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Saves and Steals

Bullpen Review: NL West

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

Every week, I look at Greg Holland languishing in free agency with nary a rumor of a possible destination. Then I look at certain would-be contenders who could really use a closer (*ahem* Cardinals). And I wonder to myself, wtf mate? Outdated flash videos aside, Spring Training is going swimmingly for just about every closer in baseball land. We've yet to lose anybody to injury.

 

It's time to continue our division-by-division bullpen reviews. If you prefer a zoomed out version of this article, click over to the All Bullpen Review. Over the last four weeks, we evaluated the NL East, AL East, NL Central, and AL Central. It's time to peek in at the AL Central.

 

I welcome any and all criticism or suggestions. Think I missed somebody? Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @BaseballATeam.

 

Editor’s Note: With over 15,000 reviews, DRAFT is the highest rated fantasy sports app. For a limited time, DRAFT is giving Rotoworld readers a FREE entry into a real money draft and a Money-Back Guarantee up to $100! Here's the link.

 

Los Angeles Dodgers

 

Kenley Jansen

Scott Alexander

Tony Cingrani

Ross Stripling

Pedro Baez

Josh Fields

 

Last winter, I had this to say about Dodgers setup ace Brandon Morrow.

 

“Other relief candidates include Josh Fields and non-roster invitee Brandon Morrow.”

 

That's it. I mentioned his existence and continued with the column. Fields is still around the periphery of this bullpen. Morrow is off closing in Chicago on a multi-year contract. The bullpen is fun! Fortunes can completely reverse in the span of one season – often unpredictably.

 

You're here to read some words about Jansen. I might as well reveal that he's my top ranked closer heading into the 2018 season. Hardly a controversial position. Last year was a masterpiece, combining 14.36 K/9, 0.92 BB/9, and a 1.32 ERA. The crazy part? These numbers are only slightly better than typical for Jansen. He features arguably the top performing cutter in baseball history, and he throws it almost exclusively. Yes, he's right there with Mariano Rivera. Will he match Rivera's volume of success?

 

Moving along, the Dodgers made a wise decision to acquire Alexander. The southpaw is basically a lower strikeout version of Zach Britton. He induced a 73.8 percent ground ball rate in his breakout 2017 campaign. Like Britton, he actually posted an above average 12.8 percent swinging strike rate. If he ever finds a second weapon to pair with his sinker, he'll turn into a top 10 reliever. As it stands, he's still a top 30 reliever despite throwing 91 percent sinkers.

 

When the Dodgers acquired Tony Cingrani last summer, I imagine they said to him, “hey, maybe throw a slider sometimes.” He replied. “Fine.” In 19.1 innings, his strikeout rate jumped to 13.03 K/9 with the help of 20 percent slider usage. He also recorded 2.79 BB/9, 2.79 ERA, and 1.09 WHIP in Dodger blue. I honestly can't guess if this is all a small sample fluke or a sign of things to come. In any case, there's upside here – and perhaps an illustration of how Alexander may also benefit from Dodger coaching.

 

The remaining trio are all quite solid. They're unlikely to feature in the late innings. Stripling could be in the mix for wins as a multi-inning reliever. The Dodgers tend to be quite aggressive with relieving their non-Kershaw starters. He'll run about a strikeout per inning with a low walk rate and high-3.00s ERA. Baez is a hard thrower who consistently outperforms his peripherals via a low BABIP. Expect over a strikeout per inning and a roughly 3.00 ERA. Fields is a fly ball pitcher who tends to be inconsistent year-to-year.

 

For the seventh spot in the bullpen, a slew of promising alternatives are on the roster including top prospect Walker Buehler, Yimi Garcia, Edward Paredes, and Adam Liberatore. Rotation depth Wilmer Font and Brock Stewart could also enter the equation. Non-roster invites Mark Lowe and Pat Venditte are long shots.

 

San Francisco Giants

 

Mark Melancon

Sam Dyson

Tony Watson

Hunter Strickland

Derek Law

Josh Osich

Cory Gearrin

 

Age and a hefty workload may have finally caught up to Melancon last season. Although his peripherals were typical, a .374 BABIP led to an unusually high 4.50 ERA. Notably, Melancon had not allowed more than a .259 BABIP in the three previous seasons. When healthy, he should be a low BABIP guy. Of course, the “when healthy” qualifier is a key component to this discussion. He missed time on multiple occasions with forearm discomfort – a common indicator of an elbow issue. If the injury recurs in 2018, expect Tommy John surgery to follow. Melancon pared back his repertoire to a cutter and curve. Both are plus pitches.

