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Saves and Steals

Bullpen Review: AL West

by Brad Johnson
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

Over the last month, the bullpens of the NL East, AL East, NL Central, AL Central, NL West were reviewed in detail. Today, we'll finish the series with the AL West.

 

Before we get to the subject at hand, there are a few closer updates to address. Brewers lefty Will Smith is now sidelined for an unknown amount of time with a knee injury. Jeremy Jeffress is the obvious replacement, but he also got a late start on Spring Training. If he's shaky, Corey Knebel may be next in line.

 

Few people are clamoring to own the Phillies closer. When David Hernandez missed a couple weeks, there was growing speculation that Andrew Bailey could take the ninth inning. Recent reports suggest Bailey may be unlikely to make the club. Hernandez is back in action too. If he doesn't claim the job quickly, Dalier Hinojosa is the top alternative. Edward Mujica could also factor into the discussion. All in all, it's still anyone's game in Philadelphia.

 

As always, I welcome any and all criticism or suggestions. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter. I will list all pitchers likely to make the club out of spring training with others to watch included in the team-by-team write up. Relievers are a volatile asset class, some will rise and fall unexpectedly.

 

Texas Rangers

 

Shawn Tolleson

Sam Dyson

Keone Kela

Jake Diekman

Tom Wilhelmsen

Tony Barnette

 

The Rangers may have my favorite bullpen in baseball. Nominally, Tolleson is the closer. He seized the role last season and ran with it. He's also not the best reliever in this bullpen. That's probably either Dyson or Kela.

 

One need not be the top reliever on the team to be a competent closer. Tolleson's 94 mph fastball isn't a standout offering, but it does set up an above average changeup and slider. He uses the two offspeed pitches and plus command to tally strong strikeout totals. He's a little homer prone, but he should hang onto the job until he strings together a couple bad weeks.

 

Dyson has a lot in common with Baltimore's Zach Britton – namely a 95 mph, true bowling ball sinker. Dyson induces an 80 percent ground ball rate with the pitch. He also throws a near-elite changeup. He'll mix in a four seamer, cutter, and slider, but those aren't his money makers.

 

Sophomore Keone Kela is next in the line. Where Dyson is consistent but unassuming, Kela has the flash and swagger of a closer. With a 96 mph fastball and wipeout curve, he's a safe bet for 10.00 K/9 and a good ERA. Last year, he posted 10.14 K/9, 2.69 BB/9, and a 2.39 ERA (2.64 FIP). Both Dyson and Kela are top setup picks in holds leagues.

 

On a weaker team like the Phillies, Diekman would be a closer candidate too. The southpaw can touch 100 mph. He's a lanky dude who slings the ball from the side, making it particularly rough on lefties. He throws a plus-plus slider. His biggest weakness is command (4.78 BB/9).

 

Closer talk continues with Wilhelmsen although I seriously doubt he'll pitch many ninth innings in 2016. Wilhelmsen was the Mariners closer in parts of 2012, 2013, and 2015. He takes a kitchen sink approach to relief, throwing a 95 mph fastball, sinker, change, slider, and curve. The offspeed pitches are his best offerings, and he should probably scrap the sinker. To keep hitters confused by his eclectic mix, he sacrifices command.

 

Barnette was also a closer last season. After spending the last six season's in Japan, the 32-year-old has returned stateside. He's coming off his finest campaign in the NPB. Scouting reports are a little thin. The PITCHf/x data I have says he throws 94 mph with a 89 mph slider. He also showed a sinker, change, and curve.

 

Rumor has the Rangers considering trade scenarios for Sam Freeman. The lefty is out of options. Unfortunately, he doesn't fit the role of long reliever – something Texas needs more than a lefty specialist. Like many situational lefties, Freeman has shoddy command.

 

Tanner Scheppers is on the 60 day disabled list with a knee injury and may not have a role when he returns. Others who could contribute during the season include Alex Claudio, Phil Klein, Luke Jackson, and Andrew Faulkner. Jackson and Faulkner in particular have high ceilings as relievers.

