With just three exhibition games and a handful of intrasquad games, we don’t have much to work with compared to a normal spring training, but we will make due. While exhibition appearances can often be a bit misleading, I’m still looking at how relievers are being used when to these camp games. I’d imagine teams will want to roll out their ideal high-leverage late-inning grouping for one of those games. This could be our only look at how teams plan to manage games in the late innings with a lead.
Velocity readings will be an important factor for some guys, including those returning from injury or those who seemed burnt out towards the end of last season. Any new pitch usage or mechanic changes could also have a big impact and worth looking out for as well.
Archie Bradley is locked into the closer role for Arizona but will need to get off to a better start than last year. Bradley’s past two seasons have each been a tale of two halves as his 2018 second half (6.58 ERA, 1.54 WHIP) and 2019 first half (4.95, 1.73) were quite polarizing compared to his 2018 first half (1.97, 0.92) and 2019 second half (1.71, 1.07).
The biggest question in this bullpen is who will be Bradley’s handcuff, in case he does stumble out of the gate. I’d love to see Kevin Ginkel working in a high-leverage setup role, but with the additions of Junior Guerra and Hector Rondon, that may not happen right away.
Andrew Chafin has been one of the most consistent left-handed relievers over the past three years, but how will the new three-batter minimum rule affect his usage. I’d imagine not a lot changes here, but still worth monitoring.
The consensus still points to Mark Melancon being the de facto closer for the Braves this season, but with the depth behind him, expect there to be a short leash. It’ll still be interesting to see how he and Will Smith look and are used in games this month.
Assuming Smith is locked into a setup role, who will win the secondary setup role, which will have value for those in holds leagues this season. I believe in Luke Jackson but the Braves could opt to go with veterans Shane Greene or Chris Martin.
No closer has been named in Baltimore, so Mychal Givens, Hunter Harvey, and to a lesser extent Richard Bleier should be watched closely in camp. For me, I want to see Givens raise his changeup usage this year as it has been more useful than his slider in the past.
With Harvey, let’s just hope we can get a healthy 60 games out of him in whatever role he is given. His fastball velocity was sitting in the upper 90s, touching 100 in six games last summer, and will be worth monitor when he ramps things up in July.
Boston Red Sox
Brandon Workman returns to the closer role but just what Brandon Workman will we be getting? He needs to lean on his curveball again to be successful and, in turn, needs to tightrope around walks and suppress hits at a near-elite level. I still think he’s a top 12-15 closer in today’s game.
As a Red Sox fan, I’m super intrigued by Darwinzon Hernandez and hope he can harness his command this season. His strikeout upside gives him a chance to be among one of the best setup men in baseball.
Craig Kimbrel will be a big topic of discussion as we just don’t know what to expect from the veteran anymore. There was a lot of talk about his velocity being down last year (and again this spring), so if he isn’t able to sit in the upper 90s anymore, what changes will he make to try and be effective again? Can or will he start using his curveball more to get strikes?
Behind Kimbrel is a bit of a crapshoot, as there is a bunch of young, relatively inexperienced talent mixed with some cheap veteran additions. Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck have the most upside, but Kyle Ryan and Jeremy Jeffress have the experience factor going for them.
Chicago White Sox
Alex Colome has been a steady fixture in the closer ranks for a few years now, but all signs point to a potential collapse in the near future. He’s relied heavily on his cutter the past two seasons and will likely need the velocity to remain above 90 mph to have any chance to succeed.
If Colome starts the year off with some shaky outings, would the team move to Aaron Bummer early on, or perhaps could the two split the role regardless? The White Sox signed Bummer to a five-year extension, so there’s no need to worry about inflating his arbitration numbers.
The other question will be who is the next man up behind Bummer and Colome. Can veterans like Steve Cishek and Kelvin Herrera turn things around this year and get back to their usual ways? Can Jimmy Cordero or Evan Marshall take a step forward after mostly promising 2019 campaigns? Can Jace Fry harness in his command, starting this month?
The biggest question here will be how Raisel Iglesias is used this season, and perhaps we will get some sort of idea in camp. There was talk of him being used earlier in games before the March shutdown, and I’d imagine the new DH rule would lead to Michael Lorenzen focusing on pitching more.
