State of the Bullpen: 2020 End of Year NL Edition
The 2020 season has come to an end. Crazy, it seems like it just started. While it was a short season, we might have put in more work into winning our fantasy leagues than most full seasons between all the injuries and postponements. This was especially true when it came to chasing saves. There seemed to be more turnover than ever, and it was incredibly difficult to land a reliable closer. If you followed along with my weekly bullpen updates, thank you. And I hope they contributed to any success this fantasy season.
Now, we look ahead to 2021. Because after a short season, we all just want more baseball, right? So starting with the National League, I bring you the State of the Bullpen. I’ll go through each team and review the year and give a look ahead to 2021. It’s never too early to start prepping. Let’s get started.
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NL East State of the Bullpen
Incumbent Closer: Mark Melancon
The Braves overhauled their bullpen in 2019, acquiring Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, and Chris Martin at the trade deadline and Will Smith in free agency. The moves paid off in 2020 as the Braves bullpen ERA of 3.50 was fourth-best in the majors and second in the National League behind only the Dodgers.
Melancon got the job done for the team in the ninth inning, converting 11 of Atlanta’s 13 saves on the year and posting a 2.78 ERA. Though it’s fair to question how long the success would continue for Melancon, as his ERA did come with a 3.72 FIP and 4.42 xFIP. That FIP is the highest he’s had since 2012, while the xFIP is the highest since his debut in 2009. He also posted his lowest strikeout percentage since 2009 at 14.7%. Regardless, Melancon was valuable for fantasy players as one of the few reliable sources of saves.
With Melancon and Greene entering free agency, we could be looking at some new faces in the late innings for the Braves come 2021. Will Smith will look to bounce back from a down year. He got off to a late start after recovering from COVID, posting a 5.87 ERA in August. He settled in with a 3.24 ERA in September and saw both his velocity and strikeout rate climb as the season progressed. This will be a situation to monitor this offseason, but unless the team keeps Melancon or Greene, Smith and Martin would be some names to watch as potential closers next season.
Incumbent Closer: Brandon Kintzler
Notable Free Agents: Brandon Kintzler(Club Option), Brad Boxberger
Brandon Kintzler was among the last closers taken during draft season. The late investment paid off big time with 12 saves and a 2.22 ERA in 24.1 innings for a surprise playoff-bound Marlins team. The ERA did come with a 5.00 FIP and 4.98 xFIP, suggesting he was overachieving quite a bit. Though with his results, it’s hard to imagine the Marlins won’t exercise their club option for 2021.
Yimi Garcia enjoyed a productive season with a 0.60 ERA, a 31.7% strikeout rate, three wins, a save, and four holds. He might be the best reliever in that bullpen. Should Kintzler hit free agency, Garcia would be my favorite closer candidate in Miami.
New York Mets
Incumbent Closer: Edwin Diaz
Notable Free Agents: Justin Wilson, Dellin Betances(Player Option)
Despite an incredibly frustrating and disappointing 2019, Edwin Diaz wasn’t falling all that far in 2020 drafts because of his potential to be one of the top closers in the game. While the save total of six was lower than we would have wanted, Diaz did have a successful bounce-back season producing a 1.75 ERA in 25.2 innings. He also posted the highest strikeout rate of his career at 45.5%, a mark that ranked fourth in baseball. Though you would have liked to see a better WHIP than 1.25 thanks to a 12.7% walk rate. There’s no doubt here who the Mets’ closer will be in 2021. Diaz will likely be going as a top-five closer in drafts. He’ll be worth it there as long as he doesn’t revert to his homer-prone 2019 ways.
Incumbent Closer: Hector Neris
Notable Free Agents: Brandon Workman, David Phelps(Club Option)
What a mess. What more is there to really say about the Phillies bullpen? It was flat out terrible. The Phillies posted a league-worst 7.06 ERA and collectively blew 12 save chances. Hector Neris was as streaky as ever with an 8.22 ERA in August and a 2.70 ERA in September. Trade acquisition Brandon Workman did little to help the team with a 6.92 ERA since coming over from Boston. If this team is serious about competing in 2021, then the next closer is likely not on this MLB roster. Should the Phillies go into next season with the status quo, Neris would be the one to draft for saves, but this will be a situation to monitor.
