Things I would probably have better luck predicting than the performance of bullpens in the upcoming MLB season:
• The weather in Gary, Ind., on Nov. 28, 2049.
• The sex of the eventual first-born child of current 4-year-old Prince Louis of Wales.
• The 2028 Summer Olympics gold medal winner in badminton.
• The price of Bitcoin as of 3:38 p.m. ET tomorrow.
The list goes on and on. This annual column is always the most self-defeating, frustrating, pointless predictions piece I will write all year (which, if you’re familiar with my predictions, is really saying something).
But bullpens are too important to not be included in our annual Top 10 series, which began with the lineups. So here are the top 10 bullpens in MLB for 2023.
Key arms: Ryan Pressly, Rafael Montero, Bryan Abreu, Héctor Neris, Ryne Stanek
Why overcomplicate things? The Astros had the best relief ERA (2.80), best strikeout rate (28.3%), best Fielding Independent Pitching mark (3.05) and best left-on-base percentage (76.8%) of any team in baseball last season. And they’re bringing everybody back. So they’re No. 1.
Beyond the regular season, closer Pressly and Abreu were both unscored-upon in at least 11 innings of work apiece in the postseason. Montero and Neris allowed a combined three runs in 15 1/3 innings. The entire ‘pen allowed just five earned runs across 54 innings. Of course, maybe that’s the rub. Maybe the wear and tear of October catches up with the Astros. And unless trade acquisition Matt Gage -- who was optioned to Triple-A -- emerges, they lack a lefty presence. But again, why overcomplicate things? The Astros’ bullpen was great last year and is set up to be great again.
Key arms: Josh Hader, Robert Suarez, Luis García, Tim Hill, Drew Pomeranz
Hader and a healthy Suarez should form one of the best one-two punches in baseball. As a pending free agent, Hader has 102 million (the amount of dollars Edwin Díaz got in a record-setting relief deal) reasons to have a strong walk year. And Suarez -- expected to start the season on the injured list with arm soreness -- was a 31-year-old rookie revelation last season, with a 2.27 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 47 2/3 innings.
A healthy Pomeranz might be the key to the whole darn thing. He signed a four-year deal prior to 2020 but has only pitched 44 1/3 innings. He’s coming off flexor tendon surgery but looks as though he could be ready to make an impact again. So the Padres should have a good bullpen.
Key arms: Raisel Iglesias, A.J. Minter, Collin McHugh, Joe Jiménez, Kirby Yates
After leading the NL with 41 saves in his lone season with the Braves, Kenley Jansen left in free agency. But Atlanta had acquired Iglesias, who has a 2.55 ERA and 0.94 WHIP over the past three seasons, at last year’s Trade Deadline. (Iglesias will begin the season on the IL with a shoulder issue, but the team says he has no structural damage and will be back “sooner than later.” We’re taking their word for it with this ranking, but we shall see.)
Jiménez, another more recent trade acquisition, is an X-factor. He had spine surgery after a breakout 2022 with the Tigers. Yates, who was one of the best relievers in baseball in 2019, is a wild card in his first full season since Tommy John surgery. One-time Rays linchpin Nick Anderson, who missed 2022 with injury and was optioned to Triple-A by the Braves, is not to be overlooked as an eventual option here, either.
The Braves have a lot of experienced options and an aggressive front office that will do what it takes to upgrade this group, if need be. So they’ll have a good bullpen.
Key arms: Emmanuel Clase, James Karinchak, Trevor Stephan, Nick Sandlin, Enyel De Los Santos
With the Mets’ Díaz on the shelf and with the Padres’ Hader coming off an iffy 2022, Clase is arguably the best active reliever in MLB right now. Over the past two seasons, he’s put up a 1.33 ERA and 0.84 WHIP while holding hitters to a measly .181 average. Karinchak proved a sterling setup option last season (2.08 ERA, 14.3 K/9), though he’s on the short list of guys with the biggest adjustment to the pitch timer. This is a young group, and Sam Hentges’ spring shoulder issue amplifies the need for a reliable lefty presence. But this should be yet another year in which Cleveland pieces together a good bullpen.
Key arms: Paul Sewald, Andrés Muñoz, Diego Castillo, Matt Brash, Penn Murfee
Any ‘pen with a guy named Penn is a good ‘pen. That’s the law (Murfee’s Law).
