The importance of having a dominant bullpen was on display in 2018, when four of the majors’ five best relief units in terms of fWAR helped pitch their teams to the postseason. On the other hand, four of the league’s five worst relief corps (and nine of the game’s bottom 10) watched the playoffs from home. So now, with the spring fast approaching, where do last year’s bottom-feeding bullpens stand? As you’ll see below, at least one has made major improvements this winter, but the rest look iffier. While there’s still time for these teams to add help from a free-agent class that remains awash with veterans, this quintet’s bullpen-related heavy lifting may be all but complete for the offseason.
Royals (minus-2.2 fWAR; projected season-opening bullpen via Jason Martinez of Roster Resource ): Going by fWAR, the Royals’ 2018 bullpen was among the five worst of the past decade, though the unit “only” posted the majors’ second-highest ERA (5.09) a year ago. Those hideous numbers came in spite of the presence of Kelvin Herrera, who logged a near-spotless 1.05 ERA over 25 2/3 innings before the Royals traded the then-pending free agent to the Nationals in June. They also came thanks in large part to Brandon Maurer, who’s now a Pirate after pitching to a ghastly 7.76 ERA/6.58 FIP in 31 1/3 innings out of Kansas City’s bullpen last season.
Heading into the upcoming campaign, there’s a lot of work to be done to turn this Herrera-less group into a strength, but the Royals haven’t addressed it in any major way this offseason. However, considering they’re coming off a 58-win season and also won’t approach contention in 2019, it’s not surprising the Royals have shied away from major league free agency. They’ve instead taken less expensive routes to acquire potential bullpen pieces, having pulled in Michael Ynoa on a minor league deal, Sam McWilliams and Chris Ellis in the Rule 5 Draft and Conner Greene via waivers. Unfortunately, going by ZIPS projections, no one from that quartet looks like a promising bet to produce much in 2019. Likewise, ZIPS doesn’t have particularly high hopes for the majority of the Royals’ bullpen holdovers from 2018. The system does, however, like 23-year-old left-hander Richard Lovelady – who has turned in excellent minor league numbers but hasn’t yet reached the majors.
Marlins (minus-2.1 fWAR; projected season-opening bullpen): At 5.34, the Marlins’ relief corps managed the game’s worst ERA last year and the sport’s third-highest mark since 2009. The main culprits were Ben Meyer, Junichi Tazawa and Tyler Cloyd, who combined for 56 2/3 innings and each registered an ERA of at least 8.68. Tazawa and Cloyd are now out of the organization. Meyer, meanwhile, is still around, but he’s not even on Miami’s 40-man roster. But neither is righty Nick Wittgren, who led Marlins relievers in ERA (2.94) and FIP (3.13) in 33 2/3 frames last year. The Marlins made the odd choice to designate the 27-year-old Wittgren for assignment earlier this week to make room for the signing of infielder Neil Walker, who’s six years Wittgren’s senior and only under control for one season. Other notable contributors no longer in the mix include Kyle Barraclough (who nosedived in 2018 and was dealt to the Nationals in October), Brad Ziegler (Miami traded him to Arizona last July, and he has since retired) and Javy Guerra (now a Blue Jay after putting up a 5.55 ERA in 2018).
The best returning pieces in Miami’s bullpen look to be Drew Steckenrider and Adam Conley, who each registered solid seasons in 2018. Otherwise, it’s a largely unproven cast – one that hasn’t picked up any major league free agents and seems likely to once again record below-average numbers this year. As with the Royals, the Marlins are rebuilding, so they’ve explored alternative paths for help. Thus far, they’ve acquired Nick Anderson (via trade with the Twins), Tyler Stevens (via trade with the Angels), minor league free agents R.J. Alvarez and Brian Moran, Rule 5 selection Riley Ferrell, and intriguing waiver claim Julian Fernandez.
Mets (minus-0.6 fWAR; projected season-opening bullpen): Unlike the Royals and Marlins, the Mets are making a real effort to win in 2019. As a result, the bullpen has been a key area of focus for new Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, who has swung a blockbuster trade to reel in arguably the best closer in baseball (ex-Mariner Edwin Diaz) and spent a combined $40MM on free agents Jeurys Familia and Justin Wilson this winter. Diaz, Familia and Wilson will join Seth Lugo, who was outstanding in 2018, and Robert Gsellman to give the Mets no fewer than five capable relievers.
Perhaps the Mets will also benefit from less heralded pickups in Luis Avilan and Arquimedes Caminero, whom they signed to minors deals, and Rule 5 pick Kyle Dowdy. Regardless, New York’s new cast of relievers looks a whole lot better than last year’s bullpen, which relied too much on the likes of Paul Sewald, Jerry Blevins, Jacob Rhame, Tim Peterson and Anthony Swarzak, among other ineffective options, en route to a 4.96 ERA. Sewald, Rhame and Peterson are still in the organization, albeit as depth pieces, while Blevins and Swarzak are now gone. All things considered, ZIPS expects the Mets’ revamped bullpen to end up as one of the majors’ best in 2019.
Indians (plus-0.4 fWAR; projected season-opening bullpen): Cleveland found its way to another division title in 2018 despite its weak bullpen, which limped to a 4.60 ERA as innings leaders Cody Allen, Dan Otero, Zach McAllister, Neil Ramirez and Andrew Miller scuffled. Allen, McAllister and Miller are now gone, leaving the Indians with a bullpen that, in spite of the great Brad Hand’s presence, still looks somewhat questionable. The club did well to re-up lefty Oliver Perez, whose 2018 renaissance earned him a guaranteed deal last month, though he’s the only major league free agent Cleveland has signed. The team also made a waiver claim for A.J. Cole, whose penchant for surrendering home runs led both the Nationals and Yankees to give up on him in the past eight months, and brought in veterans Justin Grimm and Brooks Pounders on minor league accords. Big league success has eluded Grimm and Pounders over the past couple years, however, so the Indians surely aren’t expecting significant contributions from either. Instead, their relief corps will count on returning Indians – potentially including flamethrower Danny Salazar, a starter from 2013-17 who missed all of last season because of shoulder problems. While Salazar could factor in at some point, it won’t be at the start of the season.
Nationals (plus-0.4 fWAR; projected season-opening bullpen): Washington, another prospective contender, has made a couple of interesting bullpen moves this offseason after last year’s underwhelming showing. In addition to trading for the hard-throwing Barraclough, who held his own from 2015-17, they inked fellow high-velocity righty Trevor Rosenthal to a $7MM guarantee in free agency. Rosenthal, 28, sat out all of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but the former Cardinals closer was mostly tremendous out of their bullpen from 2012-17.
Should a healthy Rosenthal return to form, it would be an enormous boon for the Nationals, who saw a different ex-Cards reliever – Greg Holland – experience a rebirth in their uniform last season. But after logging a microscopic 0.84 ERA in 21 1/3 innings in D.C., Holland joined the Diamondbacks in free agency. The Holland-less Nats are now slated to rely mostly on elite but oft-injured closer Sean Doolittle, Barraclough, Rosenthal, Justin Miller, Koda Glover, Sammy Solis and Matt Grace, with Tanner Rainey (acquired from the Reds for Tanner Roark) and minor league signings Vidal Nuno and J.J. Hoover around as depth. All said, it’s a high-risk, high-reward bunch, given the injuries Doolittle and Rosenthal have dealt with and the up-and-down performances of Barraclough, Miller, Glover, Solis and Grace.