Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SweetSpot [Print without images]

Thursday, November 21, 2013
Offseason bullpen grades: American League

By David Schoenfield

In the second part of our look at bullpens, we examine the American League teams. You'll see a lot more movement this winter in the AL as seven teams are currently in need of a new closer -- either from within or via free agency -- and two or three other teams may be looking to upgrade. (Here are the National League bullpen grades.)

Boston Red Sox
2013 statistics: 3.70 ERA (10th in AL), .710 OPS (12th), 23.3% K rate (6th), 8.7% BB rate (7th)
Record: 30-23, 33 saves, 23 blown saves, 76-7 when leading after six innings
Closer: Koji Uehara
Top setup guys: Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow
Others: Andrew Bailey, Brandon Workman, Franklin Morales, Andrew Miller, Rubby De La Rosa, Brayan Villarreal
Free agents: Joel Hanrahan, Matt Thornton

GM Ben Cherington struck gold when he signed Uehara to a one-year, $4.25 million contract that included a vesting option for 2014; the Red Sox will end up paying $9 million to $10 million or so for two years of Uehara's services. When Hanrahan and Bailey went down with injuries, Uehara took over the closer's role and had one of the best relief seasons in history. Can he do it again? Probably not at that level, and while he's always been underrated the concern is he threw 88 innings in 2013 (including the postseason) after throwing just 103 innings combined over 2011 and 2012. Even if the oft-injured Bailey is brought back (teams have until Dec. 2 to tender a contract to players or they become free agents), I expect them to make a move for at least one free-agent reliever to bolster the depth.

Grade: B+. There are some intriguing young arms like Workman and De La Rosa, who could start for some teams but don't have room in the Boston rotation. Villarreal is a guy who touched the upper 90s with the Tigers in 2012. Still, the depth behind Uehara, Tazawa and Breslow remains somewhat unknown and/or injury-prone.

Tampa Bay Rays
2013 statistics: 3.59 ERA (7th), .645 OPS (2nd), 24.9% K rate (2nd), 9.3% BB rate (9th)
Record: 27-24, 42 saves, 18 blown saves, 70-9 when leading after six innings
Closer: Open
Top setup guys: Joel Peralta, Jake McGee
Others: Alex Torres, Wesley Wright, Josh Lueke, Brandon Gomes, Alex Colome, Enny Romero, Jeff Beliveau
Free agents: Fernando Rodney, Jamey Wright, Jesse Crain

After two seasons of Rodney, who is the next reclamation project for Joe Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey? Can you say "Joba Chamberlain, Tampa Bay closer?" OK, maybe not. More likely, with the emergence of Torres, Maddon moves McGee to the closer role, with Torres and Peralta setting him up. Look for the Rays to make a minor signing or two here, or to pick up a reliever in a potential David Price trade.

Grade: B+. The lack of a Proven Closer isn't the issue, as McGee and Peralta were both better pitchers than Rodney was in 2013. After two years of one of the best bullpens in the league, however, the Rays could simply be headed for a downturn in late-inning production.

Baltimore Orioles
2013 statistics: 3.52 ERA (6th), .697 OPS (9th), 21.5% K rate (11th), 7.3% BB rate (1st)
Record: 29-26, 57 saves, 27 blown saves, 61-18 when leading after six innings
Closer: Jim Johnson
Top setup guys: Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter
Others: Brian Matusz, Troy Patton, T.J. McFarland, Josh Stinson, Edgmer Escalona
Free agents: Jairo Asencio

Check those losses when leading after six innings: Second most in the league behind the Astros. Johnson tied with Craig Kimbrel for the most saves in the majors, which only proves how saves are overrated. Johnson also lost eight games, although that late-inning record indicates he wasn't the only reliever blowing leads.

Grade: C. Johnson has to be considered a shaky option at closer and Hunter allowed a .535 slugging percentage against lefties. Buck Showalter doesn't really trust Matusz against righties (65 games, 51 innings) and sidearmer O'Day allowed a .309 average to left-handers. It's a pen that works when Showalter manages to get the matchups but can be abused if he doesn't. It really needs a right-hander Showalter can trust against both sides. I could see the O's going after a guy like Joaquin Benoit, whose changeup makes him effective against left-handers.