Incumbent Closer: Daniel Hudson
Notable Free Agents: Sean Doolittle
Daniel Hudson played a significant role in Washington’s World Series win in 2019. Despite converting 10 saves this season, he finished with a 6.10 ERA thanks to a handful of blowup outings. This bullpen should remain mostly intact for the 2021 season, with Hudson entering the season as the closer. Though Tanner Rainey will be a name to watch and reliever that should be rostered in most leagues as the closer-in-waiting. Before ending the season on the injured list, Rainey posted a 2.66 ERA and an outstanding 33.3% K-BB rate that ranked seventh in baseball among relievers with at least 10 innings pitched.
NL Central State of the Bullpen
Incumbent Closer: Jeremy Jeffress
Notable Free Agents: Jeremy Jeffress
Things have not quite worked out as planned when the Cubs signed Craig Kimbrel to a three-year $43M dollar extension. Kimbrel got off to a bad start, allowing runs in each of his first four outings. Though, he was considerably better from mid-August on. Kimbrel did not allow a run in 7.1 September innings. And he saw his average fastball velocity rise from 96.3mph in July to 97.3mph in September. There’s some good to take away from Kimbrel’s season. Perhaps there’s a glimmer of hope for the likely closer going into 2021.
Kimbrel’s early struggles gave the team little choice but to go to Rowan Wick and eventually Jeremy Jeffress as the closer. Jeffress, though, will be a free agent. We’ve seen recent resurgences from the likes of Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal. It wouldn’t be the biggest shock to see Kimbrel rebound in 2021.
Incumbent Closer: Raisel Iglesias
With a 2.74 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, eight saves, and a 34.1% strikeout rate, Reds closer Raisel Iglesias put up some of the best numbers of his career. And all this despite only a 53.4% strand rate. His 18.6% swinging strike rate was by far a career-high. Iglesias will and should be drafted as a top-10 closer with confidence in 2021.
Incumbent Closer: Josh Hader
Forming perhaps the most exciting duo of any bullpen are Milwaukee’s Josh Hader and Devin Williams. Hader was taken as the first closer off the boards in 2020 drafts. It was beginning to look like a wasted pick until the last week of the season in which Hader converted four saves, finishing the season with 13. Regardless, it’s a shame Hader only got 19 innings in. In the short season, he had his career-low swinging strike rate at 16.1% and career-high walk rate at 12.8%. He’ll likely be the first closer off the board in 2021, though he might not be the most valuable reliever on his own team.
Devin Williams posted a 1.4 WAR, tied with Liam Hendriks for highest among relievers. Williams posted a ridiculous 0.33 ERA, giving up only one earned run in 27 innings while striking out an absurd 53 batters. A 22.3% swinging strike rate with a 61.1% ground ball rate will do that for you. Williams should be rostered everywhere and should be the first non-closer taken in drafts next season.
Incumbent Closer: Richard Rodriguez
There was some excitement early on when Nick Burdi was given the closer job, filling in for an injured Keone Kela. Burdi managed to get only one save and struck out four batters in 2.1 innings before getting shut down with elbow discomfort. Fortunately, he was able to avoid surgery and could be ready for the 2021 season. After Burdi was shut down, there was little value to be taken from the Pittsburgh bullpen. They managed only five more saves as a team for the rest of the season, four of them coming from Richard Rodriguez. Regardless, Rodriguez actually pitched very well in 2020 with a 2.70 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, and a 31.2% K-BB rate. Both Rodriguez and Burdi will be decent late dart throws for saves in 2021 should Burdi be healthy.
