PHOENIX -- Whitey Herzog used to say that to be a successful big-league manager, you need a sense of humor and a good bullpen. In 2020, the National League Central had some good bullpens.
The four clubs that made the expanded postseason field -- Cubs, Cardinals, Reds and Brewers -- all finished in the top half of NL clubs in bullpen ERA, WHIP and opponents’ OPS. Brewers, Reds and Cubs relievers ranked 1-3 in the Majors in strikeouts per nine innings for relievers. Reds relievers led the Majors in swing-and-miss rate, while the Brewers were third and the Cardinals and Cubs ranked in the top half of all teams.
In 2021, those bullpen corps will have to tangle with teams in the East and West divisions instead of only the Central. Which ‘pens will provide the best relief?
The known: The Brewers have one of baseball's best 1-2 'pen punches in Josh Hader and Devin Williams, who together account for the past three National League Reliever of the Year Awards. Hader won the honor in 2018 and '19 while putting up record-setting strikeout numbers (Hader's 44.1 percent strikeout rate is highest in history for a pitcher who has worked at least 35 innings) and Williams took the baton in '20, when he struck out 53 of 100 batters faced and allowed one earned run in 27 innings over 22 games on the way to winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award. Williams is coming back slow from a shoulder injury at the end of last season, and his health is worth monitoring as the regular season approaches.
The unknown: How exactly will the innings line up in front of Hader and Williams? Among the team's bullpen locks are multi-inning options like right-hander Freddy Peralta, left-hander Brent Suter and sidearming righty Eric Yardley. Power right-handers Drew Rasmussen and Justin Topa made Major League debuts last year and have the potential to pitch big innings, perhaps even freeing Hader to stray from the closer's role when it makes sense. But Rasmussen and Topa each have Minor League options, a major factor as teams think about maximizing their depth. Veteran Brad Boxberger has closing experience from his time with the Rays and D-backs and is in camp as a non-roster invitee; he'll have to win a roster spot. Ditto for former Nationals and Tigers starter Jordan Zimmermann, a Wisconsin native bidding to extend his career as a starter or a long man. With the schedule reverting to 162 games, having a deep pool of relievers will be more important than ever for every team.
-- Adam McCalvy
The known: The Cardinals like their chances here. As opposed to previous Spring Trainings, the club believes the depth it holds will carry it when it comes to all questions of pitching, and that the competition for the rotation will smooth out some of the last remaining spots. Though the Opening Day lineup card is fluid, the Cards feel unburdened by how their bullpen will shake out, and should one arm struggle, they know there’s one just as capable waiting in the wings at Triple-A Memphis.
The unknown: Jordan Hicks is back -- and reportedly throwing upwards of 102 mph again. But how much can he provide, especially at the outset of the season? He hasn’t pitched in a game since June 2019 (Tommy John surgery, opt-out of ‘20 season), so the Cards may not want to rush him back to a back-end role quite yet. If so, who closes? The club boasts confidence in its back-end options, with Giovanny Gallegos, Andrew Miller and Alex Reyes -- recently and officially named to the bullpen -- adept in their own specific ways.
-- Zachary Silver
The known: Manager David Ross was hesitant to apply the closer label on any one arm last season, preferring to remain flexible with a few pitchers. Ross took a different approach this spring, when he already declared veteran Craig Kimbrel the closer again. Kimbrel finished last season strong (no runs allowed and 13 strikeouts against 24 batters faced in September) and saw his fastball velocity climb to a more typical level by season’s end, gaining back some trust. In front of Kimbrel, Ross has a handful of veteran options for setup duties between Brandon Workman, Andrew Chafin, Ryan Tepera and Dan Winkler.
The unknown: The biggest question mark still hovers above Kimbrel, and whether the veteran can stay on that September path. There is also uncertainty surrounding setup man Rowan Wick, who has been sidelined all spring with an intercostal injury (related to an oblique injury from September). There is also the question of managing rotation innings this year. Some starters (Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills, in particular) could move into the bullpen at times. Ross and his staff also have quite a puzzle to piece together before Opening Day with regard to the remaining jobs. There is a long list of arms in camp vying for the few vacancies in the relief corps.
-- Jordan Bastian
The known: Richard Rodríguez, Kyle Crick and Chris Stratton should head up the Pirates’ bullpen this year as the top options in high-leverage situations. Chasen Shreve, though on a Minor League deal, looks to be the best lefty option and should get a shot to prove himself out of the gate. Expect multiple length options out of the bullpen some time soon, if not to start the season, as the team works to manage pitcher innings this year, the leading candidates being Wil Crowe, Cody Ponce and Miguel Yajure.
The unknown: Will a closer be established, now or later? Derek Shelton and his staff like the idea of leverage options and say that if a closer emerges, it would happen “organically” through games. For now, it seems unlikely the club will name one. The Pirates also have a cluster of guys competing for middle-relief roles, and that composition will be affected by the health of Michael Feliz, who was slow-played to begin spring after right forearm tightness in 2020, and Edgar Santana, who is not far removed from Tommy John surgery performed in '18.
-- Jake Crouse
The known: The Reds traded Raisel Iglesias to the Angels in a cost-cutting move during the offseason but still have some strong arms to rely on. Amir Garrett has established himself as a nasty left-handed reliever who can also get right-handers. The 2020 season was also a breakout year for right-hander Lucas Sims. Tejay Antone and Michael Lorenzen are among those competing for the fifth spot in the rotation but both were dependable relievers when multiple innings were needed last season. Antone seems more likely for a relief role because of his ability to couple his 98-99 mph fastball that has high spin with breaking stuff -- a slider and curveball.
The unknown: Without Iglesias, the Reds don’t have a named closer. They signed a former All-Star closer, however, in lefty Sean Doolittle shortly before camp opened. Doolittle is coming off a rough 2020 season with the Nationals where his mechanics were off and velocity down. He believes he has straightened out both issues. Doolittle, Garrett and Sims are all contenders to close. Cincinnati signed a lot of relievers with spotty or small track records in the big leagues – such as Cionel Pérez, Art Warren, and Cam Bedrosian -- and acquired Noé Ramirez in the Iglesias trade. The club believes many of the pitchers they signed have swing-and-miss stuff and potential but it remains to be seen who will emerge in the front and middle end of bullpen options.
-- Mark Sheldon