Each bullpen in the National League Central comes with question marks, and there will be plenty of jobs up for grabs this spring. Purely looking at projections, picking the best relief corps among the five rival franchises is not a cut-and-dried process.
So, as long as the Brewers have Josh Hader anchoring their 'pen, they are as good a pick as any as the division's top-ranked relief cast entering the 2020 campaign. One thing is clear: The best Central bullpen by the end of the season will surely play a significant role in which team gets to hoist a banner.
Here is a look at the NL Central bullpens as Spring Training gets underway:
The best: Brewers
The Brewers’ bullpen options begin with arguably the best reliever in the game, left-hander Hader, a uniquely effective weapon who has posted the fourth- and fifth-highest strikeout rates in history (minimum 35 innings) in the past two seasons, netting him National League Reliever of the Year Award honors both times. Because the Brewers have found that Hader is most effective pitching multiple innings with sufficient rest days built in, it’s especially important to surround him with other options capable of closing games.
The leading candidate to be co-closer this year is Corey Knebel, a 2018 All-Star who missed all of '19 following Tommy John surgery. The Brewers hope he’s Major League-ready by May. Another veteran of Tommy John surgery, right-hander David Phelps, signed as a free agent, and the Brewers believe he will continue to see an uptick in velocity in his second season post-surgery. They will also rely on left-handers Brent Suter, who was sensational last September in a multi-inning role following his own Tommy John comeback, and Alex Claudio, who led MLB in appearances last season.
After that, expect a number of moving parts. The Brewers may opt to install Freddy Peralta and perhaps Corbin Burnes in the early season bullpen if they don’t make the rotation. Both are young pitchers coming off disappointing seasons in the rotation. Hard-throwing Bobby Wahl should be healthy again after missing last season due to knee surgery, and even harder-throwing Ray Black is out of options entering his first full season with the Brewers. Home-grown Devin Williams showed some promise last season after a late-season call-up. Eric Yardley was a waiver claim from San Diego.
Brewers manager Craig Counsell has made the most of his array of bullpen choices in recent seasons, and he will aim to do the same in '20, even as new usage guidelines (the three-batter rule, a 28-man limit on September rosters) restrict some of the strategy. -- Adam McCalvy
The rest (in alphabetical order)
St. Louis boasted some elite relief pitching throughout last season -- the bullpen had a 3.82 ERA in '19, which ranked fifth in the Majors -- and almost all its relievers will return for '20. That group is highlighted by Giovanny Gallegos, the right-hander who emerged as the Cardinals’ lights-out setup man last year with a 2.31 ERA. Andrew Miller is in the final guaranteed year of his two-year deal signed last offseason, and while he wishes he'd had a more consistent year in ’19, he will be valuable from the left side again.
The closer situation will depend on the rotation and if Carlos Martínez can return as a starter. If he does, the Cardinals can turn to Gallegos, Miller, John Gant or Ryan Helsley for the ninth inning until Jordan Hicks returns from Tommy John surgery around midseason. Right-hander John Brebbia and lefty Tyler Webb will likely also be in the ‘pen again this year and be used in the sixth and seventh innings.
Junior Fernandez made his debut last summer, and the 22-year-old could impress this spring and make the roster or pitch at Triple-A Memphis for depth. And don’t forget about Alex Reyes, the former top prospect who will likely pitch out of the bullpen this year in hopes of staying healthy. -- Anne Rogers
Chicago will spend Spring Training sorting through its bullpen puzzle pieces, and the relief corps will continue to evolve as the season progresses. The biggest question mark hovers over veteran closer Craig Kimbrel, who labored last season after signing in June (without the benefit of a normal offseason and Spring Training). The Cubs are hoping Kimbrel can return to his elite ways with a regular schedule going into the '20 campaign.
Chicago lost a slew of veteran relievers (Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler and Pedro Strop among them) and will have a wide-open competition this spring to fill out the 'pen. Kyle Ryan and Rowan Wick return as favorites to hold setup jobs, and the Cubs signed Jeremy Jeffress to a one-year MLB deal this offseason. From there, there is a litany of options both from within and added over the past three months.
Alec Mills and Duane Underwood Jr. are out of Minor League options, so that will be taken into consideration. Dillon Maples, James Norwood and Brad Wieck offer some intriguing in-house options. Ryan Tepera and Dan Winkler were signed this offseason to one-year, split MLB deals, and the Cubs also reeled in arms like Casey Sadler (via trade from the Dodgers) and Trevor Megill (Rule 5 Draft). Tyler Chatwood, if he isn't in the rotation, would be in the mix for a relief role, too. Brandon Morrow is back via a Minor League contract. And the list keeps going. This will be a roster battle that occupies much of the spring storyline for the North Siders. -- Jordan Bastian
There are a lot of “ifs” here, which makes for an interesting group. But “interesting” is in the eye of the beholder, because this group is high on talent and upside but short on sure things.
Right-hander Keone Kela is the surest bet in the group, having consistently displayed dominant stuff whenever he’s able to take the mound. Therein lies the issue, however, as Kela was at various points suspended and injured while being limited to 32 appearances last season. Manager Derek Shelton hasn’t named a closer to replace the imprisoned Felipe Vázquez, but Kela is clearly the Bucs’ best option at the back end of the bullpen. (That, combined with his pending free-agent status, makes him an obvious candidate to be dealt at the Trade Deadline.)
Then come the “ifs.” Kyle Crick looked like a future closer throughout '18 and for about half of last season, but he stumbled for the first time in a Pirates uniform. Richard Rodríguez was victimized by last year’s home run spike after a breakthrough ’18 campaign. Michael Feliz has back-end potential, but his command remains a concern. Edgar Santana and Nick Burdi have excellent stuff and late-inning makeup, but how will they hold up after missing so much time due to serious injuries? Chris Stratton made the most of his high-spin stuff in a long relief role last year, but can he claim that spot again? What role, if any, will the club’s depth starters play in relief?
Cincinnati’s bullpen was a strength of the club in '18, but it seemed to be more middle of the road in ’19 as a couple of veterans struggled and younger pitchers were given increased roles. Raisel Iglesias remains the closer after a career-high 34 saves last season, but there was no mistaking that he struggled often. The right-hander also set a franchise record for relievers with 12 losses, and he was ineffective in non-save situations. He had a 5.18 ERA in those 25 games, compared to 3.59 in 43 save situations.
Two-way sensation Michael Lorenzen’s bat helps keep him in games for more than one inning and saves manager David Bell from always needing to use a pinch-hitter. Lorenzen also pitched great, with a 2.92 ERA and seven saves in 73 appearances. Amir Garrett is the best lefty late-inning option, but he will need to level off his two halves. Before the All-Star break, he had a 1.70 ERA, but it was 6.16 in the second half. Free-agent acquisition Pedro Strop has a track record of consistency and bullpen leadership, but a hamstring injury with the Cubs last season contributed to one of his worst seasons. Robert Stephenson encouraged the club as he seemed to grow into the reliever’s role and got to pitch in higher-leverage situations.
The remaining three spots are up for grabs from a long list of candidates, including familiar faces like lefty Cody Reed and right-handers Lucas Sims and Joel Kuhnel. Justin Shafer, Josh D. Smith, José De León and non-roster invitees like Tyler Thornburg, Nate Jones and lefty Jesse Biddle will be vying for roles. -- Mark Sheldon