Max Scherzer has signed, leaving James Shields as the most notable free agent on the market. If you were to form a top 10 list of the remaining free agents, it would read Shields, perhaps Everth Cabrera, and a handful of former closers. That's right, we're still waiting to learn where Francisco Rodriguez, Rafael Soriano, and Casey Janssen will call home. It's also unclear if they will compete for saves.
Additionally, several clubs like the Blue Jays are unsettled in the ninth inning. The Phillies are obviously rebuilding, and they identified their closer of the future last season when Ken Giles emerged. He's blocked while Jonathan Papelbon remains under contract.
Rather than the usual tiered rankings, let's do a team-by-team bullpen audit. Next week, we'll cover some of the ways I statistically evaluate high leverage relievers. For this week, let's 86 the “steals” component of the column. We'll get back to those soon.
Tanner Roark is a good starting pitcher, yet the Nationals just spent a lot of money to push him into a long relief role. It seems odd that the club would “solve” a non-problem in the rotation while the bullpen remains iffy. Storen was decent last season, but he's hardly the lock down option teams want in the ninth inning. Barrett may be the closer of the future in D.C. once he knocks down his walk rate. He was stingy with the free passes in the minors, so I think he'll take a step forward this year. Still, the club is a candidate to trade for a reliever. Funny that they just dealt away Tyler Clippard to solve second base.
Cishek has a firm grasp on the ninth inning in Miami, although he did struggle late last season. He's also been the subject of trade rumors due to his increasing price tag. Ramos and Bryan Morris were the stopgaps last season, but I suspect Capps, 24, may be ready to take a late inning role.
The Mets have a bit of a kerfuffle to sort through. Parnell should be ready sometime around the beginning of the season after missing 2014 for Tommy John surgery. Until he returns, the ninth inning belongs to Mejia. The former prospect pitched well enough as the Mets closer. Parnell is a free agent after 2015, while Mejia remains under contract for another four seasons. If he's able, the Mets may want to use Parnell as the closer to keep Mejia's arbitration price under control. Closers earn a lot more coin via arbitration.
The only controversy with the Braves relates to their apparent rebuilding. Atlanta converted most of their win-now talent - i.e. Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, and Evan Gattis - into future chips. The one odd piece remaining is Kimbrel. Relievers, especially those that rely on velocity, tend to decline rapidly. Kimbrel is at the height of his value, yet the club seems inclined to retain him. If anything does happen to Kimbrel, Grilli is a perfectly adequate stopgap.
We touched on the Phillies in the outset. Philadelphia is perhaps the only team that doesn't intend to compete in 2015, so they're likely to trade their expensive, name-brand closer. If only it were that easy. Papelbon comes with a $13 million paycheck for 2015 with a $13 million option that vests with 48 games finished. He can be a media nightmare, further complicating trade talks. If and when Papelbon is sent packing, the Phillies should be in good hands with Giles. He flashed top 10 reliever stuff last season. If injuries intervene, Diekman pumps 100 mph gas from the left side.
The Brewers appear to be the only club in the NL Central with a shaky bullpen. Broxton leaned on a .234 BABIP last season, and Smith is a southpaw with platoon splits. Broxton is not one of the top 30 or even 50 relievers in baseball, so this is an obvious area of need for the Brewers. Henderson's return is unknown after he missed most of 2014 with a shoulder injury. Perhaps the Brew Crew will look into re-signing Rodriguez. Unfortunately, he's suffered from long-ball-itis in recent seasons. Cozy Miller Park certainly doesn't help.
The Cubs could actually go a lot deeper than the three I listed above. Rondon pitched well enough last year to retain the closer's mantle. In my opinion, Ramirez is the best reliever with the Cubs, so he should be next in line for opportunities. Motte was once a great closer candidate, but he lost three mph on his fastball between 2012 and 2014. We'll see if he can recover some velocity. Others to watch include Pedro Strop and Tsuyoshi Wada.
Melancon has twice wrested ninth inning duties away from Grilli. Now he's the head honcho in Pittsburgh. He relies on command and control to limit base runners and home runs. He should remain a steady source of production. Watson and Bastardo will enter the season as the setup men, but don't be surprised if other names emerge, such as John Holdzkom.
