The quest continues. After evaluating the bullpens of the NL East and AL East, it's time to move to the nation's heartland. Today, we'll focus on the NL Central. The division contains the best reliever in baseball along with the usual smattering of high quality arms, upside plays, and role players.
Over a six week period, we'll cover every major league bullpen by division. It's not a simple job. Any number of 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.
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The Cubs quietly discovered bullpen gold during the 2014 season. Rondon, Strop, and Ramirez all demonstrated the tools of the closer trade. Chicago's depth in the back end of the bullpen could be reinforced by leftover starters.
Rondon remains the top dog after an effective debut season. The righty lost most of his 2010 through 2012 seasons to injuries. He was mediocre in 2013. A healthy offseason led to an additional two mph on his fastball and better control.
A 96 mph heater, effective slider, and occasional cutter allowed him to strike out a batter per inning with just 2.13 BB/9. His 2.42 ERA was in line with advanced metrics. A better Cubs team should only help Rondon.
Should anything happen to Rondon, the club has two excellent substitutes in Strop and Ramirez. Strop features a potent sinker-slider mix. Improvements to his walk and whiff rates led to a 2.21 ERA. Advanced statistics largely support the excellent run prevention. Strop has a long history of suspect command, so it's unclear he can maintain his career best 3.69 BB/9.
Ramirez offers a completely different look. The righty was acquired as part of the Matt Garza trade. He features a rising fastball similar to that of Sean Doolittle. He encourages weak contact including an infield fly rate of over 11 percent. Infield flies are basically the same as strikeouts. In 43.2 innings, he posted a 1.44 ERA, 10.92 K/9, and 3.50 BB/9. Be careful using him when the wind is blowing out at Wrigley.
Grimm was also included in the Garza trade. On most teams, the 26-year-old would be a setup candidate. The Cubs bullpen depth will allow them to use Grimm in the middle innings. The right-hander experienced a surge in velocity during his first season as a reliever. A 94 mph fastball along with a slider and curve resulted in more strikeouts. After posting 9.13 K/9 and 3.52 BB/9, there is reason to expect some improvement to his 3.78 ERA.
The picture becomes murkier after Grimm. One of the bullpen jobs is probably Motte's to lose. You may recall Motte from his Cardinals heyday in 2012. Back then, he featured a 97 mph fastball and a cutter. Last season, the 94 mph version of his fastball led to an ugly 4.68 ERA. Advanced stats agreed with the lousy ERA. Motte's job may depend upon recapturing some of his lost velocity.
The Cubs bullpen is very right-handed. Another northpaw, Blake Parker, was in the mix to close last spring. The fly ball pitcher struggled with results (5.14 ERA), but there is no arguing with his peripherals. Over 21 innings, he posted 10.29 K/9 and 1.71 BB/9. With a 90 mph fastball and ground ball rate around 30 percent, the Cubs may be hesitant to hand him innings. He may compete with Motte.
A lack of left-handers could open the door for Zac Rosscup. The southpaw is another fly ball pitcher. He's struggled with command and control including 8.10 BB/9 in a 13 inning audition last season. Over his brief major league career, he's demonstrated large platoon splits. If the Cubs limit him to LOOGY work, they may be pleased with the results.
A few lefty starters could creep into the picture. Travis Wood, Tsuyoshi Wada, and Felix Doubront are battling for either one or two spots in the rotation. Of those, Doubront looks the part of reliever. He's shown some promise in the starting rotation but has never thrived. Wood and Wada are probably trade candidates if they fail to win a rotation job. They could be used in long relief too.
Last, and possibly least, are Edwin Jackson and Jacob Turner. They'll compete with the above lefties and Kyle Hendricks for rotation jobs. Either could feature as the primary long reliever. Jackson always seems to underperform his peripherals. It feels like Turner has been around forever, but he's only 24. His raw skill set still holds promise.
Admittedly, the Reds bullpen could wind up with a completely different look. Cincinnati has a new Cuban sensation in the wings – Raisel Iglesias. He features mid-90's heat and a sweeping curve per reports from Baseball America. The club wants to use Iglesias as a starter, but many scouts considered him a future reliever. That future could include a setup role during the 2015 season.
Of course, when you discuss Cubans in Cincinnati, you're usually referring to the big guy. Chapman has earned the title of Best Reliever after a historic season. His 2.00 ERA almost seems pedestrian when compared to his 17.67 K/9, 4.00 BB/9, and 20 percent swinging strike rate. Put another way, he struck out 52.5 percent of all batters faced. His velocity reached new heights with an average speed of 100.3 mph. A repeat of those numbers offers comparable fantasy value to the lesser aces (i.e. Cole Hamels). His profile is not without risk, so don't be too exuberant about drafting him.
