Few things are more unsettling for a contending club than a balky bullpen.
Every other aspect of a team's performance -- hitting, fielding, baserunning, starting pitching -- can be clicking on all cylinders. But a bad relief outing can undo all of that in a flash.
The most jarring recent example? Ken Giles' implosion in the ninth inning against the Oakland Athletics on Tuesday. The Houston Astros' closer surrendered three runs on three hits -- without recording even one out -- and while his team wound up with a win that was as lucky as it was bizarre, Giles was sent to work on things in Triple-A the next day.
If the defending champions are dealing with late-inning issues, you better believe a number of other contenders also have #BullpenProblems.
That in mind, let's run down the postseason hopefuls with the biggest "rush for relief" -- that is, the largest need for bullpen help, from most desperate (10) to least (1). And because it's no fun to leave these clubs hanging, we'll suggest an arm or three who might, you know, provide some sweet relief.
Rush for relief (1-10): 10
This might be the most obvious need of any contender, as the Indians have an MLB-worst 5.39 bullpen ERA. Given how strong the Tribe's relief corps was in 2016 and '17, it's hard to believe we've arrived at this point, with Cleveland's desperation having reached near-comedic levels. (No, really, Tuesday's loss happened in part because manager Terry Francona and pitching coach Carl Willis crossed their signals, leading to the wrong reliever getting loose and entering the game.)
The Indians are in a win-now window, and both closer Cody Allen and relief ace Andrew Miller (whose right knee injury isn't helping matters) are set to hit free agency at season's end. In other words, this unit badly needs help right now -- and in 2019.
Possible fits: Reds RHP Raisel Iglesias, Mets RHP Jeurys Familia, Rockies RHP Adam Ottavino
Rush for relief (1-10): 8
The Braves have some promising young arms in closer Arodys Vizcaino (1.65 ERA, 1.13 WHIP) and lefty A.J. Minter (10.1 K/9), among others, but this bullpen lacks experience, which might hurt during a pennant race. Plus, Vizcaino has been battling right shoulder inflammation and neither he nor Minter has much track record when it comes to staying healthy. Braves relievers also have walked 11.2 percent of batters faced -- the second-worst rate in MLB.
Atlanta has the farm system to go after the biggest names on the relief market, and with the franchise on the upswing, trading for a long-term asset in the bullpen will benefit this surging club beyond just 2018.
Possible fits: Iglesias, A's RHP Blake Treinen, Marlins RHP Kyle Barraclough
Rush for relief (1-10): 8
Greg Holland (7.89 ERA) hasn't worked out as the Cards hoped when they inked him on Opening Day to help shore up a potential problem that -- guess what? -- remains a problem. Bud Norris (2.87 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 11.7 K/9) has been a revelation as the fill-in closer and flamethrowing rookie Jordan Hicks (2.70 ERA, 1.07 WHIP) has started to come into his own, but this bullpen has been unsettled all season long.
What St. Louis really needs is a strikeout artist to help improve its relievers' 22.0 percent strikeout rate, which is among the 10 worst in baseball. A left-handed option better than Brett Cecil (1.64 WHIP) also would help.
Possible fits: Padres LHP Brad Hand, O's LHP Zach Britton, Ottavino
Video: Zach Britton among best left-handed relievers?
Rush for relief (1-10): 8
First-year skipper Gabe Kapler has cycled through closers to the point where the Phillies don't really have one. To wit, Hector Neris leads the club with 10 saves but sports a 6.90 ERA and is in Triple-A.
Like Atlanta, Philly has a collection of young, versatile arms with upside -- including Edubray Ramos (1.14 ERA, 1.07 WHIP), Victor Arano (2.45, 1.12) and Seranthony Dominguez (1.65, 0.67) -- but not much big league experience. Also like the Braves, the Phils have the prospects to go after just about any reliever, should they so choose. Oh, and if said reliever throws with his left arm, even better for this righty-heavy staff.
