Our annual exercise in self-defeat is upon us. Bullpens are every bit as important to team outcome as the lineups and the rotations we ranked earlier this week. But given how erratic this particular area of the game is, we cannot in good conscience tell you that anything you read below is to be taken all that seriously.
Rather, a warning: Though our Top 10 bullpen picks are rooted in statistics, past performance, future projection and a little bit of logic, everything you read here can (will?) go down in a ball of flames within the next few months or even weeks.
At that point, we will deny having ever published it.
OK, now that we understand each other, here are the Top 10 bullpens in baseball.
Closer: RHP Kenley Jansen
Primary setup men: LHP Will Smith, LHP Tyler Matzek, RHP Collin McHugh, LHP A.J. Minter
The bullpen was probably the biggest question surrounding the Braves going into October last year. But thanks to the more spaced-out schedule, it emerged as a real force, with Matzek’s epic performance against the Dodgers sealing the NLCS and Smith going unscored-upon the entire month.
Now, with Jansen, one of the most accomplished closers of this era, and McHugh, who had a fantastic 2021 with the Rays, joining the Braves, the bullpen looks better than ever. That we didn’t even list Luke Jackson, who had a 1.98 ERA in 63 2/3 innings last season, speaks to the depth here. The Braves could also eventually be bolstered by offseason signee Kirby Yates, who is coming off Tommy John. A healthy Darren O’Day could have a role here, as well. So this time, the Braves will have a good bullpen all year.
2) White Sox
Closer: RHP Liam Hendriks
Primary setup men: RHP Craig Kimbrel, RHP Kendall Graveman, LHP Aaron Bummer, RHP Joe Kelly
That the Sox ranked 13th in MLB in relief ERA (3.97) and tied for 11th in average against (.233) was a bit of a disappointment, given that we had them first on this list going into last year.
But the Sox retaining -- rather than trading -- Kimbrel after acquiring him at last year’s Trade Deadline and signing Graveman and Kelly has tempted us into putting them right near the top spot again. They are anchored by one of the two best relievers in baseball: Hendriks, who has a ridiculous 0.83 WHIP over the last three seasons, and Kimbrel. The latter did not perform anywhere near as well on the South Side last year as he did on the North Side, but we’ll give him some benefit of the doubt. Graveman and Kelly both had a WHIP of 0.98 last year, Garrett Crochet has emerged as an important piece and Bummer’s expected ERA (2.58) last season was in the 96th percentile. So the Sox will have a good bullpen.
Closer: LHP Josh Hader
Primary setup men: RHP Devin Williams, LHP Brent Suter, RHP Brad Boxberger, RHP Jake Cousins
Amazingly, 2021 was probably Hader’s best season yet, with career bests in ERA (1.23) and ERA+ (348) to go with 34 saves. He didn’t give up a run in his last 20 1/3 innings of the regular season. Williams has emerged as Hader’s air-bending (but, alas, not wall-bending) cohort, with a 1.78 ERA and 42.9% strikeout rate over the last two seasons.
It gets a little bit murkier from there, but Brewers manager Craig Counsell is especially adept at putting his relievers in the right situations. It will be interesting to see what role top pitching prospect Aaron Ashby, a lefty with wipeout stuff, takes on this year, because he could emerge as a key ’pen piece. Anyway, with two of the very best in the game serving as anchors, the Brewers will have a good bullpen.
Closer: LHP Aroldis Chapman
Primary setup men: RHP Jonathan Loáisiga, RHP Chad Green, RHP Clay Holmes, LHP Wandy Peralta
The absence of Zack Britton following Tommy John surgery stings, but there’s still a lot of depth and potential here. Chapman, who logged his 300th save last year, is the household name, but Loáisiga, who had a 2.17 ERA and 1.02 WHIP last season, was the one justifiably ranked in MLB Network’s "Top 10 Right Now" relief pitchers. The Yanks might tweak Chapman’s role this season to avoid long layoffs, and Loáisiga could start to see more save opportunities. Green had a 0.87 WHIP over the last two seasons, while Holmes and Peralta came over in minor trades last year and made a major impact. So the Yankees will have a good bullpen.
Closer: LHP Jake McGee
Primary setup men: RHP Tyler Rogers, RHP Camilo Doval, RHP Zack Littell, RHP Dominic Leone
Manager Gabe Kapler said he's planning on using McGee as his closer to start the season, but any of the above names could close games. The most enticing name of all is Doval, who flashed his 102 mph fastball and closed games (including a six-out save vs. the Dodgers in the postseason) after coming up late last year.
Weirdly, some projections aren’t kind to this group. FanGraphs lists the Giants bullpen 21st in its projected WAR rankings. But the Giants had the best relief ERA (2.99) in MLB last season. And with everybody back, we think they’ll have a good bullpen.
Closer: RHP Raisel Iglesias
Primary setup men: LHP Aaron Loup, Ryan Tepera, RHP Archie Bradley, RHP Mike Mayers
It’s still hard to be sold on the Angels’ rotation, but the bullpen looks solid. The Halos did what was necessary in re-signing Iglesias, who has had a sub-3.00 ERA in five of his six seasons as a reliever and struck out a career-best 37.7% of batters faced last year, but they also made some important external additions in the wake of the unfortunate loss of Chris Rodriguez to right shoulder surgery.