Speaking of Lorenzen and the DH rule, I’d imagine this means the end of his hitting career at this level. Perhaps he will still be used as a pinch runner, but hopefully, he is just able to focus on pitching this summer as he blossomed into one of the better setup men in baseball last year.
Brad Hand showed diminishing velocity up until an elbow injury limited his September, so that will be worth watching. Hand works best when he’s sitting around 93-94, and despite vowing to lean on his slider this season (which he already does at 54% usage the past two years), that velocity could be a big factor this season.
The potential closer-in-waiting, James Karinchak, will be someone to watch closely over the next few weeks as well. One of the team’s most talented relievers, if not the most talented, will he get a chance to set up games early on in the season, or will Terry Francona lean on his veteran relievers in front of Hand?
Does Wade Davis have anything left in the tank to give us some closer value this season? Perhaps a shortened season could help the 34-year-old veteran who saw his fastball velocity steadily decline last season. If he can get back to sitting around 95 mph with his fastball, Davis could be in for a pre-Rockies era season.
The other big question in this bullpen is will anyone outright win that secondary setup role behind Davis and Scott Oberg. Jairo Diaz probably has a leg up on Carlos Estevez, but I think Estevez’s pure stuff may be the best in this bullpen.
Joe Jimenez was able to take steps forward last season after taking over the closer role for Shane Greene at the trade deadline. His biggest concern has always been his command, so let’s hope he’s still locating his pitches heading into the season.
Behind Jimenez, is Buck Farmer really the team’s top setup man when the season starts? Farmer was ok in the role last season, but keep an eye out for Bryan Garcia’s usage this month. Jose Cisnero is another name to monitor here.
There’s no question who will get the ball in the eighth and ninth innings for the Astros this year, but what about the earlier innings? The early favorite to be next in line is young gun Bryan Abreu who was having a great spring prior to the league shutdown.
Kansas City Royals
Ian Kennedy is now likely locked in the Royals closer role for the season as any potential trade won’t happen now. However, Mike Matheny didn’t name him the outright closer back in March. One name to monitor here, with ties to Matheny, would be Trevor Rosenthal, who is still somehow only 30 years old. Rosenthal looked good this spring and was quickly added to the 40-man roster as result.
So if Rosenthal is back to where he was during his Cardinal years, can he push Scott Barlow out as the team’s top setup man? It’s certainly possible despite Barlow’s strong second half last season.
Los Angeles Angels
Hansel Robles returns as the Angels closer, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t build on last year’s breakout. Ty Buttrey proved to be one of the better setup options in baseball and should return to that role this season.
Kenyan Middleton remains a wildcard as he will now be two full years removed from Tommy John surgery and could be a difference-maker for this team. He wasn’t very good in his 7.2 innings late last season (6/7 K/BB rate), but hopefully with the extra time off can get his command back to where it was pre-injury. Keep an eye on where his velocity is in the coming weeks, as he was sitting 96 before surgery.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Kenley Jansen’s velocity is always a hot topic, so let’s lead with that. I’d imagine the shortened season only helps him push through the 25 or so innings he will be looked to give the team this year. If he can ramp up to 93-94 on his fastball again, the sky is the limit for Jansen.
How will Blake Treinen be utilized coming off a down year in Oakland is the other big question for the Dodgers bullpen. Pedro Baez, while not spectacular, has been a steady setup man for Jansen over the past few years. It will be interesting to see if Treinen works before him or pushes Baez into the seventh inning.
With Brandon Kintzler still the favorite to close out games, the question becomes who will be next in line for Miami’s closer role. Ryne Stanek was supposed to claim that role last season following a midseason trade but was largely a disappointment. Yimi Garcia is another interesting reliever to monitor here and should be in the mix for however many holds the Marlins can muster.
I’m also curious to see if Drew Steckenrider and/or Adam Conley can turn things around this season. The two were looking like one of the more promising reliever duos in baseball not too long ago and could be difference-makers for this Marlins bullpen.
There’s nothing to worry about with Josh Hader heading into the season, and the focus should be on Corey Knebel’s health as he returns to the Brewers bullpen. Knebel should be ready to go by the start of the season, and while I doubt he gets his closer job back at any point this season, he could give the Brewers perhaps the best 1-2 reliever punch in baseball. Let’s hope he can regain that velocity (97 mph) he showed before Tommy John.
