The modern bullpen role is as ever-changing as the ocean tides, and thus, leads to uncertainty in every bullpen in North America. At any point, a team may switch up the closer job in favor of better matchups, trade away a top relief arm for prospects, or forego the traditional role in favor of a committee. With so much up in the air, it’s difficult to nail down Opening Day closers, let alone the pitcher that will hold the job for the entirety of the season.
All that being said, let’s outline every National League bullpen to uncover a dark horse candidate for every team; a player that could, at some point, take over the closer job for any number of reasons.
Current Closer: Mark Melancon
Next in Line: Ian Kennedy
Dark Horse: J.B. Wendelken
Melancon was inked to a two-year, $14 million deal this offseason to be the closer in Arizona after leading the Majors with 39 saves last year, making him the clear-cut favorite to begin the season with the role. Kennedy was the Rangers’ closer prior to being dealt to the Phillies at the deadline, and both he and Melancon are deadline trade candidates for a Diamondbacks team that finished last in their division in 2021. Trades, ineffectiveness, or injury could see Wendelken end up with the role. He doesn’t light up the radar gun with his four-seamer (94.5 mph avg. velocity), but he coaxes an inordinate amount of ground balls (50.4% GB%) with the help of a heavy sinker (10.5% SwStr%, 75% GB%). If the closer role is up for grabs in August, Wendelken will be one of the first pitchers to get a shot to run with it.
Current Closer: Kenley Jansen
Next in Line: Will Smith
Dark Horse: Sean Newcomb
While it seemed as though Smith was one of the few locked-in closers just a few weeks ago, the Braves went ahead and signed Jansen, the best free-agent reliever on the market, to boost an already impressive relief corps. The legendary right-hander regained the heat on the signature cutter (+1.7 mph from 2020 to 92.5 mph in ’21) that made him one of the best closers in baseball for nearly a decade. Smith is obviously next in line after closing out 37 ballgames successfully last year, but don’t count out former top prospect Newcomb if those veteran closers can’t get the job done. As a starting pitcher in the Minors, Newcomb climbed as high as No. 21 on MLB Pipeline’s top prospect list entering the 2016 season. The 6’5″ lefty has yet to find consistent success in the big leagues, but with a solid heater (95.6 mph avg. velocity), a wicked cutter (16.8% SwStr), and a soft-contact inducing curve (.066 xwOBAcon), he has all of the makings of a reliever with the potential to be a dominant late-inning option.
Current Closer: Rowan Wick
Next in Line: Mychal Givens
Dark Horse: Scott Effross
The Cubs have a few closer options, but none of them stand out as someone to be excited to draft to a fantasy team. Wick ended the year with the job, but only finished off five games, and the team added Givens and David Robertson to factor into the 9th inning, further muddying the waters. I’m interested to see what Effross could do with the closer role if given the opportunity. His funky, sidearm delivery led to uncomfortable plate appearances for opposing hitters, and with pinpoint command (1.7%), he is able to avoid the big inning. His main weapon is a slider that coaxed swings and misses (19.1% SwStr), leading to an incredible 36% CSW% across all of his pitches. Given a full season in the Majors, Effross could be a big difference-maker in the Windy City.
Scott Effross strikes out Jacob Stallings on this nice slider. pic.twitter.com/guNDbTzQHH
— Andy Martínez (@amartinez_11) September 3, 2021
Current Closer: Art Warren
Next in Line: Luis Cessa
Dark Horse: Dauri Moreta
The Reds spent the majority of last season shuffling through closers, struggling to find someone to stick with the role. Lucas Sims finished the season with the job but will begin the year on the IL, leaving a messy job for manager David Bell to clean up to find his closer. Warren is an intriguing candidate after he pitched to a 1.29 ERA in 21 innings with 34 strikeouts (41.5% K%), while Cessa also had success (2.51 ERA in 64.2 IP) in the Reds bullpen last year despite limited bat-missing ability (20.7% K%). With so much uncertainty in this arm barn, there’s a chance almost anyone could take the closer job and run with it. My dark horse candidate is Moreta, a 25-year old who experienced great success in the minor leagues last season. He split his year almost perfectly between AA (26.2 IP) and AAA (26.1 IP), combining for a 1.02 ERA and a 0.76 WHIP with just nine walks to 58 strikeouts before his brief MLB debut in September. A longer look at him on the big league roster should give us a better idea of what he’s working with, but he briefly flashed a nasty slider that could make him someone to watch in 2022.