New York Yankees
2013 statistics: 3.66 ERA (9th), .717 OPS (13th), 23.7% K rate (4th), 8.2% BB rate (4th)
Record: 30-14, 49 saves, 13 blown saves, 59-6 when leading after six innings
Closer: Open
Top setup guys: David Robertson, Preston Claiborne
Others: David Phelps, Shawn Kelley, Adam Warren, Brett Marshall, David Huff, Cesar Cabral
Free agents: Mariano Rivera (retired), Joba Chamberlain

With the Robertson/Rivera late-inning duo the Yankees were terrific in protecting leads and the bullpen managed to go 30-14 despite some otherwise mediocre numbers in ERA and OPS allowed. Robertson can certainly handle the ninth-inning role -- don't give me Proven Closer nonsense -- but don't be surprised if the Yankees go after one of the closers out there -- Joe Nathan, Grant Balfour or Rodney.

Grade: C-. Robertson is great but until they lock in a closer and a lefty to replace Boone Logan, this doesn't look like a playoff pen.


Toronto Blue Jays
2013 statistics: 3.37 ERA (4th), .685 OPS (6th), 22.0% K rate (8th), 8.5% BB rate (5th)
Record: 28-31, 39 saves, 19 blown saves, 51-12 when leading after six innings
Closer: Casey Janssen
Top setup guys: Brett Cecil, Steve Delabar
Others: Aaron Loup, Sergio Santos, Dustin McGowan, Chad Jenkins, Neil Wagner, Brad Lincoln, Jeremy Jeffress, Esmil Rogers
Free agents: Darren Oliver (retired)

While Toronto's team -- a World Series favorite on paper -- was blowing up, the bullpen was actually doing pretty well. Setup guys Cecil and Delabar both made the All-Star team. My concern is the pen wasn't as effective in the second half, its ERA rising from 2.90 to 4.03; some of that could have been fatigue (only Twins relievers threw more innings) but some of the decline could have been regression from a hot first half. If Santos can ever get healthy he's another weapon, and Jeffress and Rogers (if he doesn't start) are power arms who could excel if the light suddenly goes on.

Grade: B-. If everyone's healthy this could be a dominant pen, but Delabar, Santos, McGowan and Janssen all have significant injury histories in their past.

Detroit Tigers
2013 statistics: 4.01 ERA (12th), .709 OPS (11th), 23.7% K rate (5th), 9.5% BB rate (10th)
Record: 17-25, 39 saves, 16 blown saves, 77-12 when leading after six innings
Closer: Open
Top setup guys: Drew Smyly, Al Alburquerque
Others: Bruce Rondon, Phil Coke, Luke Putkonen, Jose Alvarez, Jose Ortega, Evan Reed
Free agents: Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Jose Veras

Can you say "Please come to Detroit, Joe Nathan?" Smyly is the team's best reliever but he may move to the rotation if Rick Porcello is traded (although that is now less likely after the Prince Fielder-Ian Kinsler trade). Alburquerque has that killer slider but also the inability to throw it for strikes at times. Rondon, the closer-in-waiting, still throws 100 mph but needs to prove himself over an entire season before being handed the ninth inning. So that leaves the Tigers likely going after a closer plus maybe re-signing Benoit or another reliever like J.P. Howell or Oliver Perez.

Grade: D+. I like Smyly and Rondon has big-time potential, but until more reinforcements are gathered this group is pretty weak.

Cleveland Indians
2013 statistics: 3.62 ERA (8th), .690 OPS (7th), 22.5% K rate (7th), 10.0% BB rate (10th)
Record: 33-16, 38 saves, 22 blown saves, 67-6 when leading after six innings
Closer: Open
Top setup guys: Cody Allen, Vinnie Pestano
Others: Bryan Shaw, Marc Rzepczynski, Nick Hagadone, C.C. Lee, Preston Guilmet
Free agents: Chris Perez, Joe Smith, Matt Albers, Rich Hill

Despite mediocre numbers, the Indians' pen excelled in tight games, as it went 33-16 and did a good job of holding leads. That wasn't because former closer Perez was anything special; in fact, he'd lost his job by the time the Indians played the wild-card game. With Perez gone and the valuable Smith also a free agent, that leaves Allen as the likely closer. He has the 95 mph heater that managers love late in games and should be solid in the job. The question: Who fills out the rest of the pen? Pestano, after a terrific 2012, was demoted back to the minors in 2013; maybe he resurfaces. Regardless, the Indians are going to have to spend some money here.

Grade: D+. While I like Allen, I see the potential for this pen struggling in the seventh and eighth innings, especially if the Indians spend their available resources to re-sign Ubaldo Jimenez or another starter.

