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NL East Bullpen Situations and Preview

This week our bullpen previews move on to the National League, starting off with the competitive NL East.  The division boasts two NL powerhouses in the Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies, but the three other teams here all have legitimate closer options we can mine for bullpen help.

Before we move into our analysis, happy holidays to all, and especially a Happy New Year.  I know fully that this time of year can be really difficult for folks.  If you’ve been meaning to call someone, do it.  If you want to talk, do it.  As always, my DMs are open to anyone, and if you need to chat or need resources, hit me up @mdrc0508 on Twitter or X or whatever it is called now.

A dear friend told me this week that instead of making resolutions, we should pick a word that we can use to remind ourselves of our behavior and what we put out into the universe.  The word has to be positive and can be used to remind yourself of your purpose when you lose focus on it.  Think of some words: perseverance, contentment, serenity, thrive. Mine is “unbreakable.”  If you do this let me know!

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NL East Bullpen Preview

Atlanta Braves 

The Braves boasted one of the strongest bullpens in all of baseball last year.  Raisel Iglesias should return as the closer; he earned five wins and 33 saves with a 2.75 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. His K% was in the 88th percentile at 29.4.  This looks to be a stable skill set and one of the top 5-6 closers off the board in fantasy drafts.

A.J. Minter and Jose Jimenez will return to high-leverage roles behind Iglesias. Minter led the Braves with 15 holds to go with three wins, 10 saves, and 82 strikeouts in 64.2 innings.  Not much help in the ratio categories at 3.76 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. While we can’t ignore the ratio stats, Minter was misused as the closer early on in place of the injured Iglesias and had a bloated ERA of 6.66 at the end of May.  He righted the ship (except for eight walks in September) and finished with a 1.85 ERA after the arbitrary All-Star Break a 31.5 K%.  Draft Minter for holds and strikeouts.  Jimenez had 13 holds a 30.7 K% and a today 5.9 BB%.

The Braves also added veteran lefty Aaron Bummer from the Chicago White Sox who will look to rebound in Atlanta.  Bummer looked terrible on paper and on the field last year with a 13.5 BB% and a 6.79 ERA.  I know we don’t put much stock in this, but his xERA was a more usable 3.58.  He continued to elicit soft contact and a 60.1% groundball percentage.  A change of scenery could be just what he needs to get back to being a useful weapon. Tyler Matzek and Pierce Johnson could also hold value here.

Miami Marlins

Tanner Scott should get the first opportunity to close games after a very successful season in 2023. Scott had nine wins, 24 holds, 12 saves, and a 2.31 ERA with a 0.99 WHIP and 104 strikeouts in only 78 innings.  Scott had a whopping 33.9 K% and was able to cut the walks down to a more manageable 7.8%.  Scott historically has lived on the edge with the walk rate, which was a career-high 15.9 in 2022. Should he be able to keep those gains, he could be a top closer, but any regression could easily cost him the job in Miami.  Scott has three of his wins and nine of his saves in September. We will need to pay attention in Spring Training.

There are other relievers on the roster with value. Lefty Andrew Nardi also had a fine season, gaining eight wins, 17 holds and three saves to go with a 2.67 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. Nardi was in the 99th percentile with an 84.6 average exit velocity and the 92nd percentile in K% at 30.8.  He should be a good candidate for holds setting up Scott.

The word on the street this month was that the Marlins were planning to stretch A.J. Puk out and have him try the rotation again. Puk had seven wins and actually led the Marlins in saves with 15 before ceding the job to Scott in September. Other names to watch could be Anthony Bender (who does have some closing experience) and the oft-injured Sixto Sanchez, who is slated to pitch out of the bullpen this year and is allegedly healthy.

New York Mets 

Edwin Diaz is on schedule to be back for the New York Mets without any restrictions in Spring Training. The last we saw Diaz was being carried off the field with a serious knee injury at the World Baseball Classic in March 2023.  Diaz is fully healthy and may have been back in September if the Mets had been involved in meaningful games.  He looks to be the closer if healthy.

Brooks Raley is one of the most underrated relief pitchers in baseball. Raley is a holds star, with 25 last year putting him in the top ten in MLB.  He also had 25 holds in 2022.  Raley limits hard contact and is in the 95th percentile with an 85.8 MPH average exit velocity. He’s not going to help with strikeouts but should help with ratios, but will need to watch his BB rate, which climbed to 10.6% in 2023.  Drew Smith is another reliever (12 holds in 2023) who will likely have a leveraged role. As currently constructed, I would expect the Mets to add another arm or two via free agency this winter.

Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies lost incumbent closer Craig Kimbrel to the Baltimore Orioles.  This would seem to leave Jose Alvarado as the closer.  However, the Phillies have a bevy of options in the bullpen who are useful arms as well, including Seranthony Dominguez, Gregory Soto, Jeff Hoffman, Matt Strahm, and Orion Kerkering.

Look for Alvarado to get first crack at it; Alvarado earned ten saves last year with 64 strikeouts in 41.1 innings to go with a 1.74 ERA and 1.16 WHIP.  Alvarado also threw in 11 holds.

Dominguez has experience closing as does Soto. Soto had 14 holds last year but struggles with command at times and seems best suited to a leverage role out of the bullpen and not the closer. Dominguez had 11 holds last year and would seem to be the next-up guy with his experience, but he neither strikes out many guys nor has the ratios you would look for in a closer.

Hoffman was a revelation last year with 11 holds, a 2.41 ERA, and a .92 WHIP with 69 punchouts in 52.1 innings.  His 33.2 K% is 97th percentile in MLB.  This was by far his best season, so the fair question is, can he keep those gains? He doubled his slider usage from 23.7% to 47.9% and added an astounding 6.6 average MPH to it as well. Strahm is a Swiss army knife that provides value as a spot starter and a situational lefty out of the pen.

Kerkering was impressive down the stretch for the Phillies and was the pitcher of the year in the organization in 2o23.  Kerkering should be a big weapon in the Philadelphia bullpen in 2024. He’s definitely on the must-watch list and could be a late-round saves target depending on your league.

What we do know is that manager Rob Thomson is not afraid to use any of his pieces at any time, effectively using a bullpen by committee. Best guess right now: Alvarado gets maybe 50% of the saves, while the others mentioned here get somewhere between 5-10 depending on how Spring Training shakes out.

Washington Nationals

Kyle Finnegan should be the closer to start the year, but this all depends on any moves they make this winter. Finnegan seems to be perennially unappreciated and on the verge of replacement.  Yet he earned seven wins and 28 saves.  Perhaps those looking for strikeouts and ratio help discredit him, but if you’re chasing saves late, there are worse candidates.

Hunter Harvey is a post-hype reliable reliever when healthy. Harvey was finally healthy in 2023, and put up four wins, 19 holds, and 10 saves to go with a 2.82 ERA and .94 WHIP.  Should Finnegan be ineffective or be traded, Harvey would seem to be the heir apparent. At the very least he should be primed for a bevy of holds again.

Former closer Tanner Rainey also figures to capture a high-leverage role after coming back from injury. Rainey has some closing experience in his career with 15 career saves.   Jordan Weems served a valuable relief role and could reprise that in 2024.  The Nationals also signed veteran Dylan Floro who could figure in the mix as well.

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