Offseason bullpen grades: National League

November, 20, 2013
11/20/13
9:30
AM ET


The average bullpen pitches nearly a third of the game these days and with scoring on the decline that also means more tight games -- and thus more games where the relievers can win it, lose it or save it. Jerry Crasnick has a piece on the market for closers, so I thought it would be a good time to assess the bullpen situations of all 30 major league teams.

Let's start with the National League and then do the American League on Thursday.

Atlanta Braves
2013 statistics: 2.46 ERA (1st in NL), .607 OPS (1st), 22.4% K rate (4th), 8.3% BB rate (7th)
Record: 29-15, 53 saves, 16 blown saves, 71-5 when leading after six innings
Closer: Craig Kimbrel
Top setup guys: David Carpenter, Luis Avilan, Jonny Venters (injured in 2013)
Others: Jordan Walden, Anthony Varvaro, Alex Wood, Cory Gearrin, Cristian Martinez, David Hale
Free agents: Luis Ayala, Scott Downs, Eric O'Flaherty

With the game's best closer in Kimbrel and a deep corps of setup men, the Braves probably had the majors' best bullpen in 2013. Most of that pen is back, and if Venters can return healthy, he adds insurance if Carpenter and/or Avilan don't repeat their late-inning success. Wood could be headed to the rotation with the loss of Tim Hudson to the Giants, but there is still depth here. Dan Szymborski suggested the Braves consider shopping Kimbrel while he's at the peak of his powers, and while Kimbrel will get a big raise (to around $7 million) in his first year of arbitration, it's hard to envision the Braves trading him. Then again ... he's not of much value sitting in the bullpen in a big playoff game.

Grade: A-. If only because Carpenter and Avilan were huge surprises in 2013 and should regress at least a little.


Washington Nationals
2013 statistics: 3.56 ERA (11th), .679 OPS (8th), 20.4% K rate (8th), 7.8% BB rate (3rd)
Record: 29-22, 47 saves, 21 blown saves, 69-8 when leading after six innings
Closer: Rafael Soriano
Top setup guys: Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen
Others: Craig Stammen, Fernando Abad, Ian Krol, Ryan Mattheus, Xavier Cedeno
Free agents: None

The Nationals pen wasn't quite as dominant as it was in 2012, despite the expensive addition of Soriano and a full season from former closer Storen. With Clippard and Storen due raises via arbitration, the Nats could be paying around $22 million just for Soriano and those two guys, hence some rumors that the valuable Clippard could be shopped around. Clippard has been one of the best late-inning guys the past four seasons (2.73 ERA) and is coming off a season where he held opponents to a .152 average, although he did allow nine home runs and the Nationals have cut his workload from 91 innings in 2010 down to 71.

Grade: B. If Storen can bounce back, the lack of a proven left-hander may not matter.

New York Mets
2013 statistics: 3.98 ERA (12th), .716 OPS (12th), 18.1% K rate (15th), 8.2% BB rate (6th)
Record: 26-31, 40 saves, 18 blown saves, 52-11 when leading after six innings
Closer: Bobby Parnell?
Top setup guys: Scott Atchison, Scott Rice
Others: Vic Black, Josh Edgin, Carlos Torres, Jeurys Familia
Free agents: LaTroy Hawkins (signed with Colorado), Frank Francisco, Tim Byrdak, David Aardsma

It's hard to paint an optimistic picture with this crew, although I guess it's fair to point out that the Mets pen wasn't the complete disaster it was in 2012 when it had a 4.65 ERA. Parnell underwent season-ending neck surgery in August and is a question mark for 2014; the Mets probably should have traded him last July like everyone wanted them to do. Considering the Mets are unlikely playoff contenders there's no reason to spend money on one of the many veteran closers available although it wouldn't shock me to see them overpay for a guy such as Fernando Rodney or Chris Perez.

Grade: D. You never know with bullpens, but there isn't one sure thing in this group.

Philadelphia Phillies
2013 statistics: 4.19 ERA (14th), .741 OPS (14th), 20.4% K rate (11th), 10.8% BB rate (15th)
Record: 25-26, 32 saves, 16 blown saves, 51-11 when leading after six innings
Closer: Jonathan Papelbon
Top setup guys: Mike Adams, Antonio Bastardo
Others: Justin De Fratus, Jake Diekman, B.J. Rosenberg, Jeremy Horst, Joe Savery, Phillippe Aumont
Free agents: None

The Phillies thought they'd have an overpowering late-inning trio with Papelbon, Bastardo and free agent Adams. Instead, Papelbon pitched only 61 innings and Bastardo and Adams were hurt and/or mediocre. Papelbon was the only reliever on the staff to reach even 50 innings as the team was forced to shuffle guys in and out. It didn't work as the pen ranked at or near the bottom of the NL in most categories. With Papelbon and Adams making $20 million between them, Ruben Amaro may be forced to go with the hand he dealt himself. Although there are some relievers out there on the wrong side of 35, which sounds right up Amaro's alley.

