The Super Bowl is over, pitchers and catchers are preparing to report for Spring Training, and nearly all of the notable free agent relievers have signed. The market still includes a few names with closer experience like Joe Nathan, Bobby Parnell, and Matt Thornton. Greg Holland is out there too, but he's on the shelf for the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery late last season.
Barring a surprise trade, teams have already rostered their late innings relievers. Those trades do happen from time to time – last season the Braves traded Craig Kimbrel to the Padres despite San Diego's already strong bullpen.
Atlanta could once again be shopping a quality reliever before the season. Jason Grilli is supposedly recovered from his Achilles tendon injury and doesn't have a long term role in A-Town. Grilli will have to prove himself healthy before and swaps are made. No other team appears to be a candidate to sell a top reliever.
Rather than the usual tiered rankings, let's do a team-by-team bullpen audit. Below you'll find the teams listed by division with their closers and notable depth. Next week, we'll begin deeper coverage of each division. For now, let's 86 the “steals” component of the column. We'll get back to those soon.
After Steve Cishek imploded, Ramos stepped in as one of the best closers of the 2015 season. While his fastball is surprisingly average for a modern closer, Ramos has a plus slider and an elite changeup. Ignoring saves, Ramos is a safe bet to be among the top 30 relievers this season.
Unfortunately for Ramos, the team has announced he'll have to compete with Capps for the ninth inning. Capps is coming off a superb breakout in which he challenged Aroldis Chapman for top reliever honors over the middle half of the season. For now, I'm favoring Capps by a thin margin.
The Mets also benefited from a breakout closer in 2015, and he's all but guaranteed to keep his job this season. Familia's stuff improved for a third straight year. He had some World Series hiccups, all but one of which can be blamed upon his defense. He'll continue to strike out over a batter per inning with good peripherals. Reed and Bastardo are fringy holds options. Jenrry Mejia could also rejoin the late innings once he serves the 99 games remaining on his PED suspension.
How does one hang onto a player who choked your franchise star? Papelbon has too much talent to cut and too poor a reputation to trade. The on-camera incident with Bryce Harper merely sealed the deal. Papelbon scuffled last season after joining the Nationals, but he's too polished a pitcher to not rebound. If he does finally collapse, slider specialist Shawn Kelley is an adequate replacement. Blake Treinen still intrigues me too.
As mentioned, Grilli is expected to have a full Spring Training. Assuming he's healthy and flashes his past form, he's a trade candidate. He rebounded to a lovely 2.94 ERA with 12.03 K/9 and 2.67 BB/9 in the first half of last season. After his Achilles popped, Vizcaino filled in with his 98 mph heater, above average curve, and good peripherals. Vizcaino appears to be the closer of the future in Atlanta.
The Phillies have interesting elements scattered all over their roster...except the bullpen. Hernandez's heyday came way back in 2012. Since then, he's been injured or ineffective. In 2015, he did post decent peripherals in half a season. He's still a fly ball pitcher with a home run problem. Mujica, who I list as the eighth inning man, is in camp on a minor league deal.
With Rosenthal, it's all about walk rate. He was superb in 2013, occasionally shaky in 2014, and once again reliable in 2015. He mixes a 98 mph fastball with a good change and two rarely thrown breaking balls. He's a safe bet to be among the top closers again in 2016. Lefty Kevin Siegrist may be next in line. The fly ball pitcher appeared in half the team's games, marking him as an injury risk from overuse.
I never did understand why Rondon lost his job for part of last season. It seems like manager Joe Maddon is a little too enamored with shifting bullpen roles. The players strongly prefer to know when they'll be pitching ahead of time. Despite ceding a number of saves to Jason Motte, Rondon still closed 30 games with a 1.67 ERA and strong peripherals. He's similarly talented to Familia.
Melancon flummoxed me last season. For a big chunk of the season, he lost velocity and had trouble inducing whiffs. He still piled on the saves then recovered his past form midseason en route to his best fantasy campaign. Melancon manages a rare mix of nearly 60 percent ground balls with an above average infield fly rate. The result is few opportunities for damage dealing extra base hits. Watson has long been a reliable lefty. He's the most heavily worked reliever over the last three years.
