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Saves and Steals

NL East Bullpens

by Brad Johnson
Updated On: March 11, 2021, 1:09 am ET

Today marks the final division in our preseason bullpen evaluations. The NL East is under the microscope. The division features a number of middle-feeders including a revamped, historically bad Phillies bullpen from last season. Even the Marlins are marching towards relevance. Previous editions focused on the AL West, NL West, AL Central, NL Central, and AL East. You can also check out The All Bullpen Audit for a (slightly outdated) high level review of every bullpen.

In recent news, Rangers fireman Jonathan Hernandez is sidelined with a sprained UCL. He was a candidate to close after a breakout 2020. The best-case scenario is a four-week rest followed by a ramp up to game activity. Don’t expect him before May. This injury often leads down the slippery slope to Tommy John surgery. A non-rigorous mini-study I performed today shows these sorts of injuries are on the rise. Teams might be getting better at avoiding the worst outcome (TJS) as compared with a half-decade ago. In the short-term, this adds job security to Jose Leclerc with Joely Rodriguez becoming a speculative add.

National League East

New York Mets

Edwin Diaz
Trevor May
Dellin Betances
Jeurys Familia
Miguel Castro
Robert Gsellman
Aaron Loup
Joey Lucchesi

Early-season hiccups aside, Diaz was in peak form last season. He delivered a sterling 1.75 ERA and 17.53 K/9. Only Devin Williams, Tanner Rainey, and Jacob deGrom induced a higher swinging strike rate. Since he did scuffle in two of his first three appearances, he temporarily lost closer status. As a result, he only saved six games. A few too many walks led to a middling 1.25 WHIP. The Mets have made noises that they won’t name a closer this season. The safe bet is to expect Diaz to sponge most of the highest leverage outings.

This could mean May will also bag his share of saves. He experienced a breakout of sorts last season by ditching his curveball in favor of doubling his slider usage. His fastball also gained one mph, and his changeup was more effective too. Among pitchers with at least 10 innings, May posted the 13th-best swinging strike rate. The Twins deprived him of opportunities to convert his closer-caliber stuff into saves. It’s possible the trend will continue in New York. Barring injury, it would certainly be a shock to everyone if May recorded more saves than Diaz.

Past the top two relievers, there is considerable uncertainty with how the rest of the unit will coalesce. In addition to those listed here, the 40-man includes a number of experienced pitchers like Jordan Yamamoto, Sean Reid-Foley, and Jacob Barnes. Non-roster invitees include former relief aces Tommy Hunter and Arodys Vizcaino. Nobody should be shocked if they reemerge from hibernation after several seasons lost to injury.

Betances self-reports feeling much healthier this season. It was apparent he was nowhere near peak form last season. In limited work, he delivered a 7.71 ERA with more walks (9.26 BB/9) than strikeouts (8.49 K/9). His fastball was missing four-mph, and his signature breaking ball was AWOL. He worked this winter to recover his mechanics. Keep an eye on his heater and walk rate – they’ll be leading indicators of a rebound.

Speaking of rebounds, Familia is two years removed from his last successful campaign. At his best, he combines two desirable traits – a high ground ball rate and over a strikeout per inning. In three of the last four seasons, he’s posted over 5.40 BB/9. His better seasons feature roughly half as many walks.

Castro is another fireballer with an inconsistent past. He tallied a 4.01 ERA despite reaching a career-best 98.1 mph with his average fastball. He has similar traits to Familia – plus velocity, high ground ball rates, and potential for over a strikeout per inning. Walks tend to be an issue too. The strikeout upside is somewhat theoretical. His 13.86 K/9 last season was nearly double his career rate of 7.44 K/9. I didn’t find any apparent changes in how he used his three-pitch repertoire.

Loup has some modest potential as an emergency streaming target in holds leagues. Besides holds, the lefty specialist doesn’t have enough in his favor to reliably contribute in other categories. Gsellman’s been around awhile and has built a resume as an uninspiring long reliever. The Padres have misused Lucchesi as a starter. The southpaw could play up in relief – perhaps stepping past Loup on the leverage depth chart.

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Atlanta Braves

Will Smith
Chris Martin
A.J. Minter
Tyler Matzek
Luke Jackson
Jacob Webb
Josh Tomlin

While this is a deep relief corps, the Braves lack a standout closer. Smith looked to be that guy back in 2019. For the Giants, he spun a 2.76 ERA, 13.22 K/9, and 0.94 WHIP with 34 saves. The only blemish was an elevated home run rate. Although they didn’t need a closer at the time, Atlanta signed Smith to extend the depth of their bullpen. He was bitten deeply and frequently by the home run bug (3.94 HR/9). Smith was trusted with high leverage innings in the postseason and looks to be the odds-on favorite for saves in Atlanta.

