Another week, another mostly static free agent update. Craig Kimbrel remains at large with nary a rumor as to his eventual destination. Bud Norris appeared on a radio show a week ago, saying “I have a couple small offers, but they're truly offers that I can't entertain.” If Norris can’t find a deal coming off a strong platform season, then it’s no surprise Ryan Madson remains jobless after a shaky 2018. He is considering sitting out the 2019 season, ostensibly due to a lack of offers.
With that free agent update out of the way, it’s time to continue our division-by-division bullpen reviews. We’ve already covered the NL East and AL East. There’s also a high-level look at every bullpen via the All Bullpen Audit. Let’s move along to the NL Central.
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The Brewers are in the conversation for top bullpen in the league. Ultimately that crown belongs to the Yankees, but Milwaukee is at least close enough to merit discussion. Knebel isn’t the best reliever on the roster – that distinction belongs to Hader. However, Knebel is still an easy top 10 closer when on a roll. In many ways, he’s similar to Craig Kimbrel. Expect big velocity, strikeouts aplenty, and the occasional bout with poor command. That was the issue during his slump of homeritis in 2018.
If Knebel slumps again, Hader could once more temporarily step out of his multi-inning fireman role. The southpaw is a deceptive fly ball pitcher. Unbelievably, he actually has room to improve. His command is merely adequate, and he allowed higher than average hard contact and home run rates. It’s fair to wonder how long the Brewers can lean on him as a frequently used, multi-inning weapon before it impacts his performance. Typically, premium relievers like Hader quickly transition to a more traditional bullpen role.
Jeffress had an odd 2018 campaign. After making a name for himself as somebody who stringently avoids hard contact, he coughed up frequent hard grounders and liners last year. Despite this, a low BABIP, high strand rate, and burgeoning strikeout rate allowed him to post a 1.29 ERA. The increased strikeouts were the result of throwing more offspeed pitches. That may also be the source of the new hard contact. Personally, I expect several forms of regression in 2019 – BABIP, strand rate, and hard contact. Add it all together and we’re looking at around a 2.90 ERA, 10.0 K/9, and a 1.20 WHIP. He could close for many teams. With the Brewers, he’s a top holds target.
Speaking of holds, that’s the best use case for Alex Claudio. The erstwhile Rangers closer don’t post big strikeout numbers, but he does limit baserunners by issuing few walks. Batted balls are generally on the ground. A variety of pitchers will battle to fill the rest of the pen. Matt Albers is coming off a rough season. He’s had a weird career of alternatingly great and terrible seasons. Jacob Barnes and Taylor Williams are both fine middle relievers of modest repute. The losers of the rotation battle between Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, and Freddy Peralta might find a job. Junior Guerra has already been pushed from starter to reliever. His splitters could play up in relief.
St. Louis Cardinals
Perhaps we should begin with the elephants in the room – starting pitchers Carlos Martinez and Alex Reyes. Both are recovering from injuries which impact their availability in 2019. With Reyes, I suspect the Cardinals don’t want to start down the slippery slope of putting him in the bullpen. Or is it a sticky slope? Prospects of Reyes’ type – hard throwers with unrefined offspeed stuff – often never return from so-called temporary stints in relief.
Martinez is currently on the shelf for two weeks with shoulder discomfort. The issue is one of recovery, meaning that a shift to the bullpen shouldn’t be viewed as a panacea. He probably can’t pitch on back-to-back days. At least not with any consistency. If he’s unable to shake the slow recoveries, he might be most helpful to the 2019 Cardinals as an every-seven-days starter or an infrequently used multi-inning guy.
Even without Martinez and Reyes in the bullpen, St. Louis has an able-bodied staff - assuming half of them don’t immediately land on the injured list. Gregerson is recovering from a shoulder issue. Miller lost most of last season to shoulder, knee, and hamstring injuries. He’s also battled forearm and elbow discomfort in recent years. A healthy Miller is clearly the top reliever in this unit. The Cardinals front office claims the club won’t use a traditional closer. Miller is still the best bet to earn the bulk of the saves.
We have to remember a few things about Hicks before we get lost in the spectacle of his 102 mph, runaway train fastball. Hicks struggled to induce swinging strikes and strikeouts last season despite jaw dropping stuff. Command was a huge issue – he often only had a vague sense of where a pitch would finish. On the plus side, hitters rarely managed better than soft, ground ball contact. His solid 2018 campaign came after skipping Double- and Triple-A entirely. Most pitchers his age are still honing their stuff in the low minors. There’s room for improvement, decline, and everything in between.