Someone I don't see get talked about a lot is Dauri Moreta. Had a nice scoreless streak in the minor leagues and did a solid job in his few innings in the majors. Looking forward to watching him. #Reds pic.twitter.com/fkRuSJ2wxG
— Luke #SellTheTeamBob (@LEDLuke) March 16, 2022
Current Closer: Alex Colomé
Next in Line: Carlos Estévez
Dark Horse: Robert Stephenson
Colorado has long been a destination where pitchers go to die because of the thin air in the mile-high city of Denver. Nonetheless, they will have games to close out, and right now, it seems as though Colomé has a grip on the role after signing a one-year, $4.2 million deal post-lockout. Estévez has been trusted to close games in the past, but I would love to see someone who has had uncommon success in Coors get a chance. Stephenson is that guy. As a starter prospect for the Reds, Stephenson reached as high as No. 25 on MLB Pipeline’s 2015 pre-season top prospects list, revealing the potential he boasts in his right arm. He doesn’t just have potential though, having pitched to a 3.13 ERA in 46 innings in his first stint with the Rockies in 2021. At 96.5 mph on average, Stephenson possesses elite velocity with his four-seamer and pairs it with two plus breaking pitches; a curveball (34% CSW%), and a slider (42% CSW%), giving him an arsenal exemplary of an elite closer.
Current Closer: Craig Kimbrel
Next in Line: Blake Treinen
Dark Horse: Brusdar Graterol
This is the role with the most recent notable alteration. The Dodgers swapped A.J. Pollock for eight-time All-Star closer Kimbrel last week, solidifying a pen that looked to be headed towards a committee. The move slots Treinen back into a setup role, giving the Dodgers countless trustworthy options at the back end of ballgames. The most interesting of those options is the young, fireballer Graterol. The 23-year old right-hander effortlessly slings a 100 mph sinker towards the plate, making him one of the most difficult pitchers to hit in all of baseball and one of the most fun to watch. Velocity like that means that Graterol doesn’t need much else to be successful, but he pairs his heater with a serviceable and an underused cutter. He has all of the makings of someone that would thrive in the closer role, and it may be sooner rather than later that we get to witness what he’s able to produce in the 9th inning.
Brusdar Graterol, 103mph Sinker.
With 19 inches of arm side run. pic.twitter.com/MyFeBlf4ja
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 13, 2021
Current Closer: Anthony Bender
Next in Line: Anthony Bass
Dark Horse: Louis Head
If the Marlins’ closer situation wasn’t murky enough, it just got much more confusing with the additions of Cole Sulser and Tanner Scott from the Orioles. Those two will join a pen that was already shuffling arms around following the injury of second-half closer Dylan Floro. Bender has the best stuff and had the most success last year, while Bass is the most experienced, but one of their underrated offseason additions might be one of the biggest factors in the late innings. Head, acquired from the Rays in November for a player to be named later or cash considerations, had success on the other coast of Florida in 2021, pitching to a 2.31 ERA and a 0.86 WHIP in 35 innings. The lack of clarity in Miami could give Head the opportunity to show off his fastball/slider combination late in games. The sweeper is the most notable of the two with a high spin rate (2697 RPM) and an impressive movement profile that should lead to more swings and misses going forward.
Current Closer: Josh Hader
Next in Line: Devin Williams
Dark Horse: Jake Cousins
Hader has the most secure closer job in the National League, but with trade speculation surrounding the star left-hander for quite some time, there’s always the chance the role opens up, giving one of the other outstanding Brewers’ arms the chance to shut things down in American Family Field. Williams emerged as one of the most dominant setup men in all of baseball over the past two seasons and would get the first shot at the 9th, but considering his success last season, don’t count out Cousins. Utilizing his slider a whopping 61% of the time in 2021, Cousins threw 30 innings of 2.70 ERA ball with even more eye-catching metrics underneath the hood. The Illinois native struck out 35.2% of the batters he faced, receiving called strikes and whiffs on 37.7% of all of his pitches. His nasty slider carried the majority of the load, inducing an otherworldly 43.4% CSW%, helping his 95.5 mph sinker play up as well (30.5% CSW). As the fourth or fifth option out of the Milwaukee bullpen, Cousins adds to their embarrassment of riches, but with trades and the inevitable injury or two, he could wind up with the opportunity to really show off what he’s got.