 

Dyson bombed as the Rangers closer last season before landing on both feet in San Francisco. His results with the Giants weren't very inspiring despite recording 14 saves. A 4.03 ERA, 6.39 K/9, and 4.26 BB/9 qualified him as the worst closer in the league. His main redeeming quality is a 63 percent ground ball rate. He's also featured much better command in past seasons. A rebound is possible for the sinker specialist.

 

I'm not sure how the Giants convinced Tony Watson to sign a three-year, $7 million contract. He'll serve as an alternative backup closer to Dyson. The southpaw lost his closer role with the Pirates – mostly because Felipe Rivero is a monster. Watson did take a few bad luck losses to open the door for Rivero. The Dodgers tinkered with Watson's pitch usage upon acquiring him at the trade deadline. It'll be interesting to see if he continues using his sinker at a 50 percent rate. He features four above average offerings – the sinker, a four seam fastball, a changeup, and a slider.

 

The rest of this bullpen ought to look pretty familiar to fantasy owners. Unless he recovers some of his lost velocity, we can probably officially give up on Strickland as more than a middle reliever. A lack of quality breaking ball limits his ceiling. He did improve his slider somewhat in 2017. It's not enough to make a difference. He may rack up a healthy total of holds.

 

Osich looks likely to be the lefty specialist. He struggled against both hands last season. Steven Okert is his main competition. Neither are fantasy relevant. Law and Gearrin could figure in the middle innings. Again, no need to worry about them for fantasy purposes. The same is true of Derek Holland. He could snipe a long relief role.

 

San Diego Padres

 

Brad Hand

Phil Maton

Kirby Yates

Craig Stammen

Carter Capps

 

Hand has emerged as one of the top relievers in the league. Over the past two seasons, he's worked 168.2 innings across 134 appearances. That's quite the workload. He wasn't exactly idle during the previous two seasons either. Including 28 starts, Hand has averaged 93 innings over the last four seasons. The 28-year-old could be an elevated injury risk, especially because his primary pitch is an elite slider. Despite the modest health concerns and relatively weak supporting cast, you should target Hand aggressively.

 

Maton was slain by the homer monster in his major league debut. He allowed 2.09 HR/9. Left-handed hitters feasted (2.55 HR/9). Maton did manage to flash a Rich Hill-like high spin fastball and knockdown curve ball. The breaking ball may be an elite offering. He probably needs to use it more than 20 percent in order to enjoy major league success. There's breakout potential here if he can avoid the homeritis.

 

Speaking of homeritis, Yates is a fly ball pitcher with a longstanding home run problem. His woes continued in 2017, even as he recorded 13.98 K/9 and a 3.97 ERA. Until he learns to cut down on his 1.91 HR/9, Yates is going to be a high strikeout, high ERA reliever. He's an untrustworthy source of holds.

 

Capps was lost last season. In his prime, he sat 96 to 100 mph with his jump-fastball. His breaking balls performed as unhittable, elite offerings. Last year, in a small sample, he averaged just 93 mph and his bendy stuff was unimpressive. Keep an eye on the radar gun. If he starts approaching triple-digits, then it's time to acquire shares.

 

The Padres leaned on Stammen in 2017. He tossed 80.1 innings in 60 appearances. He'll likely reprise his role as innings eater. San Diego is loaded with starting pitcher depth. Guys like Matt Strahm, Tyson Ross, Robbie Erlin, and Chris Young the Tall could find themselves in the bullpen. The quartet currently appears to be the sixth to ninth best starters on the roster.

 

Colorado Rockies

 

Wade Davis

Adam Ottavino

Bryan Shaw

Jake McGee

Mike Dunn

 

The Rockies rode their bullpen to a brief postseason appearance. Hoping to catch lightning twice, they doled out big bucks to sign Davis and Shaw. They also re-signed McGee. Combined with Ottavino, it's a healthy-looking relief unit.

 

Coors Field provides an ever-present wrinkle for new Colorado pitchers. Can we trust Davis' cutter and curve to remain premium offerings in the rarefied air? Will he (or Shaw) struggle when shifting from altitude to sea level and back again? These are questions no other team has to worry about when making a pricy free agent acquisition. Davis has also suffered iffy arm health and declining command. Presumably, by passing a physical, his forearm and elbow look healthy now. When targeting him in your fantasy drafts, I suggest building in considerable regression. Until I see reason to believe otherwise, I project around 10.00 K/9, 4.00 BB/9, a 3.75 ERA, and 1.30 WHIP.

 

Ottavino has been inconsistent since returning from Tommy John surgery. At his best, the 32-year-old (yep, he's not young) features strikeouts, ground balls, and plus command. Last season, the command left the stadium (6.58 BB/9). He spent the offseason working to recapture his stuff at Driveline Baseball - the same place Trevor Bauer, Tim Lincecum, and many others trained over the winter. He lost effectiveness with his sinker last season, an issue that could handicap his ability to rebound.

 

Shaw spent five seasons with the Indians. In each, he appeared in at least 70 games. He was the Cleveland Rubber Arm Man. His velocity leaped four tics on the radar gun from 91 mph in 2016 to 95 mph last season. Surprisingly, his peripherals were virtually unchanged. Usually, more heat equals more strikeouts. Perhaps the Rockies think they can coax more whiffs for the oft-used reliever. He's a cutter specialist – using the pitch near 90 percent of the time. He's a candidate to lead the league in holds.

 

I was a tad surprised the Rockies opted to keep McGee. On the one hand, it may be wise to hang onto somebody who already experienced success in Colorado. In 57.1 innings last season, he recorded a 3.61 ERA, 9.10 K/9, and 2.51 BB/9. It was a substantial improvement upon his bad 2016 campaign. My confusion relates to his weird repertoire. He basically only throws a fastball. Fastball-only relievers usually have an extreme ground ball rate like Britton or a high fly ball rate like Sean Doolittle (he also has a deceptive release). McGee has neither. Perhaps he is unnoticeably deception? Here's a tiny sampling of his fastball. He slings it a bit, but that usually leads to big platoon splits. Not so in his case.

 

Dunn, a former free agent acquisition, doesn't fill an obvious role. He's a lefty specialist who hasn't exactly proven he has platoon splits. He does very noticeably struggle with command. As a fly ball pitcher with a high walk rate, he isn't exactly an ideal fit for Coors Field or fantasy rosters. Chris Rusin seems likely to reprise his multi-inning relief role after working to a 2.65 ERA in 85 innings last year. A spare starter will probably round out the bullpen – perhaps Antonio Senzatela. I believe his fastball-slider repertoire could play up in short bursts. He's reportedly hard at work improving his changeup and curve which could help him stick in the rotation.

 

Arizona Diamondbacks

 

Archie Bradley

Yoshihisa Hirano

Brad Boxberger

Randall Delgado

Jorge de la Rosa

 

Arizona is one of the few clubs with a good old-fashioned roster battle for the closer role. Bradley is everybody's assumed favorite to win the job, but he has one unusual barrier standing in his way. Starting pitcher prospects almost never go from closer back to the rotation. With apologies to Braden Shipley, Bradley is currently the Diamondbacks only viable sixth starter – at least until Shelby Miller returns late in the season. Keeping him semi-stretched out in a multi-inning relief role may be in the club's best interest. Bradley leans heavily on a 96 mph fastball. His breaking ball, a curve, is maybe an average offering. Personally, I don't really think Bradley can start. He doesn't have the repertoire, and he needs the bump in velocity from relieving. Any way you cut it, they need more rotation depth from somewhere.

 

Brooks Baseball, one of the main websites I use to evaluate pitch performance, has exactly three recorded pitches for Hirano – a 91 mph fastball, a 79 mph slider, and an 84 mph splitter. Based on what I can find – such as this YouTube clip – I'm a little concerned about his fastball. I worry it could be a very hittable pitch. The slider looks like it has potential, and the splitter smells like a dangerous weapon. I'm hearing a lot of positivity from Arizona officials. They seem to be trying to hype him up. Don't be afraid to grab a late share.

 

On the surface, and even a little under the surface, Boxberger had a successful 2017. A 3.38 ERA, 12.27 K/9, and 3.38 BB/9 adds up to a passable closer. He allows a few too many fly balls for my liking, especially because he allowed an unholy 36 percent hard contact rate last year. That could be a small sample blip. Like Hirano, a late-round flier won't hurt. Boxberger is an ultra-volatile option for the late-innings.

 

Delgado has never turned the corner from hard-throwing reliever to late-inning weapon. He'll absorb some volume and could be streamable on the right days. Ignore de la Rosa for fantasy purposes.

 

The Diamondbacks have four non-roster invitees you know – Antonio Bastardo, Neftali Feliz, Kris Medlen, and Fernando Salas. All have figured in prominent relief roles in the not-so-distant past. They have no shortage of competition with Andrew Chafin, Albert Suarez, Jimmie Sherfy, and Silvino Bracho among the challengers for a bullpen job. Still, I'd bet on at least one NRI to make the roster. Sherfy and Bracho has some breakout potential due to solid strikeout and walk rates.

Brad Johnson

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