 

Houston Astros

 

Ken Giles

Luke Gregerson

Will Harris

Josh Fields

Tony Sipp

Pat Neshek

 

Giles was the crowning acquisition of the Astros offseason. The former Phillies closer throws a 97 mph fastball and touches 100 mph with regularity. His slider performs comparably to Craig Kimbrel's spinner. Gaudy heat, an untouchable breaking ball, and passable command are all one needs to close in the majors.

 

If you pay attention to spring stats, you may have noticed Giles isn't performing well with his new club. You may also faintly recall he had some early season hiccups last season. His velocity took a month or two to fully ramp up, and his command also improved over time.

 

If Giles scuffles early, Gregerson could fill in temporarily. He saved 31 games last season and didn't really do anything to lose the job. He's also better suited to setup work so it's no surprise he was replaced. Gregerson reminds me of a right-handed Glen Perkins with his slider-forward approach and low walk rates. Last season, he threw 42 percent sliders while posting a 3.10 ERA, 8.70 K/9, and 1.48 BB/9.

 

Unlike their Texas rivals, the rest of the Houston bullpen is merely solid rather than exceptional. Harris parlayed a .192 BABIP into a shiny 1.90 ERA last season. Expect big time regression this year. He did induce an impressive quantity of softly hit baseballs, hinting that he could continue to post a low BABIP.

 

Fields has been around as a fringy saves option for a few years. The fly ball pitcher throws a 95 mph cutter along with an average slider and curve. His cutter isn't quite good enough to carry him like Kenley Jansen or Mariano Rivera. Still, it's enough to keep him in a setup role. If you need a high strikeout rate, Fields will supply it.

 

Sipp signed a three-year deal as a free agent to remain in Houston. While he's occasionally used situationally, Sipp doesn't really have platoon splits. The lefty can be a good source of holds.

 

Speaking of situational relievers, Neshek does scuffle with opposite-handed foes. He's not so bad against lefties that he has to fill a purely ROOGY role, but it's best when he's restricted to righties. Neshek is another guy who can pile up the holds – he had 28 last season.

 

The final spot probably belongs to one of Wandy Rodriguez or Dan Straily with Scott Feldman serving as the fifth starter while Lance McCullers is out. As long relievers, they won't be fantasy relevant.

 

Oakland Athletics

 

Sean Doolittle

Ryan Madson

Liam Hendriks

Fernando Rodriguez

John Axford

Marc Rzepczynski

 

The bullpen was one of many reasons why the 2015 Athletics failed. The club lost Doolittle early in the season and lacked the necessary depth to recover. This time around Doolittle has been supplemented by Madson and Hendriks.

 

Reports have Doolittle sitting around 90-92 mph this spring – well off his 94 mph peak. If this represents a new normal for the lefty, then he may have trouble holding onto a closer job. Doolittle is fairly unique in that he almost exclusively uses a high fastball. The pitch has a surprisingly high whiff rate even though it's so predictable. He also induces ridiculously high infield fly totals – those are just as good as strikeouts.

 

If Doolittle isn't all the way back from his shoulder injury, Madson may be next in line. He broke out as the Phillies closer in 2011 after half a decade as a top setup man. Injuries derailed his next three seasons. He finally returned to health last year with the Royals, posting a 2.13 ERA with 8.24 K/9, 1.99 BB/9, and his signature changeup. It was also good to see him recover his 94 mph velocity.

 

When Hendriks broke out last season, well let's just say I was skeptical. Hendriks threw a lot of bad innings with the Twins. However, he spontaneously gained four mph on his fastball last year while maintaining his signature command. The result was a 2.92 ERA, 9.88 K/9, and 1.53 BB/9. Hendriks wouldn't be the most visually impressive closer, but he could do the job better than most.

 

Rodriguez and Axford are set to fill middle relief roles. They both come with upside. Rodriguez is the more traditional upside play with good velocity, swing-and-miss stuff, and passable command. He throws a four seamer, cutter, and curve.

 

Axford, once a top closer for the Brewers, continues to reap strikeouts and walks. He had 10.02 K/9 and 5.17 BB/9 last year. A ground ball pitcher, Axford's lack of command prevents him from getting the most out of his stuff.

