Over the weekend, MLBTR’s Charlie Wilmoth broke down the improvements (or lack thereof) that have been made to the five worst offenses from 2015 thus far. While there’s still a good deal of time remaining this offseason — we can revisit these examinations again come Opening Day — many teams have completed the bulk of their offseason lifting. Perhaps most notably, when it comes to the bullpen, many of the top-flight free agents and trade candidates are off the board. There are still some quality relievers to be had on the free-agent market — Antonio Bastardo and Tyler Clippard stand out as two of MLBTR’s Top 50 free agents that remain unsigned — but the bulk of the relief arms on the market appear headed for one-year commitments or minor league deals.
By ERA, the Rockies, Braves, Athletics, Tigers and Red Sox had the five worst bullpens in baseball in 2015. When sorting the Fangraphs team leaderboards by either FIP or xFIP, we see the bottom five results include four of those teams, though in various orders and combinations. So, while there are obviously many ways to categorize the collective efforts of teams’ relief corps, those five seem a reasonable enough starting point for this exercise.
Rockies (4.70 ERA, 4.09 FIP, 4.23 xFIP): Colorado’s offseason began with the somewhat surprising decision to designate John Axford for assignment, though the mustachioed closer came out ahead in the ordeal. Projected to earn $6.5MM this winter, Axford elected free agency following his DFA and scored a two-year, $10MM guarantee with the A’s that includes additional incentives. Colorado also cut ties with former closer of the future Rex Brothers and right-hander Tommy Kahnle. That pair of decisions was less surprising, as the two relievers combined to issue 36 walks in 43 2/3 innings. In their places, Colorado has signed veteran right-handers Jason Motte and Chad Qualls to two-year deals worth $10MM and $6MM, respectively. One can argue that Motte is a curious fit, to be sure, as a pitcher that neither misses bats nor induces grounders, but Qualls’ 60 percent ground-ball rate and K-BB% of 18.3 percent is appealing even if his ERA was more troublesome in 2015. Colorado will also probably benefit from Adam Ottavino’s eventual return. The 30-year-old was excellent from 2013-15 before undergoing Tommy John surgery after 10 1/3 brilliant innings last season. The Rox felt confident enough in Ottavino to give him what was to many an eyebrow-raising $10.4MM extension spanning 2016-18, but if he returns anywhere near his 2013-15 form, that price will be more than acceptable. Increased usage from intriguing righties Jairo Diaz and Miguel Castro could also yield better results, but it does appear, on paper, that there’s room for further additions here.
Braves (4.69 ERA, 4.37 FIP, 4.29 xFIP): The Braves have added a slew of minor league arms in trades over the past 12 to 15 months, many of whom will eventually figure into the team’s bullpen, even if some are presently viewed as starters. This winter, the team has brought back Jim Johnson on a one-year deal with the hopes that he’ll recreate the success he found in Atlanta last season while avoiding the type of meltdown he had following his trade to the Dodgers. Also returning to the club is right-hander David Carpenter, who signed a minor league pact after a down season in 2015 following a trade from Atlanta to the Yankees last winter. (That trade netted Manny Banuelos, though the Braves also parted with Chasen Shreve.) Alexi Ogando serves as another notable right-hander to land a minor league deal with Atlanta, and he’ll presumably compete for a bullpen role this spring. Right-hander Jose Ramirez also joined the Braves in a trade with the Mariners, giving the team a high-upside arm, albeit it one with some question marks (durability, control). Also coming by way of trade is lefty Ian Krol, though he had a down season in Detroit before being included in the Cameron Maybin trade. Right-hander Shae Simmons will be returning from Tommy John surgery, and fallen closer Jason Grilli should make his way back from a season-ending Achillies injury in the early portion of next season as well. Ultimately, however, the Braves are looking more to the collection of young arms they’ve stockpiled the past two winters than flashy moves to bolster their bullpen — not a surprising tactic for a club that is in the middle of rebuilding. It’s possible that Atlanta will make further one-year additions, as such players could become trade chips this winter.
Athletics (4.63 ERA, 4.36 FIP, 4.21 xFIP): Oakland has been one of the most active clubs in adding bullpen help this winter, shelling out a combined $32MM for Axford (two years, $10MM) and Ryan Madson (three years, $22MM). Madson’s contract was something of a shock, considering the fact that he’s 35 years old and 2015 was the first time he’d been healthy enough to throw in a Major League game since 2011. However, his track record prior to his lengthy injury layoff and last year’s results were outstanding. Axford’s season was bizarrely segmented, as he yielded 19 runs in just 17 2/3 innings across the middle two months of the season but sandwiched those ugly results between 38 other innings in which he allowed just seven total runs. A move to a far better pitchers’ park figures to help Axford, though it seems that control will always be an issue for him. Oakland also added lefty Marc Rzepczynski in a trade with the Padres that sent Drew Pomeranz to San Diego. Closer Sean Doolittle should be in better health this season, and if he’s back to form, he represents one of the game’s better lefty relievers. Also new to the green and gold is Australian hurler Liam Hendriks, added in a trade that sent Jesse Chavez to Toronto. Hendriks never panned out as a starter despite promising minor league numbers with Minnesota, but he flourished as a relief pitcher last year with a 2.92 ERA, 9.9 K/9 and 1.5 BB/9 in 64 2/3 innings with the Jays.
Tigers (4.38 ERA, 4.37 FIP, 4.38 xFIP): Detroit’s nearly identical ERA/FIP/xFIP is rather remarkable in terms of similarity, but it also speaks to the underwhelming relief pitching that has now plagued the team for several years. New GM Al Avila has acted decisively in seeking to upgrade the ’pen, shedding Krol and right-hander Al Alburquerque (via trade and non-tender, respectively). Francisco Rodriguez will serve as the new closer in Detroit after coming over in a trade from the Brewers (minor leaguer Javier Betancourt was the primary piece sent to Milwaukee). Avila added right-hander Mark Lowe on a two-year, $11MM deal that reflects Detroit’s confidence in the hard-thrower’s 2015 resurgence. The Tigers also landed southpaw Justin Wilson from the Yankees by sending a pair of pitching prospects to New York. The Tigers will hope that the combination of K-Rod, Lowe and Wilson will pair with an improved Bruce Rondon to give the team the quality relief contingent it has so often lacked. They’ll also again look to Alex Wilson to play an important role, although the right-hander’s middling strikeout rate is something of a concern.
Red Sox (4.24 ERA, 4.64 FIP, 4.35 xFIP): The expectation when Dave Dombrowski came on board as president of baseball operations was that he’d shake up the bullpen and show no fear in trading prospects, and that exact scenario manifested with the acquisition of Craig Kimbrel. The Sox paid an exorbitant price to land three years of Kimbrel, parting with Javier Guerra, Manuel Margot, Carlos Asuaje and Logan Allen. However, pairing Kimbrel with Koji Uehara (who will move back to a setup role) wasn’t where Dombrowski stopped; the new Boston exec also added right-hander Carson Smith in a trade that sent Wade Miley to the Mariners. Smith is far from a household name but quietly enjoyed one of the more dominant rookie seasons in recent memory last year, posting a 2.31 ERA with 11.8 K/9, 2.8 BB/9 and a 64.8 percent ground-ball rate. Roenis Elias, also acquired in that trade, could serve as starting depth but would also be intriguing in a left-handed relief role, based on his career splits.