LeCure has become a standby in the Reds bullpen. His soft-tossing approach includes a high volume of curves. He could be a decent source for holds. Last season was his worst since 2010. His 3.81 ERA was supported by 7.62 K/9 and 3.81 BB/9. Those aren't terrible numbers, but they're not fantasy relevant.
It's not immediately clear how the Reds intend to deploy the bullpen beyond LeCure. Last season, they used Parra as a situational lefty. The results were mixed. He did pitch much better against fellow lefties, but not to the extent usually required from a LOOGY. Despite a 4.66 ERA last season, his swing-and-miss stuff should afford him another opportunity.
Then there's Diaz. He emerged as a reliable fireman midseason. The hefty 31-year-old made his major league debut last season. He mixes a 97 mph fastball with a slider he throws over 30 percent of the time. He'll also toss the occasional changeup.
The Reds signed Badenhop a couple weeks ago, so it can be assumed he is part of their plans. The righty is odd for a reliever of this era – he thrives on weak contact. He had a career best 61 percent ground ball rate last season. He doesn't generate many strikeouts. Even those in the deepest fantasy leagues can ignore him entirely.
Hoover is often discussed as a backup closer for the Reds, but his fly ball profile is poorly suited to Great American Ballpark. Hoover does rack up strikeouts with 10.77 K/9 against 4.45 BB/9 last season. The high walk rate and home runs explain his 4.88 ERA.
The Reds have a bushel of others in the mix. Paul Maholm could be viewed as a left-handed long reliever. He missed a chunk of the 2014 season with injury. Sean Marshall, once a borderline closer candidate, is working his way back from shoulder surgery. A healthy Marshall could be a boon against left-handed hitters. Others to consider include Keyvius Sampson, Carlos Contreras, and Pedro Villarreal.
The Brewers are entering spring training with one of the ugliest bullpens in the league. It all starts with Broxton, a once dominant reliever who now looks like a middle reliever. Broxton deserves kudos for adapting to life without a 98 mph fastball, but he no longer looks the part of a ninth inning reliever. Last season, he managed a tidy 2.30 ERA with 7.52 K/9 and 2.91 BB/9. A .234 BABIP was a huge component of that success.
There is only one alternative immediately available – Smith. The semi-situational lefty can survive full innings, but he's better suited to platoon work. Righties posted a .295/.391/.481 line last season. That won't work from a closer. Smith's line did include a 3.70 ERA, 11.79 K/9, and 4.25 BB/9, so it's not all doom and gloom.
Jeffress has been an enigma for eons. The former Brewers prospect was never quite able to find success with his 97 mph fastball during his first spin with the organization. After spending parts of four seasons with the Royals and Blue Jays, Jeffress returned to Milwaukee as a viable reliever. He continues to feature an imposing fastball along with a ground ball rate near 60 percent and decent command. Inconsistency is part of Jeffress' profile. He might work as a closer if he can continue to take strides forward.
Kintzler isn't a fantasy asset. He's a guy who can go out and get you an important ground ball. He rarely strikes out hitters. He's one of those useful real world guys who fantasy owners can't use.
Conversely, Cotts could be a useful source of holds. The lefty has been around since 2003 and features a reverse platoon split. He's coming off a mediocre season with a 4.32 ERA. He still generated plenty of whiffs, which led to an acceptable 8.51 K/9 and 3.11 BB/9.
Thornburg, if healthy, may fill the long reliever role. He sustained an elbow injury last season that did not require Tommy John surgery. Prior to the injury, he showed increased velocity (93.6 mph) and a better strikeout rate in his first season as a reliever. A career worst 6.37 BB/9 can probably be ignored. File his name away for now. If he falls into the right role, he could be of use.
There are two more names to watch. Former closer Jim Henderson continues to work his way back from shoulder surgery. A healthy Henderson could emerge as the favorite to close. Corey Knebel, 23, could feature in the late innings as well. He throws a 94 mph fastball and a curve. He was acquired in the Yovani Gallardo trade.
Looking for consistency? Take a peek at Melancon. For two consecutive seasons, he's appeared in 72 games and pitched 71 innings. He posted a 1.39 ERA in 2013 and a 1.90 ERA in 2014. His strikeout, walk, home run, and ground ball rates were remarkably consistent too. So long as he remains healthy, he should be a reliable source of saves and ratios. His strikeout rate (9.00 K/9) is unexceptional for a closer in today's game.