Grade: C. I could see improvement here as Papelbon is still a quality closer and you have to think the overall health will improve at least a little.

Miami Marlins
2013 statistics: 3.42 ERA (7th), .671 OPS (5th), 21.4% K rate (7th), 9.3% BB rate (12th)
Record: 24-34, 36 saves, 17 blown saves, 43-7 when leading after six innings
Closer: Steve Cishek
Top setup guys: Ryan Webb, A.J. Ramos
Others: Mike Dunn, Dan Jennings, Arquimedes Caminero, Chris Hatcher
Free agents: Chad Qualls

Led by unheralded closer Cishek -- everyone expected him to get dealt at the trade deadline -- this bullpen was middle-of-the-pack solid and improved its ERA from 3.84 in the first half to 2.82 in the second half. The top four guys were used fairly heavily -- Webb and Ramos both reached 80 innings -- so Mike Redmond will probably back off a little there. The Marlins may look to sign somebody to replace Qualls, but otherwise look for Cishek to again be a trade candidate come July.

Grade: C+. It's not a perfect group as Cishek isn't your classic flame-throwing closer and there could be depth issues, but the top four are pretty good and those are the guys you use in close games.

St. Louis Cardinals
2013 statistics: 3.45 ERA (8th), .676 OPS (7th), 22.4% K rate (5th), 7.4% BB rate (1st)
Record: 20-19, 44 saves, 20 blown saves, 81-7 when leading after six innings
Closer: Trevor Rosenthal
Top setup guys: Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist
Others: Seth Maness, John Axford, Randy Choate, Jason Motte, Keith Butler, Fernando Salas, Sam Freeman
Free agents: Edward Mujica

The bullpen that finished the year -- Martinez and Rosenthal blowing smoke in the eighth and ninth innings -- was much different from the one that began the year with Mitchell Boggs closing for the injured Motte. The Cardinals already have said Rosenthal will be back in the closer role despite his potential to mature into a top-of-the-rotation starter. It will be interesting to see what Mike Matheny does with Martinez: Does he serve a full year of apprenticeship in the bullpen or do they keep him as a starter, even in Triple-A? Motte may be back in May, late-season acquisition Axford is still under contract and the pen could get one of the leftover starters if somebody isn't traded.

Grade: B+. Only a B+? I suspect Martinez will remain a starter, meaning there's no obvious candidate for the eighth inning. Siegrist or Axford could be that guy but neither is a sure thing to be a lockdown guy. And as good as Rosenthal looked during the playoffs, his 2.63 ERA isn't Kimbrel territory.

Pittsburgh Pirates
2013 statistics: 2.89 ERA (2nd), .621 OPS (2nd), 20.1% K rate (13th), 7.8% BB rate (2nd)
Record: 30-20, 55 saves, 15 blown saves, 69-5 when leading after six innings
Closer: Jason Grilli
Top setup guys: Mark Melancon, Justin Wilson
Others: Tony Watson, Bryan Morris, Vin Mazzaro, Jared Hughes, Jeanmar Gomez, Stolmy Pimentel
Free agents: Kyle Farnsworth

The Pittsburgh bullpen was huge in 2013, not only posting the second-best ERA in the NL but doing so while carrying the second-heaviest workload behind Colorado (and throwing 85 more innings than Atlanta). There are a few red flags here, however: The pen didn't own a dominant strikeout rate and it had the second-lowest BABIP among NL relief staffs (although the Pittsburgh defense, with its shifting, helped some there). While the staff threw a lot of innings, nobody threw more than 73.2 innings, as Clint Hurdle did a good job managing innings.

Grade: B. I expect some decline here. Grilli's age and late-season injury is a cause for concern and Melancon is unlikely to allow just one home in 70 innings again. Still, this group is good and deep enough that the Pirates can spend their offseason worrying about improving the offense and re-signing A.J. Burnett or another starter.


Cincinnati Reds
2013 statistics: 3.29 ERA (4th), .660 OPS (3rd), 25.1% K rate (1st), 9.2% BB rate (11th)
Record: 24-24, 43 saves, 16 blown saves, 68-9 when leading after six innings
Closer: Aroldis Chapman
Top setup guys: J.J. Hoover, Jonathan Broxton
Others: Sam LeCure, Sean Marshall, Alfredo Simon, Logan Ondrusek, Pedro Beato
Free agents: Manny Parra, Zach Duke

After posting a league-leading 2.65 ERA in 2012, the Reds' bullpen was expected to be even better with full seasons from Broxton and Hoover. While still effective, the pen wasn't on the same level, as Broxton and Marshall battled injuries and Chapman blew five saves -- four of which he took the loss on. New manager Bryan Price has hinted in the past that he'd like to make Chapman a starter but that seems unlikely considering Chapman wants to close and some of his control issues resurfaced last season (4.1 BB/9). Price should also get Chapman more than 63 innings; as big and strong as he is, Chapman should be able to carry a heavier workload and still maintain his stuff.

