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Saves and Steals

AL East Bullpens

by Brad Johnson
Updated On: March 3, 2021, 2:31 pm ET

We’re entering the home stretch with our bullpen evaluations. It’s time to pick apart the AL East. The division features three potent relief corps. Two recent whipping dogs – the Red Sox and Orioles – seem to be moving in the right direction. Previous editions focused on the AL West, NL West, AL Central, and NL Central. You can also check out The All Bullpen Audit for a high level review of every bullpen.

There is one important piece of news to discuss before we dive into the analysis. Previously, we discussed the new, deadened baseball the league developed for this season. According to Eno Sarris and Alex Fast, the 2020 baseball is being used for Spring Training. Pitchers might not have an opportunity to toy with 2021 baseballs until the regular season begins. This unusual deployment is sure to create chaos with a subset of pitchers.

American League East

New York Yankees

Aroldis Chapman
Zack Britton
Chad Green
Darren O’Day
Justin Wilson
Jonathan Loaisiga

This is a well-designed bullpen, but it lacks the ferocious aspect of previous Yankees behemoths. Chapman remains a perennial candidate for top closer. He’s also susceptible to slumps – those long arms and legs leave no margin for error with mechanical faults. Even at his worst, such as 2018 when he lost the strike zone for a span, his season-long numbers are glowing. Although he’s lost fastball zip in recent seasons, he can still reach back for 100-mph heat. His size and delivery help the stuff to remain extremely effective. He’s said to be toying with a splitter this spring.

Britton is a player we’ve frequently discussed over the years. He keeps practically everything on the ground, leaving opponents only one choice to beat him – infield hits and squibs. If anything happens to Chapman, he instantly becomes a valuable closer as was the case last season. He’s also a strong source of holds. You’ll have to sacrifice strikeout rate if you want to take advantage of his juicy rate stats.

This is where the New York bullpen diverges from past units. We’re used to seeing two or three more imposing closers. Instead, what remains is more aptly described as professional grade. Green was a part of those relief corps of yesteryear. Since his peak in 2017 and 2018, he’s settled in as a capable yet non-elite performer. He’s a strong target for holds with around 12.00 K/9 and passable rate stats.

O’Day shows few signs of slowing as he enters his late 30s. That’s because the side-winding righty started off slow. He was pumping 86-mph fastballs back in 2008. Over a decade later, he still sits at 86-mph with deception. A situational late-inning reliever, he is another fantastic target for holds and ratios. Unlike Green, he won’t supply a high volume of innings.

Wilson is another specialist with an impressive track record of consistency. The Yankees will benefit from his presence as a second lefty, but fantasy managers might struggle to profit from using him. He usually posts a high WHIP and middling ERA.

Here’s where the field really opens up. Well over a dozen Major League caliber relievers are in camp competing for three jobs. One of them will almost certainly go to Loaisiga who profiles as a bulk reliever and emergency starter. Options on the 40-man roster include Luis Cessa, Nick Nelson, Albert Abreu, Michael King, Brooks Kriske, and Deivi Garcia. Others like Clarke Schmidt and Luis Gil aren’t likely to be in the reliever mix. The list of non-roster choices is impressive recognizable: Kyle Barraclough, Adam Warren, Jhoulys Chacin, Tyler Lyons, Luis Garcia, Asher Wojciechowski, and Nestor Cortes among others.

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Tampa Bay Rays

Nick Anderson
Pete Fairbanks
Diego Castillo
Chaz Roe

We know the Rays bullpen will be a revolving door in all ways. These are the four name I’m confident will find their way onto the Opening Day roster. All of Anderson, Fairbanks, and Castillo are liable to share saves while Roe is used as a slider-heavy ROOGY. Beyond the potential closers, upwards of 20 pitchers could bounce in and out of the rotation and bullpen.

On a more traditional team, Anderson would be the top closer in baseball. The 30-year-old burst onto the scene in 2019 and has utterly ruined opposing hitters ever since. An extreme fly ball pitcher, his stuff is nigh unhittable. Unlike some pitchers with this profile – think James Karinchak – Anderson is extremely stingy with free passes. An ill-timed collapse last October complicated the Rays playoff push. It’s also served to reduce his cost in drafts. Expect an elite strikeout rate, ERA, and WHIP to go with around 15 saves.

When Anderson stumbled, Fairbanks was there to pick him up. He’s a traditional late-inning reliever with blistering heat (97.5-mph) complemented by a potent, frequently-used slider. Last season, he recorded 13.16 K/9, 4.72 BB/9, 2.70 ERA, and 1.39 WHIP. The looming specter of walks cuts down on his upside as a fantasy target even if he’s liable to nab 10 to 15 saves.