Hudson is a hard-throwing ground ball pitcher. In many ways, he’s a less exciting version of Hicks. He didn’t allow a single home run in 27.1 innings. He also posted just 6.26 K/9 and 5.93 BB/9. Brebbia is probably a better bet for holds after notching 10.66 K/9 and 2.84 BB/9. A fly ball pitcher, he offers an entirely different look than Hicks and Hudson. Cecil reported to camp in the “best shape of his life.” He was a successful lefty specialist in past seasons before a disaster 2018. Southpaws Shreve and non-roster invitee Tommy Layne could battle for Cecil’s job.
It’s going to take some time for St. Louis to sort out this collection of high talent, unrefined arms. Once they do, I expect them to form a frightening relief corp.
Pittsburgh has built a strangely competent ballclub, eschewing the current fashion of super-clubs and tank-teams. The bullpen features two closers. Vazquez is an easy top 10 reliever, although he delivered a couple scares last year via a bout of yips and a mild forearm strain. The southpaw hums near 100 mph with an unusual four pitch repertoire. Most relievers stick to two offerings.
Kela is one of those two pitch guys. You’re getting a fastball or a curveball. After years of unsuccessfully working down in the strike zone with his heater, he finally jumped on the pitch tunnel bandwagon. Now he’s pairing his snapdragon curve with a high heater. The results are predictably excellent. He’s a great source of holds and a solid stash for ratios and future saves. There’s a decent chance the Pirates will explore trades involving Vazquez and/or Kela at the July deadline.
Rodriguez is coming off a superb breakout season as a fly ball pitcher. I don’t see any traits which indicate he should be expect to continue posting such gaudy numbers. A late flier for holds is fine, just don’t pour any serious resources into acquiring him. Crick, a former touted pitching prospect, is making gradual year-to-year improvements as a reliever. He’s shown a penchant for inducing soft contact. I like him more than Rodriguez as a holds target although the difference is quite modest. Feliz, also once highly touted, remains a work in progress.
Starting pitchers could fill out the bullpen including Steven Brault, Jordan Lyles, and non-roster invitee Francisco Liriano. Among the NRI crowd is former closer of nightmares (as in nightmares for his fantasy owners) Brandon Maurer.
One of the prevailing storylines of this offseason was the collective action of big market clubs like the Cubs. They looked left. They looked right. And they stated they could not possible afford to hire a meaningful free agent. The result is an old-look Cubs bullpen that’s neither good nor bad. Non-roster pitchers like George Kontos and Junichi Tazawa add to the solid depth on hand.
The bullpen certainly looks better if Morrow manages to make a quick and complete recovery. He’s already ruled out for the start of the season, but he might return before May. At his best, he whelms hitters with plus command, a 97.5 mph fastball, and a hefty ground ball rate. He’s posted well over a strikeout per inning since his 2017 breakout.
The trio of Strop, Edwards Jr., and Cishek are holds league gems. Strop will probably open the season as the closer, although manager Joe Maddon has placed him in the dog house enough times in the past to be wary. There’s a chance Edwards, Cishek, or even Brach could emerge from Spring Training with the ninth inning job. Strop has a similar approach to Morrow – throw hard, strike out a batter per inning, and keep the ball on the ground. He’s prone to bouts of wildness.
Speaking of wild, Edwards Jr. flashes classic Ricky Vaughn with walks acting as his biggest kryptonite. He has a long history of limiting hard contact and posting gaudy strikeout rates. Cishek appears frequently to retire right-handed hitters. His 80 appearances parlayed to 25 holds last season. As for Brach, he’s been in steady decline since a superb 2016 campaign. He spent parts of the last two seasons as a closer which is why I believe he could snipe a few saves in a Maddon bullpen.
The Reds bullpen is a collection of failed starting pitchers with a couple retread veterans tossed in for good measure. The best of these is Iglesias. He’ll supply over 10 K/9 with about 3.5 BB/9 and otherwise tolerable ratios. He consistently underperforms in the saves category because his frequent multi-inning appearances render him unavailable on consecutive days. The Reds do have a new manager, David Bell. He may opt for a more traditional usage of Iglesias. Then again, the league is trending in the other direction. We’ll have to wait and see.
After the good-not-great Iglesias, Cincinnati has worm burning Hughes, fly ball guy Hernandez, and lefty specialist Duke. None are especially valuable in fantasy settings, although you can try them for generic no-cost holds. Some unknown mix of Garrett, Lorenzen, Robert Stephenson, Wandy Peralta, Matt Wisler, Sal Romano, and Brandon Finnegan will round out the bullpen. There’s a real possibility that one of those guys is the next breakout conversion project. Rather than guessing for yourself, I recommend plopping them all on a watchlist.