State of the Bullpen: National League Closer Update
In the previous edition of the State of the Bullpen, we went over the American League and where things stand with every team’s closer situation. This time, we take a look at the National League. Team-by-team I’ll take you through and see which situations are up for grabs, who are some names to watch, and who might be switching teams this off-season. Preparation for 2020 can’t begin early enough, let’s get started.
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NL East Bullpen Update
Incumbent Closer: Mark Melancon
Eleven different pitchers recorded at least one save for the Atlanta Braves. That’s the kind of season it was for this team when it came to the ninth inning. Luke Jackson led the team with 18 saves and looked to be the savior of the bullpen in the first half with 14 saves and a 2.66 ERA prior to the All-Star break. But things fell apart quickly for Jackson, recording only four more saves and posting a 5.65 ERA in the second half. The Braves were forced to look into the trade market, acquiring Shane Greene and Mark Melancon at the deadline. Greene was given the first opportunity, but it was Mark Melancon who locked things down, recording 11 saves over the final two months. Melancon and Greene will likely compete for the closing job early on next season, but a shaky start by either could give way to the other.
Incumbent Closer: Jose Urena
The Miami situation was a tumultuous one all season long and one that was best avoided. The team context is an unfavorable one with Miami looking to rebuild for the future. Sergio Romo recorded a team-high 17 saves through the trade deadline, after which he was traded to the Minnesota Twins. Following the trade deadline, Jose Urena’s three saves were tops on the team from August 1 on. So, chasing saves in this situation proved to be ineffective. Starting the season in the rotation, Urena was used as the closer after missing over two months due to injury. It’s a situation truly up in the air as far as who the closer will be going into next season and will be one to monitor once spring training comes around.
New York Mets
Incumbent Closer: Edwin Diaz/Seth Lugo
Edwin Diaz led MLB in saves in 2018, making him the first closer off the board in many drafts last season. He failed to live up to his draft stock with 14 combined losses and blown saves, a 5.59 ERA, and a ridiculous 26.8% HR/FB rate. Diaz gave former Mets manager Mickey Callaway no choice but to consider other options when he just couldn’t get the job done. Seth Lugo and Justin Wilson eventually formed a closer committee with Diaz. Lugo earned six saves while Wilson earned four. Lugo proved to be the best and most reliable weapon out of the bullpen down the stretch with a 2.70 ERA. Not all is doom and gloom for Diaz as he still had a great strikeout rate at 39%, albeit lower than the 44.3% he showed the previous season. The 3.07 xFIP suggests Diaz might have pitched better than the number indicated. I expect some regression coming for Diaz that should lead to improved numbers next season and, given the investment New York had made in acquiring him, he should head into 2020 as the team’s closer and a top 10 option in drafts.
Incumbent Closer: Hector Neris
It was quite the bounce-back season for Neris and a much-needed one for the Philadelphia Phillies. A season after posting a 5.10 ERA, Neris was excellent with a 2.93 ERA and 28 saves. The injury bug struck this bullpen early with injuries to David Robertson and Seranthony Dominguez. Bullpen usage for the Phillies was a hot topic under Gabe Kapler, as he liked to mix and match relievers based on matchups and we weren’t ever really certain who would be locked in for saves. Now, the Phillies are left to find a new manager. Between a healthy Robertson and Dominguez, and an effective Neris, the new manager will have his options. But, Neris has earned the first shot next season and perhaps a spot on fantasy rosters come draft time.
Incumbent Closer: Sean Doolittle
Despite a stint on the injured list, Sean Doolittle’s 60 innings were the most he’s pitched in the majors since 2014. And the 29 saves on the season were a career-high for the Nationals closer. Perhaps the increased workload caught up to Doolittle as he posted a 5.56 ERA in the second half after pitching to a 3.13 ERA in the first half. After his return from the injured list, trade deadline acquisition Daniel Hudson formed a committee with Doolittle to share the workload in the ninth inning. Doolittle has a club option for next season and should be expected back while Daniel Hudson will be a free agent. Hudson will be a valuable bullpen arm to whoever signs him after he pitched to a 2.47 ERA. Doolittle should enter 2020 as the Nationals closer and a top 15 option.
NL Central Bullpen Update
Incumbent Closer: Craig Kimbrel
Craig Kimbrel had to wait until June 27 to pitch for an MLB team this season after hitting free agency with draft pick compensation tied to his services. Perhaps the late start had a little bit to do with his decline this season after he ended the year with a 6.53 ERA and 13 saves for the Cubs. Kimbrel had a 50% hard contact rate given up, and when he’s walking 12.5% of batters and striking out a career-low 31.3%, it is not going to end well. One thing Kimbrel has going for him is his contract. Chicago invested three years and $43 million dollars in Kimbrel, so he’ll have an opportunity to have a proper spring training and get on the right track next season.
Incumbent Closer: Raisel Iglesias
With 34 saves to finish the season, there wasn’t much to complain about when it came to Reds closer Raisel Iglesias. Despite a 4.16 ERA, Iglesias posted career-best strikeout and walk rates. What hurt Iglesias was a 29.9% ground ball rate that was the lowest of his career, leading to more home runs given up. Michael Lorenzen and Amir Garrett pitched excellent behind Iglesias all season, Lorenzen earning himself seven saves. The trio should return to form a formidable backend of the bullpen, and Iglesias should have the closer role secure along with a spot among the top 20 relievers taken on draft day.