Veterans Loup, Bradley and Tepera were all signed as free agents. Loup allowed only six extra-base hits amid 218 batters faced last season. Tepera had a 1.01 WHIP and 31.9% strikeout rate over the last two seasons. Bradley has a 3.09 ERA and .234 average against since becoming a full-time reliever in 2017. So the Angels will have a good bullpen.
Closer: RHP Andrew Kittredge
Primary setup men: RHP JT Chargois, RHP J.P. Feyereisen, RHP Matt Wisler, LHP Brooks Raley
The Rays almost totally recast their bullpen midway through two of the last three seasons, and yet success has been a constant. They’ve ranked in the top three in relief ERA each of the last three seasons. Last year, they finished first in the AL in bullpen ERA (3.23), first in the Majors in FIP (3.63) despite racking up the most relief innings (703) of any team. It’s a credit to this team’s ability to maximize the potential of arms often miscast or misused elsewhere and to put them in the right situations to succeed.
So we can’t necessarily guarantee any of the names above will still be in prominent ’pen roles for the Rays by season’s end. (They already have to account for an injury to setup man Pete Fairbanks, whose absence for the foreseeable future affects their rank here.) But we can guarantee that the Rays will have a good bullpen.
Closer: RHP Blake Treinen
Primary setup men: RHP Daniel Hudson, RHP Phil Bickford, LHP Alex Vesia, RHP Brusdar Graterol
While losing franchise saves leader Jansen is a blow to the bullpen, what do you want to bet the Dodgers figure it out in his absence? Maybe there’s some “Trust me, bro” in that analysis, but the Dodgers didn’t have the second-best relief ERA in MLB over the last five seasons (trailing only the Brewers) just because of Jansen. Much like the Rays, they know how to identify and maximize talent.
There’s also, of course, lots of pedigree, with the veteran Treinen coming off a fantastic 2021 (1.99 ERA, 0.98 WHIP) and Hudson signed (3.31 ERA, 1.08 WHIP with the Nats and Padres last year). Graterol was a big key to the '20 run and is working on his pitch mix, and Vesia and Bickford were surprising standouts last season. With David Price, Evan Phillips, the rehabbing Danny Duffy and other arms in the mix, the Jansen-less Dodgers will still have a good bullpen.
9) Blue Jays
Closer: RHP Jordan Romano
Primary setup men: RHP Adam Cimber, LHP Tim Mayza, RHP Yimi García, RHP Trevor Richards
A leap of faith here, because the bullpen is basically the reason the Blue Jays fell frustratingly shy of the postseason last year. It had a 4.08 ERA and the lowest number of holds (60) in MLB.
But the above only included partial-season contributions from Cimber and Richards, both of whom were acquired in midseason trades and posted sub-1.00 WHIPs with Toronto. Now, they’ll be around all year to set up Romano, who is one of the best relievers in the game (1.97 ERA in 77 2/3 innings in 2020-21). García, who has a 120 ERA+ and 1.00 WHIP over the last three seasons, is an impact offseason signing. Former top pitching prospect Nate Pearson could be an X-factor, depending on what his role turns out to be. Veteran David Phelps is also healthy and an option. So even though the ’pen underperformed last year, the Blue Jays will have a good bullpen this year.
Closer: RHP Paul Sewald
Primary setup men: RHP Drew Steckenrider, RHP Diego Castillo, RHP Sergio Romo, RHP Ken Giles
Did you know the Mariners’ bullpen had the fourth-best FanGraphs WAR of any relief crew in baseball last season? Granted, the terrific performance of Graveman, prior to his surprising trade to the Astros, was partly responsible for that. But while the law of averages might catch up to an M’s team that was terrific in close games, there’s enough here on paper to lead you to believe this group can continue to succeed.
Sewald, who was a revelation last year (3.06 ERA, 1.02 WHIP) is listed as the closer above, but it’s really a committee approach. Steckenrider (2.00, 1.02) and Castillo (2.78, 0.98) are also options, as is the newly healed signee Giles, who had a 1.87 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in his last full season in 2019 before blowing out his elbow. Romo and his slider are still capable of big outs. The name to keep an eye on is Andrés Muñoz, a 23-year-old prospect who averages 100 mph with his fastball. So the Mariners have the pieces to have another good bullpen.
Suppositionally. (And thank goodness we’re done, because we’re run out of adverbs.)
With Adam Ottavino providing another setup option in front of Edwin Díaz, the Mets could justifiably be on the list, though they do have questions on the left-hand side. … The Astros have one of the game’s best closers in Ryan Pressly, and the signing of setup man Héctor Neris should help. … The Red Sox had a solid bullpen last year and should again, but Chris Sale’s injury makes it unclear what role Garrett Whitlock, who was such a key ’pen piece in 2021, will fill. … Joe Smith adds a load of experience to what should be a good Twins ’pen anchored by Taylor Rogers. … The Marlins ranked in the top 10 in relief ERA last year, though closer Dylan Floro’s arm soreness is a current concern. … The Guardians’ bullpen is young and thin and, honestly, might not be any good. But we can’t do a bullpen preview without at least mentioning Emmanuel Clase, who asserted himself as one of the most electric relievers in MLB last year.