I’d imagine one, if not both, of Corbin Burnes or Freddy Peralta having a big role out of the Brewers bullpen if Eric Lauer claims the last rotation spot. Peralta’s new slider will be worth a look as he could be a nice bridge to Hader and Knebel.
Arguably the deepest bullpen in the game right now, there aren’t a lot of question marks heading into the season for the Twins. Taylor Rogers should continue to close out games but could get a quick hook if he falters early on given the team’s depth.
With Rogers closing, this leaves the team with a lack of left-handed bullpen options in front of him. Lewis Thorpe should be in line to see a lot of work against teams with left-handed dominant lineups and makes for an interesting pitcher to look out for this season.
New York Mets
Edwin Diaz will be looking to rebound after a rough debut season with the Mets, and the key likely lies in his slider. The pitch had a .942 OPS against last year. Watch for how that pitch looks and how he is locating in the coming weeks.
Behind Diaz, Dellin Betances is a question mark after missing almost all of last season. He topped out at just 90 mph in his lone spring outing, so let’s hope he can get his upper 90s fastball back by the start of the season.
Also, will the Mets be able to get any production from Jeurys Familia this season after posting a 5.70 ERA and 1.73 WHIP over 60 innings last year? He’s supposedly working on revamping his splitter to become more of an offspeed pitch, so that’s worth monitoring.
New York Yankees
The Yankees enter the season with a loaded bullpen that has few question marks. It is an aging and top-heavy group, but the shortened season should help calm any worries. Aroldis Chapman has seen his FB velocity dip over the past couple of years, but his increasing slider usage has helped counteract this.
I’m also interested to see how top prospect Deivi Garcia is used by the team this year, as he could be an impact reliever for the team down the stretch. With there being no minor league rotation for him to get innings, and the Yankees rotation full, surely the team will find him some relief appearance this season.
While some may write off Liam Hendriks‘ 2019 as a fluke, I’m buying back in, assuming the fastball velocity gains don’t disappear. After sitting around 95 mph from 2015-2018, Hendriks was able to add two mph in 2019, leading to a career year. Look for his velocity readings this July to make sure he’s still in that 97 mph range.
There are a lot of veterans slated to be in this bullpen on Opening Day, but positive contributions from two potential wild cards in Lou Trivino and J.B. Wendelken could put this bullpen over the top. Both have demonstrated an ability to effective at this level in spurts, especially Trivino who burst onto the scene as the top handcuff to Blake Treinen in 2018.
The Phillies bullpen is currently looking like Hector Neris and a bunch of spare parts. Adam Morgan and Tommy Hunter have been fine middle relievers in the past, but they will likely be relied on heavily to hold onto leads before turning the game over to Neris. EDIT: about an hour after this was posted, Neris and Hunter were placed on the IL for undisclosed purposes. It sounds like they may have been diagnosed with Covid-19 so this adds more uncertainty to the situation.
Nick Pivetta may be the wild card in this group, as we all know he certainly has the stuff to make a big impact late in games. It’s always been about command and control with Pivetta, and his 12.2% BB rate over 24.2 IP as a reliever last year will need to come down.
I believe Keone Kela gets a bit of a boost with the shortened season, as the new Pirates closer has had trouble making it past 50 appearances in the past. Having next to no competition behind him doesn’t hurt either.
While there may be no competition at the moment, I still have high hopes for Richard Rodriguez and Michael Feliz, as well as Nick Burdi who finally seems to be healthy heading into a season. Burdi was hitting 100 mph this spring and is worth watching closely assuming he can stay on the field. He would be an exciting closer candidate in Kela were to get off to a rocky start.
San Diego Padres
Even with the loss of Andres Munoz, the Padres still boast one of the best bullpens in baseball thanks to key acquisitions of Drew Pomeranz and Emilio Pagan. Pomeranz may have turned his career around after a trade to Milwaukee saw him excel out of the bullpen. His fastball velocity shot up almost four mph with the move and ideally will sit around 96 this season.
One of my favorite RP sleepers heading into last season, Jose Castillo’s season lasted less than a full inning as the young left dealt with a forearm flexor strain and a torn tendon in his pitching hand. Assuming he is healthy this summer, Castillo gives the Padres yet another weapon in the bullpen.
