Bullpens are flaky. They are the friend that says he’ll meet you for happy hour but bails at the last minute. The cable guy who doesn’t show up as planned between 1 and 4 p.m. The first date that seemingly goes great but doesn’t call you back.
Filled as they are with pitchers who often experience wild variations in performance from year to year, bullpens are a baseball team’s maddening, here-today, gone-tomorrow, make-or-break unit — and anybody who thinks they know the exact recipe to building a great one is not to be trusted.
So accurately predicting which teams will have the best bullpens in advance of the season is pretty much impossible. But after addressing the top 10 lineups and top 10 rotations earlier this week, we might as well take some guesses here as we close out this series of suppositions.
Here are the top 10 ‘pens … I think.
1 — Yankees
Closer: Aroldis Chapman
Primary setup men: Zack Britton, Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle
This seems like the safest pick for the top spot for now. Chapman doesn’t throw, like, 150 mph anymore, but he still throws hard, and the combo of his fastball and slider was menacing enough to lead to a 36.2 percent strikeout rate in 2019. Among relievers with at least 40 innings pitched last season, Ottavino (235), Britton (234) and Chapman (202) ranked in the top 13 on the ERA+ leaderboard.
That doesn’t even mention Kahnle, who had 42 hitless and scoreless appearances in 2019, or Chad Green, whose effectiveness waned in ’19 but who had a 2.18 ERA and 200 ERA+ in 144 2/3 innings between ’18 and ’19. And New York has other interesting arms, like Luis Cessa and Jonathan Loaisiga who could fill meaningful roles.
So the Yankees should have a good bullpen … I think.
2 — Padres
Closer: Kirby Yates
Primary setup men: Emilio Pagán, Drew Pomeranz, Craig Stammen
The offseason acquisitions of Pomeranz (1.88 ERA and 47.2 percent strikeout rate in 28 relief appearances last year) and Pagán (2.31 ERA, 192 ERA+, 7.38 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 66 appearances) would give the Padres a pretty obvious one-two punch to employ in the eighth and ninth innings. But San Diego already had Yates, who was arguably baseball’s best closer in 2019 — a 1.19 ERA, 358 ERA+, 41 saves and a 0.89 WHIP in 60 2/3 innings.
That fearsome threesome would be enough to earn the Padres a prominent spot on this list. But the club is also in possession of a bunch of valuable depth pieces in Stammen, Matt Strahm, Andres Munoz, José Castillo and others. The farm system is stacked with pitching depth that could be applied to the 'pen if San Diego is in the race.
So the beefed-up Padres should have a good bullpen … I think.
3 — Brewers
Closer: Josh Hader
Primary setup men: Brent Suter, David Phelps, Corey Knebel
The key here, of course, is Hader, who is the two-time reigning National League Reliever of the Year Award winner. His rate of homers allowed spiked in 2019, but he nonetheless had a 2.62 ERA, 170 ERA+, 47.8 percent strikeout rate and a 0.80 WHIP in 75 2/3 innings while getting north of three outs on 23 different occasions. He remains one of baseball’s biggest weapons, and his presence alone is enough to earn the Brew Crew a spot on this list.
Surrounding Hader, the Brewers added Phelps in the offseason after he made a solid return from Tommy John last year, converted starter Freddy Peralta has emerged as an important 'pen piece after striking out 69 batters in 49 1/3 relief innings last year, and lefty Suter also came back from Tommy John and was dominant in 18 1/3 relief innings. Milwaukee also has a workhorse in Alex Claudio, who made 83 appearances last year, and another potential comeback story in former All-Star closer Knebel, who is nearing a return.
So the Hader-led Brewers should have a good bullpen … I think.
4 — Rays
Closer: Nick Anderson
Primary setup men: Diego Castillo, José Alvarado, Colin Poche
Though the Rays traded Pagán on the heels of his breakthrough year, they retain most of a 'pen that had a breakthrough of its own in the second half last season. Anderson arrived in a mid-2019 trade from Miami and proceeded to strike out 41 batters with just two walks in 21 1/3 innings, and his 37.9 percent whiff rate for the season was tied for fifth in MLB (min. 500 swings generated). Castillo struck out 31.1 percent of the batters he faced in the second half, Poche allowed just a .222 slugging percentage in his last 22 innings and the well-traveled Oliver Drake settled in as a lefty-killer.
If Alvarado can bounce back to his 2018 level, the Rays will be in even better shape. For now, it’s clear they have a good bullpen … I think.
5 — Twins
Closer: Taylor Rogers
Primary setup men: Trevor May, Tyler Duffey, Tyler Clippard
This is a group that evolved over the course of 2019 and, by season’s end, it was a bona fide strength. The left-handed Rogers (2.61 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 30 saves) assumed the closer’s role with a heavy dose of strikeouts (32.4 percent of plate appearances) and ground balls (50.6 percent of balls in play). May and Duffey were flamed-out depth starters who became fire-breathing monsters in the bullpen in the second half (Duffey had a 42 percent strikeout rate and May limited opponents to a .573 OPS).
Add in the veteran experience of Sergio Romo and Clippard — the former still living off one of the better sliders in baseball and the latter still in possession of a confounding changeup — and the Twins should have a good bullpen … I think.