The Pirates have a deep bullpen behind Melancon. Bastardo was acquired from the Phillies earlier in the offseason. The left-hander is a full inning reliever with deceptive stuff. The sole blemish in his profile is a career 4.34 BB/9. He strikes out well over a batter per inning. As a fly ball pitcher, he should do well at massive PNC Park.
The back end of the bullpen includes another lefty, Watson. He features better command and control than Bastardo. Last season, he posted a 1.63 ERA, 9.43 K/9, and 1.75 BB/9. He's death to left-handed hitters, but he can also hold his own against righties. He mixes a 94 mph fastball, slider, and a changeup to keep hitters off balance. If Melancon hits the skids, Watson could be the first guy on deck.
Holdzkom briefly reached the majors in 2014, showing a 96 mph fastball and a big strikeout rate. Rarely healthy, it's hard to know exactly what to expect from Holdzkom. Aside from the rare changeup, everything he threw last season was some kind of fastball. He certainly has the velocity to be a relief ace, so keep an eye on him.
On the other hand, Hughes is the Pirates' version of Kintzler. Big ground ball rates make him a good pick for double plays. He has no fantasy utility unless he learns to use his repertoire in a new way. He has the whiff rates necessary to support a strikeout per inning, but he pitches to contact.
Candidates to fill out the rest of the pen feature some of the best names in the sport – Rhadames Liz, Bobby LaFromboise, Stolmy Pimentel, and Arquimedes Caminero. Liz, the former Orioles prospect, returned to professional baseball last season after a three year hiatus. He'll probably serve as rotation depth at the Triple-A level, although he could latch on as the long reliever.
LaFromboise is a soft-tossing lefty. He could be an option to make the roster if the Pirates want a purely situational lefty. Pimentel and Caminero are both hard throwing righties who rely upon splitters as their secondary pitch. Both pitchers could grow into late inning roles if they polish their game.
St. Louis Cardinals
If you want to go prospecting for reliever gold, the Cardinals are a good place to start. Unlisted above are Carlos Martinez, Marco Gonzales, and Samuel Tuivailala. The club hopes Martinez breaks camp as a starter, and they also view Gonzales as a starter. Either could spend some time in the pen this season.
Tuivailala is a converted third baseman with elite upside. He throws a 97 mph fastball and a curve. The 22-year-old will probably start the season at Triple-A. He's melted minor league hitters, so don't be surprised to see him carve out an important role by midseason.
If you think Tuivailala's story sounds familiar, you might be thinking of Rosenthal (and also Motte). The Red Birds' closer is coming off a shaky 2014. He saved 45 games with a 3.20 ERA, but he struggled down the stretch. A 5.37 BB/9 added to the discomfort. Rosenthal had never dealt with poor command prior to last season, so there is cause for hope. He still struck out hoards of hitters with his 97 mph heater. Elite upside is within reach, if only he could control the free passes.
St. Louis acquired Walden as part of the Jason Heyward trade. He'll serve as the first line of defense if Rosenthal continues to scuffle. He posted a 2.88 ERA, 11.16 K/9, and 4.86 BB/9, so he comes with many of the same problems. Another hard throwing former position player, Walden leans on a 96 mph fastball, slider, and changeup.
Choate is the primary lefty specialist. He's hung around the league since 2000, throwing 380.2 innings in 601 appearances. Last season was an extreme example of his skill set. He held fellow lefties to a .091/.205/.141 line. Righties hit .377/.458/.481. Despite such a specialized profile, he can rack up holds for fantasy owners.
Maness is the Kintzler/Hughes of the Cardinals bullpen. He can provide multiple innings of relief when needed. His specialty is the ground ball. He offers no value to fantasy owners, although he did snag a trio of saves last season.
Siegrist emerged in 2013 with a 0.45 ERA. Unfortunately, he followed up with a 6.82 ERA in 3.1 innings. A 10.98 K/9 suggests a happier future. He walked too many hitters (4.75 BB/9) and dealt with injury. The southpaw decimated left-handed hitters in 2013, but they got their revenge last season. Health will probably determine Siegrist's role.
In this era of exceptional relief, middle relievers can get lost in the shuffle. Freeman has the tools to be better than a lost man. The only thing holding him back is a high walk rate (career 4.35 BB/9). He showed a knack for rolling grounders last season while throwing more two-seam fastballs. There is a setup man hidden somewhere in Freeman, but the Cardinals have plenty of more exciting names to follow.
The long man role will probably fall to Tyler Lyons. He's pitched reasonably well in two brief auditions for the club. His peripherals are better than his 4.62 ERA. Fantasy owners may want to stream his spot starts. As a reliever, his value is nonexistent. Former Rockie Matt Belisle is also in camp. He could be a useful innings eater if Freeman or Siegrist are optioned.