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Saves and Steals

NL Central Bullpens

by Brad Johnson
Updated On: February 25, 2021, 1:56 am ET

Our bullpen preparations continue with a close gander at the NL Central. The division includes a two-headed monster, a bullpen stuffed to the gills with closer-capable relievers, and a whole heap of question marks. Previous editions focused on the AL West, NL West, and AL Central. You can also check out The All Bullpen Audit for a high level review of every bullpen.

Before moving on to the topic of the day, let’s quickly acknowledge the Athletics' addition of Trevor Rosenthal. The righty is coming off a career-best season split between the Royals and Padres. Even in his prime, Rosenthal was always susceptible to slumps. Perhaps the 2020 campaign simply wasn’t long enough for him to fall into a rut. In any event, his high strikeout rate, ninth-inning role, and potential for above average ratios makes him an instant Top 10 closer candidate.

National League Central

Milwaukee Brewers

Josh Hader
Devin Williams
Brent Suter
Freddy Peralta

Since his debut in 2017, Hader is arguably the top reliever in baseball. The left-hander induces comical strikeout rates while rarely allowing a hit or a walk. In 223.2 innings, he’s held opponents to a mere .143 batting average. He has just one weakness – a penchant for coughing up a few too many home runs. Hader’s slider is so unhittable (career .096 average against and .159 slugging against) that opposing hitters sit on the fastball. It too is a devasting pitch (career .159 average against and .337 slugging against), but at least opponents have some hope to do damage as evidenced by his career 1.25 HR/9. The abbreviated 2020 season was the first time the Brewers didn’t have Hader in a multi-inning role. It’ll be interesting to see if he returns to his old usage patterns.

If what we saw of Williams is the real deal, he puts Hader to shame. The righty features a 97-mph heater and a nearly invisible changeup with screwball-like action. He uses the changeup as his main offering. He ended 62 at bats with the pitch – 41 strikeouts, five walks, 14 batted outs, and just two singles. By contrast, his fastball is used somewhat like a more traditional changeup as a way to muck with opponent’s timing. Unlike Hader, Williams has yet to show any proclivity for untimely home runs. That said, we’ve seen Williams dominate for precisely 27 innings. His 2019 debut (13.2 innings) was pedestrian. If he turns out to be an ordinary high leverage pitcher rather than the very best reliever to ever play the sport, nobody should be surprised. While they’re not at all similar pitchers, it’s worth recalling the Blake Treinen experience. He posted a 0.78 ERA in 2018 only to fall apart to the tune of a 4.91 ERA in 2019.

Behind the ludicrous top billing, the Brewers bullpen is mostly an open contest. Suter and Peralta are unusual pitchers who happen to thrive as multi-inning relievers. Their presence could help to keep Hader and Williams in more traditional single-inning roles, or they might be called upon as bulk relievers for an incomplete starting rotation.

Suter is a fairly typical soft-tossing southpaw with a funky delivery. He’s coming off an unusually effective season in which he recorded 10.80 K/9 and 1.42 BB/9 in 31.2 innings. The walk rate matched his usual standards, but the strikeout rate was well-beyond anything we’ve ever seen from him. Considering he throws an 86-mph sinking fastball and seldom leans upon his offspeed stuff, it’s wise to turn to his career 7.63 K/9 as a guidepost. As one of only a few predictably reliable bulk relievers, Suter is of special interest in formats with limits on games started.

The same is true of Peralta. He averages about two innings per appearance. Unlike Suter, the deceptive righty consistently manages around 12.00 K/9. Last season was a bumper performance with 14.42 K/9, 3.68 BB/9, and a 3.99 ERA in 29.1 innings. He introduced an effective slider to complement his deceptive fastball. Peralta snipes the upper edge of the zone with his 93-mph heater. The pitch appears to rise due to his size (he’s just 5’ 11’’) and delivery.

The remainder of the Brewers bullpen is something of an open battle. Ray Black, Justin Topa, and J.P. Feyereisen fall into a similar category of hard throwers who happen to be on the 40-man roster and project as adequate middle relievers. They all follow the same general blueprint with modest breakout potential. Eric Yardley represents something very different. He’s a soft-tossing right-handed submariner with an over-60 percent ground ball rate. Non-roster invitees with a plausible chance to make the roster include Brad Boxberger and Hoby Milner. Don’t be surprised if Milwaukee sponges more talent from outside the organization. They have at least six pitchers on their 40-man roster who could be easily upgraded.