Since the bullpen is evenly divided between righties and lefties, a closer platoon of sorts could emerge. That would benefit Martin. In an age of relief aces, he can best be described as competent. At 35, he’s also much older than you likely realize. The Braves didn’t have any issues using an older, competent closer last season (Melancon). He uses a four-pitch repertoire to record over a strikeout per inning. Since his breakout 2018 campaign, Martin’s 1.01 BB/9 is the second-best in the league (his teammate, Tomlin, is third on that same list). Martin doesn’t limit hard contact or induce wild strikeout rates, adding risk of the occasional meltdown. He’s exactly the sort of reliever who loses a closer gig mid-season – assuming he ever has it in the first place.

Now we’re getting to guys who have less late-inning success. Minter had a shot at saves in 2018 and 2019. Inconsistency, especially from a brutal loss of command in 2019, cost Minter a golden opportunity. He bounced back in 2020 with fewer walks and a 0.83 ERA. He uses his slider as his primary offering. Unless his command takes another step forward, I consider him maxed out as an inconsistent setup man.

Matzek, a former top prospect, came out of nowhere last season to deliver one of the better surprise performances. His fastball sat at a career-best 94.4-mph, and he missed a healthy number of bats. He still wields a starter’s repertoire which might indicate potential to further improve upon his results. At the very least, the 30-year-old southpaw seemingly has the stuff to challenge Minter for holds. Another lefty, Grant Dayton, looks to be playing fourth-fiddle. Although he pitched decently in 2020, he was used as a low-leverage, multi-inning reliever. He depends more on deception than stuff.

From the right side, Jackson and Webb had brief experiences as the Braves closer in 2019. Jackson locked down 18 saves before he was shoved aside by trade acquisitions. He performed terribly last season and was missing two-mph on his fastball. He’s a ground ball pitcher – it’s his most defining feature. Despite six seasons of experience, Jackson has never delivered two similar-looking campaigns in a row. He’s a wild card with outcomes ranging from not making the team to closing.

Webb didn’t allow a run last season (just 10 innings), but he’d lost 1.5-mph from his heater. He wields a deadly changeup with a high ground ball rate. The profile reminds me vaguely of a more conventional Cesar Valdez. He’s a pitcher to watch even if the fantasy utility is likely to be limited. I’d love to see him feature the changeup as his primary pitch.

Sean Newcomb, Victor Arano, and Chad Sobotka are also on the 40-man roster along with quite a few starting pitchers whose stuff could play up in relief. Nate Jones and Carl Edwards Jr. are the non-roster pitchers likeliest to make the club.

Philadelphia Phillies

Hector Neris
Archie Bradley
Jose Alvarado
Brandon Kintzler
Tony Watson

The Phillies reaction to their historically terrible bullpen – it singlehandedly cost them a postseason berth – was to acquire four “closers” to supplement Neris. I use quotes to indicate that Alvarado never established himself as a ninth inning presence, Kintzler is miscast in high leverage relief, and Watson has notched just two saves since 2017. He also only has a career-high of 15 saves despite being among the 10 best relievers for multiple seasons. Both Kintzler and Watson are in camp as non-roster invitees. This is a sort of accounting trick. The club has likely assured them they’ll make the club so long as they look like themselves. Meanwhile, it gives the Phillies time to decide which of their many young pitchers should be exposed to waivers.

Neris and Bradley are the likeliest relievers to record saves. The club hasn’t given us much to go by at this stage. Will they prefer a familiar face in Neris who is generally reliable but usually suffers a dreadful two-week slump each season? Or will Bradley jump to the fore as the shiny new thing. Both are competent in the ninth inning. Neris features better swing-and-miss stuff. He’ll typically throw more splitters than fastballs. Since the league doctored the balls over the winter and isn’t letting pitchers use them in Spring Training, Neris along with all splitter specialists are at risk of an early season slump as they adapt. As for Bradley, he’s solid but unexceptional as a high leverage reliever. Expect a 3.50 ERA with 1.25 WHIP. It’s his consistency that makes him an attractive option in Philadelphia. After all, they’re still feeling the sting of countless blown saves.

Since a superb 2018 season, Alvarado has battled injuries and rising walk rates. Rather than pay him a modest $1MM in arbitration, the Rays sent him packing. When healthy, the southpaw fires 98-mph bullets with a hard slider and curve. He doesn’t command any of his offerings particularly well which limits his ability to throw fewer fastballs. If the command lightbulb clicks, he’ll unlock top 10 closer potential.

Watson is a more ordinary southpaw. After sitting around 93-mph for most of his career, he plummeted to just 89.9 mph last season. It didn’t affect his results. In fact, he deemphasized his fastball and made his excellent changeup his primary offering. Watson has fallen afoul of too many home runs since the start of 2016 – despite spending much of his time at notoriously pitcher friendly venues. Switching to Citizen’s Bank Park as his home stadium could be disastrous.

