In the last week, a major story broke with huge implications on the 2021 season – Major League Baseball is deadening the ball in preparation for the upcoming season. Baseballs will be a tenth of an ounce lighter and very slightly less bouncy. The headline takeaway is there should be considerably fewer home runs this season than the historic peak of 2019. However, it’s worth remembering that any changes to the size, balance, texture, or seams of the ball can have unexpected consequences on a per pitcher basis. Splitter specialists in particular are notoriously sensitive to small variations to the ball. We’re liable to see a couple guys battle blisters too. Look for pitchers who suddenly show up with a new offering – it might have been unlocked by the new ball.
We are still early in the process of evaluating Major League bullpens. Thus far, only the AL West has gone under the microscope. You can also check out The All Bullpen Audit for a high level review of every relief corps. Over the next five weeks, we’re going to continue our division-by-division inspection. The goal is to uncover opportunities and turn up predictable dark horses to stash in deeper leagues.
Today, we move along to the NL West. This is another division of haves and have nots. The Padres and Dodgers might possess top five bullpens while the Giants, Diamondbacks, and Rockies all reside in the bottom five.
National League West
San Diego Padres
While this isn’t the most name-brand relief corps, it’s a deep unit backed by a cohort of premium prospects with big potential. Pomeranz is the headliner. Since joining the bullpen in mid-2019, he has a 1.79 ERA with 14.66 K/9 and 3.40 BB/9 in 50.1 innings. His fastball velocity increased by four-mph with the move to the pen. He leans on his heater along with a highly effective curve ball. He did miss time last season with a shoulder strain. It’s a good sign that he quickly returned without losing any velocity.
Pagan broke out in 2019 on the strength of a weaponized slider, low walk rate, and elite swinging strike rate. He regressed in 2020, losing a tick on the radar gun along with missing fewer bats and posting a rather pedestrian 3.68 BB/9. Even at his best, Pagan was a homer-prone fly ball pitcher. He’s allowed 1.59 HR/9 throughout his career. The new baseball could help him avoid a big fly or two, but we should expect home runs to remain an issue. Over time, I expect him to drift towards a middle relief role in this talented crew.
One candidate to steal a setup role is Adams. He turned to his slider for 83.8 percent of his pitches last season. Of course, it should be noted that due to a knee injury, his season consisted of a whopping four innings. During his breakout with the Mariners in 2019, he used the slider for 64 percent of his pitches. Any way you slice it, a breaking ball is his primary offering. He’ll also zip a 95-mph fastball. He consistently induces a 50 percent ground ball rate. He intentionally works deep counts to chase strikeouts and prefers to walk hitters than give in on three-ball counts. Expect around 13.00 K/9 and 4.50 BB/9.
After a breakout performance for the Hanshin Tigers in 2019, Johnson returned stateside last season and delivered 20 excellent innings. He’s a fly ball pitcher with a 96-mph heater. He throws more curves than fastballs, utilizing the now popular approach of working up in the zone. While his fastball spin rate is middle of the road, his curve is one of the best in the league. He also spin mirrors effectively, meaning hitters have a hard time discerning which pitch is on the way because they appear to have the same spin.
One feature of the Padres bullpen is the diversity of skill sets. Hill is a typical lefty specialist. He uses an almost submarine delivery to keep same-handed hitters uncomfortable. He’s doesn’t stand out for fantasy purposes but could be a solid holds target if you need someone just for a couple days. Strahm, another southpaw, is more of a bulk reliever at this stage of his career. He doesn’t have platoon splits and can start in a pinch. Since joining the Padres in 2017, Stammen has been the second most-used reliever in the league. He’s faded in recent seasons. The soon-to-be 37-year-old might need a lighter workload these days. He’s a ground ball pitcher coming off his worst season since 2010.
The final spot in the bullpen looks to be a wide-open battle between a couple hard-throwers and a bevy of prospects. Javy Guerra and Dan Altavilla may have the inside track. Guerra sits 98-mph on the gun while Altavila regularly touches 97-mph. Both pitchers lack a track record of success. Guerra is still relatively new, having thrown just 22 Major League innings since the start of 2019. Altavilla has consistently struggled to limit walks and runs in 114.2 innings across parts of five seasons. Poor command consistently haunts him. Lefty Ryan Weathers raced to the Majors for a postseason debut last season. He’s expected to be stretched out as a starter. Taylor Williams, Adrian Morejon, and Michel Baez could also make a pitch for a job.
