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Saves and Steals

AL Central Bullpens

by Brad Johnson
Updated On: February 18, 2021, 2:25 am ET

Our preseason preparations are nearing the mid-point. Today, we focus on the AL Central, a division which features teams with wildly different degrees of effort. The White Sox opted for one high-quality target, the Twins took to raiding the pantry, and the Royals brought back old friends at a discount. Meanwhile, the Indians and Tigers decided to ignore the relief corps altogether.

In past episodes, we put the AL West and NL West under the microscope. You can also check out The All Bullpen Audit for a high level review of every bullpen. Over the next four weeks, we’re going to continue our division-by-division inspection. The goal is to uncover opportunities and turn up predictable dark horses to stash in deeper leagues.

American League Central

Chicago White Sox

Liam Hendriks
Aaron Bummer
Garrett Crochet
Evan Marshall
Codi Heuer
Jace Fry

Since his breakout in 2019, Hendriks is arguably the best reliever in baseball. In addition to adding two-mph to his fastball, the righty credits the heat maps furnished by Codify for much of his success. These help their clients to attack hitters at their weak spots. Hendriks posts consistently low walk rates to go with over 13.00 K/9. Unlike many of today’s top relievers, this isn’t a breaking ball-based success story. Hendriks throws his heater 70 percent of the time.

Bummer is a closer caliber reliever in his own right. He profiles similarly to peak Zack Britton. The southpaw pumps 96-mph sinkers which account for most of his offerings. He also throws two types of sliders to chase strikeouts. With his 70 percent ground ball rate and over a strikeout per inning, Bummer is one of the top targets for holds.

Where Crochet begins the season likely depends on if the White Sox think he can start in the Majors. In a brief debut, the southpaw averaged 100-mph and flashed an elite slider. Command wasn’t a strength, but it’s also unnecessary when you have Crochet’s size and velocity. We have some video evidence (the first 23 seconds are all Crochet) that Major League hitters simply aren’t competitive against triple-digit gas – even if it’s located right down the pike. However, that same lack of command mixed with elite relief potential and a full White Sox starting rotation likely means Crochet can plan to stick in the bullpen. He would easily rank as a top 10 closer if given a chance.

Marshall is coming off his best season, and it’s easy to spot why he succeeded. He threw his fastball a career-low 29.4 percent of the time, instead leaning on his changeup and curve as his primary offerings. He managed to do this while posting a career-best 2.78 BB/9. It’s likely his walk rate will be closer to 4.00 BB/9 which may limit his fantasy utility. As long as he’s avoiding free passes, he’s a strong holds candidate with a 50 percent ground ball rate and over a strikeout per inning. He could potentially close for a less talent-packed club.

Another pitcher with closer potential, Heuer, has a three-pitch repertoire topped by a 98-mph heater. He made his debut in 2020, posting a 1.52 ERA with a 50 percent ground ball rate, 9.51 K/9, and 3.42 BB/9. The lanky righty has a long-armed, three-quarters delivery which likely explains why the White Sox were so quick to toss him in the bullpen. There is growth potential here, although we should consider his 2020 ERA to be a ceiling rather than the norm.

You might recall Fry as a former closer candidate. His velocity has dropped by four-mph since his peak. Consider him a high-effort southpaw with a too-high walk rate. He’s also not-quite a lefty specialist. He’s neither unusable against right-handed hitters nor is he especially stingy to fellow lefties.

Matt Foster and Reynaldo Lopez appear to have the inside track on long reliever roles. Foster was superb in 2020. His three-pitch repertoire includes a plus changeup. Lopez has long profiled as a candidate to join the bullpen. Only Vince Velasquez has more obviously been miscast as a starting pitcher for longer. The system has plenty of depth led by Michael Kopech who almost certainly won’t be used in relief. Non-roster invitees such as Connor Sadzeck, Jacob Lindgren, and Ryan Burr has a real chance to make the club.

Minnesota Twins

Alex Colome
Taylor Rogers
Tyler Duffey
Cody Stashak
Hansel Robles
Jorge Alcala

The Twins don’t have the flash and sizzle of the White Sox, but they might match their division rivals when it comes to the stat that matters most – actual run prevention. Colome is an unusual closer in today’s game. The cutter-specialist induces plenty of soft contact, much of it on the ground. He’s consistently outperformed his peripherals for the entirety of his eight-season career. A low strikeout rate adds risk to the profile. Any decline in talent could mark the end of his usefulness as a fantasy target. I also remain unconvinced he’ll simply be handed the closer role even if he is the odds-on favorite to lead the Twins in saves.