St. Louis Cardinals
Incumbent Closer: Andrew Miller
This situation was a tough one to follow all season long between injuries and COVID. Seven different relievers recorded a save for the team. Andrew Miller and Giovanny Gallegos led the way with four each. Following the long layoff due to COVID, Gallegos appeared to be the primary closer and had been pitching great until he suffered a groin injury in mid-September. He finished with a 3.60 ERA with a 2.06 FIP and 2.73 xFIP.
Gallegos and Miller figure to be ahead of the pack when it comes to saves in 2021. Though, Alex Reyes made a solid case for himself late in the season. It remains to be seen what the long-term plans are for Reyes. Genesis Cabrera also got some heavy usage in high-leverage situations late in the season. The problem with Reyes and Cabrera was their walk rates north of 16%. This will be an interesting situation to monitor in Spring Training.
NL West State of the Bullpen
Incumbent Closer: Stefan Crichton
Notable Free Agents: Hector Rondon
Following the trade of Archie Bradley, it was Stefan Crichton that proved to be the most effective reliever in the ninth inning. Really, the whole situation was just a mess. But Crichton managed to convert five saves for the team and recorded a 2.42 ERA in 26 innings. It’s tough to say who has the best chance of closing next year. Perhaps it’ll be Crichton, or maybe Kevin Ginkel gets an opportunity to redeem himself after a disappointing 2020 season. J.B. Bukauskas, one of Arizona’s top pitching prospects, might have the stuff that plays up in a bullpen role. This is another situation we’ll just have to come back to next spring.
Incumbent Closer: Daniel Bard
Another bullpen that made chasing saves difficult was this Colorado situation. Wade Davis started the season as the closer, followed by Jairo Diaz, then Daniel Bard. Bard provided a feel-good comeback story as he recorded his first saves since 2011. While the team did acquire Mychal Givens and released Wade Davis, I would have to guess Bard goes into 2021 as the Rockies’ closer. Though he’ll likely be one of the last closers off the board in drafts.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Incumbent Closer: Kenley Jansen
Kenley Jansen capped off nearly a decade of dominance with another finish as a top-five closer. Jansen converted 11 saves for Los Angeles to go with a 3.33 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and a 32.4% strikeout rate. Jansen will go into 2021 at 34-years-old, raising the question of how much longer he can sustain his success.
Blake Treinen and Pedro Baez worked directly behind Jansen as setup men, but both will enter free agency. The next most exciting pitcher, Caleb Ferguson, underwent Tommy John surgery and will miss the 2021 season. Perhaps Brusdar Graterol sees more opportunities in high-leverage situations next season. Meanwhile, Treinen and Baez will be interesting to monitor this winter as either could make or decent closers on other teams.
San Diego Padres
Incumbent Closer: Trevor Rosenthal
Drew Pomeranz nearly got through the entire season without allowing a run. He had recorded 19 consecutive scoreless outings before giving up three runs on September 25. He recorded four saves, one win, and nine holds for the team as he was preferably used before the ninth inning.
After losing Kirby Yates to injury, San Diego was aggressive at the trade deadline, acquiring Trevor Rosenthal from Kansas City in one of many moves made. Rosenthal stepped right in and converted four saves for the team over the final month. A great comeback season for Rosenthal might just earn him a good payday this winter, especially if he enjoys a successful postseason.
San Francisco Giants
Incumbent Closer: Tony Watson
Notable Free Agents: Tony Watson
The Giants’ inability to close out games might have cost them a playoff spot. While the team overall enjoyed a more successful season than anyone would have thought, it was the bullpen that really cost the team down the stretch. Five relievers recorded a save for the Giants with Trevor Gott leading the way with four, followed by Tyler Rogers and Sam Coonrod with three each. Tony Watson finished with two saves, and Sam Selman recorded one. With Watson entering free agency, this team will have a lot to figure out once again come Spring Training. There’s really no one here to stash or draft until there’s a more clear picture going into 2021.
The regular season is barely over but we are already preparing for next year. Keep track of all our 2020-21 MLB Offseason Analysis.
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