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St. Louis Cardinals

Jordan Hicks
Giovanny Gallegos
Andrew Miller
Alex Reyes
Ryan Helsley
Daniel Ponce de Leon
John Gant

Whereas the Brewers feature a top-heavy bullpen, the Cardinals possess depth beyond reckoning. In addition to the seven names listed above, Genesis Cabrera, Johan Oviedo, Kodi Whitley, and Junior Fernandez are on the 40-man roster and have flashed fantasy relevant traits – assuming they ever sniff late-innings opportunities. Carlos Martinez looms as a complicating factor if he doesn’t win a rotation spot.

Predicting the Opening Day closer for St. Louis is a challenging task. However, there’s little doubt the club wants Hicks to eventually reclaim the role. He was on track to return from Tommy John surgery late last season before he opted out. At full health, his signature pitch is a 101-mph sinker. Hitters are flummoxed by the combination of velocity and movement. He also greatly improved his slider in 2019 before he landed on the Injured List. The stated plan over the offseason was to gradually work him back into high leverage duty. Reports from the first days of Spring Training are already glowing. The profile is reminiscent of Brusdar Graterol and Emmanuel Clase. Hicks will probably hover around a strikeout per inning while generally preventing hard contact and racking up mountains of ground balls.

For reasons unknown, the Cardinals have an aversion to using Gallegos in the ninth inning. Although he did record a career-high four saves in 2020, he’s best targeted as a holds reliever. The right-hander is a slider specialist, turning to the offering for roughly half his pitches. His teammate Miller plays a similar game from the left-side, using a difficult-to-hit slider as his primary offering. They’ll record somewhere in the neighborhood of 11.00 K/9 to go with plenty of holds and decent rate stats.

Once a top prospect, Reyes can’t seem to stay on the field. The 2020 campaign was his best on the books. He made 15 appearances with a 3.20 ERA, 12.36 K/9, and 6.41 BB/9. The walks are obviously a concern. As a hard-throwing reliever, he’ll probably want to distill his five-pitch repertoire into something more manageable. He’ll be stretched out to start this spring, opening the potential for a multi-inning role.

Gant has proven to be an effective reliever since joining the bullpen full time in 2019. There was even a brief moment when it looked like he’d get a shot at closing. He rediscovered his slider last season and also managed a 62.9 percent ground ball rate. This came in just 15 innings and should be taken with a grain of salt. Ponce de Leon and Helsley are also a part of the fifth-starter battle in St. Louis. Helsley is a hard-thrower with a diverse repertoire who hasn’t quite discovered himself yet. By contrast, Ponce de Leon has a 1990s throwback feel. He sits 93-mph with his fastball as part of a four-pitch repertoire. He mostly discarded his mediocre changeup last season. There is potential for his stuff to play up in relief.

Chicago Cubs

Craig Kimbrel
Brandon Workman
Rowan Wick
Andrew Chafin

As part of their cost-cutting measures, the Cubs have responded to their recent history of disastrous bullpens by inviting a smorgasbord of has-beens and never-quite-weres to camp. Just some of the names on the list include Robert Stock, Pedro Strop, Jason Adam, Adam Morgan, James Bourque, Jonathan Holder, Dillon Maples, Joe Biagini, Rex Brothers, Brad Wieck, Dan Winkler, and Duane Underwood Jr. Some of them will make the club. Some of them… won’t.

The more I investigate Kimbrel, the more I’m inclined to give him another chance. His fastball and curve remain devastating in tandem – a peek at his Statcast spin-based and observed movement confirm the two pitches mirror each other. His first four appearances last season included a 23.63 ERA, 6.75 K/9, and 16.88 BB/9. His fastball averaged 96.3-mph. Thereafter, he threw 12.2 innings with a 1.42 ERA, 18.47 K/9 and 4.97 BB/9. He also allowed only four hits and average 97.2-mph with his heater. Between the errant command and missing tick of velocity, it’s fair to wonder if he simply needed another week of Spring Training. Let’s not forget, his terrible 2019 campaign was also built upon a missed Spring Training.

When Workman broke out as the Red Sox closer in 2019, he built his success upon just one home run in 71.2 innings. He coughed up four big flies in 19.2 innings last season. He was less effective in other ways too. His strikeout rate regressed to his career norm. Walks (5.95 BB/9) remained a pressing concern. While he’s an adequate safety net for Kimbrel, he remains a constant meltdown risk.

Wick has the trust of some Cubs fans because he’s pitched well over the last two seasons. Bear in mind, he has just 59 career innings. It’s dangerous to get too excited about a 3.20 ERA and a little better than a strikeout per inning, especially when his run prevention is propped up by a low home run rate. He’s held opponents to just 0.31 HR/9. Nothing in his profile suggests he’ll continue to do so. Expect about 1.00 HR/9 and a 4.00 ERA going forward.