San Francisco Giants
With Gabe Kapler at the helm, don’t hold out hope for anyone to be named the closer here this season. However, the competition has been narrowed down to two players, veteran lefty Tony Watson and second-year submariner Tyler Rogers. Given the pair’s pitching styles, I’d imagine they form some sort of committee in the ninth inning depending on how the opposing team’s lineup stacks up. Perhaps Kapler does let one of them win the job outright, so watch out for how each one is used this month.
Shaun Anderson, who ended last season as the team’s closer, struggled this spring and was demoted to AAA before the season being suspended. Now with the expanded rosters, I’d imagine he is back on the opening day roster discussion, but can he work his way back into the closer mix?
The Mariners are in the same boat as the Giants as they also have yet to announce a closer for the upcoming season. Yoshihisa Hirano is the tentative favorite but incumbent Matt Magill remains a possibility. Erik Swanson remains the dark horse candidate but flashed some upside when moved to the bullpen last year (3.28 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 20.4% K-BB rate in 24.2 relief innings)
He may not begin the year on the active roster, but Sam Delaplane has been getting a lot of hype as the potential closer-in-waiting. His slider, which Fangraphs gives a 70 grade, can be a devastating strikeout pitch and works well off his mid 90s fastball. He ended last season in AA (where he straight up dominated,) but is already 25. He should get a shot at some point in this Mariners bullpen.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals will also be looking to find a new closer this season with Carlos Martinez returning to the rotation and Jordan Hicks not ready for opening day. Giovanny Gallegos should be the favorite, but Andrew Miller, John Gant, and Ryan Helsley could all be in the mix.
Speaking of Hicks, it was announced yesterday that he will begin the season on the IL, but the team expects him to return shortly after the start of the season. His progress this month needs to be tracked closely as he could make a major impact if he is healthy and back to throwing 100 mph by the end of the month. Even upon his return, it’s expected the team will ease him back into the closer role, but there’s a chance he’s back earning saves by September.
Tampa Bay Rays
Even with the loss of Emilio Pagan, this bullpen is still amongst the top five in the game at the moment thanks to their depth. While deep, there remains the big question as to who will be used as the team’s closer this season. Kevin Cash typically relies on one guy for saves, so whoever wins the job out of camp should be the guy for the rest of the season. Nick Anderson is the favorite, but Diego Castillo and Jose Alvarado are in the mix.
Speaking of Alvarado, don’t count him out just yet despite a 2019 season that saw his BB rate balloon to 18.5% as he dealt with injuries. The favorite to lead the team in saves coming out of spring training last season, Alvarado could get back into the mix this year if healthy.
Chris Woodward continues to talk up Jose Leclerc and believes his 2019 struggles may even help him in 2020. I still believe in Leclerc as his stuff rivals that of almost any reliever out there, but how he starts the season may make or break him.
Behind Leclerc, Rafael Montero and Brett Martin proved to be a solid setup duo last season, but after that, there is a lack of stability. Cody Allen was brought in as a non-roster invite and could provide much-needed depth if he can fix the control issues that plagued him last year.
Toronto Blue Jays
Ken Giles is entrenched as the Blue Jays closer and only reliable reliever, but it’s worth noting that he dealt with elbow soreness throughout much of 2019. The extra time off should benefit him, but it’s still worth monitoring his health status.
Who will be setting up games for Giles is a bigger question. Anthony Bass figures to be the team’s primary setup man to open the season, but after that, it’s an open competition. If Shun Yamaguchi loses out on the final rotation spot, which seems likely, he could slide into a secondary setup role early in the season.
Sean Doolittle’s health and availability are the biggest things to watch this month as there’s still a chance the veteran opts out of the season. On the field, Doolittle dealt with a lingering knee injury and arm fatigue but seemed to be over it come October as he helped lead the team to its first World Series title. The shortened season should help Doolittle out more than potentially any other closer.
Tanner Rainey remains one of my sleeper relievers to watch as his stuff is the best of anyone in this bullpen, but he needs to hone in his command and limit the walks to take that next step forward. If he can get his walk rate closer to 10%, it could vault him into elite reliever territory.
(Photos courtesy of Icon Sportswire / Adapted by Justin Paradis)