Early last season, as the Braves, Nationals, Mets and Phillies all jockeyed for position in the National League East, one scout commented that whichever team fixed its bullpen first would win the division. The Braves were most active, making multiple trades to improve their relief corps. As predicted, they ended
Early last season, as the Braves, Nationals, Mets and Phillies all jockeyed for position in the National League East, one scout commented that whichever team fixed its bullpen first would win the division. The Braves were most active, making multiple trades to improve their relief corps. As predicted, they ended up winning the division. But it was the Nationals who laughed last, altering their bullpen usage to an extreme during their World Series championship run.
Over the winter, all five NL East teams changed their bullpen mixes -- and perhaps with them, the balance of power in the division.
• NL East position-by-position: Catcher | Middle INF | Corner INF | Outfield | Rotation
Here is a look at the NL East bullpens.
Division’s best: Braves
The Braves will designate Mark Melancon the closer, but Will Smith will draw plenty of save opportunities for a club that has significantly upgraded its bullpen since last year’s Trade Deadline. Like Melancon, Shane Greene and Chris Martin made immediate impacts after coming to Atlanta. Smith could also be an instant difference-maker.
Decisions about when to use Smith and Melancon will be influenced by when the opposing teams’ top left-handed hitters are most likely to bat. But Smith’s dominance extended beyond the left-on-left matchups he encountered during last year’s All-Star season with the Giants. Greene, who is also coming off an All-Star campaign, provides the Braves another quality setup option.
The three-batter minimum rule will enhance the value of depth, which the Braves strengthened when they re-signed Darren O'Day and Martin. Luke Jackson, who was forced into the closer’s role last year, will be more fittingly used in middle-relief situations. Smith currently serves as the only left-handed option. But the Braves could opt to once again use Sean Newcomb as a reliever after giving him a chance to start during the Grapefruit League season.
The rest (in alphabetical order)
Of all 30 MLB bullpens, only one had a negative Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement in 2019: the Marlins at minus-2.2. Their ERA was 4.97, which ranked sixth highest. Fully aware of the numbers, the Marlins' front office spent the offseason revamping the ‘pen.
Brandon Kintzler, a 2017 All-Star who signed for $3.25 million, is considered the favorite to close. Adam Conley, who sported a 6.53 ERA and a 1.73 WHIP a year ago, returns as a lefty with tremendous pure stuff, but he has yet to put it all together. Drew Steckenrider, limited to 15 appearances last year due to right elbow inflammation, is expected to be healthy and ready to go. Ryne Stanek, acquired from the Rays in a deal that sent Nick Anderson to Tampa Bay, is in the picture to throw high-leverage innings. Yimi García, formerly with the Dodgers, brings postseason experience. And Stephen Tarpley is a lefty acquired from the Yankees who has a chance to throw multiple innings.
Bullpen competition promises to be one of Miami's primary focuses in Spring Training.
Ask general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, and he’ll say this is one of baseball’s best bullpens. Their ceiling appears to be high, with Edwin Díaz, Seth Lugo, Dellin Betances, Jeurys Familia and Justin Wilson all serving as late-inning options. But Lugo is the only one of those pitchers without obvious question marks.
Díaz and Familia are both coming off career-worst seasons; the Mets expect bounce-back years from both, but it’s difficult to project exactly how they will fare. Betances is a four-time All-Star who missed nearly all of last season due to multiple injuries, signing with the Mets as he recovered from an Achilles tear. Wilson battled left elbow problems for much of 2019. All five of those pitchers could earn saves, though Díaz figures to have first crack at winning back the full-time closer job.
If even a few of those five prove trustworthy, the Mets should be in decent shape. Others in play for significant roles include Brad Brach and Robert Gsellman, as well as a rotating cast of younger pitchers who debuted in recent years. The Mets ranked 25th in bullpen ERA last season and made only one major addition in Betances. They’re banking on significant improvement from Díaz and Familia to transform this unit into an elite one.
Think the Nationals weren’t concerned with their 2019 bullpen after finishing with the Majors’ second-worst ERA (5.68), and avoiding all but their top relievers during their World Series run? Consider the moves they made this winter: Daniel Hudson re-signed for two years; Ryne Harper was acquired via trade; Minor League strikeout expert Kyle Finnegan joined the staff; and Will Harris, one of the game’s most consistent relievers, signed for three years.
Also in camp for the first time are Trade Deadline acquisitions Roenis Elias and Hunter Strickland. The Nationals hope that they, along with Tanner Rainey, can take steps forward this spring.
Throw in Wander Suero, closer Sean Doolittle and whoever loses the fifth-starter battle, and the Nats figure to have a much-improved bullpen. They likely won’t challenge the record they set of the highest bullpen ERA for a postseason team.
The Phillies pinned many of their 2019 struggles on a bullpen that dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness. It is curious, then, that the front office made no significant offseason acquisitions to improve it.
Essentially, the Phillies are banking on Seranthony Domínguez, Vìctor Arano and Adam Morgan to successfully return from elbow injuries, and a handful of other relievers to step up. There are few certainties entering camp. Héctor Neris returns as closer. Lefty José Álvarez is back. Lefty Ranger Suárez should also return, unless he upsets Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta for the No. 5 job in the rotation. If Pivetta or Velasquez do not make the rotation, they will move to the bullpen.
The Phillies are playing a numbers game. They claimed Deolis Guerra, Reggie McClain and Robert Stock off waivers to compete for jobs. Veterans Francisco Liriano, Blake Parker, Bud Norris, Drew Storen and Anthony Swarzak are in camp as non-roster invitees. The Phillies are bringing in prospects like Damon Jones and Kyle Dohy to camp to get their feet wet. There is talent here, but the Phillies will need some things to break right to be effective.
Anthony DiComo has covered the Mets for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo, Instagram and Facebook.