The Brewers have a shaky bullpen, but Smith could be a surprise top closer. Last season, he posted 12.93 K/9, 3.41 BB/9, and a 2.70 ERA. The lefty has improved in each of his major league campaigns, doesn't have platoon splits, and has seemingly solves his command issues from 2014. If Smith falters, you really don't want to be relying upon Jeffress.
Hoover is a middle reliever who has a history of outperforming his peripherals. Most of that relates to a penchant for ridiculous infield fly rates. If he had a friendlier home park, I'd be more willing to give Hoover a shot. At Great American Ball Park, there is too much risk of home runs. Cingrani could be interesting as a right-handed Sean Doolittle type – if he can get his walk rate under control. Of the Reds current stock, Diaz looks the most like a closer.
If it seems like Casilla and Romo have been trading the closer role for the last half decade, it's because it's true. Casilla has been the guy for the last season and a half, although Romo threatened for a time last year. Romo held the job from mid-2012 through mid-2014. The future probably belongs to Strickland. He has one of the best performing fastballs among all relievers.
Arizona recently signed Clippard, but they plan to stick with Ziegler in the ninth inning. For fantasy purposes, Ziegler's low strikeout rate and history of platoon issues makes him a tough player to own. Clippard is an extreme fly ball specialist which can produce some late inning home run inconsistency. Hudson looks the part of a closer with a 96 mph fastball and more than a strikeout per inning.
While I expect Motte and Qualls to be a disaster, I think McGee has the right stuff to succeed in Colorado. He'll also probably be traded at some point during the season. He leans almost exclusively on his fastball. At the very least, buy low and use him at sea level.
Hatcher produced very nice peripherals last season including 10.38 K/9. It seemed like every time he stepped into the ninth inning, it was a disaster. Luckily, the Dodgers have Jansen at his peak. The cutter specialist is coming off another fantastic campaign with 13.6 K/9, 1.38 BB/9, and a 2.41 ERA. He could once again contend for top closer honors.
The Padres are pivoting to a pseudo-rebuild. They'll give the ever inconsistent Rodney a chance to develop some trade value before the deadline. At that point, I fully expect Maurer or Pomeranz to step into the ninth inning. Maurer is a more classic fit to close, but the club is trying to stretch him out as a starter.
Cue the chorus of angels for potentially the best bullpen in history. For better or worse, Chapman appears likely to escape a long suspension for his alleged role in a domestic dispute. If they played for separate teams, Chapman, Miller, and Betances would jockey for top five closer status. As it stands, they're set to form a historically elite relief corps with potential record strikeout rates.
The Red Sox quietly did their best to match the Yankees. Uehara and Smith aren't on par with Miller or Betances, but they're borderline closers. Kimbrel remains a candidate for top closer. His command took a step back last year which led to some early season issues. He produced the highest runs allowed rate of his career, a still excellent 2.58 ERA. He also contributed 13.20 K/9, 3.34 BB/9, and an elite 15.7 percent swinging strike rate
It's a bullpen heavy division. It's said that strikeouts are facist, but I don't think Crash Davis ever watched a Britton ground ball fest. Not only did he induce a 79 percent ground ball rate, he also massively buffed his strikeout rate with the help of his unexpected elite curve ball. When he runs into trouble, it's usually because the competition hit the ball too softly. O'Day could close for a number of teams. Givens posted 11.40 K/9, 1.80 BB/9, and a 1.80 ERA in 30 innings. He's an early candidate for top relief sleeper.
I assume the Blue Jays acquired Storen to close. He's not necessarily better than Osuna. Storen is being paid like a closer, and his presence gives the club flexibility with regards to Osuna's future. Both were fly ball pitchers last season with over a strikeout per inning and a low walk rate. Storen used to be a ground ball pitcher, but he cut down on his sinker usage. Cecil's had a few shots at ninth inning duty, and he has never run with the job. He's posted a sub-3.00 ERA in each of the last three seasons.
A couple weeks ago, the Rays also had an excellent bullpen. Remove McGee and the unit looks a lot weaker. Boxberger isn't a perfect closer. He has the strikeouts. Occasional bouts of wildness and way too many home runs eat into his fantasy value. He's still well worth owning. Farquhar is maybe the setup man, or it could be somebody else. He has late innings stuff if not a reliable track record.
