It's time to get detailed. Over the last two weeks, we conducted an all-team bullpen audit and talked about elite performance through the lens of K-BB%. Now it's time to dig our teeth into the gory details of every bullpen.
Over the next six weeks, we'll cover all bullpens top-to-bottom by division. Today we'll begin with the NL East. One general caveat – it's hard to fully account for all possible relievers, especially factors on the farm.
For example, last February, I would have looked at Ken Giles and seen somebody with the upside of Al Alburquerque. In the minors, he reaped strikeouts and sowed walks. I knew about the great fastball, but closer upside still seemed unlikely. Now we know differently. These articles will focus on opening day. Relief prospects who emerge mid-season will be addressed at that time.
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.
The Phillies are actively trying to trade Papelbon, but there are complications to a possible deal. Wherever he ends up, he should remain a viable major league closer. The 34-year-old pitched well last season, but there are cracks in the foundation. His 2.04 ERA is the product of a low .247 BABIP and 2.7 percent HR/FB rate. Over his career, he's averaged a .277 BABIP and 6.8 percent HR/FB. Regression would nudge his ERA up to around 3.00.
As recently as 2011, Papelbon's fastball averaged 95 mph. It's since declined to 91 mph in a three-season free fall. Assuming he can arrest the decline, the lack of top velocity could leave his entire repertoire easier to hit. If the downward trend continues, you'll want to sell your shares of Papelbon.
Behind Papelbon is one of the most exciting non-closers in baseball – Giles. With the ability to touch triple digit velocity, Giles looks like an unproven version of Craig Kimbrel. I've repeatedly harped on his minor league walk rate, which was over two times higher than the healthy 2.17 BB/9 he posted in the majors. The pitch peripherals of his slider were comparable to Kimbrel's big nasty. Batters whiffed 24 percent of the time. Kimbrel has a slightly more effective fastball, but both rate as fantastic.
Quietly, Diekman has emerged as another potentially great flamethrower. The lefty made a mechanical change prior to last season and discovered 100 mph fastballs as a result. Unlike some southpaws, Diekman doesn't need to be hidden from right-handed hitters. He's not nearly as potent against opposite-handed foes, yet he's still effective. He allowed a .363 BABIP last season, which could hint at one of two things. It's possible he was unlucky. If so, expect big things in 2015. He may catch too much of the plate at times. His pitch charts don't look wonky, so I'm more inclined to expect a league average BABIP going forward.
De Fratus feels like a throwback to 2010. Back then, 8.37 K/9, 2.05 BB/9, and a 2.39 ERA would have put him in the discussion as a closer candidate. He could still handle ninth innings, much as Kevin Quackenbush did last season. In today's game, his strikeout and walk rates mark him as a typical setup man. Until Papelbon is traded, he's penciled in as the sixth inning reliever.
Beyond the top four, the bullpen gets thinner. Hollands is supposed to return from an elbow injury this spring. He's a LOOGY in line for sixth inning work. The final two spots (three if Hollands isn't ready) appear to be a free-for-all. Cuban hurler Miguel Gonzalez, veteran Kevin Slowey, and Jonathan Pettibone will compete for the long relief role. Given a patchy rotation, it will be an important job.
Of the long relief candidates, Gonzalez is the most interesting. Once the Phillies converted him to the bullpen, he soared through the system. He posted big strikeout rates and walked too many hitters. The Phillies will ask him to throw more strikes. Owed $7 million over the next two seasons, he's very likely to make the club. Armed with a 95 mph fastball, he could grow into a relief ace.
Speaking of high walk rates, Phillippe Aumont remains on the 40 man roster. Originally acquired in the Cliff Lee trade with Seattle, Aumont combines visually impressive stuff with a complete inability to locate. He's still only 26 years old. If he doesn't make the club out of spring training, there is a good chance he'll be cut loose. Don't be surprised if another franchise unlocks his potential.
Barring injury, the only area of competition is long reliever. Unless the Nationals trade a starter, they'll have to decide between Tanner Roark, Blake Treinen, Taylor Jordan, or Taylor Hill for the mop up innings. I suspect the club will be hesitant to mess with Roark's routine as a starter, so he should be headed for Triple-A. An as-yet-identified candidate is liable to arise during spring training.
With the exception of Gio Gonzalez, every Nationals starter averaged over six innings per game last season. The bullpen certainly isn't a strength of the club, but it should be lightly worked. The dynamic offense and fantastic rotation should conspire to limit tight ball games.
