Spring Training is upon us, and there will be much talk to come this month on positional battles, health concerns, and the preparation of players for the upcoming 2023 season. One thing we know already: closer situations are going to be a messy business in many cities.
I began looking at bullpens in earnest in early January and have pieced together my initial chart before we have any Spring Training games have been played and we have any data. Moreover, it’s hard to know what spring game data really tells us anyway. We have our chart, and I will try and provide a brief explanation of my thought process. Let’s go division by division and see what we have.
I find it important to point out, these are my best guesses and that this could all change in the coming few weeks.
A few caveats to remember:
- I have divided the chart into closer, “stopper,” and holds targets. There will be some debate on these, and fire away at me if you think I am incorrect in the first week of Spring Training.
- The charts are designed as a quick reference. A bullpen shaded green means I am fairly certain of the closer. A bullpen shaded yellow means I am not convinced we know who the closer is yet. A bullpen shaded red means it could be any of a number of pitchers in a potential competition.
- Keep in mind the closer will not always be the best pitcher in the bullpen by means of what we loosely call “stuff.” That may very well be the “stopper,” who is the pitcher called upon to get out of jams earlier than the ninth inning. It can be hard to assign value to these pitchers, who won’t be getting saves in these high leverage roles. Some stoppers could easily become closers. But we know enough of major league managers who very well could put the best reliever in the stopper role while using someone else with perhaps less stuff to get the last three outs in the ninth inning. An example: Philadelphia. There, manager Rob Thomson will likely use Craig Kimbrel more often as the closer. He could use any of Seranthony Dominguez, Gregory Soto, and Jose Alvarado as a stopper. I think you could make a valid argument that any of the three have better pure stuff than Kimbrel.
- Anything on this chart is subject to change. Injuries, ineffectiveness, change of role, and change of mind in the front office can all lead to this chart being moot in mere days. We will adapt as we learn more this spring.
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MLB Bullpen Breakdowns
The Baltimore Orioles announced this week that Felix Bautista is slightly behind schedule with shoulder and knee issues. Dillon Tate will likely be out until at least April with an injury as well. We know the Orioles have about a dozen guys battling out for a rotation spot behind Kyle Gibson and Cole Irvin. Assuming Grayson Rodriguez gets one of those spots, that leaves about nine guys for two spots. The losers in the rotation battle could head to the bullpen or the minor leagues where they would continue to start. Cionel Perez is one of the best arms in the pen, along with Bryan Baker. I would be intrigued to see DL Hall in a multiple-inning stopper-type role should he not make the rotation and will be watching to see if that happens.
The White Sox suffered a terrible blow when they lost closer Liam Hendriks to a cancer diagnosis in January. While recovery from that is the number one priority, an opportunity is created in the Sox bullpen. While many have suggested that Reynaldo Lopez might be the best choice, the Sox are said to prefer him in more of that stopper role, and not as the closer. That could leave the closer job to Kendall Graveman, who has 16 career saves, including six last year on days Hendriks was off. Adding intrigue here is that lefty Garrett Crochet is coming off TJS and could be back in May. He could play a role here as well. And while there has been no update on Hendriks, he’s working out and plans to be back at some point this season. In the meantime, my gut says the closer is Graveman with Lopez as the stopper.
Minnesota has some intrigue as well. While there is no doubt in my mind that Jhoan Duran is the best arm in their bullpen, the best guess is that Jorge Lopez will be the closer. Some of this may have to do with salary control and limiting Duran’s earning power by controlling his role. Lopez may get the saves, but Duran offers high strikeout potential and ratio controls.
There is intrigue in the Los Angeles camp, where holdovers Ryan Tepera and Jimmy Herget remain in the mix. The newly signed Carlos Estevez should slot in as the closer, with Tepera and Herget in supporting roles. I have liked Estevez as a sleeper this winter as it seems he just needs a chance away from the thin air of Colorado.
Miami will be an interesting bullpen. Last week they traded outfielder JJ Bleday to the Oakland Athletics for lefty AJ Puk. Puk slots into a busy bullpen that doesn’t feature a clear favorite as the closer. Dylan Floro and Tanner Scott both have had success, Puk has the ability to close out games, and reclamation project Matt Barnes is also a presence here. Best guess? Floro starts the year as the closer, and Puk has the job by the end of the season. I still think Barnes will be heard from again, and I know I am in the minority on that one.
The Phillies will certainly be written about extensively this spring, but as mentioned in my example above, I do think Craig Kimbrel will be the closer. The Phillies have a bevy of options with Dominguez, Soto, and Alvarado as well. This is one to watch but Kimbrel doesn’t really fit another role in the bullpen.
The Chicago Cubs will have a bullpen to monitor this spring as well. Kind of an under-the-radar signing this week was Michael Fulmer, who figures to be in a high-leverage situation for the North Siders. He joins Brad Boxberger and lefty Brandon Hughes as other options. A deep sleeper here would be Adbert Alzolay who does not appear to have a spot in the rotation. Don’t be surprised if manager David Ross mixes and matches in the bullpen and that the Cubs have as many as 4-5 pitchers who get saves this year.
Arizona signed lefty Andrew Chafin to a contract last week, and the best guess here is that he will close games this year for them. He joins a relatively crowded bullpen of Kevin Ginkel, Mark Melancon, Joe Mantiply, and Miguel Castro. Manager Torey Lovullo has suggested he will use a committee approach here, but Chafin jumps out as the best option. Watch out for Scott McGough, back from Japan with a modest two-year contract and a successful run as a closer for the Yakult Swallows. His splitter is nasty.
Colorado: we all know that Daniel Bard is the closer for now, but at age 37, if he falters, they will need a replacement. Another interesting signing this winter was Pierce Johnson, who could step into a high-leverage role in Denver.
What’s your strategy for closers this year? Let us know in the comments below. For more great analysis check out the 2023 FantraxHQ Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit!