Potential closers Craig Kimbrel, Bud Norris, and Ryan Madson remain free agents. Rumors swirled that Kimbrel would sit out the 2019 season if nobody matched his asking price. He’s thought to be seeking a deal comparable to the five-year, $86MM contract signed by Aroldis Chapman. Kimbrel’s agent immediately denied these rumors, but you have to wonder just how patient he’s willing to be. Might he sign after the draft when the qualifying offer no longer applies? There’s even an outside chance Kimbrel could file a grievance for collusion. After all, his credentials are superior to Chapman’s, although it’s also worth pointing out that Chapman was two years younger when he signed his deal. It would be a messy argument. As for Norris and Madson, they’re in the leftover bin. It’s common for this class of player to sign cheap contracts in the $1MM to $5MM range at this point in the winter.
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, AL East, and NL Central. There’s also a high-level look at every bullpen via the All Bullpen Audit. Let’s move along to the AL Central.
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The AL Central is the weakest division in baseball, and that’s readily apparent when viewing the “best” bullpen. It was tempting to stop the list after Hand as he’s the only fantasy relevant reliever in Cleveland. The southpaw posts a strong strikeout to walk ratio. He handles both lefties and righties by throwing more sliders than fastballs. Hand is roughly the 10th best closer.
If something happens to Hand, the Indians will likely need to find a solution via trade. Cimber is a soft-tossing right-handed ground ball specialist. He was acquired along with Hand from the Padres last summer. Upon arriving in Cleveland, he promptly turned pumpkin. Left-handed hitters annihilated him in a small sample. That he might be the club’s second-best reliever is daunting.
Ramirez has appeared in this column many times as a breakout candidate. His velocity spiked to 95 mph and his command improved too. Nevertheless, he turned in his third consecutive season as a sub-replacement level pitcher. Home runs have plagued him over the years. Ramirez discarded a middling curve ball last season. Once again, there’s potential for the light bulb to click on.
Otero and Perez are specialists. They’re generally disallowed from facing hitters of the opposite hand, although Perez managed to perform ably versus righties last season. Olson is another soft-tossing southpaw. Surprisingly for a reliever of his type, he uses a full four pitch repertoire. Plutko is a command and control righty who will serve as rotation depth. His stuff may play up in relief. Keep an eye out for the eventual return of Danny Salazar. He always looked like a potential top 15 reliever stuck in a starting pitcher role.
Cleveland’s actual setup men may be in camp as non-roster invitees. Both Tyler Clippard and Justin Grimm appear to be obvious upgrades over the players discussed above. Alex Wilson, Asher Wojciechowski, James Hoyt, and A.J. Cole are also auditioning.
The Twins may lack a top-end option like Hand, but their bullpen is arguably deeper than the Indians. May flashed borderline top 10 closer ability last season with 12.79 K/9 and 1.78 BB/9. He used his four-pitch starters repertoire while working all quadrants of the strike zone. The small sample data suggests he should consider narrowing his approach to fastballs and curves. By the end of draft season, May will be one of the trendiest closer sleepers. I prefer May (ADP 247) to Jose Alvarado (ADP 158). One issue with May (and also shared by Alvarado) is that he’s not guaranteed to win the closer job. Minnesota is a potential landing spot for Kimbrel or Norris and has some internal competition.
Parker is the top alternative to May for the ninth inning role. The former Angel failed on multiple occasions last season and was ultimately cut loose early in the offseason despite remaining under club control. Reading the tea leaves, his dismissal from Anaheim is a possible signal of an underlying health issue. Or perhaps the Angels simply felt too budget constrained to pay $3.2MM for what they perceived to be a middle reliever. As is the case with many splitter users, Parker can lose feel for his biggest weapon, leading to some rough innings. He’s a tough opponent when he’s on.
Tweaks to his repertoire – including a new slider and fewer fastballs – led to a breakout season for Rogers. He could be the Twins primary setup man after posting 9.88 K/9, 2.11 BB/9, and a 2.63 ERA. Nothing about him rates above average, which is a nice way of saying that last year might have been a highwater mark. His best route forward is to continue throwing more offspeed stuff and even fewer fastballs.
When the Twins signed Reed last winter, he was considered to be a right-handed, middle class version of Andrew Miller. That narrative was quickly discarded after a sharp nearly two mph drop to his fastball velocity. His results declined from relief ace to barely playable. Reed has reinvented himself once before so it’s far too early to dismiss him. However, we need to see serious improvement before bothering to roster him for holds.
Throughout his career, Hildenberger’s standout skill is a low walk rate. That backfired in 2018 when the soft-tossing righty handed out 3.21 BB/9 and lost over 12 points on his ground ball rate. Allowing 1.48 HR/9 sure didn’t help either. Like Reed, Hildenberger needs to show improvement before he can be rostered for fantasy purposes.
The rest of the Twins bullpen may be populated with converted starters. Gabriel Moya, Fernando Romero, Adalberto Mejia, and Tyler Duffey have all made starts for Minnesota in recent years. If I had to pick one to watch especially closely, it’s Romero. With a 95 mph fastball as a starter, any uptick in relief could look special. A slew of others like Matt Magill, Andrew Vasquez, Zack Littell, and non-roster invitees Tim Collins, Chase De Jong, and Justin Nicolino are also candidates to make the squad. The club probably wants at least one southpaw from this collection.