Kansas City Royals
2013 statistics: 2.55 ERA (1st), .628 OPS (1st), 26.2% K rate (1st), 8.6% BB rate (6th)
Record: 33-24, 54 saves, 21 blown saves, 63-12 when leading after six innings
Closer: Greg Holland
Top setup guys: Kelvin Herrera, Luke Hochevar
Others: Aaron Crow, Tim Collins, Louis Coleman, Will Smith, Donnie Joseph
Free agents: Bruce Chen, Luis Mendoza

First in ERA, first in OPS allowed, first in strikeout rate -- you can't do much better than that ... except the Royals still lost 12 games they led after six innings (Herrera lost seven games). So there's room for improvement if you look beyond the glossy statistics. If anything, the Royals have too much depth here -- Herrera pitched just 58 innings, Crow just 48 -- and then factor in more work for Coleman, who allowed two runs in 29 2/3 innings. The Royals should cash in one of these guys to get some help on offense.

Grade: A-. What's not to like about this pen? It's deep, it's young, they throw hard and they don't cost much money. The only minor downgrades are that Holland may not be quite as dominant and more consistency is needed from Herrera.

Minnesota Twins
2013 statistics: 3.50 ERA (5th), .680 OPS (5th), 21.2% K rate (12th), 7.7% BB rate (3rd)
Record: 27-22, 40 saves, 18 blown saves, 41-8 when leading after six innings
Closer: Glen Perkins
Top setup guys: Jared Burton, Casey Fien
Others: Brian Duensing, Anthony Swarzak, Caleb Thielbar, Ryan Pressly, Michael Tonkin
Free agents: None

Quietly effective although Perkins is really the only top-shelf guy here. There's a good chance that guys like Fien and Thielbar take a step backward. The Twins are more likely to spend their resources on starting pitching -- the right decision -- and hope that this group can repeat.

Grade: B-. Solid if unspectacular, but one more power arm in front of Perkins would be nice.

Chicago White Sox
2013 statistics: 4.00 ERA (11th), .705 OPS (10th), 20.8% K rate (14th), 10.3% BB rate (14th)
Record: 19-36, 40 saves, 20 blown saves, 49-13 when leading after six innings
Closer: Addison Reed
Top setup guys: Nate Jones, Matt Lindstrom
Others: Donnie Veal, Dylan Axelrod, Jake Petricka, Daniel Webb
Free agents: None

Ugh. The home park doesn't help, but the numbers don't lie: This group was not good. Reed's peripherals are better than his 3.79 ERA suggests but he still blew eight saves, including five in which he allowed two or more runs. Jones can touch 100 mph but struggled with runners on base (.288, four home runs), leading to an inflated ERA. After those two, the depth and quality falls off in a hurry. Looks for GM Rick Hahn to surf for some of the second-tier relievers like Matt Albers.

Grade: D.

Oakland A's
2013 statistics: 3.22 ERA (3rd), .657 OPS (4th), 21.5% K rate (10th), 7.7% BB rate (2nd)
Record: 24-18, 46 saves, 21 blown saves, 74-9 when leading after six innings
Closer: Open
Top setup guys: Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook
Others: Dan Otero, Jerry Blevins, Jesse Chavez, Evan Scribner, Pedro Figueroa
Free agents: Grant Balfour, Pat Neshek

With Balfour likely departing after a strong season as the closer, who takes his place? In mid-August you would have said Cook, who closed some as a rookie in 2012. But he was hit hard the final six weeks, allowing 21 hits and 10 walks over his final 12 innings. That may give the edge to Doolittle, a lefty with power stuff who can get both sides out. Otero was the big surprise here, a guy picked up off waivers in late March from the Yankees (who had just claimed him a day earlier after the Giants let him go). He's not overpowering, which is why he spent seven years in the minors, but he had a 2.02 career ERA in the minors and 1.38 in 39 innings with the A's (no home runs allowed).

Grade: B-. Doolittle or Cook can handle the closer role, but I could also see the A's making a pitch for Brian Wilson, who looked good in the postseason for the Dodgers and shouldn't be as expensive as the Nathan-Balfour-Rodney group.