Cincinnati Reds

Sean Doolittle
Amir Garrett
Lucas Sims
Tejay Antone

The Reds have no shortage of interesting pitchers in their system, it’s just a matter of waiting for some of them to emerge. Among the candidates to round out their relief corps are Art Warren, Ryan Hendrix, Riley O’Brien, Bo Takahashi, Jeff Hoffman, Noe Ramirez, Sal Romano, Jose De Leon, and Cam Bedrosian. Most of them project for around a strikeout per inning and a mid-4.00s ERA. De Leon is especially interesting. He showed his face just long enough last season to flash a 95-mph fastball. In previous campaigns, his fastball sat around 92-mph. Injuries and errant command have prevented the once-prospect from establishing himself.

The closer battle is a straight competition between Doolittle and Garrett. Doolittle is the guy with experience, but his recent history of injuries and declining velocity risk pushing him out of the sport entirely. The southpaw reportedly feels healthy and has even developed a new breaking ball. Doolittle typically throws fastballs just under nine out of 10 pitches. He gets away with being so predictable because of a little trick – he uses his glove to hide the ball. Most hitters can’t get a read on his high heat. Keep an eye on velocity readings. If he’s sitting around 93-mph, he has a chance to be the Doolittle of old.

Garrett has made no secret of his desire to close. The southpaw certainly has the swagger for the role. His primary pitch is a slider which he’ll use in any count. Garrett refuses to give in to hitters which tends to bloat his walk rate. Since he has issues with home runs, free passes are quite dangerous. His success in 2020 was built upon a .188 BABIP. He usually allows a .300 BABIP. If he does capture the job, fantasy managers should enjoy roughly 12.00 K/9 along with good and bad weeks. When the dust clears, it might not be all that different from the Reds old closer, Raisel Iglesias.

Sims would have been right in the closer mix if not for elbow discomfort. He reportedly expects to be ready for Opening Day and a recent MRI came back clean. However, Cincinnati will probably handle him carefully. The right-hander is a spin-rate god with a 99th percentile fastball and 100th percentile curve. The only weakness in his game - besides non-elite velocity – is middling command.

Antone is probably more interesting as a starting pitcher. He’s presently sixth on the rotation depth chart. If he opens the season in the bullpen, he could enter the late-inning picture. It’s more likely he’ll be used in multi-inning, high leverage situations earlier in the game. Antone is another spin-rate king. Somewhat unusually, he records a high ground ball rate. His four-pitch repertoire is headlined by a highly effective slider.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Richard Rodriguez
Chris Stratton
Michael Feliz
Kyle Crick

Persistent rumors suggest the Pirates still intend to trade Rodriguez before the end of Spring Training. The righty had a fantastic 2020 season, building on a recent track record of strong results despite an otherwise simplistic approach. He has a frequently used, high spin rate fastball. It’s only a 93-mph heater, but it’s sufficiently deceptive to induce an excellent whiff rate. In his best seasons, he turns to a decent slider around one-quarter of the time. If he isn’t traded, Rodriguez could be a fantasy bargain. He’s selected in the same range as Matt Barnes, Drew Pomeranz, and Will Smith – none of whom look like full-time closers at this point in time.

Stratton is yet another spin-rate story. His 93-mph fastball and curve have some of the best spin in the game. Unfortunately, they don’t mirror particularly well which means hitters are likelier to pick up the difference. His stuff played way up in relief last season, yet his 3.90 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and 11.70 K/9 were forgettable. There is growth potential here if he can build upon what he learned last season.

Pirates officials recently made some public comments about Rodriguez and Stratton not looking the part of a closer. The implication, perhaps, is that Feliz and Crick have a more classic appearance. Both are 6’ 4’’ mountains with mid-90s fastballs. Neither has established himself as a surefire Major Leaguer. While they record around 11.00 K/9, it’s accompanied by painful walk rates and way too many hits. Health issues have plagued both pitchers over the years. Crick even lost five-mph in limited action last season.

Blake Cederlind is a prospect with the advantage of velocity. In his first taste of the Majors, he sat at 98-mph while flashing a plus slider. Those in deep leagues should track him this spring as a dark horse candidate. Nick Mears is another prospect with some high leverage potential. More than a dozen others are battling for a spot in this bullpen. We’ll have to let the dust clear before we can dig deeper.

Brad Johnson

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