Grade: B+. I wouldn't be surprised if this bullpen is once again as good as any in the league, with Marshall bouncing back, Hoover improving and LeCure serving in his valuable do-everything role. The wild card is if the Reds decide to trade Homer Bailey (a free agent after 2014) to acquire some offense and give Chapman a shot in the rotation.

Milwaukee Brewerss
2013 statistics: 3.19 ERA (3rd), .674 OPS (6th), 20.5% K rate (10th), 8.1% BB rate (5th)
Record: 26-28, 40 saves, 23 blown saves, 52-12 when leading after six innings
Closer: Jim Henderson
Top setup guys: Brandon Kintzler, Burke Badenhop
Others: Tom Gorzelanny, Alfredo Figaro, Rob Wooten, Jimmy Nelson, Donovan Hand
Free agents: Mike Gonzalez

After a disastrous 2012 in which the Brewers lost 11 games they were leading heading into the ninth inning, the no-name pen posted the third-best ERA in the NL while pitching in a good hitter's park. Henderson replaced Axford as closer and saved 28 games in 32 opportunities while holding opponents to a .200 average. At 31 years old, he's no kid and has spent just one full season in the majors, but his fastball/slider combo seems legit enough if he keeps throwing strikes. I'm less confident about Kintzler and Badenhop, who had decent seasons despite mediocre strikeout rates. We'll see if they can repeat.

Grade: C. I'd expect some regression here and there isn't much depth -- or potential help in the minors.

Chicago Cubs
2013 statistics: 4.04 ERA (13th), .736 OPS (13th), 20.4% K rate (12th), 10.3% BB rate (14th)
Record: 21-31, 39 saves, 26 blown saves, 48-14 when leading after six innings
Closer: Open for battle
Top setup guys: James Russell, Blake Parker
Others: Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Daniel Bard, Chang-Yong Lim, Brooks Raley, Carlos Villanueva, Kyuji Fujikawa
Free agents: Kevin Gregg, Matt Guerrier

Well, at least Carlos Marmol is gone. The Cubs had the fourth-most blown saves in the majors in 2013, so even though veteran Gregg was shockingly not horrible as closer, the middle guys were still giving up plenty of leads. The Cubs had counted on Fujikawa, a lights-out closer in Japan, to serve in that role but he underwent Tommy John surgery after pitching just six innings and won't be back until June at the earliest. There has been talk of the Cubs going after a closer, although the old argument that the last place a non-contending team should spend money on is the bullpen likely comes into play here. Parker struck out 55 in 46.1 innings but doesn't have an overpowering fastball; still, I like him. And former Red Sox reliever Bard is a shot in the dark that could pan out.

Grade: D+. There are some interesting arms here with guys like Strop and Bard but no obvious closer and nobody with a proven record of success.

Los Angeles Dodgers
2013 statistics: 3.49 ERA (9th), .668 OPS (4th), 22.7% K rate (2nd), 9.4% BB rate (13th)
Record: 30-24, 46 saves, 19 blown saves, 66-9 when leading after six innings
Closer: Kenley Jansen
Top setup guys: Paco Rodriguez, Chris Withrow
Others: Ronald Belisario, Brandon League, Javy Guerra, Scott Elbert, Jose Dominguez, Onelki Garcia, Shawn Tolleson
Free agents: J.P. Howell, Brian Wilson, Peter Moylan

The pen was a key reason behind the team's surge starting in late June. After posting a 4.66 ERA in April, 3.78 in May and 4.78 in June, the relievers had a 1.90 ERA in July and 2.05 in August. Jansen had a monster season, assuming closer duties after League melted down; he has been doing this for a few years now but improved his command in 2013. Next to Kimbrel, he's as good as it gets in the ninth. Rodriguez justified his quick rise to the majors with stuff that gets both sides out and Withrow, a starter in the minors, moved to relief in 2013 and flashed top-shelf stuff. The Dodgers probably will look to add a veteran or two to replace Howell (if they don't re-sign him) and Wilson, who had taken over the eighth-inning role in the postseason.

Grade: B. I like the Jansen/Rodriguez/Withrow trio but the Dodgers will have to add more depth here.

