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AL East Closer Situations and Bullpen Previews

Now that the outdoor Christmas decorations are inflated and working, the star is placed on the tree, and the stockings are all hung with care, let’s start diving back into everyone’s favorite fantasy baseball topic; bullpens.

We are going to check one division per week over the next six weeks to help you set the stage for what to expect in 2024. Today we start with the AL East.

At this point I have taken a deeper dive into the nuts and bolts of MLB bullpens in 2023 and found some interesting things; not sure we can call them “trends” yet, but there will be some things to ponder as we begin draft season preparations this month. I will be sharing those shortly with you.

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AL East Bullpen Preview

Baltimore Orioles

The last time we saw Felix Bautista, he was throwing a bullpen session to determine if he would be able to make it back before the playoffs. Alas, we learned a few days later that he would be the next patient to receive Tommy John surgery. Yennier Cano, who started off the year unhittable, assumed the closer’s mantle after Bautista was lost for the season. While Cano is a terrific bullpen arm, he was miscast as the closer. Cano led MLB last season with 31 holds.  As a team with deep playoff aspirations in 2024, the Orioles were looking at a closer upgrade. And they did, signing veteran righty Craig Kimbrel to close in 2024. Kimbrel will likely serve as a bridge this season and will return the job to Bautista for 2025 should he recover fully from his TJS.

Kimbrel had a nice season in Philadelphia last year: eight wins, 23 saves, a healthy 3.26 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 69 innings. Home runs remain an issue; he gave up 10 homers last year, but seven of those were solo shots, so he limited damage.  Kimbrel should have one more good season in him at age 35.

Danny Coulumbe should return to a prime position to earn holds; he had 22 in 2023.  A name to watch in Spring Training will be lefty DL Hall, who could contend for a higher leverage role with a good spring.

The Orioles were said to be interested in signing free agent righty Robert Stephenson. But that should evaporate with the Kimbrel signing. Stephenson is expected to get a multi-year deal.

Boston Red Sox

All we know for sure in this bullpen is that Boston has lots of parts and thus lots of possibilities. Kenley Jansen will crater some year, it would seem, but it wasn’t in 2023.  Josh Winckowski, John Schreiber, Garrett Whitlock, and Tanner Houck all could have roles in the bullpen, but the latter two could also be in the rotation depending on the moves new general manager Craig Breslow makes this winter. Chris Martin should remain the top high-leverage option behind Jansen.

Jansen was his usual sturdy self in 2023: three wins, 29 saves, a 3.63 ERA, and 52 strikeouts in 44.2 innings, all while throwing his vaunted cutter 79% of the time. He did have some health issues, dealing with Covid-19 and hitting the IL for good in mid-September with hamstring issues. Martin chipped in with four wins and 23 holds; Winckowski had 19 holds.

My hunch is that this bullpen could change quickly; Jansen is now 36, and Martin will be 38 when the season starts. Not saying they are in decline, but when the slope comes, the demise could happen quickly, leading to opportunities for other arms here.  Now, ask me how long I have been saying that about Jansen… several years and he continues to be stellar.  But we also know Father Time is undefeated. One to keep an eye on this year.

New York Yankees

The Yankees are a bullpen in a state of some transition. Clay Holmes is the closer right now, and free agency could steal some key pieces of their 2023 bullpen, like Wandy Peralta who appeared in 66 games.  They also lost Michael King in the Juan Soto trade, who was a key weapon in their bullpen before shifting effectively to starting down the stretch in September.

Holmes picked up 24 saves and 71 punchouts in 63 innings, proving he can get the last three outs of games.

But this is a bullpen that has some intriguing options provided they are healthy.  Scott Effross was effective before injury in 2023 and could return to a key role. But the guy to really earmark for later could be Jonathan Loaisiga, who came back and sported a 3.06 ERA in 17.2 innings in 2023, lending hope that he could be primed for a high-leverage role.  He was dealing with an elbow injury at the end of the season, and the team shut him down with an abundance of caution rather than have him try and work through it in early September. Slightly concerned about the lack of strikeouts.  We will have to see what Spring Training will bring.  Loaisiga could be a prime holds candidate in 2024 with health.

Ian Hamilton had a nice breakout season: a 2.64 ERA in 58 innings with 69 strikeouts.  Will fly under the radar in most leagues, but if he continues to minimize the walks while maintaining a 55% ground ball rate, he could be effective in 2024.

Tommy Kahnle is another option but was dealing with right shoulder inflammation. It was not believed to be serious.  If healthy Kahnle could improve on his 14 holds from 2023.

Tampa Bay Rays

Pete Fairbanks is the best arm in this bullpen, but he’s battled injuries and Reynaud’s syndrome. Jason Adam has proven to be a very capable setup man and closer when needed for Fairbanks. Former closer Andrew Kittredge made it back from Tommy John surgery and got into 14 games in 2023.  He will likely assume a key role along with Colin Poche behind Fairbanks and Adam. Poche led the team with 22 holds. Adam had 12 saves and 12 holds. Adam will likely continue to substitute as closer in 2024 should Fairbanks miss any time.

Fairbanks had 25 saves, a sparkling 2.58 ERA, and a 1.01 WHIP, to go along with 68 strikeouts in 45.1 innings. His only issues are health and availability as this is a strong skillset for closing.

One thing we know for sure: the Rays will find 1-2 other guys you have not heard of that will lead to this being one of the best bullpens in the American League. In 2023 those guys were Kevin Kelly and Shawn Armstrong, and in 2024, it could be lefty Tyler Alexander, who was quietly signed off waivers from Detroit in November.

A minor league name to watch: Evan Reifert, who has developed a wipeout slider but has struggled with command issues.  Should he rectify that, the Rays will have yet another weapon in their deep bullpen.

Toronto Blue Jays 

The Blue Jays would seem to have a certain closer in Jordan Romano. They feature one of the top eighth innings guys in baseball in Erik SwansonGenesis Cabrera was a great find in a midseason trade with the St. Louis Cardinals. Swanson was in the top five for holds in all of MLB with 29.

Romano had 36 saves, a 2.90 ERA, and a 1.22 WHIP with 72 strikeouts in 59 innings and cemented himself as the closer. He was lost for part of the season due to a balky back.  Something to watch for this spring before investing, but if healthy, Romano could be a top-five closer this year.

Tim Mayza (22 holds) and Yimi Garcia (19 holds) will also serve important bullpen roles.  And an interesting name from the past, Chad Green, resurfaced in Toronto for 12 innings last year and was looking to shake off the rust after two years of injuries.

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