Los Angeles Dodgers
As you’d expect of a team with the Dodgers resources, they have no shortage of relievers headed to Spring Training. Jansen’s decade-long grasp on the closer role could be loosening. The effectiveness of his signature cutter has always mapped neatly to his velocity. Over the last three seasons, he’s averaged only 92-mph and has produced between a 3.01 and 3.71 ERA. That’s certainly respectable, but it’s not the sort of dominance he regularly featured in his heyday. He’s rumored to be working with Driveline or a similar pitch lab this winter which could bear fruit in a number of ways.
If this is the year Jansen relinquishes the ninth inning, there’s no single obvious candidate to take his place. That’s because they have four more potential closers. Treinen and Knebel both have a history of excellent relief. Graterol has the mound presence of a bulldog with the stuff to match. He’s been dubbed by many as the Dodgers closer of the future. Gonzalez was fantastic in 2020 – the southpaw was one of the 10 best relievers in the league. Only Devin Williams, Liam Hendriks, and Nick Anderson were unquestionably superior to Gonzalez.
While it’s too soon to determine which of these pitchers is next in line for saves, we can dig deeper for things to watch. Treinen rebounded from a shaky 2019 last season in an unsatisfying way. His superb 2018 was characterized by a lofty swinging strike rate. Since then, he hasn’t recaptured the same bat-missing capacity. In fact, his 2020 output looks an awful lot like the rest of his career excepting that wild 2018 season. He keeps the ball on the ground and limits hard contact. Don’t count on even a strikeout per inning.
Knebel’s return from Tommy John surgery left much to be desired. He was missing three-mph on his fastball. A 6.08 ERA made it obvious opponents felt rather comfortable. The Dodgers undoubtedly hope to see that velocity return. If not, he might fail to make the roster. He did seem to gain strength throughout the season, although even his best day was still a full mph below his career norms. Before investing in Knebel, look for a 97-mph fastball and a knee buckling curve in Spring Training action.
Graterol is an enigma of sorts. Despite regularly pumping 100-mph cheddar, he doesn’t induce whiffs. His fastball spin rate is one of the lowest in the league. In his brief time in the Majors, he’s been a pitch-to-contact ground ball guy. In many ways, this profile looks an awful lot like an even more imposing version of Treinen. The lack of strikeouts is certainly a disappointment, but he’s liable to make up for it by limiting hard contact. He’s also stingy with free passes. It’s not that he has above average command or anything - it turns out he doesn’t need to hit spots with his fastball. Even straight down the pike, opponents can’t seem to do anything with it.
Another low spin rate guy, Gonzalez nevertheless induces plenty of whiffs. The southpaw is a ground ball pitcher coming off 20.1 innings with 10.18 K/9, 0.89 BB/9, and a 69.2 percent ground ball rate. Even with only one save to his name, a 1.33 ERA and 0.74 WHIP helped his fantasy managers. We should expect regression, especially in the walk and ground ball rates which in turn will affect his ERA and WHIP. Even so, he projects to perform comparably to the other potential relief aces in the Dodgers pen. As a lefty, Gonzalez also has a natural advantage in holds leagues.
The Dodgers do seem to have a type. Kelly is a hard-thrower with a 98-mph fastball and a near-60 percent ground ball rate. As such, he tends to allow more contact than a typical fireballer. He’s also not immune to free passes. In 10 innings last season, he threw 68 percent curves. Floro doesn’t have top of the line velocity (93.4-mph), but he does induce over 50 percent ground balls. He’s an effective middle reliever who could sub in as a high leverage guy for many less fortunate ballclubs.
Adam Kolarek and Scott Alexander are candidates to serve as a second or third lefty after Gonzalez. You’ll never guess their standout trait – an over-60 percent ground ball rate. Kolarek is better at avoiding free passes. They’re both over 30 years old and could find their way to another organization if they don’t make the Opening Day roster. Non-roster invitees James Pazos and Enny Romero will also battle for a lefty-specialist role. Another non-roster guy, Brandon Morrow, shouldn’t be ignored. Tony Gonsolin, Dennis Santana, and Dustin May are candidates for a long relief role. Gonsolin and May in particular are above average starters who seemingly deserve more runway in the Majors.
San Francisco Giants
Compared to the Diamondbacks and Rockies, the Giants bullpen actually has some potential. However, nobody should be surprised if it crashes in a fiery blaze of ignominy.
Rogers looks to be something we haven’t seen since Brad Ziegler – a right-handed submariner with borderline closer-quality performance. Personally, I was always very tough on Ziegler when it came to the closer tiers – in part because there are a lot of ways for this profile to turn sour. Rogers too will rank near the bottom assuming he can even gain a steady hand on the role. In his favor, his slow velocity and deception seems to induce consistently weak contact. He hits spots, avoids walks, and even carries a decent 8.47 K/9 in 45.2 career innings. While he doesn’t have a standout category besides saves, he’s virtually undrafted in 12-team formats.