‘Pen puns aside, the M’s have had one of the best bullpens in baseball each of the past two seasons. Seattle doesn’t have a go-to lefty, but it does have a bunch of righties with high spin rates and wipeout sliders. Sewald and Muñoz handle the highest-leverage assignments, with the veteran Sewald having enjoyed a career resurgence the past two years and the 24-year-old Muñoz coming off a breakthrough season in which his strikeout rate, walk rate, expected slugging, chase rate and fastball velocity were all elite.
Brash was a revelation in transitioning from starter to bullpen last year, and manager Scott Servais does a nice job maximizing matchups without rigid roles. Oh, and the aforementioned Murfee had a 0.95 WHIP in 69 1/3 innings. So this Penn/’pen should be very good again.
Key arms: Evan Phillips, Alex Vesia, Brusdar Graterol, Yency Almonte, Shelby Miller
The Dodgers bring back a lot of the same faces responsible for the second-best relief ERA (2.87) in MLB last season. Veteran Daniel Hudson, who won’t be ready for Opening Day as he comes back from a torn ACL, isn’t listed above but figures to have a big role here eventually. Phillips’ terrific 2022 (1.14 ERA, 5.13 K/BB) was the perfect example of how the Dodgers extract value from unexpected sources.
Same with Vesia, a low-profile trade acquisition who has become an integral member of this ‘pen the past two years. The X-factor here might be the veteran Miller. The Dodgers took a flier on him after he struck out 14 batters in only seven innings for the Giants last season. Long story short: The Dodgers typically have a good bullpen and will again.
Key arms: José Alvarado, Seranthony Domínguez, Gregory Soto, Craig Kimbrel, Matt Strahm
To say this has been an iffy area for the Phillies in the recent past is an understatement. The 2020 season was mercifully short for a Philadelphia bullpen that was statistically one of the worst in history.
But lo and behold, the defending NL champs just might have something special here, with depth that goes beyond who’s listed above. Domínguez, Alvarado, Andrew Bellatti and Connor Brogdon firmed up their roles to propel the Phils in the second half last season, and the offseason additions of lefty specialist Strahm, veteran Kimbrel and two-time All-Star Soto give this team the ability to fend off regression/hangover/etc. and have one of the best bullpens in MLB.
Key arms: Pete Fairbanks, Jason Adam, Jalen Beeks, Garrett Cleavinger, Colin Poche
What’s hilarious about the Rays is that they make this list every single year and validate their inclusion on this list every single year ... but usually with a cast of characters that looks completely different by season’s end. Look at Cleavinger as a notable example. Last August, the Rays acquired him from the Dodgers (who know a thing or two about pitching) after he posted a ghastly 13.7% walk rate in the Minors. Sure enough, within a matter of weeks, Cleavinger was occupying a significant role in the Rays’ bullpen, posting a 2.41 ERA and 0.64 WHIP in 18 2/3 innings.
So analysis is especially useless here. I don’t know who will be pitching out of the Rays’ bullpen by year’s end, but they will have a good bullpen.
Key arms: Ryan Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos, Andre Pallante, Jordan Hicks, Chris Stratton
The Cardinals’ bullpen had one of the lowest strikeout rates in MLB last season (21.2%), but that didn’t stop it from ranking 11th in ERA (3.61).
The primary reason for the Cards’ inclusion on this list is the late-inning combo of Helsley and Gallegos. Helsley was utterly dominant in the regular season, with a 1.25 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 64 2/3 innings (yeah, he did his part to up that team-wide K rate a bit) and a 0.74 WHIP. And speaking of WHIP, Gallegos’ 0.93 mark over the past three seasons is the third-best among all MLB relievers with at least 125 innings in that span, bested only by Liam Hendriks (0.84) and Clase (0.84). If Hicks can harness his electric fastball and lower his walk rate, this group could go from good to great.
Key arms: Clay Holmes, Jonathan Loáisiga, Wandy Peralta, Michael King, Ron Marinaccio
Look, this list is flat-out wrong, OK? We all knew that going in. There’s a better-than-average chance I have snubbed the Orioles (who had a shockingly good bullpen last year, despite dealing closer Jorge López at the Trade Deadline), Twins (who acquired López and pair him with the electric Jhoan Duran), Red Sox (who added Jansen) or somebody else. You know some team will come out of nowhere to boast a good bullpen. It happens every year.
But you know what else happens every year? The Yankees have a good bullpen. There are questions about this group, given that Holmes fell apart in the second half last season and Loáisiga had a down year after a terrific 2021. But King and Peralta have proven to be linchpins, Marinaccio emerged as a trusted option, and Tommy Kahnle and Lou Trivino should be back from injury at some point. There are more than enough pieces to put together another good bullpen.