Texas Rangers
2013 statistics: 2.91 ERA (2nd), .645 OPS (3rd), 21.1% K rate (13th), 8.8% BB rate (8th)
Record: 35-18, 46 saves, 11 blown saves, 69-5 when leading after six innings
Closer: Open for battle
Top setup guys: Tanner Scheppers, Joakim Soria
Others: Neftali Feliz, Neal Cotts, Robbie Ross, Jason Frasor, Joseph Ortiz, Michael Kirkman, Chaz Roe, Josh Lindblom
Free agents: Joe Nathan, Travis Blackley

With a deep arsenal of arms, the Rangers will let Nathan leave after he declined his player option. Feliz and Soria have been closers in the past and Scheppers will likely be considered due to his upper 90s fastball and 1.88 ERA. All three come with red flags, however: Feliz and Soria have to prove they're healthy, and while both were pitching at the end of the season they'll need to show they have the command to be trusted in the ninth inning; as for Scheppers, he struck out just 59 in 76 2/3 innings, so he'll be hard-pressed to repeat that .214 batting average allowed unless he misses more bats. Cotts may actually be the best reliever here, a guy who altered his mechanics after years of injuries and was dominant in his first stint in the majors since 2009. Ross adds more depth from the left side.

Grade: B+. If Feliz and Soria can return to something close to what they were once, this could once again be the best pen in the AL even without Nathan.

Los Angeles Angels
2013 statistics: 4.12 ERA (13th), .692 OPS (8th), 21.8% K rate (9th), 10.1% BB rate (13th)
Record: 20-27, 41 saves, 17 blown saves, 56-14 when leading after six innings
Closer: Ernesto Frieri
Top setup guys: Dane De La Rosa, Michael Kohn, Sean Burnett, J.C. Gutierrez, Cory Rasmus, Kevin Jepsen, Nick Maronde, Robert Carson
Others:
Free agents: None

Frieri is the closer for now, although the Angels may look to upgrade after he allowed 11 home runs in 68 2/3 innings. He does strike batters out, however, and finished with 37 saves in 42 chances. The bullpen woes you see in the numbers above came more from the setup guys. De La Rosa is a 30-year-old minor league vet the Angels picked up from the Rays and he had a decent year but has had battled control issues in the past. Kohn is another guy who throws in the mid-90s but must refine his command. Burnett missed most of the season with an elbow injury.

Grade: C-. There is some upside here and some good arms, but the Angels will undoubtedly be in the market for relief help.

Seattle Mariners
2013 statistics: 4.58 ERA (14th), .724 OPS (14th), 24.2% K rate (3rd), 10.1% BB rate (12th)
Record: 16-33, 43 saves, 23 blown saves, 56-10 when leading after six innings
Closer: Danny Farquhar
Top setup guys: Charlie Furbush, Yoervis Medina
Others: Tom Wilhelmsen, Carter Capps, Stephen Pryor, Lucas Luetge, Bobby LaFromboise, Hector Noesi, Chance Ruffin
Free agents: Oliver Perez

After a strong showing in 2012 -- fifth in the AL in bullpen ERA -- the Mariners were excited about their pen heading into 2013, with Wilhelmsen closing, backed up by Capps and Pryor, three guys with high-octane fastballs. Instead, Pryor got hurt, Capps got torched by left-handers and Wilhelmsen's confidence fell to the point where he was sent down to Triple-A. Farquhar took advantage and became the closer and while his ERA was 4.20, he flashed good stuff and struck out 79 in 55 2/3 innings while allowing just two home runs.

Grade: C. As indicated by that strikeout rate (third best in the AL), this is a group that has a good chance to bounce back from a horrible season. The Mariners' focus will be on upgrading the outfield and maybe adding a starting pitcher or two, so I wouldn't expect a major move here. Which means they'll probably give Rodney too much money to close.


Houston Astros
2013 statistics: 4.92 ERA (15th), .816 OPS (15th), 17.5% K rate (15th), 10.5% BB rate (15th)
Record: 14-40, 32 saves, 29 blown saves, 36-21 when leading after six innings
Closer: To be determined
Top setup guys: Josh Fields, Chia-Jen Lo
Others: Jose Cisnero, Paul Clemens, Josh Zeid, Rhiner Cruz, Kevin Chapman, Darin Downs, Raul Valdes
Free agents: None

The numbers say it: This was one of the worst bullpens in history, right up there with the 2007 Tampa Bay bullpen that went 21-34 with a 6.16 ERA. But that Rays team was 50-13 when leading after six innings; the Astros were an abysmal 36-21.

Grade: F. Nowhere to go but up.