When the Cardinals acquired Heyward, they also quietly brought in some competition for Rosenthal. While he should open the season with the ninth inning, it will be interesting to see how the Cardinals handle any meltdowns. If his control continues to elude him, they could turn to Walden who features a similar approach to the late innings.
If the Reds struggle early in 2015, expect trade rumors to swirl around Chapman. The fireballing Cuban just concluded a ridiculously dominant campaign in which he struck out 52.5 percent of all batters faced. The club doesn't have an obvious front runner to take over for Chapman, but we should have plenty of time to identify the right candidate. Perhaps it's LeCure, or maybe Manny Parra, J.J. Hoover, or another player will fit the bill.
The Giants always seem to build an unassuming bullpen. Despite a notable lack of flash, they tend to get the most out of their relief corps. Last year, it was Romo leading the ninth inning with Casilla in the background. The roles reversed midseason. We may see a reprisal this summer. Keep an eye on Hunter Strickland. He flashed the kind of the kind of velocity and strikeout capabilities that teams want in a late inning reliever. He was also torched for six postseason home runs in 8.1 innings.
Reed struggled through his first season with the Diamondbacks. He allowed 11 home runs which is tied for the third most among all qualified relievers. Arizona hasn't brought in an obvious replacement. I still assert that Ziegler is a ROOGY based on his history and a lucky .190 BABIP against lefties last season. Besides, he may miss opening day with a knee injury. I think we'll see somebody unexpected emerge from their starting rotation depth. Perhaps Randall Delgado finally turns a corner, or maybe Allen Webster finds confidence in a one inning role.
The Rockies skated through 2014 with the least exciting closer in baseball – Hawkins. They'll attempt to rinse and repeat this season while hoping either Ottavino, Brothers, or somebody else can take a step forward. Brothers has never been a command and control pitcher, but he really lost his touch last season (6.23 BB/9). Ottavino had a nice breakout season if you ignore the .338/.383/.560 line posted by lefties (82 batters faced).
Like the Nationals, it's curious to see the Dodgers so thin in the pen. After Jansen, the club has a couple of Rays retreads in Howell and Peralta. They're both fine depth so long as they aren't closing. It seems Andrew Friedman and friends will hope Jansen remains healthy while they develop more internal options. The good news: Jansen still figures to be among the top five closers in baseball.
The Padres sure are in an interesting position. It's nice to see new GM A.J. Preller take an aggressive tack with the team. Benoit is a good option for the ninth, although he'll turn 38 next July. Meanwhile, Kelley pitched well for the Yankees as an interim closer last season. Maurer has top 15 reliever upside if he remains in the bullpen. Others like Alex Torres, Kevin Quackenbush, Nick Vincent, and Dale Thayer all can (and have) take a high leverage role in a pinch.
We all assume the ninth inning belongs to Betances after his fantastic breakout campaign. One of his best qualities last season was an ability to pitch multiple innings. It's possible New York will want him to retain this flexibility by using him as a setup man. Miller is being paid closer money, and he certainly has the stuff to succeed. While Miller is best against fellow lefties, he still dominated righties last year. In all probability, Miller will open the season as the setup man. He may still take a handful of saves if tough lefties are due up in the ninth.
The Red Sox watched Uehara fade down the stretch last season, which doesn't bode well for their hopes to contend. Expect Boston to manage Uehara's workload so that he may remain fresh late into the season. While it's easy to point to his age as the cause – he'll turn 40 next season – we should remember that he threw a career high 88 innings in 2013. That includes 13.2 postseason innings. Mujica and Tazawa can handle the ninth in a pinch, but I expect them to target the pen at the trade deadline.
Hunter entered last season as the Orioles closer, but the job was quickly stolen by ground ball specialist Britton. A 95 mph fastball, 75 percent ground ball rate, and decent 2.71 BB/9 really limit the opportunities for damage. So long as Britton remains healthy, Baltimore should be secure in the ninth inning. They also have Darren O'Day who often fills a ROOGY role.
The Blue Jays have a guy who looks like a closer – he just doesn't have experience in the role. Cecil emerged as a devastating southpaw reliever last season, and he was tougher against opposite-handed opponents. He did post a high walk rate (4.56 BB/9). The Jays are supposedly looking to add depth in the bullpen. One option is to sign James Shields, which would push Sanchez into a relief role. Loup strikes me as a middle reliever.