Rogers emerged as a top closer in 2019 only to find himself deemphasized in 2020. Part of that was due to unfortunate results. He posted a .400 BABIP with a 60.3 percent left on base rate, neither of which appears to be explained by other peripherals. In other words, he should have had around a 3.00 ERA rather than the 4.05 ERA he actually posted. This is informative in several ways. Going back to Colome for a moment, it’s evidence he won’t have a long leash in the event of a slump. As for Rogers, he comfortably projects for one of the best strikeout-to-walk ratios in the league even if the path to saves is somewhat bumpy.

Duffey’s success since the start of 2019 is somewhat baffling. The results speak for themselves even if he doesn’t seem to do anything particularly special. His fastball and curve are both good pitches and he mixes them effectively. He also seems to be capable of affecting the shape of both pitches. His fastball usually has arm-side run but will sometimes fly straight – especially when thrown high and gloveside. His curve varies in horizontal break. Keep an eye out for home runs.

Another reliever who doesn’t quite add up at first glance is Stashak. In two small samples, he’s performed adequately without flashing any obviously above average traits. This seems to come down entirely to his command of a decent slider. The pitch won’t inspire poetry, but he hits spots like it’s a fastball. Similar ability leant Sergio Romo a very long career. Stashak could stand to take a page out of his former teammate’s book and throw even more sliders.

From what I’ve heard second- and third-hand, the Twins are confident they can unlock Robles with the same roadmap they taught Matt Wisler last season. Count me as somewhat skeptical. To my eyes, Robles doesn’t need to be unlocked with new pitch usage. The issue is his ability to limit walks. In 2019, he handed out just 1.98 BB/9. He ballooned to 5.40 BB/9 last year. In fact, four of his six seasons have included an over-4.00 BB/9. We also need to track his velocity. His career-best 97-mph average fastball in 2019 dropped to just 95.5-mph last season. Rebounds in velocity and walk rate will likely do more to predict his success than throwing more high fastballs.

Alcala looks the part of a late-inning reliever. He pumps 97-mph heat and snaps off knee-breaking sliders. A more patient club might try to develop him as a starter, but the Twins are rich in arms. They can afford to push pitchers like Alcala into multi-inning roles. He’ll have to fight for an Opening Day job.

Minnesota has no shortage of depth attending Spring Training – both of the rostered and non-rostered variety. Randy Dobnak and Devin Smeltzer are passable starters who could find themselves filling a long relief role. Caleb Thielbar is a potential second lefty as is Andrew Vasquez. A couple former White Sox – Juan Minaya and Ian Hamilton – are among the best of the non-roster options.

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Cleveland Indians

James Karinchak
Emmanuel Clase
Phil Maton
Nick Wittgren
Cal Quantrill
Trevor Stephan

This is a top-heavy relief corps lead by a candidate for best closer. Karinchak’s command isn’t especially sharp, but the fly ball pitcher makes up for it in other ways. His delivery is deceptive. Not only is it an unusual arm path, he also flashes his glove in front of his release point – a trick which has gifted long careers to Yusmeiro Petit and Sean Doolittle. Karinchak’s stuff is on another level. His fastball is used on the upper edge of the strike zone and can touch the upper-90s. His curve is on the shortlist for best in the game. Fantasy managers who miss out on Hendriks and Josh Hader should prioritize Karinchak. He projects to record something in the neighborhood of 15.00 K/9.

If walks become too much of a burden on Karinchak, the Indians have a very different weapon waiting in the wings. Clase missed the 2020 season with a PED suspension. The burly righty has elite spin rate and velocity. The cutting action of his 99-mph fastball pairs nicely with his 90-mph slider, making it challenging for hitters to tell the difference. Thus far, he’s pitched to contact rather than chasing strikeouts. That could help him to pile up innings and holds while suppressing his strikeout rate. Cleveland tends to over-work their best relievers. As with any young hard-thrower, health remains a concern. However, with Karinchak atop the pecking order, Clase should remain affordable on draft day.

Maton was a surprise breakout in 2020, and it’s not too hard to spot why he succeeded. He threw fewer than 50 percent fastballs for the first time in four seasons while also reaching a career-best 93.6-mph velocity. Maton should be viewed as a serious bust risk. However, if he picks up where he left off, he’ll profile as a top holds reliever – one you should be able to acquire for a song.

From there, things go downhill quickly for the Indians relief staff. Wittgren is a passable middle reliever who could serve as a useful temporary holds target for fantasy managers in deep leagues. Quantrill could find himself either in the rotation or a multi-inning role. He’s considered a deep sleeper by some. Stephan looks likelier to stick in the Majors than a typical Rule 5 pick. He has a deceptive fastball and an improving slider. His command is uncertain. Others in the mix include Scott Moss, Adam Plutko, and non-roster invitees Bryan Shaw and Heath Hembree.