Castillo feels like an elder statesman on the Rays, right? He actually debuted in 2018. Since then, he’s developed into a power reliever with a high ground ball rate. He doesn’t jump off the page in the same way as Anderson, but he’s far more consistent than Fairbanks. This might be his year to jump in and pile up saves. However, his ground ball profile can be used strategically in ways that a guy like Fairbanks can’t. That could explain why he only has 12 saves across three seasons despite ample access to late-innings opportunities.

As we dig deeper, this is where it usually gets interesting. The Rays always seem to find somebody unexpected to prop up in the closer role. Perhaps it will be a familiar non-roster invitee like Hunter Strickland. Or maybe one of their starting pitcher prospects will find himself in the relief corps. Southpaw Shane McClanahan in particular can touch 100-mph and features an above average breaking ball. He’s often described as a future reliever due to a lack of third pitch, middling command, and merely average size. Recent trade acquisition Luis Patino profiles similarly. Some scouts see potential for future development of his changeup and command, leaving a starter or bulk reliever role as a more likely outcome.

What’s clear to me today is that there isn’t an obvious choice for a pop-up closer. The Rays tend to prefer veteran relievers for the “surprise closer” role. Collin McHugh and Michael Wacha are battling for the fifth spot in the rotation. McHugh has proven to be effective as a reliever in the past. Wacha… not so much. Chris Mazza and Jeffrey Springs were recently acquired in an unusual swap with the Red Sox, indicating Tampa sees breakout potential for one or both of them. Springs does seem to possess a couple useful secondary pitches. He still needs to figure out a way for his fastball to play. Cody Reed and Ryan Sherriff are southpaws with high ground ball rates. There probably isn’t room for more than one of them on the roster.

Josh Fleming, Trevor Richards, and Brett Honeywell can be expected to provide able bulk relief while rotating in and out of Triple-A. Honeywell has the talent to emerge as a quality starting pitcher if he can stay healthy. These are better viewed as streaming targets than late-inning candidates.

Toronto Blue Jays

Kirby Yates
Jordan Romano
Rafael Dolis
Tyler Chatwood
Julian Merryweather
Ross Stripling

The Blue Jays have built an unassuming and potent relief corps this winter. The fulcrum is Yates who could either compete for the mantle of top closer or succumb to further elbow woes. The righty had routine elbow surgery in August and already completed the rehab process. There are two things to watch – velocity and command. Yates doesn’t rely on elite speed, typically checking in around 93.5-mph. However, a decline in heat could signal lingering injury risk. When he scuffled early last season, it manifested as an 8.31 BB/9. A high walk rate this spring would be cause for concern because, again, it might indicate ill-health. There’s also the new baseball to consider. Splitter specialists like Yates are especially sensitive to things like the size, seams, and weight; all of which could feel differently on the 2020 baseball.

Romano was a revelation last season albeit in just 14.2 innings. The right-hander developed a new slider which he used as his primary offering. He also added two-mph to his fastball. A ground ball pitcher, Romano has the potential to be a rare double-threat. Anyone who can keep the ball out of the air while recording north of 12.00 K/9 is truly special. The worry is that he thrived over such a small slice of time, and he finished the season with an injured finger. Since he uses his wipeout slider so frequently, I do think he can maintain the impressive strikeout rate. It might be matched with a few too many walks.

Dolis is another stingy ground ball pitcher who burst onto the season last season. He developed during an extended tour overseas, picking up a splitter along the way. He profiles as a less impressive version of Romano. Expect over a strikeout per inning with a 50 percent ground ball rate. Despite a difficult division, he’s a respectable target for holds. I anticipate he’ll improve dramatically upon the 5.25 BB/9 he posted last season.

It would seem the Blue Jays have a desired reliever profile. Chatwood was brought in to serve as a late-innings bulk reliever. When the Cubs used him mostly out of the bullpen in 2019, his fastball typically sat between 96- and 98-mph. Chatwood pulled out more tricks last season in a return to starting, mostly ditching an underperforming four-seamer in exchange for more cutters and sinkers. While he probably can’t match Romano or even Dolis for strikeouts, he’s another righty who piles up ground balls.

Merryweather and Stripling are more accurately thought of as rotation depth. The former is a post-hype prospect who spent most of his formative years injured. He flashed a decent four-pitch repertoire in his debut last season. Stripling had a magical if occasionally frustrating career with the Dodgers. He never really got going in 2020. His command was uncharacteristically pedestrian, and he lost the ability to induce whiffs. The stuff didn’t seem to back up visually – only the execution lacked. He’s a prime rebound candidate.