Incumbent Closer: Josh Hader
Perhaps no closer in the game generates more buzz than Josh Hader. Part of the reason is that no closer in the game generates more strikeouts. Hader led MLB in strikeout percentage at 47.8% on his way to 37 saves for the Brewers. There’s no question that Hader is one of the most dangerous weapons out of any bullpen. While manager Craig Counsell isn’t afraid to bring Hader out in the eighth inning to start a save chance, he doesn’t necessarily like using Hader on too many consecutive days. This opens the door for a handful of saves for other arms in the bullpen such as Junior Guerra and Drew Pomeranz. Nonetheless, Hader is a near-lock to be the first reliever chosen in 2020 fantasy baseball drafts.
Incumbent Closer: Keone Kela
The Pittsburgh Pirates were dealt a big blow when closer Felipe Vazquez was arrested and placed on administrative leave by MLB. Now the team is left with Keone Kela as the most experienced closer in the bullpen with 28 career saves. Kela could have the edge going into next season depending on what the team does this winter. It goes without saying that the position will be up for grabs and a possible landing spot for available free agents.
St. Louis Cardinals
Incumbent Closer: Carlos Martinez
The St. Louis situation will perhaps be one of the most interesting spots to watch going into next season. Jordan Hicks began the season as the team’s closer and looked to be on his way to a breakout before suffering a torn UCL and undergoing Tommy John surgery. Hicks is all but sure to miss most if not all of 2020. Carlos Martinez was converted from a starter to the team’s new closer as he went on to record 24 saves for the Cardinals. How the Cardinals view Martinez long term remains to be seen and perhaps could influence any free agency moves this offseason. Martinez converted 24 of 27 saves chances for St. Louis along with a 3.17 ERA. Should Martinez remain in the bullpen, he’s certain to be a top 15 option at the position. Another name to keep an eye on however will be Giovanny Gallegos.
NL West Bullpen Update
Incumbent Closer: Archie Bradley
The Diamondbacks sure did take their time, but they finally gave fantasy owners what they wanted and made Archie Bradley their closer. The Greg Holland experiment came crashing down after a good start to the season. Granted, Bradley didn’t exactly light it up with a first-half ERA of 4.95, but his 1.71 second-half ERA trailed only Kirby Yates among closers. Bradley finished the season with 18 saves for the Diamondbacks, most coming after the All-Star break. Bradley ended the season ninth in my closer rankings, but I would expect him to be drafted closer to 15th among relievers next spring. The impressive second half might be lost on many fantasy owners come draft season, which is something I’ll be looking to take advantage of.
Incumbent Closer: Jairo Diaz
Even with a 4.13 ERA in 2018, Wade Davis proved that a closer in Colorado could be valuable with 43 saves. Things didn’t quite work out the same this year as Davis finished with a 8.65 ERA, 15 saves, and a new role in middle relief. Had it not been for a blood clot ending Scott Oberg’s season short, we could be looking at Oberg as the favorite to closer for Colorado next season after posting a 2.25 ERA. Instead, it was a committee led by Jairo Diaz who finished the season with closing duties. Diaz recorded five saves for the Rockies and put up an impressive second half with a 3.42 ERA. The situation will likely be up for grabs, but Diaz will be the first name to monitor going into spring training for the Rockies.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Incumbent Closer: Kenley Jansen
Normally a lock as a top closer, Kenley Jansen had a year in which he recorded a career-high 3.71 ERA. The 33 saves were his lowest mark since 2013. There’s concern for decline there, but I would expect not only for the job to be secure but for Jansen to provide top 10 value at the closer position for fantasy owners. This is still one of the best teams in baseball and should provide plenty of save opportunities. Jansen does have an opt-out in his contract and could become a free agent this offseason so while I find that unlikely, it is something to monitor.
San Diego Padres
Incumbent Closer: Kirby Yates
Kirby Yates finished as the number one closer in the final closer rankings for 2019 after recording 41 saves and a spectacular 1.19 ERA. Yates is guaranteed to be one of the top three closers taken in drafts next season. There is an outside chance that Yates could be traded with free agency coming up in 2021 for him, though I find it unlikely. Should it happen, Andres Munoz is a name I like to watch in spring training. The young righty flashed some impressive stuff behind Yates as he was given chances to pitch in high leverage situations. Some of the underlying data for Munoz is eerily similar to Yates with both having a 15.6% swinging-strike rate. Munoz also had a 76% zone contact rate to Yates’ 74.7%. Perhaps a change could be coming in the next year for Munoz to close for this up and coming Padres team.
San Francisco Giants
Incumbent Closer: Will Smith
Notable Free Agents: Will Smith, Tony Watson
In his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, Giants closer Will Smith certainly had himself a year and broke out at the position. Smith earned 34 saves for San Francisco to go with a 2.76 ERA. Although, he did tail off a bit in the second half with a 3.72 ERA after the All-Star break. I doubt that will be enough to scare teams off in free agency that are in need of a closer. San Francisco will have to pay Smith well if they intend to keep him. The Giants are almost certain to extend a qualifying offer to Smith, so a draft pick tied to his services might do more to scare teams away than his second-half splits.
Should Will Smith leave San Francisco, it will be a job that is up for grabs. Perhaps we see a veteran try to re-establish themselves on a rebuilding Giants team such as Arodys Vizcaino or Dellin Betances. A couple of names to keep an eye on in the organization are Jandel Gustave and Melvin Adon. Gustave spent some time in the majors this season, recording a save and a 2.96 ERA in 24 innings. Adon, a 25-year-old prospect that can hit 102 on the radar gun, recorded 14 saves in Double-A with a 2.60 ERA in 45 innings.
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