The Rays' biggest strength is their bullpen. While McGee will probably open the season the disabled list, that may open the door for Boxberger to run away with the ninth inning. Boxberger is coming off a fantastic breakout campaign, which could allow the Rays to move the left-handed McGee back into a situational role. Balfour is still hanging around, as is former Angels closer Ernesto Frieri. Kevin Jepsen and Kirby Yates have also shown enough to fill in as interim closers if the depth chart suffers a plague.
The postseason has made the Royals bullpen quite famous. Followers of the column know I think very highly of Holland. One of the few pitchers I like more than Holland is Davis. Bullpens are inherently unstable, but we can probably pencil the Royals in for another dominating season. Herrera has growth potential with his triple-digit gas. Prior to injury, Luke Hochevar looked like he might be better than all of them. We'll see what he looks like when he returns to the late innings.
Allen performed well after John Axford collapsed last season. I expect to find Allen to be underpriced on draft day, which is fine by me. I'm not sure why he's so easy to overlook, but he possesses more than enough talent to remain an effective closer. Shaw is more at home in a setup or middle relief role, which is probably why the Indians are rumored to be looking for relief help.
Twins closer Glen Perkins dealt with some late season arm trouble, but the club isn't concerned. Perkins will be backed up by a solid pitcher in Casey Fien. Nobody will go out of their way to stash Fien since he lacks any exciting quality beyond proximity to the ninth inning. Prospect Jose Berrios might factor into the pen at some point.
Last October, the Tigers were knocked out of the postseason in large part due to a terrible bullpen. Detroit intends to return Nathan to the role for another season. If it goes sideways again, Soria is waiting in the wings. Alburquerque hasn't shown enough to be considered a closer candidate while Hanrahan hasn't been healthy since 2012. The AL Central looks pretty tough this year. If I were the Tigers, I would have spent some money or prospects on a pitcher I could trust.
The White Sox overhauled the roster this offseason. As part of the effort, they sank considerable money into the bullpen. The combination of Robertson and Duke should help to prevent any more disasters involving Zach Putnam or Jake Petricka. Both Robertson and Duke have experience pitching in a bandbox like U.S. Cellular Field, so there isn't much reason to expect a sudden decline. I'm looking forward to some closer stability in Chicago.
Street succeeds by allowing hardly any base runners to score. He's a finesse pitcher in an age where most closers depend on overwhelming velocity. He's familiar with the disabled list, so the Angels should be prepared to turn to Plan B. Last season, that was Smith. He pitched perfectly fine out of the ninth inning, but the club felt the necessity to bring in outside help at the trade deadline. Expect to experience deja vu if Smith is closing games in July.
No fantasy owner feels safe owning Rodney despite a strong 2014 campaign. When he falls apart, walks are usually the culprit. Fortunately for the Mariners, they have a couple excellent setup men in Farquhar and Wilhelmsen. Either pitcher could take on the closer role without missing a beat. Seattle's a good place to speculate on saves.
Doolittle was excellent as the A's closer last season, but I wonder if he's in for a little competition with Clippard. The former National will be paid like a closer and is a free agent at the end of the season. As with the Mets and Parnell, using Clippard as the closer could save the club money. It also frees Doolittle to be used earlier in the game against tough left-handed hitters. We should soon learn if there will be a competition for the job.
The Rangers appear committed to Feliz. He showed signs of recapturing his form late last season. While he struggled to consistently maintain upper-90's velocity, it's a good sign to see him get there most days. Feliz was overrated at his best, so don't get too excited about his potential this season. Even if everything breaks his way, we're probably looking at one of the bottom 10 closers. Tolleson has destroyed minor league hitters for years, but he doesn't quite have the stuff for high leverage work in the majors.
The Astros attempted to woo some of the biggest free agent relievers. They ultimately settled on Gregerson. The long time setup man won't win the strikeout category for you, but he shouldn't blow too many leads either. Houston also brought in Neshek to help shorten the game. They still have Qualls, Tony Sipp, and Josh Fields, all of whom flashed potential in their own way.