The top 10 bullpens in baseball are ...

March 23rd, 2024

You came here to read about the top 10 bullpens in MLB, and, unfortunately, I don’t know what they are.

I don’t know. You don’t know. The smartest executives in baseball don’t know. Mariano Rivera himself doesn’t know. No one knows. Relief results are too fluky and flaky from year to year.

Through the years, I’ve had some fun on this site ranking the 10 teams I think will have a good bullpen, while simultaneously acknowledging that I have absolutely no idea. So this year, let’s try something different.

The following teams were projected by FanGraphs (as of Thursday) to have the highest relief wins above replacement (WAR) this season. These projections are as good a guess as any, but, alas, this list won’t prove foolproof, either. So let’s take a look at each one and discuss why the projection might be right and why it could (and, I’m sure in quite a few cases, will) be wrong.

(Pitchers listed are the eight projected to deliver the most relief innings.)

1. Phillies (4.8 WAR projection)

Why this might be right: If you’re old enough to remember 2020, 2021 and even a good chunk of the 2022 pennant-winning season, seeing the Phillies at No. 1 is jarring. But the Phillies ranked third in relief fWAR last season (6.8), and they have even more upside for 2024. In Alvarado, Hoffman, Domínguez, Soto and Strahm, they have a wealth of closing options, and the committee approach works well for them. Hoffman’s relief breakout at age 30, nine years after he was a top-10 Draft pick, was huge for this club. And 22-year-old Kerkering, who rose all the way from Single-A to the big leagues last year, is a closer-in-waiting, with a terrific slider and sweeper.

Why this could go wrong: Any of these guys could go sour or get hurt. Alvarado already missed time last year with elbow issues, Domínguez was not as dominant as he had been in the past, and Soto was inconsistent (his 4.62 ERA was his highest since his rookie year).

2. Braves (4.2 WAR projection)

Why this might be right: The Braves were busy stocking and reinforcing this group over the offseason, bringing back Johnson and Jiménez, signing Reynaldo López and trading for Bummer. Between Bummer’s arrival and Matzek’s return from Tommy John, Atlanta is suddenly stacked from the left-hand side after coming up short in that category last year. The advanced metrics indicate that Bummer’s bummer of a 2023 with the White Sox was at least partially attributable to bad batted-ball luck. With improved depth and versatility, the Braves seem capable of improving on last year, when they had the 10th-best relief fWAR in MLB.

Why this could go wrong: Any of these guys could go sour or get hurt. Iglesias dealt with a shoulder issue early last season, so hopefully that won’t turn up again. The lefties -- Bummer, Matzek and Lee -- all come equipped with something to prove, given Bummer’s 6.79 ERA last year, Matzek coming back from surgery and Lee’s 2023 ending with shoulder inflammation.

3. Pirates (3.7 WAR projection)

Why this might be right: Anchored by NL saves leader Bednar, the Buccos ranked 11th in relief fWAR last year. Minor League signee Borucki turned out to be a fantastic addition (2.45 ERA, 182 ERA+), the aptly named Holderman (who ranked ninth in MLB in holds) proved to be solid setup option, and 2020 first-round pick Mlodzinski hit the ground running (2.25 ERA, 199 ERA+). The offseason signings of Chapman, Fleming and Brent Honeywell brought valuable depth to this underrated unit.

Why this could go wrong: Any of these guys could go sour or get hurt. The latter has already happened in camp, with Bednar dealing with a lat issue and key setup man Dauri Moreta lost for the season to an elbow tear.

4. Astros (3.7 WAR projection)

Why this might be right: Were this rank based on star power, the Astros would be the clear No. 1, having assembled a dynamite one-two punch of proven closers in Hader and Pressly, the latter of whom will move to a setup role to make way for the three-time Reliever of the Year in the ninth. The Astros also have Abreu, who has dominated to the tune of a 220 ERA+ over the past two seasons. Houston is seemingly one Montero bounceback season away from total control of the late innings.

Why this could go wrong: Any of these guys could go sour or get hurt. Offseason surgery for Kendall Graveman and the departures of Héctor Neris and Ryne Stanek do hurt the depth here. Early-season injuries in the rotation could put more strain on this group, too.

5. Rays (3.5 WAR projection)

Why this might be right: Because the Rays always have a good bullpen, that’s why. The personnel might change from year to year (or often, within the year), but the Rays always find a way to maximize what they’ve got. This year, they’ve got a group that features a proven wipeout closer in Fairbanks and a number of valuable setup options in Adam, Armstrong, Poche and the newly-acquired Maton. If it doesn’t work out, the front office has proven, time and again, that it can adjust on the fly.

Why this could go wrong: Any of these guys could go sour or get hurt. Fairbanks, for instance, has spent not-insignificant amounts of time on the IL each of the past three seasons. Some long-term injuries in the rotation could lead the Rays to lean on the bullpen for even more innings than usual.

6. Dodgers (3.4 WAR projection)

Why this might be right: Phillips doesn’t look the part of the fire-breathing late-inning monster. But he sure pitches like it, with a 1.72 ERA, 246 ERA+ and 4.64 strikeout-to-walk ratio since coming to the Dodgers from the Rays. Other high-leverage options include Graterol, who might be the most underrated reliever in baseball and the still-very-live-armed veterans Kelly and Brasier, among others. Starting pitching prospect Hurt is an interesting arm to watch in his relief role, because he offers lots of upside. Toss in the return of Treinen from labrum surgery, and the Dodgers are deep here, as they are everywhere.

Why this could go wrong: Any of these guys could go sour or get hurt. Already, Graterol is on the injured list to start the season due to a shoulder issue. The bullpen was a liability for the Dodgers in the first part of 2023, then righted itself. Are the improvements permanent?

7. Cardinals (3.4 WAR projection)

Why this might be right: The Cards expect to have a full season of closer Helsley after he missed half the year with a forearm strain in 2023, and setup options Gallegos and Romero return. That, combined with the addition of proven relievers Middleton and Kittredge and more swing-and-miss potential in the forms of trade acquisitions O’Brien and Nick Robertson, gives the Cards possibly one of their best bullpens in recent years, especially if the new-look rotation gives the length expected to allow these guys to slot into regular roles.

Why this could go wrong: Any of these guys could go sour or get hurt. Middleton is already on the shelf with a forearm issue, and Helsley’s recent forearm issue is a medical red flag. Gallegos took a step back in effectiveness last season. And if the veteran rotation succumbs to age and injury, the innings load here will be greater than the Cards had hoped.

8. Brewers (3.4 WAR projection)

Why this might be right: Like the Rays, the Brewers have a penchant for finding and employing strong relief options. Flame-throwing youngster Uribe came up last year and made an instant impact (1.76 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 30 2/3 innings), and the returns of Payamps, Milner, Peguero and Megill give new manager Pat Murphy a lot of quality options for high-leverage situations.

Why this could go wrong: Any of these guys could go sour or get hurt. Already we know uber-closer Devin Williams could miss the next few months with stress fractures in his back (that’s why he’s not listed above, among the eight highest relief-innings projections), and that injury actually makes it surprising the Brewers still crack the top 10 in the FanGraphs projections. Also, will Murphy have the same magic touch that former manager Craig Counsell did?

9. Twins (3.4 WAR projection)

Why this might be right: Minnesota has done a great job developing and acquiring an army of MLB-caliber arms. They can filter in and out of the group anchored by terrific 25-year-old closer Duran, who has a 2.15 ERA, .186 opponents’ average and 33.2% K rate in his first two seasons. The acquisitions of Okert, Jackson, Topa and Josh Staumont to go with key returning setup men Jax, Stewart and Thielbar and a possible breakout candidate in Alcala has the Twins well-equipped to field a formidable unit.

Why this could be wrong: Any of these guys could go sour or get hurt. Already, spring injuries to Duran (oblique) and Thielbar (hamstring) are a test of the depth at the start of the season.

10. (tie) Blue Jays (3.1 WAR projection)

Why this might be right: This unit ranked ninth in fWAR last season and brings just about everybody back, including homegrown closer Romano, who was an All-Star each of the past two seasons. A full year from a healthy Green, who returned from Tommy John late last year, could be a big boost; he had a 2.96 ERA and 0.96 WHIP in the six seasons with the Yankees prior to the injury.

Why this could go wrong: Any of these guys could go sour or get hurt. Romano (elbow) and Swanson (forearm) were both dealing with injury issues late in camp.

10. (tie) Cubs (3.1 WAR projection)

Why this might be right: A solid bullpen that ran out of gas late last season -- and one of the reasons the Cubs missed out on a playoff spot -- was bolstered by the addition of the durable and dependable Neris (1.71 ERA in 71 appearances for the Astros last season), who has closing experience and should form a strong one-two punch with Alzolay, who took the closing job and ran with it last summer. Merryweather and Leiter are the other highest-leverage options. The biggest addition here might be manager Craig Counsell, who is renowned as one of the best bullpen tacticians in the game.

Why this could go wrong: Any of these guys could go sour or get hurt. Alzolay, Leiter and Merryweather all emerged last season but will have to prove their staying power.

Honorable mentions: Next up in the FanGraphs projections were the Mets (bolstered by Edwin Díaz’s return), Marlins (who graduated Tanner Scott to the closer role last summer), Nationals (closer Kyle Finnegan has added a sweeper this spring), Guardians (Emmanuel Clase was again an All-Star last season, though not as dominant as in 2022) and D-backs (they’ll have Paul Sewald all year, and of course “The Gink,” Kevin Ginkel). I happen to think these projections undersell the potential of the Reds, who added Emilio Pagán and Brent Suter to the group anchored by Alexis Díaz. But, again ... I don’t know. No one does.