Storen is the fireman of the group, but he's an ordinary sort of closer. He pitched to a 1.12 ERA last season with 7.35 K/9 and 1.76 BB/9. Watch out – a .259 BABIP, 3.7 percent HR/FB ratio, and 90 percent left-on-base percentage hint at trouble ahead. For his career, Storen has averaged a .278 BABIP, 77 percent strand rate, and 7.2 percent HR/FB ratio. The 27-year-old will probably be fine. Many fantasy owners want better than “fine.”
Janssen scuffled last season. He featured his lowest average fastball velocity since 2006 (89.3 mph). Injuries take part of the blame. The Nationals will hope he can recover the strikeout rate that allowed him to close for the Blue Jays. He retained his elite command and control through the worst, so he should remain a viable setup man at the very least.
Barrett probably isn't the seventh inning reliever, but he is the one guy with breakout potential. He held his own in the majors last season with a 2.66 ERA, 10.84 K/9, and 4.43 BB/9. The walk rate is his sole blemish. His minor league walk rates have been substantially lower since 2012, so there's reason to hope for an improvement. He has closer upside if he puts it all together.
The rest of the bullpen offers utility. Stammen is a solid, multi-inning reliever who will be called upon to defend big leads and maintain small deficits. Both Thornton and Blevins will be used as LOOGY's. Interestingly, Thornton has never shown much of a split. The Nationals still limited him to 36 innings in 64 appearances last season.
Unlike the Nationals, the Braves bullpen is very difficult to project. Atlanta does a great job developing high quality relievers. They have several high potential players to watch – many of whom received a cup of coffee last season.
Kimbrel is the big hoss in Atlanta. He currently appears to be the second best reliever in baseball behind Aroldis Chapman. The first five seasons of Kimbrel's career are arguably the best ever seen in history from a reliever. That said, he still has a long, long way to go before he joins Mariano Rivera in the annals of history. He features a 97 mph fastball that touches triple digits and a ridiculous curve.
In case Kimbrel hits the disabled list, the Braves signed 38-year-old Jason Grilli to manage the eighth inning. The former closer lost his job with the Pirates last season, but he pitched well for the Angels when he was traded. The fly ball pitcher needs to stay on top of his walk rate, which was the main culprit behind his hard times in Pittsburgh. He projects to strikeout over a batter per inning, so he's a solid holds target.
The other two listed above should battle for seventh inning work. Russell is a lefty who posted absurd reverse platoon splits last season. Never trust reverse platoon splits to repeat. He's been better against fellow lefties over his career.
You may recall Johnson from his time as the Orioles closer. He lost his command and control last season. In the four seasons prior to 2014, he posted around 2.00 BB/9/. Last season, it spiked to 5.91 BB/9.
Other names to watch include Luis Avilan, Shae Simmons, Ryan Buchter, Juan Jaime, and Ian Thomas. Avilan is a LOOGY reliever who appeared to be lucky in 2013. He followed his 1.52 ERA with an ugly 4.57 ERA last season. If he keeps his job, he'll be on the short leash.
Simmons is the most interesting of this group. The 24-year-old struck out over a batter per inning while showing a 95 mph fastball. He managed a 2.91 ERA in 21.2 major league innings. Like a lot of young pitchers, his walk rate can be a problem. It's for this reason alone that his grasp on a bullpen job is in question. He's also returning from a late-season shoulder injury.
Buchter is a potential multi-inning reliever. He's unlikely to gain fantasy relevance. Jaime offers a big 96 mph fastball along with no semblance of control. Since he frequently falls behind in the count, he has to lean on his fastball.
Thomas is the kind of pitcher whose minor league numbers may overstate his major league upside. He's consistently recorded over 10.00 K/9 despite barely averaging 91 mph. Entering his age 28 season, he's deceptively old for somebody with only three years of professional experience as a pitcher.
The Marlins feature a deep bullpen that extends down into the minors. Cishek is becoming expensive after agreeing to a $6.65 million contract for the 2015 season. There is a good chance the Fish will trade Cishek if internal alternatives emerge. Cishek blew a few noisy saves late last season, but his peripherals were career bests. In particular, his 11.57 K/9 easily topped his career rate of 9.92 K/9. For years, he's been a sneaky-good fantasy closer. He's reached the point where nobody is sleeping on him.
Dunn is the resident late-inning lefty specialist. He's solid enough against righties to pitch full innings. He occasionally gets in trouble with walks (career 4.66 BB/9). He should notch 20 to 25 holds with a healthy season. Even if the bullpen collapses, he won't earn many save opportunities.
Ramos is coming off a strong season with a 2.11 ERA, 10.27 K/9, and 6.05 BB/9. That's the worst walk rate he's posted at any level, so there's cause to expect a better performance. He's one of those semi-rare relievers who leans on a changeup. He could snag some saves, but he wouldn't be my first pick to fill in for Cishek.