Without saves, Kintzler can be ignored for fantasy purposes. He’s a ground ball machine who lets his defense do his work for him. The Phillies, unfortunately, really don’t have a support staff in place for him. Alec Bohm and Rhys Hoskins are sieves on the corners while Didi Gregorius and Jean Segura aren’t especially rangy either.

One of Chase Anderson, Matt Moore, or Vince Velasquez appears to be lined up for long reliever – assuming none of their starters suffers an injury this spring. JoJo Romero flashed plus peripherals but was skunked for a 7.59 ERA. Still, he has the makings for a high ground ball rate southpaw with a strikeout per inning. Conor Brogdon and David Hale are competing for a middle relief role. Joining them are Cristopher Sanchez, Bryan Mitchell, Enyel De Los Santos, Bailey Falter, Sam Coonrod, Hector Rondon, and Neftali Feliz. It’s a Who’s That list of unestablished pitchers with modest potential.

Washington Nationals

Brad Hand
Tanner Rainey
Daniel Hudson
Will Harris
Wander Suero
Kyle Finnegan

Rumors of Hands demise have been greatly exaggerated. His velocity declined almost linearly since the start of 2018, but he’s continued to thrive due to pristine slider command. His signature is an ability to spot both a fastball and breaking ball. Fantasy managers should be wary of further declining velocity – more because it might signal an injury than for risk of performance decline. After spending much of his career as a ground ball guy, Hand has recently reinvented himself as a fly ball pitcher. Although he managed to avoid allowing a home run last season, there’s risk he’ll suddenly turn homer prone.

If that happens, Rainey has some exceptional skills. As mentioned earlier, he induced a higher swinging strike rate than Edwin Diaz last season. The root cause of his mini-breakout was a sharp uptick in slider usage. He also cut his walk rate from Marmolian levels to just 3.10 BB/9. Regression is likely. An optimist might hope for last season’s walk and whiff rates to stick, eventually rendering him a mid-tier closer. A pessimistic outcome could leave him off the Nationals roster by midseason. In other words, this is a high variance reliever.

Hudson and Harris should be reliably decent. They can close in a pinch but fit much better as middle relievers. As a ground ball guy, Harris is useful as a mid-inning sub to induce double play balls. Suero is a cutter specialist who might be coming into his own. He also throws a decent changeup. I have him marked on a dark horse closer list, anticipating over 10.00 K/9 and relative consistency. His is an uncomplicated approach which is why he leads the club in appearances since the start of 2019. Finnegan might have the right combination of ground balls and strikeouts to sneak ahead of Hudson and Harris by season’s end. It’s hard to judge the 29-year-old on just 24.2 Major League innings.

A few others to keep tabs on include Luis Avilan, Sam Clay, and Ryne Harper. Avilan is amazingly entering his 10th Major League season despite only twice exceeding 50 innings. You might remember the lefty from his heyday in Atlanta back in 2012 and 2013. Clay is another southpaw. He induces hefty ground ball rates and enough whiffs to tease upside. He also struggles to hit the strike zone, leading to elevated walk rates. Harper is fun because he’s a soft-tosser with a floating curve he uses 60 percent of the time. For fantasy managers, only Clay should be watched.

Miami Marlins

Dylan Floro
Yimi Garcia
Anthony Bass
Richard Bleier
James Hoyt
Adam Cimber

With Hoyt and Cimber on hand, this feels like a throwback Indians bullpen – a collection of misfits who will outperform even the rosiest expectations. Certainly, there is an emphasis on ground balls with this group. Floro, Bass, Bleier, and Cimber all record over 55 percent ground balls on a regular basis.

When I wrote about the Dodgers over a month ago, I tabbed Floro as a potential closer on a less well-endowed roster. This is that roster! The right-hander is, in effect, a better version of Kintzler – the Marlins closer last season. Of course, Bass can answer to the same description. Bleier, a lefty, and Cimber, a righty, are handedness specialists with low strikeout rates. They can be used in fantasy to chase holds from the waiver wire but shouldn’t be rostered full time.

Garcia is the guy fantasy managers want to close. He posted a 0.60 ERA with 11.40 K/9 in 15 innings last season. Before coming over from the Dodgers, he had a serious home run problem. He managed to navigate 2020 without coughing up a single long ball. However, his career 1.65 HR/9 should be treated as the expected outcome with over 2.00 HR/9 possible. In either event, he won’t be a viable closer for long. He needs his 2020 performance to mark a departure from past tendencies. A strong Spring Training could help him to win the job out of camp.

The Marlins have a couple Rule 5 picks who could make the roster. Paul Campbell (along with veterans Ross Detwiler and Gio Gonzalez) looks like a strike-throwing long reliever. Zach Pop is a Tommy John surgery recoveree who featured an upper-90s sinker and a tight slider. The profile could instantly play in the late innings if and when he returns. He’s yet to appear this spring. While Miami has no shortage of future relievers in their minor league rotations, they probably won’t be shifting the likes of Edward Cabrera or Braxton Garrett to relief just yet.