Jake Cousins, White Castle Special. 🤮🍔🍔🍔 pic.twitter.com/pFMRHHz9xu
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 17, 2021
Next in Line: Trevor May
Dark Horse: Seth Lugo
Many elite options reside in the Mets’ stable of relievers, with Díaz, May, and the newly acquired Adam Ottavino headlining the bunch. Interestingly enough though, Lugo has probably been the most consistent non-starter on the whole roster. Not counting the whacky 2020 season, he has pitched to a spectacular 3.16 ERA since moving to the bullpen full time in 2018. At times, Lugo has had the closer role, but he has never been given a full run with the job. With the right opportunity, the former 1032nd pick in the 2011 draft has the stuff to be a legitimate bullpen ace. Last year, his four-seamer produced the second-best swinging-strike rate (21.2%) and CSW percentage (40.1%) among all pitches of that classification; and that’s not even his signature pitch! That distinction belongs to his high-spin curveball which had the second-highest spin rate among all hooks at 3273 RPM. A sinker and a slider complete his arsenal. Lugo will succeed in any role with his upper-echelon collection of weapons.
One minute of Seth Lugo's nastiest curveballs pic.twitter.com/5VVlPDLWmD
— jack (@Jolly_Olive) January 22, 2021
Current Closer: Corey Knebel
Next in Line: Jeurys Familia
Dark Horse: Seranthony Domínguez
The Phillies enter 2022 with a bevy of options to close things out. Knebel is the leading candidate after signing for $10 million in the offseason and will be supported by veterans with closing experience in Familia, José Alvarado, and Brad Hand. While those four should be enough to secure the late innings, the Phillies have been known to have bullpen struggles, leaving the door open for someone else to steal the job. Returning from a nearly two-year-long injury hiatus, Domínguez is that man. He previewed his health by throwing one inning at the very end of last season, increasing the confidence in his ability to return strong in 2022. Prior to his injuries, Domínguez was one of the most promising young relief arms following his 2019 campaign during which he sported a 2.95 ERA with a 32% strikeout rate across 58 innings at the age of 23. Following Tommy John surgery, there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to regain the 98 mph fastball velocity he displayed prior to his injuries, especially considering he came back throwing three mile-per-hour slower in his 2021 return, but with the Phillies in desperate need of security and consistency in the bullpen, this may be Domínguez’s job come September.
Current Closer: David Bednar
Next in Line: Chris Stratton
Dark Horse: Heath Hembree
This might be the bullpen with the fewest appealing options. Bednar is an exciting young reliever and Stratton was solid last year, but beyond those two, nobody inspires much confidence in bullpen evaluators. Although Hembree is listed as the No. 3 option on Fangraphs’ Roster Resource, many may be surprised to see him as the dark horse candidate given his bloated 5.59 ERA from his 2021 campaign spread across stints with the Mets and Reds. That mark is incredibly misleading, considering his 3.17 xERA and 3.84 xFIP were much more attractive. Hembree’s most appealing trait is his ability to force strikeouts at a spectacular rate. The 33-year old right-hander struck out 34.3% of batters after posting a strikeout rate that was 10 points lower for the first eight years of his career. His increased K rate was thanks to a fastball that gained 1.5 ticks (up to 95.3 mph), an increased emphasis on his slider (+18% usage from 2013-20 to 47.3% in ’21), and the complete ditching of his underwhelming curveball. With a notable change to his approach and the massive strikeout gains to go with it, Hembree is a sneaky reliever to keep an eye on in the Pittsburgh pen.