 

I'm sure I'm not the first to say this, Rzepczynski may have the most improbable combination of vowels and consonants in baseball. He's a purely lefty specialist who is carefully hidden from right-handed hitters. In certain leagues, his 20 hold upside in 35 innings can have real value.

 

Ryan Dull may have the inside track on the final bullpen job. If so, he'd be unlikely to accrue fantasy value as the long reliever. The righty did show off some decent whiff rates in a 17 inning audition last season.

 

Seattle Mariners

 

Steve Cishek

Joaquin Benoit

Tony Zych

Michael Montgomery

Joel Peralta

Vidal Nuno

 

With Evan Scribner, Charlie Furbush, and Ryan Cook already on the shelf, the Mariners have to reach into their depth early. Luckily, they have plenty of it.

 

Look around the league and there are a few closers nobody wants to draft. Cishek is one of them. The former Marlin had a career worst season in 2015 due to lost velocity and command. Spring radar readings don't leave much hope for a velocity recovery.

 

I see an explanation for his bad 2015 – he dropped an above average four seam fastball in exchanged for more below average sinkers. While the sinker is a bigger part of his regular repertoire, the straight fastball always did better work. Hopefully the Mariners notice and correct the issue. Cishek was a regular top 15 closer prior to last year.

 

Should Cishek crumple, old man Benoit is next in line. The 38-year-old splitter specialist has been a closer quality reliever for years. It seems like teams go out of their way to push him to the eighth inning. The Padres traded for Kimbrel, then dealt Benoit to Seattle. The Mariners then signed Cishek as a free agent. Benoit's splitter is one of the best pitches in the league, making him a safe bet for strikeouts and strong ratios.

 

Zych really impressed after a late-season call up. In 18 innings, he had a 2.45 ERA, 11.78 K/9, and 1.47 BB/9. He showed off a 96 mph fastball and an above average slider. It's not hard to see him working his way into saves this year. There's also a chance the league may adjust to his stuff, or he could enter 2016 without the plus command he featured last year.

 

For now, Montgomery is the top lefty in the pen. The former top prospect was a decent swing man last year. Now they'll see if he can fill a more situational role. Pay attention to see if his velocity plays up in relief.

 

Peralta, 40, is still kicking around the league. He was recently informed he would make the roster. He's coming off his worst season since 2008. The soft-tossing righty still has the plus control that allowed him to thrive with the Rays. I still don't see a fantasy application for him.

 

Nuno, another left-handed former starter, looks set for the long relief role. With enough command and stuff to start, Nuno isn't likely to provide value as a reliever. He could be a decent stream pick later in the season.

 

The final spot may go to somebody outside the organization. Cody Martin, Jonathan Aro, and David Rollins could also fill a role.

 

Los Angeles Angels

 

Huston Street

Joe Smith

Fernando Salas

Mike Morin

Jose Alvarez

Al Alburquerque

 

I get a certain joy from watching and writing about the Rangers bullpen. The Angels are the anti-Rangers. Nobody is more boringly effective than Street. He's finally shed the injury prone labeled that dogged him during his early career. Now he throws a well-below average, 89 mph fastball, plus slider, and above average changeup. He gets away with the fastball by using his slider just as frequently (39 percent).

 

When Street misses his inevitable week and a half, Smith's around to continue lulling the other team back to their hotel rooms. He throws a bad 89 mph fastball, adequate sinker, and a plus slider. As you might guess, he limits his fastball usage.

 

There really isn't another closer candidate in the bunch. Salas had a nice strikeout to walk ratio last year (10.46 K/9, 1.70 BB/9), but the fly ball pitcher is slightly homer prone. Similarly, Morin had good peripherals (10.44 K/9, 2.29 BB/9) and a terrible 6.37 ERA. He should experience some positive regression.

 

Alvarez is the resident lefty. He's another soft-tosser without impressive stuff. He does limit same-handed hitters. Alburquerque would be more interesting if he had ever discovered command. He has big whiff rates and an equally large walk rate.

 

Others of note include swing man Cory Rasmus, hard thrower Cam Bedrosian, former prospect Deolis Guerra, and former closer Javy Guerra. If the rotation ever gets healthy, the overflow will take this seventh spot. For now, it's probably Rasmus.

Brad Johnson

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