, you don't want to allow too many right-handed hitters to face them.

 

Toronto Blue Jays

 

Brett Cecil

Aaron Loup

Chad Jenkins

Todd Redmond

Steve Delabar

 

Let's first address the elephant in the room. Aaron Sanchez could jump to the top of the Blue Jays depth chart if he's used in relief. The 22-year-old righty features a 97 mph fastball and a big ground ball rate. He relied heavily on his fastball (88 percent usage) in 33 relief innings last season. The club wants him to be a starter. He may open the season in the big league or Triple-A rotation.

 

If Sanchez isn't featured in the late innings, Toronto has a viable closer in former starter Brett Cecil. The lefty emerged as an elite reliever in 2014, posting 12.83 K/9, 4.56 BB/9, a 16.5 percent swinging strike rate, and a 2.70 ERA. He walks too many hitters, but few pitchers can lay claim to such an excellent whiff rate. He used his curve over 40 percent of the time last season. He doesn't have damaging platoon splits, so he should work in the ninth inning.

 

If Cecil is closing, Loup will be used as the primary lefty specialist. He doesn't have a large platoon split, so he can work full innings if needed. He's a solid target for holds, but he lacks elite ratios or a chance to earn saves.

 

Delabar is the most interesting of the listed names. He typically features strong whiff rates and was considered a closer candidate entering 2014. He scuffled with a high 6.66 BB/9 which led to a demotion. He continued to walk heaps of hitters in the minors. He should get a shot to earn a job, but he needs to improve his command. He's 31 years old, so don't hold your breath for a breakout.

 

Both Jenkins and Redmond are useful middle relievers – the kind who can be completely ignored in fantasy leagues. Redmond may take a few spot starts. Also in the running for bullpen work is trade acquisition Marco Estrada. His full repertoire could play up in a relief role.

 

The other names to watch come with a gimmick. Preston Guilmet is a soft-tossing splitter specialist. Scott Barnes is a slider-tossing southpaw. He could feature as the club's second LOOGY if Cecil is used as the closer. Liam Hendriks is a command and control type who should compete for the long relief job.

 

The Blue Jays are a good candidate to sign one of the remaining free agent relievers like Rafael Soriano or Joba Chamberlain.

 

Tampa Bay Rays

 

Jake McGee

Brad Boxberger

Grant Balfour

Kevin Jepsen

Kirby Yates

 

The Rays have a lot of late inning options in their bullpen. The five listed above have all shown the stuff necessary to close. Former Angels closer Ernesto Frieri is also lurking on the roster.

 

They'll get a chance to explore the options with McGee expected to open the season on the disabled list. When healthy, McGee uses a 96 mph fastball from the left side to stifle opponents. His platoon splits are negligible. He's coming off a season in which he posted 11.36 K/9, 2.02 BB/9 and a 1.89 ERA in 71.1 innings.

 

Despite McGee's excellence, he may lose his job while healing. Boxberger demonstrated ridiculous ability with 14.47 K/9, 2.78 BB/9, and a 2.37 ERA in 64.2 innings. As a righty, he's a more traditional option for saves. New Rays manager Kevin Cash believes in the value of roles, so he may allow the “interim” closer to remain in the ninth inning when McGee returns.

 

Balfour was originally signed to close, so you better believe he'll have a chance to take the interim job. He struggled through the 2014 season with a 4.91 ERA, 8.23 K/9, and 5.92 BB/9. Presented that way, the culprit seems obvious. His velocity also declined by two mph. The 37-year-old is probably on thin ice considering the relief depth in the Rays system.

 

Jepsen features a loud 95 mph fastball, but he's struggled with year-to-year consistency. After posting 10.38 K/9, 3.18 BB/9, and a 2.63 ERA for the Angels last season, the Rays will hope he can repeat. The righty introduced a changeup for the first time which seems to have helped all of his pitches.

 

Yates more closely resembles a typical middle reliever. A 3.75 ERA, 10.50 K/9, and 3.75 BB/9 are all useful. He could be a good source of holds, and he was considered for saves last season when Balfour fell apart.

 

Soft-tossing lefty Jeff Beliveau has the inside track for the LOOGY role. He pitched well to both lefties and righties last season, so there's a chance he could be a full inning reliever. Rather than the typical overpowering reliever profile, Beliveau uses an 89 mph along with a cutter, curve, and change to retire hitters.

 

Frieri is coming off his worst season, but his peripherals showed signs of improvement. A 7.34 ERA and 11 home runs in 41.2 innings is brutal. He also managed a 10.37 K/9 with the lowest walk rate of his career (3.02 BB/9). The Rays will try to straighten out the fly ball pitcher.

 

Keep an eye on starting pitcher prospect Enny Romero. He profiles better as a reliever where his 94 mph fastball could improve. He's entering his age 24 season, and the Rays are patient with their starter prospects. While he might be able to jump in the closer mix next season, there's a good chance he'll remain in Triple-A as rotation depth.

 

Boston Red Sox

 

Koji Uehara

Junichi Tazawa

Edward Mujica

Anthony Varvaro

Craig Breslow

Alexi Ogando

 

The Red Sox specialize in building depth, so it stands to reason that their bullpen is deep. At the top of the pile is Uehara, who burned out late last season. He was coming off an 88 inning workload in 2013 with a short offseason, so perhaps more rest will help him to last deep into the season. He's the rare soft-tossing closer. Instead of an elite fastball, he relies on an untouchable splitter. A silly 18.8 percent whiff rate and microscopic walk rate help him to ring up great results.

 

The back end of the Sox pen is all about splitters. Tazawa doesn't get the same results as Uehara, but he's still effective. He's coming off a 2.86 ERA with 9.14 K/9 and 2.43 BB/9. Even though he's probably the eighth inning guy, he may not be the second string closer.

 

Instead, that honor could fall to another splitter specialist. Mujica has the lowest strikeout rate of the trio, but he's also succeeded in the ninth inning with the Cardinals. That experience in 2013 led to a handful of saves in 2014. If anything happens to Uehara, Mujica is likely to fill the gap.

 

I mistakenly wrote about Varvaro last week. The former Brave was dealt to Boston earlier this offseason. He's generated good results over the last two seasons without demonstrating the skills of a typical top end reliever. He's best suited for middle relief work. His ratios are merely decent, but he could be a useful source of holds.

 

Despite a shaky 2014 season, the Red Sox re-signed Breslow as the resident lefty. He doesn't have platoon splits, so he isn't a typical LOOGY. If Boston wants somebody who smothers lefties, a better internal option is Tom Layne. He's murder on left-handed hitters, but opposite-handed foes tear him apart.

 

The Sox recently signed Ogando, who's working his way back from an elbow injury. You may recall his breakout season in 2010, when he posted a 1.30 ERA in 44 relief appearances. Since then, his name has always come with more hype than actual value. Feel free to ignore him in your fantasy drafts. He used to pump 97 mph gas as recently as 2012, but he's down to 94 mph these days.

 

The opening day bullpen is likely to undergo a big transformation during the season. Candidates to appear include Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes, Drake Britton, Zeke Spruill, Heath Hembree, and Edwin Escobar. Any of their starting pitching prospects could appear in the long relief role, like knuckleballer Steven Wright. Workman is probably the most likely to earn a job out of spring training.

 

 

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