Instead, I like Capps as the backup closer. A 97 mph fastball, 11.07 K/9, and 2.21 BB/9 speak to his potential as a high leverage reliever. He's a fastball-slider guy with big whiff rates on both pitches. Some sources call the breaking ball a curve. Batters whiffed 27 percent of the time against the pitch. If we just look at whiff rate by swing, batters fanned 63 percent of the time. That's well beyond elite, so expect some regression. He's one of my top relief sleepers this season.
Another backup closer option is Bryan Morris. The ground ball specialist is a poor man's Zach Britton. He's a four pitch reliever with a 96 mph fastball-sinker combo complemented by a decent slider and curve. His grounder rate hovers just below 60 percent, which allows him to outpitch his peripherals. Despite an elite 14 percent whiff rate, he won't help you with strikeouts (6.99 K/9). A breakout is definitely possible.
If the Marlins need more grounders after Morris, they can turn to Dyson. The righty has burned worms 65 percent of the time in 53.2 major league innings. Like Morris, he's uses four pitches headlined by a 96 mph fastball-sinker pairing. He'll also toss a slider and changeup, but those are uncommon.
The long relief role appears tabbed for Aaron Crow. The former top prospect has disappointed. Last season, he struggled to a 4.12 ERA while his velocity dropped to 92 mph. A 5.19 K/9 and 3.66 BB/9 support the weak ERA. The 28-year-old still has name value, which is why I think he'll break camp with the club.
To be sure, the Marlins have other options. The rotation is jammed packed with Jarred Cosart, Tom Koehler, David Phelps, Andre Rienzo, and Brad Hand battling for two or three spots (depending on Dan Haren). One of the losers of that battle could land in the swingman role over Crow. On another club, Arquimedes Caminero would have a shot at a middle relief role.
New York Mets
The Mets feature the most complicated bullpen in the NL East. In addition to three viable closers, there are a lot of exciting arms lurking on the periphery. Let's check in on some of those first, namely Rafael Montero, Jack Leathersich, Steven Matz, and Dario Alvarez.
Montero is the most recognizable name from this group. The club wants to use him as a starter, so he's also the least likely to spend considerable time in the bullpen. If the rotation bid fails, his stuff could play up in relief. Matz is another starter prospect who could swing over to the bullpen. His offspeed stuff is currently a weakness, which might force a move to relief.
Leathersich is a deceptive lefty with ridiculous minor league strikeout rates. He's averaged about 15 K/9 with a 91-94 mph fastball. His walk rates are occasionally ugly. If the Mets want a LOOGY, he's probably ready now. His minor league splits indicate he could handle right-handed hitters too.
Alvarez, another lefty, reached the majors last season. He pitched 1.1 innings in four appearances. He could get another shot as a lefty specialist, although I assume Leathersich is ahead of him on the depth chart.
Mejia finally established himself last season. The 25-year-old pitched well out of the bullpen with a 2.72 ERA, 9.59 K/9, and 3.36 BB/9. He played the final month of the season with a hernia, but the issue should be resolved. He's the frontrunner for saves in New York, but he'll face stiff competition.
Parnell might miss the beginning of the season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. Remember, pitchers aren't often 100 percent upon return, which is one reason I've slotted Mejia ahead of him on the depth chart. The 30-year-old averaged 95 to 97 mph on his fastball in his prime. Keep an eye on his spring training velocities. If they don't start to creep past the low 90's by the end of March, it will be time to sell your shares of Parnell.
Another late season hernia victim, Familia snatched a handful of saves. The righty ate 77 innings with a 2.21 ERA, 8.50 K/9, and 3.72 BB/9. He's a solid holds target, but there should be better pitchers who can provide more strikeouts.
You may recall Black's name from last preseason. He was a popular sleeper target to steal the ninth inning from Parnell. Instead, he entered camp with a control problem that continued in the minors (8.20 BB/9). Upon promotion to the majors, his walk rate improved to merely bad (4.93 BB/9). With a 96 mph fastball, he has growth potential. He just needs to discover better command and control.
The resident lefty specialist is Edgin. He pitched 27.1 innings in 47 appearances, with 9.22 K/9, 1.98 BB/9, and a 1.32 ERA. His brief major league career has featured small splits, so the Mets could probably consider using him in a full inning role.
If the rotation wasn't stuffed to the gills, Torres would probably serve as the swingman. The club has to put Gee somewhere, at least until a trade or injury occurs. With Gee taking long relief, Torres may settle in a middle relief role. He's a flexible reliever, reminiscent of Yusmeiro Petit in role (they aren't similar pitchers). If you need a spot start, he'll keep you in the game. If you need multiple innings of relief, he can do that too. Since he's 32 years old, he's not much of a fantasy asset.