The club is casting a wide net for southpaws to round out the unit. Ryan Borucki, Travis Bergen, and Anthony Kay are on the 40-man roster, although none have established themselves as reliable resources. Jays fans will recognize non-roster invitee Tim Mayza while everybody should recall ageless veteran Francisco Liriano.

Boston Red Sox

Adam Ottavino
Matt Barnes
Ryan Brazier
Darwinzon Hernandez
Hirokazu Sawamura

A couple occasional blips aside, Ottavino has pitched remarkably well since his breakout in 2013. Last season was much the same except for a zero inning, six-run outing against the Blue Jays. He piles up 12.00 K/9 with the aid of a deceptive delivery and double-plus slider. Hitters struggle to identify if they’re being served a heater or slider, often looking foolish against both offerings. Although he’s flirted with closing opportunities throughout his long career, he only has 19 saves in 497.2 innings. In all probability, this is the 35-year-old’s last best chance to become a closer.

His competition is Barnes, a longstanding Red Sox reliever who ended last season as their closer-by-default. Barnes shares some traits with Ottavino including a high strikeout rate and a few too many walks. He’ll turn to his curve ball in any count, and it’s his best pitch. Fantasy managers should root for Ottavino to win the closer role since Barnes always delivers below average ERAs and WHIPs.

Brasier failed to build on his surprise emergence in 2018 when he briefly peaked as the Red Sox postseason closer. On most teams, he’s a typical middle reliever. In a thin bullpen like Boston’s, he’ll serve as a dark horse closer candidate. He projects to deliver around a 4.00 ERA and 1.30 WHIP with 10.00 K/9. He’ll catch holds, but those rates aren’t sufficient to make him a useful fantasy piece.

Hernandez is the wild card. He’s an effectively wild southpaw. His delivery is vaguely reminiscent of Aroldis Chapman, rendering him an uncomfortable matchup for opposing hitters. His fastball sits in the mid-90s and his slider flashes plus. It’s an inconsistent offering, sometimes flattening out in the zone. His scattershot command has helped him to avoid hard contact through 38.2 Major League innings. However, I’m not confident he can thrive wit 8.00 BB/9, nor am I sure he’ll continue avoiding barrels if the command improves from terrible to below average.

Reports on Sawamura are scarce. He’s viewed as a wild pitcher who wields a fastball and forkball. His fastball reportedly sits in the mid-90s. The Japanese veteran has offered uneven performances in recent seasons.

The remaining bullpen jobs will probably go to fantasy nonentities. One possible exception is Josh Taylor. The southpaw pitched well in 2019 while inducing plenty of whiffs. His stuff backed up in limited action last season. A rebound could render him a deep league sleeper for holds. Bulk reliever Matt Andriese and Rule 5 pick Garrett Whitlock seemingly have an advantage.

Baltimore Orioles

Hunter Harvey
Tanner Scott
Cesar Valdez
Paul Fry

The Orioles would undoubtedly love for Harvey take claim the closer role and run with it. The former prospect has battled an imposing pile of injuries. He only managed 8.2 frames last season. When he does take the hill, he shows promise. He has the frame of a relief ace to go with a 98-mph fastball, quality curve ball, and an inconsistent splitter. He throws far too many fastballs and desperately needs to stay healthy long enough to refine his offspeed stuff.

Scott and Fry have fun profiles. They’re left-handed ground ball pitchers with high strikeout rates. Scott struggles with free passes which might be why he hasn’t just one save despite serving with some truly terrible relievers. If he can build on a superb 2020 campaign, he’s a solid saves sleeper for when Harvey’s inevitably injury strikes. Fry lacks Scott’s premium velocity but makes up for it with better command of his slider. He gained two-mph on his fastball last season and posted a career-high 11.86 K/9. He too is a saves sleeper. Since the Orioles don’t figure to win many games, they’re better placed on a watchlist than stashed.

Valdez finished the 2020 season as the Orioles closer. The right-hander is a unicorn, throwing his changeup nearly four out of five pitches. His fastball runs just 85-mph. He’s gimmick pitcher not unlike an easier to catch knuckleballer. I originally thought he could remain the closer, but Orioles personnel have said they want to use him as a bulk reliever.

The remainder of the bullpen doesn’t offer much to ponder. Rule 5 picks Tyler Wells and Mac Sceroler are joined by the likes of Shawn Armstrong, Dillon Tate, Travis Lakins, and Cole Sulser.

Brad Johnson

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