Heath Hembree, Wicked 86mph Slider. 🤢 pic.twitter.com/xlUEFr5HAY
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 28, 2021
Current Closer: Robert Suarez
Next in Line: Emilio Pagán
Dark Horse: Dinelson Lamet
The Friars look to have the most unsettled closer role in the National League with five different pitchers penciled into a closer committee. My favorite to secure the defined job is Suarez, a 31-year old right-hander who was signed to a one year, $6 million deal (with a club option for 2023) following a 2021 campaign with NPB’s Hanshin Tigers during which he posted a 1.16 ERA and a 0.77 WHIP with 42 saves across 62.1 innings. Don’t count out Pagán, Pierce Johnson, Austin Adams, or the injured Drew Pomeranz, but the guy I’m most interested in getting a shot as the closer is former starter Lamet. The right-hander couples one of the best sliders in baseball (22.8% SwStr) with a serviceable heater (95.5 mph avg. velocity), a repertoire that could play up in a defined bullpen role. If he doesn’t have to focus on returning to the rotation, can concentrate on one inning at a time, and can pitch max effort in short stints, he has the ability to transform into one of the most dominant bullpen forces in the league.
Dinelson Lamet, Unfair Sliders. 😯 pic.twitter.com/6ZnsUgl95t
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 20, 2021
Current Closer: Jake McGee
Next in Line: Camilo Doval
Dark Horse: Dominic Leone
San Francisco premiered one of the most successful closer committees in the National League in 2021 with a trio of different looks. From the left side, McGee produced 31 saves with a 2.72 ERA, Doval was incredible in August and September with his 98+ mph fastball, and don’t forget about the submariner Tyler Rogers who converted 13 saves of his own with a 2.22 ERA. Despite that three-headed dragon remaining intact heading into 2022, there are still other outstanding options left in the San Francisco bullpen. Somehow, Leone quietly pitched to a 1.51 ERA in 53.2 innings with the help of adding one mile-per-hour (to 95.5 mph) to his four-seamer and increasing the vertical movement on his slider (-1.2 ft of yMOV from 2020 to -1.6 ft in ’21). His success was a result of those improvements leading to more whiffs and can also be seen in the sensational 23.6% swinging strike rate his slider produced. The Giants obviously have plenty of options to turn to in their loaded bullpen, but Leone might be the most underrated and could take off with the right opportunity.
Current Closer: Giovanny Gallegos
Next in Line: Ryan Helsley
Dark Horse: Jordan Hicks
Gallegos has been the best reliever in St. Louis for three years now, but with the Cardinals’ unwillingness to take him out of the fireman role he has been shackled to, almost anyone in this relief corps could end up with the job. We saw Alex Reyes run with the role for the first half of last season, but he will start the year on the IL with shoulder soreness. That leaves names like Helsley, Génesis Cabrera, and Nick Wittgren in the running for the late innings. However, the most intriguing name in that arm barn has always been the flamethrowing Hicks. The right-hander is able to produce a sinker that shoots out of his hand at upwards of 104 mph with loads of arm-side run, diving away from left-handed batters like magnets repelling each other. Hicks has a penchant for producing soft contact because of that sinker, with the best hard contact per plate appearance rate of all pitchers (6.8% HC%). His top-notch velocity alone makes him a candidate to be a future closer, and as long as he can stay healthy, he should have all year to nail down the closer role.
Jordan Hicks' Legendarily Unfair Stuff. 😳 pic.twitter.com/Bn7pBUBDFH
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) January 28, 2022
Current Closer: Kyle Finnegan
Next in Line: Sean Doolittle
Dark Horse: Tanner Rainey
Unclear forecasts are projected for the Nationals’ bullpen. Finnegan ended the year as the closer after Hand was shipped out of town at the deadline, while the front office added a couple of veterans with closing experience this offseason in left-hander Sean Doolittle and right-handed sidearmer Steve Cishek. Everybody should be keeping their eyes out for Rainey, however, even after he struggled to an abhorrent 7.39 ERA in 2021. The 6’2″, 29-year old right-hander revealed his potential in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, during which he pitched to a 2.66 ERA (2.74 xFIP) with an out-of-this-world 42.7% strikeout rate thanks to an unreal 34.2% swinging strike rate on his slider. Numbers like that in any sample size should have people taking notice, but his precipitous drop in production in 2021 will have many evaluators ignoring him. As long as Rainey can get his command under control (16.6% BB% in 2021), he could emerge as an elite strikeout arm at the end of ballgames in D.C.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)