Arizona Diamondbacks
2013 statistics: 3.52 ERA (10th), .699 OPS (11th), 22.5% K rate (3rd), 8.6% BB rate (9th)
Record: 35-22, 38 saves, 29 blown saves, 55-7 when leading after six innings
Closer: Brad Ziegler
Top setup guys: Heath Bell, J.J. Putz
Others: David Hernandez, Tony Sipp, Josh Collmenter, Joe Thatcher, Will Harris, Chaz Roe
Free agents: None

On one hand, the Diamondbacks tied the Astros for the most blown saves in the majors; on the other, the bullpen somehow managed to go 35-22 -- a lot of those blown saves merely led to late-inning wins (the D-backs went 17-9 in extra innings). The relievers can't count on the offense delivering the same drama again, however, so they'll have to pitch better. There is no shortage of arms for that to happen and the strikeout rate suggests there is swing-and-miss stuff here. One key is for Hernandez to rediscover his dominant fastball/slider combo that made him one of the game's best setup men in 2012. Whether Ziegler remains the closer is a question -- managers never have confidence in closers who don't throw 95 -- but the sidearmer has a 2.30 ERA over the past three seasons and keeps the ball in the park.

Grade: C+. Can Kirk Gibson rely on veterans Bell and Putz? Can Hernandez bounce back? Will Sipp and Thatcher provide reliable help form the left side? The answers to those questions could all be yes ... or no.


San Diego Padres
2013 statistics: 3.39 ERA (6th), .693 OPS (10th), 21.5% K rate (6th), 8.3% BB rate (8th)
Record: 25-29, 40 saves, 13 blown saves, 54-7 when leading after six innings
Closer: Huston Street
Top setup guys: Luke Gregerson, Dale Thayer
Others: Nick Vincent, Tim Stauffer, Brad Boxberger, Brad Brach, Anthony Bass
Free agents: None

The Padres always put together a workmanlike bullpen, although admittedly one helped by Petco Park. Huston Street, for example, posted a 2.70 ERA despite allowing 12 home runs -- there's a reason the Padres haven't been able to trade him even though he makes a relatively modest $7 million (with another $7 million team option for 2015). Gregerson is somebody the Padres could look to trade, as he's starting to get more expensive because of arbitration but not too expensive for a contending team to give up a decent prospect to acquire.

Grade: C. Steady but unspectacular. Pretty much the Padres in a nutshell.

San Francisco Giants
2013 statistics: 3.30 ERA (5th), .687 OPS (9th), 20.6% K rate (9th), 8.8% BB rate (10th)
Record: 27-30, 41 saves, 13 blown saves, 49-6 when leading after six innings
Closer: Sergio Romo
Top setup guys: Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez
Others: Jeremy Affeldt, George Kontos, Jean Machi, Jose Mijares, Sandy Rosario, Heath Hembree, Jake Dunning
Free agents: Lopez (re-signed), Chad Gaudin

The bullpen wasn't to blame for the club's pitching woes in 2013. Bruce Bochy handles his relievers more carefully than any manager in the game -- Romo led the staff with just 60 innings -- which he's been able to do in the past because his starters have reliably pitched deep into the game. That didn't happen as much in 2013, of course, but Bochy still refused to overwork his relievers. As with the Padres, these guys are helped by a friendly home park and you wonder how much longer the Romo/Affeldt/Casilla/Lopez group can remain effective. Romo was a little more hittable in 2013 than in the past as his strikeouts declined, so he's somebody to watch carefully.

Grade: B-. No major issues here but no outstanding strengths. With Lopez back in the fold, you're unlikely to see any further moves here.


Colorado Rockies
2013 statistics: 4.23 ERA (15th), .741 OPS (15th), 19.7% K rate (14th), 8.1% BB rate (4th)
Record: 20-28, 35 saves, 18 blown saves, 58-10 when leading after six innings
Closer: LaTroy Hawkins?
Top setup guys: Rex Brothers, Adam Ottavino
Others: Matt Belisle, Wilton Lopez, Josh Outman, Chad Bettis, Mitchell Boggs, Rob Scahill
Free agents: Rafael Betancourt, Manny Corpas

The Rockies just signed Hawkins -- 41 years old in December -- which could work out or, just as likely, could blow up, considering Hawkins is 41 and doesn't miss enough bats. He had a decent year with the Mets but Citi Field isn't Coors Field. If I had to predict, Brothers leads the team in saves. Even though the pen finished with the worst ERA in the NL, there is some quality here. The top five of Brothers, Ottavino, Belisle, Lopez and Outman combined for a 3.39 ERA, which considering Coors Field isn't all that bad. The bottom of the bullpen dragged down the overall ERA, but Hawkins and Boggs may provide some depth.

Grade: C. Better than the ERA suggests, although depth and the heavy workload that Rockies relievers must carry are factors.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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