Possible fits: Hand, Britton, Iglesias
Video: CIN@CHC: Iglesias retires Heyward to notch 5-out save
Rush for relief (1-10): 7
Aside from closer Kenley Jansen, who's over his early season struggles (1.34 ERA, 0.77 WHIP since May 1), the Dodgers' bullpen lacks depth. The club hasn't been able to unearth hidden reliever gems like in years past (think: Brandon Morrow) and a number of arms are on the DL (Pedro Baez, Tony Cingrani, Josh Fields, Yimi Garcia).
After falling one game short of winning it all last fall -- against an Astros team that relied heavily on its bullpen -- the Dodgers are desperate for their first title in 30 years. Beefing up the bullpen to bridge the gap to Jansen should be a focus like it was when they landed Cingrani and Tony Watson in 2017.
Possible fits: Britton, Familia, Ottavino, Padres RHP Kirby Yates
Rush for relief (1-10): 7
The Giants are operating sans a definitive closer at the moment, as Hunter Strickland is on the DL with a fractured right pinkie (after punching a door following a blown save) and Mark Melancon has thrown only 14 innings since missing the first two months after offseason right elbow surgery.
Having missed all of 2017 with injury, Will Smith has done especially well in the role of late (0.95 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, 12.1 K/9), but his three saves so far are two more than he had in his entire MLB career entering the season.
The Giants don't have a strong farm system to make a play for the top names, and they also may prefer a lower-priced rental option because the club is bumping up against the Competitive Balance Tax threshold.
Possible fits: Familia, O's RHP Brad Brach, Padres RHP Craig Stammen
Video: Stammen is a veteran pitching well in 2018
Rush for relief (1-10): 6
With Giles trying to put things together in the Minor Leagues, the ninth inning could become an issue as the Astros attempt to defend their crown. But that's the only reason this relief unit gets a six in the "rush for relief" category.
Houston actually hasn't had a problem in the bullpen, otherwise. In fact, the club is deep in relief arms -- from former Cubs closer Hector Rondon (1.62 ERA, 11.9 K/9) to former starters Brad Peacock (0.99 WHIP, 12.3 K/9) and Collin McHugh (1.02 ERA, 0.73 WHIP) to relief ace Chris Devenski (1.73 ERA, 0.91 WHIP) -- but a stabilizing force at the back end would be comforting.
The Astros likely will focus on acquiring a reliever who brings a clear upgrade -- ideally, from the left side -- over their in-house options, as MLB.com's Mark Feinsand wrote recently.
Possible fits: Iglesias, Hand, Britton
Rush for relief (1-10): 5
All-Star closer Edwin Diaz (0.79 WHIP, 14.8 K/9, 36 SVs) has been stellar, but neither of the two veterans the Mariners brought in to back him up this year -- Alex Colome (4.32 ERA) and Juan Nicasio (6.09 ERA) -- has been especially good.
Given that Seattle has MLB's longest active streak of postseason-less years -- not to mention, among all four major pro sports -- dating back to 2001, here's thinking aggressive GM Jerry Dipoto is going to do whatever it takes to end that. For a team that lacks much in the way of prospects to trade for a big-name starter to shore up the rotation, bolstering the bullpen might be the best path.
Possible fits: Ottavino, Brach, Stammen
Video: NYM@COL: Ottavino K's Plawecki, the side in the 8th
Rush for relief (1-10): 4
The Red Sox feature an underrated collection of hard throwers, including Joe Kelly (1.05 WHIP, 9.5 K/9), Matt Barnes (2.27 ERA, 12.9 K/9) and Heath Hembree (12.1 K/9), who have done well in getting the ball to impenetrable closer Craig Kimbrel.
Boston's big need, however, is a lefty. For a team filled with southpaw starters, the Red Sox don't have a proven reliever who throws with the same arm. No wonder they've been keeping tabs on Britton.
Possible fits: Hand, Britton, Marlins LHP Adam Conley
Jason Catania is a reporter for MLB.com.