All week, in an effort to both stoke debate and get stoked for the 2017 season, we're ranking the top five clubs in a few key categories. We've gone over the rotations and lineups, and we'll continue today with the bullpens.Baseball is increasingly a bullpen-oriented game (witness the contracts doled
All week, in an effort to both stoke debate and get stoked for the 2017 season, we're ranking the top five clubs in a few key categories. We've gone over the rotations and lineups, and we'll continue today with the bullpens.
Baseball is increasingly a bullpen-oriented game (witness the contracts doled out to Albertin Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon over the offseason), which makes the well-established variance of reliever performance from year to year all the more meaningful. You can build the perfect 'pen or, quite often, you can simply stumble upon it, and so these 'pen power rankings will be especially open to adaptation as the year evolves.
For now, here are five clubs that look great late.
It's not the three-headed monster it was a year ago, but the Chapman-Dellin Betances combo is still strong enough to earn the Yanks a spot on this list. Chapman is an obvious asset, and you could argue that a good chunk of the $86 million the Yankees will be paying him over the next five years could be offset by the pre-arbitration production of Gleyber Torres, the stud infielder acquired when Chapman was shipped to Chicago last summer. And spare me the concern about Betances' late-season performance in the closer role, because the bottom line is that he struck out 15.5(!) batters per nine in 73 innings last year. He's mentioned being "smarter" about what kind of workload he agrees to after a famous arbitration flap with the Yanks, and that's probably sensible given his 247 innings of work over the past three years -- the most for a reliever over that span.
The underrated asset here is Tyler Clippard, who posted a 2.49 ERA in 29 appearances after a Deadline deal with the D-backs. Tommy Layne is a capable matchup lefty and Adam Warren an effective swingman for a club that has gone 191-19 when leading after six innings in the post-Mariano Rivera era.
The Cubs abstained from the free-agent closer extravaganza, letting Chapman walk and instead making the trade for Wade Davis, whose absurd 1.18 ERA, 11.5 strikeouts per nine and 2.5 walks per nine over his past 182 2/3 innings make him one of the great closers in the game.
As was the case when Chapman came aboard mid-2016, the Cubs have a decent closing insurance plan in the form of Hector Rondon, who has a 1.01 WHIP and 77 saves over the past three years. C.J. Edwards (0.81 WHIP in 36 innings in 2016) began to take on a prominent role in the second half last season, and Pedro Strop (2.68 ERA, 0.98 WHIP in 211 1/3 innings as a Cub) has been the less-heralded but still-important acquisition in the Jacob Arrieta trade. Koji Uehara and Brian Duensing were brought in to provide experience and balance, and Mike Montgomery will be an important swing man in a season in which the Cubs must be especially protective of their starters.
Health is the obvious X-factor here, as Davis (forearm) and Rondon (triceps) each dealt with an arm injury late in 2016. Davis did not have an especially clean camp.
The Dodgers tied the Nationals for the lowest relief ERA (3.35) in the Majors last year despite being tasked with the most innings (590 2/3) of any bullpen. The expectation is that L.A.'s rotation will be a greater source of stability this season, and that should ease the pressure on Jansen and Co. The Dodgers will have to account for the loss of innings and impact from Joe Blanton's departure, but they'll have some spillover from the crowded rotation picture, and they have strong setup options. Pedro Baez will be a bit behind because of a thumb bruise, but his high-90s fastball and sharp slider are as effective against lefties (.553 OPS against in 2016) as fellow righties (.649). Rookie Grant Dayton had a 0.76 WHIP and 39 strikeouts in 26 1/3 innings in 25 appearances last year. And Sergio Romo has defected to the Dodgers to add his experience and swinging-strike-inducing slider to the equation.
For what it's worth, FanGraphs projects the Dodgers to have the highest bullpen Wins Above Replacement mark (5.9) in baseball this season.
There are many statistical means to explain why Zach Britton's 2016 was so bonkers, but one of my favorites, as I wrote about earlier in March, was that he gave up just 31 fly balls all year (and only one of them went out of the park). The action on that sinker coming at you from the left-hand side is unfair, and Britton enters the year with 49 consecutive saves to his name (look out, Eric Gagne!).
Oh, the Birds have some other nice arms in the 'pen, too. Darren O'Day is healthy now, which bodes well for him recapturing his form from 2014-15, when he had a 1.61 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP in 134 innings. Brad Brach and Mychal Givens are quality arms. And the bullpen's best asset might be the management of Buck Showalter, who is, honestly, so good at what he does. His 2016 American League Wild Card Game malpractice was so jarring simply because it was so out of character.
When people jumped on board the "Andrew Miller is changing bullpens forever!" train during the postseason last year, a lot of them missed the point: You can't do what Terry Francona did with his Miller usage if you don't have a weapon as effective as Cody Allen in the ninth. Miller is in the conversation for best reliever in baseball, but Allen, who has a 1.08 WHIP, 90 saves and 277 strikeouts in 207 innings over the past three years, is also in the top 10, at least.
The Indians also have workhorse Bryan Shaw, who has led the AL in appearances in two of the past three years, and Dan Otero, who posted a 1.53 ERA in 70 2/3 innings in 2016. The Tribe paired Miller with another lefty to fill the more traditional situational role with the offseason signing of Boone Logan.
Of course, the result of the deep, bullpen-oriented run through October is that Miller, Allen and Shaw all took on a career-high relief workload. So how they bounce back will be the key in determining if the Tribe can retain this top spot.
Honorable mentions: The addition of Brett Cecil added depth and balance to what was already a pretty good Cardinals 'pen centered around closer Seunghwan Oh. … The Giants will be better with Melancon, but they still have questions in their setup situation. … Three AL West clubs are candidates for this list. A full season of Sam Dyson in the closer role and Matt Bush, Tony Barnette and Jeremy Jeffress as setup men bodes well for the Rangers. As Ken Giles settled into his new digs, an Astros team that posted the lowest relief WHIP (1.14) in the Majors last year began to reach its 'pen potential. And the arrival of Edwin Diaz to pair with Steve Cishek in the back end changed the late-inning outlook for the Mariners. … The jury's still out as to whether the Marlins' investment in the relief corps will bear fruit behind an iffy rotation, but the effort is admirable. … For all the hand-wringing about the Nationals' ninth-inning situation, it wouldn't be a shock if Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen, Blanton and the kid Koda Glover make it work.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.