6 — Braves
Closer: Mark Melancon
Primary setup men: Will Smith, Shane Greene, Darren O'Day
Melancon, who has a 119 ERA+ across 106 1/3 innings the past two seasons, will be officially labeled as the closer, but Smith, who had a 151 ERA+ in 118 1/3 innings in that same timeframe, could handle high-leverage situations in just about any inning. Chris Martin had a sparkling 13.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 55 2/3 innings last season between Texas and Atlanta. And while Greene was not able to maintain the All-Star level he had reached in Detroit earlier in the season after the Trade Deadline deal, he nonetheless had a 2.30 ERA and 206 ERA+ in 65 appearances on the year. The Braves also retain Luke Jackson, who was ill-suited to the closer role on an emergency basis last year but is still capable of quality innings, and veteran O’Day, in a limited basis at the end of 2019, offered signs that he can recapture his past Baltimore brilliance after battling hamstring and forearm injuries.
None of Melancon, Greene, Martin or Smith were even with the Braves as of July 29, 2019, but Atlanta successfully addressed what had been a problem area with an aggressive approach at the Trade Deadline and in free agency. Now the Braves have a good bullpen … I think.
7 — Mets
Closer: Edwin Díaz
Key setup men: Dellin Betances, Seth Lugo, Jeurys Familia
The bullpen was a definite weakness for the Mets in 2019, but there is reason to be optimistic for a turnaround. Díaz probably won’t be as good as he was in 2018 with the Mariners (1.96 ERA, 0.79 WHIP), but, given his stuff and strikeout rate and the paltry .207 expected batting average against him last season, his overall results also aren’t likely to be as bad as they were in 2019 (5.59 ERA, 1.40 WHIP), either.
The Mets are also hoping for a return to form from Betances, who missed essentially all of 2019 with shoulder, lat and Achilles injuries. He had five consecutive 100-strikeout seasons from 2014-18, and it’s not inconceivable that, if healthy, he can be dominant again. A bounceback is also in order for Familia, who, '19 blip aside, is usually reliable for quality innings. While hoping for more from those guys, the Mets will basically hope for more of the same from Lugo, who has a 2.68 ERA and 144 ERA+ in 181 1/3 innings over the past two seasons.
Because of the pedigree of the arms involved, the Mets should have a good bullpen … I think.
8 — A’s
Closer: Liam Hendriks
Primary setup men: Joakim Soria, Jake Diekman, Lou Trivino
A perfect example of how maddening bullpens can be. It’s not only difficult to predict if they’ll be any good; sometimes it’s hard to know if they were any good after the fact! The 2019 A’s led the Majors in blown saves (30), so they must have had a bumbling bullpen, right? Well, actually, no. The A’s were top 10 in MLB in ERA, strikeout-to-walk ratio, fielding independent pitching, expected weighted on-base average, WHIP, homers per nine, ERA+, etc.
Hendriks’ absurd season (1.80 ERA, 240 ERA+, 0.97 WHIP) helped skew those stats, no doubt. But that’s the point: He’s really good. The Steamer projections (available at FanGraphs.com) peg him to be the second-most valuable reliever in baseball in 2020, after Hader. And that’s enough to open the door to the possibility that the A’s will rate well again overall. Soria, Diekman, Trivino and Yusmeiro Petit have been fantastic at one time or another, and J.B. Wendelken could get meaningful opportunities. So the A’s should have a good bullpen … I think?
9 — Astros
Closer: Roberto Osuna
Primary setup men: Ryan Pressly, Joe Smith, Chris Devenski
Houston will have to account for the loss of Will Harris to the Nationals in free agency. That’s a substantial loss. But in Osuna, the Astros still have a closer who has posted a 0.91 WHIP and a 6.56 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 103 innings over the past two seasons. And primary setup man Pressly, now fully recovered from knee surgery last August, has logged a 1.85 ERA and 0.81 WHIP in 81 appearances since arriving in a midseason trade in 2018.
Smith dealt with an Achilles issue last year, but was reliable – a 1.80 ERA in 25 innings – when healthy and has been a reliable reliever for the better part of a decade. There’s hope that a slimmed-down Devenski will get back to his All-Star form from 2017. Josh James and Bryan Abreu are young arms who can impact the 'pen if they’re not in the rotation. So even without Harris, the Astros should have a good bullpen … I think.
10 — Dodgers
Closer: Kenley Jansen
Primary setup men: Joe Kelly, Blake Treinen, Pedro Báez
This is another speculative inclusion on this list. Jansen set an especially high bar for himself in 2016-17 and wasn’t able to reach that level in 2018-19. Nevertheless, he’s saved at least 30 games in six consecutive years and was healthy in camp for the first time in a while. Jansen and Kelly paid a visit to the Driveline Baseball performance training facility this offseason to try to improve the action on their offerings. And while Kelly has had wide variations in results in recent years, his stuff is still eye-catching. Treinen is as intriguing a bounce-back candidate as any reliever in baseball, given the elite level he reached in 2018 (0.78 ERA in 80 1/3) before a return to earth in 2019 (4.91 ERA in 58 2/3 innings). He’s recovered from a stress reaction in his back. Báez has struck out at least 25 percent of batters faced in four of the past five seasons.
Anyway, after adding Mookie Betts in his walk year, you know the all-in Dodgers will leave no stone unturned when it comes to improving their 2020 team in-season. So the Dodgers should have a good bullpen … I think.
I guess… anybody? Because who knows what unforeseen stalwarts will spring up.
But for now take note that Steamer’s projections have three relievers not mentioned above to be worth 1 Win Above Replacement in 2020, which would be a good building block for their respective clubs – Matt Barnes (Red Sox), José Leclerc (Rangers) and Ken Giles (Blue Jays).