Kansas City Royals

Greg Holland
Scott Barlow
Josh Staumont
Kyle Zimmer
Wade Davis
Richard Lovelady

Kansas City had a snappy bullpen last season. They were eighth-best by ERA with the sixth-best strikeout rate. They brought back Holland to anchor the unit, and they’re even handing Davis a chance to rebound. Either or both could be passable if not spectacular. Holland is coming off an aberrant season in which he posted just 2.22 BB/9. He hasn’t accomplished anything like that since his peak in 2013 and 2014. In over 80 innings between 2018 and 2019, he recorded 6.16 BB/9. The walks are a combination of two things. His primary offering is a slider, and he refuses to give in when behind in the count. He has a track record of starting hot before falling apart after a couple months.

Davis, if healthy, has lost velocity in recent seasons. Fantasy managers trying to catch lightning in a bottle should keep a close eye on his spring velocity. If he’s touching 96-mph or better, jump in with both feet. Otherwise, watch warily from a safe distance. His performances at Coors Field were particularly hapless. Perhaps a return to sea level is medicine he needs.

If the throwback nostalgia projects fail, the club has three potential closers in waiting. The first in line is probably Barlow. He’s the safe choice, featuring a fairly typical late-inning profile. Sliders and curves comprise 60 percent of his pitch mix, helping to keep hitters off his otherwise modest stuff.

Staumont is a step in the other direction. His fastball can touch 102-mph, and his curve is a devastating weapon. As with many relievers, command is his nemesis. His delivery is reminiscent of a tidier, less deceptive version of Karinchak. The stuff profiles the same way – it has Karinchak vibes without the same oomph. He made too many mistakes in the zone last season. The result was one of the highest hard-hit rates in the league. Since he threw just 25.2 innings, it’s entirely possible his hard contact rate will regress (positively). He could also simply learn from his mistakes and improve. With modest growth, there is potential here for an elite outcome.

Zimmer is the other Royal to rate possible closer consideration. A former prospect who couldn’t stay healthy, he doesn’t have the devastating weapons typically associated with late-inning success. Indeed, the likeliest outcome for him is a middle relief role. However, a diverse four-pitch repertoire can sometimes allow a reliever to play beyond his stuff. Last season, he delivered a 1.57 ERA, 10.17 K/9, and 3.91 BB/9 in 23 innings.

Over the years, Jesse Hahn and Jakob Junis have eaten their share of innings for Kansas City. Now they’re properly cast as long relievers. Lovelady was a top relief prospect as recently as 2019. His stuff has been in steep decline. Jake Newberry could make the club as an uninspiring middle reliever. Ervin Santana will be in camp as a non-roster invitee.

Detroit Tigers

Gregory Soto
Bryan Garcia
Joe Jimenez
Buck Farmer
Jose Cisnero
Daniel Norris
Tyler Alexander

The Tigers have yet to make any effort to fortify a bullpen that has plagued them with countless nightmares over the years. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

Soto was their flashiest reliever last season. He still only managed two saves. The southpaw developed 97-mph heat. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have sufficient command of his breaking ball to increase its usage. Throwing 80 percent fastballs might work against fellow southpaws, but it’s also preventing him from having any hope as a closer candidate.

That left Garcia to finish the year as the Detroit closer. He’s… not good. Garcia induced just 4.98 K/9 against 4.15 BB/9. While his 1.66 ERA was a treat, his expected output isn’t playable in the Majors let alone in fantasy settings.

Old friends Jimenez and Farmer have been given ample opportunities in the late innings. Farmer is a perfectly adequate low leverage reliever. Jimenez is a case study in frustration. At different moments, he’s flashed every trait associated with an above average closer. Not once has he pieced everything together at the same time.

If you’re going to wade into this mess, I recommend throwing a dart at Cisnero. After vanishing from the league for half a decade, he returned in 2019 with a 96.4-mph fastball and a four-pitch repertoire. He tightened his results in 2020 by improving on his walk rate and inducing more whiffs. I hesitantly expect around a 3.80 ERA with 10.00 K/9 – easily the best projection in the Tigers bullpen.

Formats using innings as a category (instead of wins or quality starts) and a games started cap are gaining popularity. Norris and Alexander both have some bonus utility in these leagues. With the exception of several Rays, they’re among the likeliest pitchers to be used like a starter without actually counting as a start.

Brad Johnson

You can read more from Brad Johnson on NBC Sports Edge, FanGraphs, and RotoFanatic. Find him on Patreon and Twitter @BaseballATeam.