This week here at TSFJ, we have been breaking down the best of the best in positional groups around Major League Baseball, chronicling the top infields, outfields and starting pitching tandems in the game today. For the final breakout of the week, we turn our eyes to what is the most underappreciated difference making unit in the game: a quality bullpen.
As last October’s World Series proved, having an elite bullpen can carry a club a long way. And as the book opens on another season, it is no surprise that both defending league champions are remain among the best secondary pitching staffs in the game. As baseball becomes more and more specialized and matchup-dependent, having one of the top 10 bullpens in baseball is perhaps the most vital tool in sustained success today.
Here are the best in business at shutting (and keeping) the door closed today:
1.) Kansas City Royals: If there is a team where knocking the starter out early is a bad idea, it is this one. The Royals' bullpen is a lock down unit from top to bottom, full of power arms that miss bats at every level of it. The late-inning trio of Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera combined for a preposterous 1.27 ERA over 204 innings pitched a year ago, while striking out a total of 258 foes. But there is more to it than just them, as both Jason Frasor and the returning Luke Hochevar form a middle inning bridge that is just as hopeless as the foils that follow them. If one is to beat the Royals, get as many runs as possible, as early as imaginable.
2.) Seattle Mariners: The M’s flaunting baseball’s lowest overall bullpen ERA a year ago at 2.59, and held opponents to a stifling .219 batting average as well. This was due to a deep collection of fire ballers, including Danny Farquhar (10.3 k’s per 9 innings), Yoervis Medina (21 holds), Charlie Furbush (51 k’s in 42.1 innings), Tom Wilhelmson (2.27 ERA) and Dominic Leone (2.17 ERA) Topped off by AL saves leader Fernando Rodney, and the M’s quietly boast baseball’s most complete overall pitching staff.
3.) San Francisco Giants: The key component of the Giants’ success has been being unfailingly flexible to any situation that arises. And Bruce Bochy’s main weapon in that approach has been his bullpen, which is capable of meeting most any lineup construct and being well-equipped to perform under fire.
Both Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo have ninth inning experience, while Jeremy Affledt and Javier Lopez are two of the toughest left-handed bullpen matchups in the game. Add in emergent righty Hunter Strickland and the uber-versatile Yusmeiro Petit, and this is a ridiculously confounding group.
4.) Baltimore Orioles: The fact that they have been unable to find a regular inhabitant for their closer role has far from stopped the O’s from maintaining a premier pen. Rather, it makes a strong claim for the fact that the closer role may be an overstated one. Zach Britton and Tommy Hunter have both inhabited the role over the past two years, and the team’s success staying consistent along the way. However, during that time Darren O’Day has regularly been the team’s best reliever while working the 7th and 8th innings, and Brian Matsuz, Brad Brach and Wesley Wright also presenting sizable challenges as well.
5.) San Diego Padres: The Padres have a cadre of power arms available at their expense. Joaquin Benoit has proven to be one of the best investments in any bullpen in years, as he stepped into the ninth inning role after the team dealt All-Star closer Huston Street mid-season and continuing slamming doors without a hitch. Kevin Quackenbush and Dale Thayer are underrated setup options and the addition of Shawn Kelley further deepens the perennially difficult Padres’ pen.
6.) New York Mets: This a group of no-name, but high performance arms that were a secret to the success of the Mets overall pitching offering a year ago. Josh Edgin and Buddy Carlyle both finished with sub-2.00 ERA’s and WHIP figures underneath 1.00. Vic Black and Jeurys Familia turned in nearly as impressive campaigns, while Jenrry Mejia filled in the ninth inning role well for the injured Bobby Parnell, who is slated to return this summer.
7.) Oakland Athletics: If Sean Doolittle was guaranteed to be healthy and available all summer, Oakland’s relief stable would be ranked much higher. But he is battling a tear in his rotator cuff that has him sidelined indefinitely, so the A’s will open the season without their top relief option. Luckily enough, they still have a deep group, including the newly acquired Tyler Clippard and former All-Star Ryan Cook sharing late inning duties. Add in Eric O’Flaherty, Fernando Abad, Dan Otero, Evan Scribner and likely a few potential starters that have to find a temporary home in their pen due to a lack of rotation places to hold all of their arms, and there is a lot to like about the A’s pitching situation.
8.) Pittsburgh Pirates: Jack of all bullpen trades Mark Melancon has made this a tough unit to face for years, first as one of the top setup men in the game and now as a very effective closer as well. Tony Watson put up an outstanding effort last year that saw him reach All-Star status for the first time, while the addition of Antonio Bastardo gives them another power left-handed arm that should pay huge dividends in an NL Central that has a surplus of strong left-handed batters.
9.) Atlanta Braves: Craig Kimbrel is obviously the crown jewel, and while having the game’s premier closer is an asset the boosts any pen’s potential, there is a lot more the Braves’ offering ahead of him as well. A major part of Atlanta’s offseason overhaul was built around resurfacing their relief selection, and with former closers Jason Grilli, Jim Johnson and Jose Veras in the fold, they potentially could have a lock down, inning-to-inning group.
10.) Boston Red Sox: It is a group that has a lot of enticing options, but admittedly is coming off of a down year. Koji Uehara has been one of the most consistent –and occasionally dominant— relievers in the game. Edward Mujica and Junichi Tazawa are both plus setup men, and if Alexi Ogando and Craig Breslow can both rediscover their form from two years ago, this will be a very difficult group to overcome.
Just A Bit Outside: The Yankees boast two dominant arms in Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller at the back of their bullpen, but the role distribution is still somewhat unclear between the two. The White Sox know that David Robertson will be shutting the door for them, and made quality additions in Dan Jennings, Zack Duke and Javy Guerra as well. The Cardinals have a flame tossing duo in Trevor Rosenthal and Jordan Walden at the back of their pen that could make it a seven inning affair in St. Louis.
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