Moronta is actually going before Rogers. That feels… optimistic. While he has the velocity and swinging strike rates typically associated with second-division closers, he also piles up walks at an unhealthy rate. He’s returning from Tommy John surgery. While Rogers is seemingly the better target for saves, Moronta does have tangible upside.
Also in the mix is Wisler. The Twins “unlocked” the right-hander by simply teaching him how to use his existing stuff to better effect. He ostensibly can take those lessons with him to San Francisco. An extreme fly ball pitcher, he should enjoy both the newly deadened baseball and the homer-suppressant confines of Oracle Park.
Don’t count out McGee either. The former closer is half a decade removed from his prime. He’s also coming off arguably his best season. The southpaw reached a 95-mph average velocity for the first time since 2014. He’s a one-pitch reliever who maintains a seldom-used slider for show-me purposes. Last season, hitters couldn’t find his heater. McGee recorded 14.61 K/9. Home runs have been a problem in the past. Any substantial regression towards his career norms may render him unusable in fantasy leagues.
Gott temporarily had a grasp on the closer role last season. Don’t let that fool you. He shouldn’t make the roster out of Spring Training unless injuries force the Giants hand. Garcia is a solid middle reliever. In this bullpen, solid could easily be confused with “best.” Selman was terrific in his most recent Triple-A campaign. In limited Major League action, he’s been an ordinary southpaw complete with large platoon splits.
A veritable flood of non-roster invitees will be in camp. Dominic Leone, James Sherfy, Silvino Bracho and Melvin Adon are the most interesting options from that crowd. Rule 5 pick Dedniel Nunez has a top-of-the-barrel fastball spin rate and a two-plane breaking ball. The hope is his velocity will tick up as a reliever.
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Before signing Soria and Devenski, the DBacks had the worst bullpen in the league. Now they’re only the third worst. The situation could improve. Arizona’s 40-man roster is stuffed with starting pitchers – most of whom are backend or swingman types. Any one of them could step into a relief role and discover another gear.
Soria is a respectable answer to the ninth inning. He’s turned into a fly ball pitcher in recent seasons. His best attribute is command of a four-pitch repertoire. The diversity of offerings keeps opponents off balance. He could stand to throw fewer fastballs. Expect over a strikeout per inning with slightly better than league average rate stats.
In past episodes of Saves and Steals, Crichton has been referred to as the most generic right-hander in the league. His only above average trait is a 49.3 percent ground ball rate. Even that is unextraordinary. Ginkel walked and talked like a closer in 2019 but completely fell apart in 2020. The good news is he gained two-mph between 2019 and 2020. A rebound could be in the offing. It all comes down to his command.
Devenski’s peak came back in 2016 and 2017. Since then, he’s been a typical middle reliever. Last season, an elbow injury cost him most of the season. Arizona signed him to a cheap split-contract. He might not even make the club.
Arizona’s best off-the-radar target is Corbin Martin. The former top prospect missed much of the last two seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery. Now back in action, he could move fast as either a starting or relief prospect. Another name to track is Caleb Smith. The southpaw projects as a member of the Opening Day rotation, but he’s always pitched like a reliever. The fly ball pitcher is a candidate to pull a Pomeranz if shifted to a more appropriate role.
It is frequently best to avoid the Rockies bullpen on draft day. If you’re sufficiently desperate, you’ll usually have an opportunity to wade into this mire later in the season. Bard could break the cycle. His storybook season ended with six saves, 9.85 K/9, 3.65 BB/9, and a 3.65 ERA in 24.2 innings. He had modest issues against left-handed hitters. Like most pitchers, he was also worse at Coors Field. His spin rate is in the 99th percentile and his 97-mph fastball also rates in the 95th percentile. Alas, his slider doesn’t spin mirror with his fastball, making it easier to pick up. With his personal history, we should consider Bard extremely volatile. The mean projection is rosterable but not especially helpful. The upside isn’t much better than Joakim Soria.
Two imports, Givens and Stephenson, are early candidates for setup roles. Allow them to settle into Coors Field before jumping aboard. Givens is a fly ball pitcher who has run afoul of home runs in recent seasons. Stephenson has a visually pleasant slider – described by some as an 80-grade offering. Aside from a fortunate 2019 season, he’s consistently struggled in the Majors.
That leaves us eyeballing Estevez, Diaz, and Almonte as Bard’s likeliest backups. They’re all experienced with Coors Field and project to deliver in the neighborhood of a 4.50 ERA with comparably uninspired strikeout rates and WHIP. These are the guys you’ll likely turn to in desperation later in the season.