With Holland on the shelf for the year (and non-tendered to boot), the Royals will turn to Davis for a full season. Last year, he posted the fourth best single season relief ERA since 2000 (0.94 ERA). Look for more of the same out of Davis. In case something goes wrong, Soria has plenty of closing experience. Herrera may initially work the eighth inning, but I still expect him to be third in line for saves. Don't forget Luke Hochevar too.
Allen is sure to be a divisive pick when I release my closer tiers nearer to the season. Even while he fanned hitters at a career best rate (12.85 K/9), a high BABIP led to some early season adventures. The final line, including a 2.99 ERA, hides the pain most owners felt until late in the year. His 1.82 FIP hints that it could have been an elite season. I'm still buying. McAllister had a 2.49 ERA out of the bullpen. He's a better closer candidate than Shaw.
The Twins are thin in the late innings. When healthy, left slider specialist Perkins is a solid asset. You'll get strikeouts, a low walk rate, and a tolerable ERA. When he's not healthy, Jepsen or Trevor May look to be next in line. Save and holds aside, neither pitcher figures to be among the top 50 relievers in baseball.
Detroit keeps building dumpster fires in the late innings. They hope the ever-consistent Rodriguez can arrest a string of bad relief seasons. K-Rod once owned a premier fastball. Now he is a change up artist.
He has trouble with home runs, making him a risky fantasy asset. Not that Lowe or Rondon are going to take his job any time soon.
Speaking of home run troubles, a few long balls are all that stood between Robertson and a top relief season. His 3.47 ERA belies a superior peripherals including 12.22 K/9 and 1.85 BB/9. Unfortunately, those extra home runs look to be a part of his game, especially at U.S. Cellular Band Box. Jones is one of my favorite non-closing sleepers. In his return from injury, he threw 19 innings with 12.79 K/9, 2.84 BB/9, and a 98 mph fastball.
In recent years, the Angels have eschewed glove popping velocity for predictable soft-tossers like Street. Despite an 88 mph fastball, Street manages to get good results. A plus change up and slider certainly help to keep hitters off balance. He even uses the slider as frequently as the fastball. Average Joe Smith gets the job done by controlling the zone. If something happens to Street, he's a boring, steady source of saves.
Cishek fell apart early last season and lost his job in Miami. The Marlins then traded him to St. Louis where he recovered to a 2.31 ERA. Don't be fooled, his 7.71 K/9 and 5.01 BB/9 were actually a step back from his peripherals in Miami. Cishek is one of the riskiest closers in baseball. Luckily Benoit is an oldie but a goodie. He's one of the best splitter pitchers in the league. Zych was excellent in his 18 inning debut. He managed 11.78 K/9, 1.47 BB/9, and a 2.45 ERA. His fastball runs 96 mph, and he has a plus slider.
The A's overhauled their terrible bullpen, just in case Doolittle lands back on the disabled list. He struggled to stay healthy last season with shoulder issues. Now he's says he's recovered. If he's back to his 94 mph ways with spot precision, we'll know he's truly returned. If he's shaky, Madson could sneak back into a closing gig. The former Phillies relief ace returned from a three-year hiatus with a vengeance. He tallied 8.24 K/9, 1.99 BB/9, and a 2.13 ERA.
Texas has quietly assembled a very deep bullpen. If there's an issue, it's that the talent level is relatively flat. Kela is the most physically talented of the relievers, but he may be farthest from saves this season. Diekman is also gifted with elite velocity. As a lefty with occasional command problems, he won't be taking the ninth inning either.
The job should stay with Tolleson after a solid 2015 campaign. He's not a fantasy star, but he's serviceable. Think of him as similar to Papelbon with higher risk and reward. Don't forget about Wilhelmsen who finished the year closing for the Mariners. He's closed in three of the last five years. He's just barely good enough for the role even though his command can break down. If the Rangers want to control costs, they could let him get the saves.
The Astros had one of the best bullpens in 2015. The front office wasn't convinced it was a repeatable success, so they paid an arm and four more arms to acquire Giles from the Phillies. The Astros aren't committing to Giles just yet so there is some small risk Gregerson retains the job. Those with long memories will recall the Astros handled things the same way last winter when Gregerson was signed to supplant Qualls. Houston didn't pay a ransom for a setup man.