Your favorite team can win the World Series without a great bullpen. Who says there’s never any good news?
That new reality is probably the No. 1 takeaway from the 2018 Red Sox and 2017 Astros. Both teams won championships despite not feeling great about their bullpens. They won, in part, because their managers -- Houston’s A.J. Hinch and Boston’s Alex Cora -- each did a really nice job of shuffling starters in and out of the bullpen.
Here’s a better question: Can you get to the World Series without a great bullpen? Since the Trade Deadline, the Cardinals, Rays, Dodgers and Cubs have the four lowest bullpen ERAs in the Majors, and all four could be headed to the postseason.
The Phillies, Twins and Astros are also in the top 10, and the A’s just added their top two pitching prospects -- A.J. Puk and Jesus Luzardo -- to their bullpen.
On the other hand, the Nationals, even after all the comings and goings, have a 5.36 ERA since the Trade Deadline. Only the Marlins, Royals and Orioles have been worse. And the Braves are running away with the NL East despite a bullpen that entered the weekend with a 5.14 ERA since the Trade Deadline, 25th overall in that span.
With the postseason a mere two weeks away, every contender is scrambling to come up with a combination it likes, especially when getting five innings from a starter in the playoffs is considered a win. With that in mind, we’re ranking the 14 contenders -- teams within three games of a postseason berth -- based on how nervous they should be about their bullpens, starting with the most nervous.
Mickey Callaway has 11 relievers in his bullpen this month. Who does he trust? Seth Lugo? Yes, absolutely. Justin Wilson? No question. He’s going to mix and match with the others, and while this isn’t the way any manager would draw it up, the Mets are only three games out of the second NL Wild Card berth.
The Nationals have not recorded a save since Aug. 16. Since then, their relievers have blown all five save chances and run up a 4.99 ERA. Moral of this story is that when your offense is scoring 7.1 runs per game, like Washington's is, you don’t need a bullpen. This is going to be an interesting postseason team.
The Indians do not know when closer Brad Hand will be back from arm fatigue, and that would normally sink a club in the middle of a postseason run. What Cleveland does have is a manager named Terry Francona, who utilizes bullpens as well as anyone ever has. The Indians also called up hard-throwing 23-year-old James Karinchak, who struck out 74 batters in 30 1/3 Minor League innings.
The Dodgers' No. 1 priority is to get closer Kenley Jansen back to a good place. This is potentially a great postseason bullpen pitching behind potentially a great postseason rotation. But Jansen had a 6.08 ERA and four blown saves in 14 appearances shortly after the All-Star Break. He has looked better lately, allowing one run in four appearances this month.
For about four months, no team felt better about locking down the late innings than the Astros. That was before All-Star setup man Ryan Pressly underwent knee surgery and before closer Roberto Osuna pitched to a 5.60 ERA and three blown saves in a seven-week stretch. Pressly could return next week, and Osuna has looked good in his last three appearances. The Astros hope to get both back on track by the playoffs.
Take a deep breath, Braves fans. Things are shaping up nicely. Ignore those ugly numbers. Your three Trade Deadine additions -- Mark Melancon, Shane Greene and Chris Martin -- have put together a combined 2.12 ERA this month. Sean Newcomb and Jerry Blevins are also pitching well.
This has become one of the NL’s most reliable bullpens. Jared Hughes, Blake Parker and Ranger Suarez have been nice additions, and Hector Neris has blown only two save chances since the All-Star Break.
At the moment, few bullpens are better than this one. Liam Hendriks has remade his body and his career to become a first-rate closer, and a pair of hard-throwing top prospects in Luzardo and Puk appear to have taken care of one of Oakland’s few problem areas.
Turns out, the Twins had their closer all along. Lefty Taylor Rogers is finishing strong, having allowed one earned run in his last eight appearances. Sergio Romo has been a nice pickup, and Tyler Duffey has been as reliable as any setup man.
The Cubs' bullpen has a 2.89 ERA this month, fifth-lowest in MLB. This isn’t what you’d expect from a group that hasn’t gotten a single inning out of its expected closer (Brandon Morrow) and has no idea when his replacement (Craig Kimbrel) will next pitch. Nevertheless, the Cubs have been excellent, getting quality innings from Pedro Strop, Kyle Ryan, Rowan Wick and others.
Carlos Martinez has blown just one save since the All-Star Break, despite a couple of shaky moments. Andrew Miller, John Brebbia and Giovanny Gallegos are part of a bullpen that has done an excellent job bridging the innings between the rotation and Martinez.
Veteran lefty Drew Pomeranz has made a very good bullpen even better since being acquired from the Giants. Josh Hader is still the most unhittable closer on the planet, and Alex Claudio and Ray Black are putting nice finishing touches on solid seasons.
Tampa Bay’s 2.45 bullpen ERA this month is MLB’s lowest, and the Rays may have more hard-throwing options than anyone. Emilio Pagan is 14-for-15 in save chances since taking over the closer role in late July, and Oliver Drake, Chaz Roe and Nick Anderson help round out arguably the best bullpen in the game.
No bullpen has more quality depth than this one, with Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton, Tommy Kahnle and Chad Green getting the ball to closer Aroldis Chapman. With Dellin Betances expected to be a full go for the postseason, the Yankees